Few if any European monarchs can compare with the mythical Prussian King Frederick The Great. Frederick II (German: Friedrich; 24 January 1712 – 17 August 1786) was King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, the longest reign of any Hohenzollern king. Frederick was the sole surviving son of his father, the famous Frederick I. Frederick William I, popularly dubbed as the Soldier-King, had created a large and powerful army led by his famous “Potsdam Giants”, carefully managed his treasury finances and developed a strong, centralized government. However, he also possessed a violent temper and ruled Brandenburg-Prussia with absolute authority.
Frederick the Great had an affinity for poetry, music and literature, especially antique works. Frederick grew up under strict discipline and was trained to become a soldier from a very young age. He was woken up by a cannon shot at 4 am every day from a very young age and went through rigorous military training and discipline. His father emphasized that the Prussian King should be like simple folks without the posh manners of many other Kings in Europe. As Frederick grew, his preference for music, literature and French culture clashed with his father’s militarism, resulting in Frederick William frequently beating and humiliating his son. His father was afraid that his son would be effeminized by other interests than strictly military ones.
Frederick I – Father of Frederick the Great
Frederick was often beaten by his father and by the time he was 18 years old he tried to escape from Prussia and his father´s tyranny. Frederick plotted to flee to England with his close friend Katte and other junior army officers. Frederick and Katte were subsequently arrested and imprisoned. Because they were army officers who had tried to flee Prussia for Great Britain, king Frederick William leveled an accusation of treason against the pair. The king briefly threatened the crown prince with the death penalty, then considered forcing Frederick to renounce the succession in favour of his brother, Augustus William. The king then forced Frederick to watch the decapitation of his confidant Katte.
Frederick was granted a royal pardon and released from his cell although he remained stripped of his military rank. Instead of returning to Berlin, however, he was forced to remain in Küstrin and began rigorous schooling in statecraft and administration for the War and Estates Departments. The crown prince returned to Berlin in 1732.
Frederick was arranged to marry a 17 year old duchess in 1733 – which Frederick reluctantly agreed to.
Prussia – A Small Country Without Natural Resources Becomes A Superpower By Virtues
The Potsdam Giants – a formidable regiment of giant elite soldiers used to shock the enemy
If we take a look at Prussia prior to the rule of Frederick and his father the state was small with an infertile land and no natural resources with an over-indebted public budget. Frederick´s father who economized to the extreme saw himself as a moral role model, while the son saw himself as an exemplar of reason for the religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse Prussian state. The extended Prussian territory was home to Protestant, Catholic and Jewish subjects, of Germans, Poles, Sorbs and Kashubians.
The Prussian virtues, while traced back to the Teutonic knights, were named by King Frederick William I of Prussia, the “soldier–king” and frugal “bourgeois” reformer of Prussian administration, as well as from his son, Frederick the Great. Prussia received a highly-advanced administration and legal system, as well as a loyal officer corps and a kind of common-sense patriotism gathering the subjects behind the Hohenzollern ruler. Frederick the Greaat always emphasized that the noble people should marry within their own class but he also emphasized ability more than class. Generally the officers were recruited from the noble class.
Prussian virtues that were emphasized by Frederick and his father were:
- Austerity or Thrift (German: Sparsamkeit)
- Courage (German: Mut)
- Determination (German: Zielstrebigkeit)
- Discipline (German: Disziplin)
- Fortitude without self-pity (German: Tapferkeit ohne Wehleidigkeit): Lerne leiden ohne zu klagen (“Learn to suffer without complaining”)
- Frankness or Probity (German: Redlichkeit)
- Godliness, coupled with religious tolerance (German: Gottesfurcht bei religiöser Toleranz): Jeder soll nach seiner Façon selig werden (“Let everyone find salvation according to his own beliefs”)
- Humility or Modesty (German: Bescheidenheit)
- Incorruptibility (German: Unbestechlichkeit)
- Industriousness or Diligence (German: Fleiß)
- Loyalty (German: Treue)
- Obedience (German: Gehorsam): Seid gehorsam, doch nicht ohne Freimut (“Be obedient, but not without frankness”)
- Punctuality (German: Pünktlichkeit)
- Reliability (German: Zuverlässigkeit)
- Restraint (German: Zurückhaltung)
- Self-denial (German: Selbstverleugnung)
- Self-effacement (German: Zurückhaltung): Mehr sein als scheinen! (“More substance than semblance!”)
