What we are going to talk about today is a very important subject.  It is the birth of modern Germany, which is basically the story of the birth of the state of Prussia.   It is from the carnage of the 30 Years War that a new state emerged to be one of the most important nations in history.


Now in order to understand how this took place, we need to quickly go back over the situation in Renaissance Germany in order to understand how various things came about.

Part of the origins of this whole story go back to major problems inside Christianity and particularly inside the Catholic Church. Now we are going to summarize some things quickly because this would turn into a 40 hour lecture if we were going to discuss them in detail but the purpose of these lectures is to give an overview of history and insight to history. Perhaps someday will do very detailed lectures on the subject but these lectures are designed to provide an overview of history.

Now within Christianity there were huge problems of corruption inside the Catholic Church. This led not surprisingly to efforts at reform and the first of the major reformers of any significance in Europe was a fellow by the name of Jan Hus in Bohemia. We will not go into all the details of what he did but let's just get to the point about how things evolved. He was promised clemency by the Barack Obama of 15th century Europe, Emperor Sigismund, if he would come to a Church Council at Constance to try to resolve the internal problems in the Catholic Church, which were severe since there were competing popes and other things that did not reflect well on the credibility of the Papacy. Now Emperor Sigismund was a very deceitful and gutless person, and he turned around and double crossed Jan Hus, who was promptly arrested by the Catholic Church and executed. 

This turned out to be a very, very, big mistake by the authorities because Jan Hus had a whole lot of supporters in Bohemia, and the supporters were very heavily armed and very good soldiers. So in spite of the efforts of the Pope and Emperor Sigismund, a huge uprising then broke out called the Hussite Wars. These wars were an incredibly bloody and gruesome affair. To make a long story short, the forces in authority were not able to put down the revolt and had to reach some sort of accommodation with the Hussites.


This is very significant because it laid the groundwork for Luther and the coming Reformation. Martin Luther as we have discussed  was not a very nice person but certainly one of the most extraordinary phenomenons in world history. Here's a guy who was a monk in a tinker toy town called Wittenberg in Saxony, who by starting off nailing some objections to the Catholic Church on his church door set off one of the greatest political revolutions in history, which shows that if you have faith and you speak the truth you can have a huge impact.

The 16th century in Europe was a mind-boggling time. It was the time when the so-called New World was conquered by Spain. Indeed, at the same time that Luther was appearing at the Diet of Worms before Charles V, the armies of Charles V were conquering Mexico. It's an interesting dichotomy of events. It was the time of Michelangelo. It was the time of the Renaissance. Luther went to Rome he seemed to have very little interest in the great art that was being produced. The great art though that was being produced was being financed by extremely corrupt fundraising practices in Germany particularly the sale of the indulgences where people were promised salvation if they paid money to the Catholic Church.

We are not going to discuss the whole history of the Reformation here. Suffice it to say that it created a nightmarish situation for the Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was an informal empire that was the successor to Charlemagne's empire which included most of Germany and most of the German states but there was always a tension between the authority of the Emperor and the German states and there were always problems between the Emperor and the Catholic Church. Suffice it to say that the Reformation made all these problems worse.

The end result was an alliance of the Emperor and the Catholic Church against the Protestants. However, they did not have the power to stop what was coming in terms of the Reformation. It is also very important to understand that the Reformation was an economic power grab by the German states and the northern states of Europe such as Henry VIII's England and the Scandinavian states because they not only threw out the control of the Catholic Church in their states, they seized its financial assets which was very important. It's very important understand as we discussed in other lectures that Luther was not the Thomas Jefferson of Germany.  He was not fighting for “religious freedom.”  He was fighting to reform the Catholic Church. His initial plan was to reform the Catholic Church. When that became unrealistic, he joined with the German princes and the German political leaders to create a separate church in Germany, the Lutheran Church.  Now to make things even more confusing they there emerged a second Protestant dissident sect, the Calvinists, and they got rolling in Germany too.

The end result of all this was a lot of religious violence. In the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 there was a kind of cease-fire where the Emperor and the Catholic Church basically accepted their defeat in trying to control the religious political economic revolution in the Protestant German states.


