The International History Project

Edited By: Robert Guisepi

Prussia was the former kingdom and state of Germany. At the height of its expansion, in the late 19th century, Prussia extended along the coasts of the Baltic and North seas, from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Luxembourg on the west to the Russian Empire on the east, to Austria-Hungary on the east, southeast, and south, and to Switzerland on the south.

Modern Prussia was successively, with geographical modifications, an independent kingdom (1701-1871); the largest constituent kingdom of the German Empire (1871-1918); a constituent state, or land, of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933); and an administrative division, comprising 13 provinces, of the centralized German Third Reich (1934-1945). After World War I (1914-1918), West Prussia was lost to Poland, and East Prussia was separated from the rest of German Prussia in 1919, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by a strip of formerly Prussian territory known as the Polish Corridor, designed to give Poland an outlet on the Baltic Sea. The other provinces of Prussia between the two World Wars were Rhine, Brandenburg, Pomerania, Berlin, Saxony (Sachsen), Schleswig-Holstein, Hannover, Westphalia, Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen (now in Poland), Hessen-Nassau, and Hohenzollern (both now in Germany), and Silesia (now partly in Poland and partly in the Czech Republic). In 1947, after World War II (1939-1945), Prussia was abolished as a political unit and, with the exception of East Prussia, partitioned into various parts of the four zones of occupation in Germany, administered by France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The northeastern part of East Prussia was annexed by the USSR, and the remainder was put under Polish administration. Berlin was the capital of Prussia prior to World War II, and the principal cities included Frankfurt am Main, Cologne, Essen, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Magdeburg, Stettin (now Szczecin), and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad).

The people from whom the name Prussia is derived were usually called Prussi, or Borussi, in the earliest sources. They were related to the Lithuanians and inhabited the region between the Wis³a (Vistula) and lower Niemen rivers. The Saxons, a Teutonic people, entered eastern Europe in the 10th century and failed in their attempts to convert the Prussians to Christianity. In 997 the Bohemian bishop and saint Adalbert was martyred as a missionary in Prussia. The Christian faith was not established until about the middle of the 13th century, when the Teutonic Knights subdued the country and brought German and Dutch settlers into the conquered territory. By the end of the century the region was completely subjugated. Thereafter it was ruled by the Teutonic Knights as a papal fief.

During the second half of the 14th century, strong opposition to the Germans developed in eastern Europe. In 1386 Poland and Lithuania entered into a dynastic union, and in 1410 a Polish and Lithuanian army defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of Tannenberg. After a further period of warfare, the terms of the second Peace of Thorn, in 1466, left the Knights in possession of the eastern part of Prussia, which it held as a fief of the Polish crown. Western Prussia was ceded to Poland, becoming known as Polish Royal Prussia. Eastern Prussia became a secular duchy, known as East Prussia or Ducal Prussia, under the last grand master of the Teutonic Knights, Albert of Hohenzollern, a Lutheran, who created himself 1st duke of Prussia in 1525. In 1618 the duchy, still a vassal state of Poland, passed to John Sigismund, a Hohenzollern; his grandson, Frederick William, elector of Brandenburg, secured ducal Prussia's independence of Poland at the Peace of Oliva in 1660. Frederick William centralized the administration of the duchy and assumed governing powers that were formerly exercised by the nobility and the town oligarchies.

Frederick William's son, Frederick I, became king of Prussia in 1701, receiving royal recognition in exchange for a promise of military aid to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Frederick's son, Frederick William I, greatly increased the size of the Prussian army and rebuilt the organization of the state around the military establishment. To his son, Frederick II, the Great, he left enormous financial reserves and the best army in Europe. Through the military genius of Frederick the Great, Prussia became a major power in Europe. In 1740 he invaded the Austrian province of Silesia and precipitated the War of the Austrian Succession.

By the end of the Seven Years' War, in 1763, Prussian territory included Silesia, and in 1772 Frederick annexed Polish Royal Prussia, thus linking his kingdom of Prussia in the east with Brandenburg and the main body of his German possessions in the west. Frederick's regime was noted as a model of "enlightened despotism."Frederick William III succeeded to the throne in 1797 and with the aid of his ministers, Baron vom und zum Stein and Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, instituted a series of liberal reforms within the kingdom. From 1801 to 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia was dominated by Napoleon I. In 1806, however, Frederick William joined a coalition against Napoleon. Frederick William was defeated, and much of his territory was lost. Prussian fortunes rose after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that resulted in the fall of the French Empire.


After the negotiations at the Congress of Vienna, Prussia emerged as the major German power of Western Europe. By 1844 almost all German states were economically linked with Prussia. Under King William I and his prime minister and imperial chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, Prussia reached the peak of its power. Bismarck provoked war with Denmark in 1864, the Seven Weeks' War against Austria in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. These three wars established Prussia as the leading state in the German Empire. From then on, Prussia's history generally coincides with that of Germany. The state of Prussia was legally abolished in 1947 by the Allied Control Council, a group formed after World War II to resolve issues relating to Germany.

You Might Also Like