Frederick ‘the Great’: A monarch reassessed

  1. Introduction

Towards the end of the 18th century, a period largely dominated by war and diplomacy, a new ‘great power’ had surfaced in Europe – Prussia. Between 1740 and 1786 Prussia was ruled by King Frederick II, who went to extraordinary lengths to turn his country from a lowly state in the Holy Roman Empire, to a powerful threat to the Austrians. By 1786, Prussia had vastly increased its land mass, had connected the Duchy of Prussia with Brandenburg, and improved its economy.

Frederick II of Prussia is generally lauded as a champion of the enlightenment and one of the greatest military minds during the 1700s, but upon closer analysis, this may not be entirely accurate. This paper seeks to dispel the myths surrounding the Prussian king and attempts to present an unbiased evaluation of his forty-six-year reign to determine whether Frederick truly lives up to the common belief. Without sympathy to German patriotism, the question will be answered – is Frederick rightly termed “The Great”?


  1. Military conquests

From the very beginning of his regency, war and military campaigns dominated Frederick’s forty-six year reign, and it is these military escapades that Frederick is most widely known for – in fact, it is why his subjects bestowed upon him the title, ‘the great’.[1] Even Napoleon himself, after marching into a defeated Berlin in 1806, visited Frederick’s tomb and told his marshals, “If he were alive, we wouldn’t be here today.”[2] Frederick is widely regarded as one of the greatest military masterminds of the 18th century, revered for his manoeuvres and tactical genius on the battlefield.

The first of Frederick’s many campaigns began only a few months into his reign on 16 December 1740, when he seized an opportunity to invade Silesia by breaking the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, whilst the Habsburg monarchy was caught in the turmoil of the issue of a female successor.[3] The move, although seemingly opportunistic, was not without good reason; controlling Silesia would be strategically important for the new king as it significantly blunted the capacity of Prussia’s two chief foes—Austria and Russia—to meddle in Prussian affairs.[4] Saxony, to the south of Brandenburg, had its eyes set on Silesia too; Elector Frederick August II of Saxony was also King August III of Poland and was keen on closing the geographical gap between his two nations, something realistically achievable by gaining parts of Silesia.[5] If Poland and Saxony were to connect their borders, Brandenburg would be encircled, something that could have dire consequences for Prussia. Not only was Silesia such a strategically important region, it was one of the most densely industrialised regions in Germany at the time and also Vienna’s richest province in terms of tax income.[6] Taking Silesia would not only harm the Austrian treasury, it would also incorporate some sort of industry into the Hohenzollern land, something which it lacked. From this, it seems that the swift decision to storm Silesia was not as spontaneous as some would think. In fact, Frederick’s initial idea dates back to early in 1737, just over three years before coming to the throne, when Frederick wrote: “If the emperor dies today or tomorrow, what revolutions shall pass! Everyone will wish to share his estate, and we shall see as many factions as there are sovereigns.”[7]

Whilst Frederick did display an acute awareness in the diplomatic situation and the needs of Prussia by taking the decision to invade Silesia, victory in the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) was not entirely due to his abilities as a military commander. Fortunately for him, his father, Frederick William I, had left him in 1740 with an army of 80,000 soldiers, the fourth-largest army in Europe at the time.[8] The first of Frederick’s battles were therefore not actually won by his command, but by the extraordinary work of his father; the Prussian infantry had been so well drilled, that they were known as ‘moving walls’.[9] No better is there an example of this, than the battle of Mollwitz (10 April 1741) where after the king had fled the battlefield due to successful Austrian cavalry attacks, the general Count von Schwerin rallied the Prussian infantry and sent them sweeping into the Austrian right flank. During the Second Silesian War, however, Frederick displayed his tactical genius at the battle of Hohenfriedberg (4 June 1745) when he outmanoeuvred and crushed the joint Austro-Saxon opponents.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), or the Third Silesian War, was, for Prussia, a struggle for survival.[10] In an attempt to regain the lost province of Silesia, and to also curb the growing power of Prussia, Maria Theresa sought an alliance with the Russians and the French. Such a powerful coalition may not have been formed were it not due to a diplomatic blunder by Frederick. The Convention of Westminster, signed between Prussia and England on 16 January 1756, secured an alliance between the two nations with Prussia acting as the protector of the electorate of Hanover. This made Prussia useless to France, who were once allies during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), thus they accepted the Austrian offer of a defensive alliance on May 1 1756, completing the great trio of Prussia’s enemies to be in the Seven Years’ War.[11]

