Between his accession in 1713 and death in 1740 King Frederick William I of Prussia greatly expanded the size of the Prussian Army from 38,000 men to 83,000 men. He became known as the “Soldier King” and his military projects paved the way for his son Frederick to Great to turn Prussia from a relatively minor German kingdom into a great European power. However his chief military interest was in creating his own personal regiment of extremely tall men, known to history as the “Potsdam Giants”.
This strange obsession was not just a personal indulgence but also a perverse early experiment in eugenics.
The official name of Frederick William’s regiment was “The Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam” but they were almost universally known as “The Potsdam Giants” or “The Long Guys”. The only requirement for joining the regiment was that potential recruits had to be over six feet tall.
In some ways the Giants were given exclusive treatment by the king. They were kitted out in fine blue uniforms, including a Grenadier cap that was 45cm high to make them appear even taller. They were also given excellent accommodation and ate the best food. Rates of pay were determined by height alone. The taller you were, the more money you received. Nevertheless, these privileges disguised the fact that the most of the Giants were reluctant soldiers and their life was dominated by the odd whims and demands of their erstwhile monarch.
Some of the Giants willingly volunteered themselves for service but many were abducted, sold or even bred into the regiment. Frederick William paid fathers for their tall sons and landowners for their tallest farm hands. Newborn babies were marked with a bright red scarf for identification purposes if they were considered to become unusually tall. Foreign rulers would send the king their tallest soldiers to encourage friendly relations.
If the men themselves did not want to join Frederick William simply arranged for them to be kidnapped. On one occasion he tried to abduct an unusually tall Austrian diplomat. One of the tallest Giants was an Irishman called James Kirkland who measured seven feet and one inch. He had accepted a job as a footman to Baron Borck, the Prussian ambassador to London but in reality the offer was a trap. Kirkland was sent to a Prussian ship moored in Portsmouth where he was immediately grabbed, bound and gagged. He was then dispatched to the continent.
Cases like this were not unusual and press-ganged tall men formed a significant portion of the regiment’s numbers.
Once men like Kirkland had arrived in Prussia their troubles were not over. Frederick William was obsessed by his tall troops and once admitted, “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers-they are my weakness.”
This obsession manifested itself in strange ways and the soldiers were treated almost as circus freaks. If the king was sad he would assemble 200-300 of his Giants. They were, “preceded by tall, turbaned Moors with cymbals and trumpets and the grenadiers mascot, an enormous bear” to cheer him up.
If Frederick William fell ill they were marched through his bedroom and he also painted their portraits from memory.
Even more disturbingly, Frederick William began to experiment in eugenics in order to maintain the tallest regiment in Europe. The men were paired with tall women in order to breed giant soldiers. As a result Potsdam was littered with unusually tall men by the end of the 18th century.
The most notorious practice was to stretch grenadiers on a specially constructed rack in an attempt to make them even taller. Frederick William himself would sometimes preside over these racking sessions and eat his lunch at the same time. Grenadiers were known to die from this cruel practice and the king eventually ended the racking so that he wouldn’t run out of Giants. If any soldier attempted to escape from the king’s bizarre cruelties the punishment was death. The only consolation was that the soldiers were never sent on active service as Frederick William considered them to be too valuable. Their military activities were confined to the parade ground.
By the time Frederick William died in 1740 the number of tall grenadiers had climbed to 2,500. His son Frederick the Great regarded them as useless window-dressing and diverted most of the men to active combat units. The regiment itself would not be dissolved until 1806.
The sad story of the Potsdam Giants gained notoriety throughout Europe and left a lasting impression. The Nazi regime’s barbarous attempt to create an Aryan master race of tall, blond, blue-eyed Germans had its roots in Prussian militarism and warped theories of social Darwinism. Indeed Charles Darwin himself referred to the Potsdam Giants. He once stated that, unlike livestock, human beings had never been forcibly bred for select characteristics, “except in the well-known case of the Prussian grenadiers”.