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Frederick II the Great of Prussia – an all-rounder

Frederick II the Great of Prussia – an all-rounder

Frederick II the Great of Prussia – an all-rounder

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Do you live in Germany, are you planning to visit this beautiful country, and do you like European history and culture? In this blog we are going to tell you about 10 interesting aspects of the life of King Frederick II the Great of Prussia – one of the most charismatic characters in Germanic history. He was a ruler whose legacy cannot be easily labeled: a sensitive philosopher and musician? a prominent warlord? the creator of the Prussian military power? the author of the aggressive expansionist policy? a reformer? a refined thinker of the Enlightenment? All these qualities are part of the king’s personality, but none of them reflect the absolute truth of his character. So who was Frederick II the Great of Prussia? In this post we present you 10 things you should know about this sovereign, whose legacy influenced the history of Germany.


1. A difficult youth and toxic relationship with his father

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Frederick was born in 1712 in the kingdom of Prussia – one of the 300 states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire. His father, Frederick William I was fully determined to turn Prussia into a major European military power. During his reign the number of soldiers was increased from 40 to 80 thousand. In addition to this, his father always wore a military uniform and spent his free time in the company of soldiers and officers.

In history he is known as the Sergeant King. The most famous was his Potsdam Guard – the 6th Infantry Regiment with the name “Lange Kerls” (“Long Boys”). Grenadiers had to be at least 1.88 meters tall – which was an extraordinary height by the standards of the time.

Frederick had a very bad relationship with his father. Raised by Huguenot tutors, the crown prince fell in love with French literature, music and philosophy. He liked to write poems and play the flute. These hobbies did not meet the rigid expectations of his father, dedicated 100% to army and state affairs. The king father detested intellectuals, scientists and philosophers. He could not understand his son’s fascination with poetry and music. As contemporaries testified, he often humiliated little Frederick in front of everyone, shouted at him and beat him. The most serious conflict occurred when the king did not allow Frederick to marry his English bride. The young man decided to flee from his father’s oppressive caution and go abroad.

2. A failed escape

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To this day it remains unclear whether the young Frederick really wanted to flee or only to attract his father’s attention. However, during his journey as a common officer to the Electorate areas of the Palatinate in 1730, the crown prince prepared an escape plan. The accomplice was a close friend, Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte. However, the intended escape was denounced by the pages.

The enraged King Frederick Wilhelm I took his son prisoner and had his friend – Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte – imprisoned. This family conflict became one of the greatest social scandals of the time. In order not to look bad in the eyes of other European courts, the king wanted to judge the young Frederick as a deserter and traitor to the Fatherland. The crown prince was transferred to the Küstrin fortress on the banks of the Oder River. The king gave up the idea of harming the heir to the throne. However, he decided to punish his son in a very brutal way. Hans Hermann von Katte was beheaded in front of Frederick’s eyes. The future monarch fainted and suffered an internal collapse.

After the execution, Frederick William I forced his son to devote himself to the affairs of the army and local administration in Küstrin , learning from the hardships of everyday life of the Prussian commoners. This experience significantly changed the personality of the future King, marking a before and after in his life.


3.Military warlord

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The years spent in charge of military troops awakened Frederick’s interest in army affairs.After the death of his father in 1740, the new monarch assumed power, beginning the chapter of great conquests. First, Prussian troops attacked the Austrian province of Silesia. Thus began the Silesian Wars, where Frederick II showed his military talent in all its splendor.

The Prussian army surpassed its opponents in tactics and level of training. The number of soldiers increased from 80 to 140 thousand. The troops could execute complicated maneuvers by continuously firing different platoons up to 5 bullets per minute.

The big difference, compared to other European powers, was that King Frederick II personally assisted in the military campaigns. This greatly improved the morale of his soldiers. One of the first great victories was the battle of Hohenfriedeberg in 1745 (today Dobromierz) in Silesia. 62,5 thousand soldiers of the Austrian-Saxon coalition faced 58,5 thousand Prussians. The victory of the Frederick was unquestionable. The Austrians lost almost 9 thousand, compared to 4,8 thousand Prussian soldiers. After the battle, Frederick supposedly composed the famous military march – Der Hohenfriedberger Marsch, (you can listen to it here) which became one of the classics of German military music.

The other engagements that immortalized the name of Frederick as an excellent leader were: the battle of Rossbach (November 5, 1757), where the Prussian sovereign defeated the allied forces led by France and the victorious battle of Leuthen against the Austrians (December 5, 1757) in the vicinity of Wroclaw in Silesia. Both fought in the context of the Seven Years’ War, confirmed his designation as the Great.

