Frederick the Great
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Frederick II, king of Prussia
Frederick's coarse and tyrannical father despised the prince, who showed a taste for French art and literature and no interest in government and war. At the age of 18 Frederick, who had been repeatedly humiliated and ill-treated, planned to escape to England. He was arrested, imprisoned, and forced to witness the beheading of his friend and accomplice, Lieutenant Katte. Frederick submitted to his father and was released. In 1733, at his father's request, he married Elizabeth of Brunswick-Bevern, but he separated from her shortly afterward and for the rest of his life showed no interest in women.
Prince Frederick spent the next few years at Rheinsberg, where he wrote his Anti-Machiavel, an idealistic refutation of Machiavelli, and began his long correspondence with Voltaire. His period of relative inactivity ended with his accession to the throne in 1740, after which Frederick immediately showed the qualities of leadership and decision that were to characterize his reign.
In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) against Maria Theresa, Frederick invaded Silesia without warning, simultaneously offering his aid to Maria Theresa if she ceded a portion of Silesia to him. A brilliant campaigner, Frederick acted with utter disregard of his allies, notably France, and twice concluded separate peace treaties with Maria Theresa (1742, 1745), both times securing Upper and Lower Silesia for Prussia.
In the Seven Years War (1756–63), possession of Silesia was again in dispute; Maria Theresa wished to recover it, and Frederick faced a strong coalition including Austria, Russia, and France. England was his only strong ally. Victorious at Rossbach and Leuthen (1757), he was routed (1759) at Kunersdorf by the Austro-Russian forces, who in 1760 occupied Berlin. In that dark period, it is said, Frederick was on the verge of suicide. However, the accession (1762) of his admirer, Peter III of Russia, took Russia out of the war and opened Frederick's way to victory.
The Peace of Hubertusburg (1763) left Frederick his previous conquests and made Prussia the foremost military power in Europe. He was brilliantly assisted by his principal generals, Seydlitz, James Keith, Ferdinand of Brunswick, Hans Joachim von Zieten, and others. Frederick is widely recognized as the 18th century's greatest general and military strategist. His tactics were studied and admired by Napoleon Bonaparte and exerted great influence on the art of warfare.
After the peace of 1763 Frederick promoted an alliance with Russia, which had nearly defeated him in the Seven Years War. The establishment of a Russo-Prussian alliance prepared the way for the eventual dismemberment of Poland. By the first partition of Poland (see Poland, partitions of) in 1772, Frederick vastly expanded the limits of Prussia. His rivalry with Austria persisted. He opposed any attempts by Austria to extend its power within the Holy Roman Empire and instigated the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–79) to prevent Austrian annexation of Bavaria. He also created (1785) the Fürstenbund [league of princes] to check Austrian schemes.
Frederick was tolerant in religious matters, personally professing atheism to his intimates. Cold and curt, he relaxed only during his famous midnight suppers at Sans Souci, his residence at Potsdam. There he was surrounded by a group of educated men, mostly French, that included at times Voltaire (who broke with him in 1753 but who later resumed his friendship from a safe distance), d'Alembert, La Mettrie, and Maupertuis.
Frederick's wit was corrosive and icy. He wrote inconsequential poetry and remarkable prose on politics, history, military science, philosophy, law, and literature. Nearly all his writings were in French. He failed to appreciate such men as Lessing and Goethe, who were among his most ardent admirers. A pupil of Quantz, he played the flute creditably, and he composed marches, concertos for the flute, and other pieces. Frederick's personal appearance in his later years—small, sharp-featured, untidy, and snuff-stained—has become part of the legend of “Old Fritz.” He was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II.
See J. D. E. Preuss, ed., Œuvres de Frédéric le Grand (33 vol., 1846–57). See also biographies by Carlyle and Macaulay, both classics, and the more scholarly studies by G. Ritter (1936, tr. 1968), P. Gaxotte (tr. 1941), G. P. Gooch (1947), L. Reiners (1952, tr. 1960), P. Paret, ed. (1972), W. Hubatsch (1976), and D. Fraser (2002).