Okay, he’s technically not anywhere near being medieval and it is Monday, but Frederick the Great has been on my mind this past week. What? Who? With a name like Frederick can he really be all that Great? Simple answer, YES. Frederick the Great is one of my favorite historical figured, and since he was German chances are you didn’t learn much about him in school (unless you went to an awesome school, that is).
Special note to people who live near me, in the Philadelphia area, before we get started. The town of King of Prussia, PA (which has a very swanky mall) is indeed named after Frederick the Great, King of Prussia.
Frederick II was born in 1712, the son of King Frederick William I and his wife Sophia Dorothea of Hanover. His parents are important for two reason. First, his mother also happened to be the daughter of George I of England, which meant that George II was Frederick’s uncle. Frederick had strong ties and a deep fondness for England, but I’ll get to that in a second. This father was apparently a massive jerk whom Frederick didn’t get along with, which I will also get to in a second. In fact, Frederick William held his eldest son in such contempt that at several points he thought about changing the succession and declaring Frederick’s younger brother, Augustus William, to be the heir.
Why on earth would he do that? Frederick was destined to be Great!
Well, apparently Frederick William had issues with his son because he considered him soft and decadent. Frederick was very interested in education and philosophy. He studied many different languages, preferred French culture to German, and he loved music, literature, and the theater. Frederick was also interested in warfare and was good at it, even from an early age, but I guess that wasn’t enough for his father.
And then there was the fact that Frederick kept developing what polite history books describe as intense attachments to other young men. We all know what that’s code for. Well, this reached a horrible, tragic head when young Frederick and a small group of friends, including a particular favorite of his, Hans Hermann von Katte, tried to leave the army and escape from Prussia for England. They were caught. Frederick William exacted his revenge on his son by forcing him to watch as Katte was beheaded. Our future Great Frederick was in hysterics for days afterwards, experiencing hallucinations. Yeah, you would be too if your dad killed your boyfriend when you were 18 and made you watch!
After that Frederick was forced to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern. He was not happy about it. In fact, he contemplated suicide over the whole thing. Thankfully he did not kill himself. He married Elisabeth and even though his expectations for the marriage were less than zero, apparently she liked him enough and they got along okay. Which also might be because they didn’t see each other very often. They never had any children though, surprise, surprise.Frederick’s nasty father finally died in 1740 and Frederick became king. And he was a freakin’ awesome king!
Personally, I’m not all that interested in military history and all of the wars that Frederick fought and won against the Austrians, the Russians, the Ottomans, and anyone else who got in the way of his plans for Europe. It’s enough to know that Napoleon thought he was awesome, a role model, and one of the greatest military tacticians ever. No, what interests me more is what Frederick did with the land he inherited and conquered.
Frederick was one of those insightful men in the Age of Enlightenment who had studied everything and learned enough to know what the implications and applications of the new science were. As he expanded Prussia’s borders, he worked on improving the land and the lives of the people who lived there. He ordered that vast areas of wasteland were reclaimed and made arable. The result was that he needed settlers to move to Prussia. He specifically advertised for anyone to come, regardless of race or religion.
Yes, Frederick was a remarkably tolerant king for the era in which he lived. He was agnostic but conscious of the fact that religion was important. He instituted a policy of religious tolerance that extended to almost everyone throughout his kingdom. The “almost”, of course, were the Jews who he saw as conniving troublemakers. But as long as they stayed near the border of Poland where their domination of commerce actually helped Prussia as a whole, he was fine with them.
In fact, Frederick knew how to shuffle the people and resources within his realm to produce the best results. He took over the region of Silesia so that he could us its natural resources to build public buildings, like libraries and schools and the Berlin Opera House. He introduced new, more efficient crops to his kingdom’s farms and regulated grain prices to ensure that everyone had enough to eat. He modernized the legal system to be clearer and more just. And he supported the arts and sciences.
Frederick was actually a really good musician and composer as well. He played the flute and composed 100 sonatas and 4 symphonies, as well as other music. He was also very good friends with Voltaire, although they had a contentious relationship. Frederick invested a lot in the Berlin Academy, making it one of Europe’s foremost houses of learning by the time of his death. He even offered prizes to scientists and scholars to solve scientific and mathematical problems that had remained unsolved.There is SO much more that could be said about Frederick the Great. He was incredibly popular with his people. But during the last years of his life he wanted less and less to do with the spotlight. He just wanted to hang out at the great house he’d built, Sanssouci, and play with his greyhounds. In fact, he asked to be buried on the terrace of the vineyard at Sanssouci beside his greyhounds. And of course when he died his nephew and successor, Frederick William II, had him buried with pomp and circumstance in a tomb next to his father in the Potsdam Garrison Church. Ugh. Frederick was buried next to that jerk?
But wait, the story of Frederick the Great isn’t over yet!
Towards the end of WWII, Hitler and his cronies had the coffin of Frederick and several other notable German heroes removed to a bunker for fear that they would be destroyed by the enemy. Well, not only did that enemy not destroy them, when Germany was captured US soldiers discovered Frederick and his father’s coffins and removed them safely back to Burg Hohenzollern. And in 1991, on the 205th anniversary of Frederick’s death, Frederick the Great’s casket was at last laid to rest, guess where, on the terrace next to the vineyard at Sanssouci, just as he had wished.
Frederick the Great. Scholar, warrior, diplomat, thinker, composer, lover … all-around awesome guy!
And he composed this, among other things: