Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Accident of History, History) by Rashtrakut

It is a debate academics often engage in. Do individuals shape history or do they flow with the tide of events. As a true middle of the road moderate, I vote for both. Individuals often shape the contours of history and the pace at which things happen. Russia without Peter the Great was already slowly westernizing.  But he significantly accelerated the process and the nature of the transformation.

But every once in a while an isolated event can set off a chain reaction that alters the ebbs and flows of history.  One of the most famous such events was triggered by the death of a middle aged woman in St. Petersburg – the so called “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.”  In 1762 towards the end of the Seven Years War, Prussia was on the verge of collapse.  Having lost his last Baltic port and with his army almost annihilated, Frederick the Great seriously contemplated suicide.  The consequences for Prussia were dire.  Starting with the Great Elector, over the previous 100 years the Electors of Brandenburg had established one of the finest armies in Europe, acquired the royal crown in Prussia and seized the rich province of Silesia from the Hapsburgs.  Now the Ferederick’s implacable foe the Tsarina Elizabeth (daughter of Peter the Great) was on the verge of humbling the Prussian upstart.  In addition to the loss of Silesia, Frederick also faced the prospect of the loss of his royal title and the prestige his house had accumulated.  And then the miracle occurred.   The Tsarina died unexpectedly.  Her notoriously pro-Prussian successor Peter III promptly removed Russia from the war giving a gasping Prussia time to catch its breath and drive the Austrians from Silesia.  Even though Peter III was deposed by his wife Catherine II a few months later and Russia reentered the war, the interval had changed the strategic position on the ground.

In the resulting peace treaty Prussia retained Silesia and gained the prestige of having fought off the far larger states of France, Austria and Russia.  Prussia had forced itself into the ranks of the major powers of Europe and would expand further during the partitions of Poland.  The Congress of Vienna would lead to further expansion by giving it a slice of Saxony, the Rhineland and Westphalia.  This enhanced Prussian state would be the focus of nationalistic German aspirations.  The unification of Germany under the militaristic Prussian state would have additional consequences in the 20th century.

Of course, not all of these directly flowed from the death of the Tsarina and this could be the subject of a fascinating alternate history book.  The Prussian state still had to overcome the incompetence of Frederick’s next three successors and survive a series of crises and disasters in the Napoleonic wars.  But a neutered Prussian state stripped of Silesia and the economic bounty that province provided, without the reinforcement of the state institutions by Frederick after the war and forced to accept a humiliating peace would have faced a real risk of falling back into the second tier status of previous German contenders Bavaria and Saxony.

Frederick’s immediate successor still managed to weaken the Prussian state and it is hard to imagine what he would have done in the aftermath of a defeat in the Seven Year’s War.  How much of a player Prussia would have been in the partitions of Poland in its weakened state is also not clear.  Prussia may not have been able to prevent Joseph II‘s attempted acquisition of Bavaria which would have significantly enhanced the German component of the rickety Hapsburg monarchy.  The absence of a Prussian counterweight to Austria would have altered the contours of German history.  The nationalistic movements in the 19th century would likely have still created a German State.  Whether it would have been a looser grouping of powers under Austrian hegemony, a divide between the protestant North and East and the Catholic South and West or unified with another state as the focus, it would have been a very different state than the Empire Bismarck cobbled together.  And it happened because of a death in St. Petersburg.

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