Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters

Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters

by Giles MacDonogh


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Piet and soldier, misanthrope and philospher, Frederick the Great was a contradictory, almost unfathomable man. His conquests made him one of the most formindable and feared leaders of his era. But as a patron of artists and intellectuals, Frederick re-created Berlin as one of the continent's great cities, matching his state's reputation for military ferocity with one for cultural achievement.

Though history remembers Frederick as a "Potsdam Fuhrer," his father more rightly deserved the title. When, as a youth, Frederick attempted to flee the elder man's brutality, the punishment was to watch the execution of his friend and co-conspirator, Katte. Though a subsequent compromise allowed Frederick to take the throne in 1740, he would remain true unto himself. His tastes for music, poetry, and architecture would match the significance of his military triumphs in the Seven Years' War.

Drawing on the most recent scholarship, Giles MacDonogh's fresh, authoritative biograhy gives us the most fully rounded portrait yet of an often misunderstood king.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312272661
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/24/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

Giles MacDonogh was born in London in 1955 and studied history at Oxford University. He has worked extensively in France as a teacher, a translator, a journalist, and an editor. After returning to England, he became increasingly well known as a gastronomic critic and authority on wine and spirits. For the last ten years, however, his consuming interest has been modern German history, and he has published several books on the subject. He has a regular column in the Financial Times and has written for many other papers and magazines. MacDonogh lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Father


It is tempting to imagine that a long shudder went through Europe in 1740. Three important rulers died, and changed the face of the continent: Empress Anna of Russia, the Habsburg emperor Charles VI, and Frederick William I of Brandenburg-Prussia. For the time being, at least, Anna's death was the least significant of the three. She was eventually succeeded by her cousin Elizabeth, who resented the outside world and promptly sent Russia back into a period of Asian isolation. Although Elizabeth's armies played an important role in the Seven Years War, Russia's ideological journey westwards was not to start again until the short reign of the ill-fated Tsar Peter III in 1762. It was continued by his wife and successor Catherine the Great, with more noticeable éclat.

    Charles VI was fifty-five when he met his maker. He had allegedly eaten some poisonous wild mushrooms: 'that plate of toadstools', wrote Voltaire later, 'changed the destiny of Europe'. The Habsburgs were now extinct in the male line. His imprudent gourmandise and untimely end allowed Voltaire's friend and Prussia's new ruler, Frederick II, to begin his quest for glory at the expense of European peace. Brandenburg-Prussia was Europe's newest kingdom. The Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg had been granted the royal title only in January 1701, as a reward for his continued support for the Habsburg emperors during the War of the Spanish Succession. The elector of Saxony had scaled those dizzy heights four years earlier in 1697, when he had had himself elected king of Poland. In 1713 the elector of Hanover became King George I of Great Britain. Neither of these purely German princes was allowed to aspire to a royal crown within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.

    Nor was the elector of Brandenburg. He too had to find himself a title that did not impinge on the imperial dignity. According to his grandson, King Frederick I, the former Elector Frederick III, first hit on the idea of calling himself 'king of the Vandals', an allusion to the Slavic Wends who formed a small part of the population of Brandenburg. Then his gaze named towards one of his larger territories in the east. The Duchy of Prussia lay outside the Imperial Reich; until 1660 it had paid homage to the kings of Poland, but under the terms of the Treaty of Wehlau, Frederick I's father, the Great Elector, had extracted sovereignty from the Poles. Frederick might not be king of Brandenburg, but he could use the title in his Baltic province. This ruse must have filled Frederick with glee. He could not even wait for the return of the good weather before making the arduous journey up to Königsberg, the capital of the Baltic duchy. He arrived there on 17 December 1700. A month later, on 18 January 1701, he crowned himself king and instituted the order of the Black Eagle with its legend 'Suum Quique' as part of his chivalric finery thought appropriate to a king. Henceforth he was king in Prussia, as well as a rather less exclusive margrave and prince-elector of Brandenburg.

