The Changing Empire



THE Thirty Years’ War had cut the population of Germany from 20,000,000 to 13,500,000. The soil, fertilized by human blood, recovered in a year, but it waited for men. Of women there was an excess, of men a dearth. The triumphant princes met this biological crisis by a return to Biblical polygamy. At the Congress of Franconia, held in February, 1650, at Nuremberg, they adopted a resolution that

men under sixty years of age shall not be admitted to monasteries. . . . Priests and curates (if not ordained), and the canons of religious establishments, shall marry . . . Every male shall be allowed to marry two wives; and each and every male is earnestly reminded, and shall often be warned from the pulpit, to so comport himself in this matter. 1

Taxes were imposed upon unmarried women. 2 Soon the new births restored the approximate equality of the sexes, and wives insisted on whole husbands. Population rapidly recovered, and by 1700 Germany again had 20,000,000 souls. Magdeburg was rebuilt; Leipzig and Frankfurt-am-Main were reinvigorated by their fairs; Hamburg and Bremen emerged stronger than before. Industry and commerce, however, took over a hundred years to regain their sixteenth-century level. The Swedes and the Dutch controlled the mouths of the Oder, the Elbe, and the Rhine, and oceanic transport was leaving inland traffic relatively becalmed. The middle classes declined. The towns were now ruled not by businessmen but by the territorial princes or their appointees.

The war had ended in disaster for the Imperial Hapsburg power. France had humbled it, and had humbled the Empire’s ally, Spain. The German princes were now collectively stronger than the emperor. They had their own armies, courts, and coinage, determined their own foreign policies, formed their own alliances with non-German states, even against the Imperial interest. There were now some two hundred “temporal” principalities enjoying such independence; sixty-three ecclesiastical states ruled by Roman Catholic archbishops, bishops, or abbots; and fifty-one “free cities,” subject only to the emperor, and only formally to him. France rejoiced to see so many Germanies rather than one.

The margraviate of Brandenburg was the symbol of the Empire dying, of a new Germany taking form. There, far from the emperor, facing Sweden and an ocean of Slavs, the Hohenzollern family learned that their little state could survive only through its own resources and force. Back in the tenth century Henry the Fowler had established the “Northern Mark [i.e., frontier] of the Saxons” along the Elbe as a bulwark against the Slavic inundation. He wrested from the Slavic Wends their fortress and capital of Brennibor (from which the name Brandenburg was derived), and drove them back to the Oder. For centuries the territory between the Elbe and the Oder changed hands between the Germans and the Slavs. The margraviate came more actively into history when Frederick of Hohenzollern, in 1411–17, purchased it and its electoral vote in the Imperial Diet. From that time onward the house of Hohenzollern governed Brandenburg till it became Prussia, and Prussia till the abdication of William II in 1918. Rarely has a family been so long and so intimately associated with a state, or devoted itself so zealously and effectively to a nation’s prosperity and aggrandizement. Under the Elector John Sigismund (1608–19) Brandenburg acquired the duchy of Cleve in the west and the duchy of East Prussia in the east, so that the margraviate already presaged the kingdom of Prussia. One of the weakest members of the family was the Elector George William (1619–40), whose vacillations in the Thirty Years’ War led to the devastation of Brandenburg by Swedish troops. Villages and towns were deserted, Berlin was laid waste, industry almost disappeared; the population of the margraviate fell from 600,000 to 210,000. Inheriting this desolation (1640), Frederick William accomplished in his reign of forty-eight years such a miracle of restoration and development that even his contemporaries yielded him the name “Great Elector.” Without him Frederick the Great (as Frederick the Great admitted 3) would have been impossible.

He was twenty when he came to power—a handsome, black-haired, dark-eyed youth breaking authority. He had been reared in piety and discipline, and had completed his schooling at the University of Leiden. Anticipating Peter of Russia, he admired the Dutch people, their sturdy courage and industrious ways; later he brought in thousands of them to repopulate his man-hungry land. At the Peace of Westphalia he obtained eastern (Farther) Pomerania, the bishoprics of Minden and Halberstadt, and the right of succession to the important archbishopric of Magdeburg; this fell to him in 1680, and Frederick William ended his reign with a scattered realm already straining to be a kingdom. As early as 1654 his chief minister, Count George Frederick of Waldeck, proposed to unite all Germany under the Hohenzollern house. 4 Frederick William seemed the man to undertake this protective union. When Augustus the Strong of Saxony became a Catholic to be King of Poland, the road to Protestant leadership of Germany lay open—except for Swedish power.

For the treaties of 1648 had left some of the most strategic points in Germany under Swedish control, and Sweden claimed the leadership of Protestant Germany by right of its sacrifices and victories in the Thirty Years’ War. How could Brandenburg-Prussia, with its constituent parts hedged in by rival states from one end of Germany to the other, become strong enough to defend itself against domination by Sweden, or by a Saxony central and unified? Frederick William began with a plan and a will, which are the first principle of statesmanship; then, by taxes and French subsidies, he raised money, which is the second principle of statesmanship; then, with money, he organized an Army, which is the third principle of statesmanship. By 1656 he had the first standing army in Europe—eighteen thousand trained men permanently in arms. With this persuasive he induced his constituent states to pay an annual “contribution” to the central government at Berlin; with these revenues he became independent of the power of the purse in the provincial diets; and he achieved what appeared to him to be the only practical form of government in the existing stage of political and intellectual development—absolute and centralized rule. He exempted the nobles from direct taxation, but required their sons to serve him as Junker in the higher ranks of the army and the administration. These “juniors” at first resented such service; but he gave them splendid uniforms and social prominence, trained them in competence and pride, and developed in them an esprit de corpsthat replaced the feudal loyalties of the old regime and made the army serve not the landowners but the government. So began the military and social machine that enabled Frederick the Great to stand up against half of Europe, and that prepared Germany for the First World War.

