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Absolutist monarchs

Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia, the Great Elector 1620-88

Frederick William is known as the Great Elector because hes great and hes one
of the Holy Roman Emperors Seven Electors. Just like his family going back: the
Hohenzollerns, AKA the most important family in German history (theyll unite
Germany) and the Margraves of Brandenburg.
But first, some general stuff on absolutist monarchs:
1. In an absolutist state, sovereignty is embodied in the person of the monarch.
They believe in rule by divine right, meaning that theyre responsible to god
alone for their decisions. This is a really convenient position to take if youre
king, if you can get other people to buy into it (they couldnt in England)
2. They try to control 3 things
a. Competing jurisdictions. For example, dukes have traditional
sovereignty in the duchy: if you screw up, you answer to them.
Absolutists dont like this kinda stuff: they want to extend their
authority to their entire kingdom, which means suppressing or
eliminating these competing jurisdictions, thereby making your
jurisdictional authority supreme. All absolutist monarchs of the era (like
Frederic William) succeeded at this
b. Competing institutions.
i. Usually meaning the Church: Catholic or local Protestants.
Protestant rulers usually accomplished this by making their
church a state church. So the monarchs try to regulate religious
sects. Most absolutist monarchs do that, anyway (not Frederic
c. The Nobility. Remember the whole greatest threat to a monarch bit
from way back at the beginning of class? Well, they are and the
monarchs know that.
3. Abolish long-held liberties by certain groups or provinces w/in their realm. As
an Example, Frederic William works to abolish certain privileges of his estates
4. If you dont do these, you dont get to be on the list (of absolute monarchs):
a. Secure the cooperation of the one class who has historically been the
greatest threat to monarchy: the nobility. Note, cooperation, not
approval. So they need to be Machiavellian enough to control their
b. Solve their financial problems. They have to become the most powerful
financial force in their kingdom. This is done is by creating
bureaucracies to direct the economic life of the country in the interest
of the monarch (everybody does this). Said bureaucracies drive taxes
higher and devise new taxes and stuff to raise more revenue for the
monarch. Theyre led by career officials appointed directly by the

monarch (and answerable directly to said monarch). Different

monarchs get these officials from different places (Frederic William got
his from the nobility, Louis XIV made sure NOT to hire any nobles for
these jobs).
i. Medieval monarchs never pulled this stuff off, since they didnt
have the financial resources. They frequently had to borrow
money from their nobles to get stuff done, and its hard to boss
around people who you owe money. Also see incidents like
Eleanor of Aquitaine being richer than the French king at the
c. Raise standing armies. These are pretty much a new thing. And the
monarchs use them both externally, in wars of territorial aggression,
and internally, to put down dissent and enforce decrees. Standing
armies, being expensive, also require more revenue. And once you
have standing armies, you also have compulsory military service (AKA
the draft)
A note: Absolutist Monarchs =/= Totalitarian. They dont have the communications
and weapons technology for that. Totalitarianism is a 20 th century thing.
Back to Frederick William. Hes one of the most insightful and visionary rulers of his
day. The best thing an absolutist ruler can be is a really good administrator, and he
is exactly that. More than that, hes a man with both a vision, the patience to lay the
groundwork for that vision, and the humility to realize that hell be dead when it
comes to fruition. His vision: a united Germany. And it wont get done until 1871,
200 years after he dies. So hes going to put Prussia in the game to unite Germany.
And all this despite the fact that his peers never realize that hes a big deal.
As we can see from his life dates, Frederic William lived through most of the 30
years war, and was conscious for most of it. And it messed Brandenburg the hell up
(Prussia too, but not as much). When he took over (in 1640), Brandenburg wasnt
exactly a powerhouse. This dude is a smart cookie (and fluent in 5 languages to
boot), and has solid Protestant credentials: hes married to the granddaughter of
William the Silent (the great hero of the Dutch revolt. They love hm in Holland).
When he inherits the Hohenzollern lands, theyre scattered all over the place. Hes
20 and ready to rumble, and acutely aware of his countrys weaknesses and
problems. And he has ideas on how to solve em.
His biggest problem? His lands are scattered all over: when he takes the throne,
hes got a chunk in the middle (around Berlin), a chunk in the east, and three small
chunks in the west. So his lands not contiguous. So his question is how am I gonna
defend all this? and his answer take everything in between. Now hows he gonna
do that? Money, an army, and shrewd marriages.

