In this episode of the 18th Century Podcast we’re going to take a look at the life of Frederick the Great. We’ll take a look at the early life of this Prussian Monarch, his accession to the Throne, the War of Austiran Secession, the Seven Years War, some Domestic Policy, his Personal Life, and his Death. This man was a fascinating figure and a true pleasure to research.
Thank you for returning to the 18th Century Podcast, I am your host Cj. In today’s episode, we’ll be looking at the life of the Prussian King, Frederick the Great. This will act as an overarching guide to his life. Certain wars or other events Frederick the Great was involved in maybe covered more in-depth in future episodes. The purpose of this episode is to look at his life and who he was in a short biography. If you’d like to read the script for this episode and its citations, go to 18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. Fredrick the Great is one of the most towering figures of the 18th Century. Let’s get into the birth and childhood of a King.
PART 1: YOUTH
Frederick the Great was born on January 24th, 1712 in Berlin. Frederick was born into the Hohenzollern family. His parents were King Frederick William I of Prussia and Princess Sophia Dorothea of Hanover. His mother was the daughter of King George I of Great Britan, her brother would later become King George II. His parent’s relationship was more political than romantic. In actuality, you could describe them as polar opposites. Frederick’s father was known as a “Soldier-King” who gave way to his temper. To provide an example of how bad his temper could get imagine a very angry man hitting you in the face with his cane, or if you are a woman walking down the street the King flat out kicks you. I think you could imagine how stern Frederick’s father was. On the other hand, his mother was very liberal with him. During Frederick the Great’s younger years in his education, it was very polarized. He was brought up among French Protestant governesses and tutors. He began to receive his education in subjects such as French, German, Poetry, Classical Literature, Philosophy and would acquire a taste for Italian Music. This early education was more of the influence of his mother. It’s safe to say at the very least, Frederick’s father was highly displeased with his son and heir receiving this type of education, especially in such a militarized society as Prussia. His father wanted him to indulge in more masculine activities for his education such as hunting, riding, and the military. Fredrick William I would have his son subjugated to being humiliated, and beaten which left the young Frederick the Great bloody. As time went on in his youth, Frederick the Great would draw closer with his sister, Wilhelmine. They would form a bond which would last a lifetime. When young Frederick came of age, he received a position in the military as a Junior Army Officer. He eventually befriended a young 22-year-old Hans Hermann Von Katte, who was the son of a General. Frederick and Katte had shared interests in French culture, such as literature and in music. The two of them grew closer. When Frederick was 18, Katte, Frederick, and a few other Junior Army Officers hatched a plan to run off to England. Unfortunately, their plan hopeful plan would end in tragedy. As the plan was set in motion, they were caught and promptly arrested. Frederick and Katte found themselves being accused of treason by their attempt to flee the country. Yes, the Crown-Prince of Prussia was being accused of treason against Prussia. I should note that there was a possibility that young Frederick and Katte were working with Britain to conspire against King Frederick William I. The two of them were stripped of rank and imprisoned. There was a chance Frederick could receive the death penalty, and his father, the King, wasn’t opposed to ruling it out. However, Frederick was lucky to survive the executioner’s block. His friend Katte was not as lucky. The date of execution for Hans Hermann Von Katte was November 6th, 1730. As Katte stepped out in the open air to meet his fate, Fredrick called out from behind bars to his friend, “My dear Katte, a thousand apologies.” Katte was said to have replied, “My prince, there is nothing to apologize for.” Frederick had fainted before the killing blow. He remained in prison for the next year by order of his father. During his time in prison, Frederick would befriend a couple of his fellow inmates. One of his prison friends, Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf, the son of a peasant, would eventually rise through the ranks once Frederick was crowned and become Chancellor of Prussia. Once Frederick was released, he was posted as a junior official at a local administration, without his military rank. In 1733 Frederick regained his title of Crown-Prince by marrying Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern on June 12th. The arranged marriage by King Frederick William I was not fruitful. In fact, Frederick the Great had little to do with his wife, they did not garner romance nor friendship. In 1734 Frederick would once again take part in the Army, and this time he would see action. He would serve under an Austrian, Eugene of Savoy, fighting against the French in the Rhineland. His father would give his son a castle, Rheinsberg which was north of Berlin. In his free time there, Frederick would be able to pursue his own interests such as composing music, playing the flute, watching plays, reading, writing, and similar activities. This period in his life would be remembered as a happy one. In 1739 Frederick finished writing a response to the ever so popular book, The Prince by Machiavelli. It was a sort of refutation of the ideas presented in Machiavelli’s book. Everything was going fine for our young Frederick, but then in 1740, everything changed. Prussia was about to get a new King.
