Modern history




On 18 January 1701, Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg was crowned ‘King in Prussia’ in the city of Königsberg. The splendour of the event was unprecedented in the history of the House of Hohenzollern. According to one contemporary report, 30,000 horses were required to relay the Electoral family, their retainers and their luggage, all packed into 1,800 carriages, eastwards along the road from Berlin to the place of coronation. On their way, they passed villages hung with decorations, their main thoroughfares lined with burning torches, or even draped with fine cloth. The celebrations began on 15 January in Königsberg, when heralds wearing blue velvet livery emblazoned with the new royal coat of arms passed through the city, proclaiming the Duchy of Prussia a sovereign kingdom.

The coronation itself began on the morning of 18 January in the audience chamber of the Elector, where a throne had been erected specially for the occasion. Dressed in a scarlet and gold coat glittering with diamond buttons and a crimson mantle with an ermine lining and attended by a small gathering of male family members, courtiers and senior local officials, the Elector placed the crown on his own head, took his sceptre in hand and received the homage of those present. He then passed into the chambers of his wife, whom he crowned as his queen in the presence of their household. After representatives of the Estates had rendered homage, the royal couple processed to the castle church in order to be anointed. Here they were greeted at the entrance by two bishops, one Lutheran and one Reformed (Calvinist), both of whom had been appointed to their offices specifically for this purpose, in deference to the bi-confessional character of the Brandenburg-Prussian state. After some hymns and a sermon, a royal fanfare of drums and trumpets announced the high point of the service: the king rose from his throne and knelt at the altar while the Calvinist Bishop Ursinus wet two fingers of his right hand in the oil and anointed the forehead and the right and left wrists (above the pulse) of the king. The same ritual was then performed upon the queen. To the accompaniment of a musical acclamation, the clergymen involved in the service gathered before the throne and rendered homage. After further hymns and prayers, a senior court official stood up to announce a general pardon for all offenders, excluding blasphemers, murderers, debtors and those guilty of lèsemajesté.1

In terms of the proportion of territorial wealth consumed, the coronation of 1701 must surely be the most expensive single event in the history of Brandenburg-Prussia. Even by the standards of an age that revelled in courtly ceremonial as an expression of power, the Prussian coronation was unusually splendid. The government levied a special crown tax to cover its expenditures, but this brought in a total of only 500,000 thalers – three-fifths of this amount were paid out for the queen’s crown alone, and the royal crown, fashioned of precious metal and studded over its entire surface with diamonds, accounted for the rest and more besides. Reconstructing the total cost of the festivities is difficult, since no integrated account survives, but it has been estimated that around 6 million thalers were spent in all for the ceremony and attendant festivities, about twice the annual revenues of the Hohenzollern administration.

The coronation was singular in another sense too. It was entirely custom-made: an invention designed to serve the purposes of a specific historical moment. The designer was Frederick I himself, who was responsible for every detail, not only of the new royal insignia, the secular rituals and the liturgy in the castle church, but also for the style and colour of the garments worn by the chief participants. There was a staff of experts to advise on monarchical ceremonial. Foremost among these was the poet Johann von Besser who served as master of ceremonies at Frederick’s court from 1690 until the end of the reign and possessed a wide-ranging knowledge of English, French, German, Italian and Scandinavian courtly traditions. But the key decisions always fell to the Elector.

The ceremony that resulted was a unique and highly self-conscious amalgam of borrowings from historical European coronations, some recent, others of older vintage. Frederick designed his coronation not only with a view to its aesthetic impact, but also in order to broadcast what he regarded as the defining features of his kingly status. The form of the crown, which was not an open band, but a domed metal structure closed at the top, symbolized the all-embracing power of a monarch who encompassed in his own person both secular and spiritual sovereignty. The fact, moreover, that the king, in contrast to the prevailing European practice, crowned himself in a separate ceremony before being anointed at the hands of his clergy, pointed up the autonomous character of his office, its independence from any worldly or spiritual authority (save that of God himself). A description of the coronation by Johann Christian Lünig, a renowned contemporary expert on the courtly ‘science of ceremony’, explained the significance of this step.

Kings who accept their kingdom and sovereignty from the Estates usually only take up the purple mantle, the crown and sceptre and mount the throne after they have been anointed: [… ] but His Majesty [Friedrich I], who has not received His Kingdom through the assistance of the Estates or of any other [party], had no need whatever of such a handing-over, but rather received his crown after the manner of the ancient kings from his own foundation.2

Given the recent history of Brandenburg and Ducal Prussia, the importance of these symbolic gestures is obvious enough. The Great Elector’s struggle with the Prussian Estates and particularly the city of Königsberg was still a memory with the power to disturb – it is a telling detail that the Prussian Estates were never consulted over the coronation and were informed of the forthcoming festivity only in December 1700. Equally important was the independence of the new kingdom from any kind of Polish or imperial claim. Everyone knows, the British envoy George Stepney had reported to James Vernon, Secretary of State for the Northern Department, in 1698,

the value this Elector sets upon [… ] the absolute soveraignety wherewith he possesses the Ducal Prussia, for in that respect he exceeds in Power all other Electors and Princes of the Empire, who are not so independent but derive their grandeur by investiture from the Emperor, for which reasons, the Elector affects to be distinguished by some more extraordinary title than what is common to the rest of his colleagues.3


6. Frederick I, King in Prussia (Elector 1688–1701; king 1701–13), painted after his coronation, attributed to Samuel Theodor Gericke

One of the reasons for adopting the title ‘King in Prussia’ – an unusual title that occasioned some amusement at the European courts – was that it freed the new crown from any Polish claims pertaining to ‘royal’ Prussia, which was still within the Polish Commonwealth. In negotiations with Vienna, particular care was expended to ensure that the wording of any agreement would make it clear that the Emperor was not ‘creating’ (creieren) the new royal title, but merely ‘acknowledging’ (agnoszieren) it. A much disputed passage of the final agreement between Berlin and Vienna paid lip service to the special primacy of the Emperor as the senior monarch of Christendom, but also made it clear that the Prussian Crown was an entirely independent foundation, for which the Emperor’s approval was a courtesy rather than an obligation.

In 1701, as so often before, Berlin owed its good fortune to international developments. The Emperor would probably not have cooperated in the Elector’s elevation had it not been for the fact that he stood in urgent need of Brandenburg’s support. The epochal struggle between Habsburg and Bourbon was about to enter a new and bloody phase, as a coalition of European powers gathered to oppose French designs to place a grandson of Louis XIV on the vacant Spanish throne. Anticipating a major conflagration, the Emperor saw that he would have to make concessions in order to win Frederick’s support. Wooed with attractive offers from both sides, the Elector hesitated, swinging from one option to the other, but eventually decided to align himself with the Emperor in return for the Crown Treaty (Krontraktat) of 16 November 1700. Under this agreement, Frederick undertook to supply a contingent of 8,000 men to the Emperor and made various more general assurances of support for the House of Habsburg. The Viennese court agreed, for its part, not only to recognize the foundation of the new title, but also to work towards its general acceptance, both within the Holy Roman Empire and among the European powers.

The establishment of the royal title brought a massive expansion of the courtly establishment and a great unfurling of elaborate ceremonies. Many of these had an overtly historical dimension. There were splendid festivities to mark the anniversary of the coronation, the birthday of the queen, the birthday of the king, the conferral of the Order of the Black Eagle, the unveiling of a statue of the Great Elector. In this respect Frederick’s reign institutionalized the heightened historical consciousness that had been a feature of his predecessor’s understanding of his office and that had been percolating through the courts of western Europe since the late sixteenth century.4 It was Frederick who appointed Samuel Pufendorf Court Historiographer in 1688. Pufendorf’s remarkable history of the Great Elector’s reign was the first to make systematic use of archived government papers.

While other courts were preoccupied with the battles and sieges of the war currently waging over the Spanish succession, one contemporary English observer remarked with a note of exasperation, life in Berlin was an unceasing round of ‘shows, dancing and other such like devertions’.5 For the foreign envoys posted in Berlin, this quantum leap in courtly splendour meant that life became more expensive. In a report filed in the summer of 1703, the British envoy extraordinary (later ambassador) Lord Raby, noted that his ‘equipage, which in London was thought very fine, is nothing to those that are here’. The British despatches of this period are filled with complaints at the inordinate expense involved in maintaining appearances at what had suddenly become one of Europe’s most splendid courts. Apartments had to be refurnished, servants, carriages and horses kitted out to a more exacting and costly standard. ‘I find I shall be no gainer by my embassy,’ Raby dolefully commented in one of many veiled pleas for a more generous allowance.6

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of the new taste for elaborate ceremonial was the regime of mourning that followed the death of the king’s second wife, Sophie Charlotte of Hanover, in February 1705. The queen had been visiting her relatives in Hanover at the time of her death. A senior court official was ordered to take two battalions of Brandenburg troops to Hanover and bear the corpse back to Berlin, where it was to lie exposed on a bed of state for six months. Strictest orders were given that the ‘deepest mourning that is possible’ should be observed throughout the king’s dominions. All who came to court were ordered to cover themselves in long black cloaks and all apartments, coaches and equipages, including those of the foreign envoys, were to be ‘put into deep mourning’.

The court was in deeper mourning than ever I saw in my life, for the women all had black head clothes and Black veils that cover’d them all over, so no face was to be seen. The men all in long black cloakes and the rooms all hung with cloath the top as well as the bottom, and but four candles in each room, so that one could hardly distinguish the king from the rest but by the height of his cloake, which was held up by a gentleman of the bedchamber.7

Hand in hand with the ratcheting up of courtly splendour and ceremonial went a boom in cultural investment that was unprecedented in the history of the dynasty. The last decades of the Great Elector’s reign had seen a growth in representative building in the capital city, but this paled into insignificance beside the projects launched during the reign of his successor. A huge palace complex with an extensive pleasure garden was constructed in Charlottenburg under the direction of the Swedish master builder Johann Friedrich Eosander, and there was a proliferation of representative sculpture across the city, the most notable example being the striking equestrian statue of the Great Elector designed by Andreas Schlüter. The old war-scarred town of Berlin began to disappear beneath the broad paved streets and stately buildings of a graceful residential city.

