Saturday, May 03, 2008

Absolutism in Brandenburg

Absolutism in Brandenburg-Prussia

This presentation covers the two variant forms of absolutism which were exemplified in Brandenburg-Prussia, military absolutism during the reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector, and the enlightened absolutism of Frederick the Great. The key aspects of military absolutism is highlighted and so is that of enlightened absolutism and the significance both variant forms of absolutism had on Brandenburg-Prussia specifically thereby contrasting the differences in these variants with the theories of absolutism.

Timeline of Brandenburg-Prussia 1640-1786

• Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg
• Reigned from 1640-1688
• He was also known as the Great Elector
• Frederick I of Prussia
• He was the Elector of Brandenburg from 1688-1701
• In 1701 he proclaimed himself King of Prussia
• Went on to reign as King of Prussia until 1713
• Frederick William I of Prussia
• Also known as the Soldier-King
• Reigned from 1713-1740
• Brought military absolutism to its height
• Lived simply without extravagance
• Frederick II of Prussia
• Better known as Frederick the Great
• Reigned from 1740-1786
• Anti-Machiavellian
• Based on his ideals and motivations as king, brought upon a kingship of enlightened absolutism

Brandenburg before 1640

Before Frederick William and the concept of military absolutism in Brandenburg, that electorate was under a feudal system based on Treu, or a kind of loyalty, loyalty towards the feudal lord. But Treu was more than simply loyalty, but also a form of unwritten law. It was based on this Treu that the lords governed the peasants and the peasants listened to the lords. However, if there was a breach of Treu on the part of the lords, the peasants would then revolt against the lord. As such, throughout the middle ages there were many such revolts. It has also to be noted that Brandenburg was merely an electorate under the Holy Roman Empire. As such, it came under the kingship of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Elector of Brandenburg was but a feudal lord under the Emperor.

Unlike many other classical European cities, Brandenburg was landlocked and without a major river passing through it. Hence, water was scarce and trading costs were high. Furthermore, at its location in the middle of Central Europe, it was extremely precarious to enemies from all directions, especially from the Swedes to the north, the Habsburg Empire to the south, Russia to the East and France to the West. When faced with warring states from all surrounding, it was difficult for Brandenburg to remain at its size. It also found itself caught up in power struggles between the other hegemonic powers such as the Habsburg Empire, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Sweden and Poland. This became glaringly apparent with the Thirty Years War which caused Brandenburg to lose 50% of its territories and much of its population. It was due to the impact of this war on Brandenburg which moulded Frederick William’s ideology of a military absolutist state as he grew up under the conditions of this sort of ravage upon his electorate. He saw the need of Brandenburg to build up on its military defences to ensure its own survival.

Frederick William, 1640-1688

Frederick William the Great Elector came into power with the death of his father. He was known as the Great Elector because during his reign he managed to heal Brandenburg from the wounds of the Thirty Years War while building up its military might and political recognition among the other European cities. By building up Brandenburg’s military forces, he established a rule which was later coined by scholars as military absolutism. However, this military absolutist rule here was not one which was intentionally imposed by Frederick William the Great Elector but was a result of circumstances and much hindsight by scholars.

What is military absolutism?

Perry Anderson
Perry Anderson argued that absolutism arose in Brandenburg-Prussia after a formal Charter in 1653 whereby the nobility voted to allow taxes to be imposed on the towns and peasants rather than on the junkers themselves. This gave the state total control over the territories, which is a key issue in the theory of absolutism. The difference in Brandenburg-Prussia from other absolutist states such as the France of Louis XIV was that when the junkers voted to allow for the taxation on the towns and peasants, they also voted for taxes to pay for a permanent army which ensured that the army become the core of the state. As Anderson stated, “it was a pact which both increased the political power of the dynasty over the nobility, and that of the nobility over the peasantry.” Hence the key difference between this two absolutist states is that the bureaucracy in Brandenburg-Prussia is made up of the military rather than a civilian body which was the feature in absolutist France. Anderson also brought up the key in Brandenburg-Prussia’s military absolutist state is the focus on war.

Thomas Ertman
Thomas Ertman drew up a comparison between the various Europeans states during the Early Modern Period and classified Brandenburg-Prussia as bureaucratic absolutist, however, he also recognised that the bureaucracy of Brandenburg-Prussia was effectively its military. This was a result of geopolitical competition brought up by Otto Hintze which was seen in the wars Brandenburg fought to protect itself from foreign occupation. Rather than identifying Brandenburg-Prussia as being militaristic from a result of jostling for military supremacy in the region, HW Koch argued that there was a need for Brandenburg-Prussia to turn to its military in order to safeguard its own existence. There was never a choice for Brandenburg-Prussia since it was needed of Brandenburg-Prussia to be militaristic. Based on this argument, it is clear that it was also not due to the ideology of a single leader that Brandenburg turned militaristic, but that it was forced by circumstances to do so.

