21.2.3: Prussia Under Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great significantly modernized Prussian economy, administration, judicial system, education, finance, and agriculture, but never attempted to change the social order based on the dominance of the landed nobility.
Analyze Frederick the Great’s domestic reforms and his relationship with the Junker class
- Frederick the Great helped transform Prussia from a European backwater to an economically strong and politically reformed state. During his reign, the effects of the Seven Years’ War and the gaining of Silesia greatly changed the economy.
- Frederick organized a system of indirect taxation, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxation. He also followed Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky’s recommendations in the field of toll levies and import restrictions and protected Prussian industries with high tariffs and minimal restrictions on domestic trade.
- Frederick gave his state a modern bureaucracy, reformed the judicial system, and made it possible for men not of noble stock to become judges and senior bureaucrats. He also allowed freedom of speech, the press, and literature, and abolished most uses of judicial torture. He also reformed the currency system and thus stabilized prices. However, he did not reform the existing social order.
- At the time, Prussia’s education system was seen as one of the best in Europe. Frederick laid the basic foundations of what would eventually became a Prussian primary education system. In 1763, he issued a decree for the first Prussian general school law based on the principles developed by Johann Julius Hecker.
- Frederick was keenly interested in land use, especially draining swamps and opening new farmland for colonizers who would increase the kingdom’s food supply. The resulting program created 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of new farmland, but also eliminated vast swaths of natural habitat.
- While Frederick was largely non-practicing and tolerated all faiths in his realm, Protestantism became the favored religion and Catholics were not chosen for higher state positions. His attitudes towards Catholics and Jews were very selective and thus in some cases oppressive, while in others relatively tolerant.
- A member of fraternal organizations that trace their origins to the local fraternities of stonemasons, which from the end of the 14th century regulated the qualifications of stonemasons and their interactions with authorities and clients. There is no clear mechanism by which these local trade organizations became the fraternal organizations gathering members of similar ideological and intellectual interests, but the rituals and passwords known from operative lodges around the turn of the 17th–18th centuries show continuity with the rituals developed in the later 18th century by members who did not practice the physical craft.
- Seven Years’ War
- A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents, and affected Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other. For the first time, aiming to curtail Britain and Prussia’s ever-growing might, France formed a grand coalition of its own, which ended with failure as Britain rose as the world’s predominant power, altering the European balance of power.
- The members of the landed nobility in Prussia. They owned great estates that were maintained and worked by peasants with few rights. They were an important factor in Prussian and, after 1871, German military, political, and diplomatic leadership.
Frederick the Great and the Modernization of Prussia
As King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, Frederick the Great helped transform Prussia from a European backwater to an economically strong and politically reformed state. During his reign, the effects of the Seven Years’ War and the gaining of Silesia greatly changed the economy. The conquest of Silesia gave Prussia’s fledgling industries access to raw materials and fertile agricultural lands. With the help of French experts, he organized a system of indirect taxation, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxation. He also commissioned Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, a Prussian merchant with a successful trade in trinkets, silk, taft, and porcelain, to promote the trade and open a silk factory that employed 1,500 people. Frederick followed Gotzovsky’s recommendations in the fields of toll levies and import restrictions. He also protected Prussian industries with high tariffs and minimal restrictions on domestic trade.In 1763, when Gotzkowsky went bankrupt during a financial crisis, Frederick took over his porcelain factory. The factory was eventually turned into the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin (Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, or KPM), which still operates today. In 1781, Frederick decided to make coffee a royal monopoly. Disabled soldiers were employed to spy on citizens sniffing in search of illegally roasted coffee, much to the annoyance of general population.
Frederick also gave his state a modern bureaucracy whose mainstay until 1760 was the able War and Finance Minister Adam Ludwig von Blumenthal, succeeded in 1764 by his nephew Joachim, who ran the ministry to the end of the reign and beyond. He reformed the judicial system and made it possible for men not of noble stock to become judges and senior bureaucrats. He also allowed freedom of speech, the press and literature, and abolished most uses of judicial torture, except the flogging of soldiers as punishment for desertion. The death penalty could only be carried out with a warrant signed by the King himself, and Frederick signed a handful of these warrants per year.
At the time, Prussia’s education system was seen as one of the best in Europe. Frederick laid the basic foundations of what would eventually became a Prussian primary education system. In 1763, he issued a decree for the first Prussian general school law based on the principles developed by Johann Julius Hecker. In 1748, Hecker had founded the first teacher’s seminary in Prussia. The decree expanded the existing schooling system significantly and required that all young citizens, both girls and boys, be educated by mainly municipality-funded schools from the age of 5 to 13 or 14. Prussia was among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and generally compulsory primary education, although it took several decades before universal education was successfully enacted.
