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Modern History Sourcebook:
The Decline of the Holy Roman Empire and the Rise of Prussia, 1700-1786

Samuel Pufendorf: History of the Principal Kingdoms, 1700

Pufendorf discusses the decline of central power in the Holy Roman Empire (a process which reached back to the 13th century).

Germany has its particular Form of Government, the like is not to be met withal in any Kingdom of Europe, except that the ancient Form of Government in France came pretty near it. Germany acknowledges but one Supreme Head under the Title of the Roman Emperor; which Title did at first imply no more than the Sovereignty over the City of Rome, and the Protection of the Church of Rome and her Patrimony. This Dignity was first annexed to the German Empire by Otto I. but it is long ago since the Popes have robbed the Kings of Germany of this Power, and only have left them the bare Name. But besides this, the Estates of Germany some of which have great and potent Countries in their possession, have a considerable share of the Sovereignty over their Subjects; and though they are Vassals of the Emperor and Empire, nevertheless they ought not to be considered as Subjects, or only as potent or rich Citizens in a Government; for they are actually possessed of the supreme jurisdiction in the Criminal Affairs; they have power to make Laws and to regulate Church Affairs, (which however is only to be understood of the Protestants) to dispose of the Revenues rising out of their Own Territories; to make Alliances, as well among themselves as with Foreign States, provided the same are not intended against the Emperor and Empire; they may build and maintain Fortresses and Armies of their own, Coin Money, and the like. This grandeur of the Estates, 'tis true, is a main obstacle that the Emperor cannot make himself absolute in the Empire, except it be in his Hereditary Countries.

Though it is certain that Germany within its self is so Potent, that it might be formidable to all its Neighbours, if its strength was well united and rightly employed; nevertheless this strong Body has also its infirmities, which weaken its strength, and slacken its vigour; its irregular Constitution of Government is one of the chief causes of its Distemper.

From Samuel Pufendorf, An Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe (London: Thomas Newborough and Martha Gilliflower, 1700), p. 303.

Count von Seckendorf: On Frederick William I

King Frederick William 1 (1713-1740) made possible the rise of Prussia through his creation of an efficient army and bureaucracy. Seckendorf was the Austrian ambassador in Berlin.

It is certain that nowhere in the world one can see troops comparable with the Prussians for beauty, cleanliness, and order. Although in drill, training, and marching much is forced and affected, nearly everything is useful and efficient. Besides, it must be admitted that the army and the troops lack nothing that is needed. The soldiers number 70,000, and every regiment has at least a hundred more men than the normal figure. The Arsenal is superabundantly provided with field artillery and siege artillery, and only the teams are missing. Moreover, there is such an enormous store of powder, shot, and shells as if a great war was threatening. In Berlin and all about Brandenburg one sees as many troops moving as one saw in Vienna during the last war against the Turks. All this activity is directed by the King in person, and only by him. Besides, he looks after the whole public administration in all its branches With such care and thoroughness that not a thaler [note: a monetray unit]is spent unless he has given his signature. Those who do not see it cannot believe that there is any man in the world, however intelligent and able he may be, who can settle so many things personally in a single day as Frederick William the First, who works from 3 o'clock in the morning till 10, and spends the rest of' the day in looking after and drilling his army....

Isaac Isaacsohn: History of the Prussian Civil Service

The absolute subordination of the Civil Service from the highest to the lowest, their unquestioning obedience to the King, together with their absolute responsibility not only for then- own actions, but also for those of their colleagues and their inferiors, created among them an extremely strong sense of professional honour, solidarity, arid of' professional pride. The influence of the nobility and of Society diminished unceasingly. The service of the King required undivided attention.

The King's uniform, which every Civil Servant had to wear when on duty, kept the feeling alive among them that they were the King's servants and had to represent the King's interests. The power of the officials and their independence, in case they were opposed by strong social influences, was increased by the fact that the officials were strangers in the districts in which they were employed, for Frederick William continued the policy of appointing only strangers to the district to official positions....

From The Foundations of Germany, J. Ellis Barker, trans. (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1916), pp. 11, 15.

Letters of Prince Frederick and Frederick William I

This is an exchange between Frederick William I with his 16-year old son, the later Frederick II.

From Prince Frederick

Wusterhausen, September 11, 1728.

I have not ventured for a long time to present myself before my dear papa, partly because I was advised against it, but chiefly because I anticipated an even worse reception than usual and feared to vex my dear papa still further by the favor I have now to ask; so I have preferred to put it in writing.

