The Kingdom of Prussia is Founded

The Prussian Kingdom was founded on January 18th, 1701, when the Elector Frederick III had himself crowned Frederick I at Konigsberg.

Frederick I

Prussia, which was to become a byword for German militarism and authoritarianism, began its history outside Germany altogether. The people called Preussen in German, who inhabited the land on the south-eastern coast of the Baltic, were Slavs, related to the Lithuanians and Latvians. They were conquered and forcibly Christianised in the thirteenth century by the Teutonic Knights, diverted from the Holy Land. German peasants were brought in to farm the land and by around 1350 the majority of the population was German, though the Poles annexed part of Prussia in the following century, leaving the Knights with East Prussia. Meanwhile Germans had conquered the Brandenburg area to the west and the margraves, or marcher lords, of Brandenburg became Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Both Brandenburg and East Prussia fell under  control of the Hohenzollern family, which mastered the Brandenburg hereditary nobility, the Junkers, and began the long march to power in Europe which was to end with the First World War and the abdication of the Kaiser in 1918.

The formidable Frederick William of Brandenburg, known as the Great Elector, who ruled from 1640 to his death in 1688, made Brandenburg-Prussia the strongest of the northern German states, created an efficient army and fortified Berlin. His son, the Elector Frederick III (1657-1713), was not a chip off the old block. Known in Berlin as ‘crooked Fritz’, because a childhood accident had left him with a twisted spine and a humped back, he was besotted with all things French and looked for a crown as a reward for aiding the Emperor Leopold I. There could not be a king of Brandenburg, which was part of the Empire, and there could not be a king of Prussia, because part of it was in Poland. By an ingenious formula, however, Frederick was permitted to call himself king in Poland. He put the crown on his head with great ceremony at Königsberg as Frederick I and so created the Prussian kingdom, with its capital at Berlin. Brandenburg from then on, though still theoretically part of Germany owing allegiance to the Emperor, was treated in practice as part of the Prussian kingdom. 

Frederick and his second wife, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, sister of George I of England, turned their court at Berlin into a miniature Versailles where French was the first language, French etiquette was de rigeur and the king trotted about in high-heeled red shoes and a long wig to hide his hump, spending money like water and doing his best to emulate Louis XIV. Artists and intellectuals were invited to court and Berlin was beautified as a Baroque city.

It was Frederick’s son and successor, Frederick William I, one of history’s sergeant-majors, who transformed his realm into the military autocracy that gave Prussia its lasting reputation. He ruled until 1740 and his son in turn, Frederick the Great, used his army to turn Prussia into a major European power later in the eighteenth century.