1. Frederick William I

The Hohenzollern family had succeeded in graduating the electorate of Brandenburg into the kingdom of Prussia in 1701; the Elector had become King Frederick I, and, dying, had bequeathed his realm to his son Frederick William I (r. 1713–40). Through his wife, Sophia Dorothea, the new monarch was son-in-law to George I, who in 1714 mounted the throne of England. The Prussian dominions included East Prussia, Lower Pomerania, the Mark of Brandenburg (centering around Berlin), the district of Cleves in western Germany, and the county of Mark and city of Ravensberg in Westphalia: a loose assortment of lands running interruptedly from the Vistula to the Elbe, and united only by the forces of the King. In 1740 this “Prussia” had some 3,300,000 population, which grew to 5,800,000 by the end of the century. The social structure was mainly feudal: a peasantry paying taxes and feudal dues, a weak middle class, a nobility demanding exemption from taxes as the price of providing military support to the king. It was in part to free himself from dependence upon these nobles that Frederick William I organized a standing army that was to determine for half a century the political history of Central Europe.

Frederick William was quite as unusual a ruler as his more famous son, whose victories were in great part due to his father’s army. Neither father nor son was charming; neither appeased the world with good looks or a gracious smile; both fronted it with an air of stern command, wielding regiments. The father was short and stout, with a florid face under a cocked hat, eyes penetrating all pretense, voice announcing will, jaws ready to masticate all opposition. A hearty appetite, and no gourmet, he sent the French cook packing, and ate peasant’s food; he consumed much in little time with little ceremony, having work to do. He thought of himself as both the master and the servant of the state. He labored dutifully, angrily, at administration, finding much awry and vowing to beat it into shape. He cut in half the number of pompous commissioners whose conflicting authority had obstructed the business of government. He sold the jewels, horses, and fine furniture bequeathed to him, reduced the royal household to the simplicity of a burgher’s home, gathered taxes wherever they could be made to grow, and left to Frederick II a treasury temptingly full.

He required everyone to work as hard as himself. He ordered municipal officials to censor the morals of the population, to preach industry and thrift, and to discipline tramps with hard labor. Commerce and manufactures were kept under state control, but they were encouraged by the improvement of canals and roads. In 1722 the watchful King decreed universal compulsory education; every parish must maintain a school; by 1750 Prussia led all Europe in both primary and secondary education.23 and the seed was sown for the age of Kant and Goethe.

Finding that pious persons worked more steadily than skeptics, Frederick William supported the Pietist movement. Catholics were grudgingly tolerated. Calvinists were told to stop preaching their predestinarian gloom. Lutherans were ordered to use German instead of Latin in their liturgy, and to abandon surplices, stoles, and the elevation of the Sacrament, as papistical vestiges. When the Archbishop of Salzburg forced fifteen thousand Protestants to emigrate, Frederick William welcomed them, advanced them money for their five-hundred-mile journey, leased them lands (not of the best), provided them with tools and seed on loan, and exempted them from taxation till their soil grew profits. Another fifteen thousand immigrants were brought in from Switzerland and German states. Prussia, ruined by the Thirty Years’ War, was restored to economic life.

Behind this royal activity the dominant passion was to make the nation secure in a warring world. When Frederick William came to power the Great Northern War was still on, involving Sweden, Russia, Poland, Denmark, Saxony, soon England; the obvious lesson was that in a world of nationalized robbery a strong army was indispensable even for peace. Anxious to get Stettin as a port for the commerce of Berlin, the Prussian King bought it for 400,000 thalers from the powers that had seized it from Charles XII. Charles, returning from Turkey, refused to recognize this sale of stolen goods; Frederick William offered to return it to Sweden for a return of his 400,000 thalers; Charles had no money, but insisted on regaining Stettin; Prussia declared war on him (1715) and joined his enemies in besieging Stralsund. Charles, half the world against him, fled to Sweden and death; Frederick William returned to Berlin with Stettin in his pocket and triumph in his eyes.

