Frederick II

Frederick II


The third Hohenzollern king of Prussia was born in Berlin in 1712. Son of King Frederick William I and Princess Sophia of Hanover, Frederick the Great grew up in a tense and combative household. His father suffered from illness and berated his son pub¬ licly while in a rage. Frederick once ran away from home with his best friend. The pair was apprehended, and Frederick had the misfor¬ tune of seeing his friend publicly executed.

When his father died, Frederick ascended to the throne in 1740, the same year that Emperor Charles VI of Austria died, leaving the throne to his daughter, Maria Theresa. Sensing that Europe would soon burst into a general conflagration of war, Frederick seized the initiative and declared war on Austria. His crack Prussian army quickly seized the wealthy Austrian province of Silesia.

The resulting War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) tilted back and forth. Frederick changed allies and enemies with duplicitous ease, thereby winning a repu¬ tation for fraud. When the war ended in 1748, he still held Silesia, but had won the undying enmity of Maria Theresa, who gath¬ ered Czarina Elizabeth of Russia and Madame de Pompadour of France as future allies.

Frederick flirted with the ambitious new thought of the Enlightenment. He brought the French satirist Voltaire to Berlin and wrote poetry himself. It would be difficult for the other European leaders to reconcile this cultured individual with the ruthless military leader they confronted in the Seven Years’War (1756-1763).

Attacked on land by France, Russia and Austria, Frederick had only Britain, a naval power, for an ally. He fought relentlessly and well, winning great victories at Leuthen and Rossbach (both in 1757). He also came back from resounding defeats at Kolin (1757) and Kunersdorf (1759). Berlin itself was briefly occupied by the Russian cavalry, but Frederick fought on until all the opposing powers were exhausted. He and Prussia were saved by the death of Czarina Elizabeth in 1762. Her suc¬ cessor, Czar Peter III, took Russia out of the war and gave Frederick much-needed breath¬ ing space. The Treaty of Hubertsberg (1763) confirmed the gains Prussia had made in 1740-1748.

Frederick never went to war again. The efficiency of the Prussian war machine stood as an effective deterrent to war during his life¬ time. He died after having caught a chill while reviewing his troops in a pouring rain.