24th January 1712 was the birth-date of King Frederick II of Prussia, known to history as Frederick the Great.
He is known primarily as a military genius who established Prussia’s influence as a leading power in Europe and laid the foundation for this northern German territory to become the dominant force in what eventually become united Germany.
When he became king in 1740 the Prussian army numbered 83,000 men; by the time of his death in 1786 that figure had risen to 190,000 out of a total population of 2.5 million. Military might was the foremost consideration of Frederick’s foreign policy – it has been estimated that during the Seven Years War of 1756-63 Prussian losses amounted to 15% of the entire male population. However, despite this casualty rate Frederick managed to inflict defeats on all his enemies, most notably Austria and France.
However, Frederick was also one of the most cultured European rulers. He composed music, played the flute, wrote poetry and collected art. He was a patron and friend of Voltaire, with whom he shared a sceptical view of life. He was also an enlightened ruler, albeit an autocrat, who abolished the use of torture within the Prussian judicial system.
Despite his nationalism and aggression towards his European neighbours, Frederick rarely spoke German, preferring to write and speak mostly in French.
© John Welford