4.Miracle of the House of Brandenburg

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The most dramatic moment in the adventurous life of Frederick the Great occurred during the Seven Years’ War.In the course of it, the fortunes of war gradually began to favor the opponents. The coalition of France, Austria and Russia – together with more than 80 million inhabitants – was about to crush the small Prussian state of 5 million souls.

During the worst defeat in the military career of Frederick II – the battle of Kunersdorf (August 12, 1759) the king almost lost his life. Apparently, the bullet was deflected by the king’s cigarette case, which he always kept in his pocket. However, the victorious allied troops did not continue on to Berlin to end Prussia’s existence. The king in one of his letters described it as the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.

In 1761, after almost 6 years of fierce fighting, the Prussian army was very weakened, the country and its economy ruined. The great enemies – Maria Theresa of Austria and Tsarina Elizabeth I of Russia were unanimously convinced to take advantage of Prussia’s complete exhaustion. Frederick the Great seriously considered the loss of his kingdom and was on the verge of suicide.

However, on January 5, 1762, the second miracle occurred. Empress Elizabeth I of Russia died. Her successor, Peter III was a great admirer and enthusiast of Prussia, fascinated with the character of Frederick. Assuming power immediately, he ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops, thus saving the monarchy from the Hohenzollerns. A similar miracle awaited Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1945, hidden in his bunker (we will talk about this later).

5. Ambiguous relationship with women

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He treated his wife, Isabella Christina of Brunswick-Bevern, with respect and honors. However, their separation came in a short time. When he built his summer palace Sanssouci in Potsdam, it was almost exclusively reserved for male company. The queen was not allowed to stay during the king’s presence. After several years of not seeing his wife, as King Frederick the Great was fighting in the Seven Years’ War, his only words were apparently – “Madam, she grew stouter”. The couple never had children and the king targeted his nephew as his successor.

Lack of children and cold relations with his wife aroused much speculation about the king’s homosexuality. This is mostly due to several allusions made by Voltaire. The French poet and philosopher spent 3 years living in Berlin and Potsdam. He later mentioned that Frederick was very fond of the company of handsome officers and pages. There was also speculation about what kind of relationship the king had with the friend they executed, Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte.

There is no historical source to prove Frederick’s preferences, however, walking through the beautiful Marble Hall in the New Palace in Potsdam, built by him, in the vault, one can admire a symbolic scene from Greek mythology. The young Ganymede, abducted by Zeus, was taken to Olympus to become his lover, what a coincidence, right?

6. Philosopher King and Passionate Musician


One of the great qualities of Frederick II the Great of Prussia was his love for music. From an early age, he and his sister Wilhelmina of Prussia began to play together. She played the violin, a more romantic and improvisational instrument, while the crown prince played the flute – a logical and orderly instrument. The king’s compositions can be heard and enjoyed to this day (here).

Frederick the Great’s other hobby was philosophy and literature. From a very young age he wrote letters with the famous Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. This correspondence belongs to one of the most fascinating documents of the time. Between 1750-1753 Voltaire lived in Prussia, staying at the Sanssouci Palace. Both saw this relationship as beneficial. The king obtained an important “pen” that could praise his exploits and achievements, the Frenchman a stable source of income. However, the long friendship went through moments of crisis, with the departure of Voltaire from Prussia and the confiscation of his letters by Frederick’s envoys in Frankfurt.

Other relevant intellectuals, who spent time in Prussia, were: the mathematician and physicist Leonardo Euler and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, famous philosopher and encyclopedist, one of the greatest exponents of the enlightenment movement. The Sanssouci Palace became an important intellectual center in Europe. Conversations touched on profound topics such as the immortality of the soul, the purpose of human existence, the importance of religion. This atmosphere of reason, discussion and intellectual power earned King Frederick an image of a perfect embodiment of enlightened absolutism.

7. Frederick the Great – a pragmatic and tolerant ruler

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The atmosphere of the age of enlightenment influenced Frederick the Great’s policy to be more tolerant in matters of religion compared to other European monarchs of his time. He certainly did not frequently visit religious ceremonies, as his father, King Sergeant, used to do. On the contrary, Frederick often commented on religious rituals and customs with sarcasm and irony.

On the other hand, the king was far from the extreme atheism preached by his friend Voltaire. The Prussian sovereign saw the usefulness of religion for the proper functioning of the state and never questioned the Protestant tradition of his country. Supposedly, the king would have said “nach seiner Façon selig werden”, which means in German that everyone can save himself in his own way. One of the good examples of his religious tolerance was the construction of the Catholic cathedral of St. Hedwig in Berlin, which was the first Catholic church erected in the German capital after the Protestant Reformation.

