17th century

Brandenburg and Prussia: AD 1657-1701

Since 1525 part of Prussia, on the Baltic, has been a hereditary duchy belonging to the Hohenzollern family, but they have held it only as a fief of the Polish crown. In 1618 the Hohenzollern line in Prussia dies out and the duchy passes to a Hohenzollern cousin, the elector of Brandenburg.

On the coast between Brandenburg and the elector's new possession of ducal Prussia there lies the other part of Prussia. Known as royal Prussia, it includes the valuable harbour of Gdansk. Royal Prussia is fully integrated into the Polish kingdom.

Ducal Prussia, by contrast, is largely German - as a result of German settlers being brought there in the 13th century to till the soil and to control the pagan Prussians. This ethnic division, with a Polish region between two German ones, is one of the more disastrous accidents of history.

The isolation of the Germans in ducal Prussia is irrelevant while Europe still has the patchwork allegiances of Feudalism. But by the 17th century there is a trend towards self-contained independent states. Inevitably a political pressure builds up to bridge the territorial gap between Brandenburg and ducal Prussia - particularly after Brandenburg acquires another long stretch of Baltic coast (that of eastern Pomerania) in 1648.

In 1657 ducal Prussia acquires a new status, tying it more closely to Brandenburg. The elector Frederick William of Brandenburg succeeds in that year (through a well-judged blend of warfare and diplomacy) in severing the feudal link between his duchy and the Polish kingdom.

Poland is forced to concede its loss of ducal Prussia in the treaty of Wehlau (1657). With the peace of Oliva (1660), the international community recognizes Prussia as an independent duchy belonging to Brandenburg.

This achievement enables Frederick William's son, Frederick III of Brandenburg, to achieve the crucial next step. In 1700 the Austrian emperor, Leopold I, needs Frederick's assistance in the War of the Spanish Succession. The sweetener is a significant new title.

There are no German kings within the Holy Roman empire, apart from the Habsburg emperors' own kingdom of Bohemia. Now, using the legal nicety that Prussia is outside the empire, Leopold allows Frederick to call himself the "king in Prussia" (another legal refinement - the more convincing "king of Prussia" is only allowed from 1740). The new king crowns himself, as Frederick I of the Prussian dynasty, in Königsberg in 1701.

18th century

The Prussian machine: AD 1701-1740

The new dignity achieved in 1701 by the Hohenzollern, as kings in Prussia, is only part of the reason for their growing prestige and power during the 18th century. Their underlying strength derives from the reform of the administration and the army undertaken by Frederick william (elector of Brandenburg from 1640, known as "the Great Elector") and continued by his son and grandson, the first two Prussian kings.

Frederick william's internal policy has two main features. He establishes a permanent system of taxation, thus removing from the Estates general their main source of power; and he spends a large slice of the resulting revenue on a standing army.

This combination of an absolute monarch with a large and efficient army becomes characteristic of Prussia. By the time of the Great Elector's grandson, Frederick william I, the Prussian army amounts to 80,000 men, consisting of 4% of the population.

The system devised for keeping this many men under arms makes possible the maintenance of a highly trained citizen army without damage to the economy. Half the army is made up of foreign mercenaries. The other half is a shifting population of peasants from Brandenburg and Prussia.

Each peasant is drafted into the army as a young man, but after completing his training he goes home to his everyday work for ten months of each year. Nobles are expected to serve their turn in the army too, but the mercantile classes are exempted.

By means of a tightly controlled and lean bureaucracy, Frederick william I manages to combine this level of mobilization with healthy government finances. In 1740 he bequeaths to his son, Frederick II, a thriving economy, a large cash surplus and Europe's best-trained army. Better known as Frederick the great, the son uses these advantages to immediate effect - beginning the real expansion of Prussian influence in both Germany and Europe.

The philosopher king: AD 1740

When Frederick II inherits the throne of Prussia, at the age of twenty-eight, he is an exceptionally cultured young man. For four years he has been conducting a regular correspondence with Voltaire. He is an accomplished amateur musician, performing on the flute and composing sonatas and concertos. He is the author of political essays, including the Antimachiavell of 1740 which puts forward a blueprint for a ruler based on enlightened principles instead of the ruthless self-interest admired by Machiavelli.

Frederick seems well equipped to undertake, more fully and energetically than anyone else, the role of 'Enlightened despot' which represents an 18th-century ideal.

It is remarkable that the young man retains any faith in enlightenment, since all he has had from his father is despotism. Frederick william, whose interests are limited to administration and the army, is alarmed by his son's artistic tendencies. He does his best to force the boy into a life of military discipline.

Frederick, at the age of eighteen, lays plans - with the help of a friend - to escape from his father for a visit to England. The scheme is discovered and the prince is treated as a deserter. He is brought before a court martial and is then imprisoned in a fortress, where he is compelled to watch the execution of his friend.

