uropean history abounds in royal nicknames, from Ethelred the Unready to William the Conqueror to Ivan the Terrible to Charles the Rash. The sobriquet “the Great,” however, has been given to very few. While England has had many successful rulers in its long royal history, only Alfred (ruled 871—899) was given the rubric. Russia had Peter (1682—1725) and Catherine (1762—1796). The Holy Roman Empire had Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus in Latin, or Charles the Great). The term is not used to praise a leader’s character, but rather his effect on his country and on the world.
And then there is Frederick II, King of Prussia, who ruled from 1740 to 1786. As Tim Blanning makes clear in a new biography that is at once scholarly and highly readable, Frederick the Great fully deserves history’s judgment of him as a transformative figure of the second millennium.
When Frederick the Great was born (in 1712) Prussia was, at best, a second-rate power. A dynastic assemblage, rather than an organic state, Prussia comprised disconnected territories spread across northern Germany and Poland, from the Rhine to the Baltic states. By the time Frederick died in 1786, Prussia was incontestably one of the great powers of Europe. Its territory and population had been greatly increased during his reign and its major parts geographically connected, while Berlin, a cultural backwater in the early 18th century, had become one of the leading cities in Europe. More, Prussia’s army was, pound for pound, the best on the continent and, given Prussia’s population, extraordinarily large. Indeed the French philosophe Mirabeau, Frederick’s contemporary, quipped that Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state.
Frederick’s life had an upbringing almost too horrible to contemplate. His father, Frederick William I, was interested only in his army, which he trained hard and used seldom.
He was monstrous to the ten of his children who survived to adulthood. He did not hesitate to beat or punch them, even the girls, and, at least once, forced his heir to kiss his feet in front of others. The king regarded anything cultural as “effeminate” and wouldn’t even let Frederick learn Latin, which Frederick William regarded as “useless,” but which was then still part of every gentleman’s education and a medium of intellectual discourse.
Whatever parental love Frederick received he got from his mother, a daughter of England’s King George I. He always spoke French with her, a language he vastly preferred to German, and she encouraged his interest in music and the arts. Frederick delighted in playing the flute, composing music and poems, and reading the works pouring out of the Enlightenment.
Once his father died, on May 31, 1740, Frederick proved himself every inch a king and, more, a passionate practitioner of realpolitik.
Shortly after this episode, Frederick and Von Katte made a break for it, trying to escape to France. The plot failed and Frederick, under close arrest, was hustled back to Berlin, where he was thrown into a prison cell with only a slit of a window high on the wall for illumination. His library was confiscated and sold. Frederick William talked about executing Frederick for desertion but settled for executing Von Katte. More, he made Frederick watch his best friend be beheaded.
The only escape from his father was marriage, not something for which he had much relish. His father chose a minor German princess, Elizabeth Christine of Bevern, whom Frederick had not even met. In the eight years they lived together before his father died, she did not get pregnant. Once he was king in his own right, he sent her off to live in a palace of her own and visited her only once a year.
The question of Frederick’s sexuality has been around since his own day. Blanning comes down firmly on the side that Frederick was homosexual in both proclivity and practice. Certainly in the 46 years of his reign, in an age when royal mistresses were almost expected, there was no sign of one in Frederick’s court. There were, however, a succession of handsome young men upon whom he lavished presents, money, and position. Blanning describes Frederick’s court as “homosocial and homoerotic.”
But once his father died, on May 31, 1740, Frederick proved himself every inch a king and, more, a passionate practitioner of realpolitik. In December 1740, he started the War of the Austrian Succession by invading the rich and populous Austrian province of Silesia, often personally commanding the troops. Silesia was but the first of his territorial acquisitions. Some were achieved by battle and some by artful diplomacy with such monarchs as Catherine the Great and Maria Teresa of Austria, with whom he peacefully divided large chunks of Polish territory in the First Partition of Poland in 1772.
Blanning carefully covers Frederick’s military exploits, pointing out how he was often overaggressive and inclined to disregard intelligence that didn’t suit what he wanted to do—characteristics that denied him the status of a great general, although he was often a successful one.
In domestic affairs, he was a conscientious administrator and prodigious builder of palaces, libraries, theaters, and opera houses. He did not sit in the royal box, however, as he preferred the first row of the orchestra, right behind the conductor, where he would keep a close eye on the score and ensure that the conductor skipped not a single note.
While Frederick was highly intolerant of political dissent (and saw to it that Prussian newspapers were heavily censored), he was very tolerant of religious sects, perhaps because he regarded them as all equally misguided. While Prussia was mostly Lutheran, he readmitted the Mennonites who had been expelled from the kingdom by his father, and he tolerated Catholics who had been heavily discriminated against since the Reformation. He even donated land in Berlin, next to his beloved opera house, for the building of a Catholic church.
He was, however, anti-Semitic, perhaps under the influence of the virulently Jew-hating Voltaire. He maintained the many restrictions under which Jews labored in Prussia. They had to pay higher taxes than Christians, could not work for the government, or buy land. Jews even had to buy an expensive set of porcelain dinnerware from the royal porcelain factory before being allowed to marry.
When a guest at Sanssouci, Frederick’s palace at Potsdam, told the king he was planning on returning home via Berlin so that he could visit with the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Frederick had Mendelssohn summoned to Potsdam as a courtesy to his guest but refused to meet him personally. When the Berlin Academy asked permission to admit Mendelssohn as a member, the king ignored the request. He did, however, end the prohibition against Jews lecturing at Prussian universities, calling the ban mere prejudice.
When Frederick died in 1786, he left behind a transformed Prussia, stronger, richer, and more cultured by far than he had found it 46 years earlier. While temporarily diminished by Napoleon, the country soon recovered and would dominate the continent of Europe for nearly a century and a half.
Blanning, formerly a professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, is the author of several books on Europe in the era of the Enlightenment. He has given us a superb portrait of an enlightened despot, equally at home on the battlefield and in the opera house, both utterly ruthless and culturally refined.