Frederick the Great and Prussia



The Hohenzollerns

The Hohenzollern family split into two branches, the Catholic Swabian branch and the Protestant Franconian branch. The latter transformed from a minor German princely family into one of the most important dynasties in Europe.

Learning Objectives

Explain who the Hohenzollerns were and the progression of their relationship with and status within the Holy Roman Empire.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The House of Hohenzollern is a dynasty of Hohenzollern, Brandenburg, Prussia, the German Empire, and Romania. The family arose in the area around the town of Hechingen in Swabia during the 11th century. The family split into two branches, the Catholic Swabian branch and the Protestant Franconian branch, which later became the Brandenburg-Prussian branch.
  • The Margraviate of Brandenburg was a major principality of the Holy Roman Empire from 1157 to 1806. It played a pivotal role in the history of Germany and Central Europe. The House of Hohenzollern came to the throne of Brandenburg in 1415. Frederick VI of Nuremberg was officially recognized as Margrave and Prince-elector Frederick I of Brandenburg at the Council of Constance in 1415.
  • When Duke of Prussia Albert Frederick died in 1618 without having had a son, his son-in-law John Sigismund, at the time the prince-elector of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, inherited the Duchy of Prussia. He then ruled both territories in a personal union that came to be known as Brandenburg-Prussia. Prussia lay outside the Holy Roman Empire and the electors of Brandenburg held it as a fief of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth to which the electors paid homage.
  • The electors of Brandenburg spent the next two centuries attempting to gain lands to unite their separate territories and form one geographically contiguous domain. In the second half of the 17th century, Frederick William, the “Great Elector,” developed Brandenburg-Prussia into a major power. The electors succeeded in acquiring full sovereignty over Prussia in 1657.
  • In return for aiding Emperor Leopold I during the War of the Spanish Succession, Frederick William’s son, Frederick III, was allowed to elevate Prussia to the status of a kingdom. In 1701, Frederick crowned himself Frederick I, King of Prussia. Prussia, unlike Brandenburg, lay outside the Holy Roman Empire. Legally, Brandenburg was still part of the Holy Roman Empire so the Hohenzollerns continued to use the additional title of Elector of Brandenburg for the remainder of the empire’s run.
  • The feudal designation of the Margraviate of Brandenburg ended with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, which made the Hohenzollerns de jure as well as de facto sovereigns over it. It became part of the German Empire in 1871 during the Prussian-led unification of Germany.

Key Terms

  • The Margraviate of Brandenburg: A major principality of the Holy Roman Empire from 1157 to 1806. Also known as the March of Brandenburg, it played a pivotal role in the history of Germany and Central Europe. Its ruling margraves were established as prestigious prince-electors in the Golden Bull of 1356, allowing them to vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • The House of Hohenzollern: A dynasty of Hohenzollern, Brandenburg, Prussia, the German Empire, and Romania. The family arose in the area around the town of Hechingen in Swabia during the 11th century and took their name from the Hohenzollern Castle. The family split into two branches, the Catholic Swabian branch and the Protestant Franconian branch, which later became the Brandenburg-Prussian branch.
  • fief: The central element of feudalism, consisting of heritable property or rights granted by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty (or “in fee”) in return for a form of feudal allegiance and service, usually given by the personal ceremonies of homage and fealty. The fees were often lands or revenue-producing real property held in feudal land tenure.
  • personal union: The combination of two or more states that have the same monarch while their boundaries, laws, and interests remain distinct. It differs from a federation in that each constituent state has an independent government, whereas a unitary state is united by a central government. Its ruler does not need to be a hereditary monarch.
  • the Golden Bull of 1356: A decree issued by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg and Metz headed by the Emperor Charles IV, which fixed, for a period of more than four hundred years, important aspects of the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire.