Frederick was radically different to his counterparts at the time, preferring a highly offensive and mobile approach to warfare, as opposed to the defensive and limited tactics typical of the 18th century; the nineteenth century historian Albert de Broglie best described the Prussian style when he commented that “not since the Goths has war been waged in this fashion.”[12] This military ideology allowed Frederick to achieve a number of astounding victories; the aggressive charge of Prussian cavalry at the battle of Rossbach (5 November 1757), for example, led to a crushing Prussian victory over a Franco-Austrian army. At Leuthen (5 December 1757) Frederick managed to achieve victory against a numerically superior Austrian army through the use of the innovative ‘oblique order’, a tactic where one flank was strengthened to break through the enemy’s corresponding flank.[13]

However, these advances were usually short-lived, and Frederick’s opponents observed and soon countered his manoeuvres.[14] At the battle of Kolin (18 June 1757), for example, Frederick’s attempt to once again use the oblique order was met with disaster when he encountered the anticipating Austrian army, who had extended their lines on a hill to encounter exactly this. In addition to this, the aggressive method of fighting in the Seven Year’s War resulted in staggering death rates in the Prussian army, meaning that in 1759 Prussia was forced on the defensive. By 1762, Prussia was on the verge of annihilation but managed to survive long enough until the Treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg in February 1763. Although the peace confirmed a status quo ante bellum, Prussia’s survival was by no means based on Frederick’s military ability; the Austrians and Russians often failed to drive their advantages home, the French lost the interest in pursuing war after strings of defeats in India and Canada, the Swedes pulled out from the war as they lacked support from any great power, and the accession of the pro-Prussian Tsar Peter III after Elizabeth I’s death withdrew the Russian threat. Frederick had, in fact, only won eight out of the sixteen battles he fought during the Seven Year’s War.[15] It seemed to be the combination of a weak opposition and fortune that led to Frederick’s ‘victory’.

The period after the Seven Year’s War was mostly peaceful, apart from the War of Bavarian Succession (1778-79) where Prussia challenged Austria’s influence in Germany. Frederick successfully prevented the Austrians from occupying Bavaria, and in doing so began the Austro-Prussian dualism, but the way in which the war was fought displayed the lack of modernisation Frederick was willing to implement to the army.[16] The failure to develop the army and to prepare his successor would begin set the Prussians on the course to Jena in 1806.

  1. Managing the state

In his Political Testament of 1752, Frederick noted that ‘the ruler is the first servant of the state. He is paid well so that he can maintain the dignity of his office. But he is required in return to work effectively for the well-being of the state.’[17]


This belief in kingship was something Frederick would rigorously follow, allowing him to completely identify himself with his state.[18] Much like Napoleon, Frederick combined the role of commander-in-chief, foreign minister, treasurer, and head of civil administration under the duties of the king. This massive centralisation of power was, in Frederick’s eyes, very efficient, writing  in his Political Testament of 1752  that “in a state like this one that the prince conducts his affairs himself, because if he is clever he merely pursues the interests of the state, whereas a minister always follows ulterior motives that touch upon his own interests…”[19] This, however, seems to prove Frederick’s lack of foresight and his lack of thought for the longevity of Prussia after his death; what he did not comprehend was that for such a system to work, it required a figurehead with as much devotion and discipline in the running of the state as he appeared to have.[20] Frederick William II was to be Frederick II’s successor, and shortly upon taking the throne it soon became obvious that he would not be able to act as such a strong centre of power as his predecessor had, resulting in bitter power struggles among ministers and advisers for influence on the king. Apart from dooming his successor, Frederick II’s method of running the state also alienated many of his ministers and other governmental figures, who, when the king met them, were usually treated as no more than lackeys.[21] The generals were not exempt from this treatment either and suffered similar fates. Two notable examples of this mistreatment were the Old Dessauer and Count von Schwerin, generals who won victories at Kesseldorf and Mollwitz respectively, yet they were often given lesser roles during Frederick’s campaigns.[22]

