Biography of Frederick the Great, the King in Prussia

Portrait Koenig Friedrich II. von Preussen by Heinrich Christian Franke
Portrait Koenig Friedrich II. von Preussen by Heinrich Christian Franke. Hulton Archive 

Born in 1712, Frederick William II, known as Frederick the Great, was the third Hohenzollern King of Prussia. Although Prussia had been an influential and important part of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries, under Frederick’s rule the small kingdom rose to the status of a Great European Power and had a lasting effect on European politics in general and Germany specifically. Frederick’s influence casts a long shadow over culture, the philosophy of government, and military history.

He is one of the most important European leaders in history, a long-reigning king whose personal beliefs and attitudes shaped the modern world.

Early Years

Frederick was born into the House of Hohenzollern, a major German dynasty. Hohenzollerns became kings, dukes, and emperors in the region from the establishment of the dynasty in the 11th century until the overthrow of the German aristocracy in the wake of World War I in 1918. Frederick’s father, King Frederick William I, was an enthusiastic soldier-king who worked to build up Prussia’s army, ensuring that when Frederick assumed the throne he would have an outsize military force. In fact, when Frederick ascended to the throne in 1740, he inherited an army of 80,000 men, a remarkably large force for such a small kingdom. This military power allowed Frederick to have a proportionately outsize influence on European history.

As a youth, Frederick showed little interest in military matters, preferring poetry and philosophy—subjects he studied in secret because his father disapproved; in fact, Frederick was often beaten and berated by his father for his interests.

When Frederick was 18 years old, he formed a passionate attachment to an army officer named Hans Hermann von Katte. Frederick was miserable under the authority of his harsh father, and planned to escape to Great Britain, where his maternal grandfather was King George I, and he invited Katte to join him.

When their plot was discovered, King Frederick William threatened to charge Frederick with treason and strip him of his status as Crown Prince, and then had Katte executed in front of his son.

In 1733, Frederick married an Austrian Duchess Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern. It was a political marriage that Frederick resented; at one point he threatened to commit suicide before relenting and going through with the marriage as ordered by his father. This planted a seed of anti-Austrian sentiment in Frederick; he believed that Austria, long Prussia’s rival for influence in the crumbling Holy Roman Empire, was meddlesome and dangerous. This attitude would prove to have long-lasting implications for the future of Germany and Europe.

King in Prussia and Military Successes

Frederick assumed the throne in 1740 after the death of his father. He was officially known as King in Prussia, not King of Prussia, because he only inherited a portion of what was traditionally known as Prussia—the lands and titles he assumed in 1740 were actually a series of small areas often separated by large areas not under his control. Over the next thirty-two years, Frederick would use the military prowess of the Prussian Army and his own strategic and political genius to reclaim the entirely of Prussia, finally declaring himself King of Prussia in 1772 after decades of warfare.

Frederick inherited an army that was not only large, it had also been shaped into the premier fighting force in Europe at the time by his military-minded father. With the goal of a united Prussia, Frederick lost little time plunging Europe into war.

War of the Austrian Succession. Frederick’s first move was to challenge the ascension of Maria Theresa as the head of the House of Hapsburg, including the title of Holy Roman Empress. Despite being female and thus traditionally ineligible for the position, Maria Theresa’s legal claims were rooted in legal work laid down by her father, who was determined to keep the Hapsburg lands and power in the family hands. Frederick refused to acknowledge Maria Theresa’s legitimacy, and used this as an excuse to occupy the province of Silesia. He had a minor claim to the province, but it was officially Austrian.

With France as a powerful ally, Frederick fought for the next five years, using his well-trained professional army brilliantly and defeating the Austrians in 1745, securing his claim to Silesia.

The Seven Years War. In 1756 Frederick once again surprised the world with his occupation of Saxony, which was officially neutral. Frederick acted in response to a political environment that saw many of the European powers arrayed against him; he suspected his enemies would move against him and so acted first, but miscalculated and was nearly destroyed. He managed to fight the Austrians well enough to force a peace treaty that returned the borders to their 1756 status. Although Frederick had failed to retain Saxony, he did hold onto Silesia, which was remarkable considering he’d come very close to losing the war outright.

Partition of Poland. Frederick had a low opinion of the Polish people and wished to take Poland for himself in order to exploit it economically, with the ultimate goal of driving out the Polish people and replacing them with Prussians. Over the course of several wars, Frederick used propaganda, military victories, and diplomacy to eventually seize large portions of Poland, expanding and linking his holdings and increasing Prussian influence and power.

