Asexuals in History: Frederick the Great, Part II
His Reign Goes On
The War of the Austrian Succession did not lead to Frederick’s end. Instead, it burnished his reputation on the continent and gave him new territories and subjects to govern. Even in the more civilian pursuits of state, the King in Prussia would prove both capable and efficient.
A Brief Peace
Frederick began to put into effect the Prussian system of administration of Silesia, hoping to kickstart it after the damages it suffered in the war with various forms of economic stimuli. He invited German, Czech, and Polish Protestants to move into the country and seize opportunity. Eventually the productivity of the region rose and exceeded levels under Austrian rule, providing further embarrassment to Maria Theresa and the Hapsburg family.
This period of peace also allowed Frederick’s inner follower of the Enlightenment to show forth. Uncharacteristic of a European king, he wrote his own musical composition, to commemorate the Battle of Hohenfriedburg. He even invited the French philosopher Voltaire to live in Prussia as his chamberlain, but the two friends soon had a falling out, and Voltaire returned to France.
Geopolitical matters were hardly settled, however, for the alliances in Europe began to shift at this point. In 1746, Austria and Russia formed a pact against Prussia. By 1750, Britain joined this. Despite familial relations between Frederick and the British monarchy, Prussia was seen as too closely aligned to France and a threat to Hanover, which had been owned by the British kings.
Frederick could not have this, so he agreed in 1756 to defend Hanover against any French attacks, forming an Anglo-Prussian alliance. This enraged the French, who then joined the alliance with Austria and Russia. This also made Britain an enemy of Austria, its former ally.
The Start of the Seven Years’ War
Frederick realized that war was coming again soon and that the triple alliance of France, Austria, and Russia would pose grave threats to Prussia, whose only major ally was across the English channel. He decided, as with the previous war, that his best chances were to strike first. Fearing that Saxony was also part of the this alliance against him (they were, in fact, neutral), Frederick once again instigated a war by invading it in 1756. Since the Saxons were neutral, this unprovoked attack united a coalition around Austria against Frederick. In January of 1757, the Holy Roman Empire declared war on Prussia.
The invasion of Saxony went well, and the country fell due to the surprise and speed of the assault. Frederick was able to acquire the surrender of the Saxon army and force it to join his own. He also seized the Saxon treasury, which he used to fund his war effort. Impressed with Frederick’s work thus far, Britain began to fund their ally in Prussia wholeheartedly.
Thereafter, Prussia moved on Bohemia, after which he hoped to invade Austria and take Vienna, to end the war. After winning at Reichenburg, Frederick laid siege to Prague. Austrian relief forces came to break the siege. With his forces divided between besieging Prague and intercepting the Austrians, Frederick was defeated by the relief forces at the Battle of Kolín. This forced him to withdraw from Bohemia completely, meaning that no march on Vienna to end the war would occur.
Around this time, Prussia faced new threats from the North and the East. Sweden declared war and attacked Pomerania, while Russia invaded East Prussia. France came from the West, and Austria, meanwhile, moved into Saxony and Silesia. One Hungarian officer even managed to divert a unit of Hussars unseen and occupy part of Berlin, which he spared for a heavy ransom, an act which infuriated and humiliated Frederick.
The situation was looking quite grim for Prussia at this moment, beset from all sides by larger nations, but Frederick showed that he was very capable of defending his realm. In November 1757, with an army of 22,000 men, he engaged an Allied, Franco-Imperial force of 42,000 near Rossbach. Hesitant to attack Frederick directly from the West, they attempted to maneuver southward and attack him in the left and rear. Realizing this, Frederick mobilized his forces and performed a sneaky maneuver of his own, shifting his armies on the north side of nearby hills, out of sight of his enemies.
The Allies erroneously perceived that the Prussians were retreating and began to march hastily northward to catch them, not expecting that they were about to enter combat and needed to be better deployed. Prussian artillery began firing from the hills to the north into their lines, but even this appeared to confirm that the Prussians were merely providing covering fire for their retreating army, and the Allies tried to set up their own artillery to return fire. Overall, they were badly disorganized by their hasty maneuvers and the Prussian cannon fire, and so Frederick chose this moment to strike.
