All the Holy Roman Empire’s ecclesiastical principalities, and nearly all its many secular principalities and urban republics, were estates polities of one kind or another. Yet it is common to envision the 1648-1789 period as the “age of absolutism,” witnessing the rise of centralized military-bureaucratic states ruled by secular princes – the favored but rarely attained title was kingly – independent of the historic estates. Doubtless this view reflects the ascent, spectacular even in its own time, of the Kingdom of Prussia, which succeeded in the nineteenth century in crafting, through Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s diplomacy and the Prussian army’s sinews, a single German national state, the Empire [Reich] of 1871, into which all other surviving German principalities entered under Prussian dominance. Imperial Austria, which also had trodden the absolutist path, suffered battlefield defeat in 1866 at Prussian hands, and as the lone still surviving German-ruled state outside the Bismarckian boundaries, followed a separate path from 1867 until its fall in 1918.
The state that gradually emerged as the Kingdom of Prussia, under the Hohenzollern dynasty, was an archipelago of provinces stretching across north and central Germany from the lower Rhine to East Prussia on Russia’s border. Its political capital was Berlin, in the province of Brandenburg. The Hohenzollerns were Calvinists, but most of their subjects were Lutherans. Eventually, Prussia also included a great many Catholics and, in the absolutist era, large numbers of Jews congregated there, making it home to Germany’s largest Jewish population. Prussia was both multi-confessional and, with its French Huguenot, Jewish, Polish and other Slavic populations, multi-ethnic.
The Hohenzollerns sought to strengthen the defenses of their far-flung lands, which the Thirty Years War had widely set aflame, by following Spanish and French precedent in raising a standing army. This project they forced on the unwilling and war-battered nobility-led estates, which, under pressure, yielded their consent to permanent direct taxation of commoners and to an indirect tax whose bite was also felt by the landed gentry. Alongside a growing army, swelling tax revenues funded a new princely bureaucracy. It wrote its own administrative law, often overriding an older common law which the remnants of the Brandenburg-Prussian estates, reduced to sub-provincial assemblies and some executive committees in Berlin, feebly sought to uphold.
The Hohenzollern rulers (entitled Kings of Prussia after 1701) harnessed numerous refugee French Calvinist (Huguenot) nobles and burghers to their state-building project as administrators and army officers. To advance their mercantilist, state-guided program of repopulation and economic development, they made use of the newly founded and wealthy, but politically defenseless, Jewish community of financiers and entrepreneurs. They established a new university and, in general, reorganized higher education to train clergymen and officials – a state-tied intelligentsia – to fulfill their offices in a spirit combining Pietist Protestantism, Baroque-age Neo-Stoicism and, especially after 1740, a brand of European Enlightenment thought viewing rationalist-minded, reform-driven bureaucratic monarchy as the preferred engine of social “felicity” and “perfection.”