A Short Biography of Frederick the Great

Frederick II (later to be known as Frederick the Great) was born on January 24, 1712, during the last year of his grandfatherís (Frederick I) reign. His father was Frederick William I, the Crown Prince, and his mother was Sophia Dorothea, daughter of King George I of England. When his grandfather died in 1713, his father became King, and he became Crown Prince at the ripe old age of one.

Frederick II as a youth
Frederick II as a youth

As a child, despite being raised in such a military oriented environment as the court of King Frederick William I (nicknamed the Soldier), Frederick seemed to show little interest in all things military. His governess, Madame de Rocouilles, was French, and so she raised little Frederick to speak French (as his first language no less) and taught him French manners and styles. We must remember, at the time, France was considered to be the cultural center of Europe. Most philosophers and writers published their works in French, and to be considered cultured, a person was expected to be fluent in both written and spoken French. It is no wonder, given his education, that Frederick became enamored of all things French and gained a great interest in philosophy, poetry, and music (he learned to play the flute at a young age, and it became one of greatest pleasures through his life).

Now, given that Frederick William considered reading anything other than the Bible and military manuals a waste of time and that he thought philosophy and poetry were effeminate, there was an immense amount of friction between father and son. Frederick William never liked his son at all, and treated his family rather cruelly in general. He would regularly get drunk and beat his children, particularly Frederick. He also exiled his wife and children from Berlin (the capital) to a run-down hunting lodge at one point. As Frederick grew older, the abuse worsened, including an incident which included a severe beating, being dragged around the room by his hair, and finally, Frederick William wrapped a curtain-rope around Frederickís neck and attempted to strangle him. Only by the intervention of a chamberlain was Frederickís life spared.

Frederick William and Frederick II so angry with each other that swords are being drawn
Frederick William and Frederick II so angry with each other that swords are being drawn

Despite his cruelty toward his family, Frederick William was a rather tolerant ruler. He encouraged immigration of people to repopulate lands that had lain fallow since the 30 Years War. He didnít care whether those people were Catholic, Protestant, or even Jewish (a rather uncommon attitude for the time). The only exception was that he despised the Jesuits. He also was dedicated to his state, and drilled that attitude into his son. His belief was that a King had an obligation to look after his people. These positive attributes (albeit few) rubbed off on Frederick (though Frederick did not gain his fatherís intolerance for Jesuits).

During the years of abuse from his father, Frederick became more and more of an intellectual (perhaps as a demonstration of defiance against his father). He began creating works of his own, including his book, The Anti-Machiavelli (though ironically, once he gained the throne, he proved very adept at using Machiavellian principles to gain what he wanted). Of his family, he was only particularly close to his sister, Wilhelmine (much of their correspondence has been preserved, and the genuine affection between them is rather obvious). Frederick's mother gave very little affection (in fact, she also seemed to enjoy encouraging Frederick to agravate his father). Frederick's brothers also did not particularly care for him, though that is most likely due to the fact that despite his defiant ways, he was heir to the throne and they were not.

Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia
Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia

Because of his relative isolation, Frederick sought out a few close friends who shared his interests. (Because of this, and his relative lack of interest in the opposite sex, some raise questions about Frederick being homosexual. However, I would simply point out that infamous carousing, with women, which Frederick did in Dresden at the court of Augustus II would seem to indicate otherwise.) It was with some of these friends, Lt. von Katte and Lt. Keith, that Frederick planned to finally escape his fatherís oppression. While accompanying his father on an inspection tour, Frederick and his friends attempted to slip away, in disguise, and flee to France. Their attempt was not successful.

After they were caught, King Frederick William had to be restrained from murdering his son. Instead, he court-martialed Frederick (since, being the Crown Prince, Frederick was an officer in the Prussian army, he was then eligible for court-martial for desertion) and sentenced him to solitary confinement for 2 years in the fortress of Custrin, where he was deprived of any form of diversion except a bible (he was even forbidden from practicing mathematics). He was given barely enough food to sustain his life. To further torture his heir, Frederick William has his sonís accomplice and friend, Lt. von Katte, beheaded beneath Frederickís cellís window. After Katteís execution, Frederick begged his fatherís forgiveness and his terms of imprisonment were relaxed. Frederick spent the next 15 months undergoing tutelage to make him fit to become King (he studied war, government, and agriculture). He gradually regained his fatherís favor and was released.

Princess Elisabeth Christine, wife of Frederick II
Princess Elisabeth Christine, wife of Frederick II

In 1732, Frederick was given command of a regiment. A year later, he followed his fatherís wishes, and married Princess Elizabeth Christina of Brunswick. (The marriage suited neither of the pair, and they spent most of their married life living apart. They had no children). He was given governorship of Rheinsburg, where he generally spent most of his time, allowed once again to pursue his interests of philosophy and music. In 1734, Frederick finally gained actual combat experience, serving with the Imperial Forces against the French in the War of Polish Succession. It was there that Frederick met Prince Eugene of Savoy (a French nobleman, who served Austria, and who had become, by that time, one of the greatest military commanders of the age). Prince Eugene was impressed by young Fredericks ability (he was 22 at the time) and passed his impressions onto Fredericks father. King Frederick William was so impressed with this, that he made Frederick a Major-General in the Prussian army.

