Frederick the Great

Dafato Team | May 23, 2022

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Frederick II or Frederick the Great († August 17, 1786 in Potsdam), popularly known as the "Old Fritz," was King in, and from 1772 King of Prussia and from 1740 Margrave of Brandenburg, and thus one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. He was descended from the Hohenzollern dynasty.

The three Silesian Wars he fought against Austria over the possession of Silesia led to German dualism. After the last of these wars, the Seven Years' War from 1756 to 1763, Prussia was recognized as the fifth great power alongside France, Great Britain, Austria and Russia in the European pentarchy.

Frederick is considered a representative of enlightened absolutism. He described himself as the "first servant of the state. He implemented far-reaching social reforms, abolished torture and forced the expansion of the education system.

Frederick had at his disposal tools for exercising power that were typical of the modern era. The hallmark of early modern rule was that the territories, which were structurally very different from one another and had been brought together through marriage, inheritance and war, were brought together and held together primarily by the dynasty. It was not until the acquisition of the royal crown in 1701 that the territories of Brandenburg-Prussia, which were scattered all over the Roman-German Empire, became perceptibly a state unit to the outside world, which grew together through the dynasty and its representation on the European level, its perception from the outside, but also through the firmly established army. This specific process of dynastic state formation and unification was primarily driven by Frederick's ambitious father. In this process, the Hohenzollerns originated in southwestern Germany; they could be traced back to the 11th century. Enfeoffed with the Mark of Brandenburg in the early 15th century as burgraves of Nuremberg loyal to the emperor, they rose to become electors. The new territory was used for a long-term policy of consolidation, with the inheritance of the Duchy of Prussia, which lay outside the imperial union, to legitimize the claim to the royal crown. Frederick saw himself as the continuator and perfecter of the traditions thus established and of his father's aspirations to great power.

In 1740, 2,240,000 people lived in Frederick's inheritance; in 1784, he considered 5.5 million inhabitants in his greatly expanded state to be his subjects. If one disregards the territories on the Lower Rhine and in Westphalia, i.e. Cleves, Mark and Ravensberg, which had come to Brandenburg since the Treaty of Xanten, Frederick ruled over an agrarian area with few towns and an undeveloped infrastructure. This and the territorial fragmentation made economic development immensely difficult. However, there was a hierarchical, orderly administration headed by the General Directorate, which was created in 1723. This merged the General War Commissariat and the Domänendirektorium, the former being mercantilist in orientation. However, it was not only this administrative unit that was unusual, but also the strict separation of departments - signs of a modernized administration with economic intentions focused on the state budget. The corresponding college resided in the Berlin City Palace, and was responsible for domestic policy as well as financial administration, military economics and war provisions. It was composed of four provincial departments. All in all, a mixture of territorial and functional responsibilities typical of the period. Frederick continued this inherited regiment and only deepened the departmental differentiation. Thus, his fifth department for "Commercien- und Manufactur-Sachen" (Commercial and Manufacture Affairs), which was set up after his accession to the throne, was exclusively responsible for the entire state. Frederick took no more part in the meetings than his father had. Instead, decisions were made in the royal study and commissioned by cabinet secretaries. While the War and Domain Chambers were assigned to the Directory, in the countryside the Landrat ruled. He almost always resided in his area of office, was proposed by the local nobility, and was almost always accepted. Ideally, he mediated between the interests of the landed nobles, who insisted on autonomy, and the decrees of the sovereign authorities.

The cabinet ministry created by Frederick's father remained in charge of foreign policy. It was responsible for correspondence with foreign authorities and with the chargés d'affaires accredited there. The original first central authority, the Geheime Rat (Privy Council), established in 1604, continued to exist, but it was now concerned only with justice, spiritual affairs, and education. At the end of his reign, Frederick had about 300 civil servants at his disposal; including the tax and land councils, there were about 500 officials. The form of government widespread in Europe, striving for unrestricted rule, is called absolutism, although this can only describe the top level of a complex process. The term enlightened absolutism was not introduced until 1847 by Wilhelm Roscher, who in his outlines on the natural history of the three forms of government distinguished between an early confessional absolutism in the time of Philip II (1527-1598), a courtly absolutism of Louis XIV and an enlightened absolutism of Frederick II.

Society was divided into three estates, nobility, burghers and peasants, but the lower-class inhabitants made up the majority of the population. While free peasants and nobility were subject to a certain convergence of interests, the manor lordship in the central and eastern territories had reduced the rural population to hereditary servitude and serfdom. About a quarter of the arable land was lordly share, although this was much higher in the Duchy of Prussia. Increasing the sovereign share was long considered a means of asserting himself against the particular powers, but Frederick, whose father had decided this struggle, again involved the nobility and its land more strongly in the apparatus of power and promoted the nobility, on whose participation in diplomacy, military and administration he was increasingly dependent. For this nobility, however, it was not befitting their status to earn their living in bourgeois professions. Given the fact that there were about 20,000 noble families, but a limited number of estates, this led to a strong impoverishment of the nobility. To prevent this from being exacerbated by the acquisition of estates by burghers, Frederick deliberately hindered this acquisition. Along the same lines was his commitment against mesalliances, marriages between members of different estates. Advancement to the nobility also remained almost impossible. Probably unintentionally, a bourgeois consciousness and commitment emerged on this basis, which, however, did not lead to fundamental criticism of aristocratic rule as in France. Frederick himself demanded in his Political Testament of 1752 that the king strike a balance between the interests of the peasants and the nobility, but this was hardly possible given the dependence of his rule on the nobility. Moreover, it was difficult on the part of the monarchy to directly access the hereditary peasantry over whom the noble landlord sat in judgment. This, in turn, was a motive for recruiting peasants from abroad, who were exempt from this ancient system. They were also spared from military service. Between these poles of the feudal system were the burghers, most of whom were engaged in crafts and petty trade. In addition, there were wealthy entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers, scholars, clergy and civil servants. Although they lived in cities that had lost their special role through inclusion in the state financial administration, they remained essential transhipment points for goods. But the residences now became the center of bourgeois life. In the military, opportunities for advancement for non-nobles existed only in a few technical areas, and hardly at all in administration. But it was precisely in those areas where the highest level of competence was required that their number under Frederick exceeded that of the nobility many times over.

