The term Prussia (in German: Preußen, Latin: Pruthenia or Borussia, Polish: Prusy, Lithuanian Prusai) has had a wide variety of meanings over the last millennium. At different times it has denoted a region, a dukedom, a Polish province, a Polish fief, a kingdom united with Brandenburg, and the leading kingdom of the German Empire, comprising almost two thirds of the Empire's acreage.
At the latest since World War II, Prussia no longer exists as a state today. However, the ideal of Prussia as the "true" Germany exists even today among some Germans, though most associate this particular aspect of Prussia's history with an anti-democratic, militaristic past. Still others choose to emphasize Prussia's role in the Enlightenment, when it was a home to artists and intellectuals; how the term "Prussia" is used today therefore depends much on context.
Prussia's Historic Roots
The land spreading on the South-Eastern coast of the Baltic sea and in the Masuria Lake district has been called "Prussia" by its Polish neighbours in the 10th century. People inhabiting those lands from at least 5th century BCE spoke a variety of languages belonging to the western branch of the Baltic language group, whose modern representatives are Latvian and Lithuanian. At the end of the 1st century the Prussian settlements were divided into tribal domains, separated from one another by uninhabitated parts of forests, swamps and marshes. The basic territorial communities called Laukses[?] were formed by sets of farms, which were linked by mutual economic interests, desire for safety and generally accepted conditions of coexistence. The supreme power in each Lauks laid in general gatherings of all adult males. At such gatherings all important matters concerning the community were discussed, and the leader and the chief were elected. The leader was responsible for the supervision of the everyday matters, while the chief was in charge of the road and watchtower building, and for the border defense. Because the Baltic tribes inhabiting Prussia never formed a common political and territorial organization (a state), they had no reason to adopt a common ethnic name. Instead they used the name of the region from which they came. Therefore there were Galindians inhabiting Galindia, Sambians from Sambia, Bartians from Bartia, Nadrovians from Nadrovia, Natangians from natangia, Scalovians from Scalovia, and Sudovians from Sudovia. It is not known when and how the first general names came into being in the lands that did not have a tribe name tradition such as Pomesania, Pogesania or Sasinia in the western peripheries of the Prussian settlements.
16th century histories of Prussia link the name of the "Prussai" or "Prussi," and thereby Prussia, to a place called "Prutenia". According to these histories, most likely based on heroic sagas, (B)Pruteno was a priest king, brother of the legendary king Widewuto or Waidewut, who lived in the late 10th century. The regions of Prussia and their peoples are said to bear Widewuto's sons' names. These peoples include the Yatvingians and Sudovians. In early 1200 bishop Christian of Prussia recorded the history of a much earlier era. Adam of Bremen mentions Prussians in 1072.
The foundation of the Holy Roman Empire allowed the Ottonian Emperors the opportunity to continue to expand eastwards the holdings they had inherited from the East Frankish kingdom. They achieved this largely through continuing the Carolingian policy of co-opting local Slavic chieftains or ambitious war-leaders into a system of mutual defense and allegiance. This policy not only bound former enemies to the Emperor, but also prevented any of the Emperor's West Frankish leading men from expanding their own power bases eastward. It is not surprising, then, that when the Duchy of Poland was established, the Polish dukes attempted to increase their territory. Where expansion offered the opportunity to convert the heathen, the support of both Emperor and Pope was almost guaranteed. In 997, Boleslaus I, then duke of Poland, gave military protection to Saint Adalbert of Prague when he went to convert the Prussians. The Prussians resisted these attempts at conversion, which have been seen as an attempt to weaken their independence. Like many other missionaries, Adalbert was martyred by those he wished to convert.
The western part of Pomerellia[?]-Prussia was christianized by Otto of Bamberg. In 1209 Pope Innocent III commissioned the Cistercian monk Christian of Oliva with the conversion of the still-heathen eastern Prussians. Christian afterwards became the first bishop of Prussia.
