What was Prussia?
Prussia no longer exists. It was a territory adjacent
to the Baltic Sea in north eastern Europe. The original people
that lived in this area were the Prussi or Borussi who were a
Baltic people related to Lithuanians (they lived around Duchy of
Prussia in Fig 1). They were conquered and largely
exterminated by the Teutonic Knights (a German Roman Catholic
crusading religious order) in the 13th cent after
which the Baltic area, including Silesia, was effectively
Germanised with intensive settlement by German peasant
colonists. However, in the fourteenth century, with the
Black Death and the revival of Slavonic Kingdoms (Hungary,
Poland and Bohemia), this colonisation ended and thousands of
farms and cottages together with large tracts of land were
abandoned. During the 17th century, a protestant family with the name
Hohenzollern rose to power in northern
Europe. Besides creating an orderly army and capable government
system, they filled their Treasury with tax money with which
schools and roads were built and improved. A relatively
stable 'dynasty' resulted with their leader taking the title of
'King' of lands that were called 'Prussia'.
Thus Prussia became
a kingdom and a monarchy in north eastern Europe (under
Friedrich I) from the beginning of the eighteenth century
(1700). It reached the peak of its power under King
Wilhelm I (1861-1888) and his prime minister, Otto von Bismarck.
From 1871, it became part of a series of German nations: the
German Empire (1871-1918), the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), the
centralized German Third Reich (1934-1945)). During the
Third Reich, the Nazis centralised power with Hitler formally
becoming the governor of Prussia. In effect, free states
such as Prussia were dissolved. After World War II, the
former state of Prussia was split up, and like Poland in the
eighteenth century, legally erased from the map of Europe.
Where was Prussia in the late 1700s?
Since Prussia no longer exists as a political entity, it is
not a simple matter to explain where the Prussia in which the Schaefers lived was located
since its boundaries were in a state of flux. Fig 1
provides an indication of extent of Prussia prior to 1740 under
King Friedrich I. At that time,
Prussian territory was mostly in parts of what are now Germany
and Poland (Fig 1). Silesia, where the Schaefers lived, was not a part of Prussia at that
time; it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Monarchy to
Fig 1: Extent of Prussian territory prior to 1740 in
relation to the boundaries of Germany, Poland & Czech Republic
Prussia then become a militaristic power with a large standing
army which, in the mid 1700s, consumed 80% of state tax revenue
even in peacetime. Freidrich II (Frederick the Great:
increased the army to 150,000 with the land owning nobility providing an
elite officer corps. The militarism of Prussia inspired
fear and hatred from other European peoples
In the decades prior to the Schaefers' birth, Frederick the
Great had wrested Silesia from the Habsburg Monarchy
(Austro-Hungarian) in the First Silesian War (1740-42) and
Prussia became a major expansionist power in Europe from 1742.
Consequently, after the Second and Third Silesian Wars (1744-5
and 1756-63), the Austrian Habsburgs were finally convinced that
they could not have Silesia back and it formally became part of
Prussia. It was made a Prussian province as it was
valuable as a barrier to Austrian expansionism northwards.
Thus, by 1763, the extent of Prussian territory had grown to
that shown in Fig 2. This would have been around the time,
or a little before, Christian Schaefer Snr's parents were born.
Fig 2: Prussia expansion into Silesia and East Frisia by
Prussia continued to expand under Frederick the Great.
Via diplomacy with Russia, he managed to have a part of Poland
partitioned off and added as West Prussia in 1772 which provided
a joining of the east and western parts of his territory (Fig 3).
Fig 3: Addition of West Prussia and the Netze District to
the Kingdom of Prussia prior to 1786.
Consequently, when the Schaefers were born in the latter half
of the 1700s, Silesia had become an established Prussian
province and Prussia was in expansionist mode.
By the last decade of the century, Prussia purchased the
principalities of Anabach and Bayreuth (Fig 4). In
addition, more parts of Poland
were partitioned off and divided between Russia, Prussia and
Austria. In effect, Poland was erased from the map and
Prussia gained South Prussia and New East Prussia. It
would have been unthinkable, at the time, that, in the twentieth century, the
tables would be turned, and Prussia would no longer appear on
Fig 4: Prussia's gain of most of the rest of Poland prior to
By the first decade of the nineteenth century (1800s),
Prussia gained more territory in the east (Fig 5).
Fig 5: Prussian territory gains in the East prior to 1803.
However, the French,
under Napoleon Bonaparte, were beginning to increase their
territory throughout Europe, devastating what was left of the
Holy Roman Empire. Prussia remained neutral at first, but
Napoleon defeated neighbouring Austria in 1804 and crowned
himself Emperor of France. A new political order was
emerging in Europe and Prussia was the only state not dominated
by France. Until 1805 (the year great great great
grandmother Schaefer gave birth to Christian Schaefer Snr), Prussia briefly occupied even more territory in the East (including Hannover) (Fig 6).
Fig 6: Prussian territory gains in the East prior to 1805.
That status did not last for long. In 1806, the
Prussian Army, by then corrupt and poorly organised, was first
defeated in a battle with Britain, and then humiliated by
Napoleon who entered Berlin (then in Prussia) unopposed.
As a result, in 1806-7, Prussia was forced to cede about half
its territory in both the east and west (Fig 7). If Russia
had not interceded on its behalf, it may well have disappeared
Fig 7: Prussia after defeat by Napoleon in 1806.
Prussia was also faced with a French occupation financed by
contributions which Prussia had to pay, and with French demands for the
payment of indemnities.
Thus over the period that this generation of Schaefers would have grown up and
married, Prussia expanded right across the northern part of
Europe from the border with Russia, across all of Poland, and
much of Germany; and then, when their son Christian Snr was a baby and
toddler, their country was invaded by Napoleon's forces.
As a result, the Prussian King relocated to Konigsberg
(between what is now Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea),
and the Schaefers possibly endured the hardship of French occupation.