Derek McKay. The Great Elector. Profiles in Power series. Harlow, England: Longman, 2001. ISBN 978-0-582-49482-4. Notes. Maps. Tables. Chronology. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiii, 286. £16.99 (paperback).
Dr Derek McKay, retired Senior Lecturer in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, provides an outstanding biography of Frederick William of Hohenzollern. McKay is known for his published doctoral thesis Allies of Convenience: Diplomatic Relations between Great Britain and Austria, 1714-1719 (1986), important studies Prince Eugene of Savoy (1977) and The Rise of the Great Powers, 1648-1815 (co-authored with Hamish M. Scott) (1983), along with journal articles on diplomatic history in the early eighteenth century.
Frederick William ruled over Brandenburg-Prussia for forty-eight years. At his accession in 1640, Frederick William became the Margrave and Elector over the scattered Hohenzollern lands that were devastated in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and occupied by Swedish forces. He immediately negotiated an armistice with Sweden, and then built up his military strength. He acquired East Pomerania, Halberstadt, Minden, and Magdeburg in the Peace of Westphalia (1648). But, Frederick William failed to gain control of Jülich and Berg during the First Berg War (1646-1647) and Second Berg War (1651). In 1656, the Elector of Brandenburg allied with Sweden against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Second Northern War (1655-1660). However, he deserted the Swedes once Muscovy and Denmark entered the conflict on the Polish side. Afterwards, in 1657, Frederick William allied with Poland-Lithuania. As a result, the Commonwealth recognized Frederick William’s sovereignty as Duke of Prussia, which he had previously ruled as a vassal of the Polish crown. His actions in the Second Northern War resulted in the acquisition of West Pomerania, but he lost this territory in the Peace of Oliva (1660).
The Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia established himself as the leading political figure in his far-flung lands. He created a standing army capable of maintaining internal order and defending all of the Hohenzollern lands from foreign threats. In the international arena, Frederick William became one of the main defenders of Protestantism. But, he was unable to pursue an independent foreign policy. His policy was aimed at avoiding French or Habsburg domination of Brandenburg-Prussia. McKay addresses Frederick William’s foreign policy and military actions in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), War of Devolution (1667-1668), Dutch War (1672-1678/79), and Scanian War (1674-1679). The Great Elector made many alliances, and frequently changed sides. He was engrossed in diplomacy and warfare throughout his reign. McKay’s fine study is based on German, English, and French sources. The work can be supplemented by McKay’s essay “Small-Power Diplomacy in the Age of Louis XIV: The Foreign Policy of the Great Elector during the 1660s and 1670s” in Royal and Republican Sovereignty in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Memory of Ragnhild Hatton (1997), edited by Robert Oresko, Graham C. Gibbs, and Hamish M. Scott.
Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota