Frederick II of Prussia

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Frederick II of Prussia.
Frederick II of Prussia.
Prussian Royalty
House of Hohenzollern

Frederick I (1701-1713)
    Princess Louise Dorothea
    Prince Frederick William
Frederick William I (1713-1740)
    Princess Wilhelmine
   Prince Frederick
    Princess Friederike Luise
    Princess Philippine Charlotte
    Princess Sophia
    Princess Louisa Ulrika
    Prince August Wilhelm
    Princess Anna Amalia
    Prince Henry
    Prince Ferdinand
Frederick II (The Great, 1740-1786)
Frederick William II (1786-1797)
    Prince Frederick William
    Prince Louis
    Princess Wilhelmine
    Princess Augusta
    Prince Charles
    Prince Wilhelm
Frederick William III (1797-1840)
    Prince Frederick William
    Prince Wilhelm
    Princess Charlotte
    Princess Alexandrine
    Prince Charles
Frederick William IV (1840-1861)

Frederick II of Prussia (German: Friedrich II.; January 24, 1712 – August 17, 1786) of Hohenzollern dynasty, ruled the Kingdom of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He was the third and last King in Prussia and became the King of Prussia in 1772.

Frederick was an " enlightened monarch" or "enlightened despot". Because of his accomplishments he became known as Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große). He was nicknamed der alte Fritz ("Old Fritz").

Early years

Frederick was born in Berlin, the son of Sophia Dorothea of Hanover and King Frederick William I. The so-called "Soldier-King", Frederick William had created a formidable army and efficient civil service, but is otherwise recorded in a negative light. Frederick William was known to strike men in the face with his cane and kick women in the street, justifying his outbursts as religious righteousness.

In contrast, Sophia was well-mannered and well-educated. Her father, George, Elector of Hanover, was the heir of Queen Anne of Great Britain. George succeeded as King George I of Great Britain in 1714.

At the time of Frederick's birth, the Houses of Brandenburg and Hanover were enjoying great prosperity; the birth of Frederick was welcomed by his grandfather with more than usual pleasure, as two of his grandsons had already died at an early age. Frederick William wished his sons and daughters to be educated not as royalty, but as simple folk. He had been educated by a Frenchwoman, Madame de Montbail, who later became Madame de Rocoulle, and he wished that she should educate his children. Frederick was brought up by Huguenot governesses and tutors and learned French and German simultaneously.


Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great

Frederick found an ally in his sister, Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, with whom he remained close for life. At age 16, Frederick also formed an attachment to the king's 17-year old page, Peter Christopher Keith. Wilhelmine recorded that the two "soon became inseparable. Keith was intelligent, but without education. He served my brother from feelings of real devotion, and kept him informed of all the king's actions… Though I had noticed that he was on more familiar terms with this page than was proper in his position, I did not know how intimate the friendship was."

Frederick William exiled the page soon after and assigned a young soldier, Lieutenant Borcke, to be Frederick's friend. Frederick became enamored of the Lieutenant, writing, "My wearisome affection breaks from me and discloses to you the feelings of a heart filled with you, and which cannot be satisfied save in knowing that you are fully convinced of the tender friendship with which it adores you." There is no record of the Lieutenant returning the interest.

Interest was returned the same year, however, by Hans Hermann von Katte, the 22-year old son of a general major and squire of Wust, and also a lover of French literature and music. When he was 18, Frederick plotted to flee to England with Katte and other junior army officers. His escape was botched, however, and Frederick and Katte were arrested. An accusation of treason was leveled against both the prince and Katte since they were officers in the Prussian army and had tried to flee from Prussia, allegedly even having hatched a plan to ally with Great Britain against Frederick William.

The prince was threatened with the death penalty, and the king did not rule out his being executed. In the end, Frederick was forced to watch the execution of his friend Katte at Küstrin, who was beheaded on November 6, 1730. When his companion appeared in the courtyard, Frederick called out from his cell, "My dear Katte, a thousand apologies," to which Katte replied, "My prince, there is nothing to apologize for." Frederick fainted before the sword fell.

The king imprisoned Frederick for a year, during which Frederick began two of his longest relationships, with Lieutenant Count von Keyserling and Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf. Voltaire wrote of Fredersdorf, "This soldier, young, handsome, well made, and who played the flute, served to entertain the prisoner in more than one fashion." Fredersdorf was the heir of a peasant, but as king, Frederick would name him royal valet, then director of the royal theatre, and eventually chancellor of the kingdom.

The only way that Frederick regained his title of crown prince, however, was by marriage to Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern, a consort chosen by the king, on June 12, 1733. Frederick wrote to his sister that, "There can be neither love nor friendship between us." He considered suicide. After becoming king, Frederick largely ignored his wife, but she remained devoted to him nonetheless and never became pregnant by another man.

After the crisis in the relationship with the King in the early 1730s, father and son made a chilly peace later in the decade. Frederick William gave his son the chateau Rheinsberg north of Berlin. In Rheinsberg, Frederick assembled a small number of musicians, actors and other artists. He spent his time reading, watching dramatic plays, making and listening to music, and regarded this time as one of the happiest of his life.

The works of Niccolò Machiavelli, such as The Prince, were considered a guideline for the behaviour of a king in Frederick's age. In 1739, Frederick finished his Anti-Machiavel — an idealistic writing in which he opposes Machiavelli. It was published anonymously in 1740 but apparently disseminated by Voltaire to great popularity. Frederick's years dedicated to the arts instead of politics ended upon the death of Frederick William and his inheritance of the Kingdom of Prussia.


Before his accession, Frederick was told by D'Alembert, "The philosophers and the men of letters in every land have long looked upon you, Sire, as their leader and model." Such devotion, however, had to be tempered by political realities. When Frederick ascended the throne as " King in Prussia" in 1740, Prussia consisted of scattered territories, including Cleves, Mark, and Ravensberg in the west of the Holy Roman Empire; Brandenburg, Vorpommern, and Hinterpommern in the east of the Empire; and the Duchy of Prussia outside of the Empire to the east.


Frederick's goal was to modernize and unite his vulnerably disconnected lands; toward this end, he fought wars mainly against Austria, whose Habsburg dynasts reigned as Holy Roman Emperors 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 ensuing Austro-Prussian dualism made a unified Germany impossible until Prussia's defeat of Austria in 1866 under the guidance of Otto von Bismarck.

Desiring the prosperous Austrian province of Silesia, Frederick declined to endorse the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, a legal mechanism to ensure the inheritance of the Habsburg domains by Maria Theresa of Austria. He deceitfully invaded Silesia the same year he took power, using as justification an obscure treaty from 1537 between the Hohenzollerns and the Piasts of Brieg. The ensuing First Silesian War (1740–1742), part of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), resulted in Frederick conquering most of Silesia. Austria attempted to recover Silesia in the Second Silesian War (1744–1745), but Frederick was victorious again and forced Austria to adhere to the previous peace terms.

As neighboring countries began conspiring against him, Frederick determined to strike first. On August 29, 1756 his well-prepared army crossed the frontier and preemptively invaded Saxony, thus beginning the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Facing a coalition which included Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden, and having only Great Britain and Hanover as his allies, Frederick narrowly kept Prussia in the war despite having his territories frequently invaded. The sudden death of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, an event dubbed the miracle of the House of Brandenburg, led to the collapse of the anti-Prussian coalition. Although Frederick did not gain any territory in the ensuing Treaty of Hubertusburg, his ability to retain Silesia during the Silesian Wars made him and Prussia popular throughout many German-speaking territories.

Late in his life Frederick also involved Prussia in the low-scale War of the Bavarian Succession in 1778, in which he stifled Austrian attempts to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria. When Emperor Joseph II tried the scheme again in 1784, Frederick created the Fürstenbund, allowing himself to be seen as a defender of German liberties, in contrast to his earlier role of attacking his sovereign, Maria Theresa.

