Prussia became a kingdom relatively late, in 1701 to be precise - much later than the old kingdoms of Western and Central Europe. Its monarchs were descended from the Dukes of Prussia, who managed to become Electors of Brandenburg, a constituent state of the Holy Roman Empire.
With the unification of the German states into Imperial Germany in 1871, the King of Prussia also became Emperor of Germany ex officio.
All of the Prussian monarchs hailed from the House of Hohenzollern.
Some of its kings were very good to great, some others pretty bad to abysmal, but barely anyone came down to "just average."
The Electorate of Brandenburg (11571806)
Elector Frederick William (Friedrich Wilhelm)
Reigned: 1 December 1640 29 April 1688
Parents: George William, Elector of Brandenburg, and Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate
Consorts: (1) Countess Luise Henriette of Nassau (16461667); (2) Princess Dorothea Sophie of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (16681688)
Nickname: Der Große Kurfürst ("The Great Elector")
Came to power while his country was occupied by Swedish troops. Acquired most of Pomerania and some other lands in the Westphalian Peace after the Thirty Years' War, making Brandenburg the second-biggest German state by area. Worked hard to build up the war-ravage and mismanaged (by his father) country. Even acquired some colonies in Africa, although they were lost again later.
Invited the Huguenots who were kicked out from France by Louis XIV. With his reorganized army he scored some successes that made people take notice, such as the victory of Fehrbellin (1675) against the Swedes, but also suffered reverses.
However, his participation in the First Northern (or Swedish-Polish) War had important consequences, as the Peace of Oliva (1660) removed the suzerainty of the Polish King over the Duchy of Prussia, which meant that in East Prussia Frederick William and his successors now had a sizeable territory in which they were absolute rulers, subject neither to the Holy Roman Emperor nor the King of Poland.
The Kingdom of Prussia (17011918)
Elector Frederick (Friedrich) III of Brandenburg / King Frederick I of Prussia
Reigned: 29 April 1688 18 January 1701 (as Duke of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg); 18 January 1701 25 February 1713 (as King of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg)
Parents: Elector Frederick William, and Louise Henriette of Orange-Nassau
Spouse: Elizabeth Henrietta of Hesse-Kassel (16791683)
Consorts: (1) Sophia Charlotte of Hanover (16841701); (2) Sophia Louise of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (17081713)
Not pretty to look at, as he had a bit of a hump. Technically, he wasn't king of Prussia, but king in Prussia, i. e. that part of his territories that lay outside the Holy Roman Empire; however, in common parlance "Prussia" (or "the Prussian States") replaced "Brandenburg" as the name for the monarchy in total. For his Awesome Moment of Crowning he spent the whole income of the state during three years.
Also, to get the acquiescence of the Emperor to his new status, he had to support the Habsburgs heavily during the War of the Spanish Succession that began shortly after. The new Royal Prussian Army soon found itself fighting pitched battles as far afield as Turine in Italy and Malplaquet in France.
His reign also saw the foundation of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, brought on the way by Queen Charlotte and the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz.
Frederick is said to have aped Louis XIV to the extent that he took an official mistress even though he dearly loved his wife, and turned a blind eye to the rampant corruption in his administration. When Frederick died, the state was almost bankrupt.
Frederick William I
Reigned: 25 February 1713 31 May 1740
Parents: King Frederick I and Sophia Charlotte of Hanover
Consort: Sophia Dorothea of Hanover
Nickname: der Soldatenkönig ("The Soldier King")
Built up a strong army, up to the point where Mirabeau would say "Prussia is an army with a state!" Still, he only went to war once during his reign.
Introduced compulsory education and a centralized administration. Didn't care at all for luxuries, almost lived an ascetic life, thus managed to get the financial troubles inherited from his father under control.
Still was very much a tyrant, which caused his son Frederick and his best friend to try to flee to France, which caused the latter to be executed. The prince himself only escaped this fate because the Emperor himself intervened.
Reigned: 31 May 1740 17 August 1786
Parents: King Frederick William I and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover
Consort: Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern
Nicknames: Friedrich der Große ("Frederick the Great"); Der Alte Fritz ("Old Fritz")
Easily the most famous King of Prussia before German reunification. During his reign, his title changed from King in Prussia to King of Prussia.
As prince, Frederick's taste for art and philosophy was seen as too effeminate by his militaristic, autocratic father, which led to the aforementioned episode in which he tried to run away from home.
When he ascended the throne in his own right, Frederick managed to strike a balance between military success and cultural development.