Far from being destroyed by this appalling experience, Frederick seems strengthened. After two years he is reconciled with his father and accepts further military appointments, while still pursuing his own intellectual and artistic interests. When he inherits the crown, in 1740, it is clear that he still retains the ideals of the 18-year-old who tried to break free ten years earlier.

In his first year on the throne Frederick establishes a court orchestra and employs C.P.E. Bach to play the harpsichord. Two years later he provides Berlin with an opera house. But he also does something which his father would have admired. He reacts with startling vigour to the death of the Austrian emperor, Charles VI.

Frederick the Great and Silesia: AD 1740-1745

Charles VI dies unexpectedly on 20 October 1740. Less than two months later, on December 16, Frederick II astonishes Europe by marching a Prussian army into the rich Habsburg province of Silesia. The king of France, Louis XV, hearing the news, describes the young Prussian as a madman. Frederick himself says that the opportunity presented by Charles VI's death has the effect of giving 'free rein to his fever'.

The new Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa (twenty-three to Frederick's twenty-eight) is also a woman of strong resolve, but Habsburg armies prove no match for Frederick's Prussians.

Frederick's first victory over the Austrians (at Mollwitz in April 1741) persuades the French and Bavarians to join in against Maria Theresa. Their intervention is of great help to the Prussian adventurer, since it fragments Austria's response. But Frederick shows no interest in becoming involved in a wider European war. He continues to occupy Silesia and to fight battles only in defence of it. Three victories in 1745 display his military skill to such advantage that his contemporaries accord him the title by which he is known to history, Frederick the Great.

Meanwhile his young antagonist, Maria Theresa, has been demonstrating her greatness in a different context.

Frederick's first victory over the Austrians (at Mollwitz in April 1741) persuades the French and Bavarians to join in against Maria Theresa. Their intervention is of great help to the Prussian adventurer, since it fragments Austria's response, but Frederick shows no interest in becoming involved in a wider European war. He continues to occupy Silesia and to fight battles only in defence of it. A series of three victories in 1745 display his military skill to such advantage that his contemporaries accord him the title by which he is known to history, Frederick the Great.

In the previous year the nature of the war has altered. It has become primarily a conflict between France and Britain.

France's declaration of war on Britain in 1744 shifts the focus of hostilities away from central Europe. Britain, eager that Austrian armies shall concentrate on France, persuades Maria Theresa to come to terms with her real enemy, Frederick the Great. By the treaty of Dresden in 1745 she cedes the greater part of Silesia to Prussia.

For the next few years Maria Theresa remains in the war as a half-hearted ally of Britain against france. Frederick has sufficient time on his hands to build the rococo summer palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam, in 1745-7. Both monarchs await the eventual settlement, which comes in 1748 at Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle.

Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle: AD 1748

The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle makes certain adjustments between Austria and Spain in the patchwork of Italy. Otherwise, with one exception, it restores to their previous owners the territories occupied during the eight years of the War of the Austrian Succession. Bavaria, occupied by the Austrians, has already been returned to the elector. Now the Austrian netherlands, taken by the French, revert to Austria.

The exception is Silesia. Its sudden seizure by Frederick the Great launched the war in 1740. Now the international community recognizes his sovereignty over the region, the possession of which adds about 50% to the population of Prussia.

This is a loss which Maria Theresa of Austria has to accept, but it will rankle. Nevertheless her own possession of the Habsburg inheritance, another cause of the war, is now secure and recognized. Moreover fate has already brought back to Vienna a lost Habsburg dignity.

Maria Theresa's brother-in-law, the elector of Bavaria, succeeds in being elected Holy Roman emperor and is crowned in 1742 as Charles VII. But he dies just three years later. This time the electors choose Maria Theresa's husband, who in 1745 becomes the emperor Francis I. The imperial dignity, after a very brief spell with the Wittelsbachs, is safely back in Vienna.

Prussian tactics: AD 1740-1745

The successes of Frederick the Great on the battlefield during the early 1740s are achieved with a new degree of mobility in the employment of troops. A Prussian attack is an alarming affair for those confronting it. It depends greatly on the discipline of the standing army which Frederick has inherited from his stern father.

Frederick spreads his infantry out in a shallow formation, usually consisting of just two or three long lines each of which is only three men deep. This gives him a very wide front with equivalently great fire power from the soldier's muskets.

A Prussian army lines up in this type of formation about 1000 yards from the enemy. It then marches forward, as if on a parade ground, to the music of fife and drum. During this orderly advance (no doubt an extremely tense experience for both sides), the soldiers hold their fire until at a range of about 100 yards. They then fire a volley, reload, advance a few more paces and fire another. The final assault is made with the Bayonet, in the socket version devised by Vauban.

Discipline is good enough for Frederick to be able to wheel his line of advance during an attack. Prussian drill and tactics rapidly provide the pattern which other European armies attempt to emulate.

