Frederick William (1620-1688) was elector of Brandenburg from 1640 to 1688. Known as the Great Elector, he augmented and integrated the Hohenzollern possessions in northern Germany and Prussia.
Born in Berlin on Feb. 16, 1620, Frederick William was the only son of Elector George William and Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate. He was raised in the Reformed faith of the Hohenzollern court and in 1634 went to the University of Leiden, where he dutifully, if un-enthusiastically, attended lectures and more happily explored the vital commercial life of the harbor town. His experience in the Netherlands left him with a religious tolerance uncommon in his age and a firm impression of the commercial basis of Dutch power. He returned to Berlin in 1638 only to flee from an invading Swedish army with his ailing father. George William died in Königsberg on Dec. 1, 1640, and Frederick William succeeded him. He was quiet in manner, stocky and robust, with a face dominated by a nose of heroic proportions; in middle age he grew uncommonly corpulent.
The new elector of Brandenburg also inherited the duchies of Prussia in the east and Cleve-Mark on the Dutch frontier. His scattered possessions had widely different social and political systems, but they offered him potentially great influence in German affairs. In the beginning he directed his policy toward a cautious disengagement from his father's pro-Austrian diplomacy, which had led to the disastrous war with Sweden. At the same time he built up his own military forces to protect his exposed states and to give him diplomatic leverage. In these aims he succeeded well enough, and by the Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War in 1648, he acquired eastern Pomerania from Sweden, the bishoprics of Minden and Halberstadt, and the reversion of Magdeburg. From that time Hohenzollern possessions in Germany were second only to those of the imperial Hapsburg dynasty. Having failed to establish his hereditary claim to the duchy of Jülich-Berg, Frederick William turned after 1651 to the fiscal and administrative reorganization of his states. Each province sent agents to Berlin to attend the Privy Council, the central governing body over which the elector presided personally.
Like most absolutist rulers of the century, Frederick William had constantly to battle the opposition of the privileged aristocratic caste, the noble landlords who defended their "liberties" and special prerogatives through the estates and diets of the various provinces. Rather than risk rebellion by eliminating the diets, Frederick William whittled away at their influence, bargaining with each diet for the right to collect taxes, appoint officials of his own choosing, quarter troops, and exercise appellate jurisdiction. He took advantage of conflicts between the towns and the landed nobility, weakened the opposition, and created the financial base for a large standing army, which in turn became the instrument for imposing reforms on the institutions of the state. The organization of this army was the cornerstone of Prussian power. Though still a mercenary army on the old pattern, it was slowly nationalized so that by the end of his reign Frederick William's officer corps was largely made up of his own subjects.
Impressed by the economic success of the seafaring Dutch, the elector tried to build an active navy. He chartered Dutch ships to privateer in the Baltic during a war with Sweden from 1675 to 1679. In 1680 two chartered ships established a bridgehead colony on the Gold Coast, and his African Trading Company brought modest profits by trading in slaves with the West Indies. In this venture and in his internal economic policies he followed the mercantilist doctrines of the age. One of his main concerns was to bring new settlers to the land and skilled craftsmen to the towns, offering tax exemptions and subsidies to desirable immigrants. Nearly 20,000 French Huguenots settled in his territories after 1685, bringing important new manufacturing skills and a cultural refinement foreign to those frontier provinces.
Frederick William's foreign policy was governed by an unashamed territorial acquisitiveness. In the First Northern War between Sweden and Poland he allied himself first in 1655 with Sweden and then changed sides in 1657 to join the Poles. By the Treaty of Oliva in 1660 his duchy of Prussia won its freedom from Polish sovereignty. In 1672 and again in 1674 he joined the Austro-Dutch coalition against France, and in 1675 he turned against Sweden, France's northern ally. Although he captured Swedish Pomerania and its valuable seaport Stettin in 1677, the Treaty of Nijmegen returned it to Sweden in 1679. Frustrated by his allies, he reversed his policy once more and allied with France in 1679, sitting by quietly while Louis XIV established French dominance in the Rhineland. With the Turkish assault on Vienna in 1683, his friendship with France, which tacitly supported the Turks, cooled rapidly. After the expulsion of the Calvinist Huguenots from France in 1685 he once again cast his lot with the Austrian Hapsburgs and the Netherlands in the anti-French League of Augsburg.
During the later years of his reign Frederick William was plagued by painful rheumatism or arthritis complicated by asthma. In spite of his illness he kept a strict, almost military, working schedule. His tastes remained simple and his court frugal. He died at Potsdam on May 9, 1688, leaving his successors a state in place of the handful of scattered provinces he had inherited.
An excellent biography of Frederick William in English is Ferdinand Schevill, The Great Elector (1947). For historical background see David Ogg, Europe in the Seventeenth Century (1925; 6th rev. ed. 1952), and Cicely V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (1939).