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East Germany Table of Contents

East Germany

The End of the Holy Roman Empire and the Rise of Prussia

The devastated and disjointed empire ceased to play a role in European politics after the Thirty Years' War. As a result of the Peace of Westphalia, German principalities became autonomous territorial units, and the power of the Holy Roman Emperor was reduced by German princes in league with France. During this period of disintegration, Prussia (officially so named in 1807) began to develop as a state. In 1618 the Brandenburg lineage of the Hohenzollern Dynasty had acquired possession of the Duchy of Prussia. Through a series of agreements, the Hohenzollerns increased their territory by acquiring a string of principalities in northern Germany. Frederick William the Great Elector (1640- 88) established absolute monarchical rule within this territory by making an alliance with the Junkers, the landed aristocracy comprising the officer corps of the Prussian army, who in turn were guaranteed the perpetuation of an agrarian economy based on serfdom. Originally a small and insignificant state, Prussia required a standing army for protection. In order to maintain the army and to ensure growth of the state, Prussian rulers introduced centralized taxation and a bureaucratic system of civil officials. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Prussia began to rise as a European military power. Prussian expansionism led to competition with Habsburg Austria, the other great power within the German empire. The competition culminated, fifty years later, in the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Fought by Prussia under Frederick II (Frederick the Great, 1740-86) against Austria, Russia, and France, the conflict demonstrated the superiority of the disciplined Prussian armies.

The French Revolution of 1789, in addition to ending the ancien régime in France, aroused sentiment against absolutism in several European countries. After the revolutionary movement had spread, Prussia did not join in the campaigns aimed at stemming the tide of revolution. After the defeat of the Austro-Russian armies by Napoleon at Austerlitz in 1806, the principalities of southern Germany withdrew from the empire and formed the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) under the protectorship of France; Emperor Francis II abdicated, and the Holy Roman Empire came to an end. The German states in the confederation began to replace the old order of social distinctions and privileges. Prussia, which was finally forced into war by Napoleon, also met defeat at Jena and Auerstedt. After the defeat, the reform of the Prussian military was undertaken by Gerhard von Scharnhorst, who emphasized the importance of moral incentives, personal courage, and individual responsibility. He also introduced the principle of competition and abandoned the privileges accorded to nobility within the officer corps. Prussian generals in the War of Liberation against Napoleon adopted the tactics of the revolutionary armies of France; the military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, in particular, developed new military strategy principles in both theory and practice.

Data as of July 1987