Sequel in Silesia: AD 1756-1759

The loss of Silesia naturally rankles with the empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Much of her Diplomatic policy during the early 1750s is devoted to putting together an alliance which will enable her to recover her lost territory.

But Frederick is not the man to wait while others plan to deprive him of what he has won. In a pre-emptive strike, on 29 August 1756, he marches with 70,000 Prussian soldiers into Saxony (lying between Prussia and Austria). This sudden act of aggression takes the Saxons unaware, and launches the Seven Years' War.

Frederick is the most talented general of the time. But he fails to achieve the rapid and decisive victory that he needs, and he is ringed by powerful enemies. Britain, his only ally, provides him with funds but is reluctant to become more closely involved (unless to protect Hanover).

In 1757 the Russians advance into Prussia and seem in a position to crush it. But mysteriously the Russian general withdraws. The probable reason is disagreement within the Russian royal family. The empress, Elizabeth, hates Prussia, but her heir, Peter, is a passionate admirer of Frederick the Great. Elizabeth's health is frail. A Russian general who destroys Prussia at the wrong moment may blight his career.

Frederick makes good use of the reprieve provided by Russia's withdrawal, and does so against great odds. Prussia is surrounded by enemies (Sweden, Austria and France in addition to Russia) and Prussian armies confront them alone on the battlefield. The campaign in the west, against France, is entrusted by Frederick to his brother-in-law Ferdinand, the duke of Brunswick.

Britain is Frederick's only ally, providing him with a useful financial subsidy but minimal practical support on the battlefield. There is no major British presence in the many battles fought in and around Germany during this war (a small force of some 8500 British soldiers serves under Ferdinand of Brunswick from the autumn of 1758). Britain's main contribution is through her war aganst France, at sea and in north America.

In 1757-9 Frederick and Ferdinand achieve some remarkable victories, usually against much greater numbers and with fewer casualties on their own side. Frederick defeats a French and Austrian army at Rossbach in November 1757 and an Austrian army at Leuthen a month later. He holds his own against a much larger Russian force in a heavily contested encounter at Zorndorf in August 1758. Meanwhile Ferdinand defeats vast French armies at Krefeld in June 1758 and at Minden in August 1759.

This summer of 1759 proves a disastrous period on all fronts for the French. It is also the moment when the tide turns in the other war going on at the same time - between Britain and France.

Prussian stalemate and reprieve: AD 1759-1762

The year 1759, vastly improving the fortunes of Britain, does the opposite for Prussia. Within less than two weeks of his brother-in-law Ferdinand's victory over the French at Minden, in August, Frederick himself suffers a disastrous defeat by a Russian and Austrian army at Kunersdorf. Within a space of six hours he loses 18,000 men, more than a third of his army.

During the next three years both Frederick and Ferdinand win some engagements and lose others. The early lustre of their campaign has gone. The war drags on. Prussian success seems impossible, eventual exhaustion and defeat very probable.

Moreover by the end of 1761 Britain, well satisfied with her own Successes elsewhere, is disinclined to continue subsidising Prussia in an endless continental war. The prospect for Frederick the Great seems bleak, until he is suddenly rescued by an event entirely beyond his control. It is an event which has been long and regularly expected, and which happens now just in time - from Frederick's point of view.

On 5 January 1762 the ailing Russian empress, Elizabeth, dies. Her death transforms Russian policy overnight.

The new Russian tsar, Peter iii, rapidly puts into effect his own pro-Prussian preferences. By May he has made peace with Frederick. There is an immediate knock-on effect. Austria, for whom it will be impossible to defeat Prussia without Russian support, loses heart for the battle.

In the summer of 1762 French and Prussian armies are still engaging each other in battle from time to time in the western regions of Germany. Meanwhile the other major conflict of the Seven Years' War, the separate quarrel between Britain and france in America, has already been effectively won by Britain. By now the most eventful theatre of war is the most recent - a new colonial conflict between Spain and Britain.

Peace and treaties: AD 1762-1763

The new Russian tsar, Peter iii, rapidly puts into effect his own pro-Prussian preferences. By May he has made peace with Frederick. There is an immediate knock-on effect. Austria, for whom it will be impossible to defeat Prussia without Russian support, loses heart for the battle.

In the summer of 1762 French and Prussian armies are still engaging each other in battle from time to time in the western regions of Germany, but the combatants are ready for peace. The central discussion between Prussia and Austria begins at Hubertusburg, a hunting lodge between Dresden and Leipzig, on the last day of 1762. Agreement is reached some six weeks later.

The peace treaty agreed at Hubertusburg between Prussia and Austria maintains the recent status quo in central Europe. Frederick the Great, twice the aggressor, is again allowed to keep Silesia.

This conclusion strengthens the influence of Prussia within the German empire and reduces that of the official imperial power, Habsburg Austria. It also leaves Poland flanked by two increasingly powerful neighbours, Prussia and Russia, who since 1762 have been in alliance. The development does not bode well for Poland's future. Austria too attends the feast, when it begins in 1772.