House of Hohenzollern

The House of Hohenzollern is a dynasty of Hohenzollern, Brandenburg, Prussia, the German Empire, and Romania. The family arose in the area around the town of Hechingen in Swabia during the 11th century and took their name from the Hohenzollern Castle. The first ancestor of the Hohenzollerns was mentioned in 1061, but the family split into two branches, the Catholic Swabian branch and the Protestant Franconian branch, which later became the Brandenburg-Prussian branch. The Swabian branch ruled the principalities of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (both fiefs of the Holy Roman Empire) until 1849 and ruled Romania from 1866 to 1947. The cadet Franconian branch of the House of Hohenzollern was founded by Conrad I, Burgrave of Nuremberg (1186-1261). Beginning in the 16th century, this branch of the family became Protestant and decided on expansion through marriage and the purchase of surrounding lands. The family supported the Hohenstaufen and Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire during the 12th to 15th centuries and was rewarded with several territorial grants. In the first phase, the family gradually added to their lands, at first with many small acquisitions in the Franconian region of Germany (Ansbach in 1331 and Kulmbach in 1340). In the second phase, the family expanded further with large acquisitions in the Brandenburg and Prussian regions of Germany and current Poland (Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1417 and Duchy of Prussia in 1618). These acquisitions eventually transformed the Hohenzollerns from a minor German princely family into one of the most important dynasties in Europe.

Margraviate of Brandenburg

The Margraviate of Brandenburg was a major principality of the Holy Roman Empire from 1157 to 1806. Also known as the March of Brandenburg, it played a pivotal role in the history of Germany and Central Europe. Its ruling margraves were established as prestigious prince-electors in the Golden Bull of 1356, allowing them to vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. The state thus became additionally known as Electoral Brandenburg or the Electorate of Brandenburg. The House of Hohenzollern came to the throne of Brandenburg in 1415. Frederick VI of Nuremberg was officially recognized as Margrave and Prince-elector Frederick I of Brandenburg at the Council of Constance in 1415.

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Portrait of Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg, also called Frederick VI of Nuremberg: In 1411 Frederick VI, Burgrave of Nuremberg was appointed governor of Brandenburg in order to restore order and stability. At the Council of Constance in 1415, King Sigismund elevated Frederick to the rank of Elector and Margrave of Brandenburg as Frederick I.

Frederick made Berlin his residence, although he retired to his Franconian possessions in 1425. He granted governance of Brandenburg to his eldest son John the Alchemist while retaining the electoral dignity for himself. The next elector, Frederick II, forced the submission of Berlin and Cölln, setting an example for the other towns of Brandenburg. He reacquired the Neumark from the Teutonic Knights and began its rebuilding. Brandenburg accepted the Protestant Reformation in 1539. The population has remained largely Lutheran since, although some later electors converted to Calvinism. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Brandenburg was recognized as the possessor of territories, which were more than 100 kilometers from the borders of Brandenburg and formed the nucleus of the later Prussian Rhineland.

Brandenburg-Prussia

When Duke of Prussia Albert Frederick died in 1618 without having had a son, his son-in-law John Sigismund, at the time the prince-elector of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, inherited the Duchy of Prussia. He then ruled both territories in a personal union that came to be known as Brandenburg-Prussia. Prussia lay outside the Holy Roman Empire and the electors of Brandenburg held it as a fief of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth to which the electors paid homage.

The electors of Brandenburg spent the next two centuries attempting to gain lands to unite their separate territories (the Mark Brandenburg, the territories in the Rhineland and Westphalia, and Ducal Prussia) and form one geographically contiguous domain. In the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Brandenburg-Prussia acquired Farther Pomerania and made it the Province of Pomerania. In the second half of the 17th century, Frederick William, the “Great Elector,” developed Brandenburg-Prussia into a major power. The electors succeeded in acquiring full sovereignty over Prussia in 1657.

Kingdom of Prussia

In return for aiding Emperor Leopold I during the War of the Spanish Succession, Frederick William’s son, Frederick III, was allowed to elevate Prussia to the status of a kingdom. In 1701, Frederick crowned himself Frederick I, King of Prussia. Prussia, unlike Brandenburg, lay outside the Holy Roman Empire, within which only the emperor and the ruler of Bohemia could call themselves king. As king was a more prestigious title than prince-elector, the territories of the Hohenzollerns became known as the Kingdom of Prussia, although their power base remained in Brandenburg. Legally, Brandenburg was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by the Hohenzollerns in personal union with the Prussian kingdom over which they were fully sovereign. For this reason, the Hohenzollerns continued to use the additional title of Elector of Brandenburg for the remainder of the empire’s run. However, by this time the emperor’s authority over the empire had become merely nominal. The various territories of the empire acted more or less as de facto sovereign states and only acknowledged the emperor’s overlordship over them in a formal way. For this reason, Brandenburg soon came to be treated as de facto part of the Prussian kingdom rather than a separate entity.