In July 1700, as his quest for the royal title approached a successful conclusion, Frederick founded a Royal Scientific Society, later renamed the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, and thus acquired one of the most prized contemporary attributes of dynastic distinction.8 A medallion designed by the philosopher Leibniz to commemorate the inauguration of the society (which was officially established on 11 July, the sovereign’s birthday) displayed on one side a portrait of the Elector, on the other an image of the Brandenburg eagle flying upwards towards the constellation known as the Eagle and bearing the motto: ‘he strives for the stars he knows’.9

Was the Prussian royal title, with all the pomp and circumstance that attended it, worth the money and effort spent acquiring and living up to it? The most famous answer to this question was a scathing negative. For Frederick’s grandson Frederick II the entire exercise amounted to little more than an indulgence of the Elector’s vanity, as he explained in a remarkably spiteful portrait of the first Prussian king:

He was small and misshapen, his expression was proud, his physiognomy vulgar. His soul was like a mirror that throws back every object. [… ] He mistook vanities for true greatness. He was more concerned with appearances than with useful things that are soundly made. [… ] He only desired the crown so hotly because he needed a superficial pretext to justify his weakness for ceremony and his wasteful extravagance. [… ] All in all: he was great in small things and small in great things. And it was his misfortune to find a place in history between a father and a son whose superior talents cast him in shadow.10

It is certainly the case that Frederick’s court establishment incurred costs that were unsustainable in the longer term, and it is true that the first king took great pleasure in magnificent festivities and elaborately choreographed ceremonies. But the emphasis on personal foibles is in some respects misplaced. Frederick I was not the only European ruler to seek elevation to kingly status at this time – the Grand Duke of Tuscany had acquired the right to be addressed as ‘Royal Highness’ in 1691; the same right was acquired during the following years by the dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. More importantly from Berlin’s perspective, a number of rival German dynasties were angling for a royal title during the 1690s. The Elector of Saxony converted to Catholicism in order to get himself elected King of Poland in 1697, and negotiations began at around the same time over the possible succession of the Electoral House of Hanover to the British royal throne. The Bavarians and the Palatine Wittelsbachs were likewise engaged with (ultimately futile) plans to capture a royal title, either by elevation or, in the latter case, by securing a claim to the ‘royal throne of Armenia’. In other words, the coronation of 1701 was no isolated personal caprice, but part of a wave of regalization that was sweeping across the still largely non-regal territories of the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian states at the end of the seventeenth century. Royal title mattered because it still entailed privileged status within the international community. Since the precedence accorded to crowned heads was also observed at the great peace treaties of the era, it was a matter of potentially grave practical importance.

The recent growth of interest in the early modern European courts as political and cultural institutions has heightened our awareness of the functionality of courtly ritual. Courtly festivities had a crucial communicative and legitimating function. As the philosopher Christian Wolff observed in 1721, the ‘common man’, who depended upon his senses rather than his reason, was quite incapable of grasping ‘what the majesty of a king is’. Yet it was possible to convey to him a sense of the power of the monarch by confronting him with ‘things that catch his eye and stir his other senses’. A considerable court and court ceremonies, he concluded, were thus ‘by no means superfluous or reprehensible’.11 Courts were also densely interlinked with each other through family diplomatic and cultural ties; they were not only focal points for elite social and political life within each respective territory, but also nodes in an international courtly network. The magnificent celebrations of the coronation anniversary, for example, were observed by numerous foreign visitors, not to speak of the various dynastic relatives and envoys who could always be found at court during the season.

The international resonance of such events within the European court system was further amplified by published official or semi-official accounts, in which scrupulous attention was paid to details of precedence, dress, ceremony and the splendour of the spectacle. The same applied to the elaborately ritualized observances associated with mourning. The orders issued following the death of Queen Sophie Charlotte were not primarily intended to lend expression to the private grief of the bereaved, but rather to send out signals about the weight and importance of the court where the death had occurred. These signals were directed not only to a domestic audience of subjects, but also to other courts, which were expected to mark their acknowledgement of the event by entering into various degrees of mourning. So implicit were these expectations that Frederick I was furious when he discovered that Louis XIV had decided not to put the court at Versailles into mourning on Sophie Charlotte’s account, presumably as a means of conveying his displeasure at Berlin’s pro-Austrian policy in the War of the Spanish Succession.12 Like the other ceremonies that punctuated life at court, mourning was part of a system of political communication. Seen in this context, the court was an instrument whose purpose was to document the rank of the prince before an international ‘courtly public’.13

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the coronation ritual of 1701 is the fact that it did not become the foundation stone of a tradition of sacral coronations in Prussia. Frederick’s immediate successor, Frederick William, had developed during his youth a deep antipathy to the refinement and playfulness cultivated by his mother and showed no taste as an adult for the kinds of ritual display that were a defining feature of his father’s reign. Upon his accession, he not only dispensed entirely with a coronation ritual of any kind, but substantially dismantled the court establishment his father had created. Frederick II inherited his father’s dislike of dynastic ostentation and did not restore the ceremony. As a consequence, Brandenburg-Prussia became a kingdom without coronations. The defining ritual of the accession remained, as in earlier times, the oath of homage in Königsberg of the Prussian estates and in Berlin of the other estates of the Hohenzollern dominions.

It is clear none the less in retrospect that the acquisition of the kingly title inaugurated a new phase in the history of the Brandenburg polity. First, it is worth noting that the rituals associated with the coronation remained dormant within the collective memory of the dynasty. The Order of the Black Eagle, for example, founded by Frederick I on the eve of the coronation to reward the kingdom’s most distinguished friends and servants, was gradually alienated from its courtly function, but it enjoyed a revival in the 1840s during the reign of Frederick William IV, when a number of the original conferral ceremonies were reconstructed from the archives and reintroduced. King William I chose upon his accession in 1861 to dispense with the homage (which many contemporaries judged to be obsolete) and instead to revive the practice of self-coronation in Königsberg.14 It was this same monarch who scheduled the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles to fall on 18 January, the anniversary of the first coronation. The cultural resonance of the coronation ritual within the life of the dynasty was thus more enduring than its sudden abandonment after 1713 might suggest.

The coronation of 1701 also signalled a subtle shift in the relationship between the monarch and his spouse. Of the seventeenth-century wives and mothers of the Brandenburg Electors, several had been powerful independent figures at court. The most outstanding in this respect had been Anna of Prussia, wife of John Sigismund, a spirited, iron-willed woman who responded to her husband’s intermittent drunken rages by throwing plates and glasses at his head. Anna was an important player in the labile confessional politics of Brandenburg after her husband’s conversion to Calvinism; she also maintained her own diplomatic network and virtually ran a separate foreign policy. This continued even after the death of her husband and the accession of her son George William in 1619. In the summer of 1620, Anna entered into separate negotiations with the King of Sweden over the latter’s marriage to her daughter, Maria Eleonora, without so much as consulting her son, the head of state. In 1631, as Brandenburg’s greatest wartime crisis came to a head, it was the Elector’s Palatine wife Elisabeth Charlotte and her mother Louise Juliane, rather than George William himself, who managed the delicate diplomatic relationship between Brandenburg and Sweden.15 In other words: women at court continued to pursue interests informed by their own family networks and quite distinct from those of their husbands. The same can be said of Sophie Charlotte, the intelligent Hanoverian princess who married Frederick III/I in 1684, but who spent long sojourns at her mother’s court in Hanover (she was staying there when she died in 1705) and remained an advocate of Hanoverian policy.16 She was an opponent of the coronation project, which she saw as damaging to Hanoverian interests. (She is reported to have found the coronation itself so tedious that she took pinches of snuff during the proceedings in order to provide herselfwith ‘some pleasant distraction’.)17

Against this background, it is clear that the coronation set the relationship between the Elector and his spouse within a new framework. It was the Elector who crowned his wife, having first crowned himself, and thereby made her his queen. This was, of course, a mere symbolic detail without practical consequences and, since there were no further coronations in the eighteenth century, it was not re-enacted. But the ceremony none the less signalled the beginning of a process by which the dynastic identity of the wife would be partially merged into that of her husband, the crowned head of a royal household. The concomitant masculinization of the monarchy, coupled with the fact that the House of Hohenzollern now enjoyed a clear pre-eminence among the Protestant German dynasties from which spouses were recruited, narrowed the freedom of movement available to the ‘first ladies’ of Brandenburg-Prussia. Their eighteenth-century successors were not without personal gifts and political insight, but they would not develop the kind of autonomous weight in politics that had been such a striking feature of the previous century.

The independent, extra-imperial sovereignty secured by the Great Elector had been solemnized in the most dramatic possible way. The special prominence that Brandenburg had acquired among the lesser European powers after 1640 by virtue of its military prowess and the determination of its leadership was now reflected in its formal standing within the international order of precedence.18 The Viennese court recognized this and soon came to regret the role it had played in facilitating the Elector of Brandenburg’s elevation. The new title also had a psychologically integrating effect: the Baltic territory formerly known as Ducal Prussia was no longer a mere outlying possession of the Brandenburg heartland, but a constitutive element in a new royal-electoral amalgam that would first be known as Brandenburg-Prussia, later simply as Prussia. The words ‘kingdom of Prussia’ were incorporated into the official denomination of every Hohenzollern province. It may have been true, as opponents of the coronation project were quick to point out, that the sovereign of Brandenburg already possessed the fullness of royal power and thus had no need to adorn himself with new titles. But to accept this view would be to overlook the fact that things are ultimately transformed by the names we give them.