Prussia reformed: AD 1763-1786

Frederick the Great uses the years after the Seven Years' War for a thoroughgoing revision of his kingdom's administration. As with the reforms of Joseph ii, his younger rival in Austria, the effect of Frederick's measures is to centralize the machinery of government and to concentrate it ever more in the royal pair of hands. As with Joseph, the intention is well-meaning even if the method is autocratic.

In the shattered Prussian economy after the war, Frederick uses state subsidies to restore agriculture and to rebuild towns and villages. He funds these measures by much improved methods of tax collection and the establishment of various state monopolies.

Public reserves of grain are built up, so that the price of bread can be kept down in years of famine. Standards of education are improved, with strict regulation of the part played by the religious orders. There is official encouragement for the sciences and the arts, and a new code of laws. Prussia becomes a society much regulated, but on the whole well regulated.

Frederick's long reign, his military successes, his ceaseless devotion to the furtherance of Prussia's interests, and his fame as the ruler called by Voltaire the 'philosopher king' all combine to make him the pre-eminent example of the Enlightened despot so much admired in 18th-century political theory.

Frederick in his old age, still devoting himself ceaselessly to the demands of government, is a familiar figure in Prussia in his threadbare military uniform. Inspiring both affection and alarm, he becomes known as der alte Fritz, equivalent to 'old Fred'.

The weakness of enlightened despotism as a political system (quite apart from broader considerations of the subject's liberty) is that it depends entirely on the talents of the despot in whose hands all authority is gathered.

Frederick the Great has to an exceptional degree the talents necessary for enlightened despotism. His successors - his nephew and great-nephew, Frederick William II and Frederick William III - prove less capable.

Frederick William II, succeeding his uncle in 1786, scores a success requiring little talent or energy in Prussia's gains from the second and third partitions of Poland. But much of this gain is lost by Frederick William III, confronted early in his reign by the severe challenge of the Napoleonic wars.

Three partitions of Poland: AD 1772-1796

Over a period of a quarter of a century Poland is dismembered and consumed by her neighbours. The process begins during the confusion of a war between Russia and turkey. In 1769 Austria takes the opportunity of occupying part of Poland, to the south of Cracow.

Frederick the Great follows suit in 1770, sending troops to seal off the coastal region between the two main parts of his realm (Brandenburg and the kingdom of Prussia). This valuable area, known as Polish Royal prussia, has long been part of the Polish kingdom. Frederick claims that he is acting only in precaution against an outbreak of cattle plague. But acquiring Royal prussia would neatly unify his territory.

The first official annexation of Polish land is cynically agreed in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia, at war with Turkey, has an interest in keeping Prussia and Austria in benign mood. She accepts the proposal that each of them should annexe part of Poland. Russia's influence in the kingdom means that she can force acceptance of the arrangement on the Poles.

By the treaties of 1772 Austria acquires the region round Lvov. Frederick secures Royal prussia (with the exception at this stage of the port of Gdansk). And Russia takes a slice of northeast Poland.

The next two partitions occur when Russia finds new excuses to intervene in Poland's internal affairs. Russian armies enter the kingdom during a disturbance in 1792, and are on hand again to tackle a national insurrection in 1794.

On both occasions Polish armies offer strong resistance to superior Russian forces. But force prevails. After a two-month siege, and a massacre of Poles in the suburbs, Warsaw falls in September 1794 to a combined Russian and Prussian army.

The second partition, agreed in 1793, benefits only Prussia and Russia. Prussia now receives Gdansk and a swathe of land stretching south almost to Cracow. Russia takes a vast slice of eastern Poland, amounting to some 97,000 square miles.

This is greater than the territory which Poland now retains, in a strip from the Baltic coast down to Cracow and Brody. A few years later, in treaties of 1795 and 1796, this final Polish remnant is divided between the three predators. Prussia is extended east to include Warsaw. The Austrian frontier moves north to the same area. Once again the lion's share, in the east, goes to Russia.

The effect of the three partitions on the citizens of Poland is that some 23% are now under Prussian rule, 32% are in the Austrian empire, and 45% are subject to the tsar. In geographical terms the new Prussian and Austrian territory approximates to the original kingdom of Poland. Lithuania has been absorbed into Russia.

The third partition, in 1796, occurs on the eve of the Napoleonic era. The great conqueror, changing the face of Europe, brings new hope to the Poles. And indeed, in the Treaty of tilsit in 1807, a grand duchy of Warsaw is created from the territories annexed by Prussia. But the final peace terms, agreed at Vienna in 1815, prove profoundly disappointing to the Poles.

19th century

Coping with France: AD 1792-1806

The second and third partitions of Poland occur during the reign of Frederick the Great's nephew and successor, Frederick William II. Far less decisive than his uncle, he plays a relatively feeble role in the first response of Europe's crowned heads to the republican threat from France.