However the Peace of Augsburg was a sort of the eye of the storm not the end of the storm. It most definitely didn't bring peace and what that set in motion from 1618 to 1648 was one of the most horrifying and brutal wars in the history of the world the 30 Years War. It was probably the most bloody religious war in the history of the world. It is estimated that 1/3 to 1/2 of the population of Germany died, and it was out of this tremendous catastrophe that the modern state of Prussia, then known as Brandenburg would emerge.

To understand all this you need to understand what happened at the beginning of the war. At the beginning of the war the forces of the Catholic Church and the Emperor were very successful. They made it all the way to the North Sea and it looked like the Reformation in Germany was basically dead. It was basically finished.


Now at this time in history Emperor Ferdinand did something that I find incomprehensible, and most historians find incomprehensible. He made what has got to be one of the most totally insane and disastrous decisions in European history. He issued what is known as the Edict of Restitution. What this did was to mandate under all the lands under his control that all the property taken from the Catholic Church had to be returned along with some other very negative activities. This obviously created a complete uproar. Had he not done this, he probably could've ended the Reformation but this was obviously completely unacceptable and just horrendously controversial.



Because of the growing unrest a foreign power then entered Germany. Now in this whole subject is very complicated because you have other powers like France, who were supposedly Catholic, were stirring up trouble in Germany and backing the German dissidents and so on.  But until this foreign power entered Germany, the outlook for the Protestants didn't look good.  However, the entrance of Gustavus Adolphus from Sweden totally changed the situation, and this meant that a powerful army from the north was now on the ground in Germany.

For the state of Brandenburg this was an absolute nightmare.  Prussia was stuck in between the forces of Gustavus Adolphus and the forces of the Emperor.

For the ruler of Prussia could not make up his mind what to do and we can really sympathize with him because it's very important to understand that Gustavus 's Adolphus posed a threat to the Protestant states as well as being a potential ally. Yes, he would drive back the forces of the Emperor but what happened then? Did people then become subjects of a Swedish Empire as opposed to the Habsburg Empire? This was unclear. So the ruler of Prussia couldn't make up his mind while he was vacillating one of the greatest atrocities of the 30 Years War took place, which was the siege of Magdeberg.  Magdeberg was a Protestant city, and the forces of Emperor Ferdinand laid siege to it. The end result was the killing of about 90 to 95% of the population of Magdeburg, and the city was set on fire. How many people got killed in the fire? How many people got killed and massacred? It's not quite known. However, this became a public relations disaster for the ruler of Prussia because it was said that he could've prevented it if he'd allowed the Swedish army to cross Prussian territory.



We’re not going to get into a whole lot of very complicated series of events that followed after this. To make a long story short, Swedish armies, imperial armies, marched back and forth across Prussia. The situation was such a disaster that the ruler Prussia  fled to East Prussia.  He fled from Berlin to Königsberg, and he died there. Now there emerged a guy called the great Elector of Brandenburg, who was his successor, and he saved Brandenburg from total disaster.  He returned to the city of Berlin, I believe in 1643, and what he found was a scene out of hell which was similar to many German cities.  A good part of the city was in ruins. The people were starving. They were not only eating cats and dogs they had resorted to cannibalism. That's right. Cannibalism. It was that bad

Now again, the history of the 30 Years War is very very very complicated. We’re not to get into all the details, but to make a long story short, the great Elector was able to consolidate things in a very difficult situation, and at the end of the 30 Years War was a treaty called the Treaty of Westphalia. The Great Elector was a great negotiator, and he got the Swedes forced out of most of Pomerania.  They remained in part of a small part of Pomerania but he got them forced out of the majority of Pomerania and had that turned over to Brandenburg. The end result was that Brandenburg/Prussia survived the war and emerged as stronger out of the war. One of the few German states that emerged stronger out of the war. Albeit at a very bloodied cost. In 1700, Prussia was elevated to being a kingdom.  Due to the internal politics of the Holy Roman empire it could not be the Kingdom of Brandenburg, but because Prussia was technically outside the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, he was called King in Prussia. Again there's a lot of political nonsense inside the Holy Roman Empire to explain this, but that's how he became king of Prussia and that’s how the term Prussia was adopted. Prussia then being East Prussia in the East.


