Twenty year old Frederick William Hohenzollern became Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia in 1640 and reigned for 48 years until his death in 1688. Historians refer to him as “the Great Elector” (der Große Kurfürst) because of his military and political prowess which set the groundwork for Brandenburg and Prussia to merge and become the Kingdom of Prussia by 1701. His son became the first King of Prussia and his great grandson was so accomplished as King and military leader that historians dubbed him Frederick the Great.
The title “Kurfürst”… meaning “Elector”… refers to his rank as a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the 4 secular leaders and 3 Archbishops who could elect the next King of the Romans (meaning Germans) who would then be crowned by the Pope as Kaiser, with the title “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”. Each elector held a “High Office of the Empire” (Reichserzämter) and was a member of the ceremonial Imperial Household. The four secular princes represented the most powerful dukes .. the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Duke of Saxony and the King of Bohemia.The three spiritual electors were the Archbishop of Mainz, who was Arch-Chancellor of Germany; the Archbishop of Cologne who was Arch-Chancellor of Italy; and the Archbishop of Trier, who was Arch-Chancellor of Burgundy. Of all these powerful Electors, only Frederick William is known as “The Great Elector”.
First of all he was a military commander of wide renown, spurred on by having witnessed the last 28 years of the Thirty Years War, He saw the repeated devastation of his people and their properties as the great European powers fought their brutal and seemingly unending religious civil war. Huge armies of violent mercenaries… from both enemies and allies…roamed back and forth on his lands for 30 years stripping farms and cities of food and valuables and killing indiscriminately, Frederick William recognized the urgent need for a strong army. His solution was to create a large professional standing army…an army that would include only trained citizens as professional soldiers and exclude mercenaries. Instead of using ill trained and poorly motivated mercenary troops, as all countries did at the time, he set about to create what is now standard in modern nations and laid the foundation of Prussia’s ever increasing military power. Pundits began to describe Prussia not as country with a great army, but a great army with a country.
The Great Elector is famous for winning the Battle of Warsaw, the Battle of Fehrbellin, and the Great Sleigh Drive in 1678. His use of broad directives and delegation of decision-making to his commanders would later become the basis for the German doctrine of Auftragstaktik, using rapid mobility to defeat foes.
This painting by Simmler illustrates an event in history called “The Great Sleigh Drive” (German: Die große Schlittenfahrt) which was a daring and bold maneuver by the Great Elector to drive Swedish forces out of the Duchy of Prussia, a territory of his which had been invaded by the Swedes during the winter of 1678.
Previously, the Great Elector had defeated the Swedes and driven them from Brandenburg at the Battle of Fehrbellin but he now faced a Swedish revenge incursion into Prussia. Although the main body of his army was engaged at the siege of the Swedish-held port city of Stralsund on the coast of the Baltic Sea far to the west, Frederick marched a small reserve of his army to the Prussian town of Preußisch Holland and engaged the Swedish force occupying the city. The Swedes, having been soundly defeated at the Battle of Fehrbellin, were hesitant to face Frederick William again and decided to retreat to the coast in order to return to Sweden, having already accomplished their goal of looting much of the province and avenging their earlier defeat.
Most commanders would have simply allowed the Swedes to depart, but Frederick William was particularly aggressive and came across the ingenious idea of commandeering thousands of sleighs from the local peasantry to transport his army across the snowy terrain of the Duchy of Prussia to cut-off the Swedes’ escape route, creating in effect a sort of precursor to motorized infantry. Driving over the heavy snow and several frozen lakes, Frederick managed to drive deep into the flanks and rear of the escaping Swedish force, denying them access to the coast and their navy, which would have allowed them to resupply or escape.
Frederick’s forces managed to ride all the way to Memel, completely cutting off the Swedes from the coast. Although the Brandenburg forces never actually managed to force the Swedes to commit to the field in an open battle as Frederick had wanted, many Swedish troops perished in the harsh winter from hypothermia and starvation, and the Swedish army was effectively destroyed. This victory cemented Frederick William’s reputation as a great military strategist.
Politically, his shrewd domestic reforms gave Prussia a strong position in the post Thirty Years War era. He strengthened the government by exempting the nobility from taxes when they in turn agreed to dissolve the Estates-General. Economically he saw the importance of trade and promoted it vigorously. In this vein, he simplified travel in Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia by connecting rivers with canals, a kind of precursor to modern highways…a system that greased the wheels of commerce. It was expanded by later Prussian architects and is still in use today.
And if you have ever wondered why some of Germany’s war heroes in WWI and WWII have French names, the reason for this dates back to the Great Elector and his successors. The Great Elector followed a policy of religious freedom and after French King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Frederick William encouraged skilled French and Walloon Huguenots to emigrate to Brandenburg-Prussia. His Edict of Potsdam welcomed the French and thus also bolstered the country’s technical and industrial base.