    In his own mind, at least, Frederick I was a great deal more. He was also

Sovereign Prince of Orange, Neufchâtel and Valengin, Gelderland, Magdeburg, Cleves, Jülich, Berg, Stettin, Pomerania, of the Cassubians and the Wends, of Mecklenburg, also Duke of Crossen in Silesia, Burgrave of Nuremberg, Prince (Fürst)* of Halberstadt, Minden, Cammin, Wenden, Schwerin, Ratzeburg, East Friesland and Moers, Count of Hohenzollern, Ruppin, the Mark, Ravensberg, Hohenstein, Tecklenburg, Lingen, Schwerin, Buhren and Lehrdam, Lord of Ravenstein, of the Territory of Rostock, Stargard, Lauenburg, Bütow, Arlay and Breda.

Many of those claims were contested. The Prussians would only ever see a part of the territories of Principality of Orange and a few hundred Protestant refugees from the enclave who sought asylum in eastern Germany at the turn of the century. The Mecklenburg lands were never to fall to Prussia: the dukes were always wise enough to lay in a provision of male heirs. Not until Frederick the Great's time did Prussia abandon its attempts to take over Jülich and Berg. Still, even without the full list, Frederick I could boast an impressive, large and mixed bag of territories stretching from the Dutch to the Russian borders.


History has been hard on Frederick I; so, indeed was nature. He was stunted and deformed. After his death, his most merciless detractors were his own family. His son Frederick William adopted a style of kingship that totally rejected everything his father had stood for. His second wife, Frederick William's mother Sophia-Charlotte of Hanover (the sister of King George I of Great Britain), seems to have preferred her wranglings with the court philosopher Leibniz to any form of congress with her extravagant husband. She is reported to have told a courtier 'That idiot Leibniz, who wants to teach me about the infinitessimally small! Has he therefore forgotten that I am the wife of Frederick the First, how can he imagine that I am unacquainted with my own husband?' As she lay dying in 1705, another asked her if her husband would not miss her: 'Oh! I don't worry about him: he will be preoccupied with the business of arranging some magnificent funeral for me; and providing there is nothing missing from the ceremony, that will be all the consolation he needs.'

    Frederick I was new to kingship, and like a nouveau riche he sought reassurance in gold and silver as well as all the flashy attributes of baroque monarchy. Berlin, and to some extent Brandenburg-Prussia, had to be made to reflect his new glory. He finished his father's new Schloss at Köpenick; and transformed Oranienburg from a small, moated fortress into an elegant palace. A few miles to the west of the capital, he granted Sophia-Charlotte a smart new palace at Lietzenburg in imitation of the kaiser's new country seat at Schönbrunn near Vienna. The fashionable French gardener Le Nôtre was commissioned to design the park. After her death the palace was renamed Charlottenburg in her honour.

    The real magnificence was reserved for Berlin, however. Naturally enough, the focus of Frederick I's attention was on the Schloss, a huge building that had grown up in dribs and drabs since the time when the Elector Frederick Irontooth had chosen to make Berlin his official residence in the mid-fifteenth century. Originally Frederick I had continued the piecemeal rebuilding of his father's time, but after his acquisition of a royal crown he wanted something much more grandiose. Frederick found an architect of vision in the Danziger, Andreas Schlüter. The result was certainly one of the most magnificent palaces north of the Alps; possibly the greatest effusion of north German baroque there was. Pöllnitz believed that the finished Schloss would have surpassed the Louvre in magnificence had it been completed according to Frederick's intentions. To understand the lavishness of the conception, one has only to think that the famous Amber Room of Tsarskoe Selo was designed for the Schloss. Peter the Great went into raptures when he saw it, and Frederick's austere son promptly had it packed up and dispatched to Russia in exchange for a squad of the tall soldiers he loved so much.