It is difficult to imagine two more contrasting individuals than the first and the second Prussian kings. Frederick was urbane, genial, courteous, mild mannered and gregarious. He spoke several modern languages, including French and Polish, and had done much to cultivate the arts and intellectual enquiry at his court. He was, by the judgement of the Earl of Strafford, who had spent many years (under his earlier title, Lord Raby) as ambassador in Berlin, ‘good natured, affable [… ] generous and just [… ] magnificent and charitable’.19 Frederick William I, by contrast, was brusque to the point of brutality, distrustful in the extreme and given to violent rages and attacks of acute melancholy. Although possessed of a quick and powerful intelligence, he barely managed to master written German (he may well have been dyslexic). He was profoundly sceptical of any sort of cultural or intellectual endeavour that was not of immediate practical (by which he mainly meant military) utility. The sometimes harsh, contemptuous tone of his speech is conveyed in the following marginalia to incoming government papers:

10 November 1731: Ivatyhoff, the Brandenburg Agent in Copenhagen, requests an increase in his allowance. [Frederick William: ‘The rasckal wants an increase – I’ll count it out on his back’]

27 January 1733: Letter proposing that von Holtzendorff be sent to Denmark [Frederick William: ‘To gallows with Hotzedorff [sic ] how dare you sujest me this rogue but as he’s a curr he’s good enough for the gallows go tell hym that’]

5 November 1735: Report from Kuhlwein [Frederick William: ‘Kuhlwein is an idiott he can kis my arss’]

19 November 1735: Order to Kuhlwein [Frederick William: ‘You filth don’t interfeer in my family or youll find there’s a barrow waiting for you in Spandau fortress’]20

Within days of his accession in February 1713, Frederick William laid an axe to the tree of his father’s court establishment. There was, as we have seen, no follow-up to the coronation of 1701. Having scrutinized the financial accounts of the royal household, the new king embarked on a drastic cost-cutting campaign. Two-thirds of the servants employed at the court – including the chocolatier, a brace of castrato singers, the cellists, composers and organ-builders – were sacked without notice; the rest had to accept salary reductions of up to 75 per cent. A substantial quantity of the jewels, gold and silver plate, fine wines, furniture and coaches accumulated during his father’s reign was sold off. The lions of the royal menagerie were presented as gifts to the King of Poland. Most of the sculptors engaged during Frederick’s reign promptly left Berlin when they were informed of their revised conditions of employment. A sense of panic gripped the court. In a report filed on 28 February 1713, the British envoy William Breton observed that the king was ‘very busye cutting off pensions and making great retrenchments in his civill list, to the great grief of many fine gentlemen’. The queen dowager’s household had been especially hard hit and ‘the poore maids [had] gone home to their friends with heavy hearts.’21

The weeks following the accession must have been particularly traumatic for Johann von Besser, who had served Frederick III/I as his master of ceremonies since 1690. Besser had helped to shape the ritual culture of the royal court and was the author of a detailed official account of the coronation. As his life’s work collapsed around him, he was unceremoniously struck from the state list. A letter he sent to the new king requesting consideration for another post was tossed into the fire on receipt. Besser fled Berlin and subsequently found employment as an adviser and master of ceremonies at the still sumptuous Saxon court in Dresden.

The court established under Frederick quickly withered away. What took its place was a leaner, cheaper, rougher and more masculine social scene. ‘As the late King of Prussia was scrupulous in the ceremonies of the greatest nicety, his present Majesty, on the contrary, has scarce left the least footsteps of it,’ the new British envoy Charles Whitworth reported in the summer of 1716.22 At the centre of the monarch’s social life was the ‘Tabakskollegium’ or ‘Tobacco Ministry’, a group of between eight and twelve councillors, senior officials, army officers and assorted visiting adventurers, envoys or men of letters who gathered in the evenings with the monarch for general conversation over strong drink and pipes of tobacco. The tone was informal, often crude, and non-hierarchical – one of the rules of the Tobacco Ministry was that one did not stand to honour the arrival of the king. The subjects of discussion ranged from Bible passages, newspaper reports, political gossip, hunting anecdotes to more risqué matters such as the natural aromas given off by women. Participants were expected to speak their minds, and hefty arguments sometimes broke out; indeed, these appear on occasion to have been encouraged by the monarch himself. In the autumn of 1728, for example, a theological dispute between a Friedrich August Hackemann, a visiting professor from the University of Helmstedt, and the Berlin-based popular writer David Fassmann degenerated into a mud-slinging match, to the great amusement of the other guests. According to a contemporary report by an envoy resident in Berlin, Hackemann was eventually goaded into calling Fassmann a liar, whereupon the latter

solidly responded with the flat of his hand so promptly! and in such a manner! that [Hackemann] almost tumbled onto the king; at this point he [Hackemann] asked His Majesty whether it was [… ] not a most punishable thing to behave in such a way and to attack someone thus in the presence of the all-highest?

Frederick William, who clearly took pleasure in such raucousness, merely commented that a scoundrel deserves the blows he receives.23

Emblematic for the tone and values that prevailed in the monarch’s milieu after 1713 was the fate of Jacob Paul von Gundling. Born near Nuremberg and educated at the universities of Altdorf, Halle and Helmstedt, Gundling was one of the many academically trained men who were drawn to Berlin during the expansion of intellectual life that took place in the city under Frederick I. In addition to a professorial teaching post at a new school for sons of the nobility in Berlin, Gundling occupied an honorary court post as official historiographer for the Oberheroldsamt (Chief Herald’s Office), an institution founded in 1706 to establish the genealogical credentials of noble applicants for public office. But disaster struck in 1713, when both of these institutions were swept away in the weeks following Frederick William’s accession. Gundling managed to secure a place in the new system by adapting himself to the king’s views and working freelance for a few years as an adviser on economic policy, a role in which he became known as an opponent of noble fiscal and economic privilege. He was rewarded for his services with various honorary titles (including ‘Commercial Councillor’ and the presidency of the Academy of Sciences) and became a frequent guest at the Tobacco Ministry. Indeed Gundling remained a courtier of sorts, dependent on the royal purse, until his death in 1731.


7. Satirical portrait of Jacob Paul von Gundling (anon. engraving from The Learned Fool (Der Gelehrte Narr) by the Gundling-baiter David F. Fassmann (Berlin, 1729)

But neither his record of service as an educator and courtier, nor his presidency of the academy, nor his steadily growing list of scholarly publications could save Gundling from degenerating into a figure of ridicule at the court of Frederick William I. In February 1714, the king demanded that he deliver a lecture before the assembled guests on the existence (or not) of ghosts while taking regular draughts of strong drink. After much raucous hilarity, two grenadiers escorted the inebriated commercial councillor back to his room, where he shrieked with terror at the sight of a figure draped in a white sheet emerging from a corner. Provocations of this kind soon became the norm. Gundling was confined in a chamber where the king kept a number of young bears while fireworks were rained down into the room from above; he was forced to wear outlandish courtly attire modelled loosely on French fashions, including a towering wig in an outdated style that had belonged to the previous king; he was force-fed laxatives and locked in a cell overnight; he was pressed into a pistol duel with one of his chief tormentors, the joke being that everyone but Gundling knew that the weapons contained no shot. When Gundling refused to grasp or fire his gun, his opponent discharged a spray of burning powder into his face, setting fire to his wig, to the huge hilarity of all present. He was prevented by his debts from leaving Berlin and constrained by the pleasure of the king his master to return daily to the scene of his humiliations, where his honour and reputation were martyred for the amusement of the royal court. Under these pressures, Gundling’s liking for drink soon developed into fully fledged alcoholism, a weakness that, in the eyes of his detractors, merely enhanced his suitability for the role of court fool. And yet Gundling continued to generate a flow of learned publications on such subjects as the history of Tuscany, imperial and German law, and the topography of the Electorate of Brandenburg.

Gundling even had to to lerate the presence in his bed chamber of a coffin in the form of a varnished wine barrel inscribed with a mocking verse:

Here there lies within his skin

Half-pig, half-man, a wondrous thing

Clever in his youth, in old age not so bright

Full of wit at morning, full of drink at night

Let the voice of Bacchus sing:

This, my child, is Gundeling.


Reader, say, can you divine

Whether he was man or swine?24

After his death in Potsdam on 11 April 1731, Gundling’s corpse was publicly displayed propped up in the barrel in a room lined with candles, dressed in a wig hanging down to the thighs, brocaded breeches and black stockings with red stripes – all clear references to the baroque culture of the court of Frederick I. Among those who came to ogle at this macabre spectacle were commercial travellers on their way to the great fair at Leipzig. Gundling and his barrel were buried soon afterwards under the altar of the village church outside the city. The funeral address was given by the writer (and sometime Gundling-baiter) Fassmann, the local Lutheran and Reformed clergy having conscientiously refused to take part.


8. The Tobacco Ministry. Attributed to Georg Lisiewski, c. 1737.

Gundling’s ‘martyrdom’ was the flip-side of the raucous masculine camaraderie of the new monarchy. The masculinization that had tentatively announced itself in the ceremony of the coronation had by now transformed the social life of the court. Under Frederick William I, women, who had played such a prominent role at the court of Frederick I, were pushed to the margins of public life. A visitor from Saxony who resided in Berlin for several months during 1723 recalled that the great festivities of the courtly season were held ‘according to the Jewish manner’ with the women separated from the men, and observed with surprise that there were many dinners at court at which no women appeared at all.25

Reflecting on the regime-change that occurred in 1713, one is tempted to describe it as a cultural revolution. There were continuities in the sphere of administration and finance, to be sure, but in the sphere of representation and culture we can speak of a comprehensive reversal of values and styles. Between them, the first two Prussian kings marked out the extremes between and by which their successors would position themselves. At one end of the spectrum we find the type-A Hohenzollern monarch: expansive and expensive, ostentatious, detached from the regular work of state, focused on image; at the other end his type-B antipode: austere, thrifty, workaholic.26 The ‘baroque’ style of monarchy inaugurated by Frederick I retained, as we have seen, a certain resonance within the collective memory of the dynasty, and the epochal alternation of tastes and fashions ensured that there would be periodic revivals of courtly largesse – under Frederick William II, court expenditure exploded once again to around 2 million thalers per annum, about one-eighth of the total state budget (the figure for his predecessor, Frederick the Great, had been 220,000).27 The last decades of the nineteenth century would witness, after a period of relative austerity, a remarkable late blooming of courtly culture around the person of the last Kaiser, William II. But the type-B kingship of Frederick William I also had a vigorous afterlife in the history of the dynasty. The harsh marginal jottings of Frederick William I were imitated (with more wit) by his illustrious son Frederick II and (at greater length and with less wit) by his more distant descendant Kaiser William II. Frederick William I’s habit of wearing military uniform rather than the more expensive civilian alternative was taken up by Frederick II and remained a striking feature of Hohenzollern dynastic representation until the fall of the Prussian monarchy at the end of the First World War. The historical power of the type-B model lay not merely in its association with Prussia’s later ascendancy in Germany but also in its affinity with the values and preferences of an emergent Prussian public, for whom the image of a just and thrifty monarch dedicated to the service of the state came to embody a specifically Prussian vision of kingship.


