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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Rebel Scot Who Ruled Ukraine and Berlin

ReutersA monument with an inscription that reads "Honor to Heroes" commemorates soldiers killed in the Seven Years' War.
HOCHKIRCH, Germany -- He once governed Ukraine and Berlin, controlled Finland and might have changed British history -- but is little known in his native Scotland.

The late James Keith, a committed freemason and rebel exile, is a forgotten hero from Germany's Prussian past whose life reveals a lost network of connections across 18th-century Europe that some say modern Germany should revive.

His death 250 years ago fighting for Frederick the Great's Prussia is to be marked next year with a simple monument in the village where he was killed.

Field Marshal Keith may be obscure now, but he was larger than life. He fought a slew of continental wars, governed regions that dwarfed his homeland and evaded the clutches of a Russian empress before fate finally caught up with him at the eastern village of Hochkirch in the Seven Years' War.

"Keith may not have been so important to Scotland, but he was to Prussia," said Ruediger Bayer, a local expert on Keith and driving force behind the memorial. "He was a soldier of great humanity and exceptionally conscientious for his era."

The monument comes as public interest is growing in Germany in its Prussian history, particularly in the east where much study of the nation's complex past was neglected under the former communist administration.

Keith's role has a wider significance to Germany today, said Juergen Luh, a historian at the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation for Berlin and Brandenburg: Many of Prussia's links across Europe have been forgotten since the rise of nationalism and the Nazis.

"We must get back to examining the cultural exchange, and stress our common ties," he said. "West Germany tended to avoid international politics and focus on finance. But now Germany must take responsibility again, both in Europe and in NATO."

A native of Peterhead, Keith was a Jacobite outlaw -- he took part in abortive risings in support of James Stuart, son of the deposed King James II and pretender to the British throne.

Made governor of Berlin, he became one of Frederick's most influential generals in a conflict that was central to Prussia's rise as European power. This helped lay the foundations for the creation of a united Germany in 1871.

Hochkirch plans to erect a stone tablet inscribed to Keith outside its church, to stand with others dedicated to the victims of Prussia's defeat by Austria on Oct. 14, 1758.

"People want to put the events into perspective. A memorial helps keep debate alive," said Kathrin Mittasch of Hochkirch's cultural history association. "More and more people are coming to our lectures because they want to know about the past."

When Keith arrived in Prussia, he had spent over 30 years in exile fighting first for Spain and then Russia.

He rose through the ranks to became governor of Ukraine in 1740-41, and records show that his administration was enlightened, said Steve Murdoch, a historian at the University of St. Andrews.

"The Ukrainians said they wished they'd never met him, because they'd never have known how bad they'd had it before -- and that once he'd been made governor, he should never have been taken away from them," he said.

In the Russo-Swedish War of 1741-43, Keith was briefly de facto ruler of Finland, where he met the love of his life, a prisoner of war many years his junior called Eva Mertens.

Less is known about his rule in Finland, but recent research by Finnish historian Atina Nihtinen said it was "particularly successful" and showed unusual sensitivity towards the locals.

Keith later fell from favor in Russia, having rejected the advances of the new Tsarina Elizabeth, which in 1747 prompted Frederick to recruit him and his brother, a fellow Jacobite.

"Keith and his brother George brought a broader experience of world affairs, and a sense of the urbane and the non-Prussian to Prussia," Luh said.

But his ardor for the cause waned over time. In the end, said Luh, the Keith brothers were instrumental in pressing Frederick to ally with Britain before the Seven Years' War, which pitted Britain, Prussia and Hanover against Austria, France, Russia, Sweden and Saxony.

Renowned for his logistical skills and expert planning, Keith was not afraid to contradict the Prussian monarch, which encouraged his other generals to think independently and helped Prussia's successful prosecution of the war, Luh said.

Before he left Russia, Jacobite leaders asked the Tsarina to let Keith lead their forces in the 1745 rebellion fronted by Bonnie Prince Charlie, son of James Stuart. She refused.

In the end, the Jacobite army penetrated deep into England, spreading panic, before the Prince's rebel advisors urged them to retreat from the English town of Derby.

Coull believes Keith would not have turned back. "When [government] troops were heading up the east coast, Keith would have been swinging down from Derby to enter London. And that would have been it," he said. "You wouldn't have Hanoverians or Windsors on the throne of Britain today."