Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies A-F » Frederick The Great


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

Frederick The Great

      How shall we describe the "Incomparable," the extraordinary compound of so many brilliant and repulsive qualities? How is he to be depicted, who was great as a king, and little as a man,--always admired in his public, never beloved in his private, character;--a just, generous, and laborious prince,--a vain, avaricious, and cold-hearted individual; luxurious by temperament, temperate in practice; a selfish epicurean, and affecting the harshness of the cynic;--peacefully disposed, and cultivating the arts of peace, yet exercising the arts of war in their direst form;--a man of letters, ignorant of the beauties, and disdaining the language of his country;--magnificent and mean; the builder of palaces, theatres, libraries and museums, and dying, literally, without a whole shirt in which he could be buried;--and, lastly, the most brilliant and successful soldier of his time,--and almost destitute of the soldier's first quality, personal courage?

      Frederick, by general acclamation surnamed "The Great," was born on January 24, 1712. His education was principally military; his very toys were miniature implements of war suited to his age; and no sooner was he able to handle a musket than he was sent to drill, and forced, like all the Prussian officers of the period, to perform the duties and submit to the privations of a private soldier,--obliged even to stand sentinel before the palace in all the severities of a northern winter. Though rather feeble of constitution, he soon became a proficient in martial exercises. The different branches of science bearing on the art of war he was forced to study; but his leisure hours were devoted to reading French verses, and playing on the flute--pursuits that greatly displeased his royal father, who frequently threw the books into the fire, and the flutes out of the window.

      Frederick William,--the original founder of the pipe-clay science of tactics, and the stick-and-starvation system of organization,--the first inventor of pauper armies, dressed in martial uniforms,--became gradually estranged from his poetical son; and often declared that the dandy, "Der Stutzer" as he styled him, "would ruin everything." He consequently treated him with so much severity, that the young prince attempted to escape, intending to fly to England. The tragical result of the adventure is well known. Frederick was thrown into prison; and his friend and adviser, Katt, beheaded under his window, while soldiers held the prince's head toward the scaffold on which the deed of death was acting. What impression this dreadful scene made on his mind is not known; but it ought to have been a deep and a lasting one.

Frederick and the Austrians after Leuthen.

      It was the king's wish to follow up this execution by the trial of his own son; but the remonstrances of the cabinet of Vienna, of his own council, and, above all, of the upright and honest chaplain, Dr. Reinbeck, reluctantly induced him to forego the intention. It is not probable that he actually intended to put the prince to death, but only to force him to resign his right to the throne in favor of his second brother, William; a proposal to which Frederick constantly refused to assent.

      But though not tried, Frederick was severely punished, for he was confined to the fortress of Kuestrin, where he was obliged to perform the duties of a commissary of finance, and write the reports, and make out the returns with his own hand. All this was, no doubt, of advantage to the future sovereign. On condition of marrying the Princess Elizabeth of Brunswick-Bevern, he was, at the end of eighteen months, released from confinement, and allowed to reside in the small town of Rheinsberg, where he resumed his flute and his French poets, to which the study of French philosophers and French translations from the classics was added. It was during his stay at Rheinsberg that his correspondence with foreign men of letters commenced; and it was here also that, with a party of friends, he formed an order of chivalry termed the "Order of Bayard," the motto of the knights being, "Without fear, and without reproach." But these were vain attempts at knighthood, for there was nothing chivalrous in the character of Frederick.

      Two short journeys performed with his father, and a visit to the army which Prince Eugene commanded on the Rhine in 1734, formed the only interruption to the tranquil and philosophical life of Rheinsberg.

      The first appearance in the field of the army bequeathed by Frederick William to his son, forms an era in modern history; for a belief in its efficiency was the mainspring that urged on the young king to attack the Austrians; and its excellence became the lever with which he ultimately raised his poor and secondary kingdom to the rank of a first-rate European power. The history of the rise and formation of this army, though a very curious one, would necessarily exceed our limits; but no one will be able to write the life of Frederick, and do full justice to the subject, without giving the reader a proper idea of the nature and origin of the engine which helped so mainly to render him great and famous. He had, no doubt, other claims to greatness besides those which his military actions conferred upon him; but it was the splendor of these actions that brought his other merits to light; and little enough would have been heard of the "Philosopher of Sans-Souci," had not the victor of so many fields made him known to the world.

