European Diplomatic History Proposal
“You must not fear me! You must love me!”
The Rearing of Frederick the Great
Frederick William, King in Prussia and the father of Frederick the Great, was an uncultured, paranoid, neurotic, mean-spirited, jealous, drinking, violent, womanizing, fat swine. It was under his terror that Frederick II, “The Great,” was raised, beaten, and chastised daily. From Frederick the Great’s (or “Fritz’s”) birth in 1713 until the death of his father in 1740, life in the Hohenzollern family was generally miserable. Fritz and his sister, the Princess Wilhelmine, would often comfort each other after their father’s erratic rages, and at one point witnessed their father being overly sexual and forceful with one of their mother’s servants. Experiences of the same fashion would shape much of Fritz’s life, though none of it made him into the man his father wished him to be—much to the disappointment of Frederick I.
A military man, Frederick William I demanded that Fritz be manly and heroic, but quickly saw that Fritz was more persuaded by and drawn to education, culture, music, and, worst of all, books. Fritz was romantic whereas his father was a brute; Fritz enjoyed learning music and exploring the many different instruments and genres whereas his father would force the court musicians to play the same brief song again and again while he brooded; though he may have been a homosexual, one story tells of how Fritz engaged in a love affair with a woman named Elizabeth Ritter against his father’s will and Frederick I had her dragged, nude, through the streets to her place of execution, forcing Fritz to watch. This diametrically opposed relationship is probably the most important factor that influenced the rule of Frederick the Great. He studied in secret and eventually became one of the prominent “Enlightened Despots” with a rule very much different than his father in tone, and accomplishments to suit the name of “Great.”
Because Frederick the Great is one of the most interesting leaders in European history there is a natural wealth of writings on him. Biographies and general accounts on Enlightenment and Romance in Europe are not hard to locate. Nathan Ausubel’s 1931 Superman: The Life of Frederick the Great, despite being an early work, served as an excellent starting point to become immersed in the childhood and adolescence of Fritz, and provides—in a very baroque writing style—a set of paths for further reading. It seems to not be mentioned in the other works on Fritz, and its content will be scrutinized accordingly. Similarly, Robert B. Asprey’s 1986 Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma spends a considerable amount of time on Fritz’s early years and the events that shaped him. Also consulted has been Edith Simon’s 1963 The Making of Frederick the Great, a work primarily addressing Fritz’s youth and its shaping through the actions of Frederick William. Historians are intensely intrigued by this relationship with his father, and further research should delve into those accounts and analyses.
As far as primary sources are concerned, Voltaire’s many writings on Fritz will be required, as they were both intimately acquainted with one another. Their relationship was not always happy, and Voltaire will be able to provide some very personal details concerning the man that was “Alte Fritz.” There are also the writings of Fritz, which though they exist, have yet to have been reviewed for this topic. This will need to take place and they will be invaluable. There are also countless examples of primary source material from within the books aforementioned, and they will also be able to guide future research on this topic.
There is no doubt that study of Frederick the Great allows for ample opportunity for reflections on absolutism, enlightenment, and childhood, but there is also value in learning about and studying the relationships within the Hohenzollern family. Such research guarantees a better understanding of how and why Fritz acted the way he did when he became the King in Prussia in 1740, and just how intensely he was shaped by the toxic relationship with his father.
Asprey, Robert B. Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma. New York: Ticknor & Fields,
Ausubel, Nathan. Superman; the Life of Frederick the Great. New York: I. Washburn, 1931.
Brunschwig, Henri. Enlightenment and Romanticism in Eighteenth-century Prussia. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Gooch, G. P. Frederick the Great, the Ruler, the Writer, the Man. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1947.
Hubatsch, Walther. Frederick the Great of Prussia: Absolutism and Administration. London:
Thames and Hudson, 1975.
Ritter, Gerhard. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile. Berkeley: University of California
Simon, Edith. The Making of Frederick the Great. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.
Voltaire, and Andrew Brown. Memoirs of the Life of Monsieur De Voltaire Written by Himself.
London: Hesperus, 2007.