Thanks to his father's thrift, Frederick had a treasury of 8.7 million talers at his disposal when he took office. Canal expansions between the Oder and Elbe rivers were intended to strengthen trade in bulk goods such as grain, salt and wax, wood and potash. These waterways made Berlin a hub of industrial production, trade and commerce, and Friedrich was able to build on traditional support mechanisms. In addition to civilian production for linen or silk, trades important for armaments, such as the Spandau rifle factory, flourished, although guns, mortar shells and artillery ammunition continued to be procured from Sweden and Holland. Some of the royal factories were run by private manufacturers such as the merchants Splittgerber & Daun (founded 1712), who were the most important entrepreneurs of this type, running eight factories. Stockpiles were made throughout the country for the army, as well as raw materials for wool processing. Grain, in turn, was used to influence food prices. At the same time, the military career was increasingly perceived as a noble status obligation; Frederick regarded the officer's war trade as a "métier d'honneur" (roughly: honorary profession). Overall, the process of militarization was considerably accelerated under Frederick.

Early years (1712-1728)

Frederick was born in the Berlin City Palace. He was the eldest surviving son of a total of seven sons and seven daughters of King Frederick William I and his wife Sophie Dorothea of Hanover. Four of his siblings died as children. The family tree of Frederick the Great shows the ancestral loss frequently encountered in circles of the high nobility. Since his parents were first cousins, like his mother's parents, he had only six instead of eight great-grandparents and only ten instead of sixteen great-great-grandparents. On January 31, 1712, he was baptized with the sole name Frederick; his two older brothers had died in the meantime. Until his sixth birthday, Friedrich lived together with his older sister Wilhelmine, who in turn was the oldest surviving daughter. He had a close relationship of trust with her throughout his life. The two of them lived in the care of Marthe de Roucoulle, a French-born Huguenot who spoke only French and who had already looked after his father as a governess.

After that, Frederick received a strict, authoritarian and religious education according to the detailed instructions of Frederick William, who pedantically prescribed the daily routine of the crown prince, from "breakfast in seven minutes time" to washing his hands at 5 o'clock. After that, he was to go to the king, then "ride out, diverting himself in the air and not in the chamber," where he could then do "whatever he wants, if only it is not against God. "Frederick's educator, Jacques Égide Duhan de Jandun, appointed in 1716, a Huguenot refugee who had attracted the king's attention with his particular bravery during the siege of Stralsund in 1715, taught Frederick until 1727. Duhan developed a close personal bond with his pupil, expanded the schedule strictly edited by the king by also introducing the prince to Latin and literature, and eventually assisted in the acquisition of the heir to the throne's secret library. The Latin lessons were also given secretly, and when his father caught them at it, he maltreated teacher and pupil alike with blows and kicks.

Conflict with the father (1728-1733)

In 1728, Frederick secretly began to take flute lessons with Johann Joachim Quantz, which further intensified the conflicts between his tyrannical father, who was fixated only on military and economic matters, and the crown prince. Brutal physical and mental chastisements by Frederick William were part of the daily routine in the royal family at this time. At the same time, the young Frederick continued to fuel these conflicts through his emphatically rebellious behavior toward his father.

In 1728, Frederick accompanied his father on a state visit to the Dresden court during the carnival festivities. There he fell in love with the illegitimate daughter of Elector Friedrich August, Anna Karolina Orzelska. The relationship continued during Frederick August's return visit to Berlin the same year.

In 1729, Frederick sought close friendship with the artistic and educated Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte, who was eight years his senior. Katte became a friend and confidant of Frederick, who admired him for his worldliness. Both were also interested in flute playing and poetry. In the spring of 1730, during an event organized by Augustus the Strong in Zeithain near Riesa (Lustlager von Zeithain), Frederick revealed to his friend his plan to flee to France in order to escape the educational power of his strict father. Frederick William I learned of the escape plans through Heinrich von Brühl and beat Frederick in front of the assembled courtly society in the presence of Brühl, with whom he henceforth conducted a lifelong personal feud. This event and further personal rebukes, also by the Saxon Elector Friedrich August I, who was present, led to a future strain on Prussian-Saxon relations. Frederick's subsequent attempt to escape in the camp already failed due to the lack of release of horses. In July, the crown prince was forced to accompany his father on a diplomatic trip to Ansbach, Ludwigsburg and Mannheim. On the night of August 4 to 5, 1730, Frederick, together with the page Keith, tried unsuccessfully to escape from his travel quarters near Steinsfurt via France to England, while Katte was exposed as a confidant by a compromising letter and arrested a short time later. On August 6, Keith had escaped from Wesel Citadel to The Hague, where Frederick did not arrive until August 10. He was accused of desertion and on the 19th was imprisoned in the Küstrin fortress in the Neumark. His sister Wilhelmine, as a member of the trio of friends, was also accused of complicity and held in her chamber.

Initially, Katte had been sentenced to life imprisonment for desertion by a Prussian court-martial sitting in Köpenick Palace at the so-called Crown Prince Trial. Frederick's father, however, sent word to the court that it should reconvene and pass a new sentence, thus unmistakably urging the judges to impose a death sentence on Katte. Finally, on November 1, 1730, Frederick William himself changed the sentence - which was still life imprisonment - into a death sentence by the Most High Cabinet Order. It was carried out on November 6 in the fortress of Küstrin by beheading with the sword. Frederick, who was supposed to watch, had been able to say goodbye to Katte by shouting and had fainted during the reading of the death sentence. Other people close to the crown prince were also severely punished, such as the Potsdam rector's daughter Dorothea Ritter, a musical friend of Frederick's, and the lieutenant Johann Ludwig von Ingersleben, who had accompanied Frederick on meetings with Dorothea.

