He was born in 1740, the son of Frederick William I and his queen, Sophia Dorothea, a daughter of George I of Great Britain. As a boy he was bullied by his father, who thought nothing of whipping the child in front of shocked servants. His father was known is royal circles as ‘the royal drill-sergeant’, and with reason. Frederick William was a strict religionist, violent-tempered, notorious for his malreatment not only of his son but for women and servants too. It is not surprising that that the boy grew up to be peculiar.
When Frederickwas eighteen he had a passion for another youth, the son of a courtier called von Katte. When his father was told of the affair he ordered the friend beheaded in a courtyard, and forced his son to watch the execution from a window. Modern psychologists would be able to analyse Frederick’s strange mind as a result of his terrible upbringing.
When Frederick inherited from his awful father, he became a perfect example of an enlightened despot; he was a brilliant soldier and strategist, able in everything, a good administrator, and cultured in literature, writing, poetry and music. He firmly believed that a ruler must exercise absolute power, but always exercise it for the good of his subjects. It was Frederick who established full religious freedom in Prussia, and encouraged it in the countries of his allies. Perhaps with memories of his treatment at the hands of his father, he abolished torture, and freed the serfs on his own estates.
He adored the army, and filled it with tall, robust men. A man had to be six foot two in his stockings to be admitted to Frederick’s army. He taxed the people heavily but with a modicum of fairness. In matters of love he was beyond any doubt bi-sexual.
In foreign policy he was utterly ruthless, attacking Maria Theresa (Austria) in 1740, and winning Silesia. Having obtained it he fought hard to hold on to it during the Wars of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, and hugely increased his already high reputation with his victories over the French at Rossbach (1537), and the Austrians at Leuthen, in the same year.
When poor Poland suffered one of her periodic partitions Frederick obtained West Prussia(1772), and he opposed Joseph II in the wars of the Bavarian Succession.
The beautiful rococo palace at Sans Souci (Potsdam) he designed and virtually built himself. When it was completed he played the flute himself at well-attended concerts in the grand salon, performing music composed by him. Sans Souci was ruined in the Secon War, but rebuilt in the modern era.
Frederick’s correspondence with the philosopher Voltaire has survived, can be read, and is full of wit and humour. It is one of the great surprises of History that Frederick became ‘the Great’, and achieved so much, considering the nightmare of his upbringing.