The Free State of Prussia (German: Freistaat Preußen) was a German state formed after the abolition of the Kingdom of Prussia in the aftermath of the First World War. It was the major state of the German Reich during the time of the Weimar Republic, comprising almost 5⁄8 (62.5%) of its territory and population. Free state is another German term for republic that was coined in contrast to the Latin word, which was associated with the enemy France in the minds of many Germans of that time.
The democratic Free State of Prussia was rendered incapacitated when it was taken over by the Preußenschlag (Prussian coup) of 1932–33 and Otto Braun was forced from office. His government went to court over this ouster, but in 1933 the Nazi regime seized control of the Prussian government.
From 1933, the Free State was deprived of representative democracy and ruled exclusively under the leadership of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi Party). Initially, Prussia was administered by high-ranking Nazi Hermann Göring who was appointed Minister-President of Prussia. In 1935, the Free State's territory was dismantled into regional Gaue, some of which incorporated both Prussian and non-Prussian territory, thus effectively ending Prussia as a single territorial unit of Germany. Although the Free State of Prussia continued to exist in name under the premiership of Herman Göring throughout the Nazi era, by 1935 the Prussian government had been effectively absorbed by the government of the German Reich and Göring's position as Minister-President had been relegated to a titular role in comparison to his more prominent duties in the government of the Third Reich.
After the end of World War II Otto Braun approached Allied officials to reinstate the legal Prussian government. They and the other Allied Occupation forces, who had occupied all of Germany, were opposed to the idea and declared Prussia abolished in 1947.
Except for its overseas colonies, Alsace-Lorraine and the Bavarian portion of the Saargebiet, all German territorial losses as a result of World War I were Prussian losses. As specified in the Treaty of Versailles, the former kingdom lost territory to Belgium (Eupen and Malmedy), Denmark (North Schleswig), Lithuania (Memel Territory) and Czechoslovakia (the Hultschin area). The Saargebiet was administered by the League of Nations until 1935. The Rhine Province became a demilitarised zone.
The bulk of Prussia's losses were to Poland, including most of the provinces of Posen and West Prussia, and an eastern section of Silesia. Danzig was placed under the administration of the League of Nations as the Free City of Danzig. These losses separated East Prussia from the rest of the country, now only accessible by rail through the Polish corridor or by sea.
Since the Germans had not been invited to the peace conference taking place in Versailles and because the Allies had deliberately kept the terms of the treaty from being made public prior to presenting them to the German delegation, many Germans feared that the Allies were preparing to demand even harsher peace terms. In particular, it was thought that the French would seek to annex the Rhineland. Some prominent politicians, particularly in the Rhineland and including Mayor of Cologne and future German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, called for Prussia to be broken up into smaller and more manageable states. Both the Reich and Prussian governments in Berlin were dominated by traditionalist sentiment and strongly opposed the dissolution of Prussia.
Essentially, apart from its territorial losses and having its government placed on a democratic footing, Prussia continued unchanged. It remained by far the largest state of the Reich, with more territory and people than the other states combined.
During the 500 years of Hohenzollern rule, Prussia (and its predecessor, Brandenburg) had been synonymous with authoritarianism. In contrast, Prussia was a bulwark of democracy during the Weimar Republic. The restrictive Prussian three-class franchise was abolished shortly after Kaiser William II abdicated. Power now passed from the Junker landowners and great industrialists to "Red Berlin" and the industrialised Ruhr Area – both with working-class majorities. Prussia now became a stronghold of the left.
From 1919 to 1932, Prussia was governed by a coalition of the Social Democrats, Catholic Centre, and German Democrats; from 1921 to 1925, coalition governments included the German People's Party. Unlike in other states of the German Reich, majority rule by democratic parties in Prussia was never endangered. Nevertheless, in East Prussia and some industrial areas, the National Socialist German Workers Party (or Nazi Party) of Adolf Hitler gained more and more influence and popular support, especially from the lower middle class.