Frederick frequently led his military forces personally. In fact, he had six horses shot from under him during battle. He was quite successful on the battlefield; Frederick is often admired as one of the greatest tactical geniuses of all time, especially for his usage of the oblique order of battle. Even more important were his operational successes, especially preventing the unification of numerically superior opposing armies and being at the right place at the right time to keep enemy armies out of Prussian core territory. In a letter to his mother Maria Theresa, the Austrian co-ruler Emperor Joseph II wrote,

When the King of Prussia speaks on problems connected with the art of war, which he has studied intensively and on which he has read every conceivable book, then everything is taut, solid and uncommonly instructive. There are no circumlocutions, he gives factual and historical proof of the assertions he makes, for he is well versed in history… A genius and a man who talks admirably. But everything he says betrays the knave."

According to Voltaire, Frederick's success was also partially due to the personal closeness he enjoyed with his lieutenants: "…when His Majesty was dressed and booted, the Stoic gave some moments to the sect of Epicurus; he had two or three favorites come, either lieutenants of his regiment, or pages, or haidouks, or young cadets. They took coffee. He to whom the handkerchief was thrown stayed another quarter of an hour in privacy."

An example of the place that Frederick holds in history as a ruler is seen in Napoleon Bonaparte, who saw the Prussian king as the greatest tactical genius of all time; after Napoleon's defeat of the Fourth Coalition in 1807, he visited Frederick's tomb in Potsdam and remarked to his officers, "Gentlemen, if this man were still alive I would not be here".

Frederick the Great's most notable and decisive military victories on the battlefield were the Battles of Hohenfriedberg, Rossbach, and Leuthen.

Partition of Poland

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the First Partition (1772)
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the First Partition (1772)

Empress Catherine II took the Imperial Russian throne in 1762 after the murder of Elisabeth's successor, Peter III. Catherine was staunchly opposed to Prussia, while Frederick disapproved of Russia, whose troops had been allowed to freely cross the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Seven Years' War. Despite the two monarchs' dislike of each other, Frederick and Catherine signed a defensive alliance on April 11, 1764 which guaranteed Prussian control of Silesia in return for Prussian support for Russia against Austria or the Ottoman Empire. Catherine's candidate for the Polish throne, Stanisław August Poniatowski, was then elected King of Poland in September of that year.

Frederick became concerned, however, after Russia gained significant influence over Poland in the Repnin Sejm of 1767, an act which also threatened Austria and the Ottoman Turks. In the ensuing Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774), Frederick reluctantly supported Catherine with a subsidy of 300,000 roubles, as he did not want Russia to become even stronger through the acquisitions of Ottoman territory. The Prussian king successfully achieved a rapprochement with Emperor Joseph and the Austrian chancellor Wenzel Anton Graf Kaunitz. As early as 1731 Frederick had suggested in a letter to Field Marshal Dubislav Gneomar von Natzmer that the country would be well-served by annexing Polish Prussia in order to unite the eastern territories of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Frederick's brother Henry spent the winter of 1770–1771 as a representative of the Prussian court at St. Petersburg. As Austria had annexed 13 towns in the Spiš region in 1769, Catherine and her advisor Czernichev suggested to Henry that Prussia claim some Polish land, such as Warmia. After Henry informed him of the proposal, Frederick suggested a partition of the Polish borderlands by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, to which Kaunitz counter-proposed that Prussia take lands from Poland in return for relinquishing Silesia to Austria, but this plan was rejected by Frederick.

After Russia occupied the Danubian Principalities, Henry convinced Frederick and Maria Theresa that the balance of power would be maintained by a tripartite division of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth instead of Russia taking land from the Ottomans. In the First Partition of Poland in 1772, Frederick claimed most of the Polish province of Royal Prussia. Although out of the partitioning powers Prussia annexed the smallest portion of the land (20,000 square miles) and received the fewest new inhabitants (600,000), the new West Prussia united East Prussia with Brandenburg and Hinterpommern and allowed him to control the mouth of the Vistula River.

