The Story of Mankind

Author: Hendrik Willem Van Loon

The Rise of Prussia the Extraordinary Rise of a Little State in a Dreary Part of Northern Germany, Called Prussia

THE history of Prussia is the history of a frontier district. In the ninth century, Charlemagne had transferred the old centre of civilisation from the Mediterranean to the wild regions of northwestern Europe. His Frankish soldiers had pushed the frontier of Europe further and further towards the east. They had conquered many lands from the heathenish Slavs and Lithuanians who were living in the plain between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains, and the Franks administered those outlying districts just as the United States used to administer her territories before they achieved the dignity of statehood.

The frontier state of Brandenburg had been originally founded by Charlemagne to defend his eastern possessions against raids of the wild Saxon tribes. The Wends, a Slavic tribe which inhabited that region, were subjugated during the tenth century and their market-place, by the name of Brennabor, became the centre of and gave its name to the new province of Brandenburg.

During the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a succession of noble families exercised the functions of imperial governor in this frontier state. Finally in the fifteenth century, the House of Hohenzollern made its appearance, and as Electors of Brandenburg, commenced to change a sandy and forlorn frontier territory into one of the most efficient empires of the modern world.

These Hohenzollerns, who have just been removed from the historical stage by the combined forces of Europe and America, came originally from southern Germany. They were of very humble origin. In the twelfth century a certain Frederick of Hohenzollern had made a lucky marriage and had been appointed keeper of the castle of Nuremberg. His descendants had used every chance and every opportunity to improve their power and after several centuries of watchful grabbing, they had been appointed to the dignity of Elector, the name given to those sovereign princes who were supposed to elect the Emperors of the old German Empire. During the Reformation, they had taken the side of the Protestants and the early seventeenth century found them among the most powerful of the north German princes.

During the Thirty Years War, both Protestants and Catholics had plundered Brandenburg and Prussia with equal zeal. But under Frederick William, the Great Elector, the damage was quickly repaired and by a wise and careful use of all the economic and intellectual forces of the country, a state was founded in which there was practically no waste.

Modern Prussia, a state in which the individual and his wishes and aspirations have been entirely absorbed by the interests of the community as a whole this Prussia dates back to the father of Frederick the Great. Frederick William I was a hard working, parsimonious Prussian sergeant, with a great love for bar-room stories and strong Dutch tobacco, an intense dislike of all frills and feathers, (especially if they were of French origin,) and possessed of but one idea. That idea was Duty. Severe with himself, he tolerated no weakness in his subjects, whether they be generals or common soldiers. The relation between himself and his son Frederick was never cordial, to say the least. The boorish manners of the father offended the finer spirit of the son. The son’s love for French manners, literature, philosophy and music was rejected by the father as a manifestation of sissy-ness. There followed a terrible outbreak between these two strange temperaments. Frederick tried to escape to England. He was caught and courtmartialed and forced to witness the decapitation of his best friend who had tried to help him. Thereupon as part of his punishment, the young prince was sent to a little fortress somewhere in the provinces to be taught the details of his future business of being a king. It proved a blessing in disguise. When Frederick came to the throne in 1740, he knew how his country was managed from the birth certificate of a pauper’s son to the minutest detail of a complicated annual Budget.

As an author, especially in his book called the "Anti- Macchiavelli," Frederick had expressed his contempt for the political creed of the ancient Florentine historian, who had advised his princely pupils to lie and cheat whenever it was necessary to do so for the benefit of their country. The ideal ruler in Frederick’s volume was the first servant of his people, the enlightened despot after the example of Louis XIV. In practice, however, Frederick, while working for his people twenty hours a day, tolerated no one to be near him as a counsellor. His ministers were superior clerks. Prussia was his private possession, to be treated according to his own wishes. And nothing was allowed to interfere with the interest of the state.

In the year 1740 the Emperor Charles VI, of Austria, died. He had tried to make the position of his only daughter, Maria Theresa, secure through a solemn treaty, written black on white, upon a large piece of parchment. But no sooner had the old emperor been deposited in the ancestral crypt of the Habsburg family, than the armies of Frederick were marching towards the Austrian frontier to occupy that part of Silesia for which (together with almost everything else in central Europe) Prussia clamored, on account of some ancient and very doubtful rights of claim. In a number of wars, Frederick conquered all of Silesia, and although he was often very near defeat, he maintained himself in his newly acquired territories against all Austrian counter-attacks.

Europe took due notice of this sudden appearance of a very powerful new state. In the eighteenth century, the Germans were a people who had been ruined by the great religious wars and who were not held in high esteem by any one. Frederick, by an effort as sudden and quite as terrific as that of Peter of Russia, changed this attitude of contempt into one of fear. The internal affairs of Prussia were arranged so skillfully that the subjects had less reason for complaint than elsewhere. The treasury showed an annual surplus instead of a deficit. Torture was abolished. The judiciary system was improved. Good roads and good schools and good universities, together with a scrupulously honest administration, made the people feel that whatever services were demanded of them, they (to speak the vernacular) got their money’s worth.

After having been for several centuries the battle field of the French and the Austrians and the Swedes and the Danes and the Poles, Germany, encouraged by the example of Prussia, began to regain self-confidence. And this was the work of the little old man, with his hook-nose and his old uniforms covered with snuff, who said very funny but very unpleasant things about his neighbours, and who played the scandalous game of eighteenth century diplomacy without any regard for the truth, provided he could gain something by his lies. This in spite of his book, "Anti-Macchiavelli." In the year 1786 the end came. His friends were all gone. Children he had never had. He died alone, tended by a single servant and his faithful dogs, whom he loved better than human beings because, as he said, they were never ungrateful and remained true to their friends.


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Chicago: Hendrik Willem Van Loon, "The Rise of Prussia the Extraordinary Rise of a Little State in a Dreary Part of Northern Germany, Called Prussia," The Story of Mankind, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Holcroft, Thomas, 1745-1809 in The Story of Mankind (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed April 26, 2018,

MLA: Willem Van Loon, Hendrik. "The Rise of Prussia the Extraordinary Rise of a Little State in a Dreary Part of Northern Germany, Called Prussia." The Story of Mankind, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Holcroft, Thomas, 1745-1809, in The Story of Mankind, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 26 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Willem Van Loon, H, 'The Rise of Prussia the Extraordinary Rise of a Little State in a Dreary Part of Northern Germany, Called Prussia' in The Story of Mankind, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Story of Mankind, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 26 April 2018, from