Frederick II of Prussia

King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786
(Redirected from Frederick the Great)
Frederick II
Frederick II, aged 68, by Anton Graff
King of Prussia; Elector of Brandenburg
Reign31 May 1740 – 17 August 1786
(46 years, 78 days)
PredecessorFrederick William I
SuccessorFrederick William II
Chief Minister
Born(1712-01-24)24 January 1712
Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia
Died17 August 1786(1786-08-17) (aged 74)
Potsdam, Prussia
Sanssouci, Potsdam
SpouseElisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
HouseHouse of Hohenzollern
FatherFrederick William I of Prussia
MotherSophia Dorothea of Hanover

Frederick II (German: Friedrich II; 24 January 1712 – 17 August 1786) was a King in Prussia (1740–1786) from the Hohenzollern dynasty.[1] As a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, he was Frederick IV Margrave of Brandenburg. He was also the sovereign prince of the Principality of Neuchâtel. Victorious in war, he became known as Frederick the Great (German: Friedrich der Große) and was nicknamed der alte Fritz ("Old Fritz").

When he was young, Frederick was mostly interested in music and philosophy and not military affairs. Frederick tried to escape from his strict father, Frederick William I, with childhood friend, Hans Hermann von Katte. When they were captured Frederick was forced to watch von Kattel's execution. Many historians consider him to be bisexual and perhaps possibly celibate in his later life. After the death of Frederick William I in 1740, Frederick the Great only attended his wife with formal visits once a year.[2]

Shortly after becoming King in Prussia, he attacked Austria and claimed Silesia during the Silesian Wars. Near the end of his life, Frederick united most of his separated parts of his kingdom through the First Partition of Poland.

For years Frederick exchanged letters with Voltaire. He modernized the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service and promoted religious tolerance. Frederick patronized the arts and philosophers, and wrote flute music. Frederick is buried at his favorite residence, Sanssouci in Potsdam. Because he died childless, Frederick was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II of Prussia, son of his brother, Prince Augustus William of Prussia.

Crown Prince

Frederick as King in Prussia

In 1732, Queen Sophia Dorothea tried to arrange a dual marriage of Frederick and his sister Wilhelmina with Amelia and Frederick, the children of her brother, King George II of Great Britain. Fearing an alliance between Prussia and Great Britain, Field Marshal von Seckendorff, the Austrian ambassador in Berlin, bribed Field Marshal von Grumbkow, the Prussian Minister of War, and Benjamin Reichenbach, Prussian ambassador in London. They pair discreetly slandered the British and Prussian courts in the eyes of the two kings. Angered by the idea of the marriage Frederick William made impossible demands to the British, such as Prussia acquiring Jülich and Berg, leading to the collapse of the marriage proposal.[3]

After von Kattel died Frederick was granted a royal pardon and released from his cell on 18 November, but he was not given back his military rank.[4] Instead of returning to Berlin, however, he was forced to stay in Küstrin and began learning statecraft and administration for the War and Estates Departments on 20 November. Tensions eased slightly when Frederick William visited Küstrin a year later, and Frederick was allowed to visit Berlin on the occasion of his sister Wilhelmina's marriage to Margrave Frederick of Bayreuth on 20 November 1731. The crown prince returned to Berlin after finally being released from Küstrin on 26 February 1732.

Frederick William considered marrying Frederick to Elisabeth of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the niece of Empress Anna of Russia, but this plan was opposed by Prince Eugene of Savoy. Frederick himself proposed marrying Maria Theresa of Austria in return for renouncing the succession. Instead, Eugene persuaded Frederick William, through Seckendorff, that the crown prince marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a Protestant relative of the Austrian Habsburgs.[5] Although Frederick wrote to his sister that, "There can be neither love nor friendship between us,"[6] and he considered suicide, he went along with the wedding on 12 June 1733. He had little in common with his bride and resented the political marriage as an example of the Austrian interference which had plagued Prussia since 1701. Once Frederick secured the throne in 1740, he would not let Elisabeth visit his court in Potsdam, and instead gave her Schönhausen Palace and apartments at the Berliner Stadtschloss. Frederick bestowed the title of the heir to the throne, "Prince of Prussia", on his brother Augustus William; despite this, his wife remained devoted to him.[7]

