Frederick II

[This page by Seán Williams

Friedrich II; Friedrich der Große; Frederick II; Frederick the Great (1712-1786)


Frederick II of Prussia, also called Frederick the Great, is the most famous, even the most notorious enlightened absolutist monarch of history. He demonstrated a love of learning from an early age, and immersed himself in the world of the arts before ascending the Prussian throne upon his father’s death in 1740. As king, Frederick was renowned for being a fine military strategist; but he also continued to show artistic flair in his musical compositions and his writing. He conjectured on history, tackled philosophy and penned verse – and he did so all in French, not German. When Frederick received Johann Christoph Gottsched in 1757, he is reported to have admitted that he spoke German like a coachman (‘comme un cocher’); French was Frederick’s preferred language of scholarly and literary discourse. The infamous words supposedly uttered by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) are frequently (mis)attributed to Frederick: that he spoke Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to his horse. Nevertheless, the commonly held belief that Frederick was disparaging of the German language is absolutely correct.


Indeed, Frederick’s relationship to ‘German’ letters specifically is especially problematic. Under his rule, Prussia became a powerful political match for Austria; and Berlin became an ever more serious rival to London or Paris as a cultural capital of 18th-century Europe. Yet the pre-eminent Frederick did not seriously attempt to become king of German poets. In this respect he was superseded by the rulers of minor territories in which literary greats such as Klopstock or Goethe resided: King Frederick V of Denmark and the Grand Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach respectively.


In the early years of Frederick’s reign, poets were enthusiastic about their new monarch. They celebrated their young king and his initial military campaigns in Silesia through a genre of war poetry, ‘Kriegslieder’, of which Gleim and Klopstock composed famous examples. And they were excited by the promise of initiatives supporting the intelligentsia, such as the re-establishment of the Berlin Academy in 1744. However, the general mood soon turned. This shift in popular poetic opinion is exemplified by two versions of a line by Albrecht von Haller. The line first appeared as part of Haller’s epigraph to David Herrliberger’s compendium of great personalities and their biographies from past and present, Schweizerischer Ehrentempel von Staatsmännern, Kriegsleuten und Gelehrten; A Swiss Temple of Fame Comprising Statesmen, War Heroes and Scholars (1748). Following the second success of Frederick’s three major wars over Silesia, Haller wrote that posthumous fame ‘größere Cäsarn zwingt, im Friedrich aufzuleben’; it ‘forces greater Caesars to resurge through Frederick’. This presumably means that the reputation of Frederick had become so significant by 1748 that it was the historical lens through which the accomplishments of previous great men were viewed.


Frederick’s military endeavours dragged on, however, and German poets realised that his literary allegiances were more obviously cosmopolitan than domestic. From 1750, Frederick entertained and paid not a German writer, but a Frenchman at his court for just over a couple of years: Voltaire. Frederick had corresponded with this French author since the 1730s, and they met for the first time in 1740. In person, it was oftentimes a tense relationship, and disagreements concerned the extent of Frederick’s military engagement, among other things. Voltaire departed the Prussian court in 1753 – though the pair’s correspondence resumed. Yet Voltaire’s stay with Frederick caused a far wider tension than an interpersonal one, chiefly the public impression that Frederick was not prepared to promote German poets or further the German language in any practical way. Indeed, the official language of the recently reformed Berlin Academy was French. By the time Haller revised the above epigraph on fame for his own collection in the midst of the Seven Years’ War in 1759, he omitted the laudatory reference to Frederick. The final line now read that a reputation in the afterlife ‘Alexandern zwingt, im Cäsar aufzuleben’; it ‘forces Alexanders to resurge through Caesar’. Authors writing in German – Haller was Swiss – were generally less and less inclined to praise Frederick in the public literary sphere.


In the subsequent decade, Frederick did not change course. He continued to receive few German authors at his residences; Christian Fürchtegott Gellert and Anna Louisa Karsch were exceptions. Frederick offered Karsch financial support, but this was not forthcoming until after his death. If he was still praised, notably by Lessing or Daniel Jenisch, it was usually because of his earlier military prowess and the resulting Prussian or even German national glory. A narrative of Frederick as a character that made German history generally – rather than enabling a German literary history specifically – has been retold in the subsequent centuries, such as by Thomas Mann in the unfinished text 'Friedrich und die große Koalition'; 'Frederick and the Great Coalition' (1915); by Heinrich Mann in Die traurige Geschichte von Friedrich dem Großen; The Sad Story of Frederick the Great (unfinished, published posthumously in 1962) and by Günter Grass in Chapter Five of Der Butt; The Flounder (1977), where Frederick appears as ‘Ollefritz’; ‘Old Fritz’.