It was during this time that Frederick took up correspondence with the French philosopher, Voltaire. Frederick greatly admired Voltaireís work and Voltaire seemed to enjoy corresponding with the Crown Prince (though Voltaire was known to be rather mercenary when it came to getting money, and a Crown Prince usually has some). The correspondence began almost immediately after Frederick moved to Rheinsburg and continued on until well after Frederick became King. Voltaire even came to live in Berlin for 3 years, but eventually the pair had a falling out, and Voltaire went back to France (there were many differences between the two; Voltaire loved luxury and Frederick, like his father, preferred Spartan surroundings, also Voltaire despised war, but Frederick had made a career out of making it).

Frederick and Voltaire walking together
Frederick and Voltaire walking together
Frederick and Voltaire having a discussion
Frederick and Voltaire having a discussion

Upon his fatherís death in 1740, Frederick became King of Prussia. With the same year, he led Prussia in a large scale war, and coming away with a new large piece of land (Silesia). During Frederick the Greatís 46 year reign, Prussia was almost continually at war or involved in some sort of conflict. Following the War of Austrian Succession, Frederick narrowly saved Prussia from destruction during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Austria, Saxony, Sweden, France, and Russia had all allied against Prussia, with only England and few of the smaller Imperial states standing at Frederickís side in a war which would spill over into North America, leading to the American Revolution. In 1772, Frederick diplomatically gained the piece of land that separated East Prussia from Brandenburg from Poland. Following the longest period of peace during Fredericks reign, Prussia became involved in the War of Bavarian Succession (1778 Ė 1779). Through conflict after conflict, even suffering defeats, Prussiaís renown grew, along with her power.

However, Frederickís cultured education and his rejection of his father led him to make many cultural reforms, as well, during his reign as king. Frederick encouraged the growth of a true German culture. He helped bring artists and musicians to Prussia. He also encouraged writers and poets to write in their native German, instead of French. This is one of the reasons he was labeled as one of the first of a new breed of absolute monarchs, an enlightened despot.

Frederick speaks to one of his citizens who stopped him in the street
Frederick speaks to one of his citizens who stopped him in the street

Despite his abused childhood, Frederick became a very tolerant ruler. He took from his father the broad tolerance of different religions. He allowed a wide degree of freedom of speech in Prussia. One story illustrates this: Frederick was riding with a foreign dignitary, when the dignitary noticed a political cartoon making fun of Frederickís taste for coffee (a beverage that had not really caught on very well in Central Europe). The dignitary asked Frederick why he would allow such mockery. Frederick replied, ďThey can say whatever they way, as long as I can do whatever I wantĒ. Frederick was a firm believer in loyalty to the state. He considered himself, the King, as the first servant of the state. He envisioned Prussian society as a great machine, with all its citizens as cogs, each with their own duty. He was also, like his father, very fiscally responsible, and encouraged the growth of native Prussian industry and economy (he understood that in order for Prussia to be a major power, Prussia needed economic and industrial strength along with military might). During his reign, Prussian power and influence grew by leaps and bound (not to mention that Frederick managed to nearly double its size with the addition of Silesia and Pomerelia).

Frederick chastises his nephew for interrupting his work
Frederick chastises his nephew for interrupting his work
Painting of Frederick the year of his death (1786)
Painting of Frederick the year of his death (1786)

Having no children of his own, upon Frederickís death in 1786, he succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II (1786 Ė 1797). Frederick William II was not a particularly good ruler, though he did exploit turmoil inside Poland, in alliance with Russia, to split up the Polish lands between Prussia and Russia (yes, history does often repeat itself). This expanded Prussian influence to Warsaw. Frederick William II was succeeded by his son Frederick William III in 1797. Unfortunately, Frederick William III, to put it bluntly, was incompetent, though he did mean well. He was more of a social reformer, and he had a very poor grasp of foreign affairs. Frederick William III sat idly by as the Austrians were defeated by Napoleon at Austerlitz in 1805. Napoleon then abolished the Holy Roman Empire. So, the next year, Prussia faced Napoleonís massive army alone. Perhaps had Frederick been leading Prussia, the outcome would have been different. Regardless, Prussia was defeated and conquered in a matter of weeks. However, after Napoleonís defeat, when Europe was re-apportioned at the Congress of Vienna, Prussia actually managed to come away with more than they started with. From, 1815 to 1871, Prussia slowly swallowed all the other German states, with the exception of Austria (which had managed to annex the Kingdom of Hungary), until the state of Germany was formed (well the Empire actually) with King William I of Prussia crowned as its first Emperor.

King Frederick William II
King Frederick William II
King Frederick William III
King Frederick William III