Frederick II, called the Great (reigned 1740-1786)

An 18th-century portrait of Frederick the Great by Johann Heinrich Franke.

Prussia as a kingdom dated only from 1701, but the heart of this state was Brandenburg, and Brandenburg had begun a slow upward march as early as the fifteenth century, when the Hohenzollerns came from South Germany to take control of it. In the sixteenth century the possessions of this family were scattered from the region of the Rhine to the borders of Russia. How to make them into a single state, responsive to a single will, was the problem. In each section there were feudal estates, asserting their rights against their ruler. But the Hohenzollerns had a very clear notion of what they wanted. They wished and intended to increase their own power as rulers, to break down all opposition within, and without steadily to aggrandize their domains. In the realization of their program, to which they adhered tenaciously from generation to generation, they were successful. Prussia grew larger and larger, the government became more and more autocratic, and the emphasis in the state came to be more and more placed upon the army. Mirabeau was quite correct when he said that the great national industry of Prussia was war. Prussian rulers were hard-working, generally conceiving their mission soberly and seriously as one of service to the state, not at all as one inviting to personal self-indulgence. They were hard-headed and intelligent in developing the economic resources of a country originally little favored by nature. They were attentive to the opportunities afforded by German and European politics for the advancement of rulers who had the necessary intelligence and audacity. In the long reign of Frederick II, called the Great (1740-1786), and unquestionably far and away the ablest of all the rulers of the Hohenzollern dynasty, we see the brilliant and faithful expression of the most characteristic features, methods, and aspirations of this vigorous royal house.

The successive monarchs of Prussia justified the extraordinary emphasis they put upon military force by pointing to the fact that their country had no natural boundaries but was simply an undifferentiated part of the great sandy plain of North Germany, that no river or no mountain range gave protection, that the way of the invader was easy. This was quite true, but it was also equally true that Prussia’s neighbors had no greater protection from her than she from them. As far as geography was concerned, invasion of Prussia was no easier than aggression from Prussia. At any rate every Prussian ruler felt himself first a general, head of an army which it was his pride to increase. Thus the Great Elector, who had ruled from 1640 to 1688, had inherited an army of less than 4,000 men, and had bequeathed one of 24,000 to his successor. The father of Frederick II had inherited one of 38,000 and had left one of 83,000. Thus Prussia with a population of two and a half millions had an army of 83,000, while Austria with a population of 24,000,000 had one of less than 100,000. With this force, highly drilled and amply provided with the sinews of war by the systematic and rigorous economies of his father, Frederick was destined to go far. He is one of the few men who have changed the face of Europe. By war, and the subsidiary arts that minister unto it, Frederick pushed his small state into the very forefront of European politics. Before his reign was half over he had made it one of the great powers, everywhere reckoned as such, although in population, area, and wealth, compared with the other great powers, it was small indeed.

As a youth all of Frederick’s tastes had been for letters, for art, for music, for philosophy and the sciences, for conversation, for the delicacies and elegancies of culture. The French language and French literature were his passion and remained his chief source of enjoyment all through his life. He wrote French verses, he hated military exercises, he played the flute, he detested tobacco, heavy eating and drinking, and the hunt, which appeared to his father as the natural manly and royal pleasures. The thought that this youth, so indifferent or hostile to the stern, bleak, serious ideals of duty incumbent upon the royal house for the welfare of Prussia, so interested in the frivolities and fripperies of life, so carelessly self-indulgent, would one day be king and would probably wreck the state by his incompetence and his levity, so enraged the father, Frederick William I, a rough, boorish, tyrannical, hard-working, and intensely patriotic man, that he subjected the Crown Prince to a Draconian discipline which at times attained a pitch of barbarity, caning him in the presence of the army, boxing his ears before the common people, compelling him from a prison window to witness the execution of his most intimate friend, who had tried to help him escape from this odious tyranny by attempted flight from the country. In such a furnace was the young prince’s mettle steeled, his heart hardened. Frederick came out of this ordeal self-contained, cynical, crafty, but sobered and submissive to the fierce paternal will. He did not, according to his father’s expression, “kick or rear” again. For several years he buckled to the prosaic task of learning his future trade in the traditional Hohenzollern manner, discharging the duties of minor offices, familiarizing himself with the dry details of administration, and invested with larger responsibilities as his reformation seemed, in the eyes of his father, satisfactorily to progress.