      Frederick, while crown-prince, had not shown any great predilection for military affairs; he was rather pacifically disposed; was even a little taken with the philosophy of Wolf; and greatly captivated by French literature, and by French poetry in particular. It is probable, therefore, that the high opinion generally entertained of the newly-formed army, and the favorable opportunity that fortune offered on his accession to the throne, were the spurs "that pricked him on" to the field.

      The Emperor Charles VI., the last male descendant of the house of Hapsburg, died in October, 1741, leaving his daughter, Maria Theresa, to retain, if possible, his extensive dominions against the various claimants who had not acknowledged the Pragmatic Sanction: an act by which the emperor had bequeathed to her all the possessions of his house. Frederick William had not acknowledged this deed, so that Frederick was not bound by it; and having some well-grounded claims on the duchies of Silesia, prepared to make them good--by force of arms, if necessary--the moment the emperor died. The desire "to be spoken of" was, as he himself confesses, one of his principal motives for action on this occasion.

      The young king resolved to lead the army he had inherited, personally into the field; and as the Austrians were totally unprepared for the visit, the principalities were occupied without resistance. It was not till April 10, 1741, that an Austrian force, under General Neipperg, came to give him the meeting; and there was but little wanting to have rendered the battle of Molwitz, the first of Frederick's fields, the last also. The ground was covered with snow. Both parties were of about equal strength, and took up their ground, as the king himself tells us, in a manner alike unskilful; but, on the part of the tactician, this very want of skill tended to gain the battle; for three battalions of the first line, not finding room to form up, were thrown back en potence on the extremity of the right wing, and, as we shall see, repulsed the Austrian cavalry by their fire at the most critical moment of the battle. The Austrians had been very merry at the expense of the Prussian system of tactics, and had promised to beat the pipe-clay out of their jackets at the first meeting; and now the words of scorn were to be made good.

      After the usual salutation of artillery, the Imperial cavalry, practised in the Turkish wars, fell at full gallop upon the Prussian cavalry of the right wing, and overthrew them in an instant; for, like the infantry, they had been taught only to fire. Following up their success, the Austrian horsemen dashed at the flank of the Prussian infantry; but here the three battalions already mentioned as thrown back en potence, presented a steady front, and by their rapid fire repulsed the assailants, who, having their commander killed, seeing the despised and pipe-clayed warriors standing immovably in their ranks, from which a fire of never-heard rapidity was pouring out in all directions, soon dispersed, leaving their comrades of the infantry to try their fortune against these well-drilled foes. The infantry were not more fortunate than the cavalry. The Prussians stood firm as rocks, and fired three shots to their one; and as both were equally unskilful in the use of arms, the quantity of shots fired naturally decided the day. After a combat of several hours, the Austrians retired from the field, leaving the victory and battle-ground in the hands of the Prussians.

      But where was he, the chieftain of that gallant host, the claimant of dukedoms and principalities, the victor for whose brows a splendid wreath of laurel had been so nobly gained by the blood of the brave? Will blushing glory hide the tale of shame? Alas, no!--vain were the courtly attempts made to conceal the truth, and history is forced to confess that "Frederick the Great from Molwitz deigned to run." In the scene of death, tumult, and confusion, which followed on the overthrow of the Prussian cavalry, the king completely lost his presence of mind, and fled as far as Oppeln, where the Austrian garrison, unfortunately for their cause, received him with a fire of musketry, that made him take another direction. He passed the night in great anxiety at a small country inn twenty miles from the field. On the following morning an aide-de-camp of the Prince of Dessau brought the fugitive king back to his victorious army. "Oh, Frederick," says Berenhorst, "who could then have foretold the glory thou wert destined to acquire and to merit as well as any conqueror and gainer of battles ever did?"

      The war of the Austrian Succession having been now kindled, and Maria Theresa been attacked on all the points of her extensive dominions, Frederick made peace, left his allies to shift for themselves, and, having obtained the principalities of Silesia, retired from the contest. That he made good use of the time and additional sources of strength gained, it is needless to say.

