Postcard from Potsdam: Frederick the Great Gets the Full Museum Treatment

Culture Watch


Kevin Kennedy is PhD student at the University of Potsdam, where he is writing a history of Prussian-Pietist orphanages in the eighteenth century. He received his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1995, where he wrote his thesis on Nietzsche's political thought.

When visiting the graves of historical figures they admire, most people will lay flowers. But many visitors to Sanssouci, the summer home of Frederick the Great, place potatoes on the final resting place of Prussia’s best-known king. According to a recent poll, every twelfth German believes that Frederick introduced the potato into Germany, thus saving hundreds of thousands of people from starvation during the famines of the late eighteenth century. But the potato was here long before Frederick. He tried, with varying degrees of success, to persuade farmers to cultivate it, but he was only one of several German princes to do so. Still, the story of the “Potato King” endures, one of the many myths and legends that continue to surround Frederick’s memory in Germany. In an attempt to separate fact from fiction, the Prussian Palace and Parks Foundation is staging a monumental exhibit on the life, times and legacy of Frederick the Great. The exhibit is called Friederisko: “Frederick’s Risk.”

Frederick’s penchant for taking risks brought him fame in his lifetime and god-like status in many history books. It also brought his kingdom to the brink of ruin and cost tens of thousands of his subjects their lives. The most daring act of Frederick’s life was his seizure of the Austrians province of Silesia, which began a series of three wars that Prussia nearly lost. But Frederick also took many unquestionably positive risks. His toleration of Catholics and Jews in a Protestant kingdom of the eighteenth century was remarkable. Upon coming to power in 1740, Frederick also abolished most forms of censorship and torture, and set a reform of the judicial system into motion which ultimately subsumed the royal prerogative under the law. Frederick’s reforms remain classic examples of “enlightened absolutism” at its best.

As Friederisko shows, Frederick’s military conquests as well as his enlightened reforms actually served the same end: the greater glory of Frederick himself. His supreme talent was his gift for public relations. In his many books and in the way he presented himself to the public, Frederick created the image of himself that still haunts the minds of many Germans today: the tireless “first servant of the state,” a strict but benevolent father of his country who sacrificed his own well-being for the happiness of his people.

While this narrative is not entirely wrong, it still falls far short of the mark. While he could be a penny-pincher when it suited him, Frederick was no stranger to baroque splendor, spending vast amounts of money on his palaces, his art collections, his snuff-tobacco containers, etc. Frederick is also badly cast as a German national hero. He fought most of his wars against other German states like Austria and Saxony. Moreover, Frederick was no reluctant warrior. His was reckless gambler prone to carrying out “preventative strikes.” In the Seven Year’s War, Frederick triumphed over his opponents despite being outnumbered. He got away with it, but this “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg” left behind a dangerous legacy: the belief that a two-front war against a vastly superior alliance could be won, if only the will to victory was strong enough.

Since German reunification, Frederick and his “Iron Kingdom” of Prussia have enjoyed something of a renaissance in the popular German imagination. Commentators attribute this to a longing within the German people for charismatic, decisive,trustworthy leaders who place the welfare of the nation above that of their own. But Germans may want to think twice if they want another Frederick to lead them.  Frederick the Great’s true legacy is the various interpretations of his long reign. His memory should not serve as an example to emulate, but as a basis for discussing what kind of society Germans want today. Germany has been far better served by strong democratic institutions serving the public good than by individuals seeking glory for themselves.

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