Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Frederick II—the Royal Robber

Peter the Great had paid a famous visit to the Prussian court, hoping to conclude an alliance with Frederick William I against Charles XII, his northern adversary. Queen Catherine and her ladies had been sharply criticized when they arrived at Berlin, and Peter's own bearing did not escape much adverse comment and secret ridicule; nevertheless he received many splendid presents, and these, no doubt, atoned to him for anything which seemed lacking in his reception.

A splendid yacht sailed toward Petersburg as the gift of Frederick, who was anxious to conciliate the uncouth ruler of the East. In return, men of gigantic stature were sent annually from Russia to enter the splendid Potsdam Guards, so dear to the monarch, who was a stern soldier and loved the martial life. Prussia was a new kingdom obtained for his descendants by the Elector of Brandenburg. It was necessary that the rulers should devote themselves to recruiting a goodly force, since their land might be easily attacked by foreign foes and divided among the greater powers, if they did not protect it well.

Frederick William sent recruiting sergeants far and wide, and suffered these even to enter churches during service and to carry off by force the stalwart young men of the congregation. Yet he was a pious man, an enemy to vice, and a ruler of enormous diligence. He rid himself of useless attendants as soon as his father died, and exercised the strictest economy in his private life. He kept the purse-strings and was also his own general. He was ever about the streets, accosting idlers roughly, and bidding the very apple-women knit at their stalls while they were awaiting custom. He preached industry everywhere, and drilled his regiments with zealous assiduity.

Of tall stature and florid complexion, the King struck terror into the hearts of the coward and miscreant. He despised extravagance in dress. French foppery was so hateful to him that he clothed the prison gaolers in Parisian style, trusting that this would bring contempt on foreign fashions.

The Potsdam Guards were under the strictest discipline, and the Prussian soldiers won battles by sheer mechanical obedience to orders when they took the field. Death punished any resistance to a superior officer, and merciless flogging was inflicted on the rank and file. Boys were often reluctant to enter on such a course of training, and parents were compelled to give up their sons by means of Dragonnades—soldiers quartered upon subjects who were not sufficiently patriotic to furnish recruits for the State. Every man of noble birth had to be an officer, and must serve until his strength was broken. The King fraternized only with soldiers because these were above other classes and belonged more or less to his own order. The army had been raised to 80,000 men when Frederick William I died, holding the fond belief that his successor had it in his power to enlarge the little kingdom which the old Elector had handed down with pride.

The Crown Prince, Frederick of Brandenburg and Hohenzollern, was born in the royal palace of Berlin on January 24th of 1712. He was christened Friedrich "rich in peace"—a name strangely ironical since he was trained from his earliest years to adopt a martial life. From the child's eighth year he was educated by military tutors, and bred in simple habits that would make him able to endure the hardships of a camp.

The martinet, Frederick William I, laid down strict rules for his son's training, for he longed to be followed by a lad of military tastes. He was to learn no Latin but to study Arithmetic, Mathematics and Artillery and to be thoroughly instructed in Economy. The fear of God was to be impressed on the pupil, and prayers and Church services played an important part in the prince's day, of which every hour had its allotted task. Haste and cleanliness were inculcated in the simple royal toilette, for Frederick I had, for those days, a quite exaggerated idea of cleanliness, but he particularly impressed upon attendants that "Prayer with washing, breakfast and the rest" were to be performed within fifteen minutes. It was a hard life, destined to bring the boy a "true love for the soldier business." He was commanded to love it and seek in it his sole glory. The father returned from war with the Swedes in January 1716, victorious, and delighted to see the little Fritz, then of the tender age of three, beating a toy drum, and his sister Wilhelmina, aged seven, in a martial attitude.

But the Crown Prince began to disappoint his father by playing the flute and reading French romances. He liked fine clothes too, and was caught wearing a richly embroidered dressing-gown, to the rage of the King, who put it in the fire. Frederick liked to arrange his hair in flowing locks instead of in a club after the military fashion. "A Querpfeifer und Poet, not a soldier," the indignant father growled, believing the Querpfeif, or Cross-Pipe, was only fit for a player in the regimental band. Augustus William, another son, ten years younger than Fritz, began to be the hope of parental ambition. He took more kindly to a Spartan life than his elder brother. There were violent scenes at court when Frederick the younger was asked to give up his right to the succession. He refused to be superseded, and had to endure much bullying and privation. The King was ever ready with his stick, and punished his son by omitting to serve him at his rather scanty table!

