Tough love? A father-son rivalry that touched the most psychologically nerve. Oedipus in Berlin. The trouble with Frederick and his father came to a terrible climax in 1730 when the Prince was eighteen. Physically abused by his father and overwhelmingly oppressed, he clandestinely arranged passage to England. Frederick William of Prussia was a hard working king but a cruel individual; plagued as he was by illness, madness and a very silly wife. He did his brutal best to smash some sense into his son’s Frenchified head. But the future philosopher-king taunted him, mocked him- and barely escaped with his skin.
…However,the Prince’s plan was discovered; the kings spies caught wind of the passports and letters of credit, and he was arrested, along with his aide and accomplice, Captain von Katte. A court martial was convened by the king which found them both guilty of desertion and sentenced to death. Upon intervention of the Austrian ambassador, Frederick was pardoned, but Katte was beheaded before Frederick’s eyes. Even as he uttered his last loyal words and his head fell, Katte’s hand still stretched out towards the window in which Frederick was standing. The poor Prince fainted away.
The king then put Frederick in prison and to punish him further made him wear a plain French suit of clothes, which the king looked on as a mark of shame. Frederick had this suit made after the same cut as that which Katte wore to his day of execution. Frederick marinated in prison for nine months. An intermediary finally induced Frederick to write to the king in a submissive tone, in order to induce a pardon. Frederick knelt and asked for forgiveness, whereupon the king embraced and forgave him. In 1740, he succeeded his father to the throne; already acclaimed by Voltaire as the philosopher prince and soon to prove himself a grand military commander.
He lived a long life ( 1712-1786) which spanned Louis XIV’s final military conquest up to the affair of Marie Antoinette’s diamond necklace. He lived like a French aristocrat, though he had never set foot in France and his Hohenzollern ancestor were parvenus and only became electors in the fifteenth-century. It always annoyed Frederick to remember that his position was due to the brains rather than the blue blood of his ancestors.
…an ill man , the king took to drink to pacify his violence. In the streets of Berlin, and in his own home he would make play with his dreaded cane, hitting people in the face, breaking their teeth and noses. There was no redress; anybody who tried to defend himself would have been killed. He longed for popularity. Every evening after dinner he held a “tabagie” where the pipe smoking company was made up mainly of soldiers; they all got ripped and the grossest scenes would occur. But this revelry was the nearest thing to a parliament in Prussia. Frefderick William’s inarticulacy deteriorated over time ; the boozing and smoking at least released some sort of communication with his fellow men. He also had a pathological horror of anything French, as well as laziness, atheism and Catholicism.
To say the least, his eccentricities were regal. He created a regiment of giants, his Potsdam grenadiers, whom he even kidnapped, and smuggled out of their native lands to fill his corps. There was little hope of escape from Potsdam; those who tried to do so had their noses sliced off and spent the rest of their lives in dungeons. The philosopher Wolff, though to be the brightest man in the court, was banished on pain of hanging because the king disagreed with one of his propositions about the grenadiers.
The Prince’s mother was no help either. She was a gossip, a bore and a snob; attached importance to trivial things and looked down on her husband’s family. Her father became king of England in 1714, which only further inflated her indignity at being stuck in austere and frugal Prussia. Her influence on her children was entirely malicious. She turned them on their father, by encouraging them to displease him. She was shallow, idle, and full of pretense. She liked the arts without bothering to learn about them and was fond of political intrigue without having the foggiest idea about political and court life.
By the time Frederick was twelve it was apparent he and his father were at loggerheads. Frederick was polite, delicate, and refined with a disdain for rough manners. Paradoxically, he was always in hot water: beaten for anything that could be a pretext for violence. At first his father’s rages terrified him; but they also fascinated him. His partner in complicity was Wilhelmina and they devised ways to tease the king and then ducking out to their mother’s room when the king was at the height of his craziness. For his part, Frederick treated his father like a foe and became an expert in annoyance such as deriding the scriptures, lauding theological skepticism so much of what came his way; the geneill-treatment; was to some extent his own doing along with the connivance of his mother.
The Prince had an icy self-control and avoided flights of rage; he received his father’s beatings with an air of mocking indifference which meant more punishment. There is no doubt he was mistreated and the cruelty was intolerable. It was a reign of terror with a perpetually pregnant Queen bawling every day. Eventually, the Prince began to plot against his father, trying to form a group of loyalists in the event his father was put down. He was brilliantly deceitful, far beyond his years, even confiding to the French minster his sentiments and activities so radical that the minister dared not pass on the report to his superior.
The was lots to be enraged about; people were getting weary of the old dictator whose accomplishments seemed quite minor in comparison to his mad behavior. Anyway, the old warrior got wind of the goings on and plied the Prince with drink before beating and interrogating him. But the child gave nothing away. To Frederick William, the Prince would now be referred to as “Frenchy”, a petit marquis of no standing. …
Michel Munger: To recover freedom, he had to swear he would never seek revenge for this punishment, that he was always going to obey his father and that he would never get married without his father’s approval. Then, he went back to Potsdam. In 1732, his father told him that he found a woman for him to marry. Elizabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern was her name. The wedding planned for June 12, 1733 did not excite Frederick at all. In any case, he went back to the soldier’s training routine once united to his wife.
In 1736, his life changed. The king gave him the Rheinsberg Palace and more money. This new situation made Frederick happier and richer. He was Voltaire’s pen pal (whom he admired and argued with), he played and composed songs, had his personal orchestra… pretty much all the things his father despised. He read, studied the Enlightenment and learned military strategy. He even wrote an anti-Machiavelli theory. He lived like a gentleman during four years before becoming King of Prussia. He was still happy despite a grudge with his father. In 1740, Frederick-Wilhelm died and the throne called his son as the successor. This event was to change Prussia forever, giving [virtual] birth to Germany as we know it, inspiring itself from this new king who would leave his mark.