Post PH 1 Political History
The political history of Prussia is divided into the next four posts with an emphasis on how this history probably affected those Germans who lived in Suwalki Province in the Russian Empire.
Post PH 1: The Rise of Prusia to 1772
Post 2 PH 2: The Rise of Prussia 1772 to 1803
The Three Partitions of Poland: 1772 West Prussia; 1793 South Prussia; 1795 New East Prussia.
Post PH 3: Changing Borders III: Napoleonic Era 1803 to 1815
Post 4 PH 4: 1815 to Present
The Rise of Prusia to 1772
This post reviews the 17th Century and the 18th Century until 1772, the First Partition of Poland, when Prussia began to acquire adjacent lands.
A Brief History of Memelland
The previous post concentrated on the variety of people who settled in Prussia and the land that became the Province of East Prussia. One settlement in East Prussia was particularly important for 500 years.
An early group of Germans settled at Memel, an important seaport on the Baltic Sea. The city dates to 1252 when the first of a series of castles was built between the banks of two rivers, the Nemunas and Dange. Over the next 500 to 600 years, each castle was rebuilt as Memel fell to Lithuanians, Swedes, and Russians. Each time the castle was refortified. A 1422 treaty stabilized the border between the Teutonic Order and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for the next 501 years. Memel remained part of what became Prussia and remained unchanged until 1923 when it became part of Lithuania. In 1939, Lithuania ceded it to Germany. Today Memel is known as Klaipeda, Lithuania, and is still the center of Prussian and German culture in Lithuania.
This unchanged northeastern border lies in contrast to other borders of Prussia in subsequent centuries. Even though this map is dated 1923 to 1939, it best shows the unchanging northeastern border of Prussia for 501 years.
The Rise of Prussia
Much of the borders of Prussia kept changing for almost 200 years.
17th century: The extent of Prussian-German influence in this area continued to grow in the 17th century. From 1640 – 1688 during the rule of Frederick William, the Great Elector, many new immigrants came to Prussia from newly acquired lands. In 1657 Polish sovereignty ended when total control of this area went to the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg-Prussia. In 1685 King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted freedom of religion. Persecution and forcible conversion caused hundreds of thousands to flee. Friedrich Wilhelm helped many immigrants settle the eastern territories.
Brandt, Genealogical Guide to East and West Prussia, IX-15, IX-14, and 581.
Prussia in the 18th Century: 1701-1740
The growing influence of Prussia continued. Konigsberg became the coronation city outside the traditional Holy Roman Empire. The great plagues were caused by crop failures in 1708; wartime forces spread disease; 270,00 of 600,00 people in East Prussia died; the Lithuanian area in the northeast was especially hard hit. Of 1830 villages, only 35 were left.
The Duchy of Prussia was renamed the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1701 Frederick of Brandenburg became Frederick I, King in Prussia. This is the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Prussia and went through many adaptations as the status of Prussia changed.
1709 was the worst year of the plagues affecting East Prussia. From 1713-1740 peace and repopulation were major goals of Frederick I. In 1717-22 general compulsory education was introduced. In 1733 the military canton system was introduced. In 1736 Prussia was divided between the administrative districts of Konigsberg in the west and Gumbinnen in the east.
Map of Prussia including Memelland and Poland circa 1721
Magocsi, Paul Robert. Historical Atlas of East Central Europe.Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1993
Prussia is in in purple. Note that Prussia which will become East Prussia with its German colonists extended north of the Memel River.
The area to the left will become West Prussia in 1772.
The northeastern part of Prussia is known as Memelland, the home of German settlers since the 13th century. From 1923 to 1939 it became part of Lithuania and today remains part of Lithuania with its German heritage.