Prussian Navy

Prussian Navy

Throughout the centuries, Prussia’s military consistently concentrated on its land power, and never sought a similar power at sea. Yet historically there were always Prussian naval forces ( _de. Preußische Marine), beginning in the days when "Prussia" meant only the Margraviate of Brandenburg.

The Navy of Electoral Brandenburg

The Principality of Brandenburg, the predecessor of the Kingdom of Prussia, possessed its own naval forces from the 16th century onwards. Beginning around the year 1657, under Elector Frederick William (the "Great Elector"), these developed into an offensive naval force. The Elector designated navigation and commerce as the noblest undertakings of a state, and strove energetically to develop colonies overseas. Frederick William’s descendants had, however, little interest in such overseas adventures and on developing their own naval power. His son Frederick I, from 1701 the King in Prussia, was glad to sell colonial possessions to the Netherlands. At the time of Brandenburg’s elevation to the Kingdom of Prussia, the decline of the Brandenburg Navy had already begun; her end finally arrived with the sale of the colonies.

The 18th century

The Prussian kings of the 18th century had little interest in maintaining their own navy. Due to the state’s continental position and the lack of easily defensible natural borders, Prussia had to concentrate its military preparations on the army. Besides this, the kingdom was able to rely on its many friendly connections with the neighboring naval powers of Denmark and the Netherlands.

Frederick II ("the Great") took the view that Prussia should never seek to develop its own war fleet. The kingdom could never hope to equal the great fleets of England, France, Spain, Denmark, and Russia; with their few ships, the Prussians would always remain behind those great maritime nations. He believed that naval battles would only rarely decide a conflict and preferred having the best army in Europe rather than the worst fleet among the naval powers.

Even so, the Prussian monarch wanted to take part in international maritime commerce and therefore founded several trading firms (with varying success). One of these, founded in 1772 as the "Societé de Commerce maritime", exists today as a foundation named the "Preußische Seehandlung" (roughly translated as "Prussian Maritime Enterprise").

The 19th century

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia slowly began to build its own small fleet for coastal defense. Again, more value was placed on the development of a merchant fleet than on a navy. In this connection, the Prussian Maritime Enterprise played a significant role. Its ships were armed to protect against pirates and flew the Prussian war ensign. This protective fleet existed until around 1850.

One of the first to work for the development of a Prussian Navy was Prince Adalbert of Prussia. He had made a number of journeys abroad and recognized the value of a fleet to support commercial interests and to protect one’s own navigation. During the Revolutionary era of 1848-1852, at the behest of the Frankfurt National Assembly, the prince was given the responsibility of reestablishing an Imperial fleet ("Reichsflotte") -- a mission which the revolutionary parliament had undertaken in the face of the war with Denmark.

The German Confederation possessed practically no fleet of its own, but relied upon the allied powers of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark. During the First War of Schleswig of 1848-1851, the failure of this strategy became clear because Great Britain and the Netherlands remained neutral and Denmark became the enemy. Within a few days, the Danish Navy halted all German maritime trade in the North and Baltic Seas. The Navy of Austria, Prussia’s ally, lay in the Mediterranean and was able to intervene only later in the war.

After the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, Adalbert was able to resume his plans for the establishment of a Prussian Navy. He began with the construction of warships and naval education and training. From the middle of the 1850s, one could find Prussian corvettes and frigates upon all the world’s seas.

Besides Prince Adalbert, other important figures of this early period were Prussian naval officers Karl Rudolf Brommy and Ludwig von Henk, who eventually became an admiral in the Imperial German Navy.

At the same time, the first naval base was established on the North Sea. In the Jade Treaty ("Jade-Vertrag") of 1853, the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg ceded to Prussia the so-called Jade District. Here, in the following years, arose the great naval port which received the name Wilhelmshaven in 1869.

By this time, the Prussian Navy had already ceased to exist. After the Austro-Prussian War (the "German War") of 1866, the North German states had allied under Prussian leadership as the North German Confederation. Out of the Prussian Navy grew the Navy of the North German Confederation (Norddeutsche Bundesmarine), which after the Franco-Prussian War changed its name again to became the Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) of the new German Empire.


Even though Prussia consistently understood itself as a continental land power, its rise and fall were closely bound up with the destiny of the Brandenburger-Prussian-German naval forces. It was the ambitious appearance of the Great Elector who prepared Brandenburg’s elevation as the Kingdom of Prussia. At that time, sea power and colonies were among the essential attributes of a European power; such attributes also obviously belonged to smaller and middling powers such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

For 150 years Prussia -- unlike all other European powers -- declined to develop its own navy. Not until the 1848-1852 war against Denmark did Prussia recognize the necessity of having at least a minimal naval force to protect maritime interests. But after only 15 years, Prussia handed over its young naval forces to the rising centralized German state, an act which would have been unthinkable for the Prussian Army. The Navy was handed over first to the North German Confederation and in 1871, as the Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), to the new German Empire.

The naval preference of the last Prussian king, German Emperor William II, prepared the end of the Prussian monarchy. The German naval buildup of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the causes of World War I; and it was the mutinying sailors of the High Seas Fleet who forced the abdication of the Emperor during the November Revolution of 1918. The Navy continued as the Reichsmarine (Imperial Navy) and later the Kriegsmarine (War Navy), until at the end of World War II, it faced its own end.

See also

*German Navy
*Prussian Army

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