From 1701 to 1946, Brandenburg’s history was largely that of the state of Prussia, which established itself as a major power in Europe during the 18th century. King Frederick William I of Prussia, the “Soldier-King,” modernized the Prussian Army, while his son Frederick the Great achieved glory and infamy with the Silesian Wars and Partitions of Poland. The feudal designation of the Margraviate of Brandenburg ended with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, which made the Hohenzollerns de jure as well as de facto sovereigns over it. It was replaced with the Province of Brandenburg in 1815 following the Napoleonic Wars. Brandenburg, along with the rest of Prussia, became part of the German Empire in 1871 during the Prussian-led unification of Germany.

Frederick the Great

In his youth, Frederick the Great was a sensitive man with great appreciation for intellectual development, arts, and education. Despite his father’s fears, this did not prevent him from becoming a brilliant military strategist during his later reign as King of Prussia.

Learning Objectives

Describe elements of Frederick II’s upbringing and his transformation into a Prussian leader

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Frederick, the son of Frederick William I and his wife Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, was born in Berlin in 1712. He was brought up by Huguenot governesses and tutors and learned French and German simultaneously. In spite of his father’s desire that his education be entirely religious and pragmatic, the young Frederick preferred music, literature, and French culture, which clashed with his father’s militarism.
  • Frederick found an ally in his sister, Wilhelmine, with whom he remained close for life. At age 16, he formed an attachment to the king’s 13-year-old page, Peter Karl Christoph Keith. Margaret Goldsmith, a biographer of Frederick’s, suggests the attachment was of a sexual nature and as a result Keith was sent away and Frederick temporarily relocated.
  • When he was 18, Frederick plotted to flee to England with his close friend Hans Hermann von Katte and other junior army officers. Frederick and Katte were subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Küstrin. Because they were army officers who had tried to flee Prussia for Great Britain, Frederick William leveled an accusation of treason against the pair. The king forced Frederick to watch the decapitation of Katte.
  • Frederick married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a Protestant relative of the Austrian Habsburgs, in 1733. He had little in common with his bride and resented the political marriage. Once Frederick secured the throne in 1740 after his father’s death, he immediately separated from his wife.
  • Prince Frederick was 28 years old when he acceded to the throne of Prussia. His goal was to modernize and unite his vulnerably disconnected lands, which he largely succeeded at through aggressive military and foreign policies. Contrary to his father’s fears, Frederick proved himself a courageous soldier and an extremely skillful strategist.

Key Terms

  • enlightened absolutism: Also known as enlightened despotism or benevolent absolutism, a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. The monarchs who embraced it followed the participles of rationality. Some of them fostered education and allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property. They held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern in lieu of any other governments.
  • Anti-Machiavel: A 1740 essay by Frederick the Great consisting of a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal of The Prince, the 16th-century book by Niccolò Machiavelli, and Machiavellianism in general.
    Frederick’s argument is essentially moral in nature. His own views reflect a largely Enlightenment ideal of rational and benevolent statesmanship: the king, Frederick contends, is charged with maintaining the health and prosperity of his subjects.
  • The Prince: A 16th-century political treatise by the Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s ideas on how to accrue honor and power as a leader had a profound impact on political leaders throughout the modern West.
    Although the work advises princes how to tyrannize, Machiavelli is generally thought to have preferred some form of free republic.

Frederick the Great: Early Childhood

Frederick, the son of Frederick William I and his wife, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, was born in Berlin in 1712. His birth was particularly welcomed by his grandfather, Frederick I, as his two previous grandsons both died in infancy. With the death of Frederick I in 1713, Frederick William became King of Prussia, thus making young Frederick the crown prince.

The new king wished for his sons and daughters to be educated not as royalty but as simple folk. He had been educated by a Frenchwoman, Madame de Montbail, who later became Madame de Rocoulle, and wanted her to educate his children. Frederick was brought up by Huguenot governesses and tutors and learned French and German simultaneously. In spite of his father’s desire that his education be entirely religious and pragmatic, the young Frederick, with the help of his tutor Jacques Duhan, secretly procured a 3,000-volume library of poetry, Greek and Roman classics, and French philosophy to supplement his official lessons. Frederick William I, popularly dubbed the Soldier-King, possessed a violent temper and ruled Brandenburg-Prussia with absolute authority. As Frederick grew, his preference for music, literature, and French culture clashed with his father’s militarism, resulting in frequent beatings and humiliation from his father.