One quality Frederick William did not have—the military genius of the Swedish kings. For twenty years he shifted his force from side to side in the conflicts of Sweden with Poland and of the Empire with France, barely preserving himself by diplomacy. But when Charles XI invaded Brandenburg, Frederick William’s army justified itself by defeating the Swedes at Fehrbellin (1675); it was this victory that won him the title of Great Elector. In the end, despite his fluctuating policies and narrow resources, he added forty thousand square miles to his state.

More important were his economic and adminstrative reforms. Under his urging the nobles improved agricultural methods, and expanded the yield, on their estates. He developed a prosperous silk industry by the extensive planting of mulberry trees. He reversed the trend to deforestation by requiring peasants to plant twelve trees before they married. He planned and financed the building of the Frederick William Canal to connect the Oder with the Spree. When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, the Great Elector issued an “Edict of Potsdam” (November, 1685), inviting the distressed Huguenots to come and settle in Brandenburg-Prussia; he sent agents to guide and finance their migration; 5 twenty thousand came, proved a spur to Prussian industry, and formed five regiments in the Prussian army. Frederick William himself, like his descendant Frederick the Great, labored assiduously in administration, and established the principle, later accepted by Peter of Russia and the “enlightened despots” of the eighteenth century, that the ruler should be the dedicated servant of the state. He recognized that religious intolerance was an obstacle to economic and political development; he distinguished himself in Germany by allowing his people to remain Lutheran while he himself remained Calvinist; and he gave religious freedom to Catholics, Unitarians, and Jews.

He died in 1688, aged sixty-eight. His will, dividing his several states among his sons, would have canceled the unifying effect of his rule, but his successor repudiated the document and maintained the central power. Frederick III earned the good will of the Emperor Leopold I by joining him against France; for this, and eight thousand soldiers, Leopold granted him the title of König in Preussen. He was crowned Frederick I at Königsberg on January 18, 1701, and Prussia began its career toward Bismarck and German unity.

It is a plume in Frederick’s record that he founded the University of Halle; another that he supported the efforts of his second wife to promote the intellectual graces in Berlin. Sophia Charlotte, daughter of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, was reputed to be the prettiest and wittiest woman in Germany. From her long stay in Paris she brought to the court of Berlin an attractive union of culture and charm. Urged on by her and Leibniz, Frederick established the Berlin Academy of Sciences, destined to make history under Frederick II. For her the Elector built (1696) the famous Schloss—castle or palace—in the suburb that took her name, Charlottenburg. To her salon in the Schloss Charlottenburg came scientists, philosophers, freethinkers, Jesuits, and Lutheran ministers; Charlotte loved to prod them into theological battles that sometimes lasted through the night. There her sister-in-law, Queen Caroline of England, drank in the learning and art that were to startle England. When Charlotte died (if we may believe her grandson Frederick the Great) she rejected both Catholic and Protestant offers of religious ministrations; she told the divines that she was dying in peace, and rather in curiosity than in hope or fear; now, she said, she would satisfy her inquisitiveness about the origin of things, “which even Leibniz could never explain to me”; and she consoled her ceremony-loving husband with the thought that her death would “afford him the opportunity of giving me a magnificent funeral.” 6 Sophia Charlotte was among the many women of character and education who adorned Germany as the seventeenth slipped into the eighteenth century.

The court of Berlin, among the more than three hundred that then consumed the revenues of the Empire, was rivaled only by the Saxon court at Dresden. Augustus the Strong, who ruled Saxony (1694–1733) as Elector Frederick Augustus I, bequeathed to Europe a bevy of bastards, among them the famous Maréchal de Saxe. He made his capital “the prettiest city in Germany,” 7 the center and pride of the minor arts; but the Saxons could not forgive him his change of faith, his use of their money and men in Poland’s wars, and the costly luxuries of his court.

The Electorate of Hanover contributed to history in this period by sheltering Leibniz and annexing England. In 1658 Sophia, the dethroned Princess Palatine, daughter of Elizabeth Stuart (Queen of Bohemia), married Ernest Augustus, who became Elector of Hanover. Her erudition discomfited her husband, for she spoke five languages with few interruptions, and knew more English history than the English ambassadors at her court. For a time she maintained at Hanover a salon of scholars and philosophers. But her consuming passion was to secure the throne of England for her son George; her blood tingled with royalty, for she never forgot that she was the granddaughter of James I. In 1701 the English Parliament, as we have seen, settled the succession to the throne upon Sophia and “the heirs of her body, being Protestant.” She contemplated with pleasure the future of her son as George I, but without pleasure the prospect of her daughter-in-law, Sophia Dorothea, as a queen; and she looked with equanimity upon the breakup of their marriage. George, suspecting his wife of adultery with Count Philipp von Königsmarck, had him killed, divorced Sophia Dorothea, and imprisoned her from 1694 till her death in 1726. Meanwhile the Electress Dowager died in June, 1714, aged eighty-four, just two months before the crown of England descended upon the head of her son. So the great god Chance, from his ubiquitous throne, shuffled the fates and states and men.

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