, juvenile delinquent
, patron of the arts
, 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
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
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
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
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
The Penguin Atlas of Modern History by Colin McEvedy