Frederick II (1712-1786) ruled Prussia from 1740 until his death, leading his nation through multiple wars with Austria and its allies. His daring military tactics expanded and consolidated Prussian lands, while his domestic policies transformed his kingdom into a modern state and formidable European power. As an enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences, a gifted musician and a correspondent with the top minds of the Enlightenment, Frederick sought to embody the Platonic ideal of a “philosopher-king.”
The future Frederick the Great was born on January 24, 1712, in Berlin, Prussia, the son of Frederick Wilhelm I, a Calvinist who ruled his household and kingdom with a stern, paternal intolerance of frivolity. When the young Frederick showed talents for music and languages, his father prescribed military training. At age 18 Frederick attempted to escape to England—where his maternal grandfather George I was king—in search of personal freedom and a new Prussian alliance with the British. He was caught, court-martialed and forced by his father to watch as his best friend was decapitated.
Back under his father’s sway, Frederick continued his military studies, writing flute sonatas and letters to Voltaire on the side. In 1733 he married Elizabeth of Brunswick-Bevern in a purely political union. In 1739 he published a philosophical refutation of Machiavelli, unaware that he would eventually become just the sort of cunning, enlightened despot idealized in “The Prince.”
Frederick II took the throne on May 31, 1740, and immediately launched an unprovoked attack on the Austrian region of Silesia (in what is now southwestern Poland), triggering the eight-year War of Austrian Succession. With an army drilled to perfection by his late father, Frederick annexed and held Silesia and invaded Bohemia with an army of 140,000. He was driven back in Bohemia, but a series of quick Austrian defeats in 1748 led to treaty negotiations.
Following the war, Frederick was hailed as a military genius and given the moniker “Frederick the Great.” Over the next decade he enacted a number of major reforms and domestic projects. He began to revamp and standardize Prussia’s justice system along Enlightenment lines, banning torture and arguing for a uniform national criminal code. He liberalized control of the press and supported a moderate level of religious freedom. He worked to economically consolidate Prussia, lowering internal duties, building canals to encourage trade and enacting protective tariffs. Frederick built up Berlin as a cultural capital with grand buildings and rejuvenated the scientific work of the Berlin Academy.
In 1756 Europe’s longstanding alliances reshuffled during the so-called Diplomatic Revolution, which saw Austria allied with France and Russia as Prussia sided with England. Frederick, who had used the years of peace to build and train an army of 154,000, launched a preemptive attack on Austria’s ally Saxony in 1756. In the years of war that followed, Frederick racked up daring tactical victories, but often at great cost to the dwindling Prussian forces. For Prussia, the war was a stalemate mercifully ended by Russia’s sudden 1762 withdrawal—termed the “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg”—following the ascension of Czar Peter III.
The Seven Years’ War came to a formal end in 1763 and Frederick resumed his domestic programs, reorganizing the Prussian government into separate ministries to allow rational division of tasks and easy executive control. He ordered the development and colonization of unused land in his expanded kingdom, and introduced the turnip and potato as major food crops. As Frederick aged his Enlightenment values increasingly mixed with cynicism and suspicion. He died on August 17, 1786, at Sansssouci, his beloved Rococo palace at Potsdam outside Berlin.
Frederick is often remembered as the father of Prussian militarism, but Prussia’s location as a border state between larger empires meant that frequent wars were hardly a new phenomenon. Still, Frederick’s long reign unified Enlightenment rationalism and military tradition, yielding a highly trained army and a militaristic system of public education.
Frederick’s greatest admirers tended to be those with large continental ambitions. Napoleon made a special visit to Frederick’s tomb in 1806 after defeating Prussia’s army, and Hitler hid the king’s body in a salt mine during the allied bombings of World War II.