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Frederick the Great by Anton Graff, 1781 (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

« La Prusse n’est pas un pays qui a une armée, c’est une armée qui a un pays. »
(See Frederick the Great, Wiki2.org.)

The Monarch as a Young Man

Frederick was the son of Frederick William I of Prussia a disciplinarian who did not shy away from beating his son. Young Frederick attempted to flee to England with a friend, Hans Hermann von Katte ( 1704 – 1730), intending to work for George II of Britain. George II was the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover). Flight was impeded. Frederick William I had the two lads imprisoned, at Küstrin. King Frederick William I spared his son’s life, but Hans Hermann von Katte was beheaded and Frederick William I insisted that his son watch the execution.


Although Frederick married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern when he was crown prince, he did not live with his wife. It appears he was not attracted to women. As a very young man, he may have been attracted to boys, but one can only speculate on Frederick the Great’s sexuality. Although he was not attracted to women, Frederick made sure his wife lived comfortably. He was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II of Prussia.

Frederick the Composer

Frederick’s passion was his “profession,” to quote Catherine the Great of Russia. He was an aristocrat and “born to rule.” Other than his “profession,” Frederick was an excellent musician. He played the flute and was a surprisingly prolific composer. Harmony, counterpoint and form are demanding disciplines. Additionally, one’s melodies are the product of inspiration. Frederick was gifted. Frederick the Great (Wiki2.org) provides a list of Frederick’s compositions. It may not be a complete, but it is very impressive: 100  sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies, etc. Frederick had a music room at Sanssouci, his castle in Potsdam, and his flute teacher was no less than Johann Joachim Quantz (30 January 1607 – 12 July 1773). 

The Flute Concert of Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel, 1852, depicts Frederick playing the flute in his music room at Sanssouci as C. P. E. Bach accompanies him on a harpsichord-shaped piano by Gottfried Silbermann. (Frederick the Great, Wiki2.org.) 

Voltaire in Prussia

King Friedrich der Große admired all things French, Voltaire especially. Frederick, who learned French as a child, initiated a correspondence with Voltaire in 1736, before Frederick William I’s death. In the 1750’s, Voltaire moved to Prussia, at Frederick’s invitation. He was named chamberlain and appointed to the Order of Merit. Voltaire also received a salary of 20,000 French livres a year. He had rooms at Sanssouci (without worries), Frederick the Great’s castle at Potsdam, and also lived at Charlottenburg Palace. French was spoken at the Prussian court. Voltaire spent three years in Prussia. A misunderstanding separated host and guest, but the two reconciled. Frederick the Great was delighted to have known Voltaire. (See Voltaire, Wiki2.org.)  

Die Tafelrunde by Adolph von Menzel: guests of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci, including members of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and Voltaire (third from left). Next to Voltaire, wearing red, is Casanova. (Frederick the Great,Wiki2.org)

The Anti-Machiavel

The influence of French philosophes and British intellectuals led Frederick the Great to write an “idealistic refutation” (Wiki2.org.) of Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th-century’s Prince, entitled the Anti-Machiavel, published in 1740. Voltaire edited Frederick the Great’s Anti-Machiavel, also providing footnotes. A combined edition was published. Summarizing the Anti-Machiavel would be difficult, but, basically, it describes the king as “the first servant of the state.”

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great westernized Russia, but they also organized it. As for Frederick the Great, the most enlightened of despots, he modernized Prussia. All three despots also promoted, to a greater or lesser extent, religious tolerance. King Frederick the Great joined Freemasonry, as did many of his contemporaries.

In Prussia, the heart of the future German Empire, it became possible to occupy positions formerly reserved for the nobility. Bourgeois could be judges and senior bureaucrats. Frederick welcomed immigrants and he allowed freedom of the press and literature. Moreover, not only was he a musician, but he was also a patron of musicians and artists.  He reformed the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Although it is incomplete, one of Frederick’s finest achievements was the Prussian Civil Code. Civil codes organize a nation. Catherine II the Great of Russia also worked on devising a code of laws.


Frederick the Great was a fine and well-educated leader. He believed, however, that his “profession” had made him what he was. It hadn’t. One does not need to be an aristocrat to govern well. In short, Frederick was an exceptional leader and an extremely gifted gentleman, brilliant, who happened to be a king, and a despot. 

Yet Frederick was also convinced that the Prussian landed noblemen, the Junkers, were the backbone of the state, and he continued accordingly to uphold the alliance between crown and aristocracy on which his kingdom had been built.


Sources and Resources

  1. Britannica’s Video on Sanssouci (without worries)
  2. Frederick the Great, Wiki2.org.
  3. Voltaire, Wiki2.org.
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica
  5. Concert for Flute at Sanssouci by Adolph von Menzel
Friedrich II der der Große’s Flute Concertos | Christoph Huntgeburth Ensemble Sans Souci Berlin
Frederick the Great (Frederick the Majestic)

© Micheline Walker
15 November 2018