He is persuaded to join Austria in the Invasion of france in 1792, but energetic French retaliation (combined with his greater interest in winning a good share of Poland) prompts him to sign a separate treaty with France in Basel in 1795 - beginning ten years in which Prussia stands on the sideline of Europe's great conflict. The same policy is followed by his son, Frederick William III, who succeeds him in 1797.

Napoleon against Russia and Prussia: AD 1806-1807

Until 1806 Prussia maintains a nervous neutrality during the warfare between its powerful neighbours. But the Confederation of the Rhine, organized by Napoleon in July of this year, seems to threaten Prussian interests. In September Frederick William III joins Russia against Napoleon.

The result is rapid disaster. Once again Napoleon moves quickly enough to destroy one of his opponents before the other can arrive in support. Two Prussian armies are engaged on the same day, 14 October 1806, at Jena and Auerstadt - about thirteen miles apart.

At both sites the French are victorious. Within six weeks, before Russian assistance arrives, Napoleon overruns the whole of Prussia.

The Russians prove, at first, rather tougher opponents. A two-day engagement at Eylau (7-8 February 1807) brings heavy casualties but no advantage to either side. But at Friedland, on June 14, Napoleon wins a decisive victory over the Russian army. The result is the extraordinary meeting between Napoleon and the Russian tsar, Alexander I, on 25 June 1807 near Tilsit. Neither will set foot on territory held by the other, so it is agreed that they will meet in the middle of the river, the Neman, which forms the border between them.

An elegant room is built on a raft with a door on either side, each showing the appropriate imperial eagle. The two emperors cast off from their respective river banks at the same moment, but the French oarsmen outrow the Russians. Napoleon is far enough ahead to be able to open the Russian door from the inside and greet the tsar.

The two men get on well. Together they set about carving up Europe. After two weeks of conference Russia's ally Prussia has been gravely weakened, by mutual agreement between the emperors. Russia could easily have fought on after Friedland. But Prussia is occupied by the French and is helpless.

Prussia's share of Poland is taken to provide a grand duchy of Warsaw, to be ruled by the king of Saxony (a newly acquired ally of Napoleon). Prussian territory is severely reduced in similar fashion in the west to make room for a kingdom of Westphalia. French troops will remain in Prussia until an indemnity of 120 million francs has been paid. And Prussia is to close her ports to Britain as part of Napoleon's new Continental system.

Russia also agrees to join the Continental system in certain circumstances and according to a clear timetable, laid down in one of the secret clauses in the Tilsit agreement.

Prussia's share of Poland is now taken to provide the grand duchy of Warsaw, to be ruled by the king of Saxony (a newly acquired ally of Napoleon). And Prussian territory is severely shaved in the west to make room for a kingdom of Westphalia. French troops will remain in Prussia until an indemnity of 120 million francs has been paid. And Prussia is to close her ports to Britain as part of Napoleon's new Continental system.

This painful result keeps Prussia in a cowed state for several years. Like Austria, she sends troops against Russia in Napoleon's campaign of 1812. But the damage done to Napoleon that winter finally gives Frederick William III the courage to send Prussia into war against France for the third time.

Russia and France will together demand of Britain that she allows freedom of the seas to ships of all nations and that she returns any territories seized since 1805. If this is not agreed by November 1807, the two emperors will insist that Sweden, Denmark and Portugal (the only nations still neutral or allied to Britain) close their ports to British ships and join France and Russia in declaring war.

If an invasion of Sweden proves necessary, France will have no objection to the Russian annexation of Swedish Finland. Moreover France will give diplomatic support to Russia against Turkey in the Balkans. The two emperors are in satisfactory agreement.

On the winning side: AD 1813-1815

Prussia's declaration of war, in March 1813, brings out of retirement a grand old man of the Prussian army, Gebhard von Blücher. He is already seventy-one when he rejoins the colours. The next two years bring him great distinction.

After campaigning successfully during the summer of 1813, he commands the Prussian army in the great victory at Leipzig in October. He crosses the Rhine on 1 January 1814 and fights his way alongside the Austrians towards Paris, which is captured at the end of March. Napoleon's first abdication sends Blücher back into retirement, from which he emerges for one last triumph. Beaten by Napoleon at Ligny in 1815, he has his revenge two days later at Waterloo.

After an otherwise dismal war, the events of these last two years confirm Prussia's status as one of the four great powers (Austria, Russia, Prussia, Britain) who have together toppled Napoleon. This gives the kingdom a proper status in the Congress of vienna, where the king is represented by his chancellor, prince von Hardenberg.

Hardenberg's hardline stance in the diplomatic struggle for Polish and saxon territory pushes the negotiations to the brink of war, but in the end a compromise is reached. It brings Prussia new land in the west, up to and beyond the Rhine, and firmly re-establishes the kingdom as the greatest power of northern Germany - ready now to contest with Austria the leadership of all the German states.

