The Reforms of the Great Elector1

During his reign (1640–88) the Great Elector, Frederick William of Hohenzollern, made extensive changes in Brandenburg and established the basis for the Prussian state of Frederick William I (1713–40) and Frederick the Great (1740–86). He inherited a series of semi–autonomous provinces, each of which was under the control of its own Estates (these were representative institutions consisting of the nobility and some of the bourgeoisie from the towns). All the provinces were in economic decline as a result of the destruction caused by the Thirty Years’ War. He bequeathed a more cohesive state based on a triangle of power, the three points of which were autocracy, bureaucracy and militarism.

Significant as the reign was, however, it was essentially a transitional period. Many of the reforms introduced by the Great Elector were the result not of an elaborate plan but rather of the necessity of the moment. Just as important, they were not always uniformly applied throughout his dominions. This meant that substantial modification was necessary during the reigns of his successors in order to rationalize and simplify his institutions.

The main political and constitutional change was the breaking of the power of the noble–dominated Estates and the gradual creation of a centralized bureaucracy. Behind this development was the Great Elector's desire to maintain a standing army in time of peace as well as war.

This miles perpetuus would require permanent financial support in the form of regular grants from the main Estates: those of Brandenburg, Cleves–Mark and, after 1660, East Prussia. Since the Estates jealously guarded their fiscal autonomy, considering a permanent standing army and the extra financial obligations as an unwarrantable intrusion on their privileges, some conflict was unavoidable. It is unlikely, however, that the Great Elector possessed from the start an overall scheme for the systematic subjection of the Estates. After all, on his accession in 1640, he swiftly brought to an end the despotic rule of Schwartzenberg (George William's principal minister) and gave favourable consideration to the Estates’ petitions to the Crown to reaffirm their liberties. On the issue of a standing army, however, the Great Elector was inflexible, and this shaped his future policy. At first he found himself bargaining for supplies from the Estates from a position of weakness and was obliged to grant more concessions than he intended. In 1651, for example, he was forced by intransigent opposition from the Brandenburg Estates to drop a proposed stamp duty, and in 1653 he issued a Recess providing substantial social and political privileges to the nobility of the Estates in return for a grant of 530,000 thaler. Confirmation of existing rights was also given to the Estates of Cleves and Mark in 1649 and 1653. Becoming thoroughly disillusioned by the obstructive policies of the Estates, he took advantage of anything that was likely to undermine their power. During the Northern War (1655–60) he levied heavy taxes without consulting the Estates and, after the Peace of Oliva, he withdrew some of his previous concessions in a new Recess in 1660. As time went on he appeared to gain confidence and, from 1661 onwards, he confronted the Estates with proposals for an entirely new system of revenue extraction based on excise. (This will be examined in the next section.)

The end result of this conflict was the decline of the Estates. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that their power was uniformly and evenly reduced. The methods used and the results gained varied considerably in the three main areas of the country. The Brandenburg Estates had their authority whittled away gradually by the introduction of excise in 1667, 1680 and 1682, and by the granting of extensive social privileges to the nobility to compensate for their loss of local political power. By 1688 they were no longer able to offer any challenge to royal supremacy. The Estates of East Prussia were dealt with more summarily. After the full integration of East Prussia into his dominions in 1660, the Great Elector was confronted by a powerful separatist movement, based on the nobility and the town of Königsberg. It required two military expeditions and the exemplary execution of a leading Junker, von Kalckstein, to break the Estates and bring them under central control. Cleves and Mark were more fortunate. The Great Elector bought off the nobility by increasing their social status, but failed to destroy the influence of the towns in the Estates. Cleves and Mark thus retained a degree of watered–down self–government which was denied to Brandenburg and East Prussia, probably because the Great Elector extracted what he wanted in the way of financial contributions and had no desire to use force to impose complete uniformity on an area which was not actually in revolt.

The decline of the Estates was accompanied by the growth of a new bureaucracy. Again, however, policy evolved gradually and with several changes of direction. At first the Great Elector actually seemed prepared to reduce the extent of royal power, dissolving the powerful central institution known as the War Council (Kriegsrat), which had been set up by his predecessor in 1630. He changed his mind, however, when Brandenburg was involved in the Great Northern War, and proceeded to establish the Generalkriegskommissariat, which was similar to the Kriegsrat.Responsible initially for the supervision of military recruitment, the Generalkriegskommissariat gradually acquired administrative duties and responsibility for the collection of taxation.