In 1640, he knows that the freaking swedes and equally freaking poles have been
walking forth across his territory, burning everything they cant steal, killing people,
and basically treating Brandenburg-Prussia like a giant piece of cake. So Frederick
William needs an army. And no mercenaries. Mercenaries are unreliable scumbags.
Hes seen what happens when you let mercenaries run all over central Europe: they
turn it into one giant burning pile of crap (AKA the 30 Years War). So he needs
citizen soldiers: they fight better, especially when defending their own land.
So he needs a citizen army, but he has one of the smallest pops in Europe. But he
knows that if he tries to build that army under the nose of the swedes and poles
that theyll attack him, since they want to fight it out with each other over whos the
dominant Baltic power, and they dont want competition. But there are no poles or
swedes in his western provinces
So thats where he builds his army, with the Poles and Swedes none the wiser. So
when he gets a seat at the table at the Peace of Westphallia, he also has an army:
hes not just there because hes the Margrave of Brandenburg-Prussia, but because
hes the Margrave of Brandenburg-Prussia with an army. So he gets the best
territorial settlement out of ANYONE (including France, Sweden, and Poland). He
gets Magdeburg and Farther Pomerania, expanding his central territory significantly.
Brandenburg itself is flat and agriculturally unproductive: its got loamy sandy soil.
And Brandenburg itself is still cut off from the Baltic (though his eastern territories
are not). The principle crops are grains. In fact, what theyre best at is grain crops
and making beer (still are!). So they do that. Or, more specifically, they did that.
Before the 30 Years War. And thats effed up their economy and damaged their
nobility, the Junkers (pronounced yun-kers, theyre the von Something families. As
opposed to the van Somethings, who are Dutch). Frederic Williams a Calvinist, but
his subjects are Lutheran. He doesnt care, and so is pretty hands-off re: religion.
Mostly because he doesnt have any Catholics to deal with.
He has bigger problems on his hands than religion. Theyre called Poles and
Swedes. So now hes got an army and a sweet settlement. So now Poland and
Sweden are like dang, whered you get that? And now his army is the Prussian
army. Which means that theyre damn hard to defeat: Prussians might sometimes
lose in the end, but until they do, theyre had to beat.
East Germany (where Prussia is) is hillier and more forested. The capital of Prussia is
Knigsburg. In 1640, When FW took power, Prussia was a Duchy, making him the
Duke of Prussia. So, if Prussias a duchy, its a feudatory, meaning he holds by grace
of somebody. Somebody who? The King of Poland. Uh oh.
The problem is that sometimes the Estates General (quasi-legislative body of
Prussia) goes whining to the King of Poland about decrees Frederick William makes
that they dont like, and he says they dont have to do it. FW bides his time and
waits until Poland and Sweden get in a war. He doesnt have to wait long: by 1653,

hes got an army of 8000 really well-trained Prussian troops (multiply x3 for
Prussians). In 1655-1660, Sweden and Poland get in a fight. Frederick William sides
with Sweden. At the point where Poland is losing the war, he goes to the King of
Poland and says Ill switch sides if you give me Prussia. And if the king doesnt
take him up on this, Sweden will win and he might get Prussia anyway! So the king
of Poland agrees, Frederick William switches sides, Sweden loses, and Frederick
William becomes The King In Prussia (for some reason, this is different between
the King Of Prussia, but no idea how). So now hes the direct sovereign of
Brandenburg AND Prussia. And those other places too. And were still in the late
1650s! Hes not quite 40 yet!
He also got involved in France Vs Holland wars, where he changed sides three times
(always looking for the advantage)
So, howd he fund that army, anyway? He financed the entire government of
Brandenburg-Prussia out of his pocket, but he couldnt do that and fund the army.
So he needs an army tax. He can levy excise taxes (taxes levied on the
PRODUCERS of goods) without getting permission from the Estates General or the
Brandenburg Estates. Estates