The military successes came in the Seven Years' War, when he annexed the Austrian province of Silesia and engineered the First Partition of Poland.
At home, Frederick embarked on a number of reforms, believing in the principle that the King should be the first servant of state, bringing Prussia into The Enlightenment, and contributing to Germany as a whole becoming "Das Land der Dichter und Denker." These reforms included modernizing the civil service, reforming the judicial system, enacting freedom of the press, encouraging immigration of skilled individuals of various faiths, and giving generous support to art and literature. Religious tolerance increased in his reign, though Catholics and Jews were still persecuted in some quarters like Catholics in occupied Silesia.
His reign made Prussia into a military and cultural powerhouse, and he would be considered a Prussian, and later German national hero, which naturally led to his image being appropriated by Those Wacky Nazis much later.
Frederick had no children (in fact, he was most certainly gay), leading to the throne passing to his nephew
Frederick William II
Reigned: 17 August 1786 16 November 1797
Parents: Prince Augustus William and Duchess Luise of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
Spouse: Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Lüneburg (17651769)
Consort: Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt (17691797)
Morganatic spouses: (1) Julie von Voß (17871789); (2) Sophie von Dönhoff (17901792)
Nicknames: der Vielgeliebte ("the Much-Loved"); der dicke Lüderjahn ("the Fat Scallywag")
Nephew of Frederick the Great and in many ways his exact opposite.
Had many affairs with women, some of which he made his morganatic wives, making him a bigamist, as both of these marriages were concurrent with his marriage to his queen, Frederica Louisa.
He was also no enlightened monarch like his uncle, and rolled back the policies of religious tolerance he had enacted. Still, he did keep up Frederick the Great's work as a patron of the arts (Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate was built during his reign).
Sent his army to the Netherlands when the "Patriot" movement there tried to depose his brother-in-law, the Stadhouder. This almost bloodless campaign resulted in the immediate collapse of the "Patriots" and a resurgence of the Orangists.
Later went to war against France when the revolutionary government declared war in all directions as a solution to its internal problems. The Prussian army in fact won several battles against the revolutionary armies (which led to a dangerous feeling of self-satisfaction afterwards), but in 1795 Frederick William concluded a separate peace with the French Republic to concentrate on the newly erupted conflict on his eastern border. The subsequent Second and Third Partitions of Poland took that state off the map.
Frederick William III
Reigned: 16 November 1797 7 June 1840
Parents: King Frederick William II and Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt
Consort: Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (17931810)
Morganatic spouse: Auguste von Harrach (18241840)
The last King of Prussia to also be Elector of Brandenburg, as during his reign, the Electorate was abolished along with the rest of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
Rather like his namesake, Frederick William I, he loved the army but was extremely reluctant to go to war. His modest personal lifestyle and his "model" marriage to Luise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (at the time one of the rare love-matches among royals), endeared him to his people.
However, his hesitancy and shyness proved a serious disadvantage opposite Napolιon Bonaparte. In the war of 1806/07, his army was heavily defeated by Imperial France and Prussia lost half its territory and population.
This augured in the era of Prussian Reforms, which modernized the state, its administration and army and is associated with the names of Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst, Boyen and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Serfdom was abolished, municipal self-government instituted, Jews became citizens and the old restrictions on the choice of profession were removed. In the popular image, Frederick William was not so much a ruler himself but let his competent ministers and generals do the job; how much influence he took himself is a matter of debate among historians.
He resisted calls by nationalists to go to war against France again in 1809, which some saw as cowardice and others see as realism. When the Grande Armée was destroyed in Russia, he finally changed his mind; here he was in part influenced by General Yorck, who had taken the Prussian contingent of the Grande Armée out of the war by concluding the convention of Tauroggen with the Russians in late December 1812.
At the beginning of the Wars of Liberation, the king instituted the Iron Cross on the birthday of Queen Luise, who had died in 1810. The preceding reforms of the Prussian Army enabled it to be expanded with recruits and volunteers from 42,000 to over a quarter million within months and it thus played a major part in bringing down Napoleon in the two wars of 1813-14 and 1815.
After that Frederick William returned to his peace-loving ways and for instance forestalled a war by the monarchic powers against France when war appeared imminent after the July Revolution of 1830.
However, Frederick William disappointed democrats and nationalists because the German Confederation which was formed at the Congress of Vienna was neither united nor liberal, let alone democratic, and within Prussia he never made good his 1815 promise to give the kingdom a constitution.