Frederick was given back a rank in the Prussian Army as Colonel of the Regiment von der Goltz, stationed near Nauen and Neuruppin. When Prussia gave troops to help Austria during the War of the Polish Succession, Frederick studied under Prince Eugene of Savoy during the campaign against France on the Rhine.[8] Frederick William, weakened by gout brought about by the campaign, gave Frederick Schloss Rheinsberg in Rheinsberg, north of Neuruppin. 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. Frederick formed the "Bayard Order" to discuss warfare with his friends; Heinrich August de la Motte Fouqué was made the grand master of the gatherings.

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, which put another point of view. It was published anonymously in 1740, but Voltaire distributed it in Amsterdam.[9]

Frederick's years dedicated to the arts instead of politics ended upon the 1740 death of Frederick William and his inheritance of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Reign (1740–1786)

Growth of Brandenburg-Prussia (1600–1795).

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, Hither Pomerania, and Farther Pomerania in the east of the Empire; and the former Duchy of Prussia, outside of the Empire bordering the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was titled King in Prussia because this was only part of historic Prussia; he was to declare himself King of Prussia after acquiring most of the rest in 1772.

Warfare and Conquest

Battle of Hohenfriedberg, Attack of the Prussian Infantry, by Carl Röchling. Oil on canvas.

Frederick's goal was to modernize and unite his vulnerably disconnected lands; toward this end, he fought wars mainly against Austria, whose Habsburg dynasty reigned as Holy Roman Emperors, almost continuously from the 15th century until 1806. Frederick established Prussia as the fifth and smallest European great power by using the resources his frugal father had cultivated.

The First Silesian War (1740–1742), part of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), resulted in Frederick conquering the Polish part of Silesia. Austria attempted to recover Silesia in the Second Silesian War (1744–1745), but Frederick was victorious again and forced Austria to stick to the previous peace terms. Prussian possession of Silesia gave the kingdom control over the Oder River.

Battle of Rossbach, a tactical victory for Frederick.

Habsburg Austria and Bourbon France, traditional enemies, allied together in the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 following the collapse of the Anglo-Austrian Alliance. Frederick swiftly made an alliance with Great Britain at the Convention of Westminster. As neighboring countries began conspiring against him, Frederick was determined to strike first. On 29 August 1756 his well-prepared army crossed the frontier and invaded Saxony, thus beginning the Seven Years' War which lasted until 1763. He faced widespread criticism for his attack on neutral Saxony and for his forcible incorporation of the Saxon forces into the Prussian army following the Siege of Pirna in October 1756.

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 put her pro-Prussian nephew Peter III in power. This led to the collapse of the anti-Prussian coalition. Although Frederick did not gain any territory in the ensuing Treaty of Hubertusburg, he was able to keep Silesia. Prussia became popular in many German-speaking territories.

Late in his life Frederick also involved Prussia in the smaller War of the Bavarian Succession in 1778, in which he stopped Austrian attempts to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria. When Emperor Joseph II| tried the scheme again in 1784, Frederick created the Fürstenbund, making Germans see him as a defender of German liberties, in contrast to his earlier role of attacking the imperial Habsburgs.

Frederick frequently led his military forces personally and had six horses shot from under him during battle. 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.[10]

Modernization of Prussia


Frederick transformed Prussia from a European backwater into an economically strong and politically reformed state. His conquest of Silesia, which provided Prussia's new industries with raw materials, helped boost industrial production and development, and he protected these industries with high tariffs and a minimum of restrictions on internal domestic trade. The modernizing mechanisms and technology of the state also enabled Frederick, in 1747, to undertake a massive six-year drainage and "reclamation" program in the country's northern marsh-land. This rationalist-mided program, which Frederick saw as the "taming" and "conquering" of "useless" and "barbarous" nature, created roughly 150,000 acres of arable farmland, but also eliminated vast swaths of natural habitat, destroyed the region's biodiversity, and displaced numerous indigenous communities.[11] With the help of French experts, Frederick also reorganized Prussia's taxation policy, implementing a system of indirect taxation, which was more lucrative than the previous policy of direct taxation. Frederick also commissioned the eminent Prussian merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky to help promote trade. Gotzkowsky directed Frederick to reform the Prussian system of toll levies and import restrictions, and to construct a major a silk factory in an effort to compete with the French silk trade. In 1763, when Gotzkowsky went bankrupt during an Amsterdam-based financial crisis, Frederick took over a porcelain factory of his.

