Born in Berlin, Prussia in 1712, Frederick II reigned as King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. Frederick II assumed the title “Great” after he came to be revered for his many achievements that led to Prussia’s greatness militarily and culturally. An enthusiastic supporter of the arts, Frederick the Great led the Enlightenment movement in Prussia and became a beloved leader of his country.
Frederick the Great’s father was Frederick William I of Prussia and his mother was Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (daughter of King George I of England). Frederick II had a difficult childhood made so by his Spartan-like father. Despite a strict education described as both religious and pragmatic, Frederick II was able to secretly amass a large collection of literature. Historians also make much of Frederick the II’s desire to escape from Prussia to England and his father’s reaction to the plot: he forced Frederick to witness the beheading of his fellow plotter.
Unlike his military-minded father, Frederick II embraced the arts during his reign. He was respected, nevertheless, for his military achievements. Frederick II used his army to annex lands that more than doubled Prussia’s population making it a formidable state. France and Russia attempted to check Prussia’s might during The Seven Years War of 1756. Russia eventually pulled out of the war and Prussia was saved.
Within Prussia, Frederick the Great’s rule was characterized by a sense of freedom. The government did not censor the press or artists and there was religious tolerance even though Frederick had been raised a strict Calvinist. Often calling himself “the first servant of the state” Frederick embodied the idea of an enlightened ruler. He considered the arts among the finer things of life and supported them adamantly.
Frederick the Great also reformed his government. He did away with torture and established an impartial legal system. He also publicly spoke against the system of serfdom, but in the end, he did not abolish the serf system as he needed the support of Prussia’s nobles in his military. Under his government, Prussia became more modernized. He also helped to change the tax system which allowed him more money for his building projects. Some of Frederick II’s most famous buildings were built in Berlin such as St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and the Berlin State Opera.
Frederick the Great did not have children. His wife was Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern; after the death of his father, who insisted upon the marriage, Frederick II only formally visited her once per year. He died in 1786 at his preferred residence in Potsdam—Sanssouci, which is today a major tourist attraction of Berlin. He was succeeded by his nephew.