The king, who initially also wanted to execute Frederick for treason, finally spared him, partly through the intercession of Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau and partly for foreign policy reasons, after both Emperor Charles VI and Prince Eugene had written in support of the crown prince. However, he was sentenced to imprisonment in a fortress in Küstrin.

Temporarily he was deprived of his princely status. Initially arrested, he served in the Küstrin War and Domain Chamber from 1731 until he was reinstated in the army in November and stationed in what was then Ruppin in 1732 as holder of the former Regiment zu Fuß von der Goltz (1806: No. 15). Thus he became acquainted with army and civil administration firsthand. After he had agreed to marry the unloved Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern - the daughter of Duke Ferdinand Albrecht II of Brunswick - in 1732, the conflict with his father was outwardly settled and Frederick was rehabilitated as crown prince.

Years as Crown Prince in Ruppin and Rheinsberg (1733-1740)

Frederick and Elisabeth Christine were married at Salzdahlum Palace on June 12, 1733. There was ballet, a pastoral in which the crown prince, who led the main role, played the flute, and operas by Carl Heinrich Graun and Georg Friedrich Händel. The marriage remained childless, which some researchers attribute to a venereal disease that he contracted shortly before the marriage during a visit to the court of Augustus the Strong and that prevented him from performing the sexual act. Other scholars, however, assume that Frederick, like his brother Henry, was homosexual.

With his father's permission, the crown prince moved to Rheinsberg with his wife in 1736 and resided there at Rheinsberg Palace. He spent the following years there with his own court until his father's death in 1740. During this time, he devoted himself to the study of philosophy, history and poetry in a self-created circle of mostly older aesthetes and artists who stayed in Rheinsberg or with whom he corresponded, such as Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, Dietrich von Keyserlingk, Charles Étienne Jordan, Heinrich August de la Motte Fouqué, Ulrich Friedrich von Suhm and Egmont von Chasôt.

In 1738, Frederick composed his first symphony. A year later, in 1739, Frederick, who had already corresponded with the Enlightenment thought leader Voltaire, wrote Antimachiavel, a catalog of virtues of the enlightened ideal monarch. Later important political writings were Political Testament (1752) and Forms of Government and the Duties of Rulers (1777), in which he set forth his understanding of enlightened absolutism.

During the Rheinsberg years, Frederick maintained polite and courteous relations with his wife, but after his accession to the throne, as he had announced before the forced marriage, he excluded Elisabeth Christine from his surroundings. While Frederick withdrew from court life to Charlottenburg Palace, he assigned her an apartment in the Berlin City Palace and gave her Schönhausen Palace as a summer residence.

Beginnings 1740-1745

On May 31, 1740, Frederick II ascended the Prussian throne after the death of his father. Among his measures in the spirit of the Enlightenment was the abolition of torture. For some time, torture had been rejected by the German and European public as barbaric, and scholars such as Christian Thomasius, whom Frederick admired, had called for its abolition. Frederick, too, saw torture as a cruel and uncertain means of ascertaining the truth, and throughout his life he believed that "rather twenty guilty people should be acquitted than one innocent person sacrificed." Despite the opposition of his minister of justice, Samuel von Cocceji, and other advisors, the king decreed as early as June 3, 1740, by edict, "to completely abolish the ordeal in the inquisitions, except for the crimen laesae maiestatis and Landesverrätherey, and also those great murderous deeds where many people have lost their lives or many delinquents whose connexion must be brought out are impliciret." Furthermore, Frederick decreed that henceforth a conviction no longer required a successful confession if "the strongest and clearest indicia and evidence from many unsuspicious witnesses" were available. With the deterrent effect of torture in mind, Frederick had the edict by Cocceji published to all courts, but in contrast to the practice with legal texts, he forbade its publication. In 1754, torture was abolished without any reservation, having presumably only been used in one case in the meantime.

The tolerance and openness to immigrants and religious minorities such as Huguenots and Catholics, which was not entirely disinterested for Prussia in economic terms, was not a reform but had already been practiced before his time in office. The dictum (June 22, 1740) "Let every man be blessed according to his own fancy" merely captured this practice in a catchy formula. Frederick II also continued the policy of his predecessors in the discriminatory treatment of Jews (Revised General Privilege 1750). With the approval of the Breslau prince bishop, he then issued an edict on August 8, 1750, according to which in marriages between Protestant and Roman Catholic partners "the sons had to be instructed in the religion of the father, but the daughters in the religion of the mother.

Frederick was very open to new industries. In 1742, for example, he issued an edict ordering the planting of mulberry trees for silkworm breeding in order to become independent of foreign silk supplies.

When he came to power, he gave Professor Jean Henri Samuel Formey the order to found a French newspaper for politics and literature in Berlin. The minister Heinrich von Podewils was ordered to lift censorship for the non-political section of the newspapers. Political statements, however, were still subject to censorship. Prussia was thus the first absolute monarchy in Europe to introduce at least limited freedom of the press. Moreover, in Frederick II's Prussia, it was possible for all citizens to address the king by letter or even in person. He tried to prevent too many excesses of the feudal system. In doing so, he was particularly suspicious of his own officials, whom he accused of a pronounced pride of class to the detriment of the poorer classes.

Soon after his accession to the throne, the king traveled to Königsberg to pay homage to the Estates and then incognito to Strasbourg via Bayreuth, and then on to his Lower Rhine provinces. He met Voltaire for the first time at Moyland Castle in mid-September. In a coup d'état, he forced the Prince-Bishop of Liège to surrender the dominion of Herstal. From mid-November to early December 1740, Voltaire visited the king again in Rheinsberg.