This was the first systematic bureaucracy which the Hohenzollerns had ever possessed, and it was not without faults. First, its influence was not uniformly established. The towns were brought more systematically under its authority than the countryside, and Brandenburg and East Prussia contained far more royal officials than Cleves and Mark. Second, there existed separate institutions for the exploitation of lands owned by the Crown; these included the Domains Chambers, and existed outside the scope of the Generalkriegskommissariat. The bureaucracy was, therefore, not completely centralized, and Frederick William I had eventually to streamline the whole system by forming the General Directory in 1722.

Economic changes during the reign were partly the result of a deliberate policy of mercantilism and partly the side–effects of political developments. Considerable short–term rapid progress was made, but at the same time problems for the future were created.

The Great Elector gradually came round to the view that government interference in the economy was necessary. Military requirements impressed upon him the need for a more rational system of taxation than the existing method, the Contribution (a direct tax on land and trade in rural areas and towns, which excluded the nobility). He proposed the introduction of a new modi generales, an indirect tax based on the Dutch method of excise collection. This would be charged on beer, wines, brandy, flour, meat, salt, corn and craftsmen. Since this would include the nobility within its scope it was generally welcomed by the urban representatives in the Estates and resisted by the aristocracy.

What appears at first sight to be a radical idea had several disappointing results when put into practice. The conflict with the Estates (or, more specifically, with the representatives of the nobility) over the introduction of excise was not followed by any systematic or uniform application. In Brandenburg it was made optional in 1667 and compulsory in 1680. But it applied only to the main towns, the rural areas continuing with the Contribution. This had the undesirable effect of creating a deep division between urban and rural areas, soon to be enforced by internal tolls which survived until the creation of the Zollverein in the early nineteenth century. In Cleves and Mark it was not introduced at all; after nine attempts between 1667 and 1687 the Great Elector gave up and contented himself with the revenue already forthcoming from the Contribution. In East Prussia the nobility actually requested the introduction of excise, hoping that this would ensure the support of the towns for their political struggle against Berlin. The Great Elector, discerning and suspicious, insisted on maintaining the Contribution and excise was not, in fact, introduced into East Prussia until 1716, by which time the threat of rebellion had passed.

Government intervention to foster industries and agriculture had generally beneficial results. Again, the Great Elector was influenced by economic ideas prevalent in the Netherlands, and he applied them with enormous energy. He encouraged the construction of canals, the growth of overseas commerce and the development of new industries such as cottons, velvet, linen, silk, paper, lace and iron. Of particular importance was his encouragement of immigrants from other European countries. These were usually persecuted religious minorities, including Jews, Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics. Brandenburg acted as a magnet to enterprising groups who found hope in the Great Elector's assertion: ‘We have never thought to arrogate to ourselves the dominion over consciences.’2 The major influx occurred in 1685, when the Edict of Potsdam made possible the settlement of 20,000 Huguenots driven from France by Louis XIV's Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Their contribution to the industrial development of Brandenburg in the seventeenth century and Prussia in the eighteenth was incalculable.

One of the major consequences of the Great Elector's political and economic changes was the widening of social divisions, always in favour of the nobility. From the beginning of his reign he faced, in the extension of royal power, the choice of partnership with either the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy. Unlike Louis XIV, he chose the latter, and did whatever he could to confirm the social status and privileges of the aristocracies of Brandenburg, Cleves–Mark, and, once they had abandoned their separatist tendencies, of East Prussia. The nobility paid a price; they were seriously affected by the declining power of the Estates and by the encroachment of the bureaucracy in Brandenburg and East Prussia. But, in exchange, they received the majority of the places in the new Generalkriegskommissariat, together with all the commissions in the army. This resulted in a vitally important development: the emergence of a ‘service’ nobility which underpinned the growth of royal absolutism. Of all the countries in Europe, Brandenburg was the only one which really succeeded in establishing harmony between monarchy and aristocracy.

At the other end of the scale, Brandenburg also became a model for the effective exploitation of the peasantry. The Brandenburg Recess of 1653 confirmed several aristocratic powers which could have lapsed into obscurity if they had been left alone. It revived a particularly rigid type of villeinage called the Leibeigenschaft and virtually removed any right of appeal by peasants against their masters. This delayed the emergence of Prussia into modern statehood and placed her among the countries which still had to go through the difficulties of shaking off the remnants of feudalism. The Great Elector introduced political and military changes without which Frederick the Great could not have made Prussia a major power after 1740. These were, however, accomplished by the continuation of social anachronisms which were eventually to be swept away by Stein and Hardenberg after 1807.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!