The circulation of depreciated money kept prices high. To revalue the thaler, the Mint Edict of May 1763 was proposed. This stabilized the rates of depreciated coins that would not be accepted and provided for payment of taxes in currency of pre-Seven Years’ War value. Prussia used a thaler containing 1/14th of a Cologne mark of silver. Many other rulers soon followed the steps of Frederick in reforming their own currencies, which resulted in a shortage of ready money, thus lowering prices.
An important aspect of Frederick’s efforts is the absence of social order reform. In his modernization of military and administration, he relied on the class of Junkers, the Prussian land-owning nobility. Under his rule, they continued to hold their privileges, including the right to hold serfs. Frederick’s attempts to protect the peasantry from cruel treatment and oppression by landlords and lower their labor obligations never really succeeded because of the economic, political, and military influence the Junkers exercised. As the bulwark of the ruling House of Hohenzollern, the Junkers controlled the Prussian army, leading in political influence and social status, and owned immense estates, especially in the north-eastern half of Germany.
Frederick was keenly interested in land use, especially draining swamps and opening new farmland for colonizers who would increase the kingdom’s food supply. He called it “peopling Prussia.” About a thousand new villages were founded in his reign that attracted 300,000 immigrants from outside Prussia. Using improved technology enabled him to create new farmland through a massive drainage program in the country’s Oderbruch marshland. This strategy created roughly 150,000 acres of new farmland, but also eliminated vast swaths of natural habitat, destroyed the region’s biodiversity, and displaced numerous native plant and animal communities. Frederick saw this project as the “taming” and “conquering” of nature, which, in its wild form, he regarded as “useless” and “barbarous” (an attitude that reflected his Enlightenment-era, rationalist sensibilities). He presided over the construction of canals for bringing crops to market and introduced new crops, especially potato and turnip, to the country. Control of grain prices was of Frederick’s greatest achievements in that it allowed populations to survive in areas where harvests were poor.Frederick also loved animals and founded the first veterinary school in Germany. Unusual for his time and aristocratic background, he criticized hunting as cruel, rough, and uneducated.
Frederick the Great inspects the potato harvest outside Neustettin (now Szczecinek, Poland), Eastern Pomerania. He introduced new crops, especially the potato and the turnip, to the country. and because of it he was sometimes called Der Kartoffelkönig (the Potato King).
While Frederick was largely non-practicing (in contrast to his devoutly Calvinist father) and tolerated all faiths in his realm, Protestantism became the favored religion and Catholics were not chosen for higher state positions. Frederick was known to be more tolerant of Jews and Catholics than many neighboring German states, although he expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments and, in territories taken over from Poland, persecuted Polish Roman Catholic churches by confiscating goods and property, exercising strict control of churches, and interfering in church administration. Like many leading figures in the Age of Enlightenment, Frederick was a Freemason and his membership legitimized the group and protected it against charges of subversion.
Frederick retained Jesuits as teachers in Silesia, Warmia, and the Netze District after their suppression by Pope Clement XIV. Just like Catherine II, he recognized the educational skills the Jesuits had as an asset for the nation and was interested in attracting a diversity of skills to his country, whether from Jesuit teachers, Huguenot citizens, or Jewish merchants and bankers.
As Frederick made more wasteland arable, Prussia looked for new colonists to settle the land. To encourage immigration, he repeatedly emphasized that nationality and religion were of no concern to him. This policy allowed Prussia’s population to recover very quickly from the considerable losses it suffered during Frederick’s wars.
Additionally to reforming efforts, Frederick was a patron of music as well as a gifted musician who played the transverse flute. He composed more than 100 sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies. His court musicians included C. P. E. Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, Carl Heinrich Graun and Franz Benda. A meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 in Potsdam led to Bach’s writing The Musical Offering.
- Prussia Under Frederick the Great
“Prussian education system.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussian_education_system. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Ernst_Gotzkowsky. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Royal Porcelain Factory, Berlin.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Porcelain_Factory,_Berlin. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Der_König_überall2.JPG.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_the_Great#/media/File:Der_K%C3%B6nig_%C3%BCberall2.JPG. Wikipedia Public domain.
“Adolph_Menzel_-_Flötenkonzert_Friedrichs_des_Großen_in_Sanssouci_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_the_Great#/media/File:Adolph_Menzel_-_Fl%C3%B6tenkonzert_Friedrichs_des_Gro%C3%9Fen_in_Sanssouci_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.