Frederick quickly began improving the infrastructure of the new territory. The Polish administrative and legal code was replaced by the Prussian system, and education improved. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic teachers taught in West Prussia, and teachers and administrators were encouraged to be able to speak both German and Polish. He also advised his successors to learn Polish, a policy followed by the Hohenzollern dynasty until Frederick III decided not to let William II learn the language.

However, Frederick looked upon many of his new citizens with scorn. He had nothing but contempt for the szlachta, the numerous Polish nobility, having told Voltaire in 1771 that the downfall of the Polish state would result from the "stupidity of the Potockis, Krasińskis, Oginskis and that whole imbecile crowd whose names end in -ki". He considered West Prussia as uncivilized as Colonial Canada and compared the Poles to the Iroquois. In a letter to Henry, Frederick wrote about the province that "it is a very good and advantageous acquisition, both from a financial and a political point of view. In order to excite less jealousy I tell everyone that on my travels I have seen just sand, pine trees, heath land and Jews. Despite that there is a lot of work to be done; there is no order, and no planning and the towns are in a lamentable condition." Frederick invited German immigrants to redevelop the province, also hoping they would displace the Poles. Many German officials also regarded the Poles with contempt. Frederick did befriend some Poles, such as Ignacy Krasicki, whom he asked to consecrate St. Hedwig's Cathedral in 1773.


Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War, painting by Richard Knötel.
Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War, painting by Richard Knötel.

Frederick managed to transform Prussia from a European backwater to an economically strong and politically reformed state. His acquisition of Silesia was orchestrated so as to provide Prussia's fledgling industries with raw materials, and he protected these industries with high tariffs and minimal restrictions on internal trade. Canals were built, including between the Vistula and the Oder, swamps were drained for agricultural cultivation, and new crops, such as the potato and the turnip, were introduced. Frederick regarded his reclamation of land in the Oderbruch as a province conquered in peace. With the help of French experts, he reorganized the system of indirect taxes, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxes.

During the reign of Frederick, the effects of the Seven Years War' and the gaining of Silesia greatly changed the economy. The circulation of depreciated money kept prices high. To revalue the Thaler, the Mint Edict of May 1763 was proposed. This stabilized the rates of depreciated coins that would be accepted and provided for the payments of taxes in currency of prewar value. This was replaced in northern Germany by the Reichsthaler, worth one-fourth of a Conventionsthaler. Prussia used a Thaler containing one-fourteenth of a Cologne mark of silver. Many other rulers soon followed the steps of Frederick in reforming their own currencies — this resulted in a shortage of ready money.

He gave his state a modern bureaucracy whose mainstay until 1760 was the able War and Finance Minister Adam Ludwig von Blumenthal, succeeded in 1764 by his nephew Joachim who ran the ministry to the end of the reign and beyond. Prussia's education system was seen as one of the best in Europe. Frederick abolished torture and corporal punishment and generally supported religious toleration, including the retention of Jesuits as teachers in Silesia, Warmia, and the Netze District after their suppression by Pope Clement XIV. He was interested in attracting a diversity of skills to his country, whether from Jesuit teachers, Huguenot citizens or Jewish merchants and bankers (particularly from Spain.) He wanted development througout the country, specifically in areas that he judged as needing a particular kind of development. For instance, Frederick, writing in his Testament politique, made suggestions on improving Prussia's border trade in a manner which we today would find indefensible, but at the time was very forward-thinking and equitable:

We have too many Jews in the towns. They are needed on the Polish border because in these areas Hebrews alone perform trade. As soon as you get away from the frontier, the Jews become a disadvantage, they form cliques, they deal in contraband and get up to all manner of rascally tricks which are detrimental to Christian burghers and merchants. I have never persecuted anyone from this or any other sect [sic]; I think, however, it would be prudent to pay attention, so that their numbers do not increase.