I beg my dear papa that he will be kindly disposed toward me. I do assure him that after long examination of my conscience I do not find the slightest thing with which to reproach myself; but if, against my wish and will, I have vexed my dear papa, I hereby beg most humbly for forgiveness, and hope that my dear papa will give over the fearful hate which has appeared so plainly in his whole behavior and to which I cannot accustom myself. I have always thought hitherto that I had a kind father, but now I see the contrary. However, I will take courage and hope that my dear papa will think this all over and take me again into his favor. Meantime I assure him that I will never, my life long, willingly fail him, and in spite of his disfavor I am still, with most dutiful and childlike respect, my dear papa's

Most obedient and faithful servant and son,


Frederick William: Reply

A bad, obstinate boy, who does not love his father; for when one does one's best, and especially when one loves one's father, one does what he wishes not only when he is standing by but when he is not there to see. Moreover you know very well that I cannot stand an effeminate fellow who has no manly tastes, who cannot ride or shoot (to his shame be it said!), is untidy about his person, and wears his hair curled like a fool instead of cutting it; and that I have condemned all these things a thousand times, and yet there is no sign of improvement. For the rest, haughty, offish as a country lout, conversing with none but a favored few instead of being affable and popular, grimacing like a fool, and never following my wishes out of love for me but only when forced into it, caring for nothing but to have his own way, and thinking nothing else is of any importance. This is my answer.


From J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1906), 321-322.

Frederick II (1740-1786): Memoirs

When he became king, Frederick II expanded his dominions. A major achievement was his seizure of Silesia from Austria, despite previous promises to respect Austria's claims.

Posterity will perhaps see with surprise in these Memoirs accounts of treaties which have been concluded and broken. Although examples of broken treaties are common, the author of these Memoirs would require better reasons than precedent for explaining his conduct in breaking treaties. A sovereign must be guided by the interest of the State. In the following cases alliances may be broken:

(1) When one's ally does not fulfil his engagements;

(2) When one's ally wishes to deceive one, and when one cannot by any other means prevent him;

(3) When necessity (force majeure) compels one;

(4) When one lacks means to continue the war.

By the will of Fate wealth influences everything. Rulers are slaves of their means. To promote the interest of their State is a law to them, a law which is inviolable. If a ruler must be ready to sacrifice his life for the welfare of his subjects, he must be still more ready to sacrifice, for the benefit of his subjects, solemn engagements which he has undertaken if their observance would be harmful to his people. Cases of broken treaties may be encountered everywhere. It is not our intention to justify all breaches of treaty. Nevertheless, I venture to assert that there are cases when necessity or wisdom, prudence or consideration of the welfare of the people, oblige sovereigns to transgress because the violation of a treaty is often the only means whereby complete ruin can be avoided.

To me it seems clear and obvious that a private person must scrupulously observe the given word, even if he should have bound himself without sufficient thought....

The word of a private person involves in misfortune only a single human being, while that of sovereigns can create calamities for entire nations. The question may therefore be summed up thus: Is it better that a nation should perish, or that a sovereign should break his treaty? Who can be stupid enough to hesitate in answering this question?

From The Foundations of Germary, J. Ellis Barker, trans. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1916),.35-36.

Frederick II (1740-1786):Essay on the Forms of Government

A sovereign must possess an exact and detailed knowledge of the strong and of the weak points of his country. He must be thoroughly acquainted with its resources, the character of the people, and the national commerce....

Rulers should always remind themselves that they are men like the least of their subjects. The sovereign is the foremost judge, general, financier, and minister of his country, not merely for the sake of his prestige. Therefore, he should perform with care the duties connected with these offices. He is merely the principal servant of the State. Hence, he must act with honesty, wisdom, and complete disinterestedness in such a way that he can render an account of his stewardship to the citizens at any moment. Consequently, he is guilty if he wastes the money of the people, the taxes which they have paid, in luxury, pomp, and debauchery. He who should improve the morals of the people, be the guardian of the law, and improve their education should not pervert them by his bad example.

Princes, sovereigns, and king have not been given supreme authority in order to live in luxurious self-indulgence and debauchery. They have not been elevated by their fellow-men to enable them to strut about and to insult with their pride the simple-mannered, the poor, and the suffering. They have not been placed at the head of the State to keep around themselves a crowd of idle loafers whose uselessness drives them towards vice. The bad administration which may be found in monarchies springs from many different causes, but their principal cause lies in the character of the sovereign. A ruler addicted to women will become a tool of his mistresses and favourites, and these will abuse their power and commit wrongs of every kind, will protect vice, sell offices, and perpetrate every infamy....

The sovereign is the representative of his State. He and his people form a single body. Ruler and ruled can be happy only if they are firmly united. The sovereign stands to his people in the same relation in which the head stands to the body. He must use his eyes and his brain for the whole community, and act on its behalf to the common advantage. If we wish to elevate monarchical above republican government, the duty of sovereigns is clear. They must be active, hard-working, upright and honest, and concentrate all their strength upon filling their office worthily. That is my idea of the duties of sovereigns.

From The Foundations of Germany, J. Ellis Barker, trans. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1916), pp. 22-23


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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