PART 2 THE THRONE AND WAR
May 31st, 1740, the King in Prussia, Frederick William I, is dead. Our young Frederick had just inherited the throne. In his early days as King, Frederick would dominate his ministers. They would know, he’s in charge and setting policy. Frederick had a goal in mind, and that was to unite his lands. You see, at the time, part of Prussian territory laid within the Holy Roman Empire, and part of it was external of the Empire. This more or less was a problem. Being the sovereign over different lands, where you’re subject to an Emperor, but at the same time, a King in different territory caused some conflict. Frederick wanted to unify his lands into one Prussian State. Merely a few months after gaining the throne, Frederick would get his chance. On October 20th, of the same year, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI died. He had left his daughter, Archduchess Maria Theresa as the heir. I would like to note, Charles VI was a member of the Habsburg family. Maria’s claims were somewhat disputed, her government was weak, and her only real major supporter was Russia. Frederick hoped that Maria would cede the territory of Silesia, a region of Southwestern Poland, in return for Prussian support. This didn’t turn out so well. Frederick marched his army into Silesia, in late 1740. He justified this invasion by an old treaty from 1537. This action of invasion would kick off the War of the Austrian Succession, and First Silesian War. Then in April of 1741, Frederick would receive his first military victory at the battle of Mollwitz. Maria was also facing a coalition of French, Spanish, and Bavarians. She signed a temporary peace with Prussia. Frederick would be allowed to hold Silesia so long as hostilities ceased. As time marched on, Maria found success against the French and Bavarians. Frederick was offset by these actions and in 1742, he invaded a region South of Silesia, Moravia, which was under Austrian control. Frederick would gain victory once more, and this action would force Maria to sign the Treaty of Berlin, a peace treaty with Frederick in July of 1742. The treaty allowed Prussia to stay in Silesia, but in return, Frederick had to help provide defense against French, Spanish and Bavarian forces. As the war went on, Maria would gain more in power and victory against her enemies. Frederick was alarmed by this once more, and in August of 1744, he invaded Bohemia. He was met with success and he overtook the region. Polish elector Agustus III, allied himself with Maria and the two of them invaded Prussian held Silesia. Due to the strength and discipline of his Army, Frederick won twice against the invaders. The first would occur in June, and the second in September 1745. Frederick would then respond by invading Saxony, which was controlled by Agustus III. The fighting would come to an end on December 25, 1745, with the Treaty of Dresden. Silesia was officially in Frederick’s control. There were benefits to holding Silesia, chiefly among them were the regions economic advantages. After the war, Frederick would receive the title of Frederick the Great. On the homefront after the war, Frederick made some changes in his domestic policy. There was more toleration of religious freedom, reforms in the justice system, and more freedom to the press. These reforms aligned more closely with enlightenment values. Meanwhile back with Maria, she was not so chipper about losing her territory, and after careful political maneuvers, she was forming an alliance with France and Russia. Yet again unhappy with this turn of events, Frederick decided to do the logical thing and preemptively attack. During peacetime, Frederick built up his Army to 154,000 men strong. He moved his army into Saxony. This would occur during the beginning of the Seven Years War. Among Frederick’s allies were Britain, and Hanover. He would be up against Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony. Fredericks campaign was met with initial success in Agust of 1756, and he continued onwards into Bohemia. Bohemia was less successful, and in June 1757, he was being pushed back. He did start to get victories in November and December against the Austrians and the French. The British started to subsidize the Prussian Military in 1758 and would continue to do so through 1762. Between 1758 to 1760 Frederick would face a mixture of victories and defeats. In 1760 Austro-Russian forces had captured and occupied Berlin. Frederick was devastated by this, and he contemplated suicide. There must have been a change in the wind because lady luck turned towards his favor. The Empress of Russia died in January 1762, and Peter III ascended the Czardom. Czar Peter III had admiration for Federick. In May Prussia and Russia signed an armistice agreement. Treaty negotiations would begin, and they turned unfavorable towards Maria. Her wishes of reclaiming Silesia were dashed. Then on February 15th, 1763, the Treaty of Hubertusburg was signed. Prussia would hold onto its territory, and its reputation as a military power was cemented. Yet during the war, Frederick would lose 180,000 men. Wanting to avoid another war at such a scale, Frederick would sign a treaty in 1764, forming an alliance with Russia. This alliance would span 16 years and come to a close in 1780. Now, we’re going to take a short break and when we come back we’ll take a look at the next major event Frederick was involved in, the first partition of Poland.
