Meanwhile, over in the region that would become modern Germany, there was a place called Brandenburg, a small state in the Holy Roman Empire. Brandenburg’s prince was one of seven electors who chose the Holy Roman Emperor (meaning they had some power). In 1640, Frederick William became “the Great Elector.” He noticed that the geography of Prussia did not provide any natural defenses, so he developed the fourth largest army in Europe with 40,000 men. He made alliances with the French, Swedes, Dutch, and Poles. In fact, he was such a good diplomat that his armies rarely went into battle, which saved much of the money he raised in those alliances and allowed him to build the larger army and strike better bargains. You might say he’d mastered the art of the deal.


Quite a few more Fredericks came after Frederick William the Great Elector and, I’ll be honest, they are really hard to tell apart so I’m just going to generalize (#realistic expectations). One Frederick was harsh and mentally unbalanced. He refused to spend money on anything but soldiers and the development of the military. He brought the army from 40,000 to 85,000 men. An unknown foreigner remarked, “Prussia is not a state that possesses an army but an army that possesses a state.” No kidding!

The point is: Prussia was all about militarism. It was the 12th largest state but had the 4th largest army! That’s what we call disproportional (#math). They were so impressive militarily that George Washington eventually used their drill style and Peter the Great (we’ll get to him soon) copied them in Russia. The discipline wasn’t just in the military, but was culture-wide. Comedies, operas, and ballets were banned. Frederick felt that the king should despise luxury and not have mistresses. Basically, he was the opposite of Louis XIV.

Another Frederick was concerned that his son, yet another Frederick, was headed down a dangerous path because he had interests other than the military. You know, like music, philosophy, and literature. The son decided to make a break for it and headed to France (where you’ll remember there was quite a different emphasis on the arts thanks to Louis XIV). In an extremely unfortunate turn of events, the son and his friend were caught. Frederick, the father, “went nuclear” in terms of punishment and forced his 18-year-old son to watch the beheading of his friend. (Are you kidding me?!) Poor Frederick, the son, had an inner hunger for what’s beautiful, but he wasn’t allowed to pursue it. It’s like what was repressed culturally in all of Prussia came out specifically in the royal family. That’s deep.

“Everything must be committed except eternal salvation – that belongs to God, but all else is mine.” – one of the Fredericks

Speaking of God…The Fredericks were Calvinist but the people of Prussia were Lutheran, so there was toleration for Protestants (but no other religious groups). The Fredericks also weakened the state church in order to gain more power and cooperated with the nobility (“Junkers”) by requiring military and civil service in return for free reign over the peasants. That’s never a good sign. They also initiated the first system of compulsory public education (reading, writing, and how to be a good citizen). So the public school idea that dominates much of the world today originated in Prussia, which coincidentally was one of the most successful absolutist states.

Austrian Empire

Remember the Peace of Augsburg? That’s when Charles V split his empire at the end of the Reformation. His brother, Ferdinand I got those areas of Germany, plus parts of Austria and Hungary (the Holy Roman Empire). His son, Philip II, got Spain, parts of Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain’s holdings in the Americas. All three kings were part of the Hapsburg Monarchy. Well, about 100 year later, the 30 Years War ended and along with it, the possibility of an empire in Germany (because the princes of the 300 German states were given independence). So instead, the Hapsburgs decided to create a new empire in eastern and Southeastern Europe. They ended up with control of present-day Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, and Slavonia. But did the new Austrian empire become a centralized, absolutist state like France? No. There were far too many national groups, each with its own laws and political life. Aside from a shared leader in the Archduke of Austria (who was also the king of Bohemia and the king of Hungary), there was nothing that united them. I know this doesn’t seem relevant right now, but this empire will come up again in a hundred years or so. Foreshadowing.


Around the same time that Louis XIV was dominating France, Peter the Great became czar (like Caesar) in Russia. Peter was one of the most notable Romanov czars (a family that ruled for 300 hundred years!) who also believed in the nifty idea of the divine right of kings (meaning he didn’t have to answer to anyone and had absolute control). Plus “he had the mind of a genius, the body of a giant [6 foot 8 inches tall!], and the furious temper of a bear.” Whoa.

Peter the Great

Before we really get into Peter the Great, you must know that Russia had been very isolated from western Europe. When Peter took the throne in 1682, most of his nobles didn’t know much about western Europe. They had been on team Constantinople (vs Rome) when it came to church leadership (in their case, it became the Russian Orthodox church). And Russia basically missed the Renaissance, Age of Exploration, and Scientific Revolution while they were ruled by the Mongols from central Asia. If that wasn’t enough, Russia’s geography wasn’t doing them any favors. They only had one seaport that was frozen over most of the year (due to it being so close to the Arctic and all). So you can see why Peter might want to do some exploring or make some changes.

Peter the Great was allllllll about Westernization. During his trip to western Europe he actually learned how to build ships himself and used European technology (like from Prussia) to modernize his army and navy. His goal was to make Russia a great military power, so he drafted peasants for 25 year terms of service (can you imagine?!) and built the army up to 210,000 soldiers.

Also after his trip, Peter started a cultural revolution by taxing men who wanted to keep their beards since it was not the western European custom. And he completely changed the fashion style from eastern to western, switching from long robes, coats, and boots to waistcoats, breeches, gaiters, boots & hats. At the time, Russian women were expected to stay home or veil their faces if they did go out in public. Peter threw that tradition out the window by inviting noblewomen to social events and making them come without their veils. He even outlawed arranged marriages unless the young men and women agreed to their match. He paid for Russian nobles to study abroad in western Europe. He also converted the Russian calendar to match the western European calendar – moving the new year from September to January.

If that weren’t enough influence on society, he also started Russia’s first newspaper. He was shaking things up!

Since Peter was so interested in Europe, it only made sense that he would want easier access to it, so he naturally engaged in a lengthy war with Sweden over control of the Baltic Sea. There, he began constructing (literally – he helped build it himself) a new base for the Russian navy and a “window to the West” – St. Petersburg (clever name, don’t you think? He claimed it was named for his patron saint…) – Russia’s capital for the next two hundred years. Tragically (and most likely preventably), 25,000 to 100,000 people died during the construction of St. Petersburg from terrible working conditions and rampant diseases. And while Peter the Great didn’t get the nickname of “the Terrible” like Ivan, he still created an atmosphere of fear (and clearly danger for many people like those constructing St. Petersburg). For example, he is known to have said: “According to these orders act, act, act. I won’t write more, but you will pay with your head if you interpret orders again. Bossy!

Peter the Great Meditating the Idea of Building St Petersburg at the Shore of the Baltic Sea by Alexandre Benois, 1916

Resistance to Peter the Great came from the Russian elites who were not fans of foreign influence. In order to reduce this resistance, Peter created a formal list of all the military, government, and court positions called the Table of Ranks. In order to gain their power back, Russian nobles had to start at the bottom (much like Drake) and work their way up in a system of meritocracy. Before he died, Peter proclaimed that he ruled “The Russian Empire” to show his humility. (Sarcasm.) On the other hand, he did die for a noble cause. He caught a cold trying to help save soldiers on his ship from drowning in icy water and never recovered. Ultimately, you could say that his legacy was mixed. He definitely westernized and modernized Russia but he also had absolute control over even the smaller things in Russian life, which probably felt more than a little repressive to the people.

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