In 1220 Conrad of Masovia[?] invaded and even conquered some of the Prussian territory in Culmer Land. When the Prussians attempted to re-take their own territory, Conrad called on the pope and the emperor for a crusade. The results were edicts calling for crusades against the "marauding, heathen" Prussians. Many of Europe's knights joined in these crusades, which lasted sixty years. By 1250, the Papal legate William of Modena[?] had divided Prussia into four bishoprics, Culmer Land, Pomesania, Ermland (Warmia), and Samland under the archbishopric of Riga.
The pope installed the Teutonic Knights, a crusading order that reported directly to the Papacy, as rulers of the area. Under their governance, woodlands were cleared and marshlands made arable. Many cities and villages were founded upon those lands, including Marienburg (Polish Malbork), the seat of the Knights' grand master. Many of these cities joined the Hanseatic League of northern European trading cities.
In 1410, with the death of the emperor Ruprecht III, war broke out between the Teutonic Knights and a Polish-Lithuanian alliance supported by Russian and Tatar forces, in which Poland and Lithuania were the winners following their victory at Grunwald[?]. The Order assigned Henry XIII, duke of Reuss-Plauen, to defend Pomerania. He moved rapidly to bolster the defense of Marienburg, was elected vice-grand master and saved the Marienburg headquarters. He then became grand master and in 1411 concluded a treaty at Torun with the Jagiellonian king Ladislaus II of Poland.
In March 1440, the Hanseatic cities of Gdansk, Elblag and Torun founded the Prussian Confederation with other Prussian cities to free themselves from the overlordship of the Teutonic Knights. Lithuanian duke and king Casimir IV supported their revolt (February 1454) in the War of the Cities or Thirteen Years' War and the second Treaty of Torun[?] (October 1466. That treaty provided for the Teutonic Order's cession to the Polish crown of its rights over the western half of its territories. Henceforth the Gdansk Pomerania returned to Poland to form Royal Prussia together with Malbork, the Chelmno[?] voivodships and the bishopric of Warmia. The eastern part of the Monastic State of Prussia[?] remained under the rule of the Teutonic Order successors, under Polish suzerainty as a Polish fief.
In 1492 a life of the Blessed Dorothea of Montau[?] was published in Prussia: the first known publication from that region.
During the Reformation endemic religious upheavals and wars occurred, and in 1525, the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Albert of Prussia, a member of a cadet branch of the house of Hohenzollern, resigned his position, became a Protestant and took on the title of "Duke of Prussia." In a deal partially brokered by Martin Luther (under imperial ban since 1521), Ducal Prussia became the first Protestant state, along the lines of the later religious Peace of Augsburg[?]. The four Prussian dioceses of Pomesania, Ermeland or Warmia, Culmer Land and Samland had been under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Riga since 1245 and from 1539 to 1561 under Wilhelm, Margrave of Brandenburg, a member of the Hohenzollern family. After 1561 Riga became a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Riga's archbishop was the brother of duke Albrecht of Prussia. When the duke Albert of Prussia died in 1569, his son Albert Frederick and then Joachim II Hector inherited Prussia. The dukedom of Prussia thus came to the senior Hohenzollern branch, the ruling Margraves of Brandenburg.
The second Treaty of Thorn had left eastern Prussia as a fief of the Polish crown. In 1660, after the Second Northern War[?] between Sweden, Poland and Brandenburg, the Treaty of Welawa (Wehlau) granted full sovereignty to Frederick William I, the "Great Elector", of the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns as "Duke of Prussia". The treaty also prescribed that when the Hohenzollern rule in the Ducal Prussia expired, the land would return to Poland as its integral part. (Hohenzollern rule expired only in 1919, when Wilhelm II of Germany abdicated as German Emperor and King of Prussia, but East Prussia did not return to Poland until 1945, and even then only its southern part.)
In 1688, Frederick William I died and his possessions passed to his son Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg (ruled 1688-1713). With the exception of Prussia, all of Brandenburg's lands were a part of the Holy Roman Empire, by this time under the all but hereditary nominal rule of the House of Habsburg. Since there was only one King of the Germans within the Empire, Frederick gained the assent of the Emperor Leopold I (in return for alliance against France) to his adoption (January 1701) of the title of "King in Prussia", based on his non-Imperial territories, and the title came into general acceptance with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Though Brandenburg was far richer and more important than Prussia proper, it was gradually subsumed into the Kingdom of Prussia. The change was understood by all to be a shell game with titles, and the new nation was commonly called Brandenburg-Prussia.
