Frederick the Great and Berlin

August Niegelssohn – View of the Schlossplatz in the Era of Frederick the Great, 1787

August Niegelssohn – View of Berlin in the Era of Frederick the Great, 1787

Death wields his scythe in every corner of the globe. Cannae, the Somme and Stalingrad claimed him as their own. Hiroshima gave him his busiest single day. Siberia’s gulags provided him with decades of regular employment. Both Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong worked him to the bone for a generation all across Asia. But over the centuries it is to Berlin that he has most often returned.

He was present in its earliest days when waves of Teutons, Huns and Slavs fought each other on the marshy plains. He picked them off one by one along with the Wends, the Slavic people who settled on the sandy riverbank in the seventh century, and who named it Berl after the Polabian word for swamp. He stalked their heathen wilderness as it resisted Holy Roman emperors and later Polish kings, making the Mark Brandenburg – das Land in der Mitte – one of the last parts of Europe to be Christianised.

Year after year Death visited through famine, plague and robber barons who tormented the provincial backwater until it all but drained away into the poor, unproductive soil. He marched alongside the Habsburg and Swedish armies as they scattered dismembered bodies on its muddy streets during the Thirty Years’ War. Over those heinous decades, he saw more than half the settlement’s population burnt alive, boiled in oil or simply bound with willow switches and tossed into the river. Thousands were lost to typhoid, their nostrils filled with the stench of their own rotting flesh. By 1638 Berlin had been reduced to only 845 houses, less than half the previous number. Old Cölln was totally destroyed. Death gathered up the broken settlers and abandoned souls, held them as they wept, and heard them cry out in despair for a strong leader.

In 1640 their prayers were answered with the accession of an austere and ambitious despot. Frederick William, a Hohenzollern elector and descendant of the wealthy burgrave of Nuremberg, was determined that Brandenburg-Prussia would never again be devastated by marauding armies. He harnessed its survivors’ fear to transform the devastated borderland. He built massive new fortifications around their hungry hovels and branded Berlin with his Calvinist industry. The city expanded to the south and west, spartan Friedrichstadt rising on stilts and stakes on the boggy ground, with 300 uniform, two-storey houses completed in its first year. Within two decades the neighbourhood boasted 12,000 souls. Along Wilhelmstraße aristocrats and royal ministers like Samuel von Marschall, a descendant of Scottish nobles, sited their palatial manor houses.

In return for growth and stability, the Hohenzollerns demanded total deference to their authority, and the still-traumatised Berliners whispered not a word of complaint. They devoted themselves to duty – without question, with tireless labour – and were forged into a disciplined people at arms.

‘A ruler is of no consideration if he does not have adequate means and forces of his own,’ the Great Elector wrote in his Political Testament. ‘That alone has made me – thank God for it – a force to be reckoned with.’

By the start of the eighteenth century Berlin – now ruled by Frederick William’s fanatic grandson, the ‘Soldier King’ – had grown into a great garrison. It was the capital of Prussia, the state built by an army. Its youth were conscripted, issued with uniforms, marched in step to cutting-edge weaponry factories over the now solid-stone Langebrücke. Eighty per cent of the kingdom’s revenue was spent on its fighting men and armouries. The Soldier King also reformed the civil service along military lines, prescribing the exact duties of public servants with minute precision. A minister who failed to attend a committee meeting lost six months’ pay. If he absented himself a second time, he was discharged from service. Absolute obedience was demanded of every man.

Along pristine, battalion-wide avenues soldiers saluted baton-wielding officers, trooped across cobbled parade grounds, breathed in air which reeked of gunpowder and discipline. Martial music echoed down the orderly lanes, into ranked houses scrubbed and cleaned as if for morning inspection. Every noon on Schlossplatz a bizarre troop of giant Potsdam Grenadiers – recruited or kidnapped from across Europe for their size – drilled for the Soldier King’s pleasure. ‘The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me but tall soldiers, they are my weakness,’ he told the French ambassador.

He never started a war, but war – and the phobic preparation for it – became the obsession of his dutiful and brutish capital of absolutism.


The Soldier King’s three sons were to be raised as soldiers, awoken at dawn by cannon fire, trained in the fifty-four movements of the Prussian drill code. The first boy died at his christening when a crown was forced on his oversized head. The second child had life shocked out of him by the roar of guns fired too close to his cradle. The only surviving son was a thin and delicate rebel.

Prince Frederick had enormous blue eyes and a sensitive disposition, to his father’s despair. To toughen him up, the king knocked him about. He beat him for jumping off a bolting horse. He whipped him for wearing gloves in wet weather. One wild winter night, when the wind howled in from Russia and a pitcher of drinking water froze at the dinner table, he ordered him to stand guard outside the palace. The child took to hiding under his mother’s bed.

