Throughout history many countries have disappeared from the map forever.
One of them is Prussia—a state of great significance in the modern history of Europe, still remembered today, but sometimes causing a little confusion.
One reads about “East Prussia,” “West Prussia,” and the “Kingdom of Prussia”—and it seems that very distant parts of Eastern and Western Germany were named “Prussia.” Where was it after all? And when were these names used? Let’s try to answer these questions.
It all started with people who had nothing to do with Germans.
The original Prussians were a group of about a dozen tribes speaking different dialects of a language from the Baltic group, one related to modern Lithuanian and Latvian.
Their country—called Prussia—was situated on the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea, and today it is within the territory of Russia (the Kaliningrad Oblast) and northeastern Poland.
The religion of the Prussians was focused on worshiping the powers of nature and deities related to them. They were very inimical to any attempt at Christianization. Eventually the Teutonic Knights (a German military religious order) defeated the Prussians in the thirteenth century and turned Prussia into the State of the Teutonic Order. The order successfully promoted German colonization and the Prussians soon lost their identity; their language disappeared completely and was replaced by German. With the passing of centuries, the German inhabitants of this land started to be called “Prussians.”
In the fourteenth century the Teutonic Order State spread west of the Vistula river (the main river running through Poland) by gaining the eastern part of Pomerania with Danzig (Gdańsk). The inhabitants of the Teutonic Order State started an uprising in 1454 and obtained power over most of the country, subsequently asking the King of Poland for protection. After a bitter war of thirteen years between the Teutonic Order and insurgents supported by Poland, in 1466 the land west of the Vistula was incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland and began to be known as “Royal” or “Polish Prussia.” Later it was known as “West Prussia.” The Teutonic Order State kept most of the original Prussia east of the Vistula, which later became known as “East Prussia.” Once the Protestant Reformation began, in 1525, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Albrecht von Hohenzollern, converted to Lutheranism and turned the Catholic Order’s State into a Lutheran, secular, hereditary principality. The country became known as the “Duchy of Prussia,” and Albert became its first ruler as Duke of Prussia.
For the next two centuries a clear distinction was made between “Ducal Prussia” in the east and “Royal Prussia” in the west.
In 1618 the Duchy of Prussia was inherited by a different branch of Hohenzollerns, the margraves of Brandenburg. Brandenburg is in the eastern part of today’s Germany, and Berlin was already its capital city. Officially, the only tie between Brandenburg and Prussia was that they had the same hereditary ruler. With time, however, both states became closer, despite the geographical distance separating them. This process was strengthened through the acquisition of a large portion of Pomerania on the Baltic Sea (today’s northwestern part of Poland) by the margrave of Brandenburg in the first half of the seventeenth century.
Even with this gain, his lands were still lacking territorial integrity since Royal (Polish) Prussia was between Ducal Prussia and Pomerania/Brandenburg. The Hohenzollerns kept trying to gain Polish Prussia throughout the next centuries.
In 1701 the Duke of Prussia, Frederic III Hohenzollern, crowned himself King of Prussia. Officially the Kingdom of Prussia existed only in the former Duchy of Prussia (east of the Vistula), but since the King of Prussia was at the same time a ruler of Brandenburg, Pomerania, and some other German territories, the name of the “Kingdom of Prussia” was more and more frequently used for all these dominions, even if unofficially.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, Prussia conquered the wealthy Austrian region called “Silesia” (today’s southwestern Poland), thus becoming one of the great European powers.
This conquest cleared the way for the partitioning of a weakened Poland. In the first partition (1772), the Kingdom of Prussia gained its long-desired Polish Prussia, save for Danzig/ Gdańsk. From that point, this region (former Royal Prussia) was officially called “West Prussia” (“WestPreussen,” west of the Vistula) and the original Prussia (east of the Vistula) started to be called “East Prussia” (“OstPreussen”).
The second partition of Poland (1793) gave Prussia the rest of Polish Prussia with Danzig/Gdańsk, along with a vast part of Western Poland, including most of Wielkopolska, soon renamed “Province Posen.”
The third partition of Poland (1795) moved the eastern boundaries of the Kingdom of Prussia even further to the east, including most of today’s central Poland with Warsaw and even parts of today’s Belarus and Lithuania. Even so, these extensive gains of the third partition were soon lost.
After gains in the east, soon came gains in the west. As the result of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815 the Kingdom of Prussia gained different territories in different parts of Germany:
- the Lower Rhein Province, today in the northwest part of Germany, on the border with France, Luxemburg, Belgium, and the Netherlands
- Westphalia (today’s northwestern Germany)
- parts of Saxony along the Elbe river (today’s central and eastern Germany)
- Western Pomerania (today’s northern Germany)
The Kingdom of Prussia became officially the name of all these lands united in one country under the rule of the Hohenzollern kings.
The inhabitants of the Teutonic Order State (since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) and later both Royal (Polish) and Ducal Prussia were known as Prussians. In the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries the name of “Prussians” was adopted by many inhabitants of even the most western provinces of the Kingdom of Prussia. Thus Germans from Rheinland, Westphalia, or Sachsen could be named Prussians as subjects of the Kings of Prussia. The same was true for Silesians, Pomeranians, and of course Brandenburgians.
This was a sign of Prussia’s leading position in the process of the unification of Germany.
Even so, the Prussians’ main opponent—Austria—was still strong enough to remain dominant in Germany. The rivalry was solved by a short Austro-Prussian war of 1866 with a decisive Prussian victory that brought about Prussian dominance in Germany. The Kingdom of Prussia annexed some of Austria’s allies, including the once-powerful Hannover, Hesse-Kassel, as well as Nassau, Frankfurt, Schleswig-Holstein, and some smaller territories.
Soon thereafter the Franco-German War broke out (1870) and Prussia led a coalition of German countries to a victory over the French.
The result of the victory was the creation of the German Empire, with the King of Prussia declared the Emperor of Germany (1871). Germany was united as a federation of states with the Kingdom of Prussia as its leader. The name “Prussia” continued to denote all the provinces of the Kingdom of Prussia, but also specifically the original Prussia (East Prussia) and West Prussia.
These names survived the collapse of the Empire in 1918. It was at that time that Germany turned into the Weimar Republic and the Kingdom of Prussia was abolished. All the territories of the former Kingdom of Prussia turned into the “Free State of Prussia” (“Freistaat Preussen”). East Prussia remained a part of Germany, yet parts of it were ceded to Lithuania and Poland. Poland gained back most of the territories lost a century earlier during the partitions, including the former East Pomerania (called by Germans “West Prussia,” the former Royal or Polish Prussia). Germany claimed rights to these areas, and with Adolf Hitler in power, in 1939 it pressed Lithuania to cede back the eastern part of East Prussia to Germany, and soon thereafter began pressuring Poland about West Prussia.
The questions regarding this area were among the pretexts for the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, starting the Second World War. Almost six years later, Nazi Germany was completely defeated and the German territories occupied by allies. In 1947 the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France agreed that Prussia should be dissolved. Thus the Prussian territories in Germany returned to their historical names and the name of “Prussia” became an historical term. East Prussia was definitively dissolved—part of it came to Poland, and part to the Soviet Union with the Russian Soviet Republic receiving most of it.