Frederick sent his cavalry around the hill where they had been concealed and had them charge into the disorganized Allied mass of troops, something the Franco-Imperials were not at all prepared to handle. Command and control broke down even further, and the melee of the horsemen rendered the Allied artillery impossible to set up and fire properly. Allied infantry began to break and flee, only to be taken down by musket fire from Prussian infantry that had been waiting on the hill. With most of the Allied cavalry units scattered by the initial attack, a counterattack against the Prussians could not be organized.
The Prussian cavalry broke off for a moment to catch their breath. The Allied forces then formed into columns and attempted to make a bayonet charge at the Prussians on the hill to their north. The renowned Prussian infantry, however, fired rapid, disciplined volleys that, along with concentrated artillery support, tore through the front ranks of the columns and stalled their advance. Meanwhile, the Prussian cavalry reorganized and attacked the Allied column in the flank.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Allied army disintegrated. Men threw down their rifles and bolted for dear life, while the Prussian cavalry pursued and cut them down. Frederick had defeated the 42,000 French and Imperials (who suffered about 10,000 casualties) with his 22,000, but in truth, he only needed to engage 5% of this already smaller force to destroy his enemies. He later boasted, “I won the battle of Rossbach with most of my infantry having their muskets shouldered.”
The defeat dealt a devastating blow to French morale, and they stopped sending troops to fight Prussia altogether. Conversely, Britain was delighted to see its French enemies crushed in battle and gave even more support to their Prussian allies. This gave Frederick a much-needed advantage in the war, but he did not have time to celebrate. The Austrians had gradually retaken Silesia, and he had to move to intercept them as well.
Frederick conducted a rapid march of his army over the next thirteen days. He linked up with another Prussian force, growing his army to about 33,000, and then intercepted 66,000 Austrians by Leuthen. On December 5, they fought.
A fog covered the area, making it difficult for both armies to see the other, but this only helped Frederick. Leuthen had been a frequent location where the Prussian King had drilled his troops, so he knew the terrain well, while the Austrians did not. Like the Prussians did at Rossbach, the Austrians faced west. Like the French and Imperials at Rossbach, Frederick decided to move his force south and east, to attack their right flank.
Frederick had good reason to do this. The larger, Austrian army was stretched out over two miles, so an attack on the uttermost flank with the bulk of his forces would give Frederick a local superiority in numbers. Furthermore, many of the troops on the Austrian left were Protestants and less likely to want to fight the Prussians, who were also Protestants.
Frederick sent a small force of cavalry and infantry northward to the Austrian right, in order to distract his enemy. With that and the cover of the fog, he moved south and then east. While the French and Imperials (at Rossbach) had failed at this point to wheel their columns northward with any order or cohesion, the Prussian infantry managed to make the pivot into perfect battle lines, once again demonstrating their superior training. With his troops deployed, Frederick launched his attack on the Austrian left flank.
The Austrian commander, Prince Charles, had not realized his error. He had extended his battle line from two miles wide to five miles wide, in response to Frederick’s distraction. With the Prussians fully at his flank and his army overstretched, he was not able to consolidate his superior numbers against the Prussians in time. The Protestant Württembergers in the Austrian left fought a while but soon broke and fled, as anticipated. As the Prussians advanced, their artillery poured into the fleeing Austrian forces, punching through long stretches of personnel.
The Austrians managed to engage their own artillery, which covered the escape of their men and gave them a brief advantage. The Prussians mitigated this by repositioning their own cannons and laying down a barrage. The Prussians had done well so far, but the battle was not yet won.
Eventually, Prince Charles was able to get his cavalry down south and had an opportunity to attack the exposed left flank of the Prussian infantry, and he went for it. Prussian cavalry units had been waiting, however, and seeing the move by the Austrians, they responded by attacking them in both flanks instead. The Austrian cavalry was scattered and chased into the Austrian infantry lines, creating disorder and causing the whole Austrian army to falter and flee.
Only the arrival of snow prevented the Prussians from hunting down the disrupted Austrian army. Frederick then marched to the town of Lissa, where he found a courtyard full of frightened, Austrian officers that had escaped the battle. Dismounting his horse, he said to them, politely yet wryly:
Good evening, Gentlemen, I dare say you did not expect me here. Can one get a night’s lodging along with you?”
The next day, Frederick’s cavalry renewed the chase and captured a couple thousand prisoners. In all, the 33,000 Prussians suffered just over 6,000 casualties, while inflicting 22,000 on the 66,000 Austrians. This victory allowed him to reclaim the city of Breslau before Christmas, which guaranteed his reacquisition of Silesia. Greatly weakened by the defeat, and without France to send any more help, Austria’s prospects looked grim.
