European Royalty: German States--Prussia

The Hohenzollern's in Prussia played a major role in the dynastic wars of the 16th-18th Centuries. They succeeded in building Prussia into a major European power, at times in wars against coalitions of European states. The fame of Frederick the Great continued to influence Germans, including Adolf Hitler, into the 20th Century. It was Prussia under the Hohenzollerns that played a major role in dismembering Poland and eventually suplanting the Hapsburgs in Austria as the preminent German royal family. It was Prussia under Wilhelm I with the assistance of famed Count Von Bismark finally succeeded in uniting the German states in a powerful nation state the German empire during 1870. Unfortunately for Germany, Wilhelm's son who had maried Queen Victoria's eldest daughter and who had liberal leanings died within a few months of his father. The Imperial crown passed to his belicose son who rejected his parents liberal leanings. Thus Germany passed to a soverign that had little onterest in constitutional democratic goverment. There was a strong element of liberal constitutional government in Germany. Prince Albert from Saxe-Coburg=Gotha, for example played a key role in guiding the English monarchy in that direction after he mairred Queen Victoria. Prussia and then Germany under the Hohenzollerns were to move Germany in a different direction. Much of the history of the 20th century revolves around this fateful development. While not solely responsible for the World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II certainly shares a major responsibility for it. As a result, Kaiser Wilhelm II renounced his imperial dignity on November 9, 1918, but retained his title of King of Prussia--even though he was never to return there.

Early Hohenzollern History

The Prussian and German Imperial royal family, the Hohenzollern originated as a family of counts in Swabia during the 11-12th century and were named for their ancestral castle Zollern, later termed Hohenzollern which is located near Hechingen in Swabia. The first to bear the ancestral name was Wezel of Zolorin or Zollern. Two branches developed from the family, the Swabian and Franconian branches. It was the Franconian brach that was to become the ruling family of Prussia and paly such a major role im modern European history.

Friederich I

The son of the Great Elector, Frederick William, was Elector Frederick III, but was crowned King in Prussia in 1701 as Frederick I. The Peace of Utrecht in 1713 recognized Frederick as King of Prussia. The prestigious royal title symbolized the rise of the Hohenzollern family and their extensie domanins.

King Friederich Wilhelm I (1713-1740)

Friederich Wilhelm I was born in Berlin during 1688. He was the son of King Friderich I, the first Prussia king. Friederich Wilhelm greatened strengthen Prussian duruing his reign. He instituted a variety of administrative, fiscal, and military reforms, and many historians see him as the architect of Hohenzollern greatness. As a result of the Northern Wars he obtained in 1921 part of Western Pomerania, including Stettin. He is perhaps noted for bring the son of Fedreick the Great--going down in history as one of Europe's worst fathers. He regularly beat the young Friederich and even jailed him for a time. Friederich Wilhelm after succeding his father was involved in a dispute with Sweden--a great power at the time, over Pomerania. He succeded in gaining a part of Pomerania and areas in the Lower Rhine, expanding the territories pf the Prussian crown. He was contemptuous of royal excesses, such as the luxuries of his father's court, and devoted his reign to efficient management of his realm. Great attention was given to financial management. He built up Prussia's industrial base by discouriging importation of manufactured goods and the export of raw materials. He promoted tghe population of unpopulated areas such as East Prussia. He gave special attention to developing the army and was especially proud of the Potsdam Guard--composed of tall nmen hired and even kidnapped from all over Europe. He made Prussia into a major European military power. He had little regard for higer education, but was the first European monarch to institute compulsory elementary education--creating many village schools.

King Friederich (II) the Great (1740-86)

Friderich or Frederick the Great was the model for a new type of monarch: The Enlightened Despot. Frederick born in 1712, a wlcome arrival as two earlier royal childern had died. Friderich had a terrible childhood, primarily because of the severity of his father who was determined to make a man of his son. His mother taught him French and culture while his father was determined that he would be a disciplined soldier. He was beaten by his father and even jailed. Despite his father's view of hisd son, Friederich was to become the greatest of all the Hohenzollerns. Friederich became an educated man, writing poems, plays. and music. He desired to be a great engligtened ruler and improve the lives of his people. During his reign, he launched dreadful wars. They greatly expanded the size and extension of Prussia, making it a major European power to be recokened with. Frederick seized Silesia from Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa and acquired West Prussia and Ermeland in the first partition of Poland (1772). An enlightened despot, he achieved the reform and codification (1794) of Prussian law. Friedrich's last 23 years of rule showed that he was one of the most enlightened despots of the 1700s. Once he had satisfied his territorial ambitions Friderich undertook great public works and encouraged education, industry, and immigration. He also codifiedcPrussian law. Frederick the Great died on Augist 17, 1786, a few years before the eve of the French Revolution--an event that shook forever the power of monarchy in Europe. Thus he became by default the last great absolute monarch in Western Europe.

Figure 1.--This is a Prussian Crown Prince Freidrich Wilhelm painted by Pesne about 1746. Note the cap and long dress. He would have been 2-3 years old.