- Sense of duty or Conscientiousness (German: Pflichtbewusstsein)
- Sense of justice (German: Gerechtigkeitssinn): Jedem das Seine or Suum cuique (“May all get their due”)
- Sense of order (German: Ordnungssinn):(“Know your place”)
- Sincerity (German: Aufrichtigkeit)
- Straightness or Straightforwardness (German: Geradlinigkeit)
- Subordination (German: Unterordnung)
Based on these virtues two generations of Frederick Kings transformed Prussia from a powerless small state into a military superpower with highly disciplined soldiers and citizens.
Frederick – The Anti-Machiavellian King
Frederick wrote a book called “Anti-Machiavel” where he outlined how a good ruler should rule his country. He was outraged by the contemporary ideals of the decadent Machiavellian culture among the royal courts in Europe at the time, especially in France.
Frederick explained his simple principles in ruling his country: “My principal occupation is to combat ignorance and prejudice … to enlighten minds, cultivate morality, and to make people as happy as it suits human nature, and as the means at my disposal permit.”
About Machiavelli Frederick said many wise things which still shine today:
- Machiavel’s The Prince is to ethics what the work of Spinoza is to faith. Spinoza sapped the fundamentals of faith, and drained the spirit of religion; Machiavel corrupted policy, and undertook to destroy the precepts of healthy morals: the errors of the first were only errors of speculation, but those of the other had a practical thrust. […] I always have regarded The Prince as one of the most dangerous works which were spread in the world; it is a book which falls naturally into the hands of princes, and of those who have a taste for policy. […] There is a real injustice in concluding that the rotten apples are representative of all of them.(Foreword)
- It is thus the justice (one would have to say) which must be the main responsibility of a sovereign. Since it is the prime interest of the many people whom they control, they must give it priority over any other interest of their own. What then becomes of Machiavel’s recommendations of naked self-interest, self-aggrandizement, unleashed ambition and despotism? The sovereign, far from being the absolute Master of the people which are under his domination, is only the first servant. (Ch. 1: What A Strong Prince Really Is, And How One Can Reach That Point)
- It is a fact that princes who try to raise other princes with violence, end up destroying themselves. (Ch. 3: Mixed Principalities)
- “It is enough”, this malicious man tells us, “to extinguish the line of the defeated prince.” Can one read this without quivering in horror and indignation?( Ch. VII)
- The cruel man is of misanthropic temperament, and is a man of moods, oscillating from quiet brooding to sudden explosions. If a man like this does not fight this unhappy provision of his soul during his youth, under no circumstances could he avoid becoming furious – and foolish. There are those who would leave it up to God, but to ensure justice on the earth, and not fob it off to the Divinity, it is mandatory that people know both virtue and its benefits, since the virtues lead to unity among them, not the war of all against all. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to conserve them, and show that crime can only return misfortunes and destruction, including of the criminal himself. Who is the last victim of his crimes. (Ch. VIII)
- Just as people are born, live a time, and die by diseases or old age, in the same way republics are formed, flower a few centuries, and perish finally by the audacity of a citizen, or by the weapons of their enemies. All has their period; all empires, and largest monarchies even, have only so much time: the republics feel continually that this time will arrive, and they look at any too-powerful family as the carriers of a disease which will give them the blow of death. (Ch. IX)
- It does not pay a man to exist until the age of Methuselah by making his days indolent and useless. The more this is reflected upon, the more the reflector will desire to undertake meaningful and useful actions, the more they will have lived.(Ch. XIV)
Frederick The Invincible Warrior King
Frederick at the front with his army
Frederick’s goal was to modernize and unite his vulnerably disconnected lands and 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.
During the “War of the Austrian Succession” which spanned from 1740 to 1745 Frederick conquered Silesia from Austria and hence almost doubled his population and territory. Frederick quickly showed his great skills as a commander and he was perhaps the most aggressive commander of western history, inflicting great damage and chaos to his opponents.
During the “Seven Years War” Frederick faced a formidable coalition formed by Austria, France, Russia, Saxony and Sweden. Few could imagine that he could ever get out of that stranglehold but Frederick was clever and allied himself with Great Britain and quickly attacked Saxony. After some initial successes Frederick surely but slowly had to retreat and suffered his first military battle defeats. But he always recovered after each defeat but after the British withdrew their financial support in 1762 his situation was desperate. With the sudden death of the Russian Empress the whole situation changed and the Russians withdrew their troops when their new Tsar, Peter III ascended the throne. Peter III was so impressed and humbled by the legendary Frederick that he stated that he would rather have been a general in the Prussian army than being the Tsar of Russia. This further showed the mythical reputation of Frederick as the ultimate enlightened ruler and military genius.
After the Russians joined forces with Prussia the war soon came to an end and Frederick retained all his territories. The prize for victory had been paid though because most of his friends and generals died during the war.