Thereafter his first administrative concern was his army. He was not quite a militarist, certainly not a warrior; he never again waged war, but he was resolved that no one should with impunity make war upon him; this builder of the most famous army of that century was “one of the most pacific of princes.”24 “My maxim,” he said, “is to injure no one, but not to let myself be slighted.”25 So he gathered soldiers, and sought with passion the tallest he could find; to win his good will one had only to send him a man at least six feet tall. The King paid well for them, and his heart warmed at their height. He was no madder than his fellow kings, except about inches. France in 1713 had 160,000 regular troops, Russia 130,000, Austria 90,000.26 To bring the Prussian army up to 80,000 men in a country with a population of only three millions, Frederick William enlisted men from abroad and conscripted men at home. The peasants and the townsmen resisted impressment; they were taken by ruse or force; in one case a recruiting officer invaded a church and carried off the tallest and strongest men, notwithstanding their prayers.27 (Let us remember that we too conscript.) Once the men were enrolled they were cared for well, but were subjected to ruthless discipline and arduous drill; flogging was the penalty for even minor offenses.

Conscription was applied to the aristocracy too; every able-bodied noble had to serve as an officer as long as he could physically bear the strain. These officers underwent a special training, and were especially honored by the King. They became a ruling caste, which looked down upon merchants, teachers, clergymen, and the middle classes generally as weakling inferiors, and often treated them with swashbuckling insolence or brutality. Meanwhile they drilled the infantry, artillery, and cavalry in such precise formations and flexible movements as probably no other modern army has ever known. The King himself took part in these military maneuvers, and supervised in loving detail the training of his troops. When Frederick II came to the throne he found under his command a force of men ready for stratagems and spoils, and overriding in a moment all the lessons of peace that the Prince had learned from philosophy.

2. Der junge Fritz

The “great Drill-Sergeant of the Prussian Nation” (as Carlyle called Frederick William I28) had ten children, of whom the eldest was Wilhelmine. The memoirs which she left at her death (1758) are our most immediate and intimate source for the early history of her brother. Perhaps she detailed with selective emphasis the cruelty of her governess, the hard selfishness of her mother, the brutality of her father, his despotic orders for her marriage, his harsh treatment of the Fritz whom she loved as the pride and solace of her life.29 “There never was such love as ours for one another… . I loved my brother so passionately that I always tried to give him pleasure.”30

Frederick, born January 24, 1712, was three years her junior. Neither his mother nor his father was pleased with him. They strove to make him a general and a king; he gave every sign of becoming a poet and a musician. We have Frederick William’s instructions to the instructors of his son:

Impress my son with a proper love and fear of God, as the foundation and sole pullar of our temporal and eternal welfare. No false religions, or sects of atheist, Arian, Socinian, or whatever name the poisonous things have which can so easily corrupt a young mind, are to be ever named in his hearing [Frederick became all of these]. On the other hand, a proper abhorrence of papistry, and insight into its baselessness and absurdity, are to be communicated to him… .

Let the Prince learn French and German, … no Latin… . Let him learn arithmetic, mathematics, artillery, economy, to the very bottom… . History in particular… . With increasing years you will more and more … go upon fortification, the formation of a camp, and the other sciences of war; that the Prince may, from youth upwards, be trained to act as officer and general… . Stamp into my son a true love for the profession of soldier; and impress upon him that as there is nothing in the world which can bring a prince renown and honor like the sword, so he would be a despised creature before all men if he did not love it and seek his sole glory therein.31

Had the father lived long enough, he would have been proud of his son as soldier and general; but in those apprentice years everything seemed to go wrong. The boy was bright, but he never bothered to spell. He despised the German language, loved the language, literature, music, and art of France; he liked to write French verses, and continued that diversion to the end of his life. The old King fumed when he saw his son with French books, and still more when he found him playing the flute. Johann Quantz, flutist at the court of Saxony, came to Berlin to teach the boy clandestinely at the mother’s request. Hearing the King approach, Quantz hid in a closet, and Frederick quickly changed from French robe to military coat; but the sire flew into a rage at the French books lying about. He ordered the servants to send these to a bookseller; better to sell them than to burn them. The servants did neither; they hid the books, and soon returned them to the Prince.

The old man did his angry loving best to make the boy a warrior. He took him along on hunts, hardened him with outdoor life, accustomed him to danger and rough riding, made him subsist on scrimped food and short sleep, put him in charge of a regiment, taught him to drill his men, to mount a battery, and to fire cannon. Frederick learned all this, and showed courage enough; but the father saw with rising anger that the youth, now sixteen, was developing a suspicious intimacy with two young officers, Captain von Katte and Lieutenant Keith. Katte had read and traveled widely, and, though smallpox had marked him, his “refinement of mind and manners,” said Wilhelmine, made him “a most agreeable companion… . He boasted of being an esprit fort [freethinker]. It was Katte’s influence that destroyed all religious belief in my brother.”32