    Frederick also opened up the alley of linden trees to the west of the Schloss, thereby creating the first elegant boulevard to be erected outside Berlin's mediaeval walls. At the head of Unter den Linden, as the street was later dubbed, Frederick built the Arsenal, another superb baroque building that owes something to Perrault's Louvre frontage in Paris. To the south of the avenue, the king created the Friedrichstadt, lending the streets names that glorified his spanking new dynasty: Friedrichstrasse, Wilhelmstrasse, Charlottenstrasse and Markgrafenstrasse. Frederick's lifestyle was as luxurious as its palaces. The rooms buzzed with courtiers as well as a bevy of favoured mountebanks and overmighty ministers. Unlike either his son or grandson, Frederick I maintained a proper court, with a governor for his palace, a court marshal, butler, sixteen chamberlains, thirty-two gentlemen of the bedchamber, seven Hofjunker and swarms of lesser noblemen with high-sounding sinecures. The servants were naturally no less numerous, whether they performed their tasks in the palace, stables or kitchens. In the latter alone, Frederick had a court chef with an assistant and no fewer than thirty-six lesser luminaries lending their skills to baking, roasting, stewing and slaughtering animals, fish and fowl.

    Perhaps because Sophia-Charlotte had been keen on music (Corelli's Opus V set is dedicated to her), the king had a splendid court orchestra composed of thirty-six ordinary musicians, twenty-four trumpeters and two pianists. The court castrato, Antonio Cambiola, was paid a huge fee for the time. Frederick the Great dismissed his grandfather's court as 'One of the most luxurious in Europe ... He crushed the poor in order to line the pockets of the rich; his favourites received huge pensions while his subjects languished in poverty; his stables and apartments resembled an oriental court more than any thing in Europe.'

    Frederick I had no charm for his grandson. Modern historians are more sympathetic. They would see the first Prussian king as an underrated figure, who suffered above all from the bad propaganda he received in Frederick the Great's family history: Mémoire pour servir à l'histoire de la maison de Brandebourg. In his way, Frederick I was merely re-establishing German kingship after the quasi-total destruction of the Thirty Years War. Frederick the Great himself described in his Histoire de mon temps the state of the Empire at the end of the disastrous Thirty Years War: the misery of the people, the poverty of the princes, the general hunger and sterility of the soil. There was no artistic focus 'as there was in Rome or Florence in Italy, Paris or London ... True, there were learned professors at the universities ... [but] no one went to them, because of their rusticity.'

    All these problems were addressed by Frederick I, who fostered the arts and made Berlin a showplace of the north German baroque second only to Dresden. At the University of Halle he created a centre of cameralist teaching, which made it the breeding ground of the German civil service until 1945. He acquired territory in Quedlinburg in the Harz, which is normally seen as a positive legacy for a Prussian ruler. Most important of all, he wangled his way on to the board of European rulers, an elevation that augured badly for the Habsburg emperors. It instigated two centuries of Austro-Prussian rivalry that would end up by snuffing out Habsburg power in Germany. Prince Eugene of Savoy is supposed to have complained afterwards: 'The Emperor should have those ministers who gave 'him such perfidious advice hanged.'

    Even his much derided financial policies seem to have been more successful than is generally supposed. He garnered massive subsidies from those who sought his support on the international stage. What is more, the population of his widely scattered lands increased by 50 per cent, which was considered a sign of successful rule in the eighteenth century. Above all, Prussia kept its head above water in a time of immense difficulties on the international stage, and ended up considerably more powerful than it had been before. There was certainly less of an hiatus between his rule and his son's than has generally been supposed.


It was Frederick I's successor, his son Frederick William I, who established the uniquely Prussian style of kingship. He grew up surly and difficult, his passion fired only by the army. He showed no interest in the magnificence exuded by his father, or the culture so eagerly pursued by his mother. Leibniz's royal pupil tried without success to make her son perform comedies and dance ballets. Naturally she found her son uncouth, and began to give him a wide berth. His tutor, Jean-Philippe Rebeur, had no more luck than his parents. The only way he could instil even the three Rs into the boy was by constantly drawing his metaphors from a battery of military terms. The result, as one recent biographer has expressed it, was to put Frederick William 'on a life-long war-footing with Latin, grammar and spelling'.