Deutscher Bund and Zollverein: AD 1815-1834

The congress of Vienna puts in place a revised version of the Confederation of the rhine. The German states, much reduced in number as a result of Napoleon's interference, now consist of thirty-five monarchies of various kinds and four free cities (Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck and Frankfurt).

They are organized from 1815 into a Deutscher Bund or German Confederation. It is a body with no legislative powers, being merely a diplomatic assembly of rulers or their representatives. Some of the members have only a subsidiary interest in Germany. The British king has a place, as king of Hanover. So does his Danish counterpart, as duke of Holstein.

The assembly meets in Frankfurt and is known as the Bundestag, in succession to the Reichstag of the now defunct Holy roman empire. Just as the Habsburg emperor presided over the Reichstag, so the Austrian representative is president of this new institution. Its very existence derives from the efforts of Metternich, determined to continue in this new form the hegemony of Austria among the German nations.

By its nature the Confederation can achieve little in the way of change, since it has no authority over individual members except in foreign policy. But it has, as Metternich would wish, a calming effect - or a stultifying one, depending on the point of view.

Good relations within the Confederation depend on an understanding between the two most powerful members, Austria and Prussia, and here the long survival of a trio of colleagues from the congress of Vienna proves a significant factor. The Austrian emperor Francis I lives until 1835; Frederick William III of Prussia dies in 1840; Metternich remains chancellor of Austria until 1848.

All three are equally reluctant to see political change or to introduce liberal measures. Frederick William promises in 1815 a Prussian constitution, but takes no step towards providing one in the next quarter century. However, on the economic front he introduces reforms of profound significance.

The congress of Vienna has given Prussia extensive new lands around the Rhine and the Moselle (partly to protect the new kingdom of the Netherlands from French aggression), but these regions are isolated from the rest of Prussia, being separated by Hanover and other smaller states.

In an effort to bind together his extended kingdom, Frederick William in 1818 turns all his territories into a single customs-free zone. The benefit to trade encourages neighbouring regions to join this Zollverein (customs union), until by 1834 it covers almost the whole of Germany. Austria, with economic links far beyond the German area, is deliberately excluded. So Prussia, as if by the back door, acquires a role of German leadership.

Revolutions and the Frankfurt assembly: AD 1848

The immediate effect of the revolutions which sweep through Europe in 1848 is concession on the part of terrified rulers. Riots in Munich cause the king of Bavaria, Louis I, to abdicate in favour of his son. Unrest in Vienna is rapidly followed by the resignation of the veteran chancellor Metternich. Two days of street fighting in Berlin prompt the king of Prussia, now Frederick William IV, to propose a national assembly which will consider a German constitution.

As a result of this promise, elections are rapidly held in the various German states (in many of them by universal male suffrage). On 18 May 1848 some 600 delegates gather in Frankfurt.

Each delegate hopes to find a way of achieving a united and constitutional Germany. But there are strongly differing views as to how this might be realized.

Bavaria, as leader of the middling and smaller states, campaigns for some tripartite arrangement in which their group would hold the balance between Prussia and Austria. Protestants supporting Prussia argue for a kleindeutsch ('small German') solution which excludes Austria. Catholics prefer the grossdeutsch way, to include at least the German-speaking parts of the Austrian empire.

The grossdeutsch cause is severely damaged early in March 1849 when Austria introduces a new constitution treating her entire empire (including Hungary and north Italy) as a single unitary state.

Clearly this is incompatible with a united Germany. On March 28 the delegates at Frankfurt take the kleindeutsch route; they elect the Prussian king, Frederick William IV, as emperor of the Germans. A deputation sets off to Berlin to offer him the crown, but on April 3 he turns it down. The official reason is that only his fellow princes can do him this honour. The harsher truth is that he no longer needs to ally himself with these elected liberals. The tide of reaction has already turned.

In both Berlin and Vienna authoritarian governments are back in position by the spring of 1849. The hard work of avoiding change can be resumed.

But the underlying contest between Prussia and Austria for leadership of the German states remains the most important issue confronting the region. It will eventually be resolved as the result of a crisis which also flares up for the first time in the late 1840s - the question of Schleswig-Holstein.

Schleswig-Holstein: AD 1848-1864

The region of Schleswig-Holstein, at the interface between German and Danish-speaking regions but with no clear geographical boundaries, is a natural place for conflict in an era of growing nationalism. Historically Holstein has been within the German empire and Schleswig outside it, but both duchies have been attached to the Danish crown since 1460.

In the excitement of 1848 a revolutionary group seizes Kiel, declares the independence of the two duchies from Denmark and appeals to the German confederation for help. The result is an invasion of Schleswig-Holstein, and then of Denmark itself, by a Prussian army on behalf of the Confederation.