It has often been noted that the reigns of Frederick William the Great Elector and his grandson King Frederick William I stand in a complementary relation to each other. The Great Elector’s achievement was centred on the outward projection of power. Frederick William, by contrast, has been called Prussia’s greatest ‘inner king’, in honour of his role as the founding father of the Prussian administrative state. The opposition between the two can, of course, be overstated. There was no epochal rupture in administrative practices to match the cultural revolution at court. It is probably more accurate to speak of a process of administrative consolidation spanning the century between 1650 and 1750. This process was at first most pronounced in the spheres of revenue extraction and military administration. It was the Great Elector who began simplifying and centralizing the previously haphazard arrangements in place for the collection of the Electoral revenues – i.e. those from crown land, tolls, mines (which were the property of the crown) and monopolies. A first step was taken in this direction with the creation of an Electoral administration for the collection of the royal revenues in Brandenburg in the 1650s. Yet it was not until 1683 that the central revenues office, under the energetic East Prussian nobleman Dodo von Knyphausen, succeeded in acquiring direct control over Electoral revenues from the entirety of the Hohenzollern territories. Knyphausen’s work of consolidation continued after the Great Elector’s death: in 1689 he oversaw the establishment of a central Brandenburg-Prussian revenue office with a stable institutional structure. As a result of this innovation, it proved possible to draw up for the year 1689 – 90 the first complete balance sheet of income and expenditure in the history of Brandenburg-Prussia.28 A further important centralizing step was undertaken in 1696 with the foundation of a unified central administration for the management of the royal domains.29

A parallel process of concentration can be observed in those areas responsible for the maintenance of the army and the waging of warfare. A General War Commissariat (Generalkriegskommissariat) was established in April 1655 to organize the army and its financial and logistical support. Under a series of capable administrators it grew into one of the key agencies of the Electoral administration, controlling all the revenues (contribution tax, excise tax and foreign subsidies) destined for military expenditures and gradually undermining the tax-collecting powers of the Estates by drawing their local officials into the sphere of its authority. By the 1680s, the commissariat had begun to arrogate to itself a more general responsibility for the health of the domestic manufacturing economy, launching a programme to establish Brandenburg as self-sufficient in wool-based textiles and mediating in local conflicts between the trade guilds and new businesses. There was nothing uniquely Prussian about this merging of financial, economic and military administration; it was undertaken in emulation of Louis XIV’s powerful contrôleur-général, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

With the accession of Frederick William I to the throne in 1713, the process of reform acquired a new momentum. For all his dysfunctionality as a social being, Frederick William was an inspired institution-builder with an architectonic vision of administration. The roots of this passion can be traced back to the comprehensive princely training provided by his father. At the age of only nine, Frederick William was entrusted with the management of his own personal estate at Wusterhausen to the south-east of Berlin, a task he performed with prodigious energy and conscientiousness. By this means, he acquired a first-hand familiarity with the day-to-day responsibilities of managing an estate – still the fundamental operational unit of the Brandenburg-Prussian economy. He was only thirteen when he began attending meetings of the Privy Council in 1701; his induction into other departments of the administration followed soon after.

Frederick William was therefore already well versed in the inner workings of the administration when an outbreak of plague and famine in East Prussia plunged the monarchy into crisis in 1709–10. The epidemic, which was probably brought into the region by the movement of Saxon, Swedish and Russian troops during the Great Northern War of 1700–1721, killed around 250,000 people, more than a third of the East Prussian population. In a chronicle of the small city of Johannisburg, in the south of the kingdom not far from the Polish border, one contemporary recalled that the plague had spared the city in 1709, but had returned with all the more ferocity in 1710 taking ‘both the preachers, both the school teachers and most of the town councillors to their graves. The city was so emptied of people that the market place was overgrown with grass and only fourteen citizens remained alive.’30 The impact of the disease was compounded by a famine that weakened resistance and decimated communities of survivors. Thousands of farms and hundreds of villages were abandoned; in many of the worst affected areas, social and economic life came to a complete halt. Since the areas of highest mortality were in the eastern areas of East Prussia, where the crown was the main landowner, there was an instantaneous collapse in crown revenues. Neither the central nor the provincial administration proved capable of responding effectively to the disaster as it unfolded; indeed a number of the chief ministers reacted by trying to conceal from the monarch the seriousness of the crisis.

The disaster in East Prussia highlighted the inefficiency and corruption of the ministers and senior officials, many of whom were personal favourites of the king. A party – including crown prince Frederick William – formed at court to bring down the leading minister, Kolbe von Wartenberg, and his cronies. After an official enquiry revealed misappropriations and embezzlement on an epic scale, Wartenberg was forced into retirement; his close associate Wittgenstein was incarcerated in Spandau fortress, fined 70,000 thalers and subsequently banished. The episode was a formative one for Frederick William. This was the first time he had become actively involved in politics. It was also a turning point in the reign of his father, who now began to let power pass gradually into the hands of his son. Most importantly, the East Prussian débâcle left the crown prince with a burning zeal for institutional reform and a visceral hatred of corruption, wastage and inefficiency.31

Within a few years of his accession to the throne, Frederick William had transformed the administrative landscape of Brandenburg-Prussia. The organizational concentration that had begun under the Great Elector was now resumed and intensified. The management of all non-tax revenues across the territories of Brandenburg-Prussia was centralized; on 27 March 1713 the Chief Domains Directory (Ober-Domaänen-Direktorium), which managed the crown lands, and the Central Revenues Office (Hofkammer) were merged to form a new General Finance Directory (Generalfinanzdirektorium). Control over the finances of the territory now rested in the hands of only two institutions, the General Finance Directory, which dealt above all with lease income from the royal domains, and the General Commissariat (Generalkommissariat), whose task was to collect the excise tax levied in the towns and the contribution tax paid by people in the countryside. But this state of affairs in turn generated new tensions, for the two authorities, whose responsibilities overlapped at various points, soon became bitter rivals. The General Finance Directory and its subordinate provincial offices regularly complained that the exactions of the Commissariat were preventing their leaseholders from keeping up with their rents. When the General Finance Directory, for its part, tried to raise its rental income by encouraging its leaseholders to establish small rural businesses such as breweries and manufacturies, the Commissariat protested that these enterprises placed urban taxpayers at a competitive disadvantage, since they were outside the towns and therefore not liable to excise. In 1723, after much deliberation, Frederick William decided that the solution was to merge the two rivals into an omnicompetent super-ministry that bore the unwieldy title ‘General Chief Directory for Finance, War and Domains’, but was known simply as the General Directory (Generaldirektorium). Within two weeks, the merger had been extended to cover all the subordinate provincial and local offices of both bodies.32

At the apex of the General Directory, Frederick William installed what was known as a ‘collegial’ decision-making structure. Whenever an issue had to be resolved, all the ministers were required to come together at the main table in the relevant department. Along one side sat the ministers, facing them on the other were the privy councillors of the relevant department. At one end of the table there was a chair left empty for the king – a pro forma observance, since the king scarcely ever attended meetings. The collegial system delivered several advantages: it brought the decision-making process out into the open and thereby prevented (in theory) the empire-building by individual ministers that had been such a prominent feature of the previous reign; it ensured that provincial and personal interests and prejudices were balanced out against each other; it maximized the relevant information available to the decision-makers; most importantly, it encouraged officials to take a holistic view. Frederick William sought to reinforce this tendency by urging the former employees of the General Finance Directory not to be shy in learning from their colleagues of the General Commissariat, and vice versa. He even threatened to use internal examinations in order to test whether knowledge was being transferred efficiently between the officials of what had previously been rival administrations. The ultimate objective was to forge an organic, pan-territorial body of expertise out of a plurality of separate specialist knowledges.33

The General Directory was still in many respects quite different from a modern ministerial bureaucracy: business was not primarily organized according to spheres of activity, but, as in most executive governmental organs in Europe at this time, by a mixed system in which provincial portfolios were supplemented with responsibility for specific policy areas. Department II of the General Directory, for example, dealt with the Kurmark, Magdeburg and the provisioning and quartering of troops; Department III combined responsibility for Kleve, Mark and various other exclaves with management of the salt monopoly and the postal services. Moreover, the lines of demarcation separating distinct spheres of competence within the new organization remained unclear, so that serious internal conflicts over jurisdiction continued well into the 1730s – the institutional rivalries that had given rise to the General Directory in the first place were thus internalized rather than resolved, and they were cross-cut with new structural tensions between locality, province and central government.34

On the other hand, the conditions of employment and the general ethos of the General Directory do sound a familiar note from a present-day perspective. The ministers were expected to convene at seven in the morning in summer and eight in winter. They were expected to remain at their desks until the day’s work was accounted for. They were required to come into the office on Saturdays in order to check the week’s accounts. If they spent more than a certain number of hours at work on any particular day, a warm meal was to be provided at the expense of the administration, but served in two sittings, so that half the ministers could keep working while their colleagues ate. These were the beginnings of that world of supervision, regulation and routine that is common to all modern bureaucracies. By comparison with ministerial posts in the era of the Great Elector and Frederick I, service in the General Directory offered fewer opportunities for illicit self-enrichment: a system of concealed supervision and reporting that ran through every tier of the organization ensured – in theory at least – that irregularities were immediately notified to the king. Serious offences met with punishments ranging from dismissal to fines and restitutions, to exemplary execution at the place of work. A notorious case was that of the East Prussian War and Domains Councillor von Schlubhut, who was hanged for embezzlement before the main meeting room of the Königsberg Chamber.


After the disaster of 1709–10, Frederick William was especially concerned for the condition of East Prussia. His father’s administration had already succeeded in occupying some of the vacated farms with foreign settlers and migrants from the other Hohenzollern provinces. In 1715, Frederick William appointed a nobleman from one of the leading families of the province, Karl Heinrich Truchsess von Waldburg, to oversee reforms to the provincial administration. Waldburg focused above all on the iniquities of the existing tax system, which tended to operate to the disadvantage of the smallholding peasants. Under the traditional arrangements in the province, every landowner paid a flat rate of tax for every Hufe of land in his possession (the Hufe was one of the basic contemporary units of land; the English equivalent was ‘hide’). But since the tax-collecting agencies of the administration were still largely in the hands of the corporate nobility, the authorities tended to turn a blind eye when noble landowners understated their taxable landholdings. The returns of peasant households, by contrast, were subjected to the most pedantic scrutiny, so that not a single hide was missed. Further iniquities arose from the fact that no account was taken of the quality and yield of the land in question, so that smallholders, who tended in general to occupy the less fertile land, were subject to proportionally greater burdens than the major landowners. The problem, in Frederick William’s eyes, was not the fact of inequality as such, which was accepted as inherent in all social order, but the depression of revenues that resulted from the operation of this particular system. Underlying his concern was the presumption, which the king shared with some of the best-known German and Austrian economic theorists of the era, that excessive taxation reduced productivity and that the ‘conservation’ of his subjects was one of the foremost tasks of the sovereign.35 The king’s concern for peasant households in particular represented a shift from the previous generation of mercantilist theory and practice (embodied in the career of Louis XIV’s minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert), which had tended to focus on the stimulation of commerce and manufacturing at the expense of agrarian producers.

