Peculiar Rulers: Frederick and his Tall Blokes
Prussia, from its inception, was a military state. Its original nucleus around Berlin (which was actually Brandenburg and not Prussia) was a poor, sparsely populated stretch of country, not very fertile and lacking resources. It also had few natural borders, blending featurelessly into other German states in the west and into Poland in the east, which left it very much open to invasion.
It did, however, have a skilled family of rulers: the Hohenzollerns. They had held Brandenburg since the 15th century and over time, through political maneuvers, they came into possession of various other dominions (among which the original region called Prussia in the east.)
A Long Line of Fredericks
In the 17th century, Prussia was just another part of the Holy Roman Empire (a large, old political entity which lay mostly in what is now Germany and which consisted of hundreds of small independent states) but began to rise to prominence. In 1660, Frederick William of the House of Hohenzollern inherited all the Hohenzollern possessions. He realized that, unable to rely on an economy built upon agriculture or natural resources, and without natural borders to protect him, he had to do something different to secure his dominions. He adopted a policy of militarism: a large part of the country’s revenues he spent solely on maintaining a large and modern army. Using this army, Prussia was able to play a significant role in international politics. Ironically, though, the Prussian army didn’t actually see that much combat in those days: they were mostly used as a bargaining chip in Prussia’s diplomatic endeavors.
Frederick William’s son, Frederick (don’t worry, it gets more confusing) successfully managed to use this piece of leverage against the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1701. The Emperor wanted Prussia to lend him some troops to help him fight in the War of the Spanish Succession. Frederick agreed, on the condition that the Emperor recognize Prussia as a Kingdom. It was thus he became King Frederick I of Prussia.
Frederick William I
Enter the next in the line of succession. In 1713, Frederick William, son of Frederick I, (did I mention it got confusing?) ascended the Prussian throne. To Frederick William I, his armies were even more important than they had been to his father and grandfather. He loved them on a personal level, readily fraternizing with his military officers. He abhorred luxury, so he shrunk his household in order to live more parsimoniously. He cut his expenses by about three quarters and spent all the money he saved on his armies instead.
Frederick William was known as a bit of an eccentric. He would sometimes prowl the streets of Berlin in a shabby uniform and personally scold anyone he thought wasn’t behaving as they should, not shying away from using his walking stick to discipline them.
The Tall Blokes
His greatest peculiarity, however, was his love for tall soldiers. For some reason or other, they struck his fancy. (He is rumored to have said that the most beautiful woman in the world would leave him indifferent, but that a tall soldier was his weakness. Make of that what you will.) He personally maintained and trained a special army unit, consisting of only the tallest men he could find (ranging from about 6 to 7 feet or 180 to 215cm; tall by today’s standards as well as by those of the time.)
The unit was officially called the Potsdamer Riesengarde (Giant Guard of Potsdam) but they were colloquially known as the Lange Kerls (Tall Blokes.) It’s not clear whether the Tall Blokes had any military value (being exceptionally tall might even be a disadvantage on the battle field) because they never actually saw battle. Although Frederick William loved his armies, he fought barely any wars during his lifetime and even when he did, he was too fond of his giants to risk them in battle.
So, he just used them for show, to impress foreign visitors, and for his own entertainment. Frederick William was not a healthy man, inflicted with various ailments all his life. Especially as he got older, he became more infirm and was sometimes even confined to his bed. To cheer himself up, he would have some of his Tall Blokes march around his bedroom for him.
Frederick William got recruits for his special unit anywhere he could. He would pay fathers for their tall sons and landowners for their tall workers. He also received tall soldiers as diplomatic gifts from, for example, the Russian Tsar and the Ottoman Turks. If legal means failed, he was not averse to kidnapping his prospective recruits, either. According to one anecdote, a particularly tall priest was abducted in the middle of his sermon! Frederick William even tried to set up a breeding program, having tall men and women mate in the hopes of creating tall children to recruit.
It lasted 37 years. When the King died in 1740, his son, Frederick William (who could have guessed) largely disbanded the Riesengarde. He hadn’t inherited his father’s taste for tall men and thought the special unit a waste of resources. Most of the tall soldiers were simply dispersed among the rest of the army. Part of the unit was preserved, and did see battle under the new king, but the Tall Blokes no longer enjoyed the special status they had under Frederick William I.
P.S.: Nowadays there’s even a re-enactment association in Potsdam, Germany, who do their best to uphold the memory of the Tall Blokes. You can book them to perform an authentic military drill and everything: Lange Kerls.