Updated: Mar 13, 2021
If you walk down Unter den Linden in Berlin, you will come across a large equestrian statue of Friedrich II, known in Germany as Friedrich der Große (Frederick the Great).
Born in 1712, he ruled Prussia for 46 years and has been extolled by historians and historical figures alike. But just how 'great' was Frederick?
Friedrich II. Photo: Art UK via Wikimedia Commons
“The principle servant of the state” - Domestic accomplishments
When he ascended to the throne in 1740, Frederick brought with him new ideas about statecraft, arguing in 1777 that a prince is: “merely the principal servant of the state. Hence, he must act with honesty, wisdom, and complete disinterestedness in such a way that he can render an account of his stewardship to his citizens.”
Putting his ideas into practice, he reformed and modernised the civil service and army, strengthened the legal system and established the first German code of law.
However, the scale of his reforms was sharply limited by his reliance on support from Junkers, the conservative Prussian land-owning nobility, who were reluctant to accept any loss of their considerable economic, political and military influence and privileges.
Despite despising his father’s militarism, Frederick did not shy away from military campaigns. Shortly after taking the throne, he launched a surprise invasion of Austrian controlled Silesia, which lead to the formal cessation of almost all of Silesia by 1745.
In 1756, noting that Prussia was threatened by a new alliance between Austria, Russia, and France, Frederick acted pre-emptively, seeking an alliance with Great Britain before invading Saxony, thereby provoking the Seven Year’s War.
Despite significant victories at Rossbach and Leuthen, Russian forces briefly occupied the Prussian capital Berlin. The war helped expand Prussian territory, despite taking a toll on the nation’s treasury and populace.
Frederick’s military campaigns earned the Prussian military a fearsome reputation and considerable prestige; by the end of his reign, Prussia was well and truly regarded as a prominent European power.
Frederick reign oversaw a number of changes in society, although high-ranking influential positions remained firmly in the hands of the Junkers.
In 1763, Frederick issued a decree to expand the education system, funded by taxes, and made education compulsory for all boys and girls between the ages of 5 to 13 or 14. In line with his Enlightened thinking, he permitted freedom of speech, press and literature.
Although Frederick broadly followed a policy of religious tolerance, this did not necessarily transform into equality in real terms. Efforts to integrate Jews into German society were motivated by trade and economic reasons, and Frederick himself possessed anti-Semitic views.
Frederick actively persecuted Polish Catholics in occupied Polish territory, exercising strict control over churches and their administration, and confiscating goods and property.
Nicknamed der Kartoffelkönig (the Potato King), Frederick was also interested in agriculture and introduced new crops such as potatoes and turnips to Germany.
He also oversaw huge drainage operations to increase available farmland and built canals to help transport crops, thereby improving food supply. Perhaps most importantly, he implemented controls on grain prices, enabling communities to survive even when harvests were poor.
Although he preferred the French language to German, Frederick furthered German cultural institutions.
One of his first acts as ruler in 1740 was to reopen the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and to commission the construction of the State Opera, the Royal Library, and Prince Heinrich’s Palace (now Humboldt University) in Berlin.
In particular, his ornate royal palace Sanssouci in Potsdam became a hub of contemporary thinkers and artists. Frederick liked to surround himself with intellectuals of the French Enlightenment, including Voltaire, mathematician Pierre-Louis Maupertuis, and philosopher Julien Offroy de La Mettrie.
However, the court played host to bitter rivals for the king’s affections; many fell out of favour when they criticised the king’s own artistic and intellectual efforts.
What do you think: was Frederick the Great worthy of his title?