At the death of Frederick II the Great the kingdom of Prussia consisted of the electorate of Brandenburg; the duchies of Silesia and Farther Pomerania; the provinces of East Prussia—with Konigsberg, Friedland, and Memel—and West Prussia, taken from Poland in 1772; and divers enclaves in western Germany, including East Friesland, Münster, and Essen. After Frederick’s death Prussia added the region of Thorn and Danzig in the Second Partition of Poland (1792); Warsaw and the heart of Poland in the Third Partition (1795); Ansbach, Bayreuth, and Mansfeld in 1791; Neuchâtel, in Switzerland, in 1797. Prussia seemed resolved to absorb all northern Germany when Napoleon relieved her of the task.
The man who had made possible this expansion of Prussian power was the father of Frederick the Great. Frederick William I, besides disciplining his son and his people to bear suffering silently, had left him the best army in Christendom, and a nation tightly organized with universal education, universal taxation, and universal military service; Prussia had become a morsel fit for a martial king. All Europe, all Germany, all Prussia trembled at the sight of this man-eating monarch, with his domineering Junker officers, his six-foot grenadiers. “Don’t get tall,” a mother cautioned her son, “or the recruiters will get you.”8
To that army and state Frederick the Great (r. 1740–86) added a personal genius sharpened by Voltaire, and a stoicism rooted in his genes. He raised Prussia from a small kingdom rivaled by Saxony and Bavaria to a power equal to Austria in the German world, and standing as the strongest barrier to the persistent pressure of the fertile Slavs to reach again their old frontier on the Elbe. Internally he built a judiciary famous for its integrity, and a corps of administrators which gradually replaced the nobility as the officialdom of the state. He established freedom of speech, press, and worship, and under his protection “the German school system superseded the profound spiritual slumber of priestly education.”9 He was the one man of his time who could outwit Voltaire and teach Napoleon. “The great Frederick,” said Napoleon in 1797, “is the hero whom I love to consult in everything, in war and in administration; I have studied his principles in the midst of camps, and his familiar letters are for me lessons of philosophy.”10
There were some gaps in his achievement. He found no time, in his campaigns, to bring Prussian feudalism to the more humane level which it had reached in the Rhineland states; and his wars had left his people in a condition of poverty and exhaustion that were partly responsible for the decline of Prussia after his death. Frederick William II (r. 1786–97), reversing the tastes of his childless uncle, was fonder of women and art than of government and war. He supplemented his first wife with a mistress, who bore him five children; he divorced his wife in 1769, and married Friederike Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt, who bore him seven children; and during this marriage he persuaded his court preachers to let him contract morganatic unions with Julie von Voss (1787), who died two years later, and then Countess Sophie Dönhoff (1790), who bore him a son. He found time to play the violoncello, to welcome visits by Mozart and Beethoven, to establish a music academy and a national theater. He financed and promulgated (1794) a new law code containing many liberal elements. Taking a religious turn, he allowed his favorite, the reformed rationalist11 Johann von Wöllner, to issue (1788) a Religionsedikt ending religious toleration, and establishing a censorship that drove many writers from Berlin.
His foreign policy admits of defense. He refused to continue the aggressive stance of his predecessor; flouting a century of precedents, he sought friendship with Austria as a major step toward German unity and security. He did not like the French Revolution, being content with monarchy (so was his people), and he sent some troops to join in the defeat at Valmy (1792); but he was glad to bring their survivors home to help him in the Second Partition of Poland. In 1795 he signed the Peace of Basel with France, which left him free to take Warsaw in the Third Partition.
Despite his acquisitions, he had allowed his country to decline in wealth and power. As early as 1789, Mirabeau, after a long stay in Berlin, wrote prophetically: “The Prussian monarchy is so constituted that it could not cope with any calamity.”12 The Army grew lax in discipline and insolent with pride; the bureaucracy had softened into corruption and intrigue; the finances of the state were in disorder and near insolvency.13 “Only the incisive demonstration of war could display to this blinded generation the inward decay which… paralyzed all activity by the magic of ancient renown.”14