Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), commonly known as Frederick the Great, was King of Prussia and one of that country’s greatest rulers. He had a multifaceted personality, being a great statesman, military commander, writer, musician, and social reformer.
Statesman and military leader
When Frederick the Great was born, Austria was the leading power in the German-speaking area of Europe. Frederick opposed the authoritarian power of Austria. He had ambitious plans for Prussia: he thought that it should increase its military influence and economic power and become the leading German-speaking state.
In 1740, Frederick reactivated the old Prussian claims to the Austrian province of Silesia. When this claim was rejected by the ruler of Austria, Empress Maria Theresa, Frederick seized Silesia. This move upset Maria Theresa and helped spark the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48). and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).
With Frederick’s outstanding skills as a military commander, some good luck, and a lot of hard work, Prussia ended up not only keeping Silesia but also, in 1772, becoming part of Poland.
At the time of Frederick’s death, Prussia occupied twice the area it had at the time of his birth.
Frederick the Great fostered the growth of a strong economy in Prussia, encouraging modernization and greater efficiency in both agriculture and Prussian industry. This development, combined with the fact that Frederick managed to fight his wars without incurring debt, brought much prosperity to the country.
With its expanded geographical area, its largest army (with 195,000 soldiers in 1786), and its strong economy, Prussia not only prevailed over its rival, Austria, and became the largest and most powerful of the German states, but ended up for Frederick’s reign. as the first European power.
The man of culture
Unlike his father, Frederick William I, who was rigidly militaristic and Calvinist, Frederick the Great (Frederick II) was interested in the culture and ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly the ideas of the French. philosophers (philosophers) like Voltaire.
Frederick played and composed music. He played the flute very well (there is a famous painting by Adolph von Menzel of Frederick playing a flute in the music room of his palace, Sanssouci) and some of his musical compositions are still played today.
He read French literature and wrote poetry. He corresponded with French writers and Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire (the latter visited Frederick in Berlin in 1750) and studied his works.
A famous remark written by Frederick in a letter to Voltaire dated March 18, 1771 has been preserved and says: “Throw prejudices out the door, and they will come back out the window.”
Frederick wrote extensively, always in French, on politics, history, and military science. His works have been published in 33 volumes.
Frederick was a patron of architecture and had many wonderful buildings built in Berlin. These buildings, including gems like the Berlin State Opera, are mostly still in existence today.
Frederick also built a beautiful summer palace called Sanssouci (French for “carefree” or “worry-free”) in nearby Potsdam. This palace is the best example of the North German Rococo architectural style. Often seen as the Prussian equivalent of the Palace of Versailles, Sanssouci Palace and Gardens were placed on the United Nations’ list of World Heritage Sites in 1990.
the social reformer
Frederick the Great increased freedom of speech and promoted freedom of religion. He improved the efficiency and honesty of government administration. He abolished torture and corporal punishment. However, serfdom was not abolished.
Frederick’s form of government is what we call Enlightened Despotism Prayed benevolent despotism (i.e. the country was ruled by an absolute monarch, but who tried to rule his people fairly, rather than according to his own whims and selfish desires).
Frederick is reported to have described this type of government as follows:
“My people and I have reached an agreement that satisfies us both. They must say what they please and I must do what I please.”