The state of Prussia continued to evolve, and there came to power a guy called Frederick William I, who is one of those underestimated people in history.   Frederick William I was a very unpleasant person and he's the kind of guy historians don't like. He didn't do a lot of things that historians like to see. He was not a big patron of the arts. Quite the contrary, he cut funding for the arts. He thought they were too expensive. He didn't win any glorious military victories. He kept Prussia out of most wars.  He didn't hobnob with intellectuals like Voltaire the way Frederick the Great did and he was also really quite unpleasant person. He was a kind of dour religious fellow and he also had a very bad temper. People think it may have been some kind of mental illness that caused him to periodically fly into rages and hit people with a cane sometimes severely injuring them. So, in other words he was not the world's most lovable fellow. But what Frederick William I was, and historians understate this, he was an extremely good hard-nosed administrator who paid attention to the nuts and bolts of running the country and he built a very good bureaucracy, a very good state government, unlike the lunatic President Ronald Reagan, he did not see government as part of the problem, no he did not. So he built a very efficient state. He welcomed Huguenot refugees from the madhouse of religious persecution in France and built up the economy, but most importantly he doubled the size of the Army from 40,000 to 80,000 men—in other words he built up the power of Prussia.

He was very smart to keep Prussia out of war. Now another factor needs to be mentioned here which relates to German history, which is the relationship between Prussia and Russia.



The role of Sweden is not adequately explained in German history. Sweden remained a factor in German history even though Prussia got most of Pomerania. They maintained a presence just to the west of Pomerania, at the same time Sweden was a major military force in the area and a series of conflicts was fought with Sweden by Prussia. Now, at the time of Peter the Great, a guy called Charles XII of Sweden came to power. And again there's a whole series of intrigues that went on here which we won't get into, but Charles XII attacked Russia and successfully defeated Russia at the battle of Narva.  

This was a very threatening development to Germany and to Prussia. The activities of Charles XII are very complicated. We won’t go into all the other campaigns but to make a long story short he didn't pursue his attack on Russia and did various other things but then renewed his attack on Russia later and Peter the Great used the same tactics of Alexander I against Napoleon. He used a scorched-earth tactic against the advance of the Swedish army. You should also understand that a scorched-earth tactic means that you basically are going to sacrifice the lives of your peasants for military gain and so on and so forth. So this was not was happy situation for the Russian peasants and so on. But to make a long story short, Charles XII was forced to move South because they were starving and was then attacked by the forces of Peter the Great and his army was destroyed.   So Peter the Great basically knocked out Sweden as a major power.


Peter the Great met Frederick William I and even though Frederick William I wasn't a very likable guy they seemed to have gotten along. Peter the Great was basically a monster, the Joseph Stalin of the 17th century, but unlike Frederick William I, he's gotten a good press from historians because he liked to read intellectual books and was a patron of the arts and won big military victories and the fact that he was a tyrant really didn't bother most historians. But anyway, the significance of this is to show the concern of Prussia for the alliance with Russia's very interesting story which is the Amber room, this extraordinary room of amber in the in the Prussian royal palace.  Peter the Great took a liking to it. So Frederick William I, one of the biggest cheapskate ever, had the palace dismantle room and sent to Russia. But it showed the priority that Russia was for Frederick William I.



Frederick William I was not an easy-going guy as a dad, let's put it that way. Frederick the Great had a very grim childhood. The most famous event was when he couldn't take it anymore and fled the palace with his tutor. Frederick William I didn't really go for this and the full reasons for why he was so angry are a subject of debate, but to make a long story short about this, he had the tutor executed in front of poor Frederick.

So again, this is another reason why Frederick William I is just not too popular with historians.  He also had a sort of eccentric obsession with a small group of soldiers that were 6 feet tall and he marched them around and thought that was interesting. In my view a totally irrelevant point but historians like to make fun of him for that. My attitude is who cares? He doubled the size of the Prussian army which was very important.

The end result of all this is that when Frederick the Great came to power he was head of a very powerful state in the center of Europe and was able to further build on that power to create and an enormously powerful state, which later under Bismarck became the most powerful state in Europe and one of the most powerful and influential states in the world. 

The point of this is that it didn't just happen by accident. In particular, if it hadn't been for Frederick William I, Frederick the Great might've ended up being Frederick the Nobody. Just a point. So it's important to understand how all this came together and what created the modern state of Germany.