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How the Hohenzollerns forged the destiny of Europe in their imperial ambitions

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, War, World War 1 on Monday, 30 July 2012

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This edited article about the Hohenzollerns originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

Frederick the Great, picture, image, illustration

Frederick the Great by Dan Escott

On 9th November, 1918, when the roar of the guns along the Western Front was succeeded by the roar of rebellious crowds in the streets of Berlin demanding an end to war, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany slipped across the frontier into exile in Holland. His abdication ended the rule of the Hohenzollerns, a dynasty whose destiny it was to furnish a line of princes in the state of Brandenburg from 1415 to 1701, a line of kings in Prussia, beginning in 1701, and a line of emperors of Germany, beginning in 1871.

Where did they come from, these harsh, military men? From Swabia, which was in the Middle Ages a dukedom lying in southern Germany. There, from a castle on a hill (hence their name) the Hohenzollern counts began to build up their power. By conquest and by marriage they extended their state to such a degree that Duke Frederick VI was appointed governor of the province in northern Germany called Brandenburg and in 1415 became one of the ‘electors’ of the Holy Roman Emperor.

In the sixteenth century the house produced few great rulers but many who were sufficiently astute to extend their lands by marrying into the ruling families of the states around them, by skilful bargaining at conference tables and, during the Reformation, by adopting the Lutheran faith. Indeed, they changed to the still more extreme faith of Calvinism in order to strengthen their claim to some nearby territory.

It was in the seventeenth century that the first major Hohenzollern emerged – Frederick William I, the ‘Great Elector’. He came to power in 1640 and, playing off the great powers around him against one another, added considerable tracts of land to his province, particularly the dukedom of Prussia. At the same time he began to build an efficient army and also enriched his lands by inviting foreigners to settle there and practise new industries; Huguenots fleeing from France were especially welcome.

He left his successor, Frederick III such an impressive legacy that the new elector successfully demanded for Brandenburg-Prussia the status of a kingdom. In 1701 Frederick became Frederick I, ‘King in Prussia’.

In 1713 the ‘Soldier King’, Frederick William I, came to power. He carried on the work of his predecessors, increasing the prosperity of his kingdom. But he had a particular use for the country’s increased wealth. He used it to turn his already efficient army into the best in Europe. The whole kingdom was geared to supplying the king with the soldiers he needed, particularly the giants he recruited from all parts of Europe and for whom he paid fantastic prices.

His son Frederick II was the very opposite of his father – whom he detested. He was interested in the arts and in philosophy. He was also very ambitious and was ready to use the powerful weapon which his father had forged to further his aims. In the 1740s, when the states of Europe, led by France, turned on a weakened Austrian empire to grab what lands they could, Frederick joined them and won several highly profitable victories. When he marched proudly back to Berlin he was dubbed ‘the Great’ by his doting subjects. Ten years later he renewed his assault upon the Austrian empire and plunged Europe into the Seven Years War. This time he took on more enemies than he could manage; but so brilliant was his generalship and so awesome his reputation that he lost little as a result.

Frederick the Great was succeeded by his nephew Frederick William II, who had neither his uncle’s will nor his ability and handed over the government of the country to a series of charlatans who involved him in wild schemes in the east. During his reign Prussia’s military reputation declined and reached its lowest point when her armies were whipped by the Revolutionary armies of France. The king nevertheless joined in the grand alliances of European states against Napoleon and eventually Prussia’s name as a fighting power was restored by his successor Frederick William III at the battle of Leipzig in 1813.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revival of the rivalry between Prussia and Austria for the leadership of the German states. Frederick William’s mind had given way and his brother William I took over the government of the century aided by the brilliant statesman, Count Otto von Bismarck who declared that Prussia’s dominion over Austria would be achieved not by speeches and votes but by ‘blood and iron’. The crisis came in 1866 when Prussia deliberately provoked a quarrel with Austria and thrashed the imperial armies at the battle of Sadowa. Four years later, William inflicted an even greater humiliation upon the armies of France. Prussia was now the dominant nation in Europe and it was not difficult for Bismarck, the ‘iron chancellor’, to persuade the other German states to join a unified empire. The new Reich came into being in 1871 when William I was crowned Emperor (Kaiser) of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

In 1888 William I died, aged 91. His son reigned for only 99 days and was succeeded by William II – Kaiser Wilhelm. It was not long before the new emperor and the old chancellor fell out and Bismarck was dismissed. Under its new ruler the German empire swiftly rose to the zenith of its powers. But William II had set it on a collision course with the other great empire, that of Britain. A showdown was inevitable. And in 1914 the war that had been dreaded for at least a decade broke out, engulfing the whole continent.

And thus indeed the Hohenzollerns achieved their destiny. They built an empire by force of arms but by force of arms again they plunged it and the world into chaos.

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