Frederick the Great and the Rise of Prussia

Portrait of Frederick the Great

The War of Austrian Succession established the dualism of Prussia and Austria which would characterize the empire until its collapse in 1806. At the end of the 30 years war in 1648 very few Germans likely would have been able to predict Prussia’s rise. Brandenburg (the principal holding of the Hohenzollern family) was devastated by the war and the Hapsburgs had been relatively unchallenged with regards to both their emperorship and their power for generations (Wiesner-Hanks 351). Prussia was only able to turn its fortunes around thanks to a series of strategic rulers, starting with Frederick William, the “Great Elector”. Frederick William, (ruled 1640 - 1688) and his grandson (also named Frederick William, 1713 - 1740) used absolute policies to build a huge and highly trained army (Wiesner-Hanks 352). However, it was Frederick II “the Great” (ruled 1740 - 1786) who truly established Prussia as a powerful contender in both the Holy Roman Empire and Europe as a whole.

Frederick II, pictured in the self-portrait above, achieved a great reputation as a military leader and greatly expanded Prussia’s power and size. Over the course of his reign, he increased the size of Prussia’s army from about 83,000 to over 190,000 (Anderson). He put this massive army to use as well, as evident when he seized Silesia from Austria during the war of Austrian Succession. His prowess is again evident in his ability to ward off France, Austria, and Russia in the seven years war (Wiesner-Hanks 352). In addition to being a military genius, Frederick II is also famous for being one of the principal “enlightened rulers” in Europe during the 18th century.

Frederick II’s prominence as an enlightened ruler is perhaps most evident in the words of Immanuel Kant who, in his work What is Enlightenment, directly correlated Frederick the Great with the Enlightenment when he said, “This is the age of enlightenment and the century of Frederick [the Great]“ (Kant 207). Frederick’s particular style of ruling is often viewed through the lens of enlightened despotism, in which Frederick still had near absolute power but also had many policies that could be viewed as enlightened. One of his most famous policies was his religious toleration, which helped bolster the population of Prussia and increase the size of his army as Jewish and Huguenot exiles moved to Prussia (Anderson). His role as an enlightened ruler is also evident in his abolishment of judicial torture and his attempts to establish a universal primary education system in Prussia (Anderson).

Frederick’s many accomplishments would only cause a greater rivalry between Prussia and Austria.  This resulted in increased conflict and division within the Holy Roman Empire, further diminishing any chance at the possibility of a unified Germany (Anderson).