The Great Elector. (Shorter Notices)

Citation metadata

Author: Peter H. Wilson
Date: June 2002
From: The English Historical Review(Vol. 117, Issue 472)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 677 words
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

by Derek McKay (Harlow: Longman, 2001; pp. 286. Pb. 14.99 [pounds sterling]).

While Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia has long been recognized as one of the most important figures in seventeenth-century German and European history, there has been no satisfactory English-language biography. Happily, this gap has now been filled by Derek McKay's lucid and succinct account in Longman's Profiles in Power series. The old Borussian triumphalism which still, largely unintentionally, surfaces in less judicious discussions of this period, is here firmly knocked on the head. While Frederick William still earns his title as `Great Elector' for rescuing his lands and dynasty from the grave dangers of the 1640s, the tired cliche of the conscious state-builder promoting the rise of Prussia is properly laid to rest. This does not mean that the older historical concerns for foreign policy, administrative change and military growth are given short shrift. Interestingly, McKay has adopted a sophisticated version of the `primacy of foreign policy' argument which has traditionally been advanced to explain internal change within the Hohenzollern monarchy and its external expansion. The elector's primary concerns were to protect and enhance the international standing of his family and its possessions. The policies he pursued within his lands were always subordinate to these ends and were largely directed at securing the resources to sustain his dynastic ambitions. While, however, he favoured an active and interventionist foreign policy, he did not shape events, but rather remained dependent on circumstance and the favour of more powerful rulers. The discussion of the `absolutist' nature of Frederick William's regime is equally intelligent. Brandenburg-Prussia has long epitomized what many have described as the `military-bureaucratic absolutism' of the powerful, efficient centralized state. Much recent research has been directed at dismissing this as a myth, and while McKay stresses the limits of Frederick William's power, he is right to re-emphasize that the ruler's authority none the less both increased and assumed new characteristics by 1688. While there was certainly no `absolutism by blueprint', Frederick William did assert a pragmatic form, arguing that necessity could override established local privilege. This remained within limits because the elector continued to recognize the right of traditional institutions to exist and sought compromise wherever possible. The aim was always to achieve the freedom to pursue dynastic ambition, rather than to institute wide-ranging reform. Important though they were, the elector's administrative and fiscal achievements were modest and his possessions remained a `composite state', rather than a unitary monarchy. This point is underscored by the book's even treatment of Ducal Prussia, Electoral Brandenburg, and the western territories, all of which had different histories, problems and characteristics. McKay also notes that two-thirds of the elector's possessions remained integral parts of the Holy Roman Empire, which has long been written out of `Prussian' history. Emperor Leopold I appears here not only as an Austrian Habsburg, but as the elector's formal overlord and the head of a still vital polity that sprawled across central Europe. While Brandenburg-Prussia emerged as the second most powerful force within the Empire during Frederick William's reign, McKay carefully avoids back-projecting the later Austro-Prussian rivalry in his analysis of seventeenth-century imperial politics. The discussion of the social basis of Hohenzollern power is equally fresh and informed by the detailed studies of agrarian historians William Hagen, Heinrich Kaak and others who have re-appraised East Elbian serfdom. While Frederick William relied heavily on aristocrats to sustain his authority, there was no wholesale compromise with the Junkers at the expense of other social groups. The impact of war, the reorientation of European trade, and the unintended consequences of the elector's mercantilist policies account for the decline of the Hohenzollern towns, while the peasants suffered more from rising fiscal and military burdens, than the Junkers' heavy hand. The role of religion and ideas such as Neostoicism is also woven into the analysis which concludes that the elector did not construct a `confessional state', despite his pursuit of a `Protestant foreign policy'. McKay has written a measured and judicious evaluation of the Great Elector and his place in German and European history.

University of Sunderland

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A89379287