Sweden's defeat by Russia, Saxony-Poland, Denmark-Norway, Hannover and Prussia in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) marked the end of Swedish power on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. In the Prusso-Swedish peace treaty of Stockholm (January 1720), Brandenburg-Prussia regained Stettin and Sweden's holdings in Pomerania, most of which had been a part of Hohenzollern Brandenburg since 1472 (Outer Pomerania was annexed to Brandenburg-Prussia in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia).
During this time the trends set in motion by the Great Elector reached their culmination, as the Junkers[?] - the landed aristocracy - were welded to the army which had gained so much influence in the previous fifty years.
In 1740, Frederick II (more commonly known as Frederick the Great) came to the throne and invaded Silesia, a province of Austria which was in turmoil after the death of the Emperor Charles VI. The invasion was the first shot of the War of the Austrian Succession (Silesia was to have passed to the rulers of Brandenburg on the extinction of its Piast dynasty according to a bilateral arrangement of 1537, subsequently vetoed by the Emperor Ferdinand I). After rapidly occupying Silesia, Frederick offered to protect the new Austrian Archduchess, Maria Theresa if the province were turned over to him. The offer was rejected, but Austria faced several other opponents, and Frederick was eventually able to gain formal cession with 1742's Treaty of Berlin[?].
To the surprise of many, Austria managed to renew the war successfully, and in 1744 Frederick invaded again to forestall reprisals and to claim, this time, the province of Bohemia. This time he failed, but French pressure on Austria's ally Britain led to a series of treaties and compromises (culminating in 1748's Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that restored peace and left Prussia still in possession of Silesia.
Humiliated by the cession of Silesia, Austria worked to secure an alliance with France and Russia, while Prussia drifted into the United Kingdom's camp. When Frederick pre-emptively invaded Saxony and Bohemia over the course of a few months in 1756-1757, a general conflict broke out: the Seven Years' War.
This war was a desperate struggle for the Prussians, and the fact that they managed to fight much of Europe to a draw bears witness to Frederick's military skill. Facing Austria, Russia, Sweden, and France simultaneously, and with only Hanover (and the non-continental British) as notable allies, he managed to hold off serious invasion until October 1760, when the Russian army briefly occupied Berlin and Königsberg. The situation became progressively grimmer, however, until the death of the Czarina Elizabeth and the accession of the prussophile Peter III relieved the pressure on the eastern front. Sweden also dropped out of the war at about the same time. Defeating the Austrian army at the Battle of Burkersdorf[?], and relying on a continuing British thrashing of France in the colonial theatres of the war, Prussia was finally able to force a status quo ante bellum on the continent. This result confirmed Prussia's major role in Germany and Europe as a whole. Frederick, appalled by the near-miss for his nation, lived out his days as a much more peaceable ruler.
Prussia continued to grow through diplomatic means, however. To the east and south, Poland had gradually become weakened, and in 1772 Frederick was unable to resist the first of the Partitions of Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The Kingdom of Prussia thus gained full sovereignty of Warmia and the Polish Royal Prussia. After Frederick the Great died (in 1786), his nephew Fredrick William II continued the partitions through military and diplomatic force, gaining a large part of western Poland in 1793 and a large area (including Warsaw) to the south of East Prussia in 1795, when the Polish kingdom ceased to exist.
(History 1795-1871 up to the subsuming of Prussia into the German Empire will follow.)
After World War II, Prussia as a state was formally dissolved by the Allied Control Council Decree No. 46 of February 25, 1947, which simply declared: "The state of Prussia, which has forever been the carrier of militarism and reactionism in Germany, [...] shall herewith be dissolved."
The eastern parts of the pre-war Prussian state had been made parts of Poland and the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference, when the Odra-Nysa line was established as the new border between Poland and Germany. Today, the acreage of former Prussia is distributed among many of Germany's 16 states, the Bundesländer, among them Berlin, Brandenburg, Lower Saxony, and North Rhine-Westphalia.
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