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Frederick the Great of Prussia

Patinated bronze. Standing figure wearing Life Guards uniform, sash and breast badge of the Royal Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, a tricorne, or dreispitz hat, his gauntletted right hand resting on a cane or krückstock. Mounted on a stepped panel square plinth and black marble base.

The popular view of Frederick the Great (1712-1768) has undergone a revival in recent times. He is now widely regarded by historians as one of the finest generals of the 18th century, and one of the most enlightened monarchs of his age, who transformed his country from a barren backwater into a powerful major European state. Nearly all 19th century German historians praised Frederick’s leadership, administrative efficiency, devotion to duty and success in building up Prussia. He remained an inspiring figure with his ability to snatch victory from defeat  during the First World War and later when the Second World War turned against Germany. However associations with him were badly tainted when it was learned that Hitler had a portrait of Frederick in his bunker and spoke to it in the final weeks of the Third Reich.

In his youth Frederick was more interested in music and philosophy than the military obsessions of his his overbearing father. Frederick even tried to run away to England but was thwarted in the attempt and forced to watch the execution of his accomplice. Nonetheless, upon ascending the throne he began the series of wars mainly with Austria by which extended his realm. He soon emerged as an influential military theorist whose analysis was drawn from his extensive personal battlefield experience. Considering himself ‘the first servant of the state’, Frederick was a proponent of enlightened absolutism. He abolished torture, promoted religious tolerance in some degree, modernized the Prussian tax system, judiciary and civil service.

In the late 1740s Frederick began building his extravagant summer palace Sansoucci in Potsdam, near Berlin. It provided a haven for intellectuals from all over Europe and was given over to the enjoyment of the arts and the exploration of the latest trends in Enlightenment thinking. Frederick was a prolific author, and among the many books he wrote was a denunciation of Niccolò Machiavelli, in which he sternly criticized the 16th-century Italian author’s cynical stratagems to exploit power. Yet Frederick was not without a streak of Machiavellian practicality himself. He welcomed Voltaire to his circle in 1750. Voltaire was then the most famous intellectual in Europe and was both loved and loathed for his stinging attacks on power and his rallying cry for religious freedom and rational thought. The French king Louis XV, contemptuous toward the Enlightenment thinkers, was said to have declared on Voltaire’s arrival at Sansoucci: “One more madman in the Prussian court and one less in mine.”

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