Nevertheless, a number of Frederick’s accomplishments deserve commendation. The king went considerable lengths to modernise Prussia and set admirable objectives; to increase the population within his territories and to stimulate industry, which would both lead to economic growth.[23] To help the Prussian agriculture Frederick oversaw the draining of marshes, attracted 300,000 settlers into land destroyed by war, and also introduced the potato and turnip as crops. Internal tolls were abolished, new roads and canals were built throughout Prussia to encourage trade, and Frederick also enlisted the help of the French tax-farmer de Launay to develop an intricate and efficient system of indirect taxation.[24] 

Frederick was also very keen to promote some sort of business and industry in Prussia, establishing a department within the centralised government to oversee commerce and manufacturing, with the aim of improving Prussian industrial capabilities.[25] This was no spectacular advance, and certainly nothing comparable with the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, but it did demonstrate the desire to move away from a solely agricultural based economy. As with all other European states, Prussia sought to create a labour force of those deemed socially dangerous or unproductive; in Berlin, for example, a large lace factory was built in an orphanage. The region of Silesia, an area rich with mineral and coal deposits, also became one of the greatest manufacturing centres east of the Elbe by the time Frederick had died.[26]

The economic growth of Prussia was, however, by no means remarkable, and followed a European-wide trend. The only significant difference between Prussia’s economy and other European states’ was how virtually everything was micro-managed by Frederick, something that would ultimately prove to be unsustainable and ill-judged.[27]

  1. Enlightened absolutism

When historians look back to Frederick II they usually regard him as a champion of the idea of ‘enlightened absolutism’, the prominent philosophical ideology during the eighteenth century that claimed monarchs were to serve in the best interest and for the well-being of their subjects through the ideals of rationality and tolerance.[28] During his lifetime Frederick was highly aware of this movement and devoted much of his writing to it; the Anti-Machiavel, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la Maison de Brandenbourg, Considérations sur l’Etat present du Corps Politique de L’Europe and his correspondences with the philosophes are all examples of Frederick’s literary contributions to the enlightenment.


Frederick tried to translate the principles of the enlightenment into statecraft mainly through reforms to the Prussian legal system. With the help of the distinguished jurist, Samuel von Cocceji, Frederick designed and implemented a comprehensive legal code, with the aim of creating a fair and equal justice system across the land. Although this was no great Napoleonic code, its introduction swept away abuses in the administration of justice, made access to the courts easier, cheapened litigation, and rid the courts of their corruption.[29] More controversial, though, was the decision to abolish the use of judicial torture, something still widely used by European judicial systems at the time, and to limit the use of the death penalty as a punishment. Public executions still remained, but criminals were strangled privately beforehand so that its use as a deterrent was kept whilst removing the suffering – a perfect case of enlightened rationality.[30]

These reforms to the Prussian legal system were certainly not the only ways in which Frederick tried to spread enlightened ideals to his people; he also tried to cultivate an educated class through the development of reading societies, lodges, philosophical associations and various other intellectual institutions. One example of this was the Berlin Wednesday Club, a group where discussions and debates could occur in a place which values civility, mutual respect and impartiality.[31] Frederick also relaxed censorship laws, ordering that the journal Die Berlinischen Nachrichten to be uncensored shortly after becoming king and for the outspoken philosopher Christian Wolff to be brought back to the University of Halle, where he had been expelled from in 1723.The Prussian enlightenment was about conversation, dialogue and debate, with Frederick as the leading  figure.

