Frederick II of Prussia

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Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great
Prussian Royalty
House of Hohenzollern

Friedrich I
   Princess Louise Dorothea
   Prince Friedrich Wilhelm
Friedrich Wilhelm I
   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
Friedrich II
Friedrich William II
   Prince Friedrich William
   Prince Louis
   Princess Wilhelmine
   Princess Augusta
   Prince Charles
   Prince Wilhelm
Friedrich Wilhelm III
   Prince Friedrich Wilhelm
   Prince Wilhelm
   Princess Charlotte
   Princess Alexandrine
   Prince Louisa
Friedrich Wilhelm IV
Wilhelm I

Frederick II of Prussia (January 24, 1712August 17, 1786) was a king of Prussia from the Hohenzollern dynasty, reigning from 1740 to 1786. He was one of the so-called "enlightened monarchs" (also refered to as "enlightened despots"). Because of his accomplishments he became known as Frederick the Great (German Friedrich der Große).


Early years

Frederick was the son of Frederick William I, the so-called "Soldier-King," who created a formidable army and efficient civil service. His mother was Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (16871757). Unlike her husband, Sophia was well-mannered and well-educated. Frederick was brought up by Huguenot governesses and tutors and learned French and German simultaneously.

As Crown Prince, Frederick displayed passionate interests in French literature, poetry, philosophy, and Italian music. This roused the suspicions of his father, who wanted to see his son follow more masculine pursuits like hunting and riding. He called his son "an effeminate chap," and subjected him to bloody and humiliating beatings. When he was 18, Frederick plotted to flee to England with a group of friends, all junior army officers. But he botched his escape, and was arrested with friend (and possibly lover) Hans Hermann von Katte. 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 the United Kingdom against the Prussian king. The prince was threatened with the death penalty, and the king did not rule out an execution. The proud prince had to submit to his father's demands. Frederick was forced to watch the execution by decapitation of his friend Katte 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 as after becoming king, Frederick mostly ignored his wife. Some sources (Voltaire) indicate that Frederick was homosexual, it remains unclear whether he ever acted upon this supposed orientation.

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


As king, Frederick did not have a vision for a unified Germany; this had to wait until Bismarck planned the wars of unification a century later. Frederick's goal was to improve his country of Prussia. Toward this end he fought his wars mainly against Austria, whose Habsburg dynasts reigned as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire 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.

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 the military commander in the field. He was quite successful on the battlefield; Frederick is often admired as one of the greatest tactical geniuses of all time. Even more important were his operational successes, especially preventing the unification of superior enemy armies and being at the right place at the right time to keep enemy armies out of Prussian core territory.

A painting depicting Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War. (Knötel)
A painting depicting Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War. (Knötel)

Frederick managed to take Prussia from being basically a European backwater and make it 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, swamps were drained for agricultural cultivation, and new crops, such as the potato and the turnip, were introduced. With the help of French experts, he reorganized the system of indirect taxes, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxes. He abolished torture and granted wide religious freedom (although he himself did not care much for religion). 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. The civil service code was 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 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.

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

Frederick was a gifted musician. He played the cross-flute and composed one-hundred sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies. 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.

He also aspired to be a philosopher-king like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He stood close to the French Enlightenment and admired above all its greatest thinker, Voltaire, with whom he corresponded frequently. Their personal friendship, however, came to an unpleasant end after Voltaire's visit to Berlin and Potsdam, 1750-1753.


Frederick had some 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). But 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.

To this day Frederick remains a controversial figure in Germany and Central Europe. He called himself the "first servant of the state", but the Austrian empress Maria Theresa called him "the evil man in Sanssouci." He was both: an enlightend ruler and a ruthless despot. Through reform, war, and the first Partition of Poland (1772), he turned his state of Brandenburg-Prussia into a European great power.


Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great

The following chronology of events took place during his life:


  • Ritter, Gerhard Frederick the Great, A Historical Profile, translated, with an introduction by Peter Paret, Berkeley : University of California Press, 1968.

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Preceded by:
Frederick Wilhelm I
King of Prussia
Succeeded by:
Frederick Wilhelm II
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