On this occasion international pressure forces the Prussians to withdraw and the two duchies are restored to Denmark. But the crisis flares again in 1863 when the Danish king Frederick VII dies. He has no direct male heir. In Denmark the crown can pass through the female line; but Holstein, like the rest of the German empire, observes the Salic law.

This casts doubt on the right of the new Danish king, Christian IX, to the duchy of Holstein. The German confederation (still officially presided over by Austria) decides to act. A joint Austrian and Prussian army overruns both Holstein and Schleswig. The result this time is that the two duchies are ceded jointly to Prussia and Austria, by the treaty of Vienna in October 1864.

At the best of times agreement on how to administer the new territories would be difficult to achieve between Prussia and Austria, as rivals for hegemony in Germany. It is made more so now by the fact that Prussia has an agressive and skilful new prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, appointed by William I in 1862. He is determined that Prussia shall replace Austria as leader of the German states, and he sees his chance in Schleswig-Holstein.

It is agreed in 1865 that Prussia will administer Schleswig while Austria will be responsible for Holstein. In June 1866 Bismarck contrives to find fault with Austria's part of the bargain. Prussian troops march from Schleswig into Holstein.

Austria, presiding over the German confederation (a role acquired half a century earlier at the congress of Vienna), proposes that the Confederation as a whole should restrain its belligerent member. Prussia, certain to be outvoted on the issue, responds on 14 June 1866 by declaring the Confederation defunct.

On June 15, when Saxony, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel refuse to give assurances that they will remain neutral, Prussia invades all three states. The war deciding the future shape of Germany has begun. It will be a short one.

Seven Weeks War: AD 1866

The speed of Prussia's victory in the war of 1866 against Austria is largely the result of reforms carried out in the Prussian army by Helmut von Moltke. Appointed chief of the general staff in 1857, he appreciates that recent technological developments - in particular railways and telegraphy - transform the nature of war (as the Civil war in america has recently shown). Troops can move fast to seize sudden opportunities. Separate armies can remain in communication while fighting a single campaign on an extended front.

This new strategy requires a much larger and more highly trained general staff, responsible for overall planning and the provision of accurate maps and up-to-date intelligence.

Moltke has several years in which to train his staff and develop new battle plans before Prussia has to face an enemy of equal stature - the Austrian empire, in 1866. He also has the advantage that the Prussian army is now fully equipped with the Dreyse breech-loading rifle (introduced from 1848). The Austrian infantry, still loading their muskets by ramming powder and shot down the Muzzle, have a much slower rate of fire.

With these advantages, Prussia achieves what can be described as the first blitzkrieg (lightning war). Troops are transported to various points on a front of about 270 miles along the northern border of Bohemia (part of the Austrian empire).

Entering Bohemia at several different places, the invading forces form into a single army to confront the Austrians in a major battle at the village of Sadowa, near Königgrätz, on July 3. The result is inconclusive, but the Prussians are able to push on south to the outskirts of Vienna - where an armistice is agreed on July 22.

Meanwhile other Prussian armies have been winning victories against Hanover in the west and against Bavaria (and other smaller states loyal to the German confederation) in the southwest. An armistice has been agreed on all fronts by the end of July, bringing the hostilities to an end within seven weeks.

With the treaty signed in Prague, on August 23, Bismarck demonstrates conclusively that the leadership of the German world, exercised for four centuries by Habsburg austria, has now passed to Hohenzollern prussia.

The specific point at issue is resolved by Austria ceding all rights in Schleswig-holstein to Prussia. More important is the article in the treaty where Austria consents to a 'new organization of Germany' from which Austria will be excluded. This is all that Bismarck needs. His king, William I, is eager to annexe part of Austria. But Bismarck prefers a humiliated but intact Austrian empire on his southeastern flank. On this point Bismarck prevails. Prussian policy is clearly to be his policy.

The humiliation of 1866 reduces Austria's role in the affairs of western Europe. Instead attention focuses in coming years on two issues nearer home. One is the difficulty of balancing the demands of the non-German groups (Slavs and Magyars) within Austria-Hungary. The other is the constant Austrian need to keep an eye on the volatile affairs of the Balkan states to the southeast.

Bosnia-Hercegovina, in particular, is the subject of prolonged Austrian involvement from 1878.

North German Federation: AD 1867-71

With a free hand now in Germany, Bismarck immediately annexes two Protestant states in west Germany which have opposed him in the recent war - Hanover and Hesse-Kassel. They are a particularly welcome acquisition because they bridge the previous gap between the main Prussian kingdom and Prussian Territories on the rhine.

All other German states north of the river Main are now merged under Prussian leadership in a new North German Federation. This differs little in organization from the previous German confederation led by Austria, except that it is a more coherent Protestant bloc.