For someone who tried to present himself as an enlightened monarch, Frederick’s treatment of Jews and other minorities within his kingdom seems very out of character. There were a number of Jews living within Berlin and other major cities of Prussia who enjoyed freedoms and were among the wealthiest men in Germany, but these were the members of a small minority and their lives are not reflective of the typical Jewish Prussians.[32] Between 1742 and 1744, conditions worsened as Frederick tightened already austere laws, resulting in Jewish traders being completely banned from the kingdom at the same time as local authorities were instructed to expel Jews who had no protection letters.[33] Frederick held the belief that Jews did not belong anywhere other than in cities, and in response to his own bureaucrats stated: “There ought to be no Jews in rural areas, as Jews do not cultivate the land but engage in commerce, and commerce belongs into towns, not the countryside which must pursue agriculture, otherwise the economy does not work.”[34] Therefore, he designed plans to relocate those living in the countryside, with the aim of moving them to designated walled settlements.[35] The situation got no better in 1751 when the Revised General Code of 1750 divided Jews into classes, based on a six-tier system defined by property, for taxation purposes. Frederick viewed the Jews within his kingdom as a means to an end, as mere tools for economic prosperity for others; they were forced into the areas of the economy that needed entrepreneurial projects in order to run such as the bullion trade, iron foundries, cross-border commercial work, and were often required to buy surplus stock of the Royal Porcelain Manufactories.[36] This oppression clearly violates the ideals of the enlightenment – those being toleration and rationality – demonstrating how easily Frederick was willing to discard these morals in favour of thinly-veiled prejudices and economic exploitation.

The Jews were not the only ones subject to this persecution. With the annexation of Silesia in 1742, 500,000 Catholics were added to the 100,000 already living under Prussian rule.[37] At the time of the annexation there were already many Prussian policies in existence that sought to redefine the relationship between state and church, such as the confiscation of church property or conversion of monasteries into factories, yet this was not unusual for the eighteenth century and was a pan-European trend towards more secularly run states. However, new measures were swiftly introduced into Frederick’s newly acquired territory and were considerably worse; high ecclesiastical property taxes of 50 percent, schemes designed to discourage Catholic children enrolling in religious careers, and the abolition of asylum in ecclesiastical buildings foreshadowed the Kulturkampf of the coming century.[38] Frederick’s anti-Catholic policies were not just limited to Silesia, though, and were implemented in the acquired Polish territories.[39] Some historians attempt to justify these practices as pragmatism, yet this was clearly oppression and hypocrisy on Frederick’s behalf; with regards to this idea of enlightened absolutism, Frederick was not the great enlightened and rational figure he has been made out to be.

  1. Conclusion

After the War of Austrian Succession, a wave of patriotism had arisen in Prussia. The sudden and unseen victory of Prussia over Austria fostered a fixation on Frederick and the birth of the ‘Frederician cult’.  Books, poems, pamphlets, engravings and biographies praised the king who became commonly referred to as ‘the Great’, or as ‘the Unique’.[40] After Frederick II’s death in 1786, the patriotism only grew stronger, becoming nostalgia, and Frederick often became known as the one who set Germany on its path to unification under Prussia.

Frederick’s actions alone do not stand out as ‘great’. Indeed, the King ruled with great energy and uniqueness, but his achievements are not extraordinary. Frederick’s military genius did manifest into great victories at times, but these are overshadowed by their infrequency and the number of disastrous defeats. The victories in the Silesian Wars were, as has been mentioned, largely due to fortune. Whilst the economic growth of Prussia was primarily Frederick’s work, it was not revolutionary or something unusual within Europe at the time; in contrast to Prussia, regions such as the Austrian province of Bohemia experienced much greater industrialisation. With regards to the Enlightenment, Frederick once again fails. His hypocrisy and willingness to ignore the principles of the Enlightenment undermine his greatness as a thinker.

