Frederick II.

Frederick II

Yet, this is just part of the story. The rise of international trade does not explain everything. Why did the towns in the west grow and flourish while in the east they became impoverished? Why did peasants in the east lose their free status? The explanation lies in the fact that the two situations were not strictly comparable. When the soil in the cultivated areas of the west subsided, causing great floods, the peasants in Holland were obliged to organize themselves into water boards and through these boards they became a strong party in opposition to the nobility. Every now and then, villagers even managed to obtain extra rights which they held on to fiercely. For instance, they were given the right to appoint their own priests, and they never again relinquished this power. Later, this was a reason to opt for Calvinism, which guaranteed them the right to appoint religious ministers. In the east, the incentive to organize was lacking and instead the peasants never learned to resist the claims made on them by the Junkers.

As soon as the grain trade had fallen into the hands of the Junkers, the fate of the peasants was sealed. From then on, the Brandenburg and Prussian nobility would consult each other at regular intervals in matters of trade, and consequently they merged into a single group with a common goal. Just like the fifteenth-century merchants in Holland, they understood the benefits to be gained by regional unification. That is why they supported the union of Brandenburg and Prussia, and, later, the annexation of Pomerania. During the reign of Frederick II, in the eighteenth century, they would support the king’s conquest of Silesia and the occupation of Pomerellen. This conglomerate grew into the powerful state of Prussia, with a one-sided agrarian economy based on lack of personal liberty. The Junkers controlled trade and commerce and, like all true aristocrats, were conservative in this respect. Any incentive to innovate was discouraged.

At the same time, the electors of Brandenburg/Prussia were innovators in their own way. After Frederick-William III had muzzled the States-General in 1653, he and his successors ruled as absolute monarchs. With an iron fist, they built up a state in which the economy was completely subservient to the army. According to an eighteenth-century saying, Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state. The serfs did military service for the Junkers and had to submit to very strict discipline.

In Poland and Mecklenburg it was even worse. Here, there had never been an agreement like that signed by the Prussian nobility and their ruler in 1653. Unhobbled by any central authority, the nobility could dominate the meetings of the Estates, the scene more often of discord than of consensus. These political divisions caused a further stagnation of the economy. The sluggish economy and the political confusion in present-day Eastern Europe are not just recent phenomena. They are not even the legacy of Communism. They are, in fact, many centuries old.

In the accord of 1653, an explicit alliance was entered into between Frederick-William III and the nobility against their common subjects: he sacrificed his subjects in order to silence the Estates, and endorsed the feudalization of Prussia. It was exactly the other way around in Holland, where the ruler and his subjects were allies against the nobles. From this we can draw the conclusion that a ruler collaborated with the better organized party: in Prussia it was the Junkers and in Holland it was the peasants.

Holland grew into the world’s first capitalist economy. This was due to its Calvinist background and the freedom of conscience prevalent there: two aspects of the consensus culture. The comparison with Prussia shows us that this culture of consensus could only arise when the ‘common man’ was organized and consequently had the means in his power to force the ruler to listen, just as long as it took for them to become their own rulers through the Regional Estates.

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