The three Catholic states south of the Main (Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria) are now a separate group, recognized as having 'an internationally independent existence' - a condition agreed by Bismarck with the Catholic emperors west and east, in France and Austria. However these Catholic regions retain a strong economic link with north Germany. A continuation of the old Prussian zollverein is agreed in 1867, again incorporating all the German-speaking regions except Austria.

With Austria reduced to impotence by defeat in the Seven Weeks' War, the only other neighbour inclined to challenge Prussia's inexorable growth is France. The clash perhaps comes sooner than France might wish. But Bismarck is ready.

Franco-Prussian War: AD 1870-71

Ever since Prussia's rapid success in the Seven Weeks' War of 1866, and the resulting consolidation of Prussian territory on the Rhine, there has been alarm and resentment in France at the growth of this ambitious neighbour. It is dramatically increased in 1870 when news leaks on July 3 that a prince of the Prussian Hohenzollern family has been offered, and has accepted, the vacant throne of Spain.

Having fought so often in the past against being surrounded to south and east by the Habsburg dynasty, there is public outcry in France at the prospect of the same trick now being pulled off by the Hohenzollern. In an escalating crisis, the Prussian king William I withdraws his relation's candidacy on July 12.

The matter might have rested there, but for a diplomatic blunder on the French side. The French ambassador, in an audience with William I at Ems on July 13, demands an assurance (amounting to a slur on the king's good faith) that the candidacy will never be renewed. William refuses to give this assurance. He then sends a telegram to Bismarck describing, in neutral terms, the audience and its outcome.

Bismarck, irritated at the collapse of his Spanish policy, shortens the telegram before publication in such a way as to imply that the Prussian king has treated the French ambassador with disdain. Public opinion in France, already inflamed, now explodes. The French government declares war on Prussia on July 19.

France suffers as rapidly and as conclusively at Prussia's hands as Austria did four years previously. Again the significant period of warfare lasts less than seven weeks. In early encounters near Metz the French almost hold their own against the Prussians, but by August 31 a large French army is surrounded near Sedan.

During September 1 the French cavalry, charging desperately to break out of the encirclement, suffer heavy casualties from the Prussian artillery. On the following day the French surrender. After losses in the battle of 38,000 men (killed, wounded or missing), another 83,000 now lay down their arms and become prisoners of the Germans. Among them is the French emperor himself, Napoleon III.

The events at Sedan bring to an end one empire, in France, and hasten the creation of another, in Germany. But they do not immediately end the war.

When the news of Sedan reaches Paris, a government of national defence is rapidly formed. Its first action, on September 4, is to depose Napoleon III and declare a republic. But there is nothing now to stop the German army on its march towards Paris. The siege begins on September 19. The only chance of relieving the city is to raise new armies in the provinces. And here aeronautics play their first significant role in warfare.

On October 7 a Balloon rises from Paris (historic city of the Balloon). It floats above the Germany army and lands far beyond their lines. It carries Léon Gambetta, minister of the interior in the new republican government. Two days later he reaches Tours and begins to orchestrate a campaign of guerrilla warfare which severely disrupts the smooth Prussian military operation.

But it can only delay the eventual capitulation. Early in 1871, on January 23, delegates from Paris pass through the German lines to Versailles to agree an armistice. They find the Prussians in an excited mood. Just five days previously, in Louis XIV's famous hall of mirrors in the palace of Versailles, the Prussian king has been proclaimed emperor of a united Germany.

The German empire: AD 1871

The creation of the German empire, long a cherished intention of Bismarck's, is much eased by the Franco-Prussian war. When France declares war in 1870, the three independent south German states (Baden, württemberg and bavaria) place their armies under the command of the Prussian king, William I, in what is seen as an essentially German cause.

After the victory at Sedan, talks are held to discuss possible German unification. By November terms are agreed. Minor concessions to Bavaria are devised to give the impression of semi-independence, but essentially this is to be a single state under Prussian leadership.

William I is extremely reluctant to accept the title of emperor, but Bismarck contrives to persuade him. His proclamation in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (the symbol of French power and triumphalism) is sweet revenge for the humiliation of Prussia at Napoleon's hands in the early years of the century. In the treaty of Frankfurt France cedes Alsace and most of Lorraine to the new Germany, pays a masssive indemnity of 5000 million francs and suffers German occupation in part of France until the money is delivered (a precise echo of France's terms In 1807).

As an added twist of the knife, Bismarck imposes a victory march of Prussian troops through the streets of Paris.

The reconstitution of the ancient German Reich, in a modern, compact, national form, brings back the Reichstag as a parliament. Meeting in Berlin, with delegates elected from all over the new nation, it is only a legislative body with little control over the executive.

Now more firmly than ever, the executive is Bismarck himself - the first imperial chancellor. His German empire, like its medieval prototype, consists of clearly separate constituent states (4 kingdoms, 5 grand duchies, 13 duchies and principalities, and the free cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen). But it is at last a nation, federal in kind but with strong central control. The story of Prussia becomes that of Germany.
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