From the late 17th to early 20th centuries, Prussia was one of the most prominent states in Europe. Prussia rose to prominence through stable economic growth, agricultural developments and a strong, well-disciplined military. During that period, Prussia had 9 kings, all named Friedrich (Frederick), Wilhelm (William) or Friedrich Wilhelm (Frederick William).
The House of Hohenzollern established themselves as one of the greatest houses in world history by impacting the history of Europe for centuries. In this article, we will present you a brief history of the kings of Prussia. This list will not include the monarchs of Prussia before 1688 when it officially became a kingdom.
Frederick I (1688-1713)
(the First King of Prussia)
Frederick the First was the first king of Prussia. He was the first Prussian monarch to develop friendly relations with the Holy Roman Emperor against the French king. Building a mid-sized army at the beginning of the 18th century, Frederick I made Prussia into a key player in European politics.
In 1701, Frederick’s diplomatic maneuvers paid off, as Prussia became the second strongest power within the Empire after the Emperor. This led to Prussia acquiring the title of “Kingdom” after a series of diplomatic negotiations.
At that time, Imperial Law prohibited the use of the title of the King. Frederick was, until 1701, a Duke of the Empire. However, Frederick’s unique position made the Emperor grant him an exemption from that law, thus making him the first king within the Holy Roman Empire.
However, Frederick was not officially the “King of Prussia” but the “King in Prussia”. The former title was not adopted until his grandson Frederick the Great.
Frederick William I (1713-1740)
(the Soldier King)
Called by his contemporaries “the Soldier King”, Frederick William (Wilhelm) was one of the greatest kings of Prussia. His reign saw the formation of the famous, well-disciplined Prussian army. He took over an army of 8k and raised the number of soldiers to 40k.
Frederick Wilhelm was a staunch anti-Catholic and therefore granted many Protestants refuge. This policy provided Prussia a much-needed population growth, which paved the way for more economic growth.
Frederick Wilhelm is also famous for his ill-treatment of his son, the future king Frederick the Second (Frederick the Great). Despite that, Frederick learned a lot from his father. Frederick William was an absolute monarch, Frederick William’s absolutism passed on to his son.
Frederick II (Frederick the Great) (1740-1786)
(the Enlightened Monarch)
Frederick II was the third king of Prussia and by most accounts the most successful. His accomplishments made him one of the best leaders in world history. He was a widely known figure within the Enlightenment movement and had close relations with philosophers like Voltaire and was praised by Kant.
Frederick the Great was an excellent military strategist who led his army in the Seven Years War against the great powers of Europe. He fought many campaigns against Austria, France and Russia. His reign saw massive territorial expansion for Prussia.
His foreign policy was focused on developing favorable relations with the British. He antagonized the Austrians by constantly warmongering against them as his aim was to become the leading German monarch.
Frederick was an innovative statesman who invited many thinkers and scientists to his realm. He promoted legal equality for all citizens and encouraged agricultural development. He introduced potato to German farmers, who at first refused the plant but later adopted it. Potato rapidly became a staple for the average German person’s diet.
Prussian economy and population grew by a great amount throughout his reign. Even though he was likely not a man of religion, he invited many Protestants into his realm by granting them religious and legal freedom. He converted this growth into strengthening the army, forming a great army of 80 thousand men.
Frederick had no children and had no apparent interest in women, which led to historians arguing that he was homosexual or asexual. He resided in the Sanssouci Palace he had built for himself and only men were welcome there. There he died a silent death in 1786, leaving behind a great legacy and a strong state.
Frederick William II (1786-1797)
Frederick William II (Wilhelm) was the Prussian king during a time of crisis in Europe. His reign saw the French Revolution’s impacts on Europe, which led to drastic policy changes.
He, like all other European monarchs, took a harsh stance against the revolutionary movements. He changed many policies of his predecessor and uncle, Frederick the Great.
His accomplishments are more on the side of supporting art and architecture. The famous Brandenburg Gate was constructed during his reign and many great works of art were produced under his kingdom.