Crown Prince

Frederick found an ally in his sister Wilhelmine, with whom he remained close for life. At age 16, he formed an attachment to the king’s 13-year-old page, Peter Karl Christoph Keith. Margaret Goldsmith, a biographer of Frederick’s, suggests the attachment was of a sexual nature. As a result, Keith was sent away to an unpopular regiment near the Dutch frontier, while Frederick was temporarily sent to his father’s hunting lodge in order “to repent of his sin.” Around the same time, he became close friends with Hans Hermann von Katte.

When he was 18, Frederick plotted to flee to England with Katte and other junior army officers. Frederick and Katte were subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Küstrin. Because they were army officers who had tried to flee Prussia for Great Britain, Frederick William leveled an accusation of treason against the pair. The king briefly threatened the crown prince with the death penalty, then considered forcing Frederick to renounce the succession in favor of his brother, Augustus William, although either option would have been difficult to justify to the Imperial Diet (general assembly) of the Holy Roman Empire. The king forced Frederick to watch the decapitation of Katte at Küstrin, leaving the crown prince to faint right before the fatal blow was struck.

Frederick was granted a royal pardon and released from his cell, although he remained stripped of his military rank. Instead of returning to Berlin, he was forced to remain in Küstrin and began rigorous schooling in statecraft and administration. Tensions eased slightly when Frederick William visited Küstrin a year later and Frederick was allowed to visit Berlin on the occasion of his sister Wilhelmine’s marriage to Margrave Frederick of Bayreuth in 1731. The crown prince returned to Berlin after finally being released from his tutelage at Küstrin a year later.

A number of royal family members were considered candidates for marriage, but Frederick eventually married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a Protestant relative of the Austrian Habsburgs, in 1733. He had little in common with his bride and resented the political marriage as an example of the Austrian interference that had plagued Prussia since 1701. Once Frederick secured the throne in 1740 after his father’s death, he immediately separated from his wife and prevented Elisabeth from visiting his court in Potsdam, granting her instead Schönhausen Palace and apartments at the Berliner Stadtschloss. In later years, Frederick would pay his wife formal visits only once a year. Recent major biographers are unequivocal that Frederick was homosexual and that his sexuality was central to his life and character.

Portrait of Frederick the Great

Frederick as Crown Prince by Antoine Pesne, 1739.

Frederick would come to the throne with an exceptional inheritance: an army of 80,000 men. By 1770, after two decades of punishing war alternating with intervals of peace, Frederick doubled the size of the huge army,  which during his reign would consume 86% of the state budget.

Becoming the Leader

Frederick was restored to the Prussian Army as colonel. When Prussia provided a contingent of troops to aid Austria during the War of the Polish Succession, Frederick studied under Prince Eugene of Savoy during the campaign against France on the Rhine. Frederick William, weakened by gout brought about by the campaign and seeking to reconcile with his heir, granted Frederick Schloss Rheinsberg in Rheinsberg, north of Neuruppin. In Rheinsberg, Frederick assembled a small number of musicians, actors, and other artists. He spent his time reading, watching dramatic plays, and making and listening to music, and regarded this time as one of the happiest of his life.

The works of Niccolò Machiavelli, such as The Prince, were considered a guideline for the behavior of a king in Frederick’s age. In 1739, Frederick finished his Anti-Machiavel, an idealistic refutation of Machiavelli. Instead of promoting more democratic principles of the Enlightenment, Frederick was a proponent of enlightened absolutism. It was written in French and published anonymously in 1740, but Voltaire distributed it in Amsterdam to great popularity. Frederick’s years dedicated to the arts instead of politics ended upon the 1740 death of Frederick William and his inheritance of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Prince Frederick was 28 years old when he acceded to the throne of Prussia. His goal was to modernize and unite his vulnerably disconnected lands, and he largely succeeded through aggressive military and foreign policies. Contrary to his father’s fears, Frederick proved himself a courageous soldier and an extremely skillful strategist. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte viewed the Prussian king as the greatest tactical genius of all time. After the Seven Years’ War, the Prussian military acquired a formidable reputation across Europe. Esteemed for their efficiency and success in battle, Frederick’s army became a model emulated by other European powers, most notably Russia and France. Frederick was also an influential military theorist whose analysis emerged from his extensive personal battlefield experience and covered issues of strategy, tactics, mobility and logistics. Even the later military reputation of Prussia under Bismarck and Moltke rested on the weight of mid-eighteenth century military developments and the territorial expansion of Frederick the Great. Despite his dazzling success as a military commander, however, Frederick was not a fan of protracted warfare.

