After a generation or two, if not immediately, the Prussian nobility and burgher elites saw their interests advanced by Prussian “absolutism.” The landed gentry became, arguably, Europe’s outstanding service nobility, dominating the Prussian army officer corps and occupying numerous administrative offices as well. The Prussian state’s many investments in economic development (notably to supply its army) drew the commercial-manufacturing bourgeoisie into cooperation with the state. The educated middle class lived largely from public-sector employment, while many commoners prospered in agriculture as leaseholders of state domain lands and as tenant-farmers, bailiffs, or justiciars on the nobility’s estates. In these ways, the Prussian pattern tied the propertied and educated elites together in new, state-generated configurations, leaving no powerful oppositional interests on the outside.
During the long reign of Frederick II, Prussia fought dramatic, triumphant wars against Austria (and her changing European allies) with the objective, successfully achieved, of conquering and holding the large and rich Austrian province of Silesia. This prize’s acquisition raised Prussia to rivalrous equality with Austria as arbiter of Germany’s fate, and as the newest of the (now) five European Great Powers. Frederick’s wars crystallized a Prussian identity and patriotism that penetrated the ranks of the common people and solidified the bond between state and society. His successes gave rise to a Prussian mystique that won much support across Germany, especially in Protestant lands whose own princely regimes appeared undynamic and self-serving, unenlightened or unprogressive, inglorious and – an idea that began to arise after 1763 – indifferent to “Germany.” In fact, Prussia, like other power-states, regularly put its own interests (its raison d’état) first, as its participation in the Machiavellian partitions of Poland (1772-95) and other self-aggrandizing policies during the French Revolution and Napoleonic period made clear.
Nor should Prussia’s success in building a militarized power-state be exaggerated. Napoleon’s France dealt it a crushing battlefield defeat in 1806 and then imposed territorial, military, and economic losses that would have been crippling had Napoleon’s downfall in 1812-15 not reversed them. Yet compared with other German states, Prussia exhibited decisive strength in the cohesion of its elites, and in the marshaling of its political and economic resources. The Electorate of Saxony possessed considerable economic strength in its mining and other industrial enterprises, and in the profitable east-west commerce of Leipzig. But its rulers’ acquisition of the Polish crown in the years 1733-63 worked against absolutist state-building at home, while its later alliance with Napoleon exposed Saxony to severe territorial losses, to Prussia’s advantage, in 1815.
Similarly, the rulers of Electoral Hanover, in gaining the English throne in 1714, missed an opportunity to forge a stronger German state. Bavaria, long a powerful south German principality, faced in the eighteenth century the obstacles of relative urban-industrial decline, a small-scale noble class, and a rich and conservative Catholic church. Its bitter rivalry with Austria, which lured it repeatedly into French alliances, exacted heavy military losses, which were compounded by peasant revolts. Though Bavaria gained territory in the late eighteenth century, it did not bristle with arms. In Protestant Württemberg, the nobility, as imperial knights, stood directly under the emperor, leaving the land to be ruled through a burgher-dominated estates-parliament, which sought jealously to block princely power-aggrandizement.