Those Jews on the Polish border were encouraged to perform all the trade they could and received all the protection and support from the king as any other Prussian citizen. The success of Frederick in integrating the Jews into those areas of society that Frederick encouraged them can be seen by the role played by Gerson Bleichroder in financing von Bismarck's efforts to reunite Germany. (see Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichroder and the Building of the German Empire by Fritz Stern)

Frederick began titling himself "King of Prussia" in 1772; the phrasing " King in Prussia" had been used since the coronation of Frederick I in Königsberg in 1701.


Frederick had famous buildings constructed in his chief residence, Berlin, most of which still exist today, such as the Berlin State Opera, the Royal Library (today the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), St. Hedwig's Cathedral, the French and German Cathedrals on the Gendarmenmarkt, and Prince Henry's Palace (now the site of Humboldt University). However, the king preferred spending his time in his summer residence Potsdam, where he built the palace of Sanssouci, the most important work of Northern German rococo. Sanssouci, which translates from French as "Without Cares", was a refuge for Frederick. When he moved in, he wrote the following poem to his longtime companion, Count von Keyersling:

In this new palace of noble architecture
the two of us will enjoy complete liberty
in the intoxication of friendship!
Personal ambition and enmity
will be accounted the only sins against nature.
The South or Garden facade and corps de logis of Sanssouci
The South or Garden facade and corps de logis of Sanssouci

Music, arts, and learning

"The Flute Concert of Sanssouci" by von Menzel, 1852, depicts Frederick the Great playing the flute in his music room at Sanssouci.
"The Flute Concert of Sanssouci" by von Menzel, 1852, depicts Frederick the Great playing the flute in his music room at Sanssouci.

Frederick was a gifted musician. He played the cross-flute and composed 100 sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies. The "Hohenfriedberger Marsch", a military march, was supposedly written by Frederick to commemorate his victory in the Battle of Hohenfriedberg during the Second Silesian War. His court musicians included C. P. E. Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Franz Benda. A meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 in Potsdam led to Bach writing The Musical Offering.

Frederick also aspired to be a philosopher-king like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The king joined the Freemasons in 1738. He stood close to the French Enlightenment and admired above all its greatest thinker, Voltaire, with whom he corresponded frequently. Voltaire referred to Frederick as, "great king, charming tease" and said

For four years you have been my mistress…
Yes I go to the knees of an adored object,
But I leave behind what I love,"

when he returned to his companion, Madame du Châtelet, in 1740. The personal friendship of Frederick and Voltaire came to an unpleasant end after Voltaire's visit to Berlin and Potsdam in 1750–1753, although they reconciled from afar in later years. Voltaire described their falling out as, "a lovers' quarrel: the harassments of courts pass away, but the nature of a beautiful ruling passion is long-lasting."

Frederick invited Joseph-Louis Lagrange to succeed Leonhard Euler at the Berlin Academy. Other writers attracted to the philosopher's kingdom were Francesco Algarotti, d'Argens, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, and Pierre Louis Maupertuis. Immanuel Kant published religious writings in Berlin which would have been censored anywhere else in Europe.

In addition to his native language, German, Frederick spoke French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; he also understood Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and Hebrew. Preferring instead French culture, Frederick disliked the German language, literature, and culture, explaining that German authors "pile parenthesis upon parenthesis, and often you find only at the end of an entire page the verb on which depends the meaning of the whole sentence". His criticism led many German writers to attempt to impress Frederick with their writings in the German language and thus prove its worthiness. Many statesmen, including Stein, were also inspired by Frederick's statesmanship. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave his opinion of Frederick during a visit to Strasbourg by writing:

Well we had not much to say in favour of the constitution of the Reich; we admitted that it consisted entirely of lawful misuses, but it rose therefore the higher over the present French constitution which is operating in a maze of lawful misuses, whose government displays its energies in the wrong places and therefore has to face the challenge that a thorough change in the state of affairs is widely prophesied. In contrast when we looked towards the north, from there shone Frederick, the Pole Star, around whom Germany, Europe, even the world seemed to turn…

