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On this date in History: February 16, 1620. Birth of Friedrich-Wilhelm the Great Elector, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia.

Friedrich-Wilhelm (February 16, 1620 – April 1688) was Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, thus ruler of Brandenburg-Prussia, from 1640 until his death in 1688. A member of the House of Hohenzollern, he is popularly known as “the Great Elector” because of his military and political achievements. Friedrich-Wilhelm was a staunch pillar of the Calvinist faith, associated with the rising commercial class. He saw the importance of trade and promoted it vigorously. His shrewd domestic reforms gave Prussia a strong position in the post-Treaty of Westphalia 1648 German Holy Roman Empire along with political order of north-central Europe, setting Prussia up for elevation from duchy to kingdom, achieved under his son and successor, Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg who became Friedrich I, King in Prussia in 1701.


Elector Friedrich-Wilhelm was born in Berlin to Georg-Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, and Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate of the Rhine. His inheritance consisted of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Duchy of Cleves, the County of Mark, and the Duchy of Prussia.

During the Thirty Years’ War, Georg-Wilhelm strove to maintain, with a minimal army, a delicate balance between the Protestant and Catholic forces fighting throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Out of these unpromising beginnings Frederick William managed to rebuild his war-ravaged territories. In contrast to the religious disputes that disrupted the internal affairs of other European states, Brandenburg-Prussia benefited from the policy of religious tolerance adopted by Frederick William. With the help of French subsidies, he built up an army to defend the country. In the Second Northern War, he was forced to accept Swedish vassalage for the Duchy of Prussia according to the terms of the Treaty of Königsberg.

Friedrich-Wilhelm was a military commander of wide renown, and his standing army would later become the model for the Prussian Army. He is notable for his joint victory with Swedish forces at the Battle of Warsaw, which, according to Hajo Holborn, marked “the beginning of Prussian military history.” However, the Swedes turned on him at the behest of King Louis XIV and invaded Brandenburg. After marching 250 kilometers in 15 days back to Brandenburg, he caught the Swedes by surprise and managed to defeat them on the field at the Battle of Fehrbellin, destroying the myth of Swedish military invincibility. He later destroyed another Swedish army that invaded the Duchy of Prussia during the Great Sleigh Drive in 1678. He is noted for his use of broad directives and delegation of decision-making to his commanders, which would later become the basis for the German doctrine of Auftragstaktik, and he is noted for using rapid mobility to defeat his foes.

Domestic policies

Friedrich-Wilhelm is notable for raising an army of 40,000 soldiers by 1678, through the General War Commissariat presided over by Joachim Friedrich von Blumenthal. He was an advocate of mercantilism, monopolies, subsidies, tariffs, and internal improvements. Following Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Friedrich-Wilhelm encouraged skilled French and Walloon Huguenots to emigrate to Brandenburg-Prussia with the Edict of Potsdam, bolstering the country’s technical and industrial base. On Blumenthal’s advice he agreed to exempt the nobility from taxes and in return they agreed to dissolve the Estates-General. He also simplified travel in Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia by connecting riverways with canals, a system that was expanded by later Prussian architects, such as Georg Steenke; the system is still in use today.


On December 7, 1646 in The Hague, Friedrich-Wilhelm entered into a marriage, proposed by Blumenthal as a partial solution to the Jülich-Berg question, with Luise Henriette of Nassau (1627–1667), daughter of Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau and Amalia of Solms-Braunfels and his 1st cousin once removed through Willem the Silent. Their children were as follows:

1. Wilhelm-Heinrich, Electoral Prince of Brandenburg (1648–1649)

2. Carl, Electoral Prince of Brandenburg (1655–1674)

3. Friedrich III-I of Prussia (1657–1713), his successor

4. Amalie (1656–1664)

5. Heinrich (1664–1664)

6. Ludwig (1666–1687), who married Ludwika Karolina Radziwiłł

On June 13, 1668 in Gröningen, Friedrich-Wilhelm married Sophie Dorothea of Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, daughter of Philipp, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and Sophie Hedwig of Saxe-Lauenburg. Their children were the following:

1. Philipp-Wilhelm (1669–1711)

2. Marie Amelie (1670–1739)

3. Albrecht-Friedrich (1672–1731)

4. Carl-Philipp (1673–1695)

5. Elisabeth Sofie (1674–1748)

6. Dorothea (1675–1676)

7. Christian Ludwig (1677–1734)