This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Weak, Disunited Prussia.
When Frederick William came into his inheritance in 1640 he found a weak and disunited state, little more than a group of provinces, with foreign territories lying between them, and governed by differing laws.
The great problem before the Elector was how to become actual ruler of his ill-joined possessions, and his first aim was to weld them together, that he might make himself absolute monarch. By forming an army of mercenaries he established his authority. His whole life was occupied with warlike affairs. He remained neutral during the last stages of the Thirty Years’ War, but was always prepared for action. He freed Prussia from Polish control and drove the Swedes from Brandenburg.
This last was his most famous success. It was won by his victory over the Swedes under Wrangel, at Fehrbellin. Carlyle’s characteristic narrative and commentary on this and other triumphs of the Great Elector place him before the reader as one of the chief personages of the Hohenzollern race and a leading actor in European history.
This selection is from History of Friedrich II of Prussia by Thomas Carlyle published in 1858. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Thomas Carlyle was celebrated and hated. He had two views of history (1) emphasizing the importance of great heroes and (2) that writing should immersive the reader in the story.
Brandenburg had sunk very low under the Tenth Elector, in the unutterable troubles of the times, but it was gloriously raised up again by his Son Friedrich Wilhelm, who succeeded in 1640. This is he whom they call the “Great Elector” (“Grosse Kurfuerst“), of whom there is much writing and celebrating in Prussian Books. As for the epithet, it is not uncommon among petty German populations, and many times does not mean too much: thus Max of Bavaria, with his Jesuit Lambkins and Hyacinths, is by Bavarians called “Maximilian the Great.” Friedrich Wilhelm, both by his intrinsic qualities and the success he met with, deserves it better than most. His success, if we look where he started and where he ended, was beyond that of any other man in his day. He found Brandenburg annihilated, and he left Brandenburg sound and flourishing — a great country, or already on the way toward greatness: undoubtedly a most rapid, clear-eyed, active man. There was a stroke in him swift as lightning, well aimed mostly, and of a respectable weight withal, which shattered asunder a whole world of impediments for him by assiduous repetition of it for fifty years.
There hardly ever came to sovereign power a young man of twenty under more distressing, hopeless-looking circumstances. Political significance Brandenburg had none — a mere Protestant appendage dragged about by a Papist Kaiser. His Father’s Prime Minister was in the interest of his enemies; not Brandenburg’s servant, but Austria’s. The very Commandants of his Fortresses, Commandant of Spandau more especially, refused to obey Friedrich Wilhelm on his accession — “were bound to obey the Kaiser in the first place.” He had to proceed softly as well as swiftly, with the most delicate hand, to get him of Spandau by the collar, and put him under lock and key, as a warning to others.
For twenty years past Brandenburg had been scoured by hostile armies, which, especially the Kaiser’s part of which, committed outrages new in human history. In a year or two hence Brandenburg became again the theatre of business. Austrian Gallas, advancing thither again (1644) with intent “to shut up Tortenson and his Swedes in Jutland,” where they had been chastising old Christian IV, now meddlesome again for the last time, and never a good neighbor to Sweden, Gallas could by no means do what he intended; on the contrary, he had to run from Tortenson what feet could do, was hunted, he and his Merode-Bruder (beautiful inventors of the “Marauding” Art), “till they pretty much all died (crepirten),” says Kohler. No great loss to society, the death of these Artists, but we can fancy what their life, and especially what the process of their dying, may have cost poor Brandenburg again.
Friedrich Wilhelm’s aim, in this as in other emergencies, was sun-clear to himself, but for most part dim to everybody else. He had to walk very warily, Sweden on one hand of him, suspicious Kaiser on the other; he had to wear semblances, to be ready with evasive words and advance noiselessly by many circuits. More delicate operation could not be imagined; but advance he did, advance and arrive. With extraordinary talent, diligence, and felicity, the young man wound himself out of this first fatal position; got those foreign Armies pushed out of his country, and kept them out. His first concern had been to find some vestige of revenue, to put that upon a clear footing, and by loans or otherwise to scrape a little ready money together, on the strength of which a small body of soldiers could be collected about him, and drilled into real ability to fight and obey. This as a basis; on this followed all manner of things, freedom from Swedish-Austrian invasions as the first thing.
He was himself, as appeared by and by, a fighter of the first quality when it came to that, but never was willing to fight if he could help it; preferred rather to shift, maneuver, and negotiate, which he did in a most vigilant, adroit, and masterly manner. But by degrees he had grown to have, and could maintain it, an Army of twenty-four thousand men, among the best troops then in being. With or without his will, he was in all the great Wars of his time — the time of Louis XIV — who kindled Europe four times over, thrice in our Kurfuerst’s day. The Kurfuerst’s Dominions, a long, straggling country, reaching from Memel to Wesel, could hardly keep out of the way of any war that might rise. He made himself available, never against the good cause of Protestantism and German Freedom, yet always in the place and way where his own best advantage was to be had. Louis XIV had often much need of him; still oftener, and more pressingly, had Kaiser Leopold, the little Gentleman “in scarlet stockings, with a red feather in his hat,” whom Mr. Savage used to see majestically walking about, with Austrian lip that said nothing at all. His twenty-four thousand excellent fighting-men, thrown in at the right time, were often a thing that could turn the balance in great questions. They required to be allowed for at a high rate, which he well knew how to adjust himself for exacting and securing always.
When the Peace of Westphalia (1648) concluded that Thirty-Years’ Conflagration, and swept the ashes of it into order again, Friedrich Wilhelm’s right to Pommern was admitted by everybody, and well insisted on by himself; but right had to yield to reason of state, and he could not get it. The Swedes insisted on their expenses; the Swedes held Pommern, had all along held it — in pawn, they said, for their expenses. Nothing for it but to give the Swedes the better half of Pommern — Fore-Pommern so they call it, (“Swedish Pomernia” thenceforth), which lies next the Sea; this, with some Towns and cuttings over and above, was Sweden’s share. Friedrich Wilhelm had to put up with Hinder-Pommern, docked furthermore of the Town of Stettin, and of other valuable cuttings, in favor of Sweden, much to Friedrich Wilhelm’s grief and just anger, could he have helped it.
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