The legend that portrays Frederick was the instigator of a long process of German unification is absurd. Whilst it is true that under his rule an Austro-Prussian dualism in Germany was born, proved with Frederick’s creation of the League of Princes in 1785 to combat Austrian meddling in Germany, Frederick was exclusively Prussian, not German.[41] Unlike the nationalists in the period leading 1871, Frederick was a fond admirer of French society and even had a distaste for German culture. Though his work did take a step towards the ultimate creation of a kleindeutschland (a Germany without Austria), it was an unconscious effort.

There is no denying that Frederick was a capable statesman, as seen in his ability to almost single-handedly run Prussia, but his achievements have obviously been exaggerated by the rise of Prussian and subsequent German patriotism. As time progressed, more myth and speculation surrounding the king grew, disguising some of the bitter truths to his reign. Therefore, whilst Frederick II was certainly unique, he was not great.






[4] Reed Browning (2005). “New Views on the Silesian Wars”. Journal of Military History 69 (2): 521–534

[6] Ibid. p. 192

[11] Ibid. p. 132

[12] Broglie, Frederic II et Maria Theresa, II, p. 210

[14] Ibid. p. 20

[15] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, p. 204

[16] Neil Stewart, The Changing Nature of Warfare, 1700-1945, p. 19

[17] Frederick II, Political Testament of 1752, in Dietrich, Die politischen Testamente, p. 329

[22] Ibid. p.126

[23] Max Beloff, The age of Absolutism, 1660-1815, p. 111

[24] Max Beloff, The age of Absolutism, 1660-1815, p. 112


[32] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, p. 258

[33] Karin Friedrich, Brandenburg-Prussia, 1466-1806, p.102

[37] Karin Friedrich, Brandenburg-Prussia, 1466-1806, p.106

[38] Ibid.

[40] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, p. 225

Contributed by Jon Dunne 

2 thoughts on “Frederick ‘the Great’: A monarch reassessed

  1. I agree with much of what has been written above, but the military analysis itself is not fantastic. While Frederick met his fair share of failures, his accomplishments are notable for the lack of soldiers he possessed. The Prussian army of 80,000 was only the third largest in Europe because of the extremely high recruitment rate (4% of the population or so) in Prussia compared to the rest of Europe, which meant that his enemies could often raise much larger armies in times of crisis. In addition, the well-trained Prussian army would have been useless without many of Frederick’s battle plans. At the battle of Leuthen, for example, Frederick displayed what could only be termed as brilliance in turning the Austrian army and delivering the final blow with a cavalry charge into an attacking cavalry charge. This sort of spontaneous battle plan, thought up on the day of the battle, displays military greatness, regardless of his failures in other battles.

    Your discussion of his genius being overshadowed by the deaths caused in his army also fails to take into account his circumstances. Prussia often faced several opponents that had far better supplies and larger armies, and Frederick often stretched his total forces in order to combat these threats. The high casualty rate in his armies is not a true measure of his capabilities; attacking will always result in a higher casualty rate, but tactical and strategic victories from an attack are better than defeats in most cases. Finally, Frederick’s military accomplishments were great precisely because he pressed advantages and took what he could from individual battles, whereas Austrian or Russian or even French generals could not or would not do the same. He stood far above many of his peers, without taking into account his numerous logistical disadvantages. His superb luck makes him into a greater legend than one would expect, but his tactical genius and military theory were not ordinary or even just above average. I doubt that Prussia would have survived the onslaught of its enemies if Frederick the Great was not present.

    Thank you for a well written post, though. Your analyses are thought-provoking and I enjoyed your discussion of “Old Fritz”. Maybe he would be better known as “Frederick the Militarily Great”.

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