The East Prussian reform programme began with the compilation of a survey of landholdings. The process revealed some 35,000 hides of previously undeclared taxable land, amounting to an area of nearly 6,000 square kilometres. In order to correct for variations in yield, the provincial domains administration then drew up a comprehensive classification of all holdings according to soil quality. Once these measures were in place, a new General Hide Tax, calibrated for soil quality, was imposed on the entire province. In conjunction with new, more transparent and standardized leasing arrangements for farms on crown land, Waldburg’s East Prussian reforms produced a dramatic rise in agrarian productivity and crown revenues.36

While arrangements for the General Hide Tax were still being put in place, Frederick William launched the long and difficult process known as the ‘allodification of the fiefs’ (Allodifikation der Lehen). The term referred to removing various bits of legal red tape left over from the feudal era, when noblemen had ‘held’ their lands as ‘vassals’ of the monarch and the sale and transfer of property were encumbered by the need to acknowledge residual claims vested in the heirs and descendants of previous owners. The sale of a noble estate was henceforth final, a state of affairs that provided new incentives for investment and agricultural improvement. In return for the reclassification of their land as ‘allodial’ (i.e. independently owned and unbound by any feudal obligations), the nobilities were to accept a permanent tax. The measure was legally complex, because the legacy of feudal law and custom was different in every province. It was also very unpopular, because the attachment of the nobilities to their traditional tax-exempt status was far greater than their resentment of their now largely obsolete and theoretical feudal obligations. They saw ‘allodification’ – not without justification – as a cunning pretext for undermining their ancient fiscal privileges. In many provinces, years of negotiation were required before the new tax could be introduced; in Kleve and Mark no agreement was reached and the tax had to be extracted through ‘forced execution’. Opposition was also strong in the recently acquired and still independently minded Duchy of Magdeburg; in 1718 and 1725, delegations of noblemen from this province were successful in securing judgements supporting their case from the imperial court in Vienna.37

These fiscal initiatives were flanked by numerous other revenue-raising measures. The marshes of the Havelland, where the Swedish army had floundered in 1675, were drained so energetically that 15,000 hectares of excellent arable and pasture were won back within ten years. Work began on the draining of the delta region around the rivers Oder, Warthe and Netze, an epic project that would be completed only during the next reign, when the Oder River Commission established by Frederick William’s successor oversaw the reclamation of some 500 square kilometres of marshland from the Oder floodplains. Reflecting the fashionable contemporary concern with population size as the chief index of prosperity, Frederick William launched settlement programmes to raise productivity and stimulate manufacturing in particular regions. Protestant immigrants from Salzburg, for example, were settled on farms in the far east of East Prussia, and Huguenot textile manufacturers were installed in the city of Halle in the hope of mounting a challenge to the dominance of Saxon imports in the Hohenzollern Duchy of Magdeburg.38 A series of regulations issued in the 1720s and 1730s dismantled many of the localized guild powers and privileges to create a more unified labour market in the manufacturing sector.39

One area of particularly sustained government activity was the grain economy. Grain was the most fundamental of all products – it accounted for the lion’s share of economic transactions and for the greater part of what most people bought and consumed in their daily lives. The king’s policy on grain was based on two objectives. The first was to protect Brandenburg-Prussia’s grain growers and traders from foreign imports – the main concern here was the grain produced on Polish estates, which was of excellent quality and less expensive.40 The means adopted to achieve this were high tariffs and the prevention of smuggling. How successful the authorities were in stemming the flow of illegal grain is difficult to say. The records indicate numerous prosecutions, some of small dealers, such as groups of Polish peasants attempting to pass as subjects of the Mark and carrying a few bushels of contraband grain, as well as of more sophisticated operators, like the team of Mecklenburg smugglers who tried to sneak thirteen wagonloads of grain into the Uckermark in 1740.41

In order to prevent poor harvests from driving grain prices up to the point where they undermined the viability of the urban manufacturing and commercial economies, Frederick William also expanded the network of grain magazines that the Great Elector had used to provision his standing army. These magazines had been retained during the reign of Frederick I, but they were poorly managed and far too small to cope with the needs of the civilian economy, as the disaster of 1709–10 revealed. Starting in the early 1720s, Frederick William set about establishing a system of large dual-purpose magazines (twenty-one in all) that would serve the needs of his army but also perform an important role in stabilizing the domestic grain market. The provincial commissariats and chambers were instructed to hold the price of grain as steady as possible, by purchasing stocks when prices were low and selling them off in times of dearth. The new system was to prove its worth in 1734–7 and again in 1739, when the social and economic impact of a succession of poor harvests was buffered by the sale of low-priced government grain. One of the last orders issued by the king was an instruction to the General Directory dated 31 May 1740, the day of his death, stipulating that the grain magazines of Berlin, Wesel, Stettin and Minden were to be filled again before the onset of the coming winter.42

There were, of course, limits to Frederick William’s economic achievement and blind spots in his vision. He shared the widespread contemporary mercantilist preference for regulation and control. There is a clear contrast with the more trade-oriented policies of the Great Elector, who had acquired the colony of Gross Friedrichsburg on the west coast of Africa in the hope that this would open the door to an expansion of colonial commerce. Frederick I had kept up the ailing colony for sentimental reasons, but Frederick William sold it off to the Dutch in 1721, saying he had ‘always regarded this trading nonsense as a chimera’.43 On the domestic front there was a similar disregard for the importance of exchange and infrastructure. Frederick William never seriously tackled the problem of market integration within his territories. Work on the construction of a canal between the Oder and the Elbe accelerated during his reign, a more uniform system of grain measurement was introduced, and there was some reduction – against local protests – of internal tolls. Yet numerous obstacles remained to hinder the movement of goods across the Hohenzollern lands. Even within Brandenburg, tolls continued to be levied on the inner provincial borders. Little effort was made to integrate the outlying territories to the east and west, which were treated in economic terms as if they were foreign principalities. Brandenburg-Prussia was still worlds away from constituting an integrated domestic market when the king died in 1740.44

Under Frederick William, the confrontation between an increasingly confident monarchy and the holders of traditional power entered its administrative phase. By contrast with his predecessors, Frederick William refused at the time of his accession to sign the traditional ‘concessions’ to the provincial nobilities. There were no theatrical set-tos in the diets (which in any case became much rarer in most areas during his reign). Instead the traditional privileges of the nobilities were whittled away by successive incremental measures. The time-honoured tax immunities of the landed nobility were curtailed, as we have seen; organs that had previously answered to local interests were gradually subordinated to the authority of the central administration; the freedom of noblemen to travel for leisure or study was cut back so that the provincial elites in Brandenburg-Prussia were slowly detached from the cosmopolitan networks of the Holy Roman Empire.

This was not merely a by-product of the process of centralization; the king was quite explicit about the need to diminish the standing of the nobility and clearly saw himself as furthering the historical project inaugurated by his grandfather, the Great Elector. ‘As far as the nobility is concerned,’ he once remarked in relation to East Prussia, ‘it previously had great privileges, which the Elector Frederick William broke through his sovereignty, and I have now brought them entirely into subordination [Gehorsahm ] through the General Hide Tax of 1715.’45 The central administration he built up to achieve his objectives was deliberately stocked with commoners (who were generally ennobled for their services), so that there would never be any question of corporate solidarity with the noble interest.46 Yet, oddly enough, Frederick William always succeeded in finding talented noblemen – like Truchsess von Waldburg – willing to assist him in implementing his policies, even at the cost of their corporate comrades. The motivations behind such collaboration are not always clear; some were simply won over to the monarch’s administrative vision, others may have been motivated by disaffection with the corporate provincial milieu, or joined the administration because they needed the salary. The provincial nobilities were far from monolithic; factional and family rivalries were common and local interest conflicts often overrode more general concerns. Recognizing this, Frederick William avoided categorical judgements. ‘You must be obliging and gracious with the entire nobility from all provinces,’ he advised his successor in the Instruction of 1722, ‘and give preference to the good ones over the bad and reward the loyal ones.’47


Your Excellency will already know [… ] of the Resolution the new King has taken of increasing his army to 50,000 men. [… ] When the state of war [i.e. military budget] was laid before him, he writt in the margen these words, I will augment my Forces to the number of 50,000 men which ought not to allarme any person whatsoever, since my only pleasure is my Army.48

When Frederick William came to the throne, the Prussian army numbered 40,000 men. By 1740, when he died, it had increased in size to over 80,000, so that Brandenburg-Prussia boasted a military establishment that seemed to contemporaries quite out of proportion to its population and economic capabilities. The king justified the immense costs involved by arguing that only a well-trained and independently financed fighting force would provide him with the autonomy in international affairs that had been denied to his father and grandfather.

Yet there is also a sense in which the army was an end in itself, an intuition reinforced by the fact that Frederick William remained reluctant throughout his reign to deploy his army in support of any foreign-political objective. Frederick William was powerfully attracted to the orderliness of the military; he himself regularly wore the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant or captain from the mid-1720s onward and he could conceive of nothing more pleasing to the eye than the sight of uniformed men moving in ever changing symmetries across a parade square (indeed he flattened a number of royal pleasure gardens in order to convert them for this purpose and tried where possible to work in rooms from which drilling exercises could be viewed). One of the few indulgences in wasteful ostentation he allowed himself was the creation of a regiment of exceptionally tall soldiers (affectionately known as ‘lange Kerls’ or ‘tall lads’) at Potsdam. Immense sums were squandered on the recruitment from all over Europe of these abnormally tall men, some of whom were partially disabled by their condition and thus physically unfit for real military service. Their likenesses were memorialized in individual full-length oil portraits commissioned by the king; executed in a primitive realist style, they show towering men with hands like dinner plates plinthed on black leather shoes the size of plough shares. The army was, of course, an instrument of policy, but it was also the human and institutional expression of this monarch’s view of the world. As an orderly, hierarchical, masculine system in which individual interests and identities were subordinated to those of the collective, the king’s authority was unchallenged, and differences in rank were functional rather than corporate or decorative, it came close to actualizing his vision of an ideal society.


