Potsdam Giants

Potsdam Giants
Almost everything that King Frederick I liked his son Frederick William hated. In his father's court the French language and graces prevailed. But the prince loathed the French, their language, their graces, their clothes, and even their food. Just mentioning the French in his presence could, at times, trigger in him fits of uncontrollable rage. After he began his own reign, Frederick William—in his attempts to low-rate the French—went so far as to require that all criminals who faced death by hanging be dressed up in French clothes. By this contrivance he hoped to give his people an abhorrence of such fashions.

Frederick William had other eccentricities. His passion for sol-diering caused the royal courts of other countries to complain that he had "little knowledge of anything but the barracks, and knows no other form of social intercourse but giving and obeying orders."

The king also kept himself excessively clean with compulsive washings, often bathing a dozen times a day. And to the wonderment of his hosts, he could stuff himself with a hundred oysters at one sitting. These and many other foibles made the Prussian ruler a most interesting character study for both contemporary and later historians. But what really set Frederick William I apart from all others was his dedication to his favorite pursuit. His hobby, you see, was collecting giants.

Frederick William's indoctrination in military matters began in childhood. He not only excelled in these studies but quickly developed an extraordinary love for that kind of life. So when he reached manhood Frederick I gave him a regiment to command. No present under heaven could have made the young prince happier. The regiment became his life. He spent long hours drilling it and improving it until he molded it into perhaps the finest precision unit in the world. Now since his regiment contained some exceptionally tall men, Frederick William one day hit upon the idea of forming a special Crown Prince's Guard out of the giants. These afterward became widely known as the Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam, although most called them the Potsdam Grenadiers or Potsdam Giants. Of course, the prince's proud first unit stood on the parade field taller than all other units. But not as tall as Frederick William wanted it. So he started recruiting taller and taller men, never being really satisfied even when giants and near-giants filled most of his ranks.

When Frederick William I ascended the Prussian throne in 1713, at the age of twenty-five, he brought with him many excellent qualities that enabled him to do much for his country. But his three battalions of giants were what most people talked about. His obsession with the Grenadiers tickled them. Even Thomas Carlyle could not restrain himself. Frederick William's twenty-four hundred "sons of Anak" greatly amused him. "A Potsdam Giant Regiment, such as the world never saw, before or since," he chuckles. ". . . Sublime enough, hugely perfect to the royal eye, such a mass of shining giants, in their long-drawn regularities and mathematical maneuverings—like some streak of Promethean lightning, realized here at last, in the vulgar dusk of things! Truly they are men supreme in discipline, in beauty of equipment; and the shortest man of them rises, I think, towards seven feet, some are nearly nine feet high. Men from all countries; a hundred and odd come annually, as we saw, from Russia. . . . The rest have been collected, crimped, purchased out of every European country, at enormous expense, not to speak of other trouble to his majesty."

The expense indeed became enormous. King Frederick William had agents everywhere on the lookout for giants. And he offered large sums of money to these prospective new recruits. Should a giant refuse his offer, the king—even at the risk of war—would order him kidnapped and smuggled out of his country. In one such clandestine operation, for instance, he paid one thousand pounds to agents to kidnap and deliver to him the Irish giant Kirkman.125 Some kidnappings did not work out. For example, having heard of a young shepherd in Mecklenburg who then stood at least six feet four inches tall, Prince Frederick asked the king for permission to abduct him. Frederick William granted his permission, the prince hired the kidnappers, the attempt was made, but the shepherd objected and was shot to death.126 Another failed kidnapping caused something of a diplomatic stir. On this occasion, the king's men attempted to shanghai an exceptionally tall Austrian they saw climbing into a cab in Hanover. But the Austrian fought his way free. The would-be kidnappers later learned—to their great embarrassment—that their intended victim was an Austrian diplomat. For a long time afterward the foiled attempt provided a topic to talk and laugh about over every royal dining table in Europe.127

Normal attrition in the ranks of the giants, caused by sickness and age, required that a few hundred new recruits be found each year. For these replacements Frederick William looked to all his regimental and company commanders. Well aware what the king expected of them, they "vied with each other in recruiting at home and abroad," explains historian Robert B. Asprey. "If commanders were to gain royal favor, at least some of the recruits had to be 'big men,' bought abroad or kidnapped with considerable difficulty and risk.... When the king inspected individual regiments at a general review, he took his pick of these men for the Potsdam Grenadiers, and he usually paid the commander for them. It was vital, however, for a commander to produce such recruits, and many a promising career had been summarily ended by failure to do so."128