To these unorthodox developments in his oldest son Frederick William could find no other response than rage and violence. He was accustomed to use his cane upon his servants; he threatened to use it against his son. Meanwhile Wilhelmine was resisting his plans to marry her to some potential political ally; son and daughter seemed fated to disappoint all his hopes. “The King’s anger against my brother and myself reached such a pitch that, with the exception of the hours for our meals, we were banished from his presence.” At one meeting the King

threw his plate at my brother’s head, who could have been struck had he not gotten out of the way; a second he threw at me, which I also happily escaped; then torrents of abuse followed.… As my brother and I passed near him to leave the room, he hit out at us with his crutch. He never saw my brother without threatening him with his stick. Fritz often said to me that he would bear all ill treatment save blows, and that if it came to these he would run away.33

We can understand something of the anger felt by the aging King. He had looked forward to leaving his reorganized realm to a son who would continue to foster the army, economize expenditures, build industries, and administer the state with conscience and application; he could not be expected to foresee that this son would do all these and more. In Friedrich he found only an insolent and effeminate youth who curled his hair like a Frenchman instead of cutting it off like a Prussian soldier;34 who hated soldiers and hunting, laughed at religion, wrote French poems, and played the flute. What future could Prussia have under such a weakling? Even the boy’s occasional pleas for forgiveness could be interpreted as cowardice. Once, after boxing his son’s ears, the King said to others that had he been treated so by his father he would have shot himself, but that Friedrich had no sense of honor, and would put up with anything.35

At Potsdam in the spring of 1730, if we may believe Frederick’s report to Wilhelmine, the King tried to kill him.

He sent for me one morning. As I entered the room he seized me by the hair and threw me to the ground. After having beaten me with his fists he dragged me to the window and tied the curtain cord around my throat. I had fortunately time to get up and seize his hands, but as he pulled with all his might at the cord around my throat, I felt I was being strangled, and screamed for help. A page rushed to my assistance, and had to use force to free me.36

Friedrich, now eighteen, confided to Wilhelmine that he was planning to escape to England with Katte and Keith. She pleaded with him not to go; he persisted. She kept his secret fearfully, but the King, who surrounded his son with spies, learned of the plot, and arrested son and daughter, Katte and Keith (August, 1730). Wilhelmine was soon released, and Keith escaped to England, but Friedrich and Katte were court-martialed and were condemned to death (October 30). Katte was executed in the yard of the fortress at Cüstrin (now Kostrzyn in Poland), and Friedrich, on his father’s orders, was forced to witness the execution from the windows of his cell (November 6). The King thought of having his son beheaded, and making the next-older son crown prince; but, fearing international repercussions, he reconciled himself to letting Friedrich live.

From November, 1730, till February, 1732, the Prince remained in Cüstrin, at first in close confinement, then restricted to the town, always under close surveillance; but, says Wilhelmine, “all Berlin sent him provisions, and even the greatest delicacies.”37 On August 15, 1731, after a year of separation, the King came to see his son, berated him at length, and told him that if the plot to escape had succeeded “I would have cast your sister for life into a place where she never would have seen sun or moon again.”38Friedrich knelt and asked forgiveness; the old man broke down, wept, and embraced him; Friedrich kissed his father’s feet.39 He was released, and was sent on a tour of the Prussian provinces to study their economy and administration. Those years of filial strife changed and hardened his character.

Meanwhile Wilhelmine, glad to leave the paternal roof, accepted the hand of Crown Prince Henry of Bayreuth. After their marriage in Berlin (November 30, 1731) she went south, to become (1734) the margravine of Bayreuth, and to make her court hum with culture. It was during her sway there that the princely residence, the Schloss der Eremitage, was transformed into one of the loveliest châteaux in Germany.

Friedrich too had to be married, willy-nilly. He resented the necessity, and threatened: “If the King absolutely will have it, I will marry to obey him; after that I will shove my wife into a corner and live after my own fancy.”40 So he took to the altar (June 12, 1733) Elisabeth Christina, “Serene Princess” of Brunswick-Bevern, he twenty-one, she eighteen, “very handsome,” said Friedrich’s mother to Wilhelmine, but “as stupid as a bundle of straw—I cannot understand how your brother will get on with such a goose.”41 Though in later years Frederick learned to esteem her highly, in this period he left her mostly to her own resources. They went to live at Rheinsberg, a few miles north of Berlin. There the bachelor husband built himself a tower of refuge, performed experiments in physics and chemistry, gathered scientists, scholars, and musicians around him, and corresponded with Wolff, Fontenelle, Maupertuis, and Voltaire.