When he came to the throne in 1740 at the age of twenty-eight he came equipped with a free and keen intellect, with a character of iron, and with an ambition that was soon to set the world in flame. He ruled for forty-six years and before half his reign was over it was evident that he had no peer in Europe. It was thought that he would adopt a manner of life quite different from his father’s. Instead, however, there was the same austerity, the same simplicity, the same intense devotion to work, the same singleness of aim, that aim being the exaltation of Prussia. The machinery of government was not altered, but it was now driven at unprecedented speed by this vigorous, aggressive, supple personality. For Frederick possessed supreme ability and displayed it from the day of his accession to the day of his death. He was, as Lord Acton has said, “the most consummate practical genius that, in modern times, has inherited a throne.”

His first important act revealed the character and the intentions of the ruler. For this man who as a youth had loathed the life of a soldier and had shirked its obligations as long as he could was now to prove himself one of the great military commanders of the world’s history. He was the most successful of the robber barons in which the annals of Germany abounded, and he had the ethics of the class. He invaded Silesia, a large and rich province belonging to Austria and recognized as hers by a peculiarly solemn treaty signed by Prussia. But Frederick wanted it and considered the moment opportune as an inexperienced young woman, Maria Theresa, had just ascended the Austrian throne. “My soldiers were ready, my purse was full,” said Frederick concerning this famous raid. Of all the inheritance of Maria Theresa “Silesia,” said he, “was that part which was most useful to the House of Brandenburg.” “Take what you can,” he also remarked, “you are never wrong unless you are obliged to give back.” In these utterances Frederick paints himself and his reign in imperishable colors. Success of the most palpable sort was his reward. Neither plighted faith, nor chivalry toward a woman, nor any sense of personal honor ever deterred him from any policy that might promise gain to Prussia. One would scarcely suspect from such hardy sentiments that Frederick had as a young man written a treatise against the statecraft of Machiavelli. That eminent Florentine would, it is safe to say, have been entirely content with the practical precepts according to which his titled critic fashioned his actual conduct. The true, authentic spirit of Machiavelli’s political philosophy has never been expressed with greater brevity and precision than by Frederick. “If there is anything to be gained by being honest, honest we will be; and if it is necessary to deceive, let us be scoundrels.”

If there is any defense for Frederick’s conduct to be found in the fact that his principles or his lack of them were shared by most of his crowned contemporaries and by many other rulers before and since, he is entitled to that defense. He himself, however, was never much concerned about this aspect of the matter. It was, in his opinion, frankly negligible.

Frederick seized Silesia with ease in 1740, so unexpected was the attack. He thus added to Prussia a territory larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined, and a population of over a million and a quarter. But having seized it, he was forced to fight intermittently for twenty-three years before he could be sure of his ability to retain it. The first two Silesian wars (1740-1748) are best known in history as the wars of the Austrian Succession. The third was the Seven Years’ War, a world conflict, as we have seen, involving most of the great states of Europe, but important to Frederick mainly because of its relation to his retention of Silesia.

It was the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) that made the name and fame of Frederick ring throughout the world. But that deadly struggle several times seemed about to engulf him and his country in utter ruin. Had England not been his ally, aiding with her subsidies and with her campaigns against France, in Europe, Asia, America, and on the high seas, thus preventing that country from fully co-operating against Prussia, Frederick must have failed. The odds against him were stupendous. He, the ruler of a petty state with not more than 4,000,000 inhabitants, was confronted by a coalition of Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and many little German states, with a total population perhaps twenty times as large as Prussia’s. This coalition had already arranged for the division of his kingdom. He was to be left only Brandenburg, the primitive core of the state, the original territory given to the House of Hohenzollern in 1415 by the emperor.

Practically the entire continent was united against this little state which a short time before had hardly entered into the calculations of European politics. But Frederick was un-daunted. He overran Saxony, a neutral country, seized its treasury because he needed it, and, by a flagrant breach of international usage, forced its citizens to fight in his armies, which were thus considerably increased. When reproached for this unprecedented act he laconically replied that he rather prided himself on being original.