Later years

Near the end of his life Frederick grew increasingly solitary. When his longtime companion Fredersdorf sought marriage, Frederick cynically replied, "Have your marriage ceremony today rather than tomorrow if that will contribute to your care and comfort; and if you want to keep a little page and a little scout with you as well, do so." Frederick's circle of friends at Sanssouci gradually died off without replacements, and Frederick became increasingly critical and arbitrary, to the frustration of the civil service and officer corps. The populace of Berlin always cheered the king when he returned to the city from provincial tours or military reviews, but Frederick took no pleasure from his popularity with the common folk, preferring instead the company of his pet greyhounds, whom he referred to as his 'marquises de Pompadour' as a jibe at Madame de Pompadour. He died on 17th August 1786 in an armchair in his study in the palace of Sanssouci.

Upon Frederick's death, his doctor, Johann Georg Zimmermann, published a book denying Frederick's reputation as a lover of men. Zimmermann conceded that, "Voltaire, la Beaumelle, the Duke de Choiseul, innumerable Frenchmen and Germans, almost all the friends and enemies of Frederick, almost all the princes and great men of Europe, even his servants — even the confidants and friends of his later years, were of opinion that he had loved, as it is pretended, Socrates loved Alcibiades." Zimmermann presented the theory that Frederick started this rumor to draw attention away from an accidental castration which happened during a gonorrhea treatment, but court physicians specifically noted that Frederick was in no way emasculated when they examined his body.

Frederick had wished to be buried next to his greyhounds on the vineyard terrace on the side of the corps de logis of Sansscouci. „Im übrigen will ich, was meine Person anbetrifft, in Sanssouci beigesetzt werden, ohne Prunk, ohne Pomp und bei Nacht..."(1757) (transl. "Apart from that, as far as my person is concerned, I wish to be buried in Sanssouci, without splendour, without pomp and at night." )

His successor instead ordered the body to be buried next to the grave of Frederick's father in the church of the Potsdam garrison. During the Second World War, the catafalcs of both kings were transferred first to an underground bunker, later to a mineshaft close to the town of Bernrode to protect them from destruction. In 1945 the US Army transported both Frederick and his father first to the University Chapel of Marburg and then on to the Burg Hohenzollern close to the town of Hechingen. After the German reunification, the body of Frederick William was entombed in the in the Kaiser Friedrich Mausoleum in the Church of Peace (Sanssouci). There was a highly emotional debate whether the funeral of a former king of Prussia, who was responsible for many wars during his time, and who had been exploited as a symbol both by the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic, should be regarded as public matter or not. Despite numerous protests, on the 205th anniversary of his death, on 17th August 1992, Frederick's catafalc lay in state in the court of honour of Sanssouci, covered by a Prussian flag and escorted by a Bundeswehr guard of honour. After nightfall, Frederick's body was finally laid to rest on the terrace of the vineyard of Sanssouci, according to his last will without pomp and at night.


Frederick remains a controversial figure in Germany and Central Europe. With the rise of German romantic nationalism in the 19th century, he was admired by German nationalists. In the 20th century, Frederick was often cited as a precursor for the Prussian and German militarism that would inspire Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Frederick did not believe in the Divine Right of Kings and, disregarding the exaggerated French style of the time, often wore old military uniforms; he merely believed the crown was "a hat that let the rain in". He called himself the "first servant of the state", but the Austrian empress Maria Theresa called him "the evil man in Sanssouci." His wars against Austria weakened the Holy Roman Empire, yet gave to Prussia land and prestige that would prove vital for the 19th century unification of Germany. He was both an enlightened ruler and a ruthless despot. Through reform, war, and the First Partition of Poland in 1772, he turned the Kingdom of Prussia into a European great power.

Popular culture

  • King of Prussia, Pennsylvania is named after the King of Prussia Inn, itself named in honour of Frederick.
  • Frederick II of Prussia is one of the leaders of the German civilization in the Civilization video game series. The German civilization was actually added to replace the Turks in the original version of the game.
  • Frederick the Great is also one of the eight AI players in the game Age of Empires III.
  • Frederick the Great is one of the leaders in the board game Friedrich, which loosely simulates the events of the Seven Years' War.
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