9. Portrait of Grenadier James Kirkland, soldier in the Royal Guard of King Frederick William I, painted by Johann Christof Merk, c. 1714

Frederick William’s interest in military reform predated his accession to the throne. We see it in a set of guidelines that the nineteen-year-old crown prince proposed to the Council of War in 1707. The calibres of all infantry guns should be the same, he argued, so that standard-issue shot could be used for all types; all units should employ the same design of bayonet; the men in each regiment should wear identical daggers on a model to be determined by the commanding officer; even the cartridge pouches were to be furnished according to a single design, with identical straps.49 One of his important early innovations as a military commander was the introduction within his own regiment of a new and more rigorous form of parade drill intended to heighten the manoeuvrability of unwieldy masses of troops across difficult terrain and to ensure that firepower could be delivered consistently and to the greatest effect. After 1709, when Frederick William witnessed Prussian troops in action at the Battle of Malplaquet during the War of the Spanish Succession, the new drill was gradually extended through the Brandenburg-Prussian forces as a whole.50

The king’s chief preoccupation during the early years of the reign was simply to increase the number of troops in service as fast as possible. At first, this was accomplished largely through forced recruitments. The responsibility for raising troops was transferred from the civil authorities to the local regimental commanders. Operating virtually without restraint, the recruiting officer became a figure of fear and hatred, especially among the rural and small-town population, where he prowled in search of tall peasants and burly journeymen. Forced recruitments often involved bloodshed. In some cases, prospective recruits even died at the hands of their captors. Complaints poured in from the localities.51 In fact so dramatic was the first phase of forced recruitments that it prompted a wave of panic. ‘[His Majesty] makes use of such hasty means in levying of [his troops] as if he was in some very great danger,’ wrote William Breton, the British envoy, on 18 March 1713, scarcely three weeks after the new king’s accession, ‘that the peasants are forced into the service and tradesmen’s sons taken out of their shops very frequently. If this method continues, we shall not long have any market here, and many people will save themselves out of his Dominions…’52

Faced with the mayhem generated by forced recruiting, the king changed tack and put an end to the practice inside his territories.53 In its place he established the sophisticated conscription mechanism that would come to be known as the ‘canton system’. An order of May 1714 declared that the obligation to serve in the king’s army was incumbent upon all men of serving age and that anyone fleeing the country in order to avoid this duty would be punished as a deserter. Further orders assigned a specific district (canton) to each regiment, within which all the unmarried young men of serving age were enrolled (enrolliert) on the regimental lists. Voluntary enlistments to each regiment could then be supplemented from enrolled local conscripts. Finally, a system of furloughs was developed that allowed the enlisted men to be released back into their communities after completion of their basic training. They could then be kept on until retiring age as reservists who were obliged to complete a stint of refresher training for two to three months each year, but were otherwise free (except in time of war) to return to their peacetime professions. In order to soften further the impact of conscription on the economy, various classes of individual were exempted from service, including peasants who owned and ran their own farms, artisans and workers in various trades and industries thought to be of value to the state, government employees and various others.54

The cumulative result of these innovations was an entirely new military system that could provide the Brandenburg-Prussian Crown with a large and well-trained territorial force without seriously disrupting the civilian economy. This meant that at a time when most European armies still relied heavily on foreign conscripts and mercenaries, Brandenburg-Prussia could raise two-thirds of its troops from territorial subjects. This was the system that enabled the state to muster the fourth largest army in Europe, although it ranked only tenth and thirteenth in terms of territory and population respectively. It is no exaggeration to say that the power-political exploits of Frederick the Great would have been inconceivable without the military instrument fashioned by his father.

If the canton system provided the state with a greatly enhanced external striking power, it also had far-reaching social and cultural consequences. No organization did more to bring the nobility into subordination than the reorganized Brandenburg-Prussian army. Early in the reign, Frederick William had prohibited members of the provincial nobilities from entering foreign service, or indeed even from leaving his lands without prior permission, and had a list drawn up of all the sons of noble families aged between twelve and eighteen years. From this list a cohort of boys was selected for training in the cadet school recently established in Berlin (in the premises of the academy where Gundling had once worked as professor). The king persevered with this policy of elite conscription despite bitter protests and attempts at evasion by some noble families. It was not unknown for young noblemen from recalcitrant households to be rounded up and marched off to Berlin under guard. In 1738, Frederick William inaugurated an annual survey of all young noblemen who were not yet in his service; in the following year he instructed the district commissioners to inspect the noble sons of their districts, identify those who were ‘good looking, healthy and possess straight limbs’ and send an appropriate annual contingent for enlistment in the Berlin cadet corps.55 By the mid-1720s there were virtually no noble families in the Hohenzollern lands without at least one son in the officer corps.56

We should not see this process simply as something that was unilaterally forced upon the nobility – the policy succeeded because it offered something of value, the prospect of a salary that would assure a higher standard of living than many noble households could otherwise afford, an intimate association with the majesty and authority of the throne, and the status attaching to an honourable calling with aristocratic historical connotations. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the establishment of the canton system represented a caesura in the relationship between the crown and the nobilities. The human potential locked within the noble landed estate was now placed even more securely within the state’s reach and the nobility began its gradual transformation into a service caste. Samuel Benedikt Carsted, pastor of Atzendorf in the Duchy of Magdeburg and sometime field chaplain in the Brandenburg-Prussian army, was thus right when he observed that the canton system constituted ‘the final proof that King Frederick William had acquired the most comprehensive sovereignty’.57

An influential view has it that the cantonal regime created a sociomilitary system in which the hierarchical structures of the conscript army and those of the noble landed estate merged seamlessly to become one all-powerful instrument of domination. According to this view, the regiment became a kind of armed version of the estate, in which the noble lord served as the commanding officer and his subject peasants as the troops. The result was a far-reaching militarization of Brandenburg-Prussian society, as the traditional rural structures of social domination and disciplining were permeated with military values.58

Reality was more complex. Examples of noble landlords who were also local commanders are very rare; they were the exception rather than the rule. Military service was not popular among peasant families, who resented the loss of labour that occurred when young men were taken away for basic training.59 Local records from the Prignitz (to the north-east of Berlin) suggest that the evasion of military service by flight across Brandenburg’s borders into neighbouring Mecklenburg was commonplace. In order to escape service, men were prepared to resort to desperate measures – even professing their willingness to marry the women in their villages upon whom they had fathered illegitimate children – and they were sometimes supported in these efforts by noble landowners. Moreover, far from bringing a mood of submission and obedience to the estate community, the active and inactive duty soldiers were often a disruptive element, prone to exploit their military exemption from local jurisdiction against the village authorities.60

Relations between local communities and the military were beset with tension. There were numerous complaints about the tyrannical behaviour of regimental officers: exemptions were sometimes disregarded by the officers who came to ‘collect’ recruits, reservists were called up during the harvest season despite regulations to the contrary, and money was extorted in bribes from peasants seeking marriage permits from their local commanders (in some areas this latter problem was so pronounced that there was an appreciable rise in the rate of illegitimate births).61 There were also complaints from the landlords of noble estates, who naturally resented any unwarranted meddling in the affairs of the peasants who constituted their workforce.

Despite these problems, a kind of symbiosis developed between regiments and communities. Although only a fraction of the eligible male population (about one-seventh) was actually called up, nearly all the men in rural communities were listed on the regimental rolls; in this sense, the cantonal system was based upon the principle (though not the practice) of universal conscription. Exemptions came into play only once the enrolments had taken place. All reservists were required to wear their full uniforms in church and they were thus an ever-present reminder of the proximity of the military; it was not unknown for enlisted men to gather voluntarily in town and village squares in order to practise their drilling. The pride that many men felt in their military status may have been sharpened by the fact that the exemption system tended to concentrate enrolments among the less well-off, so that there was a tendency for the sons of landless rural labourers to serve while those of the prosperous peasants did not. Soldiers and reservists thus gradually came to constitute a highly visible social group within the village, not only because the uniform and a certain (affected) military bearing became crucial to their sense of importance and personal worth, but also because the conscripts tended to be drawn from among the tallest of each age group. Boys shorter than 169 cm were sometimes called up for service as porters and baggage handlers, but, for most, diminutive stature was a free ticket out of military service.62

Did the canton system heighten morale and cohesion within serving regiments? Frederick the Great, who knew the Prussian army as well as anyone and observed the canton system at work during three exhausting wars, believed that it did. In his History of My Own Times, completed in the summer of 1775, he wrote that the native Prussian cantonists serving in each company of the army ‘come from the same region. Many in fact know or are related with one another. [… ] The cantons spur on competition and bravery, and relatives and friends are not apt to abandon each other in battle.’63


If we survey the inner history of the Hohenzollern dynasty after the Thirty Years War, two contradictory features attract our attention. The first is the remarkable consistency of political will from each generation to the next. Between 1640 and 1797, there was not a single reign in which territorial gains were not realized. As the political testaments of the Great Elector, Frederick I, Frederick William I and Frederick the Great show, these monarchs saw themselves as involved in a cumulative historical project, each new ruler accepting as his own the unfulfilled objectives of his predecessors. Hence the consistency of intention that can be observed in the pattern of Brandenburg’s expansion and the long memory of this dynasty, its capacity to recall and reactivate old claims whenever the time seemed right.

Yet this apparently seamless continuity between generations belied a reality of recurrent conflict between fathers and sons. This problem arose in the 1630s towards the end of Elector George William’s reign, when the crown prince, Frederick William (the future Great Elector), refused to return from the Dutch Republic, for fear that his father was planning to marry him off to an Austrian princess. He even came to believe that Count Schwarzenberg, George William’s most powerful minister, was plotting his death. The crown prince did eventually rejoin his father at Königsberg in 1638, but the damage done to their relationship was never repaired and George William made no effort to involve his son in affairs of state, treating him instead as a complete stranger. In his Political Testament for his successor the Great Elector later wrote that his own government ‘would not have been so difficult at the beginning’, if he had not been frozen out in this way by his father.64

The wisdom of experience did not suffice to prevent similar tensions arising at the end of the Great Elector’s reign. The Great Elector had never been very impressed by Crown Prince Frederick – his favourite was the older brother Charles Emmanuel, who died of dysentery during the French campaign of 1674–5. Whereas Charles Emmanuel was a talented and charismatic figure with a natural aptitude for the military life, Frederick was highly strung, sensitive and partially disabled by a childhood injury. ‘My son is good for nothing,’ the Elector told a foreign envoy in 1681, when Frederick was a married man of twenty-four.65 The relationship was further complicated by the coldness and mutual distrust between Frederick and the Elector’s second wife, Dorothea of Holstein. Frederick had been his own mother’s favourite child, but, after her death, his stepmother had borne the Elector another seven children and naturally tended to favour these over the offspring of her husband’s first marriage. It was under pressure from Dorothea that the Great Elector agreed to provide for his younger sons through the testamentary partition of his lands, a decision that was concealed from Frederick and that he successfully countermanded after his accession.