Six months after his accession to the throne in 1740, Frederick launched the First Silesian War on December 16. His attack on Silesia was triggered by the death of the Habsburg Roman-German Emperor Charles VI, who had been left without a male heir. His eldest daughter Maria Theresa had succeeded to the throne in accordance with a succession regulation ordered during his lifetime in 1713, the so-called Pragmatic Sanction. This inheritance also aroused the desires of other neighbors with family ties to the House of Habsburg, so that after the first Prussian victory at the Battle of Mollwitz, Bavaria, Saxony and - under a pretext - France followed Frederick's example and attacked Maria Theresa. As a result, the initial conflict over Silesia expanded into the War of the Austrian Succession. Frederick used this for his limited war aims, secured the cession of Silesia as a "sovereign possession" in the Separate Peace of Breslau in 1742 and left the antipragmatic coalition.

In the following year of the war, the military tide turned: although the House of Habsburg lost the imperial throne to Charles Albrecht of Bavaria, Maria Theresa's troops held their ground with English support and even went on the offensive. In this situation, Frederick began to fear for the permanent possession of Silesia and entered the war again in 1744 on the side of Austria's opponents. Claiming to protect the Wittelsbach emperor, he invaded Bohemia, again breaking treaties and opening the Second Silesian War. This solidified Frederick's reputation as a highly unreliable ally. The Prussian attack on Bohemia failed, however, and Frederick was forced to retreat back to Silesia. The Austrian troops followed but lost decisive field battles, and Frederick was finally able to obtain a renewed guarantee of his Silesian conquests in the Peace of Dresden in 1745.

The young German newspaper world reported on the war in a biased manner. Among the anti-Prussian papers was the Gazette de Gotha, which, like the Gazette d'Erlangen, aroused Frederick's personal displeasure. On April 16, 1746, he wrote a letter to his sister Wilhelmine complaining about the "impudent lout of a newspaperman from Erlangen who slandered me publicly twice a week" and asked her, in her capacity as Margravine of Bayreuth, to put an end to this goings-on. However, she did so only half-heartedly, and the editor of the Gazette d'Erlangen Johann Gottfried Groß then always briefly retreated to the neighboring free imperial city of Nuremberg. Through a thug hired by his confidant Jakob Friedrich von Rohd, Frederick had the editor of the widely circulated, Catholic-oriented Gazette de Cologne, which regularly exaggerated Austrian successes and suppressed Prussian victories, Jean Ignace Roderique, beaten up in the open street. In his anger, the king even dedicated an invective poem in French to him.

In 1744, East Frisia fell to Prussia by succession, which Frederick William had already speculated on in his political will in 1722. When Carl Edzard, the last East Frisian prince from the House of Cirksena, died childless at the age of 27 on May 25, 1744, King Frederick II of Prussia asserted his right of succession, which had been regulated in the Emden Convention concluded two months earlier. He had East Frisia occupied starting from Emden, whereupon on June 23 the country paid homage to the crown.

Seven Years' War (1756-1763)

After a reversal of alliances largely due to activities of the Austrian chancellor Count Kaunitz (among other things, France became a supporter of Maria Theresa and England became a friend of the Prussian king), Frederick marched his troops into the Electorate of Saxony at the end of August 1756 without a declaration of war and opened what later became known as the Seven Years' War. In doing so, he preempted by a few months a coordinated attack by an alliance of practically all of Prussia's direct neighbors, including the great powers of Austria, France and Russia, which had already been agreed upon. Because of his strategic skill, he was finally given the nickname "the Great," an epithet to which Frederick attached great importance, as Jürgen Luh was able to prove on the basis of his correspondence with Voltaire. His personality was also staged in this sense. Frederick was the last European monarch to be so designated according to old European tradition, which is related to the displacement of the historical personality by the idea of the nation in the wake of the French Revolution.

As one of few monarchs of his time, he also always led his troops personally. Thus he was victorious as a commander in the battles of Lobositz 1756, Prague 1757, Roßbach 1757, Leuthen 1757, Zorndorf 1758, Liegnitz 1760, Torgau 1760, Burkersdorf 1762. He was defeated three times (Kolin 1757, Hochkirch 1758, Kunersdorf 1759). In siege warfare he was much less successful. One victorious siege (Schweidnitz 1762) was countered by three failures (Prague 1757, Olmütz 1758, Dresden 1760). Although Frederick lost the aura of invincibility with the defeat at Kolin, he was still considered by his opponents to be very fast, unpredictable and almost impossible to defeat.

The defeat at Kolin destroyed Frederick's hopes for a short, uncomplicated campaign. From now on, he braced himself for a long campaign. His state of mind increasingly deteriorated, especially when he learned that ten days after the battle his beloved mother Sophie Dorothea had died in Berlin. A note in a letter to the Duke of Bevern dated August 26, 1757, impressively attests to his hopeless mood:

Prussian state finances were hopelessly in tatters, and the war could no longer be financed with existing funds. As lessees of all mints, Veitel Heine Ephraim and Daniel Itzig offered to secretly lower the silver content of groschen and talers for the beleaguered monarch, producing millions of Ephraimites. The king assured them of impunity and had most of the documents proving government involvement in systematic counterfeiting destroyed.

