Frederick William tried to modernise Brandenburg-Prussia as quickly as was possible. Frederick William realised that if he wanted Brandenburg-Prussia to be a major power in Europe, he had to bring the state up-to-date with the other powers in Europe, especially threats like Sweden and Russia.
As a model for this, Frederick William looked to the Netherlands. The Netherlands had come from seemingly no-where to be a major west European state with an economy based on mercantile trade. In 1686, just before his death in 1688, Frederick William had written:
|“The most certain wealth and growth of a country comes from its commerce. Commerce and shipping are the two main pillars of state.”
However, while the Dutch were blessed with good natural harbours, Brandenburg-Prussia had only poor ports. The most natural and important harbour near Brandenburg-Prussia was Stettin and this was in Swedish Pomerania. Konigsberg was developed to accept large merchant ships but as recent history told Frederick William, the city could not be trusted.
In 1682, the estates of East Frisia gave Brandenburg-Prussia help by allowing their ships to use her quays in Emden – a large harbour on the North Sea. But, in general, Frederick William’s policy at mercantile expansion failed primarily as Brandenburg-Prussia did not have a history in trade of this type.
To have a dominant merchant fleet, Brandenburg-Prussia needed a modern navy. This she did not have. At the very least, Frederick William had to control the Baltic Sea but by 1684, Brandenburg-Prussia only had one frigate and two smaller vessels to patrol around Konigsberg. Brandenburg-Prussia had seven ships at Emden. In total, Brandenburg-Prussia had 178 guns at sea – far too small to protect what Frederick William had hoped to be an expanding merchant fleet.
By the end of Frederick William’s reign, the Dutch were still the masters of mercantile trade.
Frederick William’s internal reforms proved to be far more successful.
In modernising his state, Frederick William had one great advantage – there was no religious dissent in Brandenburg-Prussia. In fact, Frederick William positively encouraged religious toleration as he believed that it would benefit his state. Jews and Roman Catholics were both tolerated in Brandenburg -Prussia as long as they had a talent Frederick William wanted for Brandenburg-Prussia. Frederick William was especially keen to tempt Huguenots to Brandenburg-Prussia as they had a European reputation for expertise in business. In 1672, a French Protestant Church was established in Berlin and, in total, about 100,000 Huguenots came to Brandenburg-Prussia ands greatly assisted in her modernisation. By 1700, one-third of Berlin’s population was Huguenot and their skills allowed Brandenburg-Prussia to develop a flourishing candle and paper-making trade, mirror and glove manufacturing etc. Frederick William himself estimated that religious toleration increased Brandenburg-Prussia’s population by 33%.
A six year tax exemption was decreed to peasants who occupied and worked farms abandoned in the Thirty Years War. The government took the initiative to send seed and livestock to these farms.
Industry was near enough oriented around the military. The textile industry developed because of the need for military uniforms; iron works developed because of the use of iron in artillery guns and cannon balls. Frederick William decided on which industries benefited Brandenburg-Prussia and which did not. He banned the wearing of wooden shoes as he wanted the leather trade to develop. Tariffs made foreign imports too expensive and thus the internal market for leather was protected by Frederick William.
When he had inherited the title in 1640, Brandenburg-Prussia was the ‘sand-box’ of Europe. To develop the state, Frederick William knew that Brandenburg-Prussia needed a better transport system and by the time of his death in 1688, industrial travel in Brandenburg-Prussia was transformed by the Frederick William Canal. This linked the Elbe River to the River Oder by using the rivers Spree and Havel. The completion of this canal meant that materials could be transported in such a way that they could by-pass Dutch and Swedish tolls.
In government, it could be argued that Frederick William turned the clock back with regards to what he wanted for Brandenburg-Prussia in terms of government. He was a firm believer in a very strong central government and he dominated the state. Anybody who was thought to be a dissenter was suitably dealt with. He did not believe in sharing power but he did believe in promotion through ability
By his death in 1688, Frederick William had done a huge amount to turn around the ‘sand-box’ he had inherited in 1640. The army was such that Brandenburg-Prussia became a desired ally within Europe while the country itself benefited from a modernised industry and an expanded internal transport system. Government was strong but it did depend on a strong person inheriting Brandenburg-Prussia on the death of Frederick William. Too many countries had gone from a strong monarch/leader to near civil war because the person takig over the title was too weak when compared to the former state leader. In Brandenburg-Prussia they were lucky as Frederick William was succeed by his son who simply built on his father success. The son was Frederick I.
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