From 1819 Prussia and Germany fell into a period of reaction and political stagnation, however in the sectors of economy (industrialization and the Deutscher Zollverein, a tariff union of Prussia and a growing number of other German states) and the military modernization marched on.
Frederick William realised his pet project of uniting the Lutheran and Calvinist churches in Prussia, but only at the cost of some discontent and making a number of "Old Lutherans" leave the country.
He also was a composer at the young age of ten.
Frederick William IV
Reigned: 7 June 1840 2 January 1861
Parents: King Frederick William III and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Consort: Elisabeth Ludovika of Bavaria
Nickname: The Romanticist on the Throne
Started to liberalize Prussia somewhat when he came to power. Decided to finish the cathedral of Cologne.
Managed to screw up big time during the Revolution of 1848. When the Democrats set up a constitution for Prussia, he said that he didn't want "a piece of paper" between him and his people, and when he got the chance introduced a less liberal constitution of his own. One part of the parliamentarians in Frankfurt offered him the German emperor's crown, but he declined, not wanting a crown from the hands of the people (the fact that the diplomatic situation would have made that a suicidal act didn't exactly help either).
Under his reign, the Prussian army introduced the Pickelhaube, but also was re-equipped with breech-loading rifles. Frederick William IV was long believed to have gone demented late in his reign, but actually suffered from a succession of strokes that rendered him incapable of ruling from 1857, making his brother William the regent.
Since Frederick William's marriage with Elizabeth of Bavaria was childless, he was succeeded by his brother.
The German Empire (18711918)
King Wilhelm (William) I / Kaiser Wilhelm I
Reigned: 2 January 1861 9 March 1888 (as King of Prussia); 18 January 1871 9 March 1888 (as German Emperor)
Parents: King Frederick William III and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Consort: Augusta of Saxe-Weimar
Nickname: Wilhelm der Große ("Wilhelm the Great")note
Brother of Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Had become infamous during the failed German revolution of 1848, for ordering to shoot on demonstrating democrats. Was only the second king (after Frederick I) who had a proper coronation ceremony.
His first years weren't that mentionable, but then he appointed Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor of Prussia. Then, during only seven years, Prussia and Austria defeated Denmark and took Schleswig-Holstein, then Prussia defeated Austria so they were free to found the North German Confederation, then defeated France (leading to the collapse of the Second French Empire), uniting all of Germany and taking Alsace-Lorraine, too.
As Bismarck said, he didn't care who was king below him. (Or was it Wilhelm stating it wasn't easy being king below Bismarck? Whatever.)
His grandson Wilhelm II tried to have Wilhelm I be called "Wilhelm the Great," but that appellation did not survive the year 1918.
Reigned: 9 March 1888 15 June 1888
Parents: Kaiser Wilhelm I and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Consort: Victoria, Princess Royal
Died after a reign of 99 days, because his incompetent doctor misdiagnosed his cancer.
A known anglophile even before he married his wife (Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, erm, Victoria), he is known to have admired British institutions and had a comparatively liberal outlook.
This has led many to wonder whether he would have encouraged Germany to liberalise and democratise had he lived—and perhaps avoiding World War I and what followed—but that's speculation for Alternate History.
Reigned: 15 June 1888 9 November 1918
Parents: Kaiser Frederick III and Victoria, Princess Royal
Consort: Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (18811921)
Spouse: Hermine Reuss of Greiz (19221941)
Grandson of Queen Victoria through his mother, which made him a first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of Great Britain.
Had a crippled arm, because an incompetent doctor messed up during his difficult birth. Many people claim this is the reason why he was (Over) Compensating for Something, with his uniform fetish and building up the German navy (together with admiral Tirpitz), which had to tick off Britain. Also had a bad relationship with his mother, British-born Empress Victoria, who was in favor of liberalism and democracy.
Fired Bismarck after two years in office. Sometimes acted like a Jerk Jock, for example when he once slapped the Bulgarian Tsar on his butt (no, really!). Once met Annie Oakley in her Wild West show and volunteered for a stunt that could have backfired she would shoot off the tip of a cigar he held in his hand.
Wanted "a place in the sun" for Germany. Infamously made his "Hun speech" during the Boxer Rebellion (making things easier for British propaganda in World War I).
Even before World War I, his hotheadedness came back to bite him in 1908 during the "Daily Telegraph Affair," in which the same-named British newspaper republished remarks he had made to a British officer that then-Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow failed to edit properly. The remarks said that Wilhelm had no intention of waging war with Britain, but his emotional tone during the interview undermined his point, as he called the English "mad as march hares" for doubting his intentions. The whole episode resulted in serious calls being made for Wilhelm's abdication, Wilhelm himself maintaining a low profile for several months as his self-confidence was damaged, and Chancellor von Bülow being forced to resign.
