German Royalty: Prussia--Friderich (II) the Great (1740-86)

Figure 1.--

Friderich or Frederick the Great was the model for a new type of monarch: The Enlightened Despot. Frederick born in 1712, a wlcome arrival as two earlier royal childern had died. Friderich had a terribke childhood, primarily because of the severity of his father who was determined to make a man of his son. His mother taught him French and culture while his father was determined that he would be a disciplined soldier. He was beaten by his father and even jailed. Despite his father's view of hisd son, Friederich was to become the greatest of all the Hohenzollerns. Friederich became an educated man, writing poems, plays. and music. He desired to be a great engligtened ruler and improve the lives of his people. During his reign, despite dreadful wars, he greatly expanded the size and extension of Prussia, making it a major European power to be recokened with.


Friedrich's father was King Friderich Wilhelm I. His mother was Princess Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, sister of George II of England.


Frederick born on January 24, 1712, during a cold winter. This day meant celebration for the Hohenzollern royal family that just had its latest son. His father, Frederick-Wilhelm who already lost two children, had to keep this baby alive to ensure a smooth transition when he would die. The baby's health was somewhat fragile during the first couple of years, but he survived.


The baby was raised at Potsdam Palace. Few children have had suchbconfused childoods. His mother spoke French to him, and she told him that French was the language of culture, while German was used by inferior people only ... and her husbabd was included in this category. He was called Fritz within the family. In many ways he had a terrible childhood.

Childhood Clothes

We have no details on Friderich's childhood clothes at this time.


His father the King placed great emphasis on the training and education of his son. He raised him like any other child in the kingdom. He was not papmered in any way. His father insisted on a practical, military education. Friderich after his mother's tutulage much preferred music, art, and literature. The king forbade the Prince's tutors to teach him Latin, but he studied it and the classics in secret, concluding at an early age that they were central to be an educated man. He received a military education which he hated. His father wanted to make sure that his son was a real man. He did not want him to wear fancy clothes; he disliked the French style and language of his son.

As Friderich grew, his relationship with his father worsened. Freiderich's mother and his sister Wilhelmina sided with him against his father. This just further enraged the King. He was committed only to Prussia. He was horrified by the thought that hisson, who he saw as weak and fopish, would one day be king and through incompetence might ruin his beloved Prussia. He became increasingly severe with Friedrich, even hitting him in public and beating him with a cane in front of army troops. Each time the child did something wrong, his father would hit him.


Fritz was finally at his wits end. Wjen he was 18 years old, he wrote a letter to his grandfather--King George II of England, to tell him that he wanted to commit suicide. He tried to run away, but was caught and was jailed at Kuestrin. His father considered executing him for "desertion". A friend who had assisted him in his escape was executed below his window. During this period, he studied agriculture, economy, and administration. To recover freedom, he had to swear that he would never seek revenge for this punishment, that he was always going to obey his father; that he would never get married without his father's approval. When he agreed he was allowed to return to Potsdam. The experience had, however, cahnged the Prince. Frederick had a always had a keen mind. The experience stregthened his caharcyer and resolve. He learned to become ruthless, crafty, and cynical.

Friderich also rebelled against tobacco, drinking, and hunting, which his father believed were natural pleasures of royalty and manly persuits.


The King found a wife for him in 1732, Elizabeth Christine of Braunschweig-Bevern. She was the daughter of the duke of Brunswick-Bevern. Friderich took little interest in her. The wedding took place in 1733. After the wedding, Friderich returned to his military training.

Crown Prince

Friderich's life improved for the better in 1736. The King gave him the Rheinsberg Palace and more money. This new situation allowed Friderich to live a hapier life. He lived like a gentleman during four years before becoming King of Prussia, and he was still happy, despite the contiued ill feelings with his father.

Friderich was an educated man. He mastered French better than any previous Prussian monarch. He corresponded with Voltaire who he admired and argued with. He played and composed songs, had his personal orchestra. All of this his father despised. He read, studied the Enlightenment, and learned military strategy. He even wrote an anti-Machiavelli theory.

During this period, he thought to himself about how he would rule. He was going to be a hero. He wanted to introduce reforms. He would be an Enlightenment man. He wanted to improve the life of his subjects. He contemplated military victories that would have their place in history books. He was the symbol of patriotism. He was a poet and writer, he would write many poems and 30 books while composing music. He was gay in a male society at "Château Sans-Souci", which he built. According to him, people must be judged on their intelligence and skills, privileges having nothing to do with it. He was a fascinating character for his rivals.


Friderich was crowned ar Friderich II, but history know him as Friderich the Great. He was the model for a new type of European monarch: The Enlightened Despot. Frederick-Wilhelm died in 1740 and Friderich , and the throne called his son as the successor. Friderich's reign was to change Prussia forever, eventually making possible the future birth of a new unified Germany. He was Europe's last great absolute monarchs. He was a habds-on administrator and involved himself in th smallest of decissions. He constantly checked the work of his officials and was very demanding, insisting on absolute devotion to duty.

Friederich came to the throne at the age of 28--10 years after being jailed by his father. His commitment to the Enlightenment did not include a desire for peace. He brought an emense ambition to the throne. That ambition soon engulfed Europe in terrible wars. He was to rule for 46 years, from 1740 to 1786. Friedrich worked hard. He acted as his own prime minister and treated his advisers as clerks. Yet, in his few leisure hours he wrote poetry and history. He even invited the great French philosopher Voltaire to his Potsdam palace of Sans Souci. The two soon quarreled, however, and Voltaire soon departed.

The first 23 years were devoted chiefly to warfare; the second, to peace and recovery. During the first half of his reign Frederick


As a soldier he had no equal among European soverigns of the period. Immediately after he had become king, Friderich acted on his own advice: "Take what you can; you are never wrong unless you are obliged to give it back." He seized the rich Austrian province of Silesia, which plunged most of Europe into the Seven Years War, which had begun oddfly enough in America as the French and Indian War. It was in this series of struggles, which lasted for more than 20 years, that Friderich's military genius won him the title "The Great." Later Friedrich annexed West Prussia through the first partition of Poland. During the first half of his rule Frederick truly made war the "national industry" of his country. His aggressive campaigns transformed Prussia from a minor state into a major power and nearly doubled the country's size by conquest and by diplomacy.


Friedrich's last 23 years of rule showed that he was one of the most enlightened despots of the 1700s. Once he had satisfied his territorial ambitions Friderich undertook great public works and encouraged education, industry, and immigration.


Friderich was sympathetic to the American cause in the War of Independence from Britain. He was an admirer of George Washington. He was one of the first sovereigns to conclude a commercial treaty with the U.S.


Frederick the Great lived an austere life. His favorite residence was Sans Souci, a secluded mansion. Even though Frederick was married, he lived largely as a bachelor. Women were rarely allowed at court, which was the cause of consirable comment. He usually spoke and wrote in French.


Frederick the Great died on Augist 17, 1786, a few years before the eve of the French Revolution--an event that shook forever the power of monarchy in Europe. Thus he became by default the last great absolute monarch in Western Europe.


Frederick the Great had no children. He was succeeded by his nephew. Frederick.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: July 9, 2001
Last updated: May 4, 2002