3. The Prince and the Philosopher: 1736–40

His correspondence with Voltaire is among the most revealing documents of that time: a brilliant literary expression of two pre-eminent personalities, in which the art of the older man fades before the realism of the maturing youth. Voltaire was now forty-two, Frederick was twenty-four. Voltaire was the acknowledged head of French writers, yet it almost turned his head to receive, from a crown prince soon to be king, the following letter, written from Berlin on August 8, 1736, and sent by private messenger to the poet at Cirey:


Although I have not the satisfaction of knowing you personally, you are not the less known to me through your works. They are treasures of the mind, if I may so express myself; and they reveal to the reader new beauties at every fresh perusal… . If ever the dispute on the comparative merits of the Moderns and the Ancients should be revived, the modern great men will owe it to you, and to you only, that the scale is turned in their favor… . Never before did poet put metaphysics into rhythmic cadence; to you the honor was reserved of doing it first.

Frederick, perhaps because of his little Latin, had obviously not yet encountered Lucretius. But he had read Wolff, and he dispatched to Voltaire a

copy of the Accusation and Defense of M. Wolff, the most celebrated philosopher of our days; who, for having carried light into the darkest places of metaphysics, is cruelly accused of irreligion and atheism.… I am getting a translation made of Wolff’s Treatise on God, the Soul and the World. … I will send it to you… .

The kindness and assistance you afford to all who devote themselves to the arts and sciences make me hope that you will not exclude me from the number of those whom you find worthy of your instructions… .

Apparently Frederick had heard some rumor of La Pucelle:

Monsieur, there is nothing I wish so much as to possess all your writings.… If there be among your manuscripts any that you wish to conceal from the eyes of the public, I engage to keep them in the profoundest secrecy… .

Nature, when she pleases, forms a great soul endowed with faculties that can advance the arts and sciences; and it is the part of princes to recompense his noble toil. Ah, would Glory but make use of me to crown your success! …

If my destiny refuse me the happiness of being able to possess you, may I at least hope one day to see the man whom I have admired so long now from afar; and to assure you, by word of mouth, that I am—with all the esteem and consideration due to those who, following the torch of truth for guide, consecrate their labors to the Public—monsieur, your affectionate friend,


We can imagine the satisfaction with which Voltaire, never too old to be vain, read this letter, sipping its honey before the already jealous Marquise. Soon after its receipt he replied, August 26, 1736:


A man must be devoid of all feeling who would not be infinitely moved by the letter with which your Royal Highness has deigned to honor me. My self-love is only too much flattered by it; but my love of mankind, which I have always nourished in my heart, and which, I venture to say, forms the basis of my character, has given me a very much purer pleasure—to see that there is now in the world a Prince who thinks as a man, a Philosopher Prince, who will make men happy.

Permit me to say, there is not a man on earth but owes you thanks for the care you take to cultivate by sound philosophy a soul that is born for command. Good kings there never were except those that had begun by seeking to instruct themselves; by knowing good men from bad, by loving what is true, by detesting persecution and superstition. A prince persisting in such thoughts might bring back the Golden Age to his country! Why do so few princes seek this glory? … Because they think more of their royalty than of mankind. Precisely the reverse is your case; and unless, one day, the tumult of business and the wickedness of men alters so divine a character,I you will be worshiped by your people, and loved by the whole world. Philosophers worthy of the name will flock to your state; thinkers will crowd around your throne… . The illustrious Queen Christina left her kingdom to go in search of the arts; so reign, Monseigneur, and the arts will come to seek you. …

I cannot sufficiently thank your Royal Highness for the gift of that little book about Monsieur Wolff. I respect metaphysical ideas; they are rays of light amid deep night. More, I think, is not to be hoped from metaphysics. It does not seem likely that the first principles of things will ever be known. The mice that must be in some little holes of an immense building know not whether it is eternal, or who the architect is, or why he built it. Such mice are we; and the Divine Architect who built the universe has never, that I know of, told his secret to one of us… .

I shall obey your commands as to sending those unpublished pieces. You shall be my public, Monseigneur, your criticisms will be my reward; it is a price few sovereigns can pay. I am sure of your secrecy. … I should indeed consider it a precious happiness to come to pay my court to your Royal Highness… . But the friendship which keeps me in this retirement does not permit my leaving it. Without doubt you think with Julian, that great and much calumniated man, who said, “Friends should always be preferred to kings.”