After the disastrous outcome of the Battle of Kunersdorf in August 1759, Frederick II was unable to command the army for some time. On the evening of the battle, he transferred the supreme command to his brother Prince Henry and wrote to the Minister of State Count von Finckenstein in Berlin:

After Kunersdorf, total defeat for Prussia was imminent. Frederick himself was deeply affected: "It can be assumed," writes Wolfgang Venohr, "that Frederick played with thoughts of death in the first terrible days after Kunersdorf." But things took an unexpected turn: Instead of marching on Berlin, the Austrians and Russians hesitated for a full two weeks until they departed eastward on September 1. Frederick was saved for the time being and spoke with relief of the "miracle of the House of Brandenburg". He wrote to Prince Heinrich on September 5 from the Waldow an der Oder camp:

The final turning point came when the Russian Tsarina Elizabeth died on January 5, 1762. Elizabeth's successor Peter III adored Frederick and surprisingly concluded an alliance treaty with him. After Peter's assassination in July 1762, his widow and successor Catherine II dissolved the alliance but did not resume Elizabeth's anti-Prussian policy. Thus the anti-Prussian coalition broke apart. Maria Theresa and Frederick concluded the Peace of Hubertusburg in 1763, which established the status quo ante and was signed at Dahlen Palace on February 21, 1763.

Reconstruction and late acquisitions (1763-1779)

Under Frederick II, Prussia had asserted itself against the resistance of eventually three major European powers (France, Austria, Russia) and the Central Powers (Sweden, Electoral Saxony) and established itself as a new great power. However, Frederick had aged early due to the hardships and personal losses of the campaigns. The young king's intellectual cosmopolitanism from his first years in power gave way to bitterness and a pronounced cynicism. Nevertheless, in 1763 he had provided Prussia with a secure base in the political concert of the powers of the day and established it as the fifth major European power alongside Russia, Austria, France and England.

Among his other acts of domestic policy after 1763 was the promotion of the potato as a foodstuff in agriculture - on March 24, 1756, he ordered all officials in the so-called potato order to make the cultivation of potatoes "comprehensible" to all subjects. He founded the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin (Royal Porcelain Manufactory Berlin) in 1763 and gave it his royal trademark in the form of the blue scepter. After 1763, Frederick continued the land expansion (Friderizian colonization) in the Warthe, Netze and Großer Bruch, which had already been successfully completed in 1762 in the Oderbruch. In 1783, after many years of negotiations with neighboring states, including the Brunswick office of Calvörde, the draining of the wild Drömling began. Villages were established and free farmers settled in the newly developed areas. It was customary when a lease for state land was about to be renewed that employees, maids and farmhands were questioned about their treatment and in case of grievances the tenant was replaced, even if he had been successful in farming.

Frederick was only able to implement the abolition or mitigation of serfdom, which he desired and encouraged, gradually on the royal crown domains. A general abolition failed due to the resistance of the noble landowners, who were firmly anchored in society.

During Frederick's reign, hundreds of schools were built. However, the rural school system suffered from unregulated teacher training. Often, former non-commissioned officers were called in who had only a sketchy knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic.

After the end of the Seven Years' War, he ordered the construction of the New Palace on the west side of Sanssouci Park, which was completed in 1769 and was used mainly for guests of his court. In 1769 he was busy with his nephew and his nephew's cousin, namely the divorce between Elisabeth Christine Ulrike of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and the heir to the throne Frederick William II.

After the Seven Years' War, neither an alliance with Great Britain nor one with France was an option for Frederick: he resented the separate peace of Fontainebleau in 1762, and had nothing but contempt for the military might of the French. In his political will of 1752, he urged his successor to avoid a war against Russia if at all possible, especially since there was no reason to do so: "There is no dispute between him and Prussia. Only chance makes it our enemy." When Empress Catherine inquired in 1764 how Frederick intended to behave in view of the foreseeable demise of King August III of Poland, he seized the opportunity and had a formal alliance negotiated. On March 31, Jul.

This alliance proved its worth in the course of the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Already in his Political Testament of 1752, Frederick had speculated about an acquisition of Polish Prussia, later called West Prussia, in order to obtain a land bridge between Pomerania and East Prussia. An opportunity to do so arose in 1769 when Austria occupied the Spis to obtain compensation for the lost Silesia. Poland could not resist, because here the civil war was raging over the Confederation of Bar, which wanted to end the de facto protectorate that Russia exercised over the Rzeczpospolita. This civil war and the Russian involvement in it presented the Empress Catherine with a dilemma: neither could she tolerate Polish insubordination, nor could she provoke Prussia and Austria, who insisted on maintaining the balance of power, by a forced military intervention. This balance seemed to tip completely when Russia achieved great successes in the Russian-Ottoman War, which was taking place at the same time.

When Austrian intervention seemed imminent, Frederick took the initiative: he sent his brother Henry to the Russian capital St. Petersburg to persuade Catherine II to participate in an annexation of Polish territories. The empress was willing to do so, and after some moral doubts, Maria Theresa also agreed in 1772. On August 5, 1772, the partition treaty was signed in St. Petersburg. Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed Polish territories on a large scale, Prussia got Polish Prussia, as desired by Frederick. Subsequently, Frederick had its text extensively interpreted in order to maximize his territorial gains in the Net area. In doing so, Prussia did not shy away from bribing Polish border commissioners. No objections were raised by the major Western European powers; the balance of power seemed to be preserved, since three states profited from the illegal annexations and not just one. The historian Karl Otmar Freiherr von Aretin argues that Prussia's equal participation in the theft of land "finally elevated it to the rank of a great European power.

In the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778

Death and grave

Frederick died in his armchair at Sanssouci Palace on August 17, 1786. Although ordered otherwise during his lifetime, his nephew and successor Frederick William II had him buried in the Potsdam Garrison Church in the crypt of the Royal Monument behind the altar, at the side of his father Frederick William I.

Napoleon Bonaparte visited Potsdam in the midst of his general staff on October 25, 1806, after his victory over the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstedt on the march to Berlin. His words, "One would not have come this far if Frederick were still alive," were probably not uttered at the royal tomb in the Garrison Church, as is often claimed, but in Frederick's apartment in the Potsdam City Palace. Out of respect for the personality of Frederick the Great, Napoleon placed the Garrison Church under his personal protection.

