How a Teutonic State in the Baltic Became Protestant and Changed German History
By A. Joseph Lynch
|Although Prussia is often associated with the larger German state, the region of Prussia lies far to the east of modern day Germany, originally stretching from border of Pomerania to Lithuania along the Baltic coast.
The power of the Teutonic Knights reached its apogee at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Its fortunes changed, however, when Lithuania and Poland united against it in the Thirteen Years War (1454-1466). With the defeat of the Teutonic Knights, western Prussia (now called "Royal Prussia") was ceded to Poland and eastern Prussia was left as Teutonic rump state swearing fealty as a fief (or duchy) of Poland. In 1525, during the rising tide of Protestantism, Teutonic Prussia renounced the Catholicism held by its neighbors to the east and south and cast its lot with Lutheranism. The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Albert, in a deal partly orchestrated by Martin Luther, was recognized by the King of Poland as the Duke of Prussia. Poland for its part preferred a Lutheran Prussia over a Catholic Teutonic Prussia under the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. Though it remained a fief of Poland, its status as Lutheran made the Duchy of Prussia the first Protestant state.
|Albert (left), last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, was aided by Martin Luther (right) to renounce Catholicism, convert to Lutheranism, and create the Duchy of Prussia as the first Protestant state with the unlikely support of Catholic Poland.
The duchy entered into a succession crisis in 1618 when its duke, Albert Frederick, died without an heir. Succession fell to his son-in-law, John Sigismund of the Hohenzollern family, who at the time was also the ruler of Lutheran Brandenburg with its capital of Berlin, situated in the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the distance between his two realms and the fact that the Duchy of Prussia was still a Polish fief, Sigismund would rule over both Brandenburg and Prussia in a personal union called “Brandenburg-Prussia.” Sigismund, a champion of Calvinism’s spread, soon found himself ruling large numbers of Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists.
In 1656, Sweden conquered the Duchy of Prussia during its war with Poland-Lithuania. When the tides of war turned against the Swedes, Charles X Gustav of Sweden offered Prussia’s return to Brandenburg on the condition that Brandenburg entered the war as a Swedish ally. Poland, hearing of the offer, countered with an offer of its own: if Brandenburg remained neutral, the Duchy of Prussia would be returned to Brandenburg fully free of Polish fealty. With the defeat of Sweden, Brandenburg-Prussia became more powerful than ever before – but the Poles were willing to accept that over having a new enemy on a second front. The victorious rulers in Brandenburg’s Berlin, however, had even more in mind. They desired the title of king. For this they would need the support of the Holy Roman Emperor – the one person who wouldn’t stand for an upstart king within his borders. Wars, however, require allies – and soon the emperor would be in need of an ally from the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg-Prussia.
Frederick the Great would conquer Silesia from the Austrians and old West Prussia (or Royal Prussia) from Poland. With these territories acquired (see this excellent video map of Prussia's expansion), Prussia dramatically increased in size, physically uniting the disparate territories of the former Brandenburg-Prussian state, and becoming an emerging power on the continent – a status it fully achieved in 1806 with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Kingdom of Prussia, governed in Berlin by the highborn Junker class of the old Brandenburg-Prussian core region, became the center of German unification during the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1871, the Kingdom of Prussia had defeated and taken lands from Poland, Denmark, Austria, and France. It would be governed by the Hohenzollerns until the disastrous defeat of 1918, which led to territorial losses to the French (Alsace-Loraine), Danes (North Schleswig), Poland (Posen, Upper Silesia, West Prussia), Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania. The eastern core of the original Prussian state in the Baltic region remained, but it was once more physically cut off from the larger German state by the loss of West Prussia to Poland.
Nazi Germany’s failed attempt to regain lost German territory – and Europe along with it – led to the loss of Pomerania and Silesia to Poland, and to the end of the original Prussian state in the east. The southern half of old Prussia was incorporated into Poland and the northern half made a part of Russia, which it remains to this day. Konigsberg became Kaliningrad, and the native Prussian population was forcibly evicted and replaced by native Russians. Today the Kaliningrad region is a geostrategically important oblast of the Russian Federation, giving Russia military reach into Europe and providing it with its only Baltic port that does not freeze in the winter. Long gone are the days of the Teutonic Knights, the Junker aristocracy, and German glory. Prussia lives on in our histories, but little is left of it upon ground from which it came.