Otto Braun, a Social Democrat from East Prussia, served as Prussian minister-president almost continuously from 1920 to 1932. A capable leader, he implemented several trend-setting reforms together with his minister of the interior, Carl Severing, which were also models for the later Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). For instance, a Prussian minister-president could be forced out of office only if there was a "positive majority" for a potential successor. This concept, known as the constructive vote of no confidence, was carried over into the Basic Law of the FRG. Largely because of this provision, the centre-left coalition was able to stay in office because neither the far left nor the far right could possibly put together a majority.
All of this changed on 20 July 1932 with the Preußenschlag ("Prussian coup"): Reich Chancellor Franz von Papen got President Hindenburg to remove the elected Prussian state government under Otto Braun on the pretext that it had lost control of public order. This was triggered by Altona Bloody Sunday, a shootout between the SA and Communists (Altona was still a part of Prussia at that time). After this emergency decree, Papen appointed himself Reich Commissioner for Prussia and took control of the government. This made it easy for Adolf Hitler to assume control over Prussia in the following year.
Otto Braun's government filed suit in the courts, but the cases remained unresolved due to the war and the subsequent Allied occupation and partition of Germany.
On 30 January 1933, Hitler had been appointed chancellor of Germany. As part of the deal, Papen was formally appointed minister-president of Prussia in addition to his role as Vice Chancellor of the Reich. In a little-noticed appointment, Hitler's top lieutenant Hermann Göring became the state's interior minister.
Four weeks later (27 February 1933), the Reichstag was set on fire. At Hitler's urging, President Paul von Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended civil liberties in Germany. Six days after the fire, the Reichstag election of 5 March 1933 strengthened the position of the Nazi Party, although they did not achieve an absolute majority. However, with their coalition partners, the German National People's Party, Hitler now commanded a bare majority in the Reichstag. Göring figured prominently in this election, as he was commander of the largest police force in the Reich. His police beat and harassed the other parties (especially the Communists and Social Democrats), and only allowed the Nazis and Nationalists to campaign relatively unmolested.
The new Reichstag was opened in the Garrison Church of Potsdam on 21 March 1933 in the presence of President Paul von Hindenburg, who had long since descended into senility. In a propaganda-filled meeting between Hitler and the NSDAP, the "marriage of old Prussia with young Germany" was celebrated, to win over the Prussian monarchists, conservatives, and nationalists and induce them to vote for the Enabling Act. The act was passed on 23 March 1933, legally granting Hitler dictatorial powers.
In April 1933, Papen was visiting the Vatican. The Nazis took advantage of his absence and appointed Göring in his place. With this act, Hitler was able to take power decisively in Germany, since he now had the whole apparatus of the Prussian government, including the police, at his disposal. By 1934 almost all Prussian ministries had been merged with the corresponding Reich ministries.
In the centralized state created by the Nazis in the "Law on the Reconstruction of the Reich" ("Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reiches", 30 January 1934) and the "Law on Reich Governors" ("Reichsstatthaltergesetz", 30 January 1935) the States and Provinces of Prussia were dissolved, in fact if not in law. The federal state governments were now controlled by governors for the Reich who were appointed by the Chancellor. Parallel to that, the organization of the party into districts (Gau) gained increasing importance, as official in charge of a Gau (the infamous Gauleiter) was again appointed by the Chancellor who was at the same time chief of the NSDAP. Hitler appointed himself formally as Governor of Prussia, although his functions were exercised by Göring.
