The term Prussia (German, Preussen) has had a wide variety of meanings over the last millennium. At times it has been a regional name, a name applied to a few duchies with some connections to the medieval Polish kingdom, an dukedom and kingdom united with Brandenburg, and a portion of the German Empire. Since the end of World War II, the term has dropped out of common usage as the lands in question were subsumed into modern Poland, and the Soviet Union and Russia. However, the ideal of Prussia as the 'true' Germany exists even today among some Germans.
Prussia's Historic Roots
Parts of the Baltic region retained wilderness areas for longer than almost anywhere else in Europe. Tacitus may have been referring to peoples living in what is now Prussia when,in AD 98, he wrote of the Aesti ("Easterners") in his Agricola and Germania. These people may have been those later known as the Aesti-Prussi, who lived between the Vistula and Memel/Njemen rivers and spoke a Baltic language, rather than a Germanic language. In eastern Germany, Tacitus referred to all the tribes living near the Mare Suebicum, or the Baltic Sea, under the collective name of Suebi. Tacitus' collective name Suebi included various peoples, including the Lombards), Rugi, Burgundians, Semnoni, Vandals, Lugier, Silingi, Goths and others who made their homes near the Elbe, Oder and Vistula rivers.
13th and 16th century histories of Prussia link the name of the Prussai or Prussi, and thereby Prussia, to a place called Prutenia. According to these histories, most likely based on heroic sagas, (B)Pruteno was a priest king, brother of the legendary king Widewuto or Waidewut, who lived in the late 10th century. The regions of Prussia and their peoples are said to bear Widewuto's sons names. These peoples include the Yatvinger and Sudauer. In early 1200 bishop Christian of Prussia recorded the history of a much earlier era. Adam of Bremen mentions Prussians in 1072.
Prussia in the Middle Ages
The foundation of the Holy Roman Empire allowed the Ottonian Emperors the opportunity to continue to expand eastwards the holdings they had inherited from the East Frankish kingdom. They achieved this largely through continuing the Carolingian policy of co-opting local Slavic chieftains or ambitious war-leaders into a system of mutual defense and allegiance. This policy not only bound former enemies to the Emperor, but also prevented any of the Emperor's West Frankish leading men from expanding their own power bases eastward. It is not surprising, then, that when the Duchy of Poland was established, the Polish dukes attempted to increase their territory. Where expansion offered the opportunity to convert the heathen, the support of both Emperor and Pope was almost guaranteed. In 997, Boleslaw I Chrobry, then Duke of Poland, gave military protection to Saint Adalbert of Prague when he went to convert the Prussians. The Prussians resisted these attempts at conversion, which may have been seen as an attempt to weaken their independence. Like many other missionaries, Adalbert was martyred by those he wished to convert.
In 1220 Conrad of Masovia invaded and even conquered some of the Prussian territory in Culmer Land. When Prussians attempted to re-take these lands, Conrad called on the pope and the emperor to justify his claim. Their response, six years later, was in the form of a bulla, or edict, that called for a Crusade against the "marauding, heathen" Prussians. Many of Europe's knights went on a sixty-year crusade against the Prussians. By 1250, the Papal legate William of Modena had divided Prussia into four bishoprics, Culmer Land, Pomesania, Ermeland, and Samland under the archbishopric of Riga. These were based on four of the original eleven regions are supposed to have comprised pre-Christian Prussia .
The pope installed the Teutonic Knights, a crusading Order that reported directly to the Papacy, as rulers of the area. Under their governance, woodlands were cleared and marshlands made arable. Many cities and villages were founded upon those lands, including Marienburg, the seat of the Knights' grand master. Many of these cities joined the Hanseatic League of German trading cities.
Some time after 1400, the Hanseatic cities of Elbing, Danzig, and Thorn tried to free themselves from influence of the Teutonic Knights. With other Prussian cities, they founded the Prussian Confederation. In 1410, the emperor died and war broke out between the Teutonic Knights and Poland, Lithuania and Tatars, in which Poland was the winner. Casimir IV, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, tried to annex Prussia. This was prevented by repeated wars. The resulting Peace of Thorn (1466) saw much of the Knights' southern territories ceded to the Polish crown but, in 1467, the pope and the emperor declined to recognize the terms of the Peace of Thorn.
