Frederick William I (Prussia) (1688–1740; Ruled 1713–1740)

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FREDERICK WILLIAM I (PRUSSIA) (16881740; ruled 17131740)

FREDERICK WILLIAM I (PRUSSIA) (16881740; ruled 17131740), king of Prussia. On 25 February 1713, Frederick William succeeded his father Frederick I as king of Prussia. He arrived on the throne in the midst of both war and peace, as the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714) was drawing to a close, and the complex peace negotiations among all the European powers had begun while the fighting still continued. He ascended the throne at a difficult time, one filled with both danger and opportunity.

Frederick William I, who became known as the Soldatenkönig ('soldier king'), brought to the difficult task of rule the personality of a drill sergeantincluding a bad temper combined with general vulgarity. A born autocrat, he enjoyed drilling his palace guard and playing crude practical jokes. His happiest hours were spent with military cronies in the Tabakskollegium, where the men talked shop, smoked and drank, and told bawdy jokes. But to this he added an immense capacity for work and an acute understanding for the real foundation of the scattered and impoverished territories of Prussia. That foundation was the army. He inherited an army of about 30,000 ill-equipped and badly trained troops, and he gradually built this up to a superbly equipped, housed, and trained army of over 80,000 men. It was, at his death, the best army in Europe and one of the largest. To pay for it Frederick William I cut expenses to the bone and managed the royal fisc, or treasury, carefully. By a tax collection machine that gradually became the most efficient in Europe, Frederick William doubled his income from 3.5 million thalers in 1715 to over 7 million in 1740. He managed expenses with such ruthless care that the royal domains moved from loss to gain, and even the postal system turned a profit. This increased income supported an everincreasing army. He had inherited a bankrupt state and a depleted military from his father, but he left his son Frederick the Great (ruled 17401786) a full treasury and a mighty army. Few European monarchs would ever receive so useful an inheritance.

Frederick William's main contributions to the growth of Prussian power involved the unglamorous and daily drudgery of administration. To bring all of the major functions of government under centralized supervision, Frederick William created in 1722 the General-Ober-Finanz-Kriegsund Domänendirektorium, known as the Generaldirektorium (General Directory). It functioned as an administrative board, all of whose decisions were examined by the king. The continuing royal policy, which the General Directory both administered and initiated, followed the standard model of eighteenth-century absolutism: centralization of administrative and policy decisions in the hands of the king and uniformity of application of law and administration across all classes and provinces. These were the goals of government everywhere during the eighteenth century, but nowhere in Europe were they so successfully and relentlessly pursued as in Prussia. By the time of his death in May 1740, Frederick William I had pulled together by sheer determination, persistence, and attention to the main elements of royal power the most efficient and best organized state in Europe.

In foreign policy, Frederick William I was equally tenacious in increasing the size and power of Prussia, but he tried to do this through diplomacy. His army constituted a constant potential threat to his neighbors, but Frederick William much preferred peace. He loved his army too much to see it damaged in a prolonged war. The goal of the diplomacy was always the same. Frederick William wished to annex as much of the Baltic possessions of a declining Sweden as possible, particularly the port of Stettin and the province of Pomerania. He allied himself with Russia, he deserted Russia, he made raids on Sweden, and he made peace with Sweden. He threatened Sweden and he finally, in 1720, bought Stettin and Pomerania from Sweden for two million thalers. He could afford it.

The policies that Frederick William I followed, although rigidly and often harshly applied, were nonetheless necessary for the welfare of both Prussia and the Prussians. Foremost among the state's needs was peace. In the decade before 1713 Prussia had been part of the Great Northern War, and suffered all the destruction that marauding armies and bands of deserters could inflict. Frederick brought nearly a quarter century of peace to a poor country, giving it a chance to recover. Beyond peace the king gradually made Prussian government the most honest and efficient in Europe. Nobles lost privileges, but many gained positions in the army or civil administration. Finally, Frederick William laid the foundations of the power of Prussia, which he built around the army, and which became the basis for the creation of a unified Germany in the next century.

See also Frederick II (Prussia) ; Germany, Idea of ; Hohenzollern Dynasty ; Northern Wars ; Prussia ; Spanish Succession, War of the (17011714) .


Dorwart, Reinhold August. The Prussian Welfare State before 1740. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

Dwyer, Philip G., ed. The Rise of Prussia: 17001830. New York, 2000.