Prussia Under Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great significantly modernized Prussian economy, administration, judicial system, education, finance, and agriculture, but never attempted to change the social order based on the dominance of the landed nobility.

Learning Objectives

Analyze Frederick the Great’s domestic reforms and his relationship with the Junker class

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Frederick the Great helped transform Prussia from a European backwater to an economically strong and politically reformed state. During his reign, the effects of the Seven Years’ War and the gaining of Silesia greatly changed the economy.
  • Frederick organized a system of indirect taxation, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxation. He also followed Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky’s recommendations in the field of toll levies and import restrictions and protected Prussian industries with high tariffs and minimal restrictions on domestic trade.
  • Frederick gave his state a modern bureaucracy,  reformed the judicial system, and made it possible for men not of noble stock to become judges and senior bureaucrats. He also allowed freedom of speech, the press, and literature, and abolished most uses of judicial torture. He also reformed the currency system and thus stabilized prices. However, he did not reform the existing social order.
  • At the time, Prussia’s education system was seen as one of the best in Europe. Frederick laid the basic foundations of what would eventually became a Prussian primary education system. In 1763, he issued a decree for the first Prussian general school law based on the principles developed by Johann Julius Hecker.
  • Frederick was keenly interested in land use, especially draining swamps and opening new farmland for colonizers who would increase the kingdom’s food supply. The resulting program created 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of new farmland, but also eliminated vast swaths of natural habitat.
  • While Frederick was largely non-practicing and tolerated all faiths in his realm, Protestantism became the favored religion and Catholics were not chosen for higher state positions. His attitudes towards Catholics and Jews were very selective and thus in some cases oppressive, while in others relatively tolerant.

Key Terms

  • Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents, and affected Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other. For the first time, aiming to curtail Britain and Prussia’s ever-growing might, France formed a grand coalition of its own, which ended with failure as Britain rose as the world’s predominant power, altering the European balance of power.
  • Freemason: A member of fraternal organizations that trace their origins to the local fraternities of stonemasons, which from the end of the 14th century regulated the qualifications of stonemasons and their interactions with authorities and clients. There is no clear mechanism by which these local trade organizations became the fraternal organizations gathering members of similar ideological and intellectual interests, but the rituals and passwords known from operative lodges around the turn of the 17th–18th centuries show continuity with the rituals developed in the later 18th century by members who did not practice the physical craft.
  • Junkers: The members of the landed nobility in Prussia. They owned great estates that were maintained and worked by peasants with few rights. They were an important factor in Prussian and, after 1871, German military, political, and diplomatic leadership.

Frederick the Great and the Modernization of Prussia

As King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, Frederick the Great helped transform Prussia from a European backwater to an economically strong and politically reformed state. During his reign, the effects of the Seven Years’ War and the gaining of Silesia greatly changed the economy. The conquest of Silesia gave Prussia’s fledgling industries access to raw materials and fertile agricultural lands. With the help of French experts, he organized a system of indirect taxation, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxation. He also commissioned Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, a Prussian merchant with a successful trade in trinkets, silk, taft, and porcelain, to promote the trade and open a silk factory that employed 1,500 people. Frederick followed Gotzovsky’s recommendations in the fields of toll levies and import restrictions. He also protected Prussian industries with high tariffs and minimal restrictions on domestic trade. In 1763, when Gotzkowsky went bankrupt during a financial crisis, Frederick took over his porcelain factory. The factory was eventually turned into the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin (Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, or KPM), which still operates today. In 1781, Frederick decided to make coffee a royal monopoly. Disabled soldiers were employed to spy on citizens sniffing in search of illegally roasted coffee, much to the annoyance of general population.

