Frederick the Great – One of Germany’s Most Famous and Admired Rulers

By Francine McKenna on Email

His military successes, and the domestic reforms he introduced into his country, have ensured that Frederick the Great has gone down in history as one of the most famous and admired of Germany’s rulers. Born in Berlin on January 24th 1712, and artistically gifted from his youth, despite not being interested in war or the military, he was forced into a harsh system of education and military training, which he hated. At 18 he tried to escape to the court of Great Britain, his mother was a daughter of England’s King George I, but he was captured and would have been executed by his father for treason had the Emperor not personally intervened. However he was forced to watch as the friend who had accompanied him was beheaded.

Frederick II King of Prussia ruled from 1740 until 1786, and during that time made his country one of the leading European nations which earned him the title of Frederick the Great, and he was also known as “Der Alte Fritz” (Old Fritz), and the Enlightened Despot. In fact he was initially known as the “King in Prussia” because his kingdom was only a part of historic Prussia; however he declared himself “King of Prussia” after acquiring the majority of the whole area in 1772.

He believed he was the “first servant of the state”, so therefore did not rule his country with the intention of achieving what he might have considered was best for him personally, but instead what would be the most advantageous ultimately for Prussia. And he expected his subjects to share his way of thinking and zeal. Frederick spent his life making Prussia, a small state with little influence when he came to the throne, as strong as possible, and to do this he needed not only to expand the country physically but also make a great many internal reforms.

His initial move came after he saw there was a chance of unifying his kingdom by annexing Silesia, at the time an Austrian province, so he invaded it although every treaty that was established at the time forbade this. However Frederick’s reply to all criticism was that agreements between nations were void when it was no longer useful to the state involved for them to exist.

A military genius with an army he had made into the best in Europe, he managed to resist all opposition from France, Russia, and Austria during the Seven Year War, despite having far less in the way of resources, and not only saved his country but also ensured Prussia was stronger after the war than she had been before entering it.

It was said that Prussia was not so much a country with an army, but an army with a country. Frederick gave the Princes belonging to his state a place in the governmental bureaucracy, this served to consolidate his own power, and also served to make a series of domestic reforms which not only modernized Prussia but strengthened her, while ensuring his own popularity. And this despite the fact that his wars had cost hundreds of thousands of Prussian lives.

Amongst the reforms, which were ground breaking for the times, were the introduction of universal religious toleration, freedom of the press, compulsory primary school education, controlling grain prices so the needy did not go without, and the rebuilding of towns through agricultural reforms, which included converting wasteland into arable.

During Frederick’s reign, potatoes were an exotic treasure eaten mainly by the aristocracy, and, as the population was growing rapidly and famine continued to reoccur, he advised planting potatoes as a staple food. However the people were sceptical, so finally the king was forced to make the planting and consumption of potatoes a law. Just as he checked the living conditions of his troops by sleeping in their encampments, he would also personally check out potato fields and the availability of potatoes for his subjects.

Frederick created thousands of miles of roads and his capital Berlin became a center point for his interest in architecture, with most of the buildings he had constructed, such as the Berlin State Opera, still existing in the Berlin of today. He sped up legal processes, abolished torture, ensured that a death sentence could only be passed with his permission, and brought in the first German code of law. All the judges were educated and trained and his courts of law became known as the most honest and fair in Europe.

Basically a just and serious man, whose favorite residence was his summer palace in Potsdam, Sanssouci, (which means “carefree” or “without worry” in French, his preferred language), he repeatedly emphasized that neither nationality nor religion were of any concern to him.

Although he had been forced into an arranged marriage when young, he died childless on 17th August, 1786. Prussia became one of the most powerful nations in Europe during his reign, and it was Frederick’s legacy of unquestioning commitment and loyalty to his homeland that shaped and influenced the history of Germany into the 20th century.

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Source: Bella Online

Francine McKenna