Originating in S Germany and traceable to the 11th cent., the family probably took its name from the German word zöller, meaning
castle, and in particular from the Swabian castle of Hohenzollern, the ancestral seat in the Black Forest. Conrad of Hohenzollern, appointed (c.1170) burgrave (imperial representative) of Nuremberg by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, was succeeded (1192) by Frederick of Hohenzollern (d. c.1200), whose sons founded the Swabian and Franconian lines of the family. (For the Swabian line see Hohenzollern-Hechingen and Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen under Hohenzollern , province.)
The Franconian line acquired the margraviates of Ansbach (1331) and Kulmbach (1340). In 1415 Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund made Frederick VI of Hohenzollern elector of Brandenburg, and in 1417 Frederick formally received the electoral dignity as Frederick I. Brandenburg then became the center of Hohenzollern power. Frederick II (reigned 1440–70) bought New Mark from the Teutonic Knights and Lower Lusatia from the Holy Roman emperor; he made Berlin the political capital.
Elector Albert Achilles (reigned 1470–86) issued a family law that made Brandenburg indivisible. Roman law was introduced by Joachim I (1499–1535), who tried to suppress the Protestant movement. In 1525 Albert of Brandenburg , grand master of the Teutonic Knights, secularized the domains of his order as the duchy of Prussia. Joachim II (reigned 1535–71) converted to Lutheranism. When John Sigismund (reigned 1608–19) converted to Calvinism, his subjects remained Lutheran; thus religious toleration became a mark of the dynasty.
John Sigismund's acquisition (1614) of Cleves, Mark, and Ravensburg and his inheritance (1618) of the duchy of Prussia (East Prussia) marked the Hohenzollern rise as a leading German power. Frederick William , the Great Elector (reigned 1640–88), obtained E Pomerania, the secularized bishoprics of Cammin, Minden, and Halberstadt, and the expectancy to Magdeburg upon the death of its administrator. His reign brought centralization and absolutism to the Hohenzollern lands. In 1701 his son was crowned
king in Prussia as Frederick I and at the Peace of Utrecht was recognized (1713) as king of Prussia. The royal title was a new symbol of the unity of the family holdings.
Frederick William I (reigned 1713–40), through his administrative, fiscal, and military reforms, was the real architect of Hohenzollern greatness. As a result of the Northern Wars he obtained (1721) part of W Pomerania, including Stettin. Frederick II (reigned 1740–86) seized Silesia from Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa and acquired (1772) West Prussia and Ermeland from the first partition of Poland. An enlightened despot, he achieved the reform and codification (1794) of Prussian law. Frederick William II (reigned 1786–97), Frederick William III (reigned 1797–1840), and Frederick William IV (reigned 1840–61) were mediocre rulers; their ministers were more important in the history of Prussia.
William I (reigned 1861–88) entrusted his affairs to Otto von Bismarck, under whose direction Prussia triumphed over its rival Austria and over France. In 1871 William was proclaimed emperor (kaiser) of a united Germany. He was succeeded by Frederick III (1888) and by William II (reigned 1888–1918), whose instability and ambition contributed to the involvement of Germany in World War I; his abdication ended the family's rule in Germany.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: German History: Biographies