There was much talk of a double marriage between the English and the Prussian courts, which were then related. Frederick was to marry Amelia, daughter of George I while his sister, pretty pert Wilhelmina, was destined for Frederick, Prince of Wales. The King of Prussia set his heart on the plan, and was furious that George I did not forward it. The whole household went in fear of him; he was stricken by gout at the time, an affliction that made him particularly ill-tempered, and Wilhelmina and Fritz were the objects of his wrath. They fled from his presence together; the Prince was accused of a dissolute life, and insulted by a beating in public.

He decided on flight to England. It was a desperate measure, and was discovered and frustrated at the last moment. The King of Prussia laid the blame on English diplomats, though they had done nothing to help the Prince. There was talk of an Austro-English war at that time. "I shall not desert the Emperor even if everything goes to the dogs," wrote the irate father. "I will joyfully use my army, my country, my money and my blood for the downfall of England." He was so enraged by the attempted flight that he might have gone to the extreme of putting his son to death, but an old general, hearing of the probable fate of the Crown Prince, offered his own life for that of Frederick, and raised so vehement a protest that the runaway was merely put in prison.

His confinement was not as strict as it would have been, had the gaolers followed the King's orders. He had to wear prison dress and sit on a hard stool, but books and writing materials were brought to him, and he saw his friends occasionally. Lieutenant von Katte, who fled with him, was executed before the fortress, and the Prince was compelled to witness the punishment of the companion with whom he had practised music and other forbidden occupations.

By degrees, the animosity of Frederick William toward his eldest son softened. He was allowed to visit Berlin when his sister Wilhelmina was married to the Margrave of Baireuth, after four kings had applied for her hand, among them the elderly Augustus of Poland and Charles XII of Sweden. The Castle of Rheinsburg, near Neu-Ruppin, was given to the Prince for his residence. He spent happy hours there with famous men of letters in his circle, for he was actually free now to give time to literature and science. He corresponded frequently with Voltaire and became an atheist. He cared nothing for religion when he was king, and was remarkable for the religious toleration which he extended to his subjects. But the harsh treatment of youth had spoilt his pleasant nature, and his want of faith made him unscrupulous and hard-hearted. He grasped at all he could win, and had every intention of fulfilling the commands laid upon him by the Testament which his father wrote in 1722 when he believed himself to be dying;—"Never relinquish what is justly yours."

It was far from his intention to relinquish any part of his dominions, and, moreover, he set early about the business of conquering Silesia to add to his little kingdom. Saxony should fall to him if he could in any wise win it. There was hope in that fine stalwart body of men his father had so well disciplined. There was courage in his own heart, and he had been reared in too stern a school to fear hardships.

In 1740, Frederick received his dying father's blessing, and in the same year the Emperor, Charles VI, left his daughter, Maria Theresa, to struggle with an aggressive European neighbour. She was a splendid figure, this empress of twenty-three, beautiful and virtuous, with the spirit of a man, and an unconquerable determination to fight for what was justly hers. She held not Austria alone but many neighbouring kingdoms—Styria, Bohemia, the Tyrol, Hungary, and Carpathia.

Charles VI had endeavoured to secure his daughter's kingdom by means of a "Pragmatic Sanction," which declared the indivisibility of the Austrian dominions, and the right of Maria Theresa to inherit them in default of a male heir. This was signed by all the powers of Europe save Bavaria, but Frederick broke it ruthlessly as soon as the Emperor died.

In high spirits Frederick II entered on the bold enterprise of seizing from Maria Theresa some part of those possessions which her father had striven to secure to her.

Allies gathered round Prussia quickly, admiring the 80,000 men that the obscure sovereignty had raised from the subjects of a little kingdom. France, Spain, Poland, and Bavaria allied themselves with the spoiler against Maria Theresa, who sought the aid of England. She seemed in desperate straits, the victim of treachery, for Frederick had promised to support her. The Battle of Molwitz went against Austria, and the Empress was fain to offer three duchies of Silesia, but the King refused them scornfully, saying, "Before the war, they might have contented me. Now I want more. What do I care about peace? Let those who want it give me what I want; if not, let them fight me and be beaten again."

The Elector of Bavaria was within three days' march of Vienna, proclaiming himself Archduke of Austria. Maria Theresa had neither men nor money. Quite suddenly she took a resolution and convoked the Hungarian magnates at Pressburg, where she had fled from her capital. She stood before them, most beautiful and patriotic in her youth and helplessness. Raising her baby in her arms, she appealed to the whole assembly. She had put on the crown of St Stephen and held his sword at her side. The appeal was quickly answered. Swords leapt from their scabbards; there came the roar of many voices, "Moriamur pro rege nostro, Maria Theresa!" ("Let us die for our King, Maria Theresa.")