PART 3 THE FIRST PARTITION OF POLAND
Welcome back, everyone. Poland, everyone wants a piece of Poland. I don’t know why, but it seems like all throughout their history, everyone has wanted a piece of Poland at one point or another. This next chapter in the life of Frederick the Great begins with Russia. After the murder of Peter III, Catherine II ascended the Russian Throne. Unlike Peter III, Catherine II was not such a fan of Prussia. Though Frederick and Catherine disliked each other, they did form an alliance on April 11th, 1764, as mentioned prior. The alliance would guarantee Prussia’s control over Silesia, and Prussia agreed to back Russia if they came into conflict with the Austrians or Ottomans. In September of 1764, Catherine’s candidate for the throne of Poland was elected. Catherine’s Russia began to gain more and more influence over Poland in 1767. This disturbed Frederick. The winter of 1770 to 1771, Frederick’s brother Henry acted as a representative of Prussia in St. Petersburg. Catherine was looking to expand her borders into Southeastern Europe. However, there was great Austrian opposition to this policy. Frederick was looking to expand his territory as well. Austria also wished to expand their territory but they wanted to reclaim Silesia, or land in the Balkans. Through careful maneuvering, Henry convinced Catherine to partake in a partition of Poland, and ditch expansion into Southeastern Europe. Eventually, his brother also convinced Austria to join in as well. There was concern over the balance of power in the region, but Henry convinced the three States that expanding their territory by slicing off bits of Poland would ensure the balance. Frederick had his eyes on West Prussia, to finally unite Prussia into one State. Though the inhabitants of West Prussia were predominately Polish. In 1771 Frederick would speak his disdain for the Polish State and it’s people to Voltaire. He considered the citizens of West Prussia to be uncivilized. Then in 1772, it happened, Frederick annexed West Prussia and united the two Prussia’s into one Kingdom. Frederick had gained 20,000 square miles of land. Frederick encouraged Germans to immigrate into the newly acquired territory with the goal of displacing the local Polish population. German officials would also look down upon the Polish populace. Ironically, Frederick would eventually befriend a few Poles.
PART 4 DOMESTIC POLICY, PERSONAL LIFE, AND FINAL YEARS
Now turning towards his domestic achievements, a bit about his personal life, and his final years. Frederick the Great viewed his service as King as a duty. It was one of the few things he had in common with his father. Personally, Frederick probably hated his father, but looking at King Frederick William I as a ruler, he appreciated what he did, in particular for the Military. During his time, the Prussian education system was marveled at in Europe. Under his reign, there was an expansion of agricultural development. They would drain swamps to make way for new farmland. Also, the potato and turnip were introduced as crops. He did slightly favor indirect taxes on imported goods over direct taxes on the populace. During the Seven Years War, the Prussian currency had decreased in value, which had led to higher prices domestically. To regain their currency’s value, the Mint Edict of May 1763 was proposed. The Prussian government began to accept taxes at its prewar value. This would lower the money supply, but the overall value of their currency increased. There were also several architectural achievements which occurred during his reign, some of which still exist in Berlin. For example St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Royal Library which goes under a different name today, and the Berlin State Opera. If you remember back in the first section of this episode, I mentioned Frederick had an interest in music, and he played the flute. For the flute, he had composed around 100 sonatas and 4 symphonies. In 1738 Frederick joined the Freemasons. He would also strike up a friendship with Voltaire. They mostly corresponded through letters, but Voltaire did visit Frederick between 1750 through 1753. The two of them did have a falling out but reconciled some years later. Frederick was a polyglot, speaking German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and English. He also had a workable understanding of Ancient and Modern Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. His love of French culture continued throughout his life, preferring it over his native German. As Frederick got older, he began to withdraw from society. He would of course, still perform his official functions as Monarch, but socially, he began to prefer time with his greyhounds over people. Then on August 17th, 1786, Frederick the Great, died. He was buried next to his greyhounds.
I found the life of Frederick the Great to be a fascinating tale. He had a rough childhood, but he did wonderous things for his people. Like all figures through history, he wasn’t perfect, but there is no denying his accomplishments. As a bonus, I’ve added some of Frederick’s music to the bottom of the script page for this episode, click the link in the description. The script and citations for this episode and all other episodes can be found at https://18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. If you’d like to support the show, please share it and leave a review. I’ve been your host Cj, and thank you for listening to this episode of the 18th Century Podcast.
Anderson, Matthew Smith. “Frederick II.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 June 2019, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-II-king-of-Prussia.
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“Frederick II of Prussia.” Frederick II of Prussia – New World Encyclopedia, 10 May 2017, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Frederick_II_of_Prussia.
Editors, History.com. “Frederick II.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/germany/frederick-ii-prussia.
Slaughter, Jamie. “Frederick the Great.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/frederick-the-great/.
Smee, Taryn. “King Frederick the Great Was a Runaway Teen.” The Vintage News, 25 Aug. 2018, http://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/08/25/frederick-the-great/.