      The splendid success of the Austrian arms against France, the rapid preponderance that Maria Theresa was acquiring, alarmed him, however, for his late conquests; and he determined again to take the field before the strength of the house of Austria should outgrow his power to repress it. Voltaire negotiated for France on this occasion, and represented the danger with rather more than diplomatic ability. On both sides the protocols were as often written in verse as in prose; and Frederick, who hated George II., having told the poet, "Let France declare war against England, and I march," the latter instantly set out for Versailles, and thus gave the signal for the second Silesian War. This was in 1744. The Prussian troops were again victorious in battle, but the general result was not so much in their favor. The king, after taking Prague, was forced to evacuate Bohemia and part of Silesia; and though afterward brilliantly successful, particularly in the fields of Hohenfriedberg, he did not hesitate to make a separate peace the moment a fair opportunity offered. On taking the field, he told the French ambassador, "I am going to play your game, and if the trumps fall to my share, we'll go halves." The best part of the promise was soon forgotten, and the French, Spaniards, and Bavarians left, as before, to fight their own battle, the King of Prussia having, in December, 1745, amicably concluded all his differences with Saxony and Austria. The young and fortunate conqueror now proceeded to improve and adorn his dominions; and it is almost impossible to speak in too high terms of the great things he effected with comparatively small means.

      At this period of his life Frederick was singularly beloved and admired by the new court and world with which he had surrounded himself. His wit, fortune, and activity--a figure marked by distinguished bearing, by beauty of a peculiar kind, even by dress and apparel--a total of personal appearance that impressed itself singularly on the eyes of the beholder, excited general enthusiasm. Imitation is a proof and consequence of it; and many an orthodox believer, who trembled in private, ridiculed religion in public, because he had heard that the king was an atheist; and many a gallant soldier, who hated the sight and smell of snuff, disfigured his nose and lip with rappee, because such was the royal fashion. As a general, he was looked upon as the first of his time. The feeble moment at Molwitz had not become generally known; and the few who had witnessed the unpleasant affair, were too loyal and well-disposed to call it back to their recollection.

      The king certainly did everything to deserve the favorable opinion entertained of him. Arts, science, commerce, and agriculture were encouraged; more than one hundred and thirty villages sprang up on newly drained lands along the banks of the Oder; men of letters and talents were brought to Berlin; theatres, operas, ballets, were established; a sort of German Versailles arose amid the sands of Brandenburg; and the "Garden House outside the gate," which was Frederick William's summer residence and place of recreation, soon sank down to the humble rank of a gardener's lodge to his son's palace! The machinery of government was never carried on with such perfect regularity. The king superintended the whole himself, and that without any regular intercourse with his ministers, some of whom, it is said, he never saw in his life. They furnished him every morning with abridged statements of the business to be transacted, and he wrote his order on the margin of the paper; the affairs of state were all settled in a couple of hours. Literary compositions, in prose and verse, military reviews, meals, and conversation, filled up the rest of the day. "Frederick," says Voltaire, in his vile and mischievous "Memoires," "governed without court, council, or religious establishment" (culte). It was during this brilliant period of the king's reign that the French poet passed some time at Berlin.

      The Austrians, who had ridiculed the drilling and powdering, had paid for their folly in many a bloody field, but had profited by the lesson, and could now move as accurately and fire as quickly as their neighbors. The first combat of the great Seven Years' War, which began in 1756, already proved this to the conviction of all parties. The Prussians purchased a slight advantage by a great loss of blood; and on the very battle-field the general remark was, "These are no longer the old Austrians." On the capture of the Saxon army, which surrendered at Pirna, Frederick, who exacted such unlimited allegiance from his subjects and soldiers, gave a strange proof of inconsistency, and of that contempt with which he seemed to treat the feelings of other men; for, without so much as asking their consent, he ordered all the prisoners to be incorporated into the ranks of his army, and expected to make loyal Prussians of them by merely changing their uniforms. As was to be expected, they deserted immediately.

      The progress of the war is out of our province. Spoiled by success, Frederick, after gaining the dearly purchased victory of Prague, attempted to reduce a city which he could not invest, and in which an army was concentrated. The Austrians advanced with 60,000 men to raise the siege; and the presumptuous king did not hesitate to rush upon them with less than half the number of Prussians; a total defeat, the first he had yet sustained, was the consequence. From this day it is allowed that the Prussian infantry had no longer any superiority over their enemies; henceforth the genius of their sovereign, the confidence he inspired, and the dread entertained of him by his adversaries, are the only advantages they have to depend upon. In the second year of the war he writes to La Motte Fouque,--"Owing to the great losses sustained, our infantry is very much degenerated from what it formerly was, and must not be employed on difficult undertakings." In the third year he says to the same,--"Care must be taken not to render our people timid; they are too much so by nature already."

