The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Frederick II of Prussia

Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great

Frederick II of Prussia (Friedrich der Große, Frederick the Great, January 24, 1712August 17, 1786) was a Hohenzollern king of Prussia 174086. He was one of the so-called "enlightened monarchs".

Friedrick preferred to speak French rather than German. Despite his literary talent, Frederick had poor French grammar and spelling. He had little sympathy for the German literature of his time.

His mother was Princess Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (16871757). Unlike her husband she was well mannered and well educated.

Frederick succeeded his father Frederick William I (der Soldatenkönig, the "Soldier King"). He had to endure a very rigorous and austere upbringing. The relationship between the music loving and francophile Frederick and his militaristic father was difficult. At a manoeuvre the 18-year-old Frederick was once beaten in public by his father. Thereupon he tried to escape together with his friend and lover Hans Hermann von Katte, but was caught (August 5, 1730). Prince Frederick was imprisoned in the fortress Küstrin. An accusation of treason was leveled against them, both the prince and von Katte, who were officers in the Prussian army and had tried to flee from Prussia and allegedly even hatched a plan to ally with Britain against the Prussian king. The prince was threatened with the death penalty, and the king did not rule out an execution. So the proud prince had to submit to his father's demands. Frederick was forced to watch the execution (by decapitation) of his friend on November 6, 1730, and was strictly supervised in the following years.

The only way that Frederick atoned (and regained his title of crown prince) for this in his father's eyes was in his marriage to Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern on June 12 1733. The involuntary matrimony did not lead to children. After having become king, Frederick mostly ignored his wife. Some sources (Voltaire) are taken to indicate that he was homosexual.

After the crisis in the relationship with the King in the early 1730s, son and father made a chilly peace in the late 1730s.

The father gave his son the chateau Rheinsberg . In Rheinsberg Frederick assembled a small number of musicians, actors and other artists. He spent his time on reading, watching dramatic plays, making and listening to music. It was a happy time for the prince.

The works of Niccolò Machiavelli, such as The Prince, were considered a guideline for the behavior of a king in Frederick's age. In 1739, Frederick finished his "Antimachiavel, ou Examen du Prince de Machiavel" - a writing in which he opposes Machiavelli. It was published anonymously in 1740.

The following chronology of events took place during his life:

Frederick did not really have a vision for an unified Germany; this had to wait until Bismarck started and won several wars a century later. Actually he fought all his wars mainly against Austria (The Habsburg leaders of Austria were German kings, almost continuously from the 15th century until 1806). Frederick established Brandenburg/Prussia as the fifth and smallest European great power by using the resources his father had made available. For 100 years the Austro-Prussian dualism (ending with the Austrian defeat in 1866) made a unified Germany impossible.

Frederick led the Prussian forces during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), and in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778) - not only as king but also as military commander in the field. He was not only quite successful on the battlefield; Frederick is often admired as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, tactical genius of all time. Even more important were his operational successes (preventing unification of superior enemy armies, and being at the right place at the right time to keep enemy armies out of Prussian core territory).

Frederick managed to take Prussia from being basically a European backwater and make it a modern state. He abolished torture and granted wide religious freedom (although he himself did not care much for religion). He gave his state a modern bureaucracy based on respect for law and ethics, as well as pride in one's profession. This legacy was passed on into the modern German state and is a main reason why he is still so admired as a historical figure within Germany. A major example of the place that Frederick holds in history as a ruler is seen in Napoleon Bonaparte, who saw Frederick as the greatest tactical genius of all time.

In personal relationships, Frederick had a life-long rivalry with his younger brother Heinrich, Prince of Prussia and a long term friendship with Voltaire. Friedrick hosted Voltaire from July 1750 to March 1752 in Berlin and Potsdam.

Having no children of his own, his nephew succeeded him as King Frederick William II of Prussia.

Frederick had a great fondness for music, and in particular he played the flute to a more than acceptable standard. He was responsible directly or indirectly for the writing of many pieces of flute music, and also wrote over a hundred pieces himself. His court musicians included C. P. E. Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz. A meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 in Potsdam led to Bach writing The Musical Offering.

He was also fascinated with enlightenment philosophy, and employed controversial figures such as the enlightenment philosopher Voltaire and the radical materialist La Mettrie.

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Frederick II is renowned for his great wit. It may be observed in some of his orders and notes, and in most of his correspondece.

  • "[The ] is a perpetual sentinel, who must watch...enemies of the is not that he should remain the shadow of authority, but that he should fulfill [his] duties."
  • "Ich bin der erste Diener meines Staates." ("I am the first servant of my state.", in contrast to the statement "L'Etat, c'est moi." ("I am the State.") made by Louis XIV, whose example most european kings tried to follow at that time.)
  • "Alle Religionen seind gleich und guht, wan nur die leute, so sie profesieren, erlige leute seindt; und wen türken und heiden kämen und wollten das Lande pöplieren, so wollen wir sie Mosqueen und Kirchen bauen." ("All Religions are equal and good, if only the people that practise them are honest people; and if Turks and heathens came and wanted to live here in this country, we would build them mosques and churches." 1740 note on a question whether a Catholic was allowed the citizenship of a Prussian city.)
  • "die Religionen Müsen alle Tolleriret werden und mus der fiscal nuhr das auge darauf haben das keine der andern abruch Tuhe, den hier mus ein jeder nach Seiner Faßon Selich werden." ("The religions must all be tolerated and the state has to keep an eye that none of them shall derogate the other, because here everyone must find his salvation in his own way." Reply on the question of his secretaries whether the catholic schools should be abolished in protestant Prussia)

After the Peace of Augsburg and the Peace of Westphalia, the electors of Brandenburg were, as Protestant princes, also the heads of the church in their countries. Therefore, Frederick, although an atheist, also had to comment both on matters of government as well as on matters of religion.

  • Answer to the request of a parish in Pommerania to send a new priest, as the present one had ventured to deny the resurrection on judgement day:
"Der Pfarrer bleibt. Wenn er am Jüngsten Tage nicht mit aufstehen will, kann er ruhig liegen bleiben." ("The priest will stay. If he does not want to get up with the others on judgement day, he may well keep lying on his back.")
  • Answering a question by a mayor how to punish a man that had committed blasphemy and insulted the king and the City Council:
"Dass der Arrestat Gott gelästert hat, ist ein beweis, dass er ihn nicht kennt. Daß er mich gelästert hat, vergebe ich ihm; daß er aber einen edlen Rat gelästert hat, dafür soll er exemplarisch bestraft werden und auf eine halbe Stunde nach Spandau kommen." ("That the arrested man has commited blasphemy is a proof that he does not know God. That he has slandered me, I pardon him. But for his insulting of an honourable member of the council, he shall be punished as an example and be sent to Spandau prison for half an hour.")
  • Note on a verdict against a soldier who was sentenced to a fine of 2000 Taler for smuggling:
"Bevor ich gegenwärtiges Urteil bestätige, bin Ich doch neugierig, die Mittel zu wissen, deren man sich bedienen will, einen Soldaten 2000 Taler bezahlen zu lassen." ("Before I endorse this sentence, I am curious to hear of the measures you want to employ for making a simple soldier pay 2000 Taler.")

Voltaire gave Frederick the nickname Alaric Cotin, Alaric in recognition of him as a warrior, Cotin as a would-be literary writer, after an unknown French poet of that name.

Last updated: 05-15-2005 05:02:26
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04