In an attempt to cut down on the expenses of recruiting or kidnapping the giants, Frederick William once conceived a bold plan of raising his own giants. And he actually put such a plan into effect. No matter what may have been their individual desires and inclinations, every exceptionally tall man in his realm was forced to marry a tall woman. By these matches the king obviously hoped to produce exceptionally tall children. Unfortunately, it took years for the children of these unions to grow up, and often as not they reached only normal height. But the plan was apparently a sound one. At least it worked in Potsdam, for that city, in time, began to produce an un-usual number of giants. Dr. J. R. Foster, in his Observations on a Voyage around the World, confirms this. "A great number of the present inhabitants of that place," he says, "are of very high stature, which is more especially striking in the numerous gigantic figures of women. This certainly is owing to the connexions and inter-marriages of those tall men with the females of that town."129

Frederick William's giants even played a substantial role in Prussia's diplomatic relations with other countries. He let it be known to the diplomats of those nations who hoped to curry his favor that the fastest and surest way to the king's heart was a present of giants. This ploy had the desired effect. Several countries sought to strengthen their relations with the Prussian monarch by furnishing him with their tallest sons. Foremost among these was Peter the Great, a near-giant himself, who stood six feet seven inches tall. To keep on the good side of Frederick William, the czar every year sent him fifty giants.130 For some reason Peter once recalled some of his Russian giants, replacing them with others only a few inches shorter. The move hurt Frederick William so much that for a long time he found himself unable to speak politely to the Russian ambassador, the wound in him still being so raw.131

The Austrians also obliged their Prussian neighbor with an annual allotment of their hugest subjects. But something once came up that soured, for a short while, the relations between the two countries. As a result, Vienna refused to pay the king for troops quartered on Prussian soil and withheld twenty Bohemian giants from the Potsdam Guard. We are told that on this occasion tears brimmed in Frederick William's slightly bulbous blue eyes, but we do not know for which woe.132

When a giant was at stake, Frederick William was not above forgetting diplomatic channels and negotiating for the tall fellow himself. A news dispatch from Paris, dated August 26, 1733, reported that the king of Prussia, having been informed that there was a soldier of an extraordinary stature in the service of the king of France, in the regiment of Dragoons of Baufremont, "caused an application to be made to the captain of the company in which the soldier was, desiring him to send the giant for enlistment in the Prus-sian regiment of Grand Grenadiers. The captain, having obtained the necessary permission from the King of France, caused the soldier to be handsomely clothed and equipped, and sent him to Berlin, where he was very kindly received" by Frederick William, who gave him a handsome pension.

Frederick William himself was a short man, but all five feet five inches of him moved about with a soldierly bearing. And being "armed with a huge sergeant's cane," says Voltaire, he "marched forth every day to review his regiment of giants. These giants were his greatest delight, and the things for which he went to the heaviest expense."134 A part of that expense was for costly uniforms and weapons. He dressed them in bluejackets with gold trim and scarlet lapels, scarlet trousers, white stockings, black shoes, and tall red hats. He armed them with muskets, white bandoleers, and small daggers, "and he played with them as a child would with enormous living toys."135

Frederick William liked to impress officials of foreign governments with his giants, so when he reviewed the guard, he frequently asked some of them to come along. One day he invited a French minister and an English ambassador to accompany him on his review. As the ranks of giants marched before them, Frederick William asked the French minister if he thought an equal number of French soldiers would venture to engage with his Potsdam giants. The minister, with a politeness characterized by his nation, answered that it was impossible that men of ordinary stature would even consider such an attempt. Turning to the English ambassador, the king put the same question to him. To which the staid ambassador gave this measured reply: "I can not affirm that an equal number of my countrymen would beat them, but I think that I may safely say that half the number would try."136

A hereditary disease known today as porphyria afflicted the king. Because of this derangement of his metabolism, he often suffered terrible pangs and awful depressions. But he found a therapeutic medicine in his beloved giants. The joy they gave him acted like a tonic. So, when he became sick or melancholy, two or three hundred of them, "preceded by tall, turbaned Moors with cymbals and trumpets and the grenadiers' mascot, an enormous bear, would march in a long line through the King's chamber to cheer him up."137

No doubt Frederick William viewed the Potsdam Giants as an institution that would last for some time. He therefore made prep-arations for his heir apparent, Crown Prince Frederick, to one day take them over. "He was a delicate, polite little boy who loved everything French—the language, clothes, even hair styles—and whose tongue was so quick he could run circles around his father in an argument," writes Robert K. Massie. "Despite his sensitive na-ture, he was brought up as a warrior prince, the heir to a military state. His father gave him his own toy regiment, the Crown Prince Cadets, made up of 131 little boys whom the Prince could command and play with as he liked. At fourteen, the small boy (he never grew to be more than five feet seven inches) was made a major of the giant Potsdam Grenadiers, and on the parade ground he commanded these titans, who towered over him."138

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