Frederick later turned his sights on Poland, a country he considered barbarian and primitive. Prussia and Russia agreed to the First Partition of Poland in 1772, which took place without a war. Frederick claimed most of the Polish province of Royal Prussia. Prussia annexed 20,000 square miles (52,000 km2) and 600,000 inhabitants, the least of the partitioning powers. However, Prussia’s Polish territory was also the best-developed economically. The newly created province of West Prussia connected East Prussia and Farther Pomerania and granted Prussia control of the mouth of the Vistula River.
Frederick tried to reform the Polish province by his civilized model state and he achieved some success and economic benefits too. Later wars about Bavaria and other German provinces were minor skirmished compared with the earlier big wars and they didn´t change the power of Prussia.
Frederick The Military Genius
Contrary to what his father had feared, Frederick proved himself very courageous in battle (with the exception of his first battlefield experience, Mollwitz). He frequently led his military forces personally and had six horses shot from under him during battle. During his reign he commanded the Prussian Army at sixteen major battles (most of which were victories for him) and various sieges, skirmishes and other actions. He is often admired as one of the greatest tactical geniuses of all time, especially for his usage of the oblique order of battle, in which attack is focused on one flank of the opposing line, allowing a local advantage even if his forces were outnumbered overall (which they often were). 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.
An example of the place that Frederick holds in history as a ruler is seen in Napoleon Bonaparte, who saw the Prussian king as the greatest tactical genius of all time; after Napoleon’s victory of the Fourth Coalition in 1807, he visited Frederick’s tomb in Potsdam and remarked to his officers, “Gentlemen, if this man were still alive I would not be here”. Napoleon frequently “pored through Frederick’s campaign narratives and had a statuette of him placed in his personal cabinet.” Frederick and Napoleon are perhaps the most admiringly quoted military leaders in Clausewitz‘ On War. More than Frederick’s use of the oblique order, Clausewitz praised particularly the quick and skillful movement of his troops.
Frederick the Great’s most notable and decisive military victories on the battlefield were the Battles of Hohenfriedberg, fought during the War of Austrian Succession in June 1745; the Battle of Rossbach, where Frederick defeated a combined Franco-Austrian army of 41,000 with a mere 21,000 soldiers (10,000 dead for the Franco-Austrian side with only 550 casualties for Prussia); and the Battle of Leuthen, which was a follow up victory to Rossbach pitting Frederick’s 36,000 troops against Charles of Lorraine’s Austrian force of 80,000—Frederick’s masterful strategy and tactics at Leuthen inflicted 7,000 casualties upon the Austrians and yielded 20,000 prisoners.
Frederick the Great believed that creating alliances was necessary, as Prussia did not have the comparable resources of nations like France or Austria. After the Seven Years’ War, the Prussian military acquired a formidable reputation across Europe. Esteemed for their efficiency and success in battle, the Prussian army of Frederick became a model emulated by other European powers, most notably by Russia and France; the latter of which quickly applied the lessons of Frederick’s military tactics under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte upon their erstwhile European neighbors.
Frederick was an influential military theorist whose analysis emerged from his extensive personal battlefield experience and covered issues of strategy, tactics, mobility and logistics. 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.”
Historian Robert M. Citino describes Frederick’s strategic approach:
- In war…he usually saw one path to victory, and that was fixing the enemy army in place, maneuvering near or even around it to give himself a favorable position for the attack, and then smashing it with an overwhelming blow from an unexpected direction. He was the most aggressive field commander of the century, perhaps of all time, and one who constantly pushed the limits of the possible.
Historian Dennis Showalter argues, “The King was also more consistently willing than any of his contemporaries to seek decision through offensive operations.”
“Rascals, do you want to live forever?”
Frederick asked his hesitant guards at the battle of Kolin, 18 June 1757.
“If I had a province to punish, I would let it be governed by philosophers.” Frederick stated another time.
“Die peacefully.” , Frederick reportedly told a wounded soldier who was crying out loud.
Foresight ranked among the most important attributes when fighting an enemy, according to the Prussian monarch, as the discriminating commander must see everything before it takes place, so “nothing will be new to him.” Thus it was flexibility that was often paramount to military success. Donning both the skin of a fox or a lion in battle, as Frederick once remarked, reveals the intellectual dexterity he applied to the art of warfare.
Much of the structure of the more modern German General Staff owed its existence and extensive structure to Frederick, along with the accompanying power of autonomy given to commanders in the field. According to Citino, “When later generations of Prussian-German staff officers looked back to the age of Frederick, they saw a commander who repeatedly, even joyfully, risked everything on a single day’s battle – his army, his kingdom, often his very life.” As far as Frederick was concerned, there were two major battlefield considerations – speed of march and speed of fire. So confident in the performance of men he selected for command when compared to those of his enemy, Frederick once quipped, “A general considered audacious in another country is only ordinary in [Prussia]; [our general] is able to dare and undertake anything it is possible for men to execute.”
