Frederick the Great

   Frederick the Great (1712-1786), or Frederick II, king of Prussia, was a brilliant general, a wily diplomat, and an energetic administrator, who made his small and relatively poor country a rival of Austria for con­trol of Germany and one of the greatest powers in Europe.

   His character as a youth did not give promise of his future. His chief interests were musical and literary, and these he kept all his life. He hated the rigid military education his father forced upon him and at 18 years of age tried to flee the kingdom. He was caught, and his father forced him to watch the execution of his companion in flight.

   After Frederick became king in 1740, he devoted himself completely to increasing Prussian power. The same year he invaded Silesia, an Austrian possession, cleverly moving before other European nations, which shortly opened the War of the Austrian Succession. Silesia, unlike Frederick's home duchies of Brandenburg and Pomerania, was prosperous, populous, and indus­trial. In 1742 Maria Theresa of Austria recognized Frederick's conquest. However, Frederick invaded her territory twice more, in 1744 and 1756, to hold Silesia. In the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) he was opposed by Austria, Russia, and France, each of which was much larger and more powerful than Prussia. At one point Frederick thought that all was lost except the Prussian royal family itself. He won eventually, not only because of his fine army and his brilliant generalship but because of his perseverance, the inefficiency of his opponents, and the withdrawal of Russia from the war in 1762.

   With the addition of West Prussia in 1773, through the first partition of Poland, Frederick united Prussia geographically for the first time. This victory was diplomatic, not military. Russia had just defeated Turkey but feared war with Austria over the spoils. Frederick suggested that Turkey be left intact and that instead Russia and Austria should satisfy themselves with a portion each of hopelessly weak Poland, Prussia receiving West Prussia as its share in the partition.

   Frederick carried out various domestic reforms. Among these were reforms of the law courts, codification of Prussian laws, and government encouragement of business, industry, and agriculture. Economic growth meant larger tax collections, which Frederick needed to finance the army, the source of Prussian power. In addition, he granted almost complete freedom of religion, abolished torture, and freed the serfs on his own estates. Because of these reforms, because of his patronage of Voltaire and other French thinkers, and because of his own writings on political theory, Freder­ick is known as one of the enlightened despots. However, he concentrated the rule of Prussia so exclusively in his own hands, the sole function of his officials being to carry out his commands, that at his death he left no one trained to rule.