What is Prussia?

What is Prussia?

You know you have "Prussian" ancestry, but no state of "Prussia" appears on modern maps. This brief history will unravel the case of the disappearing Prussia.

So your ancestors are listed in records as “Prussian,” but you can’t find a state named Prussia on modern maps of Europe. What gives? As it turns out, “Prussia” (also known by its German name, Preussen) is a historical region that became part of Germany and was a major military and economic power in Central Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. At its peak, Prussia included half of modern Poland and all but southern Germany, including: West Pressia, East Prussia, Brandenburg (including Berlin), Saxony, Pomerania, the Rhineland, Westphalia, non-Austrian Silesia, Lusatia, Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, and Hesse-Nassau.


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

First organized out of the medieval lands conquered by Teutonic Knights, the Duchy of Prussia was owned by the powerful Hohenzollern family and also known as Brandenburg-Prussia and (beginning in 1701) the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia grew in size and influence throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by jockeying with other European powers (particularly Austria), conquering Silesia and setting off the decisive Seven Years’ War by invading Austrian-held Bohemia.

Following the Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia gained sizable territory from the dissolved Holy Roman Empire, another now-defunct state. Prussia also benefited from another result of the Congress of Vienna: the creation of a loosely affiliated German Confederation of German-speaking cities and city-states. While the Confederation didn’t include Prussia, Prussia competed with its rival, Austria, for influence over the small German states, establishing a trade union with the Confederation states that excluded Austria and allowing Prussia to become the dominant German-speaking state in the region.

Prussia is often recognized as the predecessor to a unified German state. Prussia edged out Austria as the most influential German nation in the mid-1800s, and Otto Von Bismarck, Prussia’s prime minister (who famously said “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood”), 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 and declared a new alliance, the North German Confederation (1867–1871). He then goaded France into war and (after a quick victory) 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 modern German history, you can generally find the same resources for Prussian ancestors as you would for your more general “German” ancestors. We have a number of articles on finding German ancestry, and we offer several books, webinars and digital downloads that can help you dig deeper into your Deutsch heritage. You can find a list of online resources specifically for Prussian ancestry on the FamilySearch Wiki.


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