Frederick II, the Great

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Frederick II, the Great (1712-86): King of Prussia.

During his 40-year reign, Frederick II vastly increased Prussia's wealth, doubled its size, recast it into a hub of culture and learning, and made it a great military power.

Frederick was a sensitive and intelligent humanist who composed flute concertos, wrote poetry, and produced insightful essays. His series of histories, dealing primarily with affairs of state, would eventually fill 15 volumes. He became a close friend of the French philosopher Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, and as monarch would surround himself with artists, writers and musicians. He was host of the most distinguished salon in Europe. Under his tutelage, Brandenburg-Prussia became one of the great intellectual centers of Europe and a mecca for the great minds of the era. With the revival of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1744, funding was provided to the luminaries of the French Enlightenment. To his palace of Sans Souci in Potsdam, he brought ballet, symphonic assemblies and opera companies. Frederick epitomized the "Enlightened Despot."

Prior to ascending the throne at age 28 in 1740, he referred to military uniform as "the gown of death," but afterwards was seldom seen wearing anything else. In 1739 he wrote a short book entitled Anti-Machiavel in which he argued that the Italian philosopher's remorselessly pragmatic maxims were no longer suitable to a gentler, more enlightened age. He then proceeded to wage war, browbeat his neighbors, exploit diplomatic opportunities, and forge Prussia relentlessly into a great power. What, one might ask rhetorically, could be more Machiavellian, than to condemn such ruthless pursuit of power, and thereafter to conduct oneself according to Machiavelli's very precepts? As King, Frederick was a lonely figure with a tortured soul, who thrived on nervous energy. Early in his reign, he remarked: "How I abhor this job to which the blind coincidence of birth has condemned me."

The first half of Frederick's reign was fraught with conflict that, although on occasion threatening Prussia's existence, would eventually elevate it to great power status. In the first year of Frederick's rule, the death of the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI caused a political crisis Frederick decided to exploit. Although Prussia subscribed to the Pragmatic Sanction, allowing for the ascension of Maria Theresa to the throne and guaranteeing the integrity of Habsburg dominions, Frederick offered to provide assistance in Austria's retention of these dominions in exchange for the cession of the prosperous province of Silesia to Prussia. When such diplomatic extortion was brusquely refused, Frederick's troops seized Silesia. Thus began the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48). When the combined forces of France, Prussia an d Bavaria threatened to overwhelm Austria in 1742, Frederick withdrew from the war, then reentered it in 1744 when Austria seemed about to defeat its remaining enemies. The war finally ended with Prussia in firm control of Silesia.

In 1756, fearing the power of Russia, Frederick concluded the Treaty of Westminster with England. The latter agreed to assist Prussia in the event of Russian attack. France, feeling abandoned for the second time, subsequently negotiated a treaty with Maria Theresa. France and Austria were consequently allied against Prussia and England. Frederick's renewed diplomatic pressure on Austria unleashed the Seven Years War (1756-63). Prussian troops invaded Saxony, another of Maria Theresa's dominions, and Frederick offered to return it only if Maria Theresa agreed not to enter an alliance with Russia. As a result of Prussian military action, France declared war. Russia and Sweden then entered the fray.

Although Prussia received some support from England, it stood largely alone against the alliance of the continental powers. Perseveringly and imaginatively, Frederick marched his outnumbered troops from one corner of his kingdom to another, resisting one enemy force after the next. By 1760, his armies were exhausted, their equipment and supplies depleted. Berlin was occupied, and England refused to provide further support to a lost cause. Then, in early 1762, Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia died, and her successor, Peter III, who was a great admirer of Frederick, terminated the coalition and entered into an alliance with Prussia. In the ensuing Peace of Hubertusburg, Prussia retained Silesia and East Prussia, and Saxony was accorded independence. In defending itself against three great powers, Prussia earned recognition as a great power in its own right, and Frederick was widely acknowledged as a military genius.

Thereafter, Prussia would enjoy 23 years of peace, while continuing to expand its territory, primarily at the expense of Poland. In 1772, in collusion with Russia and Austria, Frederick participated in the first partition of Poland, on the pretense that Poland's Catholic majority engaged in religious persecution. Frederick annexed West Prussia up to the port of Danzig, joining East Prussia with Brandenburg. In 1793 and 1795, the three powers would partition Poland yet again, creating a potentially dangerous situation in Prussia as large numbers of Poles came under Prussian rule.

Frederick was referred to as "the Great," even during his lifetime, not only because of his military prowess, but also because of his intellectual and cultural achievements, his political reforms, and the efficient state he fashioned. Reinforcing Prussian traditions of uncorrupted administration and an independent judiciary, Frederick established a Rechtsstaat (a state of laws) in Prussia where citizens enjoyed far more legal equality then in most other states. Prussia remained tolerant of all religions, and was lenient toward national minorities within its borders. Press freedom in Prussia was considerable in the context of the time. By the standards of the 18th century, Prussia had become a modern and enlightened country, with the affairs of state based largely on reason.

Further Reading:

Walther Hubatsch, Frederick the Great of Prussia, 1975.

Peter Paret, Frederick the Great, 1972.

Hans Rosenberg, Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, Autocracy, 1958.


David M. Keithly

American Military University

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