Frederick also gave his state a modern bureaucracy whose mainstay until 1760 was the able War and Finance Minister Adam Ludwig von Blumenthal, succeeded in 1764 by his nephew Joachim, who ran the ministry to the end of the reign and beyond. He reformed the judicial system and made it possible for men not of noble stock to become judges and senior bureaucrats. He also allowed freedom of speech, the press and literature, and abolished most uses of judicial torture, except the flogging of soldiers as punishment for desertion. The death penalty could only be carried out with a warrant signed by the King himself, and Frederick signed a handful of these warrants per year.

At the time, Prussia’s education system was seen as one of the best in Europe. Frederick laid the basic foundations of what would eventually became a Prussian primary education system. In 1763, he issued a decree for the first Prussian general school law based on the principles developed by Johann Julius Hecker. In 1748, Hecker had founded the first teacher’s seminary in Prussia. The decree expanded the existing schooling system significantly and required that all young citizens, both girls and boys, be educated by mainly municipality-funded schools from the age of 5 to 13 or 14. Prussia was among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and generally compulsory primary education, although it took several decades before universal education was successfully enacted.

The circulation of depreciated money kept prices high. To revalue the thaler, the Mint Edict of May 1763 was proposed. This stabilized the rates of depreciated coins that would not be accepted and provided for payment of taxes in currency of pre-Seven Years’ War value. Prussia used a thaler containing 1/14th of a Cologne mark of silver. Many other rulers soon followed the steps of Frederick in reforming their own currencies, which resulted in a shortage of ready money, thus lowering prices.

An important aspect of Frederick’s efforts is the absence of social order reform. In his modernization of military and administration, he relied on the class of Junkers, the Prussian land-owning nobility. Under his rule, they continued to hold their privileges, including the right to hold serfs. Frederick’s attempts to protect the peasantry from cruel treatment and oppression by landlords and lower their labor obligations never really succeeded because of the economic, political, and military influence the Junkers exercised. As the bulwark of the ruling House of Hohenzollern, the Junkers controlled the Prussian army, leading in political influence and social status, and owned immense estates, especially in the north-eastern half of Germany.

Agriculture

Frederick was keenly interested in land use, especially draining swamps and opening new farmland for colonizers who would increase the kingdom’s food supply. He called it “peopling Prussia.” About a thousand new villages were founded in his reign that attracted 300,000 immigrants from outside Prussia. Using improved technology enabled him to create new farmland through a massive drainage program in the country’s Oderbruch marshland. This strategy created roughly 150,000 acres of new farmland, but also eliminated vast swaths of natural habitat, destroyed the region’s biodiversity, and displaced numerous native plant and animal communities. Frederick saw this project as the “taming” and “conquering” of nature, which, in its wild form, he regarded as “useless” and “barbarous” (an attitude that reflected his Enlightenment -era, rationalist sensibilities). He presided over the construction of canals for bringing crops to market and introduced new crops, especially potato and turnip, to the country. Control of grain prices was of Frederick’s greatest achievements in that it allowed populations to survive in areas where harvests were poor. Frederick also loved animals and founded the first veterinary school in Germany. Unusual for his time and aristocratic background, he criticized hunting as cruel, rough, and uneducated.

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Der König überall by Robert Müller, Berlin, 1886.

Frederick the Great inspects the potato harvest outside Neustettin (now Szczecinek, Poland), Eastern Pomerania. He introduced new crops, especially the potato and the turnip, to the country. and because of it he was sometimes called Der Kartoffelkönig (the Potato King).

Religious Policies

While Frederick was largely non-practicing (in contrast to his devoutly Calvinist father) and tolerated all faiths in his realm, Protestantism became the favored religion and Catholics were not chosen for higher state positions. Frederick was known to be more tolerant of Jews and Catholics than many neighboring German states, although he expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments and, in territories taken over from Poland, persecuted Polish Roman Catholic churches by confiscating goods and property, exercising strict control of churches, and interfering in church administration. Like many leading figures in the Age of Enlightenment, Frederick was a Freemason and his membership legitimized the group and protected it against charges of subversion.

Frederick retained Jesuits as teachers in Silesia, Warmia, and the Netze District after their suppression by Pope Clement XIV. Just like Catherine II, he recognized the educational skills the Jesuits had as an asset for the nation and was interested in attracting a diversity of skills to his country, whether from Jesuit teachers, Huguenot citizens, or Jewish merchants and bankers.