Oestreich, Gerhard. Friedrich Wilhelm I: Preussischer Absolutismus, Merkantilismus, Militarismus. Göttingen, 1977.

Walker, Mack. The Salzburg Transaction: Expulsion and Redemption in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Wilson, Peter H. German Armies: War and German Politics, 16481806. London, 1998.

James D. Hardy, Jr.

Frederick William I

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Frederick William I

Frederick William I (1688-1740) was king of Prussia from 1713 to 1740. He inherited a state whose resources were meager and turned it into a leading German power.

The son of the elector Frederick III of Brandenburg and of Sophie Charlotte of Hanover, Frederick William I was born in Berlin on Aug. 15, 1688. In 1701 his father was named king of Prussia by Emperor Charles VI. Raised at a court which strove to achieve a cultivation and a level of material display rather beyond it means, Frederick William refused to participate in the elegant life around him and spent his leisure time hunting and drinking vast quantities of beer. When he came to the throne after his father's death in 1713, he moved his household into a handful of rooms in the corner of the palace; he turned the rest of the huge structure over to the use of various ministries and transformed the pleasure gardens into a parade ground. Henceforth, hard work, parsimony, and the voice of the drill sergeant would characterize Prussia.

Partly for reasons of economy, partly because he trusted no one, Frederick William was determined to establish a purely personal government. His father's ministers were dismissed, and their successors were told to give their reports to the King in writing. Thus all major decisions were, in the last analysis, made by Frederick William himself.

Frederick William had come to the throne convinced that Prussia was in danger of being swallowed up by its more powerful neighbors. Determined to prevent this, he began strengthening his army. In 1715 he reentered the Great Northern War against Sweden. But although this campaign resulted in the gain of a part of western Pomerania, the deficiencies of the small (under 40,000) Prussian army were glaring. Unwilling to alienate the Prussian nobility, which insisted that its peasants could not be spared from their obligatory labor to do military service, Frederick William concentrated upon hiring troops abroad. Not until 1733 did he establish the canton system, which allowed regiments to recruit among the peasants and craft laborers of their home districts. By the end of his reign the size of the army had doubled and was second only to the imperial one in numbers. Two-thirds of the Prussian effectives, however, were foreigners.

To finance his military forces, Frederick William initiated new government procedures both for the spending and the collecting of revenue. The first was done by the creation of the General Finance Directory (1723), which was to approve all requests for money. The latter was achieved by replacing the feudal levy (an assessment that the nobility in practice no longer rendered) with a tax on land held by the nobles; by collecting taxes more efficiently from the peasantry; and by placing excise taxes not merely on luxury imports such as coffee, tea, and sugar but on most staple food items. Through these measures the yearly income of the state rose by 250 percent.

Apart from a general process of consolidation, the administrative reforms that made these financial gains possible were largely operational in nature. Spheres of responsibility were defined, and specific officials were made responsible for the functioning of various departments; in short, a class of amateur, part-time officials was transformed into a state-serving bureaucracy, staffed with newly chastened noble-men at the top and retired noncommissioned officers at the bottom. There were also minor judicial reforms and limited attempts to improve the lot of the peasants in the crown lands. Some 17,000 Protestants, expelled from Salzburg, were settled in East Prussia, to the considerable gain of that underpopulated province.

By the second half of the 1730s it was apparent to most contemporary observers that the work of 20 years had created a formidable army, backed by a full treasury. But the King, in spite of a developing quarrel with the empire over the province of Berg, could not be persuaded to use his resources. His last years were dominated by an increasingly bizarre concern with his palace guard of giants and with a running quarrel with his son and heir, Frederick. Frederick William I died in Potsdam on May 31, 1740.

Further Reading

The best biography of Frederick William I is Robert Ergang, The Potsdam Führer (1941). Also useful are Sidney B. Fay, The Rise of Brandenburg-Prussia to 1786 (1937; rev. ed. by Klaus Epstein, 1964), and Hans Rosenberg, Bureaucracy, Aristocracy and Autocracy: The Prussian Experience, 1660-1815 (1958). □

Frederick William I

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Frederick William I (1688–1740) King of Prussia (1713–40). Succeeding his father, Frederick I, he strengthened the army and economy and centralized the government, laying the basis for the rise of Prussia as a great power. He treated his son, the future Frederick II (the Great), with brutality, but bequeathed him a full treasury and the finest army in Europe.

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