History

Frederick II was born on 24 January 1712 in Berlin and was King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786 (technically only ‘King in Prussia’ until 1772). He was a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty. His mother Sophia Dorothea of Hanover was the daughter of Britain’s King George I and sister of King George II, and for a long time hoped to achieve a double marriage with British royals for the Crown Prince and his sister Wilhelmine.

Frederick became known both for his learning and love of cultural pursuits, and for his brilliant military campaigns, capturing the imagination of his contemporaries both as ‘Philosopher King’ and as 'Frederick the Great'. In Britain he came to public attention especially in the Seven Years War, when he attained a key role in the contest with the ‘Popish’ forces. Austria had switched sides in 1756, leaving Britain politically isolated, so an alliance was hastily concluded with Prussia, and Frederick’s military campaigns were observed with keen attention.

Domestically, Frederick’s role was as tension-filled as that of other monarchs espousing ‘enlightened absolutism’. He regarded himself as the ‘First Servant of his State’, pursued a policy of religious tolerance, and abolished torture immediately he came to power.

He put Berlin on the cultural map, attracting scholars, musicians and artists to Berlin and Potsdam and creating architectural landmarks such as the State Opera House.

Frederick decreed that he wished to be buried with his dogs in Sanssouci – a wish that conflicted with what his family considered proper, but which was eventually granted when his body was reinterred in Sanssouci in 1991.

Frederick’s ‘glorious deeds’

Highlights from Frederick’s reign were celebrated in a remarkable series of drawings by the contemporary Berlin artist Bernhard Rode (1725-97), who went on to become a director of the Berlin Academy of Arts. Rode’s drawings were etched and published by Johann David Schleuen in the bilingual French and German volume Les actions glorieuses de Frédéric le Grand [...] (Berlin: Schleuen, c. 1758), published in expanded form as Denkwürdigkeiten Friedrichs des Großen, Königs in Preußen etc von Anfang dero glorreiche Regierung bis auf jetzige Zeit (Berlin: Schleuen, c. 1763). A rare copy of the later edition is in the Prussian State Archive. Three individual prints are in the Prints Collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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Frederick’s accession in Berlin Silesian conquests Legal and architectural landmarks
Silesian conquests Frederick's accession Legal and architectural landmarks

Bibliography

Biskup, Thomas, Friedrichs Größe. Inszenierungen des Preußenkönigs in Fest und Zeremoniell 1740-1815 (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2012)

Biskup, Thomas, 'Der kinderlose "roi philosophe". Herrschertugend und Sexualmoral', in Sösemann and Vogt-Spira, vol. 1, pp. 21-35

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Kohl, Katrin, ‘Hero or Villain? The Response of German Authors to Frederick the Great’. In: Publications of the English Goethe Society 81/1 (2012), 51-72.

Kunisch, Friedrich der Große. Der König und seine Zeit (Munich: Beck, 2004)

Luh, Friedrich, Der Große. Friedrich II. von Preußen (Munich: Siedler, 2011)

MacDonogh, Giles, Frederick the Great. A Life in Deed and Letters (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999)

Scott, H.M., Enlightened Absolutism. Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990)

Scott, H.M., The Emergence of the Eastern Powers, 1756-1775 (Cambridge: CUP, 2001)

Sösemann, Bernd, and Gregor Vogt-Spira (eds), Friedrich der Grosse in Europa. Geschichte einer wechselvollen Beziehung, 2 vols (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2012)

Wehinger, Brunhilde, Geist und Macht. Friedrich der Große im Kontext der europäischen Kulturgeschichte (Berlin: Akademie, 2005)

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