In 1943, the coffins of the kings were taken to an air force bunker in Eiche, and in March 1945, first to a mine near Bernterode, then to Marburg Castle due to the political explosiveness of the find - Bernterode was in the future Soviet zone. In February 1946, in a secret action, they were brought to the Marburg State Archives, which at that time was the seat of the Americans' first Central Collecting Point. On August 16, the sarcophagi were moved to the Elisabeth Church there as part of "Operation Bodysnatch". Louis Ferdinand of Prussia wanted to have them transferred to the chapel of Hohenzollern Castle in 1952, but the church council "spoke out against the moving of the bones for Christian biblical reasons." The Hohenzollerns claimed the coffins as their private property and were finally able to push through the reburial with political support without a court case.

On August 17, 1991, the king's last will was fulfilled and his coffin was once again moved to be buried on the terrace of Sanssouci in the crypt that still exists. In his will, Frederick had stipulated that he be buried there at night with a very small entourage and by the light of a lantern. This was in keeping with his philosophical aspirations. Instead, the funeral turned into a kind of state funeral. Since then, a simple stone slab marks and decorates his grave52.40406313.039782.


Frederick corresponded with Voltaire, whom he met several times. In 1740, Voltaire was a guest at Rheinsberg Palace for 14 days. As at Rheinsberg, Frederick surrounded himself at Sanssouci Palace with intellectual interlocutors who appeared at the evening round table. Guests included George Keith and his brother, the Marquis d'Argens, Count Algarotti, La Mettrie, Maupertuis, Count von Rothenburg, Christoph Ludwig von Stille, Karl Ludwig von Pöllnitz, Claude Étienne Darget and Voltaire. Voltaire stayed in Potsdam for about two years starting in 1751. The witty picture puzzle attributed to Frederick and Voltaire must date from this time. In 1753, there was a rift that caused disgruntlement for some time. After the reconciliation mediated by Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, Frederick corresponded with Voltaire again from 1757. In 1775 he even sent him a portrait of himself.

Frederick largely limited closer personal contacts to men; he had lived separately from his wife since his accession to the throne. Various sources indicate that he was homosexual: as a young crown prince, for example, he confided to Friedrich Wilhelm von Grumbkow that he felt too little attraction to the female sex to imagine entering into marriage. On the eve of the Battle of Mollwitz, he recommended to his brother August Wilhelm in the event of his death "those whom I have loved most in life" - exclusively names of men followed, among them Keyserlingk's in the first place, also that of his valet Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf. In 1746, he wrote a spiteful letter to his openly gay brother Heinrich, which was characterized by jealousy for the "beautiful Marwitz", Heinrich's chamberlain, whom Friedrich accused of being ill with gonorrhea. Between 1747 and 1749, he wrote Le Palladion, a lengthy poem that cheerfully described the homosexual adventures of his reader Darget. There were also many rumors, contributed not least by Voltaire, Anton Friedrich Büsching, and the physician Johann Georg Zimmermann, who had treated Friedrich shortly before his death. Friedrich's garden inspector and Oberhofbaurat Heinrich Ludwig Manger described Fredersdorf in 1789 as "the king's chamber favorite at that time.

Whether Frederick ever acted out his inclination physically, however, is disputed: Reinhard Alings, for example, believes that Frederick lived a celibate life and was not even capable of a genuine love relationship after the traumatic experiences of his childhood. Frank-Lothar Kroll also believes that Frederick's disposition was significantly less life-determining than that of his brother. Wolfgang Burgdorf, on the other hand, believes that the king did live out his homosexuality, which was later attributed to him. This was one of his essential personality traits, which could be used to explain Frederick's central character traits: He had not been able to fulfill his father's wish that he beget an heir to the throne and had compensated for his failure with a thirst for glory and military risk-taking. In contrast, Johannes Kunisch, for example, calls contemporary statements about this "facet" of Frederick's nature "denunciatory" or "pompous. At least in Frederick's youth, heterosexual feelings and experiences can be proven, for example in relation to the ballet dancer Barbara Campanini. Finally, it is also possible that Frederick only staged his homosexuality, for example to conceal impotence.

Some of the few women who met his high standards and to whom he therefore paid his respect were the so-called "great landgravine" Henriette Karoline of Palatinate-Zweibrücken and Catherine II of Russia, to whom he dedicated several poems and with whom he was in lively correspondence. However, he evaded Catherine's two invitations to meet her in person; Frederick also never met Maria Theresa in person. He expected women to have the same beautiful intellectual esprit for which his rounds at table were praised.

The literary man

Frederick wrote numerous works, and almost exclusively in French. He himself was inescapably "possessed" by a passion, as he wrote, which he called "métromanie," an addiction to rhyme.

His Antimachiavel (1740), in which he subjected the political principles of Niccolò Machiavelli to a critical analysis in the spirit of the Enlightenment, became famous throughout Europe. In Antimachiavel, he also substantiated his position regarding the permissibility of pre-emptive strike and "war of interests." According to this, in a "war of interests" the prince pursues the interests of his people, which not only entitles him but even obliges him to resort to force if necessary. He thus anticipated the rationale for the conquest of Silesia in 1740 and the invasion of Saxony in 1756.

He wrote the first comprehensive account of developments in Prussia with Denkwürdigkeiten zur Geschichte des Hauses Brandenburg (1748), Geschichte meiner Zeit (first draft 1746), Geschichte des Siebenjährigen Krieges (1764) and his Memoiren (1775). In it, he mainly justified his political views.

