The real life army of giants

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King Frederick William I of Prussia (aka “The Soldier King”) was a skilled leader—adept at running his country’s economy and the military.

During his reign, between 1713 and 1740, he transformed the army of about 30,000 poorly-trained troops he inherited from his father, Frederick I, into an awe-inspiring army, over 80,000 strong.

It would become one of the most formidable forces in all of Europe, expanding Prussia’s territories and transforming the German state into a European powerhouse.

But there was another regimen of soldiers employed by the king. You see, along with his immense political talents and military smarts, Frederick William had a strange, borderline creepy obsession with extremely tall men—or, more specifically, soldiers.

It led to the ruler creating an army composed of towering men, officially given the lofty title of “The Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam,” though known throughout Europe as “The Potsdam Giants.”

To be a part of this posse, you didn’t need to possess agility or a quick mind, or be handy with a musket. There was only one requirement: being over six feet tall. Indeed, these towering troops weren’t meant for fighting, but merely for show and for Frederick William’s personal amusement.

On the surface, it seemed as though the Giants were living the, well, high life. They were decked out in elaborate uniforms—complete with a hat measuring a foot-and-half, to make each man seem even more imposing. (To paraphrase a popular Texan phrase: They were all hat and no battle.)

The men enjoyed the best food and were given the most comfortable lodgings. There was also a kind of pecking order put in place: The taller you were, the more you were paid.

Below the elaborate trappings, however, was a more sordid story.

Though some of the soldiers volunteered for service of their own volition, many were kidnapped, sold, or bred into the regimen. Fathers were rewarded for surrendering their sizable sons; landowners for their towering farm hands. Even children weren’t spared: A red scarf was wrapped around the necks of newborn babies, “marking” them as a future prospect if they were thought to become unusually tall.

It seems that no one was spared; not even an exceptionally tall Austrian diplomat who caught the king’s eye. He wasn’t the only foreigner to be bound and gagged, then sent to the German state to join the regiment’s ranks.

To say that the king was obsessed with his gargantuan army would be a huge understatement. Indeed, he once proclaimed, “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers, they are my weakness.” It would seem so.

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The soldiers were to be at their king’s beck and call, victims of his weird whims. Frederick William treated the men like toy soldiers. When he was depressed, the king would lift his spirits by ordering his troops to march “preceded by tall, turbaned Moors with cymbals and trumpets and the grenadiers mascot, an enormous bear.”

When his was ill, men were paraded through his bedchambers. The only good thing about being among the king’s beloved army: The soldiers never saw active duty because they were too valuable to Frederick William. The role of these men was to amuse and entertain, not fight.

And things would get even crazier. To assure that his army was the loftiest in all of Europe, Frederick William started dabbling in controlled breeding, pairing tall men and women to breed, you got it, tall soldiers.

Far more cruel practices were to come. One involved stretching soldiers on racks to make them even taller. (Frederick William would often watch the proceedings while eating his lunch.)

The king eventually banned the practice—not because men sometimes died on the stretching rack, but because Frederick William was afraid he would run out of soldiers. Any man who tried to escape was put to death.

At the time of his death, in 1740, Frederick William had amassed no less than 2,500 towering infantrymen. Alas, his son and heir, Frederick the Great, wasn’t as infatuated with his father’s army—in his eyes, nothing more than ineffectual show ponies.

He sent many of them to active duty, for which they were woefully unprepared. The squadron was officially disbanded in 1806. Even so, the Potsdam Giants weren’t entirely forgotten and would leave an indelible—if horrific—mark on world history.

Some believe that the roots of the Nazi’s goal of creating a master Aryan race, comprised of tall people with blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, was inspired, in part, by the sad Giants of Prussia

 Barbara Stepko

Two centuries after his birth, people taking a close look at the controversial legacy of Karl Marx

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On May 5th, followers of Karl Marx celebrated his 200th birthday. He is a highly controversial figure based on the theories he proposed in the 19th century and the actions taken in his name in the 20th century and beyond.

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818, in the city of Trier, in what is now modern Germany but was then known as Prussia. His parents were Heinrich and Henrietta Marx. They both came from a long line of religious Jewish scholars. However, Heinrich converted to Christianity just before the birth of Karl, becoming Lutheran in a mostly Catholic region. Henrietta converted a few years later. Karl Marx was baptized at the age of six and attended Lutheran schools in his childhood. At some point in his early life, Marx became an atheist and grew to hate all religion.

One of Marx’s most famous slogans described religion as “the opium of the people.” This is somewhat ironic as one prominent economist would later refer to “Marxism as a religion itself and Marx is the prophet.” Studying philosophy in university, Marx joined a radical group of intellectuals. After graduating, Marx worked as a journalist and became active in radical politics. It was around this time, in 1848, that he collaborated with Friedrich Engels to publish The Communist Manifesto.

The essential philosophy of communism for Marx was that history itself was an ongoing process of staged changes in economic institutions. Therefore, in this view, capitalism was the second last stage of historical development. Communism was to be the final and victorious system. In this final stage of history, the lower classes of society would violently rise up and establish a communist utopia under a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a society that would have no economic or social classes or inequalities.

History would thus come to an end, as it would have reached its highest form under communism. But this is the dilemma of Marx and communism. To establish an everlasting utopian society, Marx argued that violence would be necessary, even welcome. This laid the violent foundations for many of the movements that would later establish regimes based on The Communist Manifesto. Marx himself wrote The Communist Manifesto during turbulent times. A series of republican revolts had broken out against absolutist monarchies in Europe in 1848. Armed insurrections took place in Germany, France, Italy, and the Austrian Empire.

They all ended in failure and the backlash resulted in increased repression of dissent. Marx and other radical thinkers became increasingly disillusioned by these defeats. The first successful Marxist revolution would occur 34 years after the death of Marx, in Russia in 1917. After centuries of autocratic rule, the last Tsar of Russia had stepped down earlier in the year. Following a brief interlude, the fledgling republican provisional government was overthrown by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, a political group that followed the writings of Marx closely, although under their own interpretation of his work.

In China too, another dictatorial regime would be replaced by a communist one in 1947, under Mao Zedong. Countless other nations around the world would fall under the rule of communism or similar ideologies. Some countries still have governments in power that adhere to Marxist ideologies.

Estimates are that communist governments in the 20th century killed as many as 94 million people. Millions more were imprisoned. Karl Marx never explicitly called for genocide, but his writing encouraged the use of force to achieve communist goals. However, it was more than military violence that caused so many deaths. Widespread famines were sometimes facilitated by communist governments.

The largest examples were in China and Russia. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” of agricultural reforms resulted in 45 million killed in China. Resisting attempts at agricultural peasant collectivization in the early 1930s, six to eight million people died in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, mostly from the Ukraine region.

But the legacy of Karl Marx was not only political and economic. Other academic disciplines incorporated Marx’s ideas. Among them are theories based in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and literature. All Marxist study was based on the effects on the distribution of wealth and power within societies. As an example, Marxists would look at a work of literature and base their criticism of the work on the socioeconomic status of the author, as well as the economic system in place when the work was written.

Karl Marx’s legacy is mixed. He was an important thinker of his time, who looked deeply at the plight of the poor and downtrodden, although Marx reportedly never walked into any of the industrial working factories that he wrote about.

His work also contributed ideas to a number of disciplines. But in the end, Marx’s writing resulted in some of the most repressive and murderous regimes in history

 Mark Shiffer