The Prussian monarchy, the youngest, and one of the greatest, of the chief European states, sprang from a humble origin. Her rise to first-rate importance in the European system, and her contest with Austria for a position of equality in Central Europe, are connected with some of the chief events of the Eighteenth Century. About the beginning of the Fifteenth Century the margraviate of Brandenburg was bestowed by the Emperor Sigismund on the noble family of Hohenzollern. In the Sixteenth Century that family embraced the Lutheran doctrines. It obtained from the King of Poland, early in the Seventeenth Century, the investiture of the Duchy of Prussia. Even after this accession of territory, the chiefs of the house of Hohenzollern hardly ranked with the electors of Saxony and Bavaria. The soil of Brandenburg was for the most part sterile. Even round Berlin, the capital of the province, and round Potsdam, the favorite residence of the Margraves, the country was a desert. In some places the deep sand could with difficulty be forced by assiduous tillage to yield thin crops of rye and oats. In other places the ancient forests, from which the conquerors of the Roman Empire had descended on the Danube, remained untouched by the hand of man. In 1657, under Frederick William I, who was called the Great Elector, the Duchy of Prussia became independent of Poland, and this was the beginning of Prussia’s greatness. The Peace of Westphalia gave him several valuable possessions in Germany; and his son, in the year 1700, became the first King of Prussia, as Frederick I. Frederick William, his successor, reigned from 1713 to 1740, and is notable for having drilled and disciplined a large and powerful army, far superior in exactness of training and equipment to the best troops of England and France. This was the instrument which, in the hands of his son, Frederick the Great, made Prussia one of the chief military monarchies of Europe.
Frederick II of Prussia was the greatest sovereign of the Eighteenth Century, and one of the most remarkable men of modern times. His military exploits are told in the volume, “Famous Warriors.” Born in 1713, he became King of Prussia in 1740, and ruled till his death in 1786. He soon drew to himself the eyes of all Europe, and remained till the last one of the great arbiters of all political questions disputed therein, in the cabinet or on the battlefield. The chief feature of his strongly marked, now stern, now mocking visage, was his wonderful bluish-gray eyes, which, says Mirabeau, a kindred spirit, “fascinated you, at the bidding of his great soul, with seduction or with terror.” His character was full of energy, sound sense, vigilance, penetration, force, and endurance; he was the greatest General of his age, placed by Napoleon’s own deliberate opinion “in the first rank among generals;” as a statesman in foreign affairs he was most sagacious; as an administrator in home affairs he was tolerant, effective, and anxious to be just and wise, but spoiled much by the meddling spirit induced by a dictatorial temper and a restlessly active mind. He received, on his accession, the rule of States with a population little exceeding 2,000,000; at his death he left a Kingdom increased by nearly 30,000 square miles of territory and 4,000,000 people. A great treasure was in the public coffers; an army of 200,000 men was under the colors; Prussia was distinguished in Europe for military skill and efficiency, for industry, wealth, and science. Agriculture, the arts, manufactures, commerce, and the laws had all been encouraged, extended, or reformed by the unwearied care of the creator of the greatness of Prussia.
On the death of the Emperor Charles VI of Austria, in 1740, his hereditary dominions the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia, and other territories passed to his daughter Maria Theresa, known then as the Queen of Hungary. While the election to the Empire was in dispute, the struggle known as the War of the Austrian Succession began in an attack of Prussia, Bavaria, France, and Spain on Austria, helped by England and Holland. The Prussian King seized Silesia, defeated the Austrians in several engagements, and ultimately retained Silesia, when peace was made in 1745, acknowledging Francis of Lorraine, husband of Maria Theresa, as the duly-elected Emperor of Germany. Maria Theresa thus became known as the Empress-Queen, through her husband’s title and her own rank in Hungary.
For eleven years of peace (1745-1756) Frederick devoted himself to the internal improvement of his Kingdom, and to the perfecting of his army for the struggle which he knew to be coming, and which proved to be one for very life or death to the Prussian monarchy. This great struggle lasted from 1756 to 1763, and was the result of a combination against Prussia by Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden, in which the confederates aimed at the dismemberment and destruction of the rising power. In Britain alone did Frederick find a friend, through George’s desire to protect Hanover, which cost England the loss of Minorca, then thought more important than Gibraltar. The details of this exciting contest waged with consummate skill and heroic determination by the great Frederick are told in the volume, “Famous Warriors.” Out of a war in which 1,000,000 men are reckoned to have fallen, in which the Prussian capital had been more than once taken and plundered by the foe, and much of his territory had become a waste, Frederick emerged safe and glorious, having given an example unrivaled in history of what capacity and resolution can effect against the greatest superiority of power and the utmost spite of fortune. By the Peace of Hubertsburg, signed in February, 1763, between Prussia, the Emperor, and Saxony, Frederick was finally left in possession of the provinces of Glatz and Silesia, and the Prussian monarchy thus took its place among the first powers of Europe.
For many years after Hubertsburg Frederick was engaged in repairing the losses of the Seven Years’ War, and he was concerned in no more great contests. In 1772, he had a share in the first partition of Poland, receiving the whole of Polish Prussia (territory ceded by the Teutonic Order of Knights in the Fifteenth Century) and a part of Great Poland. In 1786 he died at his palace of Sans Souci, after a reign of more than forty-six years. He left the scene late enough to enable him to conclude a commercial treaty with the young United States of America, and just before the outbreak of the French Revolution.