      Of this battle of Collin we must here report an anecdote characteristic of what Frederick then was. The left wing of the Prussian army was obliquing in admirable order to the left, and already gaining the right of the Austrians, according to the prescribed disposition, when the king, at once losing patience in the most unaccountable manner, sent directions to Prince Maurice of Dessau, who commanded the infantry, ordering him to wheel up and advance upon the enemy. The prince told the officer that the proposed points had not yet been attained, and recommended that the oblique march should still be continued. The king immediately came up in person, and in haughty and overbearing style repeated the order, and, when the Prince of Dessau attempted to explain, drew his sword, and in a fiery and threatening tone exclaimed, "Will he (er) obey, and immediately wheel up and advance?" The officers present were terrified, fancying from his excited manner that he would be guilty of some act of violence; but the prince, of course, bowed and obeyed, and--the battle was soon lost.

      Frederick, as an absolute king and commander, had, no doubt, many advantages over the ill-combined coalition by which he was assailed; but the mass of brute force was so great on the part of his adversaries, that he was more than once on the very eve of being crushed. At one time, indeed, he contemplated the commission of suicide.

      The wonderful battles of Rossbach and Leuthen[1] reconciled him to life. The former was not, as is well known, his work, as it was almost gained before he well knew what was going on: it was due principally to the indomitable bravery of Zeidlitz and the cavalry. His conduct at Leuthen could not be surpassed; and his manner of promoting General Prince Maurice of Dessau, who had most nobly aided him in the battle, was highly characteristic. "I congratulate you on the victory, Field-marshal," said Frederick, when they met on the field. The prince was still so much occupied with what was going forward, that he did not mark the exact words the king had used, till the latter again called out, "Don't you hear, Field-marshal, that I congratulate you on the victory gained?" when the newly promoted made due acknowledgments in course. Frederick, in his great contest, was assisted by an English, Hessian, and Hanoverian army, as well as by English subsidies; but, making full allowance for the value of these auxiliaries, it must still be admitted that great genius and courage were required to enable a King of Prussia to resist the combined forces of France, Austria, Russia, and Sweden. Frederick effected this, and his conduct deservedly obtained for him the name of "Great."

      During his first two wars, and till the period of the battle of Rossbach in the third war, he always kept at a distance from the scene, which may be allowed in a commander who has to overlook the whole, and is not called upon to defend posts or lead attacks in person. After the above period, however, and when he perceived that the nature of the contest, and public opinion itself, demanded greater exertions from him, he several times, on due deliberation, exposed himself to the danger of an ordinary brigadier. Several occasions of this kind might be specified. At the Battle of Kunersdorf, when attempting to assemble some remnants of the infantry, who were still holding their ground here and there, his horse was shot under him. At Liegnitz, a spent ball struck him on the calf of the leg. At Torgau again, when a newly advanced brigade began to give way, like all its predecessors, he rode into the heaviest fire of musketry, and received a shot on the breast, which penetrated his shirt, and for some moments deprived him so completely of all power of breathing, that he was believed to be dead.[2]

      Frederick outlived his last great war for twenty-three years, and died in 1786, in the seventy-fourth year of his age. Every hour of this last period of his life was assiduously occupied, almost to the hour of his death, in zealous exertions to improve his country and ameliorate the condition of his people. He certainly effected great things, but left much that he might have achieved totally unattempted. Living in the solitude which his dazzling fame had cast around him, separated from all immediate intercourse with his species by the very barrier his glory had interposed between him and other men, he acted his part to admiration before the crowds who, from far and near, came to behold him; but, blinded by the halo that encompassed him, he saw little, and deemed less, perhaps, of mankind and their doings. In the mass they may possibly not be deserving of high admiration, but Frederick had never done them even justice; and in the latter years of his life, he entirely lost sight of the direction they were taking; he formed an ideal world to himself, and governed his country and subjects accordingly. He was the admired wonder of the age; a brilliant, if not spotless sun, that cast far aloft its vivid beams, indeed, but remained stationary and concentrated within itself, while all surrounding nature was in motion and in progress.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.