As Frederick made more wasteland arable, Prussia looked for new colonists to settle the land. To encourage immigration, he repeatedly emphasized that nationality and religion were of no concern to him. This policy allowed Prussia’s population to recover very quickly from the considerable losses it suffered during Frederick’s wars.

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The Flute Concert of Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel, 1852, depicts Frederick playing the flute in his music room at Sanssouci, his favorite residence in Potsdam. C. P. E. Bach accompanies him on the harpsichord.

Additionally to reforming efforts, Frederick was a patron of music as well as a gifted musician who played the transverse flute. He composed more than 100 sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies. His court musicians included C. P. E. Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, Carl Heinrich Graun and Franz Benda. A meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 in Potsdam led to Bach’s writing The Musical Offering.

The War of Austrian Succession

Frederick the Great’s 1740 invasion of resource-rich and strategically located Silesia, marked the onset of the War of Austrian Succession and aimed to unify the disconnected lands under Frederick’s rule.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate Frederick the Great’s actual goals against his stated rationale for the War of Austrian Succession

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1713, Charles VI of the Habsburg dynasty issued an edict known as the Pragmatic Sanction, which aimed to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Pragmatic Sanction did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire  since 1438.
  • In 1740, Charles VI died and his daughter Maria Theresa succeeded him, but not as Holy Roman Emperor. The plan was for her to succeed to the hereditary domains and her husband, Francis Stephen, to be elected Holy Roman Emperor.
  • Hoping to unify his disconnected lands and thus desiring the prosperous, resource-rich, and strategically located Austrian province of Silesia, Frederick declined to endorse the Pragmatic Sanction. He disputed the succession of Maria Theresa to the Habsburg lands while simultaneously making his own claim on Silesia. Accordingly, the War of Austrian Succession began on December 16, 1740, when Frederick invaded and quickly occupied the province. Politically, he used the 1537 Treaty of Brieg as a pretext for the invasion.
  • The War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) escalated and eventually involved most of the powers of Europe. Austria was supported by Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, the traditional enemies of France, as well as the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Electorate of Saxony. France and Prussia were allied with the Electorate of Bavaria.
  • The Prussian army proved to be a powerful force and ultimately Prussia claimed victory in the First Silesian War (1740–1742). Peace terms of the 1742 Treaty of Breslau gave Prussia all of Silesia and Glatz County with the Austrians retaining only a portion of Upper Silesia called “Austrian or Czech Silesia.”
  • Frederick renewed his alliance with the French and preemptively invaded Bohemia in 1744, thus beginning the Second Silesian War (1744–1745). Frederick’s victories on the battlefields of Bohemia and Silesia again forced his enemies to seek peace terms. Under the terms of the 1745 Treaty of Dresden, Austria was forced to adhere to the terms of the Treaty of Breslau, but Frederick recognized the election of Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis I, as the Holy Roman Emperor.

Key Terms

  • War of Austrian Succession: A war (1740–1748) that involved most of the powers of Europe over the question of Maria Theresa’s succession to the realms of the House of Habsburg. The war included King George’s War in North America, the War of Jenkins’ Ear (which formally began in October 1739), the First Carnatic War in India, the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, and the First and Second Silesian Wars.
  • Pragmatic Sanction: An edict issued by Charles VI in 1713 to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht, and the Austrian Netherlands. The edict did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.
  • personal union: The combination of two or more states with the same monarch but distinct boundaries, laws, and interests. It differs from a federation in that each constituent state has an independent government, whereas a unitary state is united by a central government. The ruler does not need to be a hereditary monarch.

Background

In 1713, Charles VI of the Habsburg dynasty issued an edict known as the Pragmatic Sanction. It aimed to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht ( Duchy of Milan, Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily), and the Austrian Netherlands. However, the Pragmatic Sanction did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.

In 1740, Charles VI died and his daughter Maria Theresa succeeded him as Queen of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, and Duchess of Parma. She was not, however, a candidate for the title of Holy Roman Emperor, which had never been held by a woman. The plan was for her to succeed to the hereditary domains and her husband, Francis Stephen, to be elected Holy Roman Emperor.

