What is Prussia?: Understanding Prussian History

By Family Tree Editors
Prussian officer’s button (Wikimedia Commons)

So your ancestors are listed in records as “Prussian,” but you can’t find Prussia on modern maps of Europe. What gives? Before being absorbed into Germany, “Prussia” (German: Preussen) was a major military and economic power in Central Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Let’s take a look at Prussian history to see what we can learn about your Prussian ancestors.

First of all: Where was Prussia? At its peak, Prussia included half of modern Poland and all but southern Germany. Though itself one of Germany’s many states, Prussia at one point included: West Prussia, East Prussia, Brandenburg (including Berlin), Saxony, Pomerania, the Rhineland, Westphalia, non-Austrian Silesia, Lusatia, Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, and Hesse-Nassau. 

Document names and birth, death and marriage details for five generations of your family with this type-in genealogy chart.

But the Duchy of Prussia itself (the eastern-most portion of Prussia) comprised just the medieval lands conquered by Teutonic Knights. The region became part Brandenburg-Prussia in the 17th century, and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701.

This map of the German Empire from 1871 to 1918, shows Prussia in blue. (Wikimedia Commons)

Prussia grew in size and influence throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by jockeying with other European powers (particularly Austria). Notably, Prussia conquered Austrian-held Silesia and set off the decisive Seven Years’ War by invading Bohemia. Prussia was also one of the three countries to partition Poland, and (though the wars brutalized central Europe), Prussia gained sizable territory at the Napoleonic Wars’ end). Following the Congress of Vienna, Prussia annexed large sections of the Holy Roman Empire (another now-defunct state).

Prussia also benefited from another result of the Congress of Vienna: the German Confederation. The loose affiliation of German-speaking city-states didn’t include Prussia, but Prussia exerted its influence over the region. Prussia established a trade union with the Confederation states that excluded Austria, allowing Prussia to edge out its rival to become the dominant German-speaking state in the region.

In addition, historians recognize Prussia as the predecessor to a unified German state. Otto Von Bismarck, Prussia’s prime minister, was instrumental in Germany’s creation. Seeing an opportunity to expand Prussian influence (and dreaming of a unified German empire), Bismarck seized territory through wars with Denmark and Austria. He also declared a new alliance among Prussia and the German states, called the North German Confederation (1867–1871).

After goading France into war (and quickly winning), Bismark negotiated a unified German Empire in 1871. Prussia remained the dominant power in the German Empire until its dissolution in 1918 after World War I.

Because of Prussia’s prominence in German history, you can often find the same resources for Prussian ancestors as you would for your “German” ancestors. You can find a list of online resources specifically for Prussian ancestry on the FamilySearch Wiki.

Find your ancestors with this guide, which covers Prussian history, what lands were once part of Prussia, and what Prussian genealogy records are available.
Here are some tips for finding towns in Germany and Poland that used to be part of the Prussian Empire.
Trace your ancestry in Prussia, Bavaria and more with our guide to research in Germany’s historical regions

Last updated in November 2019

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