Wasn't able to prevent World War I, despite being related to most European monarchs. After 1916, he was practically powerless because Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff now ran the country.
Abdicated in 1918 and went to exile in the Netherlands, in the city of Doorn. Spent most of his time there with woodcutting, killing thousands of trees.
In 1925, the German far right approached his son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, to run for President of Weimar Germany, a position almost as powerful as emperor of Imperial Germany, and the former crown prince was inclined to accept. Wilhelm II however forbade his son from doing so, saying that he'd have to swear an oath on the constitution and a proper Hohenzollern doesn't get power through some constitution like a Bonaparte and if he broke the oath, he'd be no proper Prussian. The right ultimately turned to World War I General Paul von Hindenburg, who won the election.
Throughout the 1930s, many of the rightists who were not content with Nazi rule quietly agitated for a return to monarchy, which was not as impossible as it sounds, as Wilhelm, besides Hitler himself, had been the last German ruler with broad appeal across the country in most people's living memory and would have had the support of conservative traditionalists, and the leftists who were being cracked down on like walnuts would have settled for just about anyone.
Wilhelm himself didn't involve himself in these intrigues. He wasn't too fond of The Nazis (and even less of the fact that some of his sons liked them), but had a pipe dream that they might one day help him to return Germany to the monarchy. Still congratulated Hitler for defeating France. Died in 1941.
Pretenders to the Prussian and German ThronesAfter Wilhelm II's deposition in 1918, the Prussian (and by extension German) throne ceased to exist. The following listed are legally considered pretenders to the throne.
- Wilhelm III (1941-1951 in pretension): The eldest son and Crown Prince to Wilhelm II, having grown up at the height of German imperialism and power, he took to the idea of German expansionism with vigor. At the time of World War I's outbreak, however, he was in the minority of German elites considering it to be a wasteful and pointless conflict, but now that Germany was involved, he was committed to seeing it through. Like many German nobles, he was given a high army rank and command of an army, with a professional soldier as chief of staff who was supposed to really be in charge. His record as a general was unexceptional, with his main operation, the siege of the French city of Verdun, having inflicted high casualties on the enemy but ending in failure to capture the city. After the war, he joined his father in exile, but was allowed to return to Germany in 1923 after his friend Gustav Stresemann was elected Chancellor. He met with Hitler several times throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was encouraged to run for the German Presidency. He declined after his father discouraged the idea, and instead turned to supporting Hitler's Nazi party as a means to his family to regain power. But after realizing that Hitler had no intention of returning the monarchy to power, he withdrew from politics completely, though he remained in Germany throughout World War II. He died in 1951 of a heart attack.
- Louis (1951-1994 in pretension): The second son of Wilhelm III, he became the heir after his elder brother married to a lady of minor nobility and was removed from succession by Wilhelm II (succession, in this case, referring to the Head of the House of Hohenzollern, as the monarchy had already been abolished by then). He spent much of his life living in America studying engineering and had involvement in the automobile and aviation industries. He returned to Germany prior to World War II and wished to join the military as an engineer, but at this point Hitler had decreed that all German nobility be barred from military activities, as he feared the common soldiers would see them as leaders as opposed to himself and the Nazi leadership. He spent the war mostly ignored by both sides, but was interrogated by the Gestapo after an assassination attempt was made on Hitler's life. He had eight children; his first two sons were removed from succession after marrying commoners and his third son, who had joined the ''Bundeswehr'', died in a military accident in 1977, thus Louis' grandson became the heir. Louis died in 1994.
- Georg Friedrich (1994-Present in pretension): The great-great-grandson of Wilhelm II and the first Head of House Hohenzollern to be born after the monarchy's abolition. He spent a few years in the Bundeswehr before attending college and earning a degree in economics. His day job, such as it is, is in providing venture capital to engineering colleges to bring new inventions to market. Was involved in a high-profile lawsuit in the 1990s brought by his uncles who had removed themselves from the succession by marrying commoners, but nonetheless argued for their share of their inheritance. Judges eventually ruled that they had no claim on the succession, but were entitled to monetary compensation as sons of their father. Aside from filing claims for lands and castles seized (legally or not) over the years from his family, he has involved himself very little with traditionally 'noble' activities.