Two years later, Hitler (who by then was head of state and the absolute dictator of Germany) formally transferred the office of Prussian Reichsstatthalter from himself to Göring. This office, as well as that of Minister-President (which Göring had already held from 1933) continued to exist but were subservient to the Nazi regime. Some changes were still made to Prussian provinces after this time. For example, the Greater Hamburg Act of 1937 transferred some territory from the provinces of Hanover and Schleswig-Holstein to Hamburg while at the same time annexing Hamburgian Geesthacht and the Hanseatic City of Lübeck to Schleswig-Holstein as well as Hamburgian Cuxhaven to the Province of Hanover. Other redeployments took place in 1939, involving cessions of Prusso-Hanoveran suburban municipalities to Bremen and in return the annexation of Bremian Bremerhaven to the Province of Hanover. Also Hanoveran Wilhelmshaven was ceded to Oldenburg. In 1942 redeployments involved the provinces of Saxony and Hanover and the Brunswick.
The Prussian lands transferred to Poland after the Treaty of Versailles were reannexed during World War II. However, most of this territory was not reintegrated back into Prussia but assigned to separate Gaue of the Nazi Germany.
With the end of National Socialist rule in 1945 came the division of Germany into Zones of Occupation, and the transfer of control of everything east of the Oder-Neisse line to other countries. As was the case after World War I, almost all of this territory had been Prussian territory (a small portion of the land east of the revised border had belonged to Saxony). Most of the land went to Poland and the northern third of East Prussia, including Königsberg, now Kaliningrad was annexed by the Soviet Union. The losses represented nearly two-fifths of Prussian territory and nearly a quarter of territory within Germany's pre-1938 borders. An estimated ten million Germans fled or were forcibly expelled from these territories as part of the German exodus from Eastern Europe.
What remained of Prussia comprised both a little over half of the remaining German territory and a little over half of Prussia's pre-1914 territory. In Law No. 46 of 25 February 1947, the Allied Control Council proclaimed the dissolution of the Prussian state. The Allies cited Prussia's history of militarism in passing, Prussia had ceased to exercise administrative functions in 1933 and these had now been absorbed into the administration of the occupying powers in their respective geographic areas of control.
Unlike its authoritarian pre-war predecessor, Prussia was a promising democracy within Germany. The abolition of the aristocracy transformed Prussia into a region strongly dominated by the left wing of the political spectrum, with "Red Berlin" and the industrial centre of the Ruhr Area exerting a major influence. During this period, a coalition of centre-left parties ruled, predominantly under the leadership of East Prussian Social Democrat Otto Braun. While in office he implemented several reforms together with his Minister of the Interior, Carl Severing, which were also models for the later Federal Republic of Germany. For instance, a Prussian prime minister could only be forced out of office if there was a "positive majority" for a potential successor. This concept, known as the constructive vote of no confidence, was carried over into the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. Most historians regard the Prussian government during this time as far more successful than that of Germany as a whole.
|#||Name||Took office||Left office||Party|
|1||Friedrich Ebert||9 November 1918||11 November 1918||SPD|
|2||Paul Hirsch||11 November 1918||27 March 1920||SPD|
|3||Otto Braun||27 March 1920||21 April 1921||SPD|
|4||Adam Stegerwald||21 April 1921||5 November 1921||Centre|
|–||Otto Braun||5 November 1921||18 February 1925||SPD|
|5||Wilhelm Marx||18 February 1925||6 April 1925||Centre|
|–||Otto Braun||6 April 1925||20 July 1932a||SPD|
|Position administered by the Reichskommissar between 20 July 1932 and 30 January 1933|
|6||Franz von Papen||30 January 1933||10 April 1933||Independent|
|7||Hermann Göring||10 April 1933||24 April 1945||NSDAP|
|a. Ousted during the Preußenschlag; formally deposed on 30 January 1933.|
In 1920, the Greater Berlin Act was passed to create Greater Berlin, enlarging the Prussian capital at the expense of Brandenburg, from which Berlin had been separated in 1881. The Greater Berlin Act effectively enlarged the size of the city 13-fold, and its borders are largely maintained by the modern German state of Berlin.
After the Allied occupation of Germany in 1945, the provinces of Prussia were split up into the following territories/German states:
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