History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Francis I

Upon the death of Charles VII, Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, Grand-duke of Tuscany, had been chosen as Emperor. By the Peace of Dresden, Frederick II of Prussia had agreed to recognise him as Emperor, and so for eight years there was peace within the Empire.

After her husband became Emperor, Maria Theresa was called the Queen Empress. And, indeed, if there was any power at all in the empty title of Emperor, it was Maria Theresa who used it, and not her insignificant husband.

The Emperor, indeed, was a mere nobody. The two great sovereigns in the Empire were Maria Theresa, Queen of Austria, and Frederick II, King of Prussia. But there was a vast difference between the two. Maria Theresa was the daughter of a great house, a descendant of the Hapsburgs, who for hundreds of years had taken first place among the rulers in the Empire. Frederick was, in comparison, a mere upstart. Men were still alive who could remember the day when his vain grandfather placed the crown upon his own head. They had laughed at his vanity, now they began to be jealous of his grandson's might.

But Frederick II heeded them not. He went his own way. In the years of war he had showed himself a great soldier, and in the years of peace he showed himself as statesman. He encouraged manufactures, improved agriculture, founded schools, brought order into the laws, and in every way did his best for his country.

He worked hard. "The King," he said, "is not absolute master, but only the first servant of his people." All the same he ruled like an absolute master, and his people were obliged to bow to his will, simply because it was his will. His ministers were little more than his servants. But he knew how to choose them, and he chose men who were honest and true, and willing to work for the good of their country. At length Prussia took a great place among the states of Europe, and Frederick earned for himself the title of Frederick the Great.

Meanwhile the other states looked on with jealous anger, and began to fear this upstart kingdom. Frederick too had a sharp tongue, and a wit which was often cruel, and he said bitter things of some of the other rulers. This helped to make them dislike him. Maria Theresa on her part had never ceased to mourn for her lost Silesia. "She forgets that she is a Queen, and sheds tears like a woman, whenever she sees a Silesian," wrote an Englishman, who lived in those days. And at length she entered into an alliance with Russia and with France against Prussia.

Once again the Empire was divided against itself. Once again, as in the war of the Austrian Succession, France aided one great state against the other. But in the war of the Austrian Succession Austria had stood alone against all Europe with only Britain for friend. Now Prussia stood alone, and again Britain took the side of the one against the many. In spite of the fact that George II hated Frederick, the British took sides with Prussia.

The war which now began is called the Seven Years' War. All Europe took part in it, fighting to crush one impertinent little state. But fighting was not confined to Europe alone, for between France and Britain the fight went on upon the sea, in Canada, and in India.

This war, begun to crush out Prussia, had far greater consequences than those who began it ever thought about, for it founded the great Colonial Empire of Britain, and it founded the Empire of Germany as it is to-day.

But meanwhile it was for Prussia a desperate struggle for life. Frederick knew that if he were defeated there was an end to his kingship, and his kingdom. Should he lose Prussia would be torn to pieces, and vanish from among the states of Europe, even more quickly than it had appeared. He made up his mind never to live to see that day. So as he rode over Germany, fighting now one enemy, now another, he carried poison with him, with which he meant to end his life, when all hope was lost.

But Frederick was one of the most splendid generals the world has ever seen; his army was the most perfect in Europe. So he did not need to use his little poison pills. Battle after battle was fought, Frederick sometimes winning brilliant victories, sometimes submitting to crushing defeats. Once after such a defeat he nearly despaired. "The results of the battle will be worse than the battle itself," he wrote to one of his friends. "I have no more resources, and not to hide the truth, I think all is lost. I shall not live after the ruin of my country. Farewell for ever."

For years Frederick had fought against three great powers, Austria, France, and Russia, any one of which alone was far stronger than himself. Now his country was wasted and barren, his treasury was empty, his army outworn and shattered, and still his enemies showed no sign of weakening. It was hardly wonderful that he despaired. Yet in a few days Frederick gathered courage again, was again ready to fight. But now he was like a man with his back against the wall, fighting his last fight. He grew savage. "It is hard for man to bear what I bear," he wrote. "I begin to feel that as the Italians say, revenge is a pleasure of the gods. I am no saint like those we read of in legends, and I own that I would die content if I could first make my enemies suffer some of the misery which I have had to bear."

