Frederick the Great emerged in the 18th century as a cunning strategist who embodied the ideal of an “enlightened despot.” He was an absolute monarch with a great love for the arts, but also capable of leading his kingdom to war and against all odds, achieving stunning victories against much stronger opponents. Several times throughout his reign, it looked as if Prussia was on the verge of defeat, but the brilliance of Frederick shone through.
With his sweeping reforms and love for culture, he transformed Prussia into a highly effective and powerful state that was the envy of all in Europe and became a model for military organization throughout the continent. Throughout Frederick’s life, Prussia’s greatest enemy was Austria and the struggle between these two kingdoms shaped much of Europe for many decades.
Frederick the Great’s Early Years
Frederick II was born on January 24, 1712 as heir to the throne of Prussia. He was one of ten children who survived to adulthood. He had six sisters and three younger brothers.
His father had a love for the military and wished for Prussia to become a great nation through military prowess. He was also a cruel man who delighted in the suffering of others. He was famous for his regiment of “Potsdam Giants” as his personal plaything. Many of those who served in the regiment were done so forcibly, and many suffered from issues relating to gigantism. They were even subjected to the rack to make them taller. Many members of the regiment committed suicide or deserted to escape their miserable life.
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Likewise, Frederick II’s father treated him with a complete lack of empathy. Tensions arose over Frederick II’s penchant for culture, the arts, and the French language. His father thought these interests were effeminate and at odds with the militaristic upbringing he wanted Frederick II to receive. As a result, the young prince was subjected to frequent beatings.
To make matters worse for the young man, his mother, who was kind to him, had noticed that her son was almost certainly homosexual and had very close relationships with his male friends. Frederick II’s first male friend of this nature was sent to fight on the frontlines. The second close relationship ended with the couple attempting to flee Prussia and escape to England. The two were caught, and as they were both members of the military, were subject to military punishment. The king forced his son to watch as he had his lover decapitated.
In 1933, against his desires, Frederick II acquiesced to the social mores imposed on him and married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a relative of the Austrian Habsburgs. Frederick II, however, did not spurn the desires of his father. As a colonel in the Prussian army, he was studious. When Prussia aided the Holy Roman Empire during the War of Polish Succession, Frederick II noted glaring inefficiencies and problems in the imperial army. Upon his father’s death in 1740, Frederick II inherited the Kingdom of Prussia and put an end to his pursuits of the arts. He devoted himself to politics and was committed to the glorification of the Kingdom of Prussia.
The War of Austrian Succession
Frederick the Great realized that in order to secure Prussia’s dominance, he would have to find a casus belli and defeat the Austrian Habsburgs under the leadership of Archduchess Maria Theresa, who would become Frederick’s nemesis for many decades. By using old claims to the Austrian province of Silesia, Frederick gained his war. Winning would be a different matter altogether.
In 1740, the Prussians invaded and captured almost all of Silesia which was an important industrial hub necessary for Prussia’s economic stability. The campaign, however, wasn’t over, as the Austrian army arrived to challenge the invasion. The Battle of Mollwitz followed in April 1741. Upon seeing his cavalry bested by a charge of Austrian horses, Frederick believed the battle to be lost, and he fled the field, leaving the Prussian army in charge of Field Marshal Kurt Schwerin, who led the Prussians to victory.
Frederick was ashamed of his conduct, but realized the Prussian cavalry needed to be retrained. Following the victory, the French and their allies, Bavaria, saw an opportunity and invaded Austria as well. With Austria in a dire position, their control of the Holy Roman Empire was severed and Frederick managed to get his ally Charles of Bavaria elected as emperor. Needing a decisive victory to save their situation, the Austrians counterattacked, and Frederick met them near the town of Chotusice in Bohemia. The battle was a close-run contest, but the Prussians eventually claimed victory, partly due to the improved effectiveness of the Prussian cavalry.
Without the much-needed victory, the Austrians were forced to accept a treaty in which they lost a great amount of land to the invading forces. However, the treaty’s terms were broken very quickly due to Austrian successes against the French, whom they drove out of Bohemia.