In whatever corner of the world I may end my life, be assured, Monseigneur, my wishes will continually be for you—that is to say, for a whole people’s happiness. My heart will rank itself among your subjects; your glory will ever be dear to me. I shall wish that you may always be like yourself, and that other kings may be like you.—I am, with profound respect, your Royal Highness’s most humble


The correspondence between the greatest king and the greatest writer of the time continued, with bitter interruptions, for forty-two years. Almost every word of it repays reading, for it is not often that we are privileged to hear the private and considered conversation of two such men. We resist with difficulty the temptation to quote the illuminating judgments, the strokes of wit, in those letters; but some passages help us to visualize the rival giants of sword and pen.II

They agree, at first, in mutual admiration. Frederick expresses astonishment that France has not recognized “the treasure enclosed in its heart,” that it allows Voltaire to “live solitary in the deserts of Champagne… . Henceforth Cirey shall be my Delphi, and your letters my oracles.”44 “Leave your ungrateful country, and come to a land where you will be adored.”45 Voltaire throws the bouquets back: “You think like Trajan, you write like Pliny, you use French like our best writers… . Under your auspices Berlin will be the Athens of Germany, perhaps of Europe.”46 They agree on deism; they affirm belief in God, they confess that they know nothing about Him, they detest the clergy who base their power on pretended access to the Deity.47 But Frederick is an outright materialist (“What is certain is that I am matter, and that I think”48) and determinist; Voltaire is not yet ready to give up free will.49 Frederick counsels “a profound silence with regard to the Christian fables, which are canonized by their antiquity and the credulity of absurd and insipid people.”50 Voltaire loses no opportunity to indoctrinate his royal pupil with a love of humanity, and a hatred of superstition, fanaticism, and war. Frederick does not take humanity very seriously: “Nature naturally produces thieves, the envious, forgers, murderers; they cover the face of the earth; and without the laws which repress vice each individual would abandon himself to the instincts of nature, and would think only of himself.51 … Men are naturally inclined to evil, and they are good only in proportion to the extent that education and experience have modified their impetuosity.”52

Two events marked the last years of Frederick’s tutelage. In 1738 he joined the Freemasons.53 In 1739, apparently in the warmth of Voltaire’s influence, he wrote a small book, Réfutation du Prince de Machiavel, which took the Italian philosopher to task for apparently justifying any means that a ruler might think necessary to the preservation or strengthening of his state. No, countered the new Prince; the only true principle of government is the loyalty, justice, and honor of the sovereign. The royal philosopher expressed his scorn for kings who preferred “the fatal glory of conquerors to that won by kindness, justice, and clemency”; he wondered what could induce a man to aggrandize himself through the misery and destruction of other men.”54 Frederick proceeded:

Machiavelli has not understood the true nature of the sovereign… . Far from being the absolute master of those who are under his rule, he is only the first of their servants [le premier domestique], and should be the instrument of their welfare, as they are the instrument of his glory.55

And, probably again following Voltaire, Frederick praised the English constitution:

It seems to me that if a form of government may be held up as a model for our days, it is the English. There Parliament is the supreme judge of both the people and the king, while the king has full power of doing good, but none of doing evil.56

We find no sign of insincerity in these professions; they are repeated time and again in Frederick’s letters of this period. He sent the manuscript to Voltaire (January, 1740), who begged permission to have it published. The proud author shyly consented. Voltaire wrote a preface, took the manuscript to The Hague, saw it through the press, and corrected the proofs. Toward the end of September it burst upon the world, anonymous, under the title L’Anti-Machiavel. The secret of its authorship was soon revealed, and readers joined Voltaire in hailing the advent of a philosopher-king.

Frederick William I remained almost to the end the gnarled oak that he had so long been, scolding, denouncing, laying down the law in his striking way. Only when the court preacher told him that he was dying and must forgive his enemies if he wished pardon from God, did he reluctantly make his peace with the world. In his last moments he sent for Friedrich, embraced him, and wept; perhaps after all this willful youth had in him the makings of a king? “Am I not happy,” he asked the generals around his bed, “to have such a son to leave behind me?”57 And the son may have understood better now the old man’s feeling that a monarch must have some iron in his blood.

On May 31, 1740, Frederick William I, worn out at fifty-one, yielded up his life and his throne. Anti-Machiavel was king.

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