Frederick's work Ueber die deutsche Litteratur; die Mängel, die man ihr vorwurf kann; die Ursachen derselben; und die Mittel sie zu verbessern (De la Littérature Allemande), published in German by Decker in Berlin in 1780, drew fierce criticism from the German intellectual world. In doing so, he had failed to take note of the upsurge of German literature in the present and now recommended French literature as a model. On behalf of Frederick's sister Philippine Charlotte of Prussia, Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Jerusalem anonymously published a critical response, and Justus Möser and Johann Michael Afsprung wrote rebuttals.

Frederick promoted the Royal German Society (Königsberg).

The art admirer

Frederick was interested in art in every form. He cared about the conception of his buildings, which give his name to the Friderizian Rococo as a style variant. Immediately after taking office, he had the opera house Unter den Linden built as a temple of the Muses for the Berlin public, sketched his Potsdam Sanssouci Palace himself and had it executed by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff. After the end of the Seven Years' War, the New Palace was built in the monumental Baroque style to the west of Sanssouci Palace Park. As sculptural decoration, the buildings are often joined by statues of Apollo, Hercules and the Muses. He also created important picture collections in Sanssouci and the New Palace.

Especially in his younger years, Frederick seems to have had a weakness for the gallant scenes in paintings by Antoine Watteau, Nicolas Lancret, and Jean-Baptiste Pater; later he also acquired Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings as well as Flemish and Dutch works. His taste in art was in part characterized by dilettantism and personal fondness, while he paid little attention to more recent developments in many areas. Thus, the acquisition of the antique bronze statue of the "Praying Boy," thought at the time to be a representation of Antinous, the pleasure boy of Emperor Hadrian, from the possession of Prince Eugene is explained by the homoerotic taste of the Prussian king. The same applies to the statues of the naked Mars and Mercury at the portal to the entrance hall in Sanssouci. Other rooms were decorated with erotic motifs and homoerotic depictions.

Frederick was also very fond of music. He played the flute very well and, supported by his flute teacher Johann Joachim Quantz, composed at an elevated level. Many of the compositions attributed to him are still performed today by renowned performers, such as the flutist Manfred Friedrich and the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Chamber Orchestra. Later, he had a great fondness for the flute sonatas of Muzio Clementi (1752-1832). He wrote the libretto for the opera Montezuma, which was set to music by Carl Heinrich Graun. However, it is a legend that the Marcha Real, the later Spanish national anthem, was composed by Friedrich. Likewise, it is unproven that he composed the Hohenfriedberg March. The Mollwitz March, on the other hand, was composed by him in 1741. Franz Benda and Johann Gottlieb Graun played important roles in the musical life of Rheinsberg and Berlin. Johann Sebastian Bach's performance in the Potsdam City Palace on May 7, 1747, arranged by the court musician Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and the "Royal Theme" performed by Frederick on that occasion led to its adaptation in Bach's famous collection Das musikalische Opfer.

The Freemason

During a dinner conversation, his father made disparaging remarks about Freemasonry on a trip to the Rhine in 1738. Count Albrecht Wolfgang von Schaumburg-Lippe disagreed and openly professed his belief in Freemasonry. Frederick was taken with this and asked the count to arrange for him to be admitted to the Freemasons. Without his father's knowledge, Frederick was arrested by deputies of the Lodge d'Hambourg under conspiratorial conditions on the night of 14 January.

The dog lover

The king's greatest passion is considered to be that which he cultivated toward his dogs; he is quoted as saying, "Dogs have all the good qualities of man without at the same time possessing their faults." Among his favorite bitches were the windchimes Biche, Alcmène and Superbe. They slept in his bed and were fed by the king at table. In his last years Frederick preferred the company of his dogs to that of his fellow men. In his will, he stipulated that he be buried in a tomb on the terrace of Sanssoucis Palace next to his dogs - a wish that was not fulfilled until 1991.

Portraits and monuments

A large number of portraits of Frederick II were made during his lifetime. They were very popular with his admirers, also abroad, and he himself used to give them as gifts in recognition of services rendered to him - whether as a life-size painting, a brilliantly set miniature worn like a medal, or on a tabatiere. Opinions have differed about the lifelikeness of these portraits since the beginning of their scientific research: In 1897, the art historian Paul Seidel complained that "a clear, unclouded judgment of what Frederick the Great looked like in reality" could not be gained from the surviving portraits. The historian Johannes Kunisch, on the other hand, assumes in his 2004 biography of Frederick that the portraits, especially those by the court painter Antoine Pesne, "faithfully reflect the characteristics of his appearance.

One reason for doubting the lifelikeness of the portraits is that this was not at all the intention of the patrons of eighteenth-century images of rulers: rather, it was important to depict the political and social role in which the sitter wanted to present himself publicly, i.e., as a ruler with scepter and ermine cloak, as a competent army commander, or as a modest, faithfully caring father of the country. According to art historian Frauke Mankartz, the recognizable "brand" was more important than fidelity to reality. Frederick himself repeatedly scoffed at the fact that his portraits looked little like him. Moreover, he harbored a pronounced aversion to sitting for portraits, which he consistently refused to do from the moment he came to power because he considered himself too ugly for it: One would have to be Apollo, Mars, or Adonis to be painted, and he bore no resemblance to these gentlemen, he wrote to d'Alembert in 1774.

In fact, not a single portrait created during Frederick's reign is authentic beyond doubt; that he sat for the painter Johann Georg Ziesenis during a visit to Salzdahlum in 1763, as Jean Lulvès claimed in 1913, is sometimes disputed. Ziesenis, like other portraitists, probably had to make do with sketches made after meeting the king. Frederick as crown prince is said to have sat for several hours as a model for a painter, namely Pesne, only once in 1733, and even then only for the sake of his favorite sister Wilhelmine. All other portraits depicting Frederick's appearance in middle age and old age were not created at portrait sessions, but were updates of older portraits (e.g., by Pesne) or painted from memory.