legislative bodies. He finds all the estates he has on

his various holdings to be a pain in the ass; absolutist monarchs dont like this rule
of law crap, and thulsy must either bypass or co-opt their legislative bodies. Louis
XIV just bypassed his.
Frederick William has to deal with the Brandenburg Estates first, which means
dealing with the Junkers. Theyre primarily landowners (basically big-deal farmers),
and are heavily involved in the grain trade (which got screwed by the 30 years war).
Frederick William went to the Junker leaders and worked out a deal: if they let him
levy an army tax, hell give em the following perks: First, only Junkers can own land
in Brandenburg (and can freely evict peasants from lands they occupy). Secondly,
the Junkers are immune to certain taxes (not the army tax, though; stuff like salt
taxes, household taxes, etc. right now the people of Brandenburg-Prussia are the
most heavily taxed people in Europe). In return, theyll support Frederick Williams
army tax and get their political privileges severely curtailed (basically coopting the
Brandenburg Estates into a rubber-stamp).
Now he has to get the tax through his OTHER territories. The Prussian Junkers (and
the western ones) are reluctant to approve it. He tells the Prussians to either
approve the tax or collect it themselves, or hell send his army to collect it and hell
make the Prussians of Kunningsburg (where the Estates are) responsible for billeting
his army. They think hes bluffing. Hes not. So once his army shows up, the Prussian
Estates pass the tax, followed by the western ones.
The Tax is passed with the assumption that its temporary and will only be collected
for 2-3 years. After those 2-3 years are up, though, he keeps collecting it, but the

Junkers no longer have to pay, so they dont object. So, yeah, Brandenburg-Prussia
is heavily taxed. Like, 2* taxes per capita of France. And France had a revolution
(partially) over those!
So now he has to create that bureaucracy. Initially, the bureaucracy (the
Generalkreigskommissariat in Brandenburg, the Kriegskammer in Prussia)s purpose
is to run the army. Maintaining the armys expensive! They need food, water, guns,
clothes, the works. Brandenburg-Prussias navys never good (with the exception of
German U-Boats much later down the road), especially since Brandenburgs
landlocked. So he doesnt need to spend as much as France (who has an army AND
navy). By the time Frederick William dies, hes got an army of 30,000. With a
population base under 2 million. France has a 40-90k army with a pop of 40 million.
Yeah. Plus Fredericks army is well-armed and well-trained. And eventually the army
starts showing economic benefits: somebodys gotta make all the stuff they need.
By the end, the GKK (and the other one? Not sure?) ends up running the entire
countrys economy. So thats one check on the Big List. The bureaucracy is staffed
mostly with Junkers; unlike Louis XIV, Frederick William trusts his nobility.
In 1645, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (issued at the end of the French Wars
of Religion, letting the French Hugonauts (read: Protestants) have certain rights),
claiming there was no need for it because there were no Protestants in France.
Following that, 100k of those non-existent French Protestants emigrated from
France. And 40k of those went to Brandenburg-Prussia. And they were skilled
laborers! This tweaked a bunch of European rulers. Including the Pope! He saw this
as the sort of provocations that started all those religious wars back in the day. So,
yeah, were in Competent Pope Land, rather than Renaissance Pope Land, or Popes
What That Try To Have Elizabeth Assassinated Land.
So Frederick William benefits nicely from Louis XIVs latest blunder. Another cool
thing he did: build the Frederick William Canal through Berlin, to link the Oder and
Elbe rivers, bringing trade to Berlin. Specifically trade with Silesia and Poland. So
between the canal and centralzing his govnt in Berlin, FW transformed it from a
mudhole into Berlin.
So, wheres the brilliance? Well, thats why his peers dont see him as brilliant: hes
doing the gruntwork laying the foundations for the unification of Germany: His heirs
inherit an absolute monarchy, giving them absolute control of His Stuff plus
anything they can marry into or conquer. Which will be plenty. Right up to Kaiser
Wilhelm I, theyre always looking to unify Germany under Prussian rule (rather than
Austrian). They do not like that map, what with the non-contiguous borders. As time
goes on, they pick up more and more territory.
Also, he sets up much higher military standards than the rest of Europe: nobody
wants to pick a fight with Prussia (except the French, who will fight anybody; and
they lose to Prussia frequently).

And theyve got good finances: unlike the French, Prussia never goes bankrupt.
So FW has put EVERYTHING in place for Prussia to become a powerhouse. By the
time of Frederick Williams grandson, Frederick the Great (a genius field
commander, who, in the 7 Years War, fights seven other countries at once and wins)
And hes made the army a VERY attractive destination for Second sons (like in
France), rather than the Church. Hence all the Officer Von Somethings.
Plus his legacy benefits from his heirs being highly aggressive, educated, and
intelligent rather than increasingly moronic.