Young Frederick’s education was strict and unimaginative, focused on mathematics, politics and warfare, bereft of literature and Latin. Why study the ancients, barked the Soldier King, as the Romans had been beaten by the Germanic race?

‘The Prince is to rise at six,’ dictated the king. ‘As soon as he has his slippers on he shall kneel at the bed and say a short prayer to God loud enough for all present to hear. Then speedily and with all dispatch he shall dress and wash himself, be queued and powdered; and getting dressed as well as breakfast – tea, which is to be taken while the valet is making his queue and powdering him – shall be finished and done in a quarter of an hour, that is, by a quarter past six.’

To instil in him love for the military, the Soldier King gave Frederick – at the age of six – a regiment of 131 children to drill. The Crown Prince Cadets were reviewed by the visiting Russian Tsar and the King of England. When he was fourteen years old, he was put in charge of the giant Potsdam Grenadiers.

Frederick called his uniform his shroud. He craved a world beyond the parade ground yet conformed for fear of unleashing his father’s rages. On clear summer nights he escaped into the palace gardens and lay on his back on the damp grass beneath the stars. Once he spotted the Great Bear and, taking aim with a pistol, fired at the beast in his fury, imagining the shot travelling across the Milky Way to strike its flank.

Frederick began to find other worlds through books. With his tutor’s help he assembled in secret his own Wunderkammer, a rich library almost wholly in French. He sat for hours in his window seat memorising Aristotle, Rabelais and Bossuet. He lingered over a thin folio of courtly lyrics, written three centuries earlier by an unknown hand, and revelled in the literary joys of summer, love and young voices rising in song. He composed poetry as well as copious letters to family and friends. While overlooking the parading officers’ plumes and the Marienkirche, he also penned essays on armed aggression and the state of Europe. Germany was fatally divided into small states, he observed; the Thirty Years’ War had been its weakest moment; Russia was in perpetual chaos; England – though rich and happy – had produced no notable painter, sculptor or musician.

As the Soldier King shamed condemned prisoners by dressing them in French clothes at the gallows, his son dreamt of being a poet in Paris or a troubadour. Young Frederick hid away his love of the arts, marching to drum beats by day, practising the flute in his locked room at night.

At the age of fifteen he was deeply confused and frustrated. His heart burst with desire, his mind sparked with curiosity, yet his life was shaped by violence, rigidity and duty. His first foreign trip fed his hunger. He travelled with his father to Saxony, the wealthiest and most scandalous German state at the time. In Dresden Frederick enjoyed plays, opera and a woman. He became infatuated with the Countess Anna Karolina, who was both a daughter and a lover of their host Augustus the Strong. Augustus – who had no aversion to incest – collected beautiful women much as the Soldier King amassed marching giants. Over the course of his life he sired 355 children.

Augustus could not resist tempting the Soldier King and his love-struck son. During a tour of the palace, a curtain was drawn aside to reveal a waiting, naked courtesan. The Prussian King puffed and fussed and excused himself from the bedroom so Augustus, having observed the Crown Prince’s reaction, offered him the woman – in place of the Countess. Frederick may or may not have accepted the offer, but he did not give up Anna Karolina – at first.

On his return to Berlin Frederick found love of another kind. Hans Hermann von Katte was a young aristocrat, charming and handsome with high forehead and smooth, blond hair tied with a black bow. The two young men became inseparable and, like star-crossed lovers, hatched a plan to flee the barrack room for England. On the eve of their flight Katte stood on the threshold of Frederick’s bedchamber, his foot against the door as if to hold it open, their faces so close that they felt the other’s breath on their cheeks.

A wild white moon rode in the sky that night and the air felt fresh and free. But the young men were betrayed. In his fury the Soldier King imprisoned his son, and forced him to watch his friend beheaded. Death plucked love away and Frederick collapsed into a two-day faint, his soul seared by the trauma, empathy driven from his heart.


Frederick was said to like women only while taking his pleasure, afterwards he despised them. In 1733 he married Elisabeth-Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a Protestant relative of the Habsburgs. He ‘paid his tribute to Hymen’ and then – with no heir forthcoming – detached himself from his wife, making only a single formal visit to her each year, for coffee.

All his closest confidants were male. After Katte’s execution he embraced his soldier servant Fredersdorf, who would serve him until his death. He befriended a debauched Scot named Keith, an Englishman called Guy Dickens and the flautist Quantz. The Venetian coxcomb Francesco Algarotti was an especial favourite. After his wedding Frederick had written to him, ‘My fate has changed – I await you with impatience – don’t leave me to languish.’ In private the Crown Prince draped himself in an embroidered velvet robe, ruffled his hair like a Gallic dilettante and played his flute for friends with tears in his eyes. None were blind to his need to be noticed, to his appetite for fame.