Prussian Absolutism
JAR Marriott and CG Robertson
The rule over Brandenburg-Prussia was through the unity imposed by the ruler, the crushing of every institution that hampered the absolute control of all resources, human or material, in the state, the interpretation of law as the will of the ruler, and of civic duty as obedience to a self-determining authority. And all this was enforced using the military apparatus. Marriott and Robertson even went far enough to state that Frederick William was the founder of Prussian absolutism and the originator of the machinery that it required and the obstinate champion of the social structure that the system demanded.

Why was Brandenburg-Prussia a military absolutist state?

Based on Koch’s argument, Brandenburg-Prussia was a military absolutist state because that was what which ensured its own survival. As quoted from Koch, it was transformed “from a weapon of the military entrepreneur” into “an instrument of state”. Internally, a strong military was needed to maintain public unity in this fragmented territory. Frederick William the Great Elector and most of his nobility were Calvinists despite the population in his territory being still largely Lutheran. Hence there was a need to safeguard the religious freedom preached by Frederick William the Great Elector within his own territory and prevent disharmony from the other states around as they were mostly Lutheran or Catholic.

Another reason for the need of a strong military and absolutist rule from the external perspective was the lack of free waterways for Brandenburg-Prussia. Brandenburg was a landlocked territory without any major rivers passing through. Hence trading was difficult and Brandenburg-Prussia needed to use its military force to ensure that all its trade were safe. Not only that, any military blockades from unfriendly neighbours could also turn into the cutting off of logistics from entering Brandenburg thus spelling their demise. A strong military government was needed to deter unfriendly neighbours.

Features of the military during Frederick William’s reign

• Heavy punishment as deterrence
• Severe discipline
• Any act of plundering would be punished by hanging
• Any attack on civilians would be stripped of his rank for a year and have to carry the musket as common soldier
• Was issued bibles and had to attend religious service every morning and evening
• Not officered by nobility
• Rigid command structure
• Unquestioning obedience to orders
• High wages

Frederick the Great

From the reign of Frederick the Great, there marked a shift from military absolutism to a form of enlightened absolutism even though Prussia military might was still a force that dominated upon Central Europe. After he came into power, Frederick the Great attempted to put a change in the handling of state affairs from his father by declaring his reign as an enlightened ruler. This was a term he gave himself, so whether he was indeed an enlightened ruler is debatable. Still, in all effort, Frederick the Great was indeed a man of the Enlightenment breezing though Europe during that period.

What is enlightened absolutism?

Frederick the Great’s idea of an enlightened absolutism
• enlightened reason
• power was justified and only justifiable if used to promote a rational well-being
• power as unlimited as reason
• ambition of the Hohenzollerns and the pride of Prussia
• power and prosperity

Why the transition?

The change from military absolutism enlightened absolutism was solely the decision of Frederick the Great, even though he was influenced by the other enlightened philosophes of his time.

One major key reason for the shift towards enlightened absolutism is traced back to Frederick the Great’s upbringing under the stoic militaristic rule of his father, Frederick William the Soldier King. Frederick the Soldier King was as his name suggests was titular of the term military absolutism, and he not only governed his land through that belief but also controlled his son with such. Young Frederick grew up under strict military control with little pleasures. He did not have the freedom to read what he wanted, if he were to read he could only read state documents from Frederick William the Great Elector’s reign. There was definitely no court fanfare such as those of Vienna and Paris in Berlin which Frederick grew attracted to during his time abroad. One of the most defining moments of Frederick the great was when he was still a young soldier, he and a close friend of his deserted the army and was caught. His friend was sentenced to death and himself was almost sentenced to death had it not for the pleading of the nobility around the region. In his letters corresponding with French philosopher Voltaire, he stated that it was since then he realized that he needed to be an enlightened ruler.

From his friendship with Voltaire, it was clear that Frederick the Great was heavily influenced by the arts and philosophy and the wave of Enlightenment spreading through Europe during his time. In his biography, it was described in great detail about Frederick the Great’s first visit to Vienna. It was bright and colourful and filled with an atmosphere of fun and decadence, which was everything opposite of his life in Berlin. In Berlin, under the rule of Frederick William the Soldier King, dinner and balls such as those witnessed in Vienna was considered to be extravagant and a huge waste of money.