On the whole, then, Frederick has gained an increasingly negative reputation for failing to be a patron of German letters. Yet this is a generalization, and is therefore not true of every contemporary’s stance. The young Jean Paul Richter, for example, argues with apparent sincerity in 1781 that praise is best given by the man who can also claim credit himself. His essay 'Abgerissene Gedanken über den grossen Man'; 'Abrupt Thoughts Concerning the Nature of Great Men' makes his point by positively referring to Frederick’s relationship with a contentious, foreign literary figure, namely Voltaire: ‘Herlicher klingt die Lobrede, die ein grosser Man auf den andern, ein Friederich auf einen Voltäire macht’ [sic.] (‘a eulogy is more glorious when written by one great man for another, by a Frederick for a Voltaire’). Whether the Bavarian Jean Paul was merely attempting to flatter the Prussian ruler at the beginning of his literary career or whether he is expressing his genuine conviction is beside the point. Not all authors were publically against Frederick from the 1760s onwards, but most of them were.


Frederick gave German poets their greatest cause for complaint in 1780, when he published his treatise De la littérature allemande; On German Literature. Here Frederick compliments a few writers such as Gellert, but he is heavily critical of the majority, and especially of Goethe. He dismisses the contemporary German language as half-barbaric. Frederick’s aim is ostensibly to engender classical authors himself; just as an Augustus brought forth a Virgil, so too will the German-speaking lands have their Classics.  The Latin authors Virgil and Horace had celebrated Augustus of Rome, and Frederick ostensibly imagined assuming a similar leadership role over German territories. However, he never made a meaningful, material effort to position himself as such a patron of German poets and give support to an emergent modern German literary canon. Given his military priorities, Frederick was perhaps more akin to a classical tactician of warfare than historical leaders from antiquity whose reception was associated with literary art. In fact, in the year of Frederick’s death, Count Mirabeau is said to have wanted to personally ask the king during a visit at the court why Frederick had become the German Caesar rather than a German Augustus.  


It cannot be said, then, that Frederick advanced German poets with either money or – a few exceptions notwithstanding – praise. However, his lack of substantive or rhetorical support does not necessarily entail that Frederick was not a significant influence on German literature. On the contrary, recent research has begun to evince that Frederick continued throughout and beyond his reign to condition many authors’ conceptions of both writing and a national German literature in subtle ways. A growth in scholarship on Frederick the Great that has accompanied the monarch’s third centenary marks the beginning of a more nuanced debate about the nature of Frederick’s impact on German letters and its causes. For example, Frederick’s thought might have been formative for authors, but chiefly because of the ruler’s political prominence rather than any intellectual merit of his thinking. In addition, he might have been influential on account of his humanist training, a tradition in which most German authors of the eighteenth century began their writing.

English Translation

Frederick II, Frederick the Great’s Philosophical Writings, ed. by Avi Lifschitz, trans. by Angela Scholar (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2024)


Futher Reading in English


Tim Blanning, Frederick the Great: King of Prussia (London: Allen Lane, 2015)

Katrin Kohl, ‘Hero or Villain? The Response of German Authors to Frederick the Great’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 81:1 (2012), 51-72

Kathrin Maurer, ‘Affective Battlefields: Royal Gender Hybridity and the Cultural Afterlife of Friedrich II’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 41:4 (2018), 597-613


Further Reading in German


Katharina Mommsen, ‘Potsdam und Weimar um 1780. Gedanken zur Kanonbildung anlässlich von Friedrichs II. “De la littérature allemande”’, in Kanonbildung. Protagonisten und Prozesse der Herstellung kultureller Identität, ed. by Robert Charlier and Günther Lottes, Aufklärung und Moderne 20, (Hanover: Wehrhahn, 2009), pp. 13-33

Jürgen Overhoff and Vanessa de Senarclens (eds.), “An meinem Geist”. Friedrich der Große in seiner Dichtung. Eine Anthologie (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2011)

Matthias Steinbach (ed.), Kartoffeln mit Flöte – Friedrich der Große. Stimmen, Gegenstimmen, Anekdotisches (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2011)

Horst Steinmetz (ed.), Friedrich II., König von Preußen, und die deutsche Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts. Texte und Dokumente (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1985)

Brunhilde Wehinger (ed.), Geist und Macht. Friedrich der Große im Kontext der europäischen Kulturgeschichte (Berlin: Akademie, 2005)


Web Links in German

German version of Frederick’s treatise De la littérature allemande; On German Literature (1780)

Katharina Mommsen, ‘Herzogin Anna Amalias “Journal von Tiefurth” als Erwiderung auf Friedrich II. “De la littérature allemande”’ (2008)