Whiz kid, juvenile delinquent, despot, general, philosopher, composer, warmonger, opportunist, patron of the arts, kingmaker, loose cannon. A man to be admired, feared, emulated, and reviled, all at the same time.

Born January 24, 1712, the grandson of Prussian king Frederick I.  Before Frederick was a year old, his grandfather died and his father Frederick William I succeeded to the Prussian throne.

Frederick William was an indescribably stern, austere man -- He dressed plainly, and ostentation (or even dresses cut too low) sent him into a fit of rage.  The King would strike anyone with his cane if their behavior annoyed him (which didn't take much).

At first, the young prince was cared for by his mother, Queen Sophie Dorothea of Hannover. Her father was King George I of Great Britain, and she despised the country she had married into.  Fritz grew up speaking French and regarding German as the tongue of the lower classes.

Soon enough, however, Frederick William imposed his idea of the proper education of a Prussian royal heir.  Frederick's values and "sissified" interests never ceased to annoy Frederick William, who incessantly beat and publicly humiliated Frederick.  One time, when he caught Frederick playing the flute accompanied by a girl on the lute, he had the girl publicly whipped.

At age 18, Frederick had been humiliated one too many times.  He corresponded with a military officer friend of his, Hans Hermann von Katte, and the two made plans to flee to England.  Unfortunately, the plan was discovered, and Frederick was forced to watch the execution of his friend.  Frederick's own life was spared only after his mother's intercession and Frederick's agreement to a regime of strict obedience to his father.

When Frederick William finally passed away in 1740, Frederick inherited a Prussia that was the result of 28 years of military buildup.   One-third of the residents of Potsdam Palace were soldiers.  Prussia was viewed by the rest of Germany, not to mention the rest of Europe, as a mean, unpleasant place.  Frederick set to work changing this image, inviting artists to Charlottenberg Palace and commissioning works of art. Frederick even composed a flute concerto, halfway decent as you can find modern recordings of it.  He would have loved to have pried the great Johann Sebastian Bach away from Leipzig, but had to settle for his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.   Frederick also began the transformation of the Potsdam fortress into his Sans Souci palace, a baroque masterpiece rivaling Versailles.   Frederick had taken in many of the concepts of the Enlightenment, and used Silesia as the kernel of a program of land reform, and enforced complete religious toleration.
This is not to say he didn't appreciate his father's handiwork.  Frederick used the accession of Austrian archduchess Maria Theresa to press an old Hohenzollern claim on Silesia.  On December 13, he snuck out of a masked ball and joined his army.  Silesia was occupied with little effort, the Protestant Silesians considering themselves liberated from Hapsburg oppression.  But the following spring, Austria answered with an army led by the fabled Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Battle of Mollwitz was a rout at first, and Frederick joined in the panic.  Imagine his embarrassment when he found out his army, drilled for decades by Frederick William, had won!   France and Bavaria were impressed, and recognized his right to Silesia.

The action triggered the War of the Austrian Succession, which had echoes in America as the War of Jenkins' Ear and later King George's War.  Frederick had to fight Maria Theresa's armies again the next year at Chotusitz.  This time he didn't run away, and still managed to win despite being outnumbered 2 to 1.   With Silesia firmly under his control, Frederick suddenly switched to the Austrian side, preventing his former allies, France and Bavaria, from expunging the Hapsburgs.

All the while, Frederick continued his Louis XIV impersonation, except that Louis XIV would never have invited Voltaire to Versailles to tutor his children.  From 1750 to 1753, Voltaire lived at Sans Souci, but was not very careful about his business dealings, and Frederick, although an enlightened despot, was nonetheless a despot, and the two fell out. Things got ugly after Voltaire's departure without returning some poems Frederick had written him.

As the spiral of 18th Century conflict continued, Frederick repeatedly demonstrated his ability for deft political maneuvering and skillful, if capricious, wielding of military might.   The Seven Years' War saw Prussia on the ropes, with a Russian army occupying Berlin in 1761 while Frederick was chasing the Austrians and Saxons around Bohemia.  Miraculously, one of his earlier political investments came to fruition. Russian Empress Elizaveta Petrovna died, and her nephew, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, became Tsar of all the Russias. Peter's greatest hero in the world was Frederick; he immediately switched sides and returned all Russian-occupied territory to Prussia, and allowed him to keep Bohemia as well.  Two months later, the enraged Russian army deposed and murdered Peter and installed his wife Catherine (whose marriage to Peter was another suggestion of Frederick's) as Empress.  Catherine was somewhat cagier than her husband; Frederick had to give Bohemia back to Austria, and be satisfied with keeping his throne.

Frederick and Catherine spent the next ten years maneuvering to feed off the husk of Poland, which was a less-coherent nation-state than even the Holy Roman Empire.   In 1764, they managed to get Catherine's former lover Stanislaus Poniatowski elected king.  Finally, in 1772, Prussia, Russia, and Austria all took large slices of Polish territory.

In addition to Prussia's military might, (relative) political enlightenment, and artistic achievements, Frederick also worked to build the country's economic base.  Prussia was the only nation on the Continent to not suffer a series of famines in the late 18th century, and, at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, Prussia was the only country not left in the dust by Great Britain.

Frederick died in July, 1786; one of his final acts was a treaty of friendship with the infant United States.  He was buried not on the grounds of Sans Souci, as he had requested, but in the ancestral Hohenzollern castle in the Swabian Alps.  Frederick's wish was fulfilled only ater the reunification of Germany in 1990.

In the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler attempted to attatch some of Frederick's glory to himself, but Frederick would probably have been reminded of his father, and would have regarded Hitler as a stupid, brutal, hideous, dangerous fool.

The Penguin Atlas of Modern History by Colin McEvedy

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