Mention may also be made of the king’s policy towards the Jews. Although he was less tolerant than toward other Christian denominations, several amendments were also introduced in the General Privilege of 1750. At that date, six types of Jewish castes with different types of rights were introduced. Thanks to the permission granted by King Frederick the Great, the Hebrew community was re-established in the city of Wroclaw after 300 years (we told you about it during the freetour through the Jewish Quarter of Wroclaw).

8. The great builder and patron of architecture

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One of the important things to know about Frederick the Great was his great interest in architecture.It is worth mentioning that during his reign emblematic monuments were built that impress visitors to Berlin or Potsdam to this day.

In the German capital, one of the greatest achievements was a complete quarter designed in large part by the king’s favorite architect Georg Wenzeslau von Knobelsdorff. The area known today as Forum Fridericianum belongs to one of the most beautiful and representative parts of the city. The buildings along the Unter den Linden Avenue such as the City Hall, the Old Library, the Crown Prince’s Palace, the Princesses’ Palace, the Old Berlin Arsenal, the Opera House, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral or the New Guard Corps testify to Frederick’s great dedication to transforming his capital into an important European metropolis. (El freetour in English in Berlin)

However, the city where the spirit of the Prussian king is most present is undoubtedly the capital of Brandenburg. Taking the freetour through the historic center of Potsdam, one can see the impressive legacy of the Prussian monarch. It is not only the famous Sanssouci palaces or the New Palace with its beautiful gardens and parks. But also the buildings of the Old Town Hall, today’s Barberini Museum or the charming Dutch Quarter (our blog about what to see in Potsdam). The whole city is impregnated with the ingenuity of Frederick and his great passion for architecture. Video of the city of Potsdam.

9. The first servant of the State

Robert Müller, el rey Federico II de Prusia en un recorrido por los campos de patatas, óleo sobre lienzo, 1886.

Studying the character of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, it should be noted that he was remembered as the great reformer and father of the nation.It is true that Frederick the Great himself expressed himself as the first servant of the state. He got up very early and worked long hours, interfering in almost every aspect of his subjects’ lives, from economic relations and mercantile policy to the number of floors in the houses.

One of the most remembered aspects of his rule was to encourage the cultivation of potatoes among Prussian peasants. On his grave to this day visitors leave potatoes as an act of thanksgiving. He also conducted large colonization projects by drying up swamps and muddy areas. As a true believer in mercantilism he promoted various state manufactures in the metallurgical, mining, textile and of course porcelain manufacturing sectors.

10.Frederick the Great – Adolf Hitler’s favorite historical figure.

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To close our list of interesting aspects of the life of Frederick the Great, it is worth mentioning the importance that Germans later attributed to him.The image of the Prussian king – as a victorious warlord and efficient ruler – was successively used in the propaganda of the extreme right during the unstable times of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). After the Nazis came to power, the Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda of the Third Reich Joseph Goebbels gave much coverage in the National Socialist press to the comparison between the old King Frederick II and the new German warlord Adolf Hitler.

One of the most symbolic moments was the so-called Potsdam Day (see our blog about the historical events in Potsdam) on March 21, 1933. On this occasion the new German Parliament was inaugurated (after the fire of the Reischstag building on February 27, 1933). Present at the ceremony were descendants of the House of Hohenzollern – Crown Prince Wilhelm and his three surviving brothers. In the Garrison Church, where Frederick’s grave was located, Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg and the new Reich Chancellor (Reichskanzler) Adolf Hitler famously shook hands. It was a symbol of the alliance of the old monarchical Germany with the new force of the National Socialist Right. In the official press Adolf Hitler was presented as the successor of the policy of Frederick the Great.


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It is a proven historical fact that during his last weeks in the Berlin bunker in the spring of 1945 Adolf Hitler had the picture of King Frederick II the Great hanging above his desk. When on April 12, 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, Nazi propaganda interpreted this event as a “sign” of the final salvation of the Third Reich.Many believed that history would repeat itself with the Miracle at Brandenburg House. It was claimed that the US would immediately withdraw from the war and that Britain and the USSR would turn on each other. However, the new US President Harry Truman declared the day after that the US would continue the war until the final capitulation of the Third Reich. This time history did not repeat itself. No miracle could save the highest leadership of Nazi Germany and perhaps Hitler, at the moment of committing suicide, saw the face of Frederick the Great.


Here ends our list of the 10 things worth knowing about the Prussian King Frederick II the Great. Undoubtedly, he was a multifaceted character, who went through several highs and lows in his life. On the other hand, the cult that surrounded him during the dictatorship of the Third Reich raises the question of whether he is really an admirable person and perhaps does not deserve so much attention today? What do you think?

Our guide is:

Maciej Wronecki

Political scientist and passionate about European history, art and culture, founder of Viadrina Tours.

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