The last decade of the Great Elector’s life was thus soured by an increasingly tense family situation. A low point was reached in 1687, when Frederick’s younger brother died unexpectedly after a bout of scarlet fever. Suspicion now deepened into outright paranoia: Frederick believed that his brother had been poisoned as part of a plot to open the way to the throne for the eldest son of the second marriage, and that he himself would be the next victim. He was suffering from frequent stomach pains at this time, probably because of the many dubious powders and potions he was taking to ward off the effects of poison. As the court seethed with rumour and counter-rumour, he fled to the home of his wife’s family in Hanover and refused to return to Berlin, saying that ‘it was not safe for him to be there, since it plainly appeared that his brother had been poisoned.’ The Great Elector was furious and announced that he would cut the crown prince out of the succession. Not until Emperor Leopold and William III of England intervened did it prove possible to reconcile the two men, only months before the father’s death.66 Needless to say, it was quite impossible under these conditions to provide the crown prince with a proper induction into the affairs of state.

Frederick III, later crowned King Frederick I, was determined not to repeat the errors of his predecessors and went to great pains to provide his heir both with the fullest possible training in government and with a quasi-independent sphere of action in which to develop his capacities. As a teenager, he was thoroughly inducted into all the main branches of government. The youthful Frederick William was a difficult, obstreperous child who drove his teachers to distraction (it was said of his long-suffering tutor, Jean Philippe Rebeur, that he would have been happier as a galley slave than as Frederick William’s tutor), but he was always fastidiously respectful in his bearing towards his father. In this case, it was the crisis of 1709–10 that placed the relationship under strain, by bringing the crown prince into open opposition to the ineptitude and mismanagement of his father’s ministerial favourites. Frederick, amiable to the last, avoided an irreparable break by backing down and allowing power to pass to his son. In the last few years of his reign we can speak of a co-regency of father and son. Yet this conciliatory approach did not weaken Frederick William’s resolve after his accession to erase every last trace of the exuberant baroque political culture his father had created. Many of the great administrative enterprises of Frederick William’s reign – from the re-establishment of East Prussia to the purging of corruption and the expansion of the magazine system – can be understood as a reply to the perceived shortcomings of his father’s rule.

The cold war that seethed between Frederick William and his own teenage son, the future Frederick the Great, puts all these earlier conflicts in the shade. Never had the struggle between father and son been waged with such emotional and psychological intensity. The roots of the conflict can be traced in part to Frederick William’s profoundly authoritarian temperament. Since he himself had always been scrupulously respectful in his dealings with his father, even when he was forced by circumstance to join the opposition party, he was completely unable to understand any form of insubordination from his heir. Coupled with this was a conceptual and emotional inability to detach his own person from the administrative achievements of his reign, so that any failure of deference appeared to place his historical accomplishment, and the very state itself, in jeopardy. It seemed to him that the work he had laboured so hard to complete must collapse if the successor did not share ‘his belief, his thoughts, his likes and dislikes, in short, if the successor were not his mirror-image’.67 It became clear early in Frederick’s life that he would not fulfil these exacting designs. He showed little in the way of soldierly aptitude – he often fell from his horse and was frightened of shooting. His posture and comportment were languid, his hair messy, he slept late, enjoyed being alone and was often to be found reading novels in the rooms of his mother and sister. Whereas Frederick William had been frank, even brutally honest, even as a small boy, Frederick was oblique, ironic, as if he had already learned to hide his true nature from the hostile eyes of his father. ‘I would like to know what is going on in this little head,’ the king remarked in 1724, when Frederick was twelve years old. ‘I know for sure that he does not think as I do.’68

Frederick William’s solution was to step up the pressure on the crown prince by subjecting him to a gruelling routine of daily chores – military reviews, inspection tours, council meetings – all timetabled to the very last minute. In a letter written when Frederick was in his fourteenth year, the imperial ambassador, Count Friedrich Heinrich von Seckendorff, observed that ‘the crown prince, despite his young years, looks as elderly and stiff as if he had already served on many campaigns.’69 But as even Seckendorff could tell, these measures were unlikely to have the desired effect. Instead they merely hardened and deepened Frederick’s opposition. He became an adept at resisting his father’s will by a kind of sly civility. When the king asked him at a review of the Magdeburg regiments in the summer of 1725 why he was so often late in arriving, Frederick, who had slept in, replied that he needed time to pray after he had dressed. The king answered that the prince could just as well say his morning prayers while he was being dressed, to which the boy replied: ‘His Majesty will surely allow that one cannot pray properly if one is not alone, and that one must set aside a time specifically for praying. In such matters one must obey God rather than men.’70

By the time he was sixteen (in 1728), the prince was leading a double life. He conformed outwardly to the hard regime imposed by his father and fulfilled his duties, adopting a cold, impenetrable countenance whenever he was not among intimates. In secret, he began playing the flute, composing verse and accumulating debts. Through the good offices of his Huguenot instructor Duhan, he acquired a library of works in French reflecting a secular, enlightened, philosophical literary taste that was the diametrical antipode of his father’s world. Sensing that his son was drifting away from him, Frederick William became increasingly violent. He frequently slapped, cuffed and humiliated the prince in public; after one particularly savage beating he is reported to have shouted at the crown prince that he would have shot himself if his father had mistreated him thus.71

In the late 1720s, the deepening antipathy between father and son acquired a political dimension. In 1725–7, Frederick William and his Hanoverian wife Sophie Dorothea had been involved in negotiations over the possible double marriage of Frederick and his sister Wilhelmine to the English Princess Amalia and the Prince of Wales respectively. Fearing that this alliance would create a western bloc that could threaten Habsburg interests, the imperial court pressured Berlin to withdraw from the double marriage. An imperial faction formed in Berlin, centred on the imperial ambassador Seckendorff and the king’s trusted minister General Friedrich Wilhelm von Grumbkow, who appears to have been taking hefty bribes from Vienna.

Opposing the machinations of this faction was the queen, Sophie Dorothea, who saw in the double marriage a chance to pursue the interests both of her children and of her dynasty, the Guelph House of Hanover and Great Britain. The passion, bordering on desperation, with which she pursued this project doubtless reflected years of accumulated frustration at a court where the room for political action by women had been radically curtailed.

As the web of intrigues spun by English, Austrian, Prussian and Hanoverian diplomacy thickened, the Berlin court polarized around the two factions. The king, fearing a break with Vienna, withdrew his support for his son’s marriage and sided with Grumbkow and Seckendorff against his own wife, while the crown prince was drawn ever more deeply into his mother’s designs and became an active supporter of the English marriage. Predictably, it was the will of the king that prevailed and the double marriage was abandoned. There were parallels here with the last years of Elector George William in the 1630s, when the crown prince (and future Great Elector) had refused to return to Berlin for fear that his father and his chief minister (Count Schwarzenberg) would marry him off to an Austrian princess.

The struggle over the ‘English marriage’ set the context for Frederick’s attempted flight from Brandenburg-Prussia in August 1730, one of the most dramatic and memorable episodes in the history of the dynasty. The crown prince was not motivated by political outrage or by personal disappointment at the evaporation of his marriage to Princess Amalia, whom he had never met. It was rather that the struggles and intrigues of 1729–30 brought to boiling point his frustration and resentment at the treatment his father had meted out to him over the past years. Frederick planned his escape during the spring and early summer of 1730. His chief collaborator was a twenty-six-year-old officer by the name of Hans Hermann von Katte from the Royal Gensdarmes Regiment, a clever, cultivated man who took an interest in painting and music and had become Frederick’s closest friend – a contemporary memoir reports that they ‘carried on’ together ‘like a lover with his mistress’.72 It was Katte who helped Frederick make most of the practical preparations for departure. The flight itself was a non-starter. Frederick and Katte went about their business with a carelessness that soon aroused suspicion. The king put the prince’s tutors and servants on alert and had him watched day and night. Katte had planned to use recruitment leave from his regiment in order to flee with the prince, but his permission was withdrawn at the last minute, possibly because the king had become aware of his involvement. Frederick, who was accompanying his father on a journey into southern Germany, chose at the last minute to go ahead with the plan none the less – a decision whose recklessness conveys something of the extremity of his predicament. In the small hours of the night of 4 – 5 August, he slipped away from his encampment near the village of Steinsfurt. A servant who had seen him leave raised the alarm and he was easily captured. His father was informed on the following morning.

Frederick William ordered that his son be carted to the fortress at Küstrin, the stronghold where the Great Elector had spent his childhood during the bleakest years of the Thirty Years War. Here he was confined to a dungeon cell and forced to wear the brown habit of a convict; the guards appointed to watch over him were forbidden to answer any questions from the prisoner and the little tallow light he was given to read his Bible by was extinguished each evening at seven.73 In the course of the investigation that followed, the prince was subjected to a detailed inquisition. Christian Otto Mylius, Auditor-General and the official entrusted with conducting the proceedings, was given a list of more than 180 questions to put to the prince. They included the following:

179: What does he consider to be a fit punishment for his action?

180: What does a person who brings dishonour upon himself and plots desertion deserve?

183: Does he consider that he still deserves to become king?

184: Does he wish his life to be spared or not?

185: Since, in saving his life, he would ipso facto lose his honour, and, in effect, be disqualified from succeeding [to the throne], would he thus stand down in order to save his life, and renounce his right to the throne in such a manner that this could be confirmed by the entire Holy Roman Empire?74

The haranguing, anguished, obsessive tone of these questions and the implicit references to the death penalty convey a clear sense of the king’s state of mind. To a man obsessed with control, such direct insubordination seemed the greatest abomination. There is no reason to doubt that at times the execution of his son appeared to the king to be the only possible course of action. Frederick’s answers to his inquisitors were entirely in character. To question 184 he replied only that he submitted himself to the king’s will and mercy. To question 185 he answered that ‘his life was not so dear to him, but His Royal Highness would surely not be so harsh in his treatment of him.’75 What is remarkable here is the level of self-restraint that the prince’s deft answers display, despite the terror that he must have been feeling at this time, when his future was still so uncertain.

While Frederick’s fate remained undecided, the king vented his rage on the prince’s friends and collaborators. Two of his closest military companions, the subalterns Spaen and Ingersleben, were thrown into gaol. Doris Ritter, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a Potsdam burgher with whom Frederick had engaged in some tentative adolescent flirtation, was whipped through the streets of Potsdam by the hangman and incarcerated in the workhouse at Spandau, where she remained until her release in 1733. But it was Hans Hermann von Katte who bore the brunt of the king’s fury. His fate entered the realm of legend and came to occupy a unique place in the historical imagination of Brandenburg. The special military court convened to try the conspirators found it difficult to agree on an appropriate sentence for Katte and eventually decided by a majority of one to impose life imprisonment. Frederick William overturned this verdict and demanded the death sentence. He set out his reasons in an order of 1 November 1730. As he saw it, Katte, in planning to desert from a royal elite regiment and assisting the heir to the throne in an act of high treason, had committed the worst possible kind of lèse-majesté . He thus deserved the cruellest form of execution, namely tearing of the limbs with hot irons followed by hanging. In consideration of his family, however, the king was willing to commute this sentence to simple decapitation – to be carried out on 6 November in the fortress of Küstrin, in view of the crown prince’s cell.

