Frederick the Great… this is a name full of significance in history of Germany. If we look back with perspective, he is the one behind the independence of Germany, even though Bismarck is the one who made war to gain it. This absolute king, also called Frederick II, is the symbol of Germany’s independence and is the subject of this biography.
He has his place in books about history of Germany, but also in the creation of his country. Our goal here is to paint a portrait of this man who had a huge impact on the existence of a nation. From his childhood and the period in which he lived to his realizations, without forgetting what made him a unique historical character. This is not about dates but about his life. It is now time to dive into history of a little country called Prussia during the 18th century, and believe me, it is worth it.
Historical context and childhood
Everything started at the beginning of the century. Europe was smaller before the Russian Empire really got involved in the continent. Kings and priests represented the elite of european society. They were the ones making political decisions and their influence affected the daily lives of populations. War was a natural way to conduct foreign policy for powers like the Ottoman Empire, Austria, France, England and a slowing-down Spain. Prussia – which will unite Germany during the 19th century – was just like Poland… a second-rate country.
Frederick the Great was born on January 24, 1712, in the middle of a cold winter. This day meant celebration for the Hohenzollern royal family. This latest son was much needed. His father, Frederick-Wilhelm, had already lost two children and had to keep this baby alive to ensure a smooth royal transition when he would die. The baby’s health was somewhat fragile during the first couple of years, but he survived. Frederick-Wilhelm was happy about it. The baby was raised at Potsdam Palace. His mother spoke French around him and she told him that French was the language of culture, while German was used by inferior people… and the kid included his father in this category.
The king made sure to train and educate his son properly. He raised him like any other kid, gave him military education, and the brat (nicknamed Fritz) just hated that. The king wanted to make sure that his son was a real man. He did not want him to wear fancy clothes; he disliked the French style and language of his son. Each time the child did something wrong, his father would hit literally him. One day, Fritz got tired of this treatment and wrote a letter to his grandfather (who lived in England) to tell him that he wanted to suicide. He got caught and went to jail at Kuestrin for a few months. During this period, he studied agriculture, economy and administration. To recover freedom, he had to swear he would never seek revenge for this punishment, that he was always going to obey his father and that he would never get married without his father’s approval. Then, he went back to Potsdam. In 1732, his father told him that he found a woman for him to marry. Elizabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern was her name. The wedding planned for June 12, 1733 did not excite Frederick at all. In any case, he went back to the soldier’s training routine once united to his wife.
In 1736, his life changed. The king gave him the Rheinsberg Palace and more money. This new situation made Frederick happier and richer. He was Voltaire’s pen pal (whom he admired and argued with), he played and composed songs, had his personal orchestra… pretty much all the things his father despised. He read, studied the Enlightenment and learned military strategy. He even wrote an anti-Machiavelli theory. He lived like a gentleman during four years before becoming King of Prussia. He was still happy despite a grudge with his father. In 1740, Frederick-Wilhelm died and the throne called his son as the successor. This event was to change Prussia forever, giving [virtual] birth to Germany as we know it, inspiring itself from this new king who would leave his mark.
Before taking a look at what he realized, we have to see what the new king was all about. He mastered French better than any Prussian. He was going to be a hero; would introduce reforms; be an Enlightened man; wanted the German population to have a new existence (does this sound familiar?) and his victories would have their place in history books. He was the nation’s symbol of patriotism.
He was a poet and writer. He would write many poems and 30 books while composing music. He was a gay man surrounded by a male society at “Château Sans-Souci”, which he built. According to him, people must be judged on their intelligence and skills, privileges having nothing to do with it. He was a fascinating character for his rivals.
Frederick the Great’s personality appears through what he did in Prussia. And he did a whole lot of things…
Here is Prussia when he took over: a poorly populated country (2 million people) cities are weakling; the economy is not developed; Berlin is the only important city; agriculture is stuck under the administration of the Junkers; provinces are not united. When he died, 6 million people lived in Prussian territory, increased the land to 195 000 square kilometers instead of 120 000 and its geography was more coherent.
How did he do it all? War and administration.
When he took over, the last Habsburg (Charles VI) died to be followed by 40 years of war against Mary-Theresa of Hungary. Only the forces of nature would stop Frederick the Great!