    The prince grew up short, plump and gouty, his irascibility possibly aggravated by the porphyria that galloped in his mother's family. The only things his Calvinist teachers had been able to dram into the boy were a belief in predestination and an admiration of Holland (a country he visited twice), although the philosophic implications of the Dutch state seem to have left him cold. Frederick I sought to associate his son with the government of the state at the earliest possible opportunity (a privilege not given to Frederick the Great). Frederick William did not have much truck with the king's council and abolished it as soon as he came to power. Both he and his son would later rule without formal ministerial advice. He was made a 'Geheimer Rat' or privy counsellor, which caused him to remark cattily 'privy counsellors are called thus, because they are privy to unimportant decisions only'.

    The turning point in young Frederick William's life came when he was granted the manor of Wusterhausen to the south-east of Berlin. From now on this primitive tower house would be his favourite residence, even after he came to the throne and had the palaces of Berlin, Potsdam and Charlottenburg to play with, not to mention a score of other residences of a roomier sort. At Wusterhausen, away from the courtiers he so heartily despised, Frederick William felt he could breathe for the first time. He took an immediate interest in the household accounts, saving every penny to reinvest in his body guard, which he built up into an efficient, well-drilled and superbly kitted private army. He ruled his estate like a state. Later he would rule the state like a manor.

    Clearly reacting against his spendthrift father, Frederick William's most noticeable characteristics from his earliest childhood were penny-pinching and meanness. The famous marginalis (government by marginalia was another invention of Frederick William that was continued by his son) non habeo petunia — 'I don't have any money' (in his distinctly porcine Latin) described his later attitude to kingship.

    Apart from being mean and short-tempered, Frederick William was for ever wielding his stick or crutch or dismissing a courtier or subject with a few well-aimed kicks. He had mixed views about the Jews, who settled in increasing numbers in Berlin in the course of his reign. He none the less believed that the state behaved justly towards them and felt that they should acknowledge his generosity in their turn. When one cowered in his presence, Frederick William set about him with his cane, shouting, 'You should love me!, not fear me. Love me!'

    His daughter Wilhelmine's Mémoires have possibly done more damage to Frederick William's reputation than any other single work, and the bitterness of the princess led her to warp the truth in a dramatic manner. Yet, in places, her judgement rings true:

His temperament [was] lively and volatile which often drove him to violence, which [led] to cruel repentance afterwards. Most of the time he preferred justice to clemency. His excessive fondness for money ... earned him the name of miser. He could only be reproached for that vice in his treatment of his own person or family, as he plied his favourites and all those who showed him devoted service with property.

His first big treat came when his father allowed him to go to war. At the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709, he came into contact with the greatest generals of his day, Prince Eugene of Savoy and Marlborough. In his — Kronprinz — regiment, Frederick William invented the famous Prussian drill, to which his friend, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau (the 'Alte Dessauer') added the Prussian slow march, better known as the goosestep. This was only finally abolished in the DDR in 1989, because the socialists were under the mistaken impression that it had something to do with Nazism.


Frederick William succeeded his father in February 1713, before the Treaty of Utrecht brought the long War of the Spanish Succession to a timely end. He was never crowned. In September 1714 he received the homage of the different orders in Königsberg instead. He 'despised all the trappings of royalty, he was much more attached to the business of carrying out its true duties'. As soon as Frederick William came to power, he displayed a despotic streak that would typify his regimen: 'Gentlemen, our good master is dead,' he told his father's courtiers. 'The new king bids you all go to hell.' The wisest of them took his advice and stayed at home. Frederick William had an inventory drawn up of his father's possessions and placed the court actress Esther Liebmann — scandalous by her very profession — under house arrest.

    On 21 April he showed earnest of a new style of government: military ranks achieved precedence over court offices. The field marshal topped the list. At a stroke the Grand Master dropped from fourth to seventh place and had to make way for a lieutenant general. Major-generals counted for more than the governors of His Majesty's palaces. Gentlemen of the bedchamber now weighed in at number 43, while a simple captain ranked 55th. The brightest minds in Prussia chose the army rather than a career in law or administration, something which must have contributed immensely to the efficacy of Frederick the Great's war machine. In 1725 Frederick William established another Prussian tradition by donning military uniform at court. After he had mounted the throne, Frederick the Great generally wore mufti only once a year: on his mother's birthday. It was a far change from the fancy French clothes he wore in his teens, which sent his father into paroxysms of rage. In those days he referred to his uniform as 'Sterbekittel', or a shroud.