Freiderich Wilhelm II (1786-97)

King Friederich Wilhelm II was the grandson of Friederich Wilhelm I and nephew of Friderich the Great. He was born in Berlin during 1844. He suceeded to the throne in 1786 on the death of his uncle Friderich the Great in 1786. Frederic h Wilhelm and several of his successors were not higly effective rulers like their predecessors. The ministers that they chose become more important in the conduct of government. Freiderich Wilhelm was the Prussian King who in alliance woth Holy Roman Emperor attempted to aid Louis XVI who was arrested and then guillotined. As a consequence of the war with the new French Republic, he was forced to cede Prussian territories west of the Rhine. He gained terrotories in the east by participating with partitions of Poland. Unlike his famous uncle, he was opposed to the Enligtenment and imposed press censorship. He was uninterested in the army which decayed markedly during his reign--a disastrous development as his successor would have to face the French under Napoleon with a weaked military. Through his own ineptitude and that of his appointmernts, Prussia was nearly backrupt upon his death in 1797. Frederickmarried twice andvjad eight children. The firsr marriage was with Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Lüneburg. They has one child: Frederica Charlotte (1767–1820), who became the British Duchess of York by her marriage to Frederick, Duke of York. He theb married Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt..Rge cgildren included Frederick William III of Prussia (17701840) who suceeded him. The other children were: Christine (1772-73), Louis Charles (1773-96), Frederica Louisa Wilhelmina (1774-1837), wife of William of Orange, afterwards King William I of the Netherlands. Augusta (1780-1841), wife of William II, Elector of Hesse, Henry (1781-1846), and William Karl(1783-1851). William Karl married Maria Anna of Hesse-Homburg.

Friederich William III (1797-1840)

Frederick William was born in 1770 at Potsdam. His father was King Frederick William II (1744- ). His mother was Frederica Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt (1751 Friederich William III acceded to the throne in 1797. It was under Frederick William III that Prussia and the Hohenzollerns faced one of their greatest hallenges--Revolutionary France and then Napoleon Bonaparte. They endured defeat after defeat until Napoleon's power was broken in Russia. It was under Friederich William that a Anglo-Prussian alliance finally defeated Napoleon. Wellington's British forces at Waterloo were hard pressed until Prussian General Blutcher arrived to crush the French right flank. Througout the first half of the 19th century, even after the defeat of Napoleon, the British looked on the Prussians and other Germans as allies (the British royal family was after all German) and tghe French as their mortal enemy. One result of the Napoleonic wars was the spread of nationalist sentiment throghout Europe that was to enable the Hohenzollerns with Bismark's guidance to unite Germany under a new Empire. Frederick William III married Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1793. They had 10 children: The first child was a daughter who did not survive. The next two children were boys, both of whom would become kings of Prussia: Frederick William IV (1795-61) and William I (1797-88). William I was to succeed in fimally uniting the German states un a new Empire. A daughter Alexandra (Charlotte) became the Tsarina of Russia when she mairred Nicholas I. He died in 1840.

Frederick Wilhelm IV (1840-61)

Frederick William IV was born in 1795 in Berlin. His father was Frederick William III. His mother was Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1776- ). At this time we do not yet have any information concerning his childhood. He married Elizabeth of Bavaria Wittelsbach in 1823 and acceded to the throne in 1840. He served during a critical time in Prussia history. Prussia and the rest of Europe was rocked by the liberal revolutions of 1848. The King came to London to ask for support from Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Albert who usually had good judgement, badly misevaluated the Hohenzollerens. He saw them as the founders of a truly German nation, but thought they would found a constituional monarchy based on a democratic foundation. Frederick William was to alienate British opinion when he failed to join Britain and France in the Crimean War against Russia. This was the first step in Britain's gradual shift in viewing France rather than Prussia and then Germany as its primary continental ally. The King's growing senility gave rise to regency by his brother Wilhelm who was to succeed him. Queen Elizabeth and many in Prussia were not enthusiastic with the choice of an English bride for their nephew Friderich. The royal couple did not have any children so when the king died in 1861, his brother became inherited the crown.

Wilhelm I (1861-88)

Wilhelm I (1797-1888) was the seventh King of Prussia and the first German Emperor. He asceeded to the Prussian throne in 1861 after his older brother Friderich Wilhelm IV died. William's most important decission was entrusting his affairs to the brilliant Count Otto von Bismarck--the Iron Chancellor. It was under Bismarck's astute guidance Prussia triumphed over its main rival within Germany (Austria) and its main European rival (France). Wilhelm was instrumental with the assistance of Bismarck and other advisors in founding the German state in the modern sence--uniting a great diversity of prinipalities under the leadership of Prussia. William was crowned Emperor in 1871 after defeating Emperor Napoleon III in the Framco Prussian War. He and his descendents retained the crown of Prussia.

Friederich III (1888)

Friederich was born in 1831, the son of King Wilhelm I of Prussia at Potsdam. When his father succeeded to the throne of Prussia in 1861, Friedrich became Crown Prince Frederick William. Friederich was liberal in his political views, uncharacteristic for the Hohenzollerens. He opposed Count von Bismark throught his long term as Chancellor. His liberal views were strngthened by mairring the British Princess Royal Victoria, but he died only a few months after becoming Emperor. For that reason 1888 in Germany is called the year of the three emperors. The crown passed to his son who had a very different tempernent and political leanings.

Wilhelm II (1888-1918)

Kaiser Wilhelm's upbringing and family background equipped him ideally to play the kind of peace keeping role played by his cousin Edward VI. This role was, however, not to his liking. He rejected the liberal leanings of his parents and instead the belicose leanings of the Prussian Junkers appealed to him. The result was to be disastorous for Germany, Europe and the Hohenzollern dynasty. While not the monster portrayed in British war-time propaganda, the bombastic Kaisser proved until Hitler to be one of the worst rulers in German history. Although Wilhelm can not be blamed solely for World War I, his personal instability and grandiouse image of himself and Germany certainly played a major role in bringing about the War. Information on his descendents can be found under the German Empire.


R. Gral Stillfrieb Alrinfara und Birmlr Razler. (Names unclear in the title page. Die Hohenzollern und das Deutsche Vaterland. This is the most detailed account I know of about the hisiry of the German royal family. Unfortunaely we di not have access to a copy.


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Created: May 10, 2001
Last updated: 7:43 PM 5/20/2020