Right after taking over, he attacked Silesia for conquest and the military conflicts in which he participated lasted until 1763. After that, Frederick the Great introduced something new to Prussia: the now-legendary will for Prussians to be powerful and build a military tradition. Something else was new because the changes had nothing to do with religion or ideology. The State, its power and its people were more important (German nationalism?) than traditional elites.
Frederick signed a pact with France to wage war against Austria in Silesia and he won. Therefore, Prussia’s strong unity slowly becomes reality with the conquered territories.
Before the Seven Years War, Frederick busted his alliances with Russia and France, mostly because he dumped them and made bad jokes about symbolic characters such as Madame de Pompadour and tsarina Elisabeth. In 1756, war was on the menu again. Prussia faced France, Russia, Austria, and the German Empire. Its ally ? An England that was determined to face France and ready to provide economic and military support to Prussia. War destroyed Prussia’s resources. During the conflict, Frederick the Great showed his genius and military strategy, his troops were disciplined, and his generals extremely competent. Berlin got occupied twice and almost everything collapsed, but…
Tsarina Elisabeth died in 1763. After taking over, Peter III changed Russia’s position take Prussia’s and England’s side, and then Catherine II assassinated him to grasp power. She simply stepped out of the conflict. This killed the morale of Frederick the Great’s opponents. The war was over. Total destruction was close, but Frederick’s bold moves paid off. In 1763, a new era began and Prussia became a major european power.
The funniest thing is that those years of conflict will lead Prussia to… a long lasting peace of 30 years. Frederick the Great will become a solid absolutist king just like Louis XIV. He will impose rational thought, secularization, legalist and humanist principles. The state is now everywhere in prussian life and it will respect Frederick’s dearest wishes. The army gets beefed up and efficiency is the only acceptable policy for the national administration. Prussia’s peace and security will barely be interrupted in this period until Bismarck’s easy victories from 1866 to 1870 and World War I in 1914. Frederick the Great’s successes gave birth to this nationalist tradition in Prussia and would also give birth to German pride.
In 1772, Frederick the Great divides Poland with Catherine II of Russia. It would be one of the classic divisions of Poland’s territory between its surrounding enemies.
Frederick the Great takes care of everything personally. He starts occupying the new territories. He is tolerant with religious diversity, abolishes torture, introduces new laws and fills the administration as well as the army ranks with nobility. It was the smartest thing for Frederick to do in order to ensure stability within his regime. The nobility was the only social class that (utimately) had the power to overthrow him. While liberalism rises everywhere, his reign is an icon of the Ancien Régime. He is the King, nobody else is.
Frederick the Great gives 50% of the state’s revenues to the army (a unique feat at the time) and builds the foundation of a new military tradition in Prussia, which will only end with Adolf Hitler’s collapse. Frederick the Great owns a lot of land, makes peasant life easier – happy peasants are better peasants – creates public organizations to sell food at a good price in difficult times; he guarantees credit and controls prices. Prussia now means stability and responsible government, which is a contrast when compared to the risks taken from 1740 to 1763. Frederick the Great made sure that Austria would not devour German territories. His successes – even after he died – cannot be destructed. When he was old, he also opposed to the possibility that intellectuals could have more power than the political men.
Frederick the Great governed Prussia during 46 years, gave importance to the army, reformed the administration and made his country a major power. He died in 1786, disease being the last opponent of his life.
Frederick II had no children. His immediate successor was his nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm II, and he ruled Prussia from 1786 to 1797.
Memory and conclusion
What did Frederick the Great leave behind him? He is the one who focused on militarism for the first time in German history. He started the military tradition that died in 1945. Without knowing, he inspired German leaders, including Adolf Hitler. He is the first symbol of their independence, just like George Washington was in the USA.
His memory was ruined by Bismarck and the Nazis. Bismarck made German unity official by using war as a nationalism-building too, as he said it himself. The Nazis revered him and used him as an inspiration. They wanted to follow his footsteps… in their own way. Hitler even had a portrait of him in his living room. This made people associated Frederick the Great to an ideology that lead to an ultranationalist hitlerian regime. From Frederick the Great, to Bismarck and Hitler, here is how it got simplified. Since then, the king’s image is not very positive, and this is too bad because of his legend, commitment and realizations. Such a character has been destroyed because of the mistakes made during the two world wars.
When you think about it, the Germans would respect Frederick the
Great if the whole tradition lead them to victories and hegemony in
Europe instead of the unusually rough treatment received at Versailles.
Despite the treatment his character received through history, Frederick
the Great had a big impact on his country’s future.