His reign was relatively short with 11 years. He died in 1797. His reign is widely regarded as a point of decline in the history of Prussia.
Frederick William III (1797-1840)
Frederick William III of Prussia was widely regarded as one of the least successful kings. This is mainly because he led a disastrous war against Napoleon and was subsequently exiled from his own kingdom. He was forced to made peace with France and become a puppet king under Napoleonic influence.
In 1806, when Napoleon led a series of campaigns in Germany, Frederick William III declared war against France and was quickly defeated at the Battle of Jena. He was chased out of his own realms and Berlin, the capital city of Prussia, fell to French forces.
Frederick William and his wife Queen Lousie were sheltered by the Russian Emperor Alexander. In exile they negotiated a surrender with Napoleon, who took a large chunk of Prussian territory, as well as a massive amount of money as war payments.
Prussia became a French puppet state until 1813. Prussians were forced to fight with the French during Napoleon’s campaigns, most famously in Russia.
However, after Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia, Frederick William became a leading figure of rebellion against the French, promoting German nationalism among his subjects.
After the Congress of Vienna until his death 1840, Frederick William led a passive reign. The country went through some cultural and political changes with him holding a secondary position behind the government.
Frederick William IV (1840-1861)
Frederick William IV was the final king of Prussia who did not also carry the title “Emperor of Germany”.
His reign saw many revolutions throughout Germany. He himself was somewhat sympathetic to the revolutionaries and was a liberal man himself.
He was offered to be declared the first “German Emperor” by the revolutionaries although he declined the proposal.
At the time of his death, Prussia had become the dominant force over the German population.
William I (Wilhelm I)
(the First Emperor of Germany) (1861-1888)
William I of Prussia was the seventh King of Prussia and the first Emperor of Germany.
William I was one of the most famous Prussian kings as Prussia unified Germany for the first time under his rule and formed the German Empire in 1871. He worked with prominent statesmen such as Helmuth von Moltke, who was a great military strategist and Otto von Bismarck, who is regarded as one of the best leaders in German history.
William had aimed to form a greater German Empire which included Austria as well, but he was convinced by his Chancellor Bismarck to befriend Austria instead.
William’s reign is also significant for Germany’s rise into the world scene as a great industrial and economic power. Many German corporations were founded under his reign as German industry took over the British industry in many sectors.
Frederick III (1888-1888)
(the 99-day Emperor)
Frederick III was one of the most unique figures in Prussian and German history. He led the country for 99 days before his unfortunate death.
He was, unlike the general tradition of Prussian monarchs, a liberal and anti-militaristic. He had good relations with the British, unlike his son who would later declare war on them.
Frederick III saw Germany’s future side to side with the British and the Americans.
Had he lived longer, it would be possible for German absolutism to gradually involve into a more parliamentarian tradition, thus preventing the future world wars.
William II (1888-1918)
(Kaiser Wilhelm, the last King of Prussia and the last German Emperor)
William II was the last king of Prussia and the last Emperor of Germany. He is notorious for his aggressive policies against the British and the French, which ultimately led to the First World War.
Wilhelm was a direct descendant of Queen Victoria and was therefore cousins with the British King and the Russian Emperor. His mother was a British princess, and it is widely believed that his dislike of his mother influenced his anti-British foreign policy.
Wilhelm had a birth defect that made his left arm significantly smaller than his right. In many of his photos he is seen hiding his left hand. It is believed that Wilhelm struggled mentally throughout his life and his disability played a role in it.
After the defeat in the World War 2, Wilhelm was forced to abdicate the throne and settled in the Netherlands. It is believed that he disliked Hitler and the Nazi Government although he was proud of the German military achievements during the war.
He died of a lung disease in 1941 during his exile in the Netherlands. Although Hitler wished to bring his body to Germany, he had ordered his body to be buried where he died, in the Netherlands. His grave can today be visited at Huis Doorn in the city of Doorn in the Netherlands.