Spirituality, Sexuality, Artistry, and Racism

Frederick was almost certainly gay, and, remarkably, was very open about his sexuality after his ascension to the throne, retreating to his estate in Potsdam where he conducted several affairs with male officers and his own valet, writing erotic poetry celebrating the male form and commissioning many sculptures and other works of art with distinct homoerotic themes.

Although officially pious and supportive of religion (and tolerant, allowing a Catholic church to be built in officially protestant Berlin in the 1740s), Frederick was privately dismissive of all religion, referring to Christianity in general as an “odd metaphysical fiction.”

He was also almost shockingly racist, especially towards the Poles, who he regarded as almost subhuman and undeserving of respect, referring to them privately as “trash,” “vile,” and “dirty.”

A man of many facets, Frederick was also a supporter of the arts, commissioning buildings, paintings, literature, and music. He played the flute extremely well and composed many pieces for that instrument, and wrote voluminously in French, despising the German language and preferring French for his artistic expressions. A devotee of the principles of the Enlightenment, Frederick attempted to portray himself as a benevolent tyrant, a man who brooked no argument with his authority but who could be relied on to better the lives of his people. Despite believing German culture in general to be inferior to that of France or Italy, he worked to elevate it, establishing a German Royal Society to promote German language and culture, and under his rule Berlin became a major cultural center of Europe.

Death and Legacy

Although most often remembered as a warrior, Frederick actually lost more battles than he won, and was often saved by political events outside his control—and the unparalleled excellence of the Prussian Army. While he was undoubtedly brilliant as a tactician and strategist, his main impact in military terms was the transformation of the Prussian Army into an outsize force that should have been beyond the capability of Prussia to support due to its relatively small size.

It was often said that instead of Prussia being a country with an army, it was an army with a country; by the end of his reign Prussian society was largely dedicated to staffing, supplying, and training the army.

Frederick’s military successes and expansion of Prussian power led indirectly to the establishment of the German Empire in the late 19th century (through the efforts of Otto von Bismarck), and thus in some ways to the two World Wars and the rise of Nazi Germany. Without Frederick, Germany might never have become a world power.

Frederick was as transformative of Prussian society as he was the military and Europe’s borders. He reformed the government along a model based on King Louis XIV of France, with power centered on himself while he stayed away from the capital. He codified and modernized the legal system, promoted freedom of the press and religious tolerance, and was an icon of the same Enlightenment principles that inspired the American Revolution. He is remembered today as a brilliant leader who promoted modern concepts of the rights of citizens while exercising old-fashioned autocratic power in a form of “enlightened despotism.”

Frederick the Great Fast Facts

Born: January 24, 1712, Berlin, Germany

Died: August 17, 1786, Potsdam, Germany

Lineage: Frederick William I, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (parents); Dynasty: House of Hohenzollern, a major German dynasty

Also Known As: Frederick William II, Friedrich (Hohenzollern) von Preußen

Wife: Austrian Duchess Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern (m. 1733–1786)

Ruled: Portions of Prussia 1740-1772; all of Prussia 1772-1786

Successor: Frederick William II of Prussia (nephew)

Legacy: Transformed Germany into a world power, modernized the legal system, promoted freedom of the press, religious tolerance, and the rights of citizens.

Quotes:

  • “I think it better to keep a profound silence with regard to the Christian fables, which are canonized by their antiquity and the credulity of absurd and insipid people.”
  • “Do you think I take any pleasure in this dog's life, in seeing and causing death in people unknown to me, in losing friends and acquaintances daily, in seeing my reputation ceaselessly exposed to the caprices of fortune, in spending the whole year with uneasiness and apprehension, in continually risking my life and my fortune? I certainly know the value of tranquility, the charms of society, the pleasures of life, and I like to be happy as much as anybody. Although I desire all these good things, I will not buy them with baseness and infamy. Philosophy teaches us to do our duty, to serve our country faithfully at the expense of our blood and of our repose, to commit our whole being to it.”
  • “Neither antiquity nor any other nation has imagined a more atrocious and blasphemous absurdity than that of eating God. — This is how Christians treat the autocrat of the universe.”

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Somers, Jeffrey. "Biography of Frederick the Great, the King in Prussia." ThoughtCo, Mar. 29, 2018, thoughtco.com/biography-of-frederick-the-great-4161022. Somers, Jeffrey. (2018, March 29). Biography of Frederick the Great, the King in Prussia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-frederick-the-great-4161022 Somers, Jeffrey. "Biography of Frederick the Great, the King in Prussia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-frederick-the-great-4161022 (accessed April 22, 2018).