Also in 1740, Frederick the Great of the Hohenzollern dynasty took the title of King of Prussia upon his father’s death. As such, Frederick was also Elector of Brandenburg because the two remained in personal union since the early 17th century. Legally, Brandenburg was still part of the Holy Roman Empire but the Hohenzollerns were fully sovereign rulers of the Prussian Kingdom. Theoretically, this positioned Frederick as a sovereign king of Prussia but under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor as the ruler of Brandenburg. In reality, by the 18th century Emperor’s authority over the Empire had become merely nominal. The various territories of the Empire acted more or less as de facto sovereign states and only acknowledged the Emperor’s overlordship over them in a formal way. For this reason, Brandenburg soon came to be treated as de facto part of the Prussian kingdom rather than a separate entity.

Frederick the Great and Silesia

Hoping to unify his disconnected lands and thus desiring the prosperous, resource-rich, and strategically located Austrian province of Silesia, Frederick declined to endorse the Pragmatic Sanction. He disputed the succession of Maria Theresa to the Habsburg lands while simultaneously making his own claim on Silesia. Accordingly, the War of Austrian Succession began on December 16, 1740, when Frederick invaded and quickly occupied the province. He was worried that if he did not move to occupy the region, Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, would seek to connect his own disparate lands through Silesia. Politically, Frederick used the 1537 Treaty of Brieg as a pretext for the invasion. Under the treaty, the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg were to inherit the Duchy of Brieg, an autonomous region of Silesia. However, the 1537 agreement had been rejected by the Bohemian king Ferdinand I of Habsburg soon after it was reached and never came into effect.

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The Pragmatic Sanction, Act of Emperor Charles VI

Since their marriage in 1708, Charles and his wife Elizabeth Christine had not had children, and since 1711 Charles had been the sole surviving male member of the House of Habsburg. Charles’s elder brother Joseph I had died without male issue, making accession of a female a very plausible contingency. Charles VI needed to take extraordinary measures to avoid a succession dispute. He was, indeed, ultimately succeeded by his elder daughter Maria Theresa (born 1717). Her accession in 1740 still resulted in the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) escalated and eventually involved most of the powers of Europe. It included King George’s War in North America, the War of Jenkins’ Ear (formally began in 1739), the First Carnatic War in India, the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, and the war over Silesia (First and Second Silesian Wars). Austria was supported by Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, the traditional enemies of France, as well as the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Electorate of Saxony. France and Prussia were allied with the Electorate of Bavaria.

Silesian Wars

Frederick occupied Silesia except for three fortresses at Glogau, Brieg and Breslau. The first real battle he faced in Silesia was the Battle of Mollwitz in April 1741, which was the first time Frederick would command an army and later saw as his “school.” In early September 1741, the French entered the war against Austria and together with their allies, the Electorate of Bavaria, marched on Prague. With Prague under threat, the Austrians pulled their army out of Silesia to defend Bohemia. When Frederick pursued them into Bohemia and blocked their path to Prague, the Austrians attacked him in May 1742. The Prussian Cavalry proved to be a powerful force and ultimately Prussia claimed victory. Frederick forced the Austrians to seek peace with him in the First Silesian War (1740–1742). Peace terms of the Treaty of Breslau between the Austrians and the Prussians negotiated in 1742 gave Prussia all of Silesia and Glatz County with the Austrians retaining only a portion of Upper Silesia called “Austrian or Czech Silesia.” Prussian possession of Silesia gave the kingdom control over the navigable Oder River.

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Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg by Carl Röchling 1913).

On June 4, 1745, Frederick trapped a joint force of Saxons and Austrians that had crossed the mountains to invade Silesia. After allowing them to cross the mountains, Frederick then pinned the enemy force down and defeated them at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg. The battle was one of Prussia’s great victories during the Second Silesian War.

Frederick strongly suspected that the Austrians (who had subdued Bavaria but were still at war with France) would resume war with Prussia in an attempt to recover Silesia. Accordingly, he renewed his alliance with the French and preemptively invaded Bohemia in 1744. Thus the Second Silesian War (1744–1745) began. Frederick’s stunning victories on the battlefields of Bohemia and Silesia again forced his enemies to seek peace terms. Under the terms of the Treaty of Dresden, signed in December 1745, Austria was forced to adhere to the terms of the Treaty of Breslau giving Silesia to Prussia. Frederick, on the other hand, recognized the election of Maria Theresa’s husband/consort—Francis I—as the Holy Roman Emperor.