Katte appears to have believed that the king would ultimately show mercy. He composed a letter to Frederick William acknowledging his misdeeds, promising to dedicate the rest of his life to loyal service, and begging for clemency. The letter remained unanswered. On 3 November, a detachment of guards under the command of a Major von Schack arrived to transfer the delinquent in thirty-kilometre relays to Küstrin. During this journey, von Schack recalled that Katte expressed the desire to write to his father (also serving in the king’s army), ‘upon whom he had brought such misery’. Permission was given and Katte was left alone to begin writing. But when Schack entered the chamber some time later, he found the prisoner pacing up and down and lamenting that ‘it was so difficult and he could make no beginning for sorrow.’ After some calming words from the major, Katte composed a letter that opened with the following words:

I could dissolve in tears, my father, when I think that this letter will cause you the greatest sorrow that the heart of a father can feel; that your hopes for my well-being in this world and your comfort in old age must vanish for ever, [… ] that I must fall in the springtime of my years, without having borne the fruits of your efforts…76

Katte spent the night before the execution in the fortress at Küstrin, attended by preachers and friends from among his fellow officers, singing hymns and praying. His cheerful demeanour gave way at around three o’clock, when a witness reported that one could see that ‘a hard struggle of the flesh and the blood was underway.’ But after sleeping for two hours he awoke refreshed and strengthened. At seven o’clock on the morning of 6 November, he was led by a detachment of guards from his room to the place of execution, where a small mound of sand had been prepared. According to the garrison preacher Besser, who was entrusted with supporting Katte on his way to execution, there was a brief last-minute exchange between the condemned man and the prince, who could be seen watching the proceedings from his cell window:

At last, after much searching and looking about, he caught sight of his beloved [companion], His Royal Highness and Crown Prince, at the window of the castle, from whom he took leave with some courteous and friendly words spoken in French, with not a little sorrow. [After hearing the sentence read aloud and removing his jacket, wig and necktie] he knelt on the mound of sand and cried: ‘Jesus accept my spirit!’ And as he commended his soul in this manner to the hands of his Father, the redeemed head was severed from the body by a well-aimed blow from the hand and sword of the executioner Coblentz [… ]. There was nothing further to see but some quivering caused by the fresh blood and life in the body.77

In executing Katte, Frederick William had also found an exquisitely potent punishment for his son. On learning of Katte’s impending fate, Frederick begged the king to allow him to renounce the throne or even to substitute his life for that of the condemned man. The prince was sentenced to watch the execution from the window of his cell; his guards were ordered to hold his face to the bars so that nothing would be missed. Katte’s body, with the separated head, were to be left where they fell until two o’clock in the afternoon.78

Katte’s death was the turning point in Frederick’s fortunes. His father’s rage began to cool and he turned his mind to the question of his son’s rehabilitation. Over the months and years that followed, the constraints on Frederick’s freedom were gradually removed, and he was allowed to leave the fortress and take up residence in the town of Küstrin, where he attended meetings of the city’s Wars and Domains Chamber, the local branch office, as it were, of the General Directory. For Frederick there now began a period of outward reconciliation with the hard regime of his father. He took on the subdued comportment of the sincere penitent, endured the monotony of life in the garrison town of Küstrin without complaint and conscientiously performed his administrative duties, acquiring useful knowledge in the process. Most importantly, he resigned himself to accepting the marriage proposed for him by his father with Princess Elisabeth Christina of Brunswick-Bevern, a cousin of the Habsburg Empress. Her choice as bride represented a clear victory for the imperial interest over the party that had favoured the English marriage.


10. Crown Prince Frederick greets Katte through the window of his cell. Engraving by Daniel Chodowiecki.

Was this episode in Frederick’s life a trauma that transformed the prince’s personality? He had fainted into the arms of his guards before the moment of Katte’s decapitation in Küstrin and remained in a state of extreme terror and mental anguish for some days, partly because he initially believed that his own execution was still imminent. Did the events of 1730 forge a new and artificial persona, acerbic and hard, remote from others, locked within the nautilus shell of a convoluted nature? Or did they merely deepen and confirm a tendency towards self-concealment and dissimulation that was already well developed in the adolescent prince? The question is ultimately unanswerable.

What does seem certain is that the crisis had important implications for the prince’s developing conception of foreign policy. The Austrians were closely involved not only in masterminding the collapse of the English marriage, but also in managing the crisis that broke out following Frederick’s attempted flight. It is an indication of how deeply imperial and Brandenburg-Prussian court politics were interwoven during the reign of Frederick William I that the first draft of the document setting out a ‘policy’ for disciplining and rehabilitating the errant prince was submitted to the king by the imperial envoy, Count Seckendorff. The woman Frederick was ultimately forced to marry was effectively the Austrian candidate. ‘If I am forced into marriage with her,’ he warned the minister Friedrich Wilhelm von Grumbkow in 1732, ‘she will be rejected [elle sera repudiée ].’79Frederick would hold to this resolution after his accession in 1740, consigning Elisabeth Christina of Brunswick-Bevern to a twilight existence on the margins of public life.

Austria’s imperial tutelage over the Brandenburg-Prussian court was thus both a political and a personal reality for Frederick. The crisis of 1730 and its aftermath amplified the prince’s distrust of the Austrians and reinforced his cultural and political attachment to France, Vienna’s traditional enemy in the west. Indeed, it was Frederick William’s own growing frustration with Austrian policy during the 1730s (to which we shall later return) that opened the door to a fuller reconciliation between father and son.80


The Prussian historian Otto Hintze observed in his classic chronicle of the Hohenzollern dynasty that the reign of Frederick William I marked ‘the perfection of absolutism’.81 By this he meant that it was Frederick William who succeeded in neutralizing the power of the provincial and local elites and welding the diverse lands of the Hohenzollern patrimony into the centralized structures of a single state ruled from Berlin. As we have seen, there is something to be said for this view. Frederick William endeavoured to concentrate power in the central administration. He aimed at the subordination of the nobilities through military service, the equalization of tax burdens, the purchase of formerly noble land and the imposition of new provincial administrative bodies answerable to the officials in Berlin. He enhanced the capacity of the administration to intervene in the velleities of the grain market.

It is important, however, not to assign disproportionate significance to these developments. The ‘state’, such as it was, remained small. The central administration – including royal officials in the provinces – counted in total no more than a few hundred men.82 A governmental infrastructure had scarcely begun to emerge. Communications between the government and many local communities remained slow and unpredictable. Official documents passed to their destinations through the hands of pastors, vergers, innkeepers and school children who happened by. An investigation of 1760 in the principality of Minden revealed that it took up to ten days for official circulars and other important documents to cover the few kilometres between neighbouring districts. Government communications were often sent in the first instance to taverns, where they were opened, passed around and read out over a glass of brandy, as a result of which they arrived at their ultimate destinations ‘so dirtied with grease, butter or tar that one shudders to touch them’.83 The days when an army of trained and disciplined postal and other local officials would penetrate the provincial districts of the Hohenzollern lands were still far in the future.

It was one thing to issue an edict from Berlin and another to implement it in the localities. An instructive case is the Schools Edict of 1717, a famous decree because it has often been seen as inaugurating a regime of universal elementary education in the Hohenzollern lands. This edict was not published in Magdeburg or Halberstadt, because the government agreed to defer to existing school regulations in these territories. Nor was it fully effective in the territories where it was published. In a ‘renewed edict’ of 1736, Frederick William I complained that ‘our salutary [earlier] edict has not been observed’, and a thorough survey of the relevant local records suggests that the edicts of 1717 and 1736 may have been completely unknown in many parts of the Hohenzollern lands.84

Brandenburg-Prussian ‘absolutism’ was thus no well-oiled machine capable of translating the monarch’s will into action at every tier of social organization. Nor had the instruments of local authority wielded by the local and provincial elites simply disappeared into the woodwork. A study of East Prussia, for example, has shown that local nobilities waged a ‘guerrilla war’ against encroachments by the central administration.85 The provincial Regierung in Königsberg continued to exercise independent authority in the territory and remained under the control of the local aristocracy. Only gradually did the king come to play a significant role in appointments to key local offices, such as the district captaincies (Amthauptleute). Nepotism and the sale of offices – both practices that tended to consolidate the influence of local elites – remained commonplace.86 A study of local appointments in East Prussia from the years 1713–23 showed that of those posts whose recruitment could be reconstructed from the records, only about one-fifth involved intervention by the king; the rest were recruited directly by the Regierung, although the proportion rose to nearly one-third in the following decade.87

So pervasive were the less conspicuous, in formal structures of elite influence in East Prussia that one scholar has written of the persistence of a ‘latent form of Estates government’.88 Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that the power of local elites over key administrative offices actually increased in some territories during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The Brandenburg nobility may have been largely excluded from an active role in the central administration during Frederick William’s reign, but in the longer term they more than made up for this lost ground by consolidating their control over local government. They retained the power, for example, to elect the local Landrat or district commissioner, a post of great importance, since it was he who negotiated taxation arrangements with the central authorities and oversaw the local allocation of tax burdens. Whereas Frederick William I had often rejected the candidates presented by the district assemblies of the nobility, Frederick II conceded their right to present a list of favoured candidates, from which the king would select his preferred incumbent.89 Efforts by Berlin officials to interfere in elections or to manipulate the behaviour of incumbents became increasingly rare.90 The government thus conceded a measure of control in order to secure the cooperation of local mediators enjoying the trust and support of the district elites.

The concentration of provincial authority achieved through this process of negotiated power-sharing was durable precisely because it was latent, informal. The persistence of provincial corporate power and solidarity helps in turn to explain why, after a long period of relative quiescence, the provincial nobilities were in such a strong position to challenge and resist government initiatives during the upheavals of the Napoleonic era. The emergent core bureaucracy of the Hohenzollern lands did not displace or neutralize the structures of local and provincial authority. Rather, it entered into a kind of cohabitation, confronting and disciplining local institutions when the fiscal and military prerogatives of the state were at stake, but otherwise letting well enough alone. This helps to explain the curious and apparently paradoxical fact that what is sometimes called the ‘rise of absolutism’ in Brandenburg-Prussia was accompanied by the consolidation of the traditional nobilities.91 In the eighteenth century, as in the era of the Great Elector, absolutism was not a zero-sum contest pitting the centre against the periphery, but rather the gradual and complementary concentration of different power structures.

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