Frederick the Great remains one of the most famous German rulers of all time for his military successes and his domestic reforms that made Prussia one of the leading European nations. Frederick II (the Great) was king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, and he stands as one of the greatest of the Enlightened Despots. He was an absolute ruler, but he lived under the principle that he was the "first servant of the state." He consequently did not rule by his own personal whims, but always under the guidance of what was most beneficial for Prussia, and he expected his people to possess the same devotion.
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Frederick devoted himself to building Prussia into a strong state and that meant both expansion and reform. When Frederick saw a chance to unify his kingdom geographically by taking over the Austrian province of Silesia, he quickly planned an invasion. This action went against an established treaty, but Frederick argued that agreements between nations became void when it was no longer beneficial to the state for them to exist. During the Seven Years War, Frederick successfully resisted opposition from France, Russia, and Austria despite a much smaller pool of resources. It was his military genius that saved his country and brought Prussia out of the war stronger than she had been before entering it.
As king, Frederick issued a series of domestic reforms that modernized Prussia and built her up from within. He continued the work of his predecessors to consolidate power by giving the territorial princes a place in the governmental bureaucracy. He established universal religious toleration and granted freedom of the press. He established individual protections against the law by speeding up the legal process, abolishing torture, and making sentences of death legal only with his personal sanction. Prussian judges were educated and the courts gained a reputation as the most honest in Europe. He established the first German law code and enforced general education rules across Prussia. Frederick financed the rebuilding of towns through agricultural reforms and built thousands of miles of roads. Frederick built Prussia into one of the strongest nations in Europe and left a legacy of absolute devotion to the fatherland that continued to shape German history into the 20th century.
Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of Civilization: Part X. Rousseau and Revolution New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.
Ritter, Gerhard. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile. Trans. Peter Paret. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
Woloch, Isser. Eighteenth-Century Europe: Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.
Researched and Written by:
Amanda Kay McVety
December 17, 1998
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