Frederick’s swift, one-two victories at Rossbach and Leuthen, against armies twice the size of his own, cemented his reputation as one of history’s most brilliant generals. Even Napoleon later awed over his maneuvers at Leuthen, calling it a masterpiece. In fact, when Napoleon visited Frederick’s tomb in 1806 (after conquering Prussia), he ordered his generals to remove their hats in deference, remarking, “If he were alive, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Even in his own time, Frederick’s image grew. Having crippled two of Europe’s major powers in a month and a half, none could deny his military prowess. His enemies stopped speaking insultingly of him and instead spoke with a fearful reverence and respect. Many even began to call him “King of Prussia.” Nevertheless, the Seven Years’ War was not over.
No End in Sight
Going into 1758, Frederick attempted a new offensive in Austrian territory, this time invading Moravia. He was almost successful, but the Austrians successfully ambushed a supply convoy of his, which ruined the entire campaign and forced Frederick to retreat. Meanwhile, the Russians invaded East Prussia again, which they would hold until 1762.
Frederick attempted to face his Russian adversaries to the east, fighting them in the Battle of Zorndorf, which ended in a bloody stalemate, but the Russians ultimately withdrew back to East Prussia. Meanwhile, Prussia was unable to dislodge a pesky Swedish presence in Pomerania. The war did not seem to have an end in sight.
A Spirit Crushed
At the Battle of Hochkirch that October, the Austrians caught Frederick off guard and managed to capture most of his artillery. It was a major setback for Prussia and coincided with personal losses. James Keith, a Scot who served as one of Frederick’s marshals and was one of the the Prussian King’s dear friends, was killed by the captured Prussian guns. On that same day, Wilhelmine, Frederick’s older sister, suddenly died. Frederick was devastated by these events and subsequently suffered from a deep depression, even becoming suicidal.
While he had done a decent job of organizing the escape of most of his army in the battle, which did not lead to any strategic gains for the Austrians, he bitterly blamed himself for the defeat. He was no longer the young, confident King that he was in 1740. At the age of forty-five, with several missing teeth, greying hair, and a tattered, dirty uniform that he would not change, he seemed far more ghastly and drained than before. War had taken its toll on this soldier-king.
Prussia’s Fortunes Fade
Prussia faced more invasions by the likes of Austria, Sweden, and Russia. Many of these were repulsed, but the constant warfare wore down the small kingdom’s number of able men who could continue the fight. While Frederick managed to parry each thrust into his territory, this became harder and harder to do with time. Consequently, most of his battles in 1759 and 1760 were either stalemates or defeats, with the fall of his realm being narrowly avoided. In one case, Russia and Austria practically had Berlin in their hands but lost confidence and turned back, an event which Frederick, who believed the end was near, called The Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.
As the war entered 1761, his army now consisted largely of new recruits, hardly the well-trained experts with whom he had started. Frederick resorted to raiding operations with this lesser army, to delay and disrupt his enemies, but this only prolonged his troubles. The Russians eventually captured Kolberg, depriving Prussia of its only remaining port in the Baltic sea and giving the Russians a supply line that they had lacked up to this point. Meanwhile, the Austrians made progress in Silesia.
By all objective accounts and with Berlin more vulnerable than ever before, it looked like Prussia would disappear from the map of Europe at this point. Even Britain urged Prussia to make a costly peace.
The Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg
The Austrians, Russians, and Swedes were poised to take the Prussian capital and possibly end the war. Then something strange happened. Empress Elizabeth of Russia died. Even more strangely, her nephew, Peter III, became the new Tsar and, being the adoring fan of Frederick that he was (this is not an exaggeration), he immediately switched sides to Prussia.
This changed everything. Peter gave back East Prussia and Pomerania to Frederick. He also gave him a corps of soldiers to fight alongside Frederick against the Austrians. This shift in allegiances terrified Sweden, and they immediately made peace. Meanwhile, France had tired of the war and was looking for peace as well. Austria alone could not take Berlin, and Frederick survived to rebuild his army, which he could focus on a single opponent.
After a few months, Peter was deposed by his wife, Catherine, who stopped supporting Prussia and decided to remain neutral. In 1763, Frederick recaptured most of Silesia and was occupying most of Saxony. Another offensive at this point was impossible, however. Most of Frederick’s talented generals had perished by now, a number that tallied over 100. Britain had also stopped providing financial aid, following the death of George II and the election of a new Prime Minister. Luckily, Maria Theresa had tired of the war as well, which proved expensive, especially lacking Russian support.