In 1744, Frederick the Great renewed his alliance with France and invaded Austria again. This time they marched directly on Prague, and after three days of bombardment, the city fell to the invading Prussians. Complete victory, however, proved elusive, as the Austrians, joined by their Saxon allies, refused to meet the Prussians in the field, delaying Prussian gains and forcing them to retreat to Silesia for the winter.
After the winter, the Austrians invaded Silesia, but Frederick the Great soundly defeated them at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg, in which his Prussian army was greatly outnumbered. This victory was followed up by another victory at the Battle of Soor. Meanwhile, the Austrian allies, Saxony, prepared to march on Berlin, but they too were defeated on December 15 at the Battle of Kesseldorf by Prussian forces under the command of Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau.
On December 25, the Austrians were forced to sign a treaty, bringing the conflict to a close. At the age of 33, Frederick was called “the Great” for the first time and had secured a stunning victory against an opposing kingdom that was seen as being far more powerful than the Kingdom of Prussia.
Political Maneuvering & The Seven Years’ War
In the years that followed, Austria attempted to make allies in order to counter Prussian power and eventually retake Silesia. Prussia did the same, and Frederick the Great fortified Silesia, knowing what the future would hold.
He attempted to negotiate an alliance with Britain, which triggered panic among the Austrians, who had formed an alliance with Russia and now sought an alliance with their former enemy, France.
In August 1756, Frederick the Great initiated what would become known as the Seven Years’ War by preemptively invading Saxony, which at the time was neutral. The conquest was quick and drew widespread criticism, but through this action, Frederick gained military, financial, and industrial assets that put Prussia in an extremely powerful position.
In 1757, Frederick once again invaded Bohemia but encountered major difficulties. He won the Battle of Prague but suffered major casualties. He later suffered his first major defeat at the Battle of Kolin. He was forced to retreat into Saxony and Silesia and was pursued by a much larger Franco-Austrian army.
With complete disaster and defeat staring him in the face, Frederick, against the odds, prevailed against his foes in what were perhaps his two greatest victories at Rossbach and Leuthen. These victories put an end to the Franco-Austrian counterattack, but Prussia found itself surrounded by enemies on all sides. Russia, France, Sweden, and the Holy Roman Empire had all joined forces against Prussia, which had only Britain and the small states of Hesse, Brunswick, and Hanover on which to call for aid.
The next few years saw defeats and victories on both sides, but neither Austria nor Prussia could gain the upper hand. Both kingdoms were exhausted and spent. By the end of 1761, however, the Russians were marching on Berlin, and Frederick knew that defeat was imminent.
But it was not the end for Prussia. Fortune smiled on Frederick when in January 1762, Empress Elizabeth of Russia suddenly died and was replaced by her nephew, Peter III, who was a Prussophile. The anti-Prussian alliance completely collapsed, and Russia quickly became an ally of Prussia.
The sudden reversal of fortunes meant the Austrians were forced to the negotiating table. Borders returned to what they were before the war. Prussia still retained Silesia, which the Prussian people saw as a great victory.
Later Competition With Austria
In the late 1770s, Austria was desperate to regain its lost power. Part of this hinged on control of Bavaria. From 1778 to 1779, the War of Bavarian Succession was fought after the ruling House of Wittelsbach left no heirs to the Electorate of Bavaria. Emperor Joseph II of Austria pressed his own family’s claim on the electorate and tried to pressure France into providing manpower to back the Austrian claim, but the French were reluctant. The Prussian and Austrian armies encountered each other, but both sides were weary of war, and the leaders were reluctant to engage in a mass battle. The low-level conflict ended with the preservation of Bavaria’s borders, and with the military support of Russia and Saxony, the Austrian claim was forced to be abandoned.
Frederick the Great’s reign was littered with military ventures that ended in victories and defeats. Some of his victories, such as the Battle of Rossbach, are considered among the greatest and most decisive victories in military history.
Military ventures, especially against Austria, formed the backdrop and the foundation upon which Frederick could guarantee the success of other policies, which strengthened his country and led to the Kingdom of Prussia eventually becoming the most powerful state on the European continent (after the Napoleonic Wars).