The Prussian Tradition

Prussia and Germany have been confused in the minds of the simplifiers of history. The adjective “Prussian” is frequently used as an epithet, a weapon of denunciation, a condemnation of militarism and conservative repression. The Germans are supposed to have perfected this technique of government in modern times.

But Prussia was not even a German territory in the beginning, as we have seen. Prussia became a part of Germany through conquest and colonization, during the Middle Ages and in early modern times. Certain features of government and public life which developed in this frontier region became a significant part of German life. The Prussian kings eventually made themselves the masters of Germany. So, it might be wise to analyze the Prussian tradition, which became an obviously important factor in modern German history.

I. The Reformation

To trace the development of Brandenburg-Prussia, the nucleus of the Prussian tradition, we have to begin with the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty-Years War. There is no need to treat these events in great detail, since they are a significant part of Western Civilization. We are all familiar by now with the circumstances that led to Luther’s revolt from Rome:
the abuses and corruption that prevailed in the church;
the attempt of reformers to purify the church and their failure;
the event that led to the break with the papacy, symbolized by Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg in 1517;
the attempt of the emperor Charles V and other princes to force Luther to recant and his heroic refusal at the Diet of Worms;
Luther’s temporary isolation in a castle and his translation of the Latin Bible into vernacular German;
and finally the establishment of the Lutheran and other Protestant churches.

We all know that the causes for this great religious schism were social and economic as well as religious, although Luther was no social revolutionary, as his encouragement of the peasant suppression revealed. Yet the break with the universal church was permanent and Protestantism became established in Germany and several other northern European countries. But the conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the princes, which contributed to the Reformation, continued, despite the so-called compromise of 1555, which satisfied no one. There was a revival of Catholicism at the Council of Trent, which brought about belated reform in the Catholic Church and set Catholicism off on a counter-offensive. Catholicism remained the predominant force in Austria, Bavaria and the Rhineland.

There was a constant quarrel over the church lands which had been secularized in the process of the Reformation. What about churchly princes who had been converted to Protestantism? What should be done with their territorial possessions? After the so-called Ecclesiastical Reservation of 1552 the churchly princes were supposed to give up their lands. But many princes claimed that this rule was not binding. A variety of incidents continued to escalate ill feelings and growing tensions. The emperors tried very hard to paper over the increasing series of crises. By 1600 Germany was really divided, and not only between Catholics and Protestants. The Calvinists and Lutherans were also in a state of disarray, even within the Protestant Union which was organized in 1600. During the next decade the opposition organized itself into the Catholic League. War now seemed to be all but inevitable.

II. The Thirty-Years-War

The so-called Thirty-Years-War really began as a civil war between German Protestants and German Catholics, but it soon turned into an international conflict. The contestants were not exactly divided along religious lines, but rather along power-political lines. The combat actually began in Bohemia, where John Hus had earlier started a religious revolt against the established church. Hus was basically a Protestant although he was also a great Czech national figure. There bad been a genuine cultural revival in Bohemia in the l4th century and during the l4th and l5th centuries Bohemia had managed to retain a measure of independence from a reluctant Habsburg regime.

In 1517 Bohemia received a new king, who happened to be a Catholic Habsburg-Ferdinand II. This event led to immediate conflict between the Bohemian nobility and people on the one hand and the new Catholic ruler on the other hand. It culminated in the famous “defenistration of Prague”, when an official of the king was thrown out of the window of a public building by Czech patriots. The Bohemians then made Frederick, duke of Palatine, a Protestant, king of their country. The war was on. In the famous Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 the Czechs were defeated by the armies of the emperor and Frederick had to flee, receiving the name of the “winter king.”

This war continued for some thirty indecisive years, eventually involving a number of foreign countries, most notably France (strangely enough on the Protestant side) and Sweden. In the end Germany lay in ruins, severely depopulated and spiritually devastated. The results were predictable. This war sealed the political decentralization of Germany and established the authority and power of the local princes. The many princes of Germany claimed, for the first time, political sovereignty in the French sense and the final treaties recognized that sovereignty. They could have their own armies, money, treaties and make their own economic legislation. However, they could make no alliances against the emperor himself, whose authority nevertheless was severely eroded. His only power base was found in his own lands-Austria, Hungary and Italy.

The Swedes got a hold of Pomerania and the French retained Metz and Verdun, thus further penetrating to the Rhine frontier. Prussia was a gainer since it received Hither Pomerania, and the son of the Count of Palatine acquired new video pornografici plus an electorate but lost the Oberpfalz. Saxony, Bavaria and Prussia were greatly enlarged and became significant powers in Germany after 1648, the date of the Treaty of Westphalia.

Religiously the Calvinists received the same rights as the Lutherans. However, one could hardly speak of religious liberty for the people, since the princes determined the religion of their subjects. The religious division of Germany was now permanent, the Northeast being Protestant, the West half and half, and the South Catholic. Central Europe was the only place where the Reformation did not produce clear religious majorities. This had a tremendous effect on politics in the succeeding centuries.

III. The Emergence of Prussia

This general background brings us to the emergence of Prussia as a great power in German and European affairs. As I have already said, Prussia was one of the main gainers in the outcome of the Thirty-Years-War. Two men made Prussia into that power and may be called not only the creators of the Prussian state but the founders of the Prussian tradition in German affairs. These men were Frederick William, the Great Elector, and his grandson, Frederick II, the Great.

Frederick William, the founder of the Prussian state, ruled for almost a half century, from 1640 to 1688. He was the first great Brandenhurg ruler, even overshadowing Albrecht the Bear, who first established himself in the territory around Berlin. Frederick William’s accession ended five centuries of relative complacency. He played a far larger role in the Westphalian Congress than his state deserved, both in terms of size and role played in the war. The reason was that he had a large army and displayed certain spiritual qualities which impressed European rulers. Frederick William was determined to defend his three widely scattered possessions:
the Duchy of Prussia, surrounded by Poland and part of it encumbered by feudal law;
Cleve-Mark, subject to Dutch pressure;
and Brandenhurg, subject to Swedish pressure in West Pomerania.

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