VI. THE COLLAPSE OF PRUSSIA: 1797–1807

So the amorous King died, and the care of the ailing state fell to his son Frederick William III, who carried the burden through Napoleon and Metternich till 1840. Everyone wondered how he could last so long, being weak in will and benign in sentiment. He had all the virtues which a good citizen is instructed to develop or profess: cooperation, justice, kindness, modesty, marital fidelity, and a love of peace. He freed the serfs on the royal domain. In 1793 he married Luise (Louise) of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, seventeen, beautiful, passionately patriotic, and soon the idol of the nation; she remained chief source of the happiness into which he seemed to invite every calamity.

The new century brought him one crisis after another. In 1803 the French seized Hanover, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by Prussia; the young officers in the Prussian Army clamored for at least a breach, if not war, with France; Frederick William held his peace. French forces closed the mouths of the Weser and the Elbe, hurting Prussian trade; Frederick counseled patience. Queen Louise pleaded for war; dressed in the uniform of the regiment that bore her name, she paraded on horseback, and breathed fire into the undefeated Army; Prince Louis Ferdinand, cousin to the King, longed for a chance to show his mettle; the aging Duke of Brunswick offered to lead the Prussian Army; General Blücher, hero-to-be at Waterloo, supported him; Frederick William withstood them quietly. In 1805 Austria, challenging Napoleon, sought Prussian aid; the King was not ready.

But when the French, en route to Austerlitz, marched through Prussian Bayreuth, Frederick William’s patience ran out. He invited Alexander of Russia to a conference at Potsdam; there they took oath, at the tomb of Frederick the Great, to stand together against Napoleon, and go to the aid of Austria. Alexander’s troops marched south and suffered defeat. By the time Prussia’s army was mobilized the battle was over, and Alexander was in flight to Russia. Napoleon gave Frederick William a lenient but compromising peace (December 15, 1805; February 15, 1806): Prussia was to cede Neuchâtel, Cleves, and Ansbach to France, and was to receive Hanover in return. Eager for this long-coveted prize, Frederick William agreed to close all Prussian ports to British goods, and signed a defensive-offensive alliance with France. England declared war upon Prussia.

Napoleon, challenging Nemesis, proceeded to form the Confederation of the Rhine, which surrounded some Prussian provinces in western Germany. Hearing that Napoleon was secretly offering Hanover to England, Frederick William entered into a secret alliance with Russia (July, 1806) for defense against France. On August 1 Napoleon took all western Germany under his protectorate. On August 9 Frederick William mobilized part of his army; on September 4 he reopened Prussian ports to British goods; on September 13 he ordered his troops to enter Saxony. Joined by the Saxon forces, his generals, under the Duke of Brunswick, commanded 200,000 men. Furious at what he considered the violation of two treaties and an alliance, Napoleon ordered his armies, already stationed in Germany, to converge upon the front and flank of the allies. He himself hurried to the front and supervised the annihilation of the Prussians and the Saxons at Jena and Auerstedt on the same day, October 14, 1806.

That story has been told from the view of France. From Prussia’s side it was one of the darkest tragedies in her history. Frederick William, with his government and family, fled to East Prussia, and tried to govern from Memel. Napoleon, from the King’s chambers in Berlin, issued orders to a continent, and proclaimed the Continental Blockade. His troops drove the Prussians out of Poland, defeated the Russians at Friedland, and escorted Napoleon to Tilsit, where he made peace with Alexander. There Frederick William learned the final terms on which Prussia would be allowed to exist. It must cede to France all Prussian lands west of the Elbe, and must return to Poland all of Prussia’s pilferings in the three partitions. It must accept and pay for the occupation of Prussia by French soldiers until it should have completed payment of 160 million francs as a war indemnity. By this treaty, signed on July 9, 1807, Prussia lost forty-nine percent of her former terrain, and 5,250,000 of her former 9,750,000 population. In the years 1806–08 the cost of the occupation forces and the payments on the indemnity took up the entire revenue of Prussia.15 There were some Germans who, looking at the ruined state, predicted that it would never again play an important role in German history.

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