How was it implemented?

After he came into power, Frederick the Great attempted to put a change in the handling of state affairs from his father by declaring his reign as an enlightened ruler. However, he was still an absolutist ruler as he had the power to decide what type of reign he wished to rule by. Be it an enlightened one or a military one, there was no doubt that the king had the power to be an enlightened ruler if he wanted to do so. Still, Frederick the Great favoured a benign rule where the ruler uses benevolence to govern his people. Unlike the military absolutist rule of Brandenburg-Prussia under the previous rulers which take on many highlights of Machiavelli’s view upon governance, Frederick the Great opposed that. In his later years, he wrote a book called Anti-Machiavelli which preached a way of governance totally unlike that which was preached by Machiavelli, instead, preaching his way of benign and enlightened rule.

However, despite Frederick the Great’s rule being benign, it was still absolutist due to the geopolitical factors influencing his way of governance. The geo-political factors which plagued Brandenburg-Prussia earlier during the reign of Frederick William the Great Elector were also the same factors which continued to put pressure on Frederick the Great. There was the First Silesian War, the Wars of Spanish Succession, the Wars of Austrian Succession, the Second Silesian War, and the most important the Seven Years War against France. However, victories in these wars came at a price. The surplus from the treasury left behind by Frederick William the Soldier King was drained, and to raise the funds for waging war, heavy taxation under military absolutist control was needed, thereby diminishing the impact of enlightened rule upon Brandenburg-Prussia.

How was enlightened absolutism different from military absolutism?

Because of the impact of the Seven Years War, Koch and Marriott and Robertson argued that in terms of economy, agriculture and military, Frederick the Great’s enlightened rule was no different from the military rule of his predecessors. The Seven Years War accentuated the need for a more centralised control to effectively finance the war effort, hence, there was a need for a more absolutist rule by Frederick the Great. To put the economy in place to withstand the war effort, there was a concentration of all capital and money traffic in the hands of a central authority. Production was planned and regulated. To feed his troops, there was also a need for Frederick the Great to control agriculture output. He forced the expansion of potato farming and promoted large-scale dairy farming in East Prussia. He also took upon inspection of his troops, administration and subjects himself, thereby consolidating all control under himself. Also, due to the numerous amount of warfare being waged and new lands being gained, he took it upon his directive to relocate large numbers of subjects on to these lands either to populate them or clear them away from the battle grounds.

How did Prussia differ from other European states?

Despite France during the reign of Louis XIV often being mentioned as the epitome of absolutist rule, there is a no lacking of such a scale of absolutism in Brandenburg-Prussia, even under the reign of the enlightened absolutism of Frederick the Great. Just as King Louis XIV said “I am the state”, Frederick William the Soldier King once said “I am the Finance Minister and the Field Marshal”. Compared to Austria, which was already in its decline and with the rise of the Hungarians in government in contest with the Habsburgs, indeed Brandenburg-Prussia proved to be more of an absolutist state. Eastern European states such as Russia had yet developed a bureaucracy and much of Eastern Europe remained largely feudal.

This difference was due to the geopolitical difference between Brandenburg-Prussia and the other European states. Brandenburg-Prussia was landlocked and access to ports was limited and was at the mercy of their neighbours hence that played into Prussia having to develop its own unique form of governance that would put it into position with the other European powers. This form of governance culminated in the militaristic rule of Brandenburg-Prussia. Its military was strong and effective but what also sets it apart from its immediate neighbours such as France is its effective taxation system and financial capabilities in sustaining warfare. For Brandenburg-Prussia, it has to be noted that it has an extremely high percentage of its budget set aside for defence.

It is also to Prussia advantage for the strong personalities of its rulers who proved to be capable and effective who were adequately effective in building up the Prussian Empire which started out as an Electorate almost falling into extinction.


Anderson, Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State, (London: N.L.B., c1974).

Anderson, Perry, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, (London: Verso, 1996, c1974).

Ertman, Thomas, Birth of the leviathan: building states and regimes in medieval and early modern Europe, (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Hubatsch, Walter, Frederick the Great of Prussia: Absolutism and Administration, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975).

Koch, HW, A History of Prussia, (London and New York: Longman, 1978).

Marriott, JAR and Robertson, The Evolution of Prussia: The Making of an Empire, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946).

Miller, John, Absolutism in seventeenth-century Europe, (Basingstoke : Macmillan Education, 1990).

Poggi, Gianfranco, The development of the modern state: a sociological introduction, (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1978).

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