Frederick also presided over national currency reform during his reign. The effects of the Seven Years' War and the acquisition of Silesia had transformed the economy, depreciating the national currency and leading to high nation-wide inflation. The Prussian Mint Edict of May 1763 revalued the national currency, stabilizing the rates of highly depreciated coinage and mandating that the payments of taxes be in currency of prewar value. Other European rulers soon undertook similar monetary reforms, which helped to lower region-wide prices.[12]

Frederick also presided over other important modernization efforts in Prussia, including the establishment of a modern governmental bureaucracy, the cultivation of one of Europe's most highly-regarded educational systems, and the abolition torture and corporal punishment.

After the acquisition of Royal Prussia (West Prussia) in 1772, Frederick also changed his title from the "King in Prussia," which had been the royal title used since the coronation of Frederick I, to the "King of Prussia," underscoring the increasing prominence of his state and his own importance as a ruler.

Religious Tolerance


Frederick was generally a champion of religious tolerance, including accepting Jesuits, fleeing the suppression of Pope Clement XIV, as teachers in Silesia, Warmia, and the Netze District. He was interested in attracting many skills to his country, whether from Jesuit teachers, Huguenot citizens, or Jewish merchants and bankers, particularly from Spain. He wanted development throughout the country. As an example of this practical-minded but not fully unprejudiced tolerance, Frederick wrote in his Testament politique that:

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.[13]

Jews on the Polish border were therefore 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 in integrating the Jews into those areas of society that Frederick encouraged them in can be seen by the role played by Gerson von Bleichröder in financing Bismarck's efforts to reunite Germany.[14]

As under Frederick much wasteland was made arable Prussia was looking for new colonists. Frederick repeatedly emphasized that nationality and religion were of no concern to him.[15]



Frederick had famous buildings constructed in his capital, Berlin, most of which still exist today, such as the Berlin State Opera, the Royal Library (today the State Library Berlin), St. Hedwig's Cathedral, 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 "carefree" or "without worry", was a refuge for Frederick. "Frederician Rococo" developed under Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff.

South or garden facade and corps de logis of Sanssouci.

Later years


Near the end of his life Frederick spent more and more time alone. His 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 people 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 Italian greyhounds,[16] whom he referred to as his 'marquises de Pompadour' as a jibe at Madame de Pompadour.[17] Frederick died in an armchair in his study in the palace of Sanssouci on 17 August 1786.

Grave of Frederick at Sanssouci.

Frederick had wished to be buried next to his greyhounds on the vineyard terrace on the side of the corps de logis of Sanssouci. His nephew and successor Frederick William II instead ordered the body be entombed next to his father in the church of the Potsdam garrison. Near the end of World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered the coffins of Frederick and Frederick William I, as well as those of Paul von Hindenburg and his wife, transferred first to an underground bunker near Berlin, then hidden in a salt mine close to the town of Bernrode, Germany, to protect them from destruction. The US Army discovered the four coffins on 27 April 1945, behind a 6-foot-thick (1.8 m) masonry wall deep within the mine, and moved them to the basement of Marburg Castle, a collection point for recovered Nazi "treasure". As part of a secret project dubbed "Operation Bodysnatch",[18][19] the US Army relocated both kings first to the Elisabeth Church of Marburg and then on to Burg Hohenzollern close to the town of Hechingen. After German reunification, the body of Frederick William was entombed in the Kaiser Friedrich Mausoleum in Sanssouci's Church of Peace.

On the 205th anniversary of his death, on 17 August 1991, Frederick's casket lay in state in the court of honor 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 ("... Im übrigen will ich, was meine Person anbetrifft, in Sanssouci beigesetzt werden, ohne Prunk, ohne Pomp und bei Nacht..." (1757)).


  • "I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accounts, Italian to my Mistress, Latin to my God, and German to my horse."
  • "An educated people can be easily governed."



