Friedrich II (January 24, 1712 – August 17, 1786) was King in Prussia from 1740 until 1772, and King of Prussia from 1772 until his death in 1786. He was also Friedrich IV, Elector of Brandenburg.
Friedrich was the son of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and his wife, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, the only daughter of Elector Georg Ludwig of Hanover and Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, later King George I of Great Britain, and his wife, Sophia Dorothea of Celle. She was detested by her elder brother, King George II of Great Britain.
Friedrich was born sometime between 11 and 12 p.m. on January 24, 1712 in the Berlin City Palace and was baptised with the single name Friedrich by Benjamin Ursinus von Bär on January 31.
The birth was welcomed by his grandfather, Friedrich I in Prussia, Elector of Brandenburg, as his two previous grandsons had both died in infancy. With the death of Friedrich I in 1713, his son Friedrich Wilhelm I became King in Prussia, thus making young Friedrich the Crown Prince of Prussia.
Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia
Friedrich had nine siblings who lived to adulthood. He had six sisters. The eldest was Wilhelmine, who became his closest sibling. He also had three younger brothers, including August Wilhelm and Heinrich. The new king wished for his children to be educated not as royalty, but as simple folk. They were tutored by a French woman, Madame de Montbail, who had also educated King Friedrich Wilhelm I.
Friedrich Wilhelm I, popularly dubbed the “Soldier King,” had created a large and powerful army that included a regiment of his famous “Potsdam Giants”, carefully managed the kingdom’s wealth, and developed a strong centralised government. He also had a violent temper and ruled Brandenburg-Prussia with absolute authority.
In contrast, Friedrich’s mother Sophia, whose father, Georg Ludwig of Brunswick-Lüneburg, had succeeded to the British throne as King George I in 1714, was polite, charismatic and learned. The political and personal differences between Friedrich’s parents created tensions, which affected Friedrich’s attitude toward his role as a ruler, his attitude toward culture, and his relationship with his father.
In the mid-1720s, Queen Sophia Dorothea attempted to arrange the marriage of Friedrich and his sister Wilhelmine to her brother King George II’s children Amelia and Frederick Louis, who was the heir apparent. Fearing an alliance between Prussia and Great Britain, Field Marshal von Seckendorff, the Austrian ambassador in Berlin, bribed the Prussian Minister of War, Field Marshal von Grumbkow, and the Prussian ambassador in London, Benjamin Reichenbach.
The pair undermined the relationship between the British and Prussian courts using bribery and slander. Eventually Friedrich Wilhelm became angered by the idea of the effete Friedrich being married to an English wife and under the influence of the British court.
Instead, he signed a treaty with Austria, which vaguely promised to acknowledge Prussia’s rights to the principalities of Jülich-Berg, which led to the collapse of the marriage proposal.
Initially, Friedrich Wilhelm considered marrying Friedrich to Elisabeth of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the niece of Empress Anna of Russia, but this plan was ardently opposed by Prince Eugene of Savoy. Friedrich himself proposed marrying Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria in return for renouncing the succession.
Instead, Eugene persuaded Friedrich Wilhelm, through Seckendorff, that the Crown Prince should marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel a daughter of Duke Ferdinand Albert II of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Duchess Antoinette of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.
Princess Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
Having failed in his attempt to flee from the tyrannical regime of his father, Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia was ordered to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in 1733 in order to regain his freedom. Elisabeth was the niece of Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. The match had thus been arranged by the Austrian court in the hopes of securing influence over Prussia for another generation.
On June 12 1733, the 17-years-old Elisabeth Christine was married to Friedrich at her father’s summer palace, Schloss Salzdahlum in Wolfenbüttel.
Crown Prince Friedrich wrote to his sister that, “There can be neither love nor friendship between us”, and he threatened suicide, but he went along with the wedding. He had little in common with his bride, and the marriage was resented as an example of the Austrian political interference that had plagued Prussia.
Nevertheless, during their early married life, the royal couple resided at the Crown Prince’s Palace in Berlin. Later, Elisabeth Christine accompanied Friedrich to Schloss Rheinsberg, where at this time she played an active role in his social life.
After his father died and he had secured the throne, King Friedrich II separated from Elisabeth Christine. He granted her the Schönhausen Palace and apartments at the Berliner Stadtschloss, but he prohibited Elisabeth Christine from visiting his court in Potsdam.
Friedrich II of Prussia
Friedrich and Elisabeth Christine had no children, and Friedrich bestowed the title of the heir to the throne, “Prince of Prussia”, on his brother August Wilhelm. Nevertheless, Elisabeth Christine remained devoted to him. Friedrich gave her all the honours befitting her station, but never displayed any affection. After their separation, he would only see her on state occasions. These included visits to her on her birthday and were some of the rare occasions when Friedrich did not wear military uniform.
His most significant accomplishments include his military successes in the Silesian wars, his re-organisation of the Prussian Army, the First Partition of Poland, and his patronage of the arts and the Enlightenment.
Friedrich II was the last Hohenzollern monarch titled King in Prussia and declared himself King of Prussia after annexing Polish Prussia from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772. Prussia greatly increased its territories and became a major military power in Europe under his rule. He became known as Frederick the Great (German: Friedrich der Große) and was nicknamed “Old Fritz” (German: “Der Alte Fritz”).
Europe at the time when Frederick came to the throne in 1740, with Brandenburg–Prussia in violet.
Europe at the time of Frederick’s death in 1786, with Brandenburg–Prussia in violet, shows that Prussia’s territory has been greatly extended by his Silesian Wars, his inheritance of East Frisia and the First Partition of Poland.
In his youth, Friedrich was more interested in music and philosophy than in the art of war, which led to clashes with his authoritarian father, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. However, upon ascending to the Prussian throne, he attacked and annexed the rich Austrian province of Silesia in 1742, winning military acclaim for himself and Prussia. He became an influential military theorist whose analyses emerged from his extensive personal battlefield experience and covered issues of strategy, tactics, mobility and logistics.
Friedrich was a supporter of enlightened absolutism, stating that the ruler should be the first servant of the state. He modernised the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service, and pursued religious policies throughout his realm that ranged from tolerance to segregation. He reformed the judicial system and made it possible for men of lower status to become judges and senior bureaucrats.
Friedrich also encouraged immigrants of various nationalities and faiths to come to Prussia, although he enacted oppressive measures against Catholics in Silesia and Polish Prussia. He supported the arts and philosophers he favoured, and allowed freedom of the press and literature.
King Friedrich II was presumably homosexual, and his sexuality has been the subject of much study. He is buried at his favourite residence, Sanssouci in Potsdam. Because he died childless, he was succeeded by his nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm II.
Friedrich II the Great of Prussia
Nearly all 19th-century German historians made Friedrich into a romantic model of a glorified warrior, praising his leadership, administrative efficiency, devotion to duty and success in building Prussia into a great power in Europe.
Friedrich II remained an admired historical figure through Germany’s defeat in World War I, and the Nazis glorified him as a great German leader pre-figuring Adolf Hitler, who personally idolised him.
His reputation became less favourable in Germany after World War II, partly due to his status as a Nazi symbol. Regardless, historians in the 21st century tend to view Friedrich II as an outstanding military leader and capable monarch, whose commitment to enlightenment culture and administrative reform built the foundation that allowed the Kingdom of Prussia to contest the Austrian Habsburgs for leadership among the German states.