The war thus begun had its violent ups and downs. Attacked from the south by the Austrians, from the east by the Russians, and always outnumbered, Frederick, fighting a defensive war, owed his salvation to the rapidity of his manoeuvres, to the slowness of those of his enemies, to his generally superior tactics, and to the fact that there was an entire lack of co-ordination among his adversaries. He won the battle of Rossbach in 1757, his most brilliant victory, whose fame has not yet died away. With an army of only. 20,000 he defeated a combined French and German army of 55,000 in an engagement that lasted only an hour and a half, took 16,000 prisoners, seventy-two cannon, and sustained a loss of less than a thousand men himself. Immense was the enthusiasm evoked by this Prussian triumph over what was reputed to be the finest army in Europe. It mattered little that the majority of the conquered army were Germans. The victory was popularly considered one of Germans over French, and such has remained its reputation ever since in the German national consciousness, thus greatly stirred and vivified.

Two years later Frederick suffered an almost equally disastrous defeat at the hands of the Austrians and Russians at Kunersdorf. “I have had two horses killed under me,” he wrote the night after this battle, “and it is my misfortune that I still live myself. … Of an army of 48,000 men I have only 3,000 left. … I have no more resources and, not to lie about it, I think everything is lost.”

Later, after another disaster, he wrote: “I should like to hang myself, but we must act the play to the end.” In this temper he fought on, year after year, through elation, through depression, with defeat behind him and defeat staring him in the face, relieved by occasional successes, saved by the incompetence and folly of his enemies, then plunged in gloom again, but always fighting for time and for some lucky stroke of fortune, such as the death of a hostile sovereign with its attendant interruption or change of policy. The story is too crowded, too replete with incident, to be condensed here. Only the general impression of a prolonged, racking, desperate struggle can be indicated. Gritty, cool, alert, and agile, Frederick managed to hold on until his enemies were ready and willing to make peace.

He came out of this war with his territories intact but not increased. Silesia he retained, but Saxony he was forced to relinquish. He came out of it, also, prematurely old, hard, bitter, misanthropic, but he had made upon the world an indelible impression of his genius. His people had been decimated and appallingly impoverished; nevertheless he was the victor and great was his renown. Frederick had conquered Silesia in a month and had then spent many years fighting to retain it. All that he had won was fame, but that he enjoyed in full and overflowing measure.

Frederick lived twenty-three years longer, years of unremitting and very fruitful toil. In a hundred ways he sought to hasten the recuperation and the development of his sorely visited land, draining marshes, clearing forests, encouraging industries, opening schools, welcoming and favoring immigrants from other countries. Indeed, over 300,000 of these responded to the various inducements offered, and Frederick founded more than 800 villages. He reorganized the army, replenished the public treasury, remodeled the legal code. In religious affairs he was the most tolerant ruler in Europe, giving refuge to the Jesuits when they were driven out of Catholic countries France, Portugal, Spain and when their order was abolished by the Pope himself. “In Prussia,” said he, “everyone has the right to win salvation in his own way.”

In practice this was about the only indubitable right the individual possessed, for Frederick’s government was unlimited, although frequently enlightened, despotism. His was an absolute monarchy, surrounded by a privileged nobility, resting upon an impotent mass of peasantry. His was a militarist state and only nobles could become general officers. Laborious, rising at three in summer, at four in the winter, and holding himself tightly to his mission as “first servant to the King of Prussia,” Frederick knew more drudgery than pleasure. But he was a tyrant to his fingertips, and we do not find in the Prussia of his day any room made for that spirit of freedom which was destined in the immediate future to wrestle in Europe with this outworn system of autocracy.

In 1772 the conqueror of Silesia proceeded to gather new laurels of a similar kind. In conjunction with the monarchs of Russia and Austria he partially dismembered Poland, a crime of which the world has not yet heard the last. The task was easy of accomplishment, as Poland was defenseless. Frederick frankly admitted that the act was that of brigands, and his opinion has been ratified by the general agreement of posterity.

When Frederick died in 1786, at the age of seventy-four, he left his kingdom nearly doubled in size and with a population more than doubled. In all his actions he thought, not of Germany, but of Prussia, always Prussia. Germany was an abstraction that had no hold upon his practical mind. He considered the German language boorish, “a jargon, devoid of every grace,” and he was sure that Germany had no literature worthy of the name. Nevertheless he was regarded throughout German lands, beyond Prussia, as a national hero, and he filled the national thought and imagination as no other German had done since Luther. His personality, his ideas, and his methods became an enduring and potent factor in the development of Germany.

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