    The king's simple style of dress affected the whole Prussian elite, and again became one of the hallmarks of Prussianism. Pig-tails replaced full-bottomed wigs. The simple Prussian blue uniform was from now on more distinguished in the eyes of the nobility and bourgeoisie than the gold and silver braid that predominated at other German courts. The Frankfurter Johann von Loen claimed it was impossible to tell the orders apart: margraves, princes, generals and ministers all dressed down; and they were all both 'genial and polite'.

    Frederick William's simplicity extended to his table. His wife, Sophia-Dorothea of Hanover, was particularly appalled to find herself expected to dine on bacon and lentils and mutton tripe with cabbage, dishes which epitomised his earthy tastes. The king drank beer and wine, generally old hock and tokay. The royal cellars also contained stocks of champagne. One day when Frederick William was dining with his minister Grumbkow and was particularly impressed by the ham, he told Grumbkow to send the recipe round to his chef. The chef came to see the king: he wanted the keys to the royal cellars and fifteen bottles of champagne. The king was suspicious, but the chef told him that the ham had to be marinated in champagne for two weeks. Frederick William sent him packing, and wrote to his minister: 'When I want to eat excellent ham I'll come and dine with you. I am not rich enough to make it according to your chef's recipe: my champagne is only for drinking.' Another time the king asked Leibniz's old Academy of Science, largely idle since the philistine king had come to the throne, to explain to him why champagne sparkled. Not unnaturally, the Academy asked for at least forty bottles so that they might carry out the necessary experiments. Frederick William was furious. 'I don't need them to drink my wine, and I would prefer to spend the rest of my life in ignorance of why champagne foamed.'

    On occasion the drinking was heavy. At the Tabakscollegium, the normal swill was Ducksteiner beer, from Königslutter am Elm in Brunswick, or hock. As he drank, the king grew 'loud and light-hearted'. Toasts rang out: 'Kaiser and Reich' and against the 'damned French', a 'bunch of rabble'; 'To the German nation, a cur anyone who doesn't mean it from the bottom of his heart.' Anyone who looked as if he did not was as likely as not to be struck on the head by some missile. The great occasions were the anniversaries of Malplaquet on 11 September and the huntsman's feast of Saint Hubert on 3 November. On these days the king was boorish, plates flew and the women made themselves scarce. The men were left to dance — Prussian style — with one another. When the toping finished, Frederick William went to his bed and snored.

    Frederick William moved against the pampered court parasites who had oozed around his father. Money lenders were expropriated; the court and ministries were drastically cut; wages were reduced. Courtiers were told to go by foot where possible, so that Frederick William could make economies in the royal stables, cutting the number of horses from 600 to 120. Those privileged to remain suffered greater indignities when the feed destined for the royal mangers was reduced. This meanness had a further advantage for the new king: 'My father gave the horses so much fodder so that everyone could follow him on his trips to the country, I am abolishing it so that they stay in Berlin.' He wanted to be able to choose his own company at Wusterhausen.

    Court privileges were abolished and the new king came down heavily on all signs of luxury and corruption. The arts, which had formed such a large percentage of Frederick I's budget, were left high and dry. Frederick William was indifferent to culture. He sold off the silver from all twenty-four royal Schlöser and pleasure pavilions. From now on the royal family and their guests ate off wood and pewter. Only the queen was allowed a little silver. The Lustgarten (or pleasure garden) on the north side of the Schloss was turned into a parade ground; that, after all, was His Majesty's pleasure. This martial role for the garden was later revived by the Nazis. Frederick William finished the exterior walls of his father's superb conception, but had the interiors crudely whitewashed. Schluter himself wisely fled to Saint Petersburg, where he died.


Excerpted from Frederick the Great by Giles MacDonogh. Copyright © 1999 by Giles MacDonogh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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