In a report to London the British ambassador called Frederick’s friends ‘the he-muses’, noting that females were banned from approaching his court. One night the Soldier King swooped on the clubby boys like a black bear, throwing their robes and volumes of romantic poetry onto the fire.

Music became Frederick’s other means of escape, enabling him to hold back the shadows, helping to fill the bitter emptiness in his heart. It also thawed his icy self-control and brought solace from his father’s unpredictable temper. The Soldier King’s disregard for the arts appalled him. Before his birth, court intellectuals had been dubbed ‘dog food’. A jester had been appointed to run the Berlin Academy, which was then closed to save money.

In 1740, when his father died, Frederick set about making Berlin a cockpit of ideas and music. He reopened the Academy, inviting the French philosopher Maupertuis to be its president. He extended the old Schloss to rival Versailles. He built an Opera House, redesigned the Tiergarten, ejecting its last squatters, and modelled the Gendarmenmarkt on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, flanked by the graceful French and German cathedrals.

His crowning construction was Sanssouci, an intimate, pink and white rococo pleasure palace above Potsdam’s cascading terraces. He filled its colonnades and gilded halls with books, artefacts, dancers and thinkers. He walked his beloved Italian greyhounds in its stately grounds, seemingly at peace with the world. Every night at 10 p.m. there was a concert in the Round Room. One evening he and Bach made music together, the king giving him a theme and asking for its composition into a fugue in six parts. He invited Voltaire to take up residence in the study.

Voltaire was the master wit of the century. Since childhood Frederick had admired him, claiming to champion his humanist ideals, devouring his plays, novels and essays. The two men became correspondents. Frederick asked him to review his essays and erotic poems (‘The love which joins them heats their kisses,/And leaves them ever closer entwined./Heavenly lust! Ruler of the world!’). He tried to lure him to Berlin for more than a decade. In 1750 his persistence paid off, helped by the offer of an annual salary of 20,000 francs.

In the years before the French Revolution Voltaire believed that only an enlightened monarch could bring social change to Europe. His distrust of democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses, pleased his all-powerful host. Both men considered plebeians to be ‘crows’ that pecked at patrician ‘eagles’, to borrow from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The common man needed to be kept in his place. Voltaire invested his political hopes in Frederick, moving to the capital, editing the king’s six-volume Art de la Guerre, dazzling Berlin’s dinner table conversation, debating questions of civil liberties late into the night.

Prussians looked forward to a new, enlightened age. They believed that Frederick was a man of peace, an intellectual, a lover of music and poetry. ‘Peace cannot fail to make art and science flourish’, he assured them. On his grand European tour Boswell wrote that Berlin ‘was the most beautiful city I have seen’.

But the capital was already a place where true identities were hidden behind masks. The young king was determined to use his inheritance ‘to acquire a reputation’, as he put it. His father had bequeathed him both a robust military and a cold, calculating heart. In his most ruthless and creative moment, he marched the country to war.


In those years Germany – ‘the battlefield on which the struggle for mastery of Europe is fought’, according to the philosopher Leibniz – was still a mishmash of more than 300 divided states and principalities. Prussia and Austria were its biggest rivals. When the old Habsburg emperor died leaving no male heir, Frederick spurred Berlin’s metamorphosis from prey to predator.

‘Having, as is well known, interests in Silesia, I propose to take charge of it and keep it for the rightful owner,’ he announced. He took Austria’s wealthiest province in seven weeks, twisting Prussia’s neurotic defensiveness into naked aggression. He seized its mines and wheat fields, abandoned his allies, shocked Europe with his gall.

He learnt the art of warfare on the hoof, leading brazen attacks, earning a reputation as the most fearless commander of the age. Risk-taking made up for his inexperience, as did his care for no one. Frederick was ‘full of fire … quick to pounce and take advantage of foibles … with no heart whatever,’ bemoaned a defeated general. ‘Your Majesty, do you want to take that battery on your own?’ an aide called to him as he led yet another cavalry charge, fighting as if he had nothing to lose.

On sleepless nights before an attack, for over twenty embattled years, Frederick soothed himself by composing poetry and reading Racine.

In 1756 the Austrians – joined by Russia and France – sought revenge and attempted to squash the treacherous upstart. Frederick answered them by seizing fickle Saxony and laying siege to Prague. He was beaten back, retreated to his books, then advanced again to Rossbach near Leipzig, where he inflicted another humiliating defeat on his enemies.

For a year the tide turned against him. Silesia changed hands, a vital convoy of 4,000 supply wagons was captured and Frederick had to borrow money from England (London wanted to keep the Continentals fighting among themselves to check French ambitions in North America). Tens of thousands of his troops were butchered on the battlefields, paying for his cold ambition with their limbs and lives. Advancing Russians terrorised East Prussia, tales of their appalling atrocities preceding them to the capital as they would at the end of the Second World War.

