ABSTRACT

The historical literature holds that the Brandenburg-Prussian nobility’s principal management strategy was, in Marx’s phrase, extra-economic coercion. This they exercised on two levels: in their rural bailiwicks, through their judicial and police powers as feudal lords, and, at the level of the state, through the instutitions of the corporate nobility, which constrained and directed the princely power to their collective advantage. Before the Thirty Years’ War, the landed nobility (or Junkers) dominated the politically weak rulers of Brandenburg, to whose realm in 1618 the eastern Baltic Duchy of Prussia was hereditarily joined. Following the great war, which devastated much of Brandenburg-Prussia, the Hohenzollern dynasty erected the iron structures of Prussian military-bureaucratic absolutism. This interpretation holds that the absolutist system rested on compromises between Crown and nobility, such as the agreement of 1653 between the princely power and the Brandenburg estates. Such pacts assured the noble landlords heightened domination of their subject villagers, whose unpaid labors produced the profits of the Junkers’ large-estate demesne or manorial farms. Prussian absolutism further benefited the nobility by reserving for their younger sons appointments at court and in the army officer corps and important branches of the civil administration. The Junkers’ class power survived the defeat and delegitimization of eighteenth-century Prussian absolutism at Napoleon’s hands, so that in the Prussian state’s nineteenth-century liberal modernization, the nobility succeeded, despite abolition of village subjection and conversion of their former service-tenants into freeholders, in maintaining their domination of the countryside and, despite the formal abolition of noble privilege, in the state apparatus. 1