The art historian Saskia Hüneke identifies several types of Frederick portraits, each with a high recognition value: On the one hand, there is the youthful type of portrait oriented on the Baroque portrait of a ruler with softer facial forms, as represented by the works of Pesne and Knobelsdorff's profile portrait from 1734 with their updates. There is a distinctly different type of portrait of the elderly, which goes back to drawings by Daniel Chodowiecki and was further developed in the portraits of Johann Heinrich Christian Franke from around 1764 and Anton Graff from 1781, which were created after the Seven Years' War. It shows the king as "Old Fritz," gaunt, serious, with sharp wrinkles in his nose, large eyes and a narrow mouth. The death mask and the portraits based on it could be understood as a continuation of this age type. The portrait of Ziesenis and a portrait bust of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi from 1770 formed a middle type.

In the 19th century, the king became a popular subject of history paintings. The painter Adolph von Menzel depicted events from the life of Frederick the Great in many of his paintings, the most famous of which are Frederick the Great's Flute Concert at Sanssouci and The Round Table at Sanssouci. Wilhelm Camphausen, Carl Röchling and Emil Hünten also created historicizing depictions that focused on the life of Frederick II, many of which were reproduced in books.

During his lifetime, Frederick II refused to be depicted in monuments. The only exception was the obelisk erected in 1755 on the Old Market Square in Potsdam, on whose shaft four portrait medallions created by Knobelsdorf could be seen. They showed the Great Elector, King Frederick I, Frederick William I, and, as the finisher of the dynastic line of ancestors, Frederick II. After Frederick's death, numerous monuments were erected to him. One of the first monumental memorials to Frederick the Great was erected in 1792 in the park of Neuhardenberg Palace to a design by Johann Wilhelm Meil, which shows the deceased, who had died only six years earlier, only in a relatively inconspicuous portrait relief, allegorically mourned by Mars and Minerva. Stand-alone portraits and personal statues are the bust in the Valhalla designed by Johann Gottfried Schadow in 1807 and the statue erected by Joseph Uphues in monument group 28 of Berlin's Victory Avenue, which was particularly close to the heart of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The first monument erected in Berlin, and at the same time the most important, is the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great from 1851 on Unter den Linden. The monument survived the Second World War without damage. In 1950, the SED had it removed in the course of the destruction of the City Palace. The re-installation happened in 1980, when the historical role of the king as an enlightened ruler was evaluated more positively by the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of history. A scaled-down replica of the Berlin equestrian statue was located in the Amber Room of the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo until 1917. A replica of the equestrian statue (reduced in size and with a different base) is located in Potsdam in Sanssouci Park, south of the Orangery Palace, in the "New Piece" below the Jubilee Terrace.

Other monuments to Frederick the Great can be found in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin-Mitte, at Charlottenburg Palace, in Volkspark Friedrichshain (restored in 2000), on the market square in Berlin-Friedrichshagen (restored in 2003) and in the Marly Garden of Sanssouci Park in Potsdam. The bronze copy at Charlottenburg Palace was created from photographs of the "lost original in marble" by Johann Gottfried Schadow for the Paradeplatz in Stettin. At Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam is a 91-centimeter statuette depicting King Frederick II with the wind chimes. It was cast in bronze in 1822 by François Léquine after a model by Schadow from 1816. The statuette no longer exists on the plantation at the Garrison Church in Potsdam. A memorial stone to Frederick is located on the former "Knüppelweg" in Lieberose, Brandenburg. This almost forgotten memorial stone stands on the site where Frederick rallied his troops after the defeat at Kunersdorf. One of the most recent memorials to Friedrich was erected in 2012 (on the 300th anniversary of his birth) in Wernigerode am Harz in historicist forms and is there to commemorate the founding of the "Friedrichsthal" colony.


Contemporary name patron

As early as 1766, i.e. during his lifetime, the council of the Westphalian city of Herford asked for permission to name the municipal grammar school, which had been in existence since 1540, after the sovereign. Since then, the Friedrichs-Gymnasium Herford has been the only school named after him. The occasion was a state-wide collection approved by Frederick for the renovation and expansion of the school.

Political myth

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the political myth surrounding Frederick the Great was subject to constant change. If "Old Fritz" was still considered the founder of German dualism until 1870, later generations referred to him in positive terms. Many politicians and aristocrats of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tried to emulate him and stylized him as the forerunner of Protestant Germany. An example of this veneration is the Fridericus Rex films of the 1920s. Frederick was one of the first celebrities whose biography was prepared for the medium of cinema, which was just taking off at that time.

The glorification of Frederick reached its peak during the National Socialist era under the auspices of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The six films in which the then famous actor Otto Gebühr portrayed the Prussian king played a particularly important role. Nazi propaganda not only referred to him as the "first National Socialist," but also stylized Frederick and his followers as the epitome of German discipline, steadfastness and loyalty to the fatherland. In the final months of the war, for example, the National Socialists justified the conscription of Hitler Youth into the Volkssturm on the grounds that Frederick had also raised 15-year-old sons of nobility to the rank of lieutenant. Thus, the legend of the charismatic Prussian king was misused by political rulers for centuries; whether he was labeled "un-German" or "German national" was subject to the respective spirit of the times.

The Mainz historian Karl Otmar von Aretin denies that Frederick ruled in the manner of enlightened absolutism and sees him as the founder of an irresponsible and Machiavellian tradition in German foreign policy.

The Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation provided completely new insights into Frederick's life in the anniversary year 2012 (300th birthday of Frederick the Great) with its exhibition "Friederisiko" in the New Palace of Sanssouci, which caused a sensation beyond the region.

1 Frederick the Great's family tree shows the ancestral dwindling often found in circles of the high nobility. Since his parents were first cousins, as were his mother's parents, the number of his great-great-grandparents was reduced from 16 to 10.




Politics, administration, military


  1. Frederick the Great
  2. Friedrich II. (Preußen)

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