King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, is named after the King of Prussia Inn, itself named in honor of Frederick.[20]

Prussia Street in Dublin, Ireland, is named after Frederick the Great.[21]

German films


The Great King (German: "Der Große König") is a 1942 German drama movie directed by Veit Harlan and starring Otto Gebühr.[22] It depicts the life of Frederick the Great. It received the rare "movie of the Nation" distinction.[23] Otto Gebühr also played the King in many other movies.

Films with Otto Gebühr as Frederick the Great
  • 1920: Die Tänzerin Barbarina – director: Carl Boese
  • 1921–23: Fridericus Rex – director: Arzén von Cserépy
Teil 1 – Sturm und Drang
Teil 2 – Vater und Sohn
Teil 3 – Sanssouci
Teil 4 – Schicksalswende
  • 1926: Die Mühle von Sans Souci – director: Siegfried Philippi
  • 1928: Der alte Fritz – 1. Teil Friede – director: Gerhard Lamprecht
  • 1928: Der alte Fritz – 2. Teil Ausklang – director: Gerhard Lamprecht
  • 1930: Das Flötenkonzert von Sanssouci –director: Gustav Ucicky
  • 1932: Die Tänzerin von Sans Souci – director: Friedrich Zelnik
  • 1933: Der Choral von Leuthen – director: Carl Froelich
  • 1936. Heiteres und Ernstes um den großen König – director: Phil Jutzi
  • 1936: Fridericus – director: Johannes Meyer
  • 1937: Das schöne Fräulein Schragg – director: Hans Deppe
  • 1942: Der große König – director: Veit Harlan

In the 2004 German movie Der Untergang, Adolf Hitler is shown sitting in a dark room forlornly gazing at a painting of Frederick, possibly a reference to the dictator's fading hopes for another Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.

American films


In the 1970 movie Patton, General Patton incorrectly cites Frederick the Great as saying, "L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!" ("Audacity, audacity — always audacity!")

Although Frederick is never seen on screen, he is mentioned several times in Stanley Kubrick's 1975 movie Barry Lyndon. In the movie, he is referred to as "The great and illustrious Frederick" and his army is both praised and criticized. For example, a quote from the film: "During the five years which the war had now lasted, the great and illustrious Frederick had so exhausted the males of his kingdom that he had to employ scores of recruiters who hesitated no crime, including kidnapping, to keep supplied those brilliant regiments of his with food for powder."

Titles and styles

  • 24 January 1712 – 31 May 1740 His Royal Highness the Crown Prince
  • 31 May 1740 – 19 February 1772 His Majesty the King in Prussia
  • 19 February 1772 – 17 August 1786 His Majesty the King of Prussia


  1. Frederick was the third and last "King in Prussia"; beginning in 1772 he used the title "King of Prussia".
  2. L. Reiners, Frederick the Great, New York, 1960
  3. Reiners, p. 33
  4. Reiners, p. 52
  5. Reiners, p. 63
  6. Crompton
  7. Reiners, p. 69
  8. Reiners, p. 71
  9. MacDonogh, p. 125
  10. Reiners, pp.247-248
  11. David Blackbourn. "Conquests from Barbarism": Interpreting Land Reclamation in 18th Century Prussia. Harvard University. Accessed 24 May 2006.
  12. W. O. Henderson. Studies in the economic policy of Frederick the Great. Cass. London, 1963.
  13. MacDonogh, p. 347
  14. Stern, p. 19
  15. Gerhard Ritter Frederick the Great: a historical profile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975; p. 180
  16. Ritter, p. 200
  17. MacDonogh, p. 366
  18. LIFE. Time Inc. 1950.
  19. Alford, Kenneth D. (2003). Nazi Plunder: Great Treasure Stories Of World War II. Hachette Books. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-306-82090-8.
  20. "Historic Reeseville, Early King of Prussia, Pennsylvania Archived 2017-12-01 at the Wayback Machine". Accessed 24 May 2006.
  21. "". Archived from the original on 2008-05-11. Retrieved 2011-01-16.
  22. "New York Times: The Great King". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
  23. Leiser, Erwin (1975). Nazi Cinema. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-02-570230-1.

Further reading


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