But Friedrich defeated the Austrians again and again in battle. No armies could resist those wonderful compact regiments, perfectly drilled and disciplined, afraid of nothing save of losing credit. Maria had to submit to the humiliation of giving up part of Silesia to her enemy, while the Elector had himself crowned as Emperor Charles VII at Frankfort. The English King, George II, fought for her against the French at Dettingen and won a victory. She entered her capital in triumph, apparently confirmed in her possessions. But Frederick was active in military operations and attempted to detach the English from her. He invaded Bohemia and defeated the imperial generals. He received the much-disputed territory of Silesia in 1745 by the Treaty of Dresden, which concluded the second war.

The national spirit was rising in Prussia through this all-powerful army, which drained the country of its men and horses. The powers of Europe saw with astonishment that a new force was arraying itself in youthful glory. The Seven Years' War began in 1756, one of the most fateful wars in the whole of European history.

France, Russia, and Saxony were allied with Maria Theresa, but the Prussians had the help of England. Frederick II proved himself a splendid general, worthy of the father whose only war had wrested the coveted province of Pomerania from the doughty Charles XII of Sweden. He defeated the Austrians and invaded Saxony, mindful of the wealth and prosperity of that country which, if added to his own, would greatly increase the value of his dominions. He was almost always victorious though he had half Europe against him. He defeated the Austrians at Prague and Leuthen, the Russian army at Zorndorf. One of his most brilliant triumphs was won over the united French and Imperial armies at Rossbach.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


The French anticipated an easy victory in 1757, for the army of the allies was vastly superior to that which Frederick William had encamped at Rossbach, a village in Prussian Saxony. The King watched the movements of the enemy from a castle, and was delighted when he managed to bring them to a decisive action. He had partaken of a substantial meal with his soldiers in the camp, although he was certainly in a most precarious position. He was too cunning a strategist to give the signal to his troops till the French were advancing up the hill toward his tents. The battle lasted only one hour and a half and resulted in a complete victory for Prussia. The total loss of the King's army was under 550 officers and men compared with 7700 on the side of the enemy.

The "Army of Cut-and-Run" was the contemptuous name earned by the retreating regiments.

Gradually, allies withdrew on either side, France becoming involved with England in India and the Colonies. Frederick II and Maria Theresa made terms at Hubertsburg. Silesia was still in the hands of the Prussian King, but he had failed in the prime object of the war, which was the conquest of Saxony.

There was work for a king at home when the long, disastrous war was over. Harvests went unreaped for want of men, and there were no strong horses left for farm-labour. Starvation had rendered many parts of the kingdom desolate, but the introduction of the potato saved some of those remaining. The King had forthwith to rebuild villages and bring horses from foreign countries. He was anxious to follow his father's exhortations and make the population industrious and thriving. He saw to it that schools rose everywhere and churches also, in which there was as little bickering as possible. The clergy were kept down and prevented from "becoming popes," as seemed to be the case in some countries. The King had no piety, but revered his father's Protestantism.

When the war was over, Frederick looked an old man though he was but fifty-one. He was a shabby figure, this "old Fritz," in threadbare blue uniform with red facings. His three-cornered hat, black breeches and long boots showed signs of an economical spirit, inculcated in his youth when he had only eighteen pence a week to spend. He walked about among the country people talking familiarly with the farmers. He made it a rule to go round the country once a year to see how things had prospered.

The King hated idleness, and, like the first Frederick, scolded his subjects if they were not industrious. "It is not necessary that I should live, but it is necessary that whilst I live I be busy," he would remark severely. Frugality won praise from him and he always noted it among his subjects. One day he asked the time of an officer he met in the streets and was startled to see a leaden bullet pulled up by a golden chain. "My watch points to but one hour, that in which I am ready to die for your Majesty," was the patriotic answer to his question. He rewarded the officer with his own gold watch, and reflected that his methods had been as successful as those of his father. That prudent monarch put loose sleeves over his uniform whenever he wrote that he might not spoil the expensive cloth which was then the fashion.

In 1786, Frederick II died, leaving Germany to mourn him. The best-disciplined army in Europe and a treasury full of gold were the good gifts he left to his successor. The population of the realm numbered six million souls, in itself another fortune. "If the country is thickly populated, that is true wealth" had been a wise maxim of the first Frederick.

Father and son cut homely figures on the stage of eighteenth-century Europe. The brilliant Louis XIV, and his stately Versailles, seemed to far outshine them. But Germany owed to Frederick I and Frederick II, known as the Great, her unity and national spirit. They built on solid ground and their work remained to bring power to their successors, while the Grand Monarch left misery behind, which was to find expression in that crying of the oppressed, known throughout history as the French Revolution.