The Treaty of Hubertusburg was signed in February, ending the war. Frederick agreed to pull out of Saxony, and Maria Theresa agreed, once again, to acknowledge Prussian control of Silesia, leaving the borders exactly as they were before the war. While they technically gained no spoils at the end, Prussia’s reputation grew. Much of Europe was impressed that this lesser realm had managed to hold onto all of its possessions in Europe against greater empires, and Prussia was increasingly viewed as a major power on the continent.
Yet, Prussia had suffered immensely. Ten percent of its population was lost by the ravages of war, and the Prussian administration had been greatly destabilized. This lesson was not lost on the King in Prussia. Despite his successes against overwhelming odds, Frederick would spend the rest of his life cautiously avoiding war.
While it was his victories on the field of battle that earned him the epithet “the Great,” the peaceful part of his later years as King are what saw perhaps his most significant gains for his realm. Indeed, Frederick would go on to prove that he was great not merely as a conqueror but as a governor as well.
Empowering His Kingdom
When Frederick had first taken the throne, Prussia was a largely underdeveloped country. Now having the benefit of peace, the King began to fix that. He ensured future security through an alliance with Russia under its new empress. Right at the end of the war, a decree was issued to create a basic school system for all Prussians. He developed roads and canals and invited more people into his territories to work, people who were often fleeing religious persecution in other parts of Europe.
First Partition of Poland
By 1772, the Prussian economy had bounced back. In that same year, a pivotal event in history occurred: the First Partition of Poland. During that time, Russia was fighting a victorious war against the Ottoman Empire. Both Prussia and Austria feared that the balance of power would be thrown off by the Russian acquisition of Turkish territories, so they made a deal. Instead of Russia keeping the lands won from its southerly neighbor, Russia, Prussia, and Austria would acquire territory from the Kingdom of Poland, whose politics Russia influenced.
Frederick ended up getting the smallest slice but the most developed parts of the partition. For Prussia, there were three major gains that came with this acquisition. First, it now owned the port of the Vistula river, one of the primary trading hubs in the Baltic Sea. Second, it connected Frederick’s separated lands in Brandenburg and East Prussia. Third, it gave Frederick control of other parts of historical Prussia. He was no longer the King in Prussia. For the first time ever, he was Frederick, King of Prussia.
War of the Bavarian Succession
Yes, Frederick would not be able to avoid another war. In 1778, Maria Theresa was poised to inherit the Electorate of Bavaria. Wanting to contain his Austrian rival from a path to dominance in German affairs, Frederick made war on her yet again. The two monarchs, by this point, had tired of war, however. Frederick had already seen enough damage to his kingdom in the last one.
There were no major battles, only light skirmishes. The war ended in less than a year, after Catherine the Great of Russia threatened to join the war on Prussia’s side, unless peace was made. Austria bent under the pressure and dropped any claims to Bavaria, ending the conflict.
In 1785, Frederick became one of the first European leaders to recognize the United States by signing the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with George Washington. Overall, though, the last few years of his life and his reign did not feature much. Over the course of many decades and many wars, most of Frederick’s friends and loved ones had perished. Though very popular among his people, Frederick had lost his affinity for the job, even if he continued to govern tirelessly. He became more reclusive and spent more time with his greyhounds. Was there no one left alive who understood him?
Eventually his own day came. On the morning of August 17, 1786, Frederick II, the Soldier-king, the Philosopher-king, King of Prussia, the Great, died in his armchair. He requested to be buried in the lawn of his palace with his greyhounds, without pomp. His nephew, who succeeded him as King, instead had his remains committed to Potsdam Garrison Church, where they would remain until 1945, when Hitler ordered them to be concealed in a salt mine. Eventually, they were moved to Burg Hohenzollern, the original castle of the Hohenzollern family. At last, on the 205th anniversary of his death, on August 17, 1991, he wishes were obeyed. His body was moved and reburied at his palace, into the tomb that had awaited him for two centuries.
There, with nothing but grass and a modest plaque, read the words “Friedrich der Grosse.”
The life of Frederick ends, but his story goes on. In the third and final part of this series, we will assess the impact of his life. As always, follow us on Medium, so that you won’t miss out.