King Frederick William I of Prussia, also know as “The Soldier King”, was undoubtedly a leader, skilled to 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 a terrible army with over 80,000 strong soldiers. Next, it would become one of the most strong forces in all of Europe, expanding Prussia’s territories and transforming the German state into an European powerhouse.
But there was another regimen of soldiers employed by the king. Along with his immense political talents and military smarts, Frederick William had a strange creepy obsession with extremely tall soldiers. This obsession led to the ruler creating an army composed of very tall men, officially given the lofty title of “The Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam,” and known throughout Europe as “The Potsdam Giants.”
To be a part of this team, you didn’t need to have agility or a quick mind, or be particularly able with the weapons. There was only one requirement: being over 1,80 meter tall, and indeed, these towering troops weren’t meant for fighting, but merely for show and for Frederick William’s personal amusement.
The “giants” were decked out in elaborate uniforms, complete with a hat measuring 1,50 meter, to make each man seem even more tall. They enjoyed the best food and were given the most comfortable lodgings. There was also a kind of pecking order: the taller you were, the more you were paid.
But of course, in the background there was a more sad 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 “selling” their tall sons and 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. And it seems that no one was spared, not even an exceptionally tall foreign boy missed the king’s eye, who would 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 army would be really an 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.” Frederick William treated men as toy soldiers. When he was depressed, the king would raise his spirits by ordering his troops to march “preceded by mori high and swirled with cymbals and trumpets and the mascot of the grenadiers, a huge bear“. When he was ill, the soldiers were passed through his bedrooms. The only good thing about being among the king’s beloved army was that the soldiers never saw a war because they were too precious for Frederick William, and the role of these men was to entertain and amuse, not to fight. And if this was enought…things became even crazier. To assure that his army was the tallest in all of Europe, Frederick William started dabbling in controlled breeding, pairing tall men and tall women to breed, tall soldiers, but there were also more crazy practices. One was for example stretching soldiers on racks to make them even taller, and Frederick William often watch the proceedings while eating his lunch.
At the end the king banned the practice, not because men sometimes died on the stretching rack, and sometimes happened, but because he was afraid he would remain without soldiers. Any man who tried to escape was put to death.
When Frederick William died, in 1740, had collected no less than 2,500 tall soldiers, and his son and heir, Frederick the Great, wasn’t as infatuated with his father’s army, that he saw nothing more than ineffectual show puppets. He sent many of them to active duty, for which they were woefully unprepared. The squadron was officially disbanded in 1806. Some scholars 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 Giants of Prussia.