But in 1762 the Russian Tsarina died and – in what became known as a Miracle of the House of Brandenburg – her successor, mad Peter III, ordered his troops to change sides and put themselves under Frederick’s command. The Austrian alliance collapsed. The Habsburgs would never regain their lost territories. France surrendered the Rhineland to Frederick and Quebec to the British. Prussia, alone on the Continent, emerged victorious. As Voltaire wrote, the audacious Berliner changed the destiny of Europe.

On horseback Frederick circled the old walls, reluctant to enter the city, mortified by its ruin again. He skirted the deserted cattle market – once Berlin’s Tyburn and ‘devil’s pleasure park’, soon to be renamed Alexanderplatz after the Tsar’s grandson – and the walled gardens of Friedrichstadt. Along its wrecked streets he found only wretched orphans and gutted buildings. In the broad Achteck parade ground at the Potsdam Gate – where Potsdamer Platz would rise one day – a lone, pony-tailed, temple-shaved fire juggler spat plumes of flame into the air and begged for coins. ‘More fire, my lord?’ he called through blackened hands on seeing the king. ‘Do you want more fire?’

Frederick spiralled around the Fischerkiez’s broken boats and trampled gardens, by his dark Court Opera and the baroque Zeughaus artillery armoury, with its stone busts of agonised warriors, and into the Schloss courtyard, hardly lifting his head. War was ‘a cruel thing’, he wrote by candlelight in the cursed and battered palace. ‘Nobody who has not seen it with his own eyes can have any idea of it. I believe now that the only happy people on earth are those who love nobody.’

But what are the tears of heart-sick kings and widows if the state has been saved? he then asked in his essay Discours sur la Guerre. Frederick set about rebuilding his capital and nation. He gave 35,000 army horses to peasant farmers. He enticed skilled refugees to settle in the restored neighbourhoods. He commissioned new buildings with straight lines and in pure tones to emphasise order, precision and strength. To feed the growing population he encouraged the cultivation of potatoes, ordering that selected fields be planted with them, and sentries stationed around the perimeter. Word was spread that the potatoes were for the king’s table only, but the guards were told to ‘look through their fingers’ and not apprehend trespassers. With their hard-earned instinct for survival, his hungry, plebeian ‘crows’ stole into the fields, unearthed the royal tubers and replanted them on their own land.

Finally in league with Russia, Frederick resumed making war, pushing his territory beyond Silesia into Poland, eating its undefended provinces ‘like an artichoke, leaf by leaf’. By 1786 he linked Prussia’s scattered, conquered parts together into a unified state.

At the end of his life, with his tattered uniform patched and stained by snuff, Old Fritz was feared more than loved. Neither thunderstorm nor hailstorm was said to be as terrifying as the ‘honour’ of the king’s visit. He was isolated, alone and friendless, and no longer bothered with the pretence of humanism. Yet in their dread of disorder, in their fear of ever again being sucked into the vortex, Berliners allowed him – as other leaders before and after him – to direct and dominate their lives.


In 1806 – two decades after Frederick’s death – Napoleon captured Prussia’s capital, having destroyed its army at Jena and Auerstedt. Astride his white charger, the new emperor rode through the Brandenburg Gate, glowering from under his hat at the defeated Berliners. At the Garrison Church, he stood beside Frederick’s tomb. ‘Hats off, gentlemen,’ Napoleon told his fellow officers. ‘If he were still alive, we would not be here.’

The French Revolution had shattered the old hierarchical ways. The Ancien Régime had collapsed and its King Louis XVI had been executed. In most of Europe and America, citizens had rejected authoritarianism and put their faith in reason and progress.

But not in Berlin. German obedience – as well as faith in absolutism – had been fixed by the trauma of the Thirty Years’ War and by the egotistical Hohenzollerns. For all his learning and debates with Voltaire, and his lip-service to radical ideas, Frederick had isolated his country from the full flowering of the Enlightenment.

Frederick had created Prussia by binding together the disconnected Hohenzollern lands. As Napoleon’s troops stripped his palaces of their wealth, carrying away sculptures, paintings and a folio of medieval songs, passers-by heard the airs of a flute echo over Schlossplatz. Berliners remembered the lost king’s music and – humiliated by the French occupation – grew nostalgic for the old certainties. Then, instead of embracing tolerance and universal brotherhood, they filled the vacuum in their lives with nationalism. Frederick wrote:

Tadelt nie die Taten der Soldaten,

Leuten, die da sterben sollen,

Sollt ihr geben was sie wollen,

Lasst sie trinken, lasst sie küssen,

Denn wer weiß, wie bald sie sterben müssen.

Never criticise the acts of soldiers,

Those men who are destined to die,

Give them all that they wish,

Let them drink, let them kiss,

For who knows how soon they must die.

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