Despite his dazzling success as a military commander, Frederick was no fan of protracted warfare, and once wrote, “Our wars should be short and quickly fought… A long war destroys … our [army’s] discipline; depopulates the country, and exhausts our resources.” Martial adeptness and that thoroughness and discipline so often witnessed on the battlefield was not correspondingly reflected on the domestic front for Frederick. In lieu of his military predilections, Frederick administered his Kingdom justly and ranks among the most “enlightened” monarchs of his era; this, notwithstanding the fact that in many ways, “Frederick the Great represented the embodiment of the art of war”. Consequently, Frederick continues to be held in high regard as a military theorist the world over.
Frederick could risk everything including his human life, his kingdom and his reputation in any military battle. It is said that Frederick told his Generals unceasingly that courage is the first quality of a soldier and that they must make great plans and achieve great victories in order to be remembered in the world history. Even if they could only have success 2 out of 10 times it would be enough for them to create their immortality. He treated a mere lieutenant visiting his palace higher than the court officials and called the noble men who were not militaries “pitiful”. The Prussian noble people were rigorous, disciplined people with pride in their military profession and they kept all their privileges in terms of clothes and honor. This made them more motivated and dedicated to their work. He forbade young officers to marry at a young age and told them that they needed to create honor with the sword rather than with women. The natural end to their life would be death on the battlefield.
Frederick And The Arts
Sanssouci(means “without worry” in French) – A Magnificent Baroque Palace Built By Frederick
Frederick played music with the great composer Bach, he wrote poetry with the great philosopher Voltaire and he built magnificent palaces such as Sansoucci outside Berlin at Potsdam. He was simply a multitalented genius and Voltaire once remarked jealously that he could not imagine how it was humanly possible to write such brilliant poems as quickly as Frederick could do. Let´s remember that Voltaire was and still is regarded as a genius and yet he felt very inferior compared to Frederick. Voltaire later fell out with Frederick and slandered him greatly. Frederick was calm and didn´t resort to any counter attack.
Frederick the Great holds a flute concert at the Sanssouci Palace
When in field with his army Frederick would always get up at 4 am and oftentimes start the day by playing flute. He would many times compose poems just before battles when his soldiers and generals were fearing for their lives. Frederick lived somehow beyond mortal life and death and had a very lofty mindset and extreme courage.
Frederick And Women
Queen Elizabeth Christine – wife of Frederick the Great
Frederick and his father emphasized the inborn differences between men and women and after Frederick ascended the throne he let his wife, Queen Elizabeth Christine, live in her own palaces to take care of the Royal Court life and receptions while he was busy building his empire and living with his mostly military court in other palaces, ie Sanssouci in Potsdam. In Prussia it was widely regarded that the King should keep a distance from his wife or else he would be controlled by her which could risk the kingdom.
Frederick respected his wife highly and commended her for her great ability to take care of the court life in Berlin, which disinterested the militaristic Frederick. The Queen was a role model of piety and humility which greatly impressed Frederick´s father. The humble Queen in her old days said of herself: “God has graciously kept me, so that I need not reproach myself for any action by which any person has with my knowledge been hurt.” She had honest admiration and love for her husband Frederick throughout her whole life.
Frederick never let women come to his Palace and it is said that no woman was ever admitted to the Sanssouci Palace – except once when a woman was masquerading as a man. While many Kings across Europe had several concubines Frederick didn´t have much interest in women and he once stated: “I have one wife and that is more than enough for me.”
Frederick´s Legacy – A Phenomenon And An Inspiration
Much has been said about Frederick and we can´t repeat even a fraction of all the opinions held about Frederick here. What is clear is that Frederick was a unique person with talents and achievements far beyond any other kings of his era. He also treated ordinary people generously and granted them free speech. Frederick famously said:
“My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.”
The german writer, polymath and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave his opinion of Frederick during a visit to Strasbourg by writing:
“Well, we had not much to say in favour of the constitution of the Reich; we admitted that it consisted entirely of lawful misuses, but it rose therefore the higher over the present French constitution which is operating in a maze of unlawful misuses, whose government displays its energies in the wrong places and therefore has to face the challenge that a thorough change in the state of affairs is widely prophesied. In contrast when we looked towards the north, from there shone Frederick, the Pole Star, around whom Germany, Europe, even the world seemed to turn …”