Frederick the Great of Prussia

Frederick the Great of Prussia
Frederick the Great of Prussia

Born on January 24, 1712, Frederick II the Great of Prussia became king in 1740 on the death of his father, Frederick William I. Frederick William I had firmly established Prussia as a garrison state, which led some historians to say that Prussia was an army with a state, not a state with an army.

Obsessed with forming an elite infantry for the heaviest fighting, he sent agents to kidnap the tallest men in Europe to be conscripted into his Potsdam Guards Regiment.

As a father, Frederick William I was a brute. Wishing him to be in the military, he despised the prince’s love for music and culture and sometimes beat him with a cane. (In spite of his father’s disapproval, Frederick became one of the most distinguished flute players of his generation.)

When Frederick as a youth tried to escape from his father’s tyranny with his young friend Lieutenant Hans von Katte in 1730, both were arrested. Frederick was imprisoned and forced to undergo the horror of seeing Katte executed, most likely beheaded, from his cell window.

When Frederick became king in 1740, one of his first acts was to disband the Potsdam Guards Regiment. Still, Frederick continued his father’s transformation of Prussia into a garrison state and commented that “for the world rested not so firmly on the shoulders of Atlas as the Prussian State on the shoulders of the Army.”

Frederick was dissatisfied with the condition of the army left by his father and was determined to take it in a new direction. Frederick William I’s predilection for height in his soldiers led to a heavy cavalry of extremely large men on large horses, hardly suited for the role of shock action in battle that Frederick the Great envisioned for them.

Although the Holy Roman Empire was considered powerful, Frederick sensed weakness and planned an attack. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI had only his daughter Maria Theresa to succeed him.

Frederick the Great restores the regimental honours of the Regiment Bernberg after the battle of Liegnitz
Frederick the Great after the battle of Liegnitz

However, the ancient Salic law prevented a female from becoming ruler. Charles VI attempted to circumvent the law to enable his daughter to succeed him on the throne, but in October 1740 Charles VI died.

Although the Austrians and Hungarians, the empire’s main troops and Frederick’s opponents, were taken by surprise by the Prussian advance, they soon recovered and fought back. Finally, after five charges, the Austrian and Hungarian cavalry refused to continue advancing into the storm of Prussian musketry. Frederick’s first battle had ended in victory.

Although he considered negotiating a settlement with Austria, Frederick decided he could gain more by war. On May 17, 1742, he defeated an Austrian army at Chotusitz. The loss at Chotusitz led to the Austrians signing the Treaty of Berlin in July 1742, effectively ceding mineral-rich Silesia to the Prussians.

However, when the French were defeated at the Battle of Dettingen by a coalition of British, Austrian, and Hanoverian troops, Frederick feared that if France were defeated, Austria would turn all its resources against Prussia.

Frederick launched another attack on the Austrians while they were occupied with the French and Bavarians. In August 1744 Frederick captured Prague and threatened Austria itself. Maria Theresa was forced to sign the Treaty of Dresden on Christmas Day, 1745.

The conflict between the French and British would continue until the entire conflict of the War of the Austrian Succession would end in 1748 with the Treaty of Aixla-Chapelle.

Maria Theresa was bitter over Austria’s defeat and planned revenge against Frederick and Prussia. She implemented what was known as the diplomatic revolution of the 18th century.

She forged an alliance between the ancient enemies, Austria and the France of King Louis XV, and added Russia and Czarina Elizabeth. The express purpose of the diplomatic revolution was the destruction of Prussia.

Upon learning of these negotiations, Frederick made an alliance with his former enemy, George II of Great Britain, thus completely changing the diplomatic landscape of Europe that had existed during the War of the Austrian Succession.

First Ddeadly Blow

Frederick was determined to deal the first deadly blow, creating a hallmark of German strategy that would be upheld throughout World War I and World War II. On October 1, 1756, Frederick won his first battle against the Austrians. The struggle with Austria was part of the much wider European conflict, which has become known as the Seven Years’ War.

The Seven Years’ War, much more than the War of the Austrian Succession, became a war of survival for Frederick, beset as he was on all sides by the French, Austrians, and Russians. At the Battles of Prague and Köln, Frederick was bloodily defeated by the Austrians.

Soon after, the French army under Marshal Soubise invaded Prussia and met Frederick at Rossbach on November 5, 1757. Rossbach would become perhaps Frederick’s classic victory when, after being hidden by a hill, Frederick’s commander brought his cavalry smashing into the French army, thoroughly defeating Soubise in one of the most decisive battles of the 18th century.

With the French effectively out of the war at least for a time, Frederick then turned swiftly on the Austrians, savagely defeating them at Leuthen precisely a month after Rossbach. The failure of his enemies to coordinate their offensives brought victory to Frederick, who by now was called by his troops Alte Fritz, or “Old Fritz.”

The Russians attacked again in the summer of 1758, and Frederick’s victory over them was a brutal battle of attrition. Frederick had no real chance to recover when the indefatigable Austrian marshal von Daun sought another battle. The two old enemies met at Hochkirk on October 14, 1758, and, once again, Daun defeated Frederick in a hard-fought battle.

The Seven Years’ War now entered its final and climactic phase. Frederick fought three of his most hotly contested battles in 1759, as the strain of war now began to affect him and his army. In spite of all his efforts, desertions climbed. On August 12 at Kunersdorf, Frederick barely escaped capture when he was defeated by the Austrians and Russians.

But the Russians did not follow up on his defeat, and he struck again. He chose Leignitz on August 15, 1760, to decisively defeat the Austrian marshal Loudon during a rare night attack. By 1761 both sides were beginning to feel the strain of five years of war.

The year 1762 finally brought the war to a close. George II died, and his son George III decided officially to end the costly subsidies to Frederick. Czarina Elizabeth of Russia had died, and her son Czar Peter II was an ardent admirer of Frederick.

Frederick seized the change in the political climate, and in July and October 1762, he won two more battles against the Austrians in spite of the war weariness affecting his troops.

With Czar Peter wanting peace with Frederick, Maria Theresa reluctantly agreed to end the war. On February 15, 1763, Austria signed the Treaty of Hubertusberg with Frederick, bringing the war to an end. Silesia’s vast mineral wealth was permanently ceded to Prussia.

Frederick took part in the first partition of Poland with Austria and Russia in 1772 and became involved in the brief War of the Bavarian Succession in 1778, but otherwise lived in peace at his palace at Sans Souci.

During the periods of peace, Frederick enjoyed participating in the culture of his time. Between 1750 and 1755 he hosted the French philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire.

Frederick the Great took seriously the Enlightenment’s view of the philosopher-king who looked after the welfare of his subjects. A truly enlightened despot (see enlightened despotism), Frederick moved swiftly toward Prussia’s recovery from the years of war. In 1765 alone Frederick rebuilt almost 15,000 houses.

Frederick died on the morning of August 17, 1786. He left Prussia the strongest military state in Europe at the end of the Seven Years’ War. Yet his zealous efforts at rebuilding the state and its economy after the war, as much as his genius at warfare, earned for him the fitting title of Frederick the Great.