In 1525, the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Albert of Brandenburg Prussia, resigned his position, became a Protestant and took on the title of Duke of Prussia. In a deal partially brokered by Martin Luther, Prussia became the first Protestant state, following the principles laid out in the Religious Peace of Augsburg. When Albert died in 1568, eastern Prussia was inherited by the Franconian branch of the ruling imperial House of Hohenzollern. The title of Duke gave way to the title Margrave (from the older Frankish office of Count of the March). Johann Georg Hohenzollern, son of the Margrave of Ansbach, co-ruled with the son of Albert of Prussia. In 1618, Albert of Prussia's branch became extinct too, and the senior branch, the Margraves of Brandenburg, became dukes of eastern Prussia as well.
Early Modern Prussia
The Peace of Westphalia led to a connection between eastern Prussia and the Polish crown; however, in 1660, after a series of wars between Sweden, Poland, and Brandenburg,Frederick William I managed to gain full control over them for Brandenburg. Western Prussia continued to remain under nominal control of the Polish crown.
In 1688, Frederick William I died and his possessions passed to his son Frederick. With the exception of Prussia, all of Brandenburg's lands were a part of the Holy Roman Empire, by this time well under the control of the House of Habsburg. Frederick refused to accept this, and worked to secure a promotion to king. Based on his non-Imperial territories he declared himself "King in Prussia". In return for an alliance with Austria in 1701, he obtained the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the title came into general acceptance. Though Brandenburg was far richer and more important than Prussia proper, it was subsumed into the "Kingdom of Prussia". However, the change was understood by all to be a shell game with titles, and the new nation was commonly called Brandenburg-Prussia.
The next notable event in Prussian history was the conclusion of the Northern War in 1720, which brought an end to Swedish power on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. In the ensuing peace treaty, Brandenburg-Prussia regained the eastern part of "Swedish" Pomerania. Pomerania had been a part of Hohenzollern Brandenburg since 1472. Outer Pomerania was annexed to Brandenburg-Prussia in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia).
During this time the trends set in motion by the Great Elector reached their culmination, as the Junkers -- the landed aristocracy -- were welded to the army which had gained so much influence in the previous fifty years.
In 1740, Friedrich II (more commonly known as Frederick the Great) came to the throne, and he soon pointed his forces at Austria. In the year of his accession, he invaded Silesia, a province of Austria which was in turmoil after the death of the Emperor Charles VI. The invasion was the first shot of the War of the Austrian Succession .Silesia was to have been ruled by neighboring Brandenburg-Prussia according to the contract of circa 1570. However the Habsburgs wanted Silesia as their personal possession. After rapidly occupying Silesia, Frederick offered to protect the new Austrian Archduchess Maria Teresa if the province were turned over to him. The offer was rejected, but Austria faced several other opponents, and Frederick was eventually able to gain formal cession with 1742's Treaty of Berlin.
To the surprise of many, Austria managed to successfully prosecute the war against her opponents, and in 1744 Frederick invaded again to forestall reprisals and to claim, this time, the province of Bohemia. This time he failed, but French pressure on Austria's ally Britain led to a series of treaties and compromises (culminating in 1748's Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that returned Prussia to peace while still in possession of Silesia.
Humiliated by the cession of Silesia, Austria worked to secure an alliance with France and Russia, while Prussia drifted into the United Kingdom's camp. When Frederick pre-emptively invaded Saxony and Bohemia over the course of a few months in 1756-1757, a general conflict broke out: the Seven Years War.
This war was a desperate struggle for the Prussians, and the fact that they managed to fight much of Europe to a draw is a testament to Frederick's military skill. Facing Austria, Russia, Sweden, and France simultaneously, and with only Hanover (and the non-continental British) as notable allies, he managed to hold off serious invasion until October 1760, when the Russian army briefly occupied Berlin and Koenigsberg. The situation became progressively grimmer, however, until the death of the Czarina Elizabeth and the accession of the germanophile Peter III relieved the pressure on one front. Sweden also dropped out at about the same time. Defeating the Austrian army at the Battle of Burkersdorf, and relying on a continuing British thrashing of France in the colonial theatres of the war, Prussia was finally able to force a status quo ante bellum on the continent. This result confirmed Prussia's major role in Germany and Europe as a whole. Frederick, appalled by the near-miss for his nation, lived out his days as a much more peaceable ruler.
Prussia continued to grow through diplomatic means, however. To the east and south, Poland had gradually become moribund, and in 1772 was not able to resist the first of the Polish Partitions. Prussia re-gained full soverainty of Ermeland and Western Prussia. After Frederick the Great died (in 1786), his son Friedrich William II continued the partitions through military and diplomatic force, and Poland was sectioned by Prussia, Austria, and Russia by 1795.
(History 1795-1871 up to the subsumation of Prussia into the German Empire will follow.)
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