Frederick The Great
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Among the many petty states of the German Empire at the close of the feudal ages was the Electorate of Brandenburg. Along side of this was another known as the Duchess of Prussia. While Elizabeth sat upon the throne of England, the electors of Brandenburg added this duchy to their dominions. The electorate was thus increased in power and influence, and toward the close of the seventeenth century the Elector Frederick III. promised to assist the Emperor in the war of the Spanish Succession if he should receive the crown of Prussia. In the year 1701 the Elector of Brandenburg was changed into Frederick I., King of Prussia. This king, by wise economy and a careful organization of the army, laid the foundation of the future power of Prussia. He gathered and equipped a standing army of eighty thousand men and represented a population of two and one-half millions of people. The second king of Prussia is known in history by the name of Frederick William. He was a stern tyrant, but a rigid economist, and in the twenty-seven years of his rule he gathered and disciplined one of the finest armies in Europe, and which, in the hands of his gifted son, was destined to be the instrument of raising Prussia to a foremost place among the nations of Europe.
The famous Frederick II, known in history as Frederick the Great, was born in 1713, the year of Frederick William's accession to power. The boy-hood of this young prince was not a happy one. He was kicked and beaten, raved at and cursed by the irate Frederick William. At times he was even fed upon bread and water. So great was the abuse heaped upon him by his stern father, that he finally ran away and was barely saved from the death of a deserter. In 1740 the old king died, and Frederick the Great came to the throne, at the age of twenty-seven. He had had little or no education, at least for a prince. He had played upon the flute, scribbled a little and made himself somewhat acquainted with the new school of French philosophy. But while yet a boy, his dreams had been filled with the glorious deeds of a soldier, and now that he was king, the desire came over him to become a conqueror. He was the possessor of one of the best armies in Europe, and the treasury vaults were filled with gold. In the first year of Frederick's reign the :Emperor of Ger-many died. By the law of Pragmatic Sanction, Maria Theresa was made ruler of the hereditary dominion of Charles IV. She held a nominal rule over Hungary, Bohemia and the Archduchy of Austria, and was called by the highest title the Queen of Hungary. Among the various princes who laid claim to a part of her dominions was the ambitious Frederick. He, laid claim to the territory of Silesia as a part of the ancient dominion of the House of Brandenburg. Frederick marched into the territory, and after two victories obtained possession of the territory in 1742. Hostilities were opened again in 1744, but the war was without incident and without result. For eight years after the second Silesian war Frederick remained within his own dominion, drilling his army, accumulating resources, welding his kingdom together for more ambitious schemes. Under his able management Prussia rose in importance and gave promise as a vigorous and aggressive kingdom. In 1756 the Seven Years' War broke out, in which the young king of Prussia had to confront more than half of Europe arrayed against him, with only a half-hearted support on the part of England. The war raged with unexampled fury around the Prussian King. His foes broke into his territory from every side, overran and ruined his dominions. The captain king, with a loyal army at his back, fought bravely for the life of his kingdom. He exhibited rare ability as a commander and won many distinguished victories in the progress of the war. After five years of desperate struggle, he stood at bay in Silesia, surrounded by a host of two hundred thousand men. One tremendous dash he made at Torgau that saved the Prussian monarchy from total annihilation. From his impregnable camp he watched his foes with eagle eyes, but the position was discouraging in the extreme, and it is said that Frederick contemplated suicide as he saw his foes closing in around him from every side. But Elizabeth of Prussia died and Peter III. withdrew the Russian army; made peace with his admirer and friend and sent aid to the beleagured prince. The example set by Russia was followed by Sweden, and the for-tunes of the war changed. In 1763 the Peace of Paris was signed and left only Prussia and Austria in the field. These were both too much exhausted to continue the war longer, and came to terms in 1765. It is estimated that a million men fell in this terrible struggle. Prussia bore her own sad share in the costly sacrifice, and when the war was over, the scarred and wounded survivors found themselves in a wasted land. The genius of Frederick had shown most gloriously in war, but the resources of his great mind were now called into action as they never had been upon the field of battle. He set himself resolutely to work to repair the damage done in war. He gave corn for food and seed to the starving people, and rebuilt the houses which had been burned. The land was freed from taxes until prosperity had come again. Rewards to the veterans of his army, and pensions to the surviving friends of those who had died, were bestowed with a liberal hand. Industry and commerce were renewed, and Prussia flourished greatly under the rule of Frederick. He ascended the throne in 1740, with two million of people and six million of thalers in the treasury vaults. He died in 1786, with seventy-two million in his treasury and a prosperous people of six millions.
Frederick the Great died at the ripe age of seventy-five, having reigned for a period of forty-seven years. That he was a great man, history abundantly shows. That he was successful in his great and ambitious undertakings, is equally true. He was not always just; was sometimes hard and severe, which might be expected from the age in which he lived and the parent-age from which he sprang. He gave himself little anxiety about the justice of his deeds, but through his long and laborious life he had one fixed purpose, from which he never swerved and in which he never lost faith, and that was the aggrandizement of Prussia, and, certainly, as compared with his cotemporariesthe Georges of England and the Louis of Franceó. he challenges our respect and admiration.
As a ruler, the policy of Frederick was the same as that of his father. He was inspired from first to last with an over-mastering ambition to make Prussia the foremost power in Europe. In extent and population his kingdom was hardly second in rank, and in order to make Prussia great it had to be "all sting," as Macaulay remarks. The policy of Frederick was to marshal and drill an army that should be a terror to all Europe. Louis XV., with five times as many subjects and five times the revenue of the Prussian king, had not a more formidable army. The proportion which the army of Prussia bore to the people seems hardly credible. Fully one-seventh of the male population was under arms. This large force was drilled and reviewed 'by the king himself with punctual regularity. They were brought to submission by the unsparing use of the cane and scourge. By the persistent use of tactics they were taught to perform all evolutions with a tact and precision rarely equaled. Under such Spartan vigor the elevated and patriotic feelings which should actuate a large army were of course wanting. "In those ranks," says Macaulay, "were not found the religious and political enthusiasm which inspired the pikemen of Cromwell ; the patriotic ardor, the thirst for glory, the devotion to a great leader, which influenced the Old Guards of Napoleon.
But in all the mechanical parts of the military calling the Prussians were as superior to the English and French troops of that day as the English and French troops were to a rustic militia."
The expense of such an establishment was simply enormous, and only a man of the highest abilities as a financier could have made the revenues of his country pay the expenses of his army and his court. He cut down every expense to the lowest possible point. Although his dominions bordered on the sea, he had no navy and wanted none. All the officers of his government were meanly paid ; his ministers at foreign courts were kept in poverty ; his diplomatic agents who resided at Paris and London were kept on salaries about one-half less than those granted by other nations. The royal household was managed with a frugality praiseworthy in the cottage of a peasant, but unequaled in a palace. To quote again from Macau-lay: " He examined every extraordinary item with a care that might suit the mistress of a boarding house better than a great prince." In all things his economy was most rigid, and only to satisfy a passion for building and an intemperate use of snuff was he ever tempted beyond the limits of parsimony. His economy would seem mean to the last degree, did we not consider that his revenue was drawn from a people burdened with taxation and drained by war. He could not have kept his powerful army and splendid court without resort to the greatest tyranny.
It has been said that the man who makes a visible impression upon his age, either as a philanthropist, a military leader or an organizer of civil and political power, is necessarily a great man. Frederick the Great did all this with distinguished ability and success, and he was certainly a most remarkable man, if he did not possess all the qualities that the world loves to attribute to greatness.