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Frederick the Great At 300: An Irreverent German Look At A Singular Prussian King

Part military strategist, part philosopher-king, Frederick the Great ruled what is today the heart of Germany through nearly half of the 18th century. Exactly 300 years from his birth, one German writer takes an unflinching (and ironic) look at Frederick&

Portrait of Frederick the Great, aged 68, by Swiss painter Anton Graff.
Portrait of Frederick the Great, aged 68, by Swiss painter Anton Graff.
Eckhard Fuhr

BERLIN - There have long been lively debates in Germany over the historical legacy of Frederick the Great. Some trace a direct path from the 18th century Prussian King, via Bismarck's militarism, to Hitler and the 20th century's worst catastrophes. Others instead tend to see a link between the 46-year reign of Frederick, a sort of philosopher-king and lifelong friend of the arts, and the best in modern civil democracy.

The embodiment of evil ambition or a grandfather of contemporary political enlightenment? It is a question made all the richer since he died just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, which historians often use to mark the dawn of our modern era.

This week, Germany marked the 300th birthday of Frederick the Great (Jan. 24, 1712- Aug. 17, 1786), and the historical debate burns on. But as with all long-serving rulers, there were many faces and facets to Frederick the...some quirky, and some still surprisingly relevant.

Frederick the know-it-all
The eldest son of the charming Queen Luise was neither a reactionary nor a revolutionary. It can also be said that, culturally speaking, there wasn't actually much real meat to Alte Fritz ("Old Fritz" is the nickname still used in Germany). His reputation as a "philosopher" is due in large part to his essay entitled "Anti-Machiavel." It, however, is little more than small-time moral quibbling about the far greater spirit captured by the Italian humanist Niccolò Machiavelli who – contrary to Frederick – took an in-depth look at all things political. Frederick's know-it-all-ism and righteousness are difficult to stomach. If he were alive today, he might be one of those self-important bloggers who believes it's up to him to set the world straight.

Frederick the dog lover
Let's start with the little things...on four legs. Frederick wasn't interested in dogs that served a purpose. He surrounded himself with miniature greyhounds, gave the luxury creatures names from Greek mythology, and referred to them as "birds on four legs."

And at the end of his life it was with his dogs that he wanted to be buried. That wish only came true some 20 years ago, when – in unified Germany -- his mortal remains were brought to Sanssouci in Potsdam (Berlin). On his gravestone? Images of potatoes in honor of the role he played in promoting the then despised vegetable.

Frederick the flute player and cake lover
Marzipan cake with chocolate and sour cherries was apparently his favorite thing to eat. From a genealogical perspective the comparison with his forbears is interesting: his grandfather held hunts that virtually decimated game in entire forests, after which the prey was cooked in an orgy of grilled meat. At the table of his father, a highly disciplined soldier king, the rule was you ate what was put in front of you. Along comes Frederick the Great, and it's all about sweet cake – is this really the ideal expression of Prussia?

And why of all things did Frederick have to play the flute, and name Johann Joachim Quantz his teacher and court composer? Quantz's style was a baroque version of techno. When he met one of music's greats, Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederick had the bright idea to outsmart him.

Frederick the wise guy
Frederick was also a smart aleck as regards the visual arts. Which brings us to Sanssouci. Even sworn admirers of the Prussian king admit that they'd take a classical country home or city palace any day over this pale pink rococo shell with its vaguely doll-house feel where Frederick – as much as this was possible for an absolute 18th century monarch – preferred to be alone.

Fredrick with his greyhounds eating marzipan cake at Sanssouci – we're supposed to admire this?

Frederick the Great
Now for what was great about him. There's no nit-picking about his abilities as a statesman and military commander. Under his reign, Prussia became a great European power. And Frederick risked much to get it into that position.

It says a lot about his good instincts and practical political sense that, after he came to the throne in 1740, he didn't pay much attention to what he'd written in "Anti-Machiavel" (which was published a few months after he became king), and went on to create a space for himself as one of the biggest power players on the European scene. This came at the cost of considerable personal effort and – here he's no different than any of his enemies or allies – without any consideration for the toll it would take on his people.

Germany is not Prussian
Prussia brought about the death of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and Napoleon buried it. Progress? Modernization theorists say yes and speak of historical necessity while romantics remained unconvinced by the idea that history is supposed to have a direction.

Today's Germany is part of the "smaller German solution," but it isn't Prussian. The Prussian legacy is part of its cultural heritage. And within the European Union, Germany is part of a political picture that has some traits in common with a new "Reich." This European "Reich" depends on a certain amount of sovereignty being ceded by those who are a part of it. It would be bold to include Old Fritz in the gallery of ancestral portraits. It's probably better, however, to leave him where he is, at Sanssouci with his dogs.

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Photo - Charlottenburg Palace

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