Frederick now vowed that while there were bread and potatoes to eat, while lead and gunpowder were left, a man to carry a gun, a horse for him to ride, he would fight on. So the war continued, but still victory was uncertain, now one side, now the other winning victories. But, although making a gallant stand, Prussia was being slowly drained of men and money. The end seemed nearer and nearer.

"The Prussians are in the sack," said the Austrians. "We need only pull the string, and the King and his army are caught."

"They are not so far wrong," said Frederick, when he heard the taunt. "But I trust I shall slit their sack."

Then came bad news for him from Britain. Pitt and his party had fallen from power, and the new government voted for peace. Frederick could no longer hope for men or money from that quarter.

The outlook was black indeed, but almost at the same time as he lost his one friend, Frederick was also relieved of one of his greatest enemies. Elizabeth of Russia died in 1762, and her nephew Peter succeeded her. Peter was a coarse, weak man, but he had an unbounded admiration for Frederick, and he at once made friends with him.

Not content with merely making peace, he set free all Prussian prisoners, and sent soldiers to help Frederick. He caused himself to be made colonel of a Prussian regiment, and wore the Prussian order of the Black Eagle, and always carried a portrait of Frederick about with him.

But the reign of Peter III was short and stormy, and before Frederick could reap any great benefit from this new friendship, the news came that the Czar had been deposed and murdered.

His wife Catherine now became Czarina. She kept the peace made by her husband, but she called back the soldiers who had been sent to help Frederick. So again the Prussian King was left to face his enemies alone.

At length, one by one, each country ceased from war, until only Austria and Prussia were left. Prussia was still unconquered, and Maria Theresa's hate was still unsatisfied. She would gladly have continued the war, but even she saw that it was hopeless to try to conquer alone the plucky little state, which had kept all the great powers of Europe at bay. So she, too, owned herself ready for peace, and on February 15, 1763, the Peace of Hubertsburg was signed.

So far as land was concerned Austria and Prussia were exactly the same at the end as they were at the beginning of the war. Not an inch of land had changed hands, and all the blood had been shed in vain.

Neither side, it seemed, had gained anything; both had suffered terribly. But in reality Prussia had gained much. The plucky little Prussian King had made all Europe stare at his soldiery, and his statesmanship. He had borne defeats bravely, he had won brilliant victories, when his cause seemed hopeless. From being far back in the ranks of kings he had simply shouldered his way to the front. Henceforth Prussia had to be counted among the powers of Europe. Henceforth Prussia was the rival of Austria, for first place among the states of the Empire.

But, although in a manner triumphant, the war left Prussia desolate and exhausted. Great tracts of land, where once busy villages and cheerful farmhouses had flourished, were left barren and deserted. Whole towns were laid in ruins, and the land was filled with misery and beggary.

Frederick the Great


Frederick now set himself to cure this misery, and bring back plenty to his land, as well as peace. Seed-corn was given to the farmers free, war-horses were sent to draw their ploughs, money was given to the ruined manufacturers, and so by degrees Prussia recovered her lost prosperity.

But to get money for all this Frederick taxed the people, often in a way they did not like. One of the things they disliked most was the royal monopoly of coffee. No one might buy coffee except from the royal stores. They might not even roast or ground it; that must be done at the royal mills. The result was that coffee cost three or four times as much as it was worth, and there was great discontent and much smuggling. But smuggling was difficult, for the smell of roasting coffee cannot be hid, and "coffee smellers" went from house to house, ready to seize and carry off to prison any who disobeyed the law.

It was only the love the people had for their great King which kept them from openly revolting against his fatherly tyranny. They grumbled openly, and Frederick did not mind. "My people and I," he said, "have come to an agreement which pleases us both. They are to say what they like, and I am to do as I like."

Once as he was riding through the streets near his palace he saw a great crowd, all struggling and jostling each other to try to see something which was pasted upon a wall. The King too thought he would like to see what all the excitement was about, and when at length he forced a way through, the crowd he found pasted on the wall a caricature of himself. Between his knees was a coffee mill; with one hand he turned the handle, with the other he gathered up any stray coffee beans he could find. Underneath were some uncomplimentary remarks about "Old Fritz, the Coffee-grinder."

At the sight of this caricature Frederick only laughed. "Hang it lower," he said, "so that the people don't need to crane their necks so much to see it." Then suddenly the people recognised the King. The scowling faces began to smile, growls turned to laughter, and with the sound of ringing cheers in his ears, Frederick rode away.