Frederick the Great: Biography, Facts & Accomplishments

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  • 0:02 Early Life
  • 1:24 Reign
  • 2:36 Accomplishments
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Victoria Savage
This lesson explores the life and accomplishments of King Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great. By winning wars and expanding territories, he established Prussia as a strong military power and became a legendary champion of the Enlightenment.

Early Life

Frederick II was born on January 24, 1712 in Berlin, Germany. He was the son of Frederick William I, King of Prussia, and Princess Sophia-Dorothea, the sister of George II of Great Britain. During Frederick's childhood, his mother encouraged him to pursue the passions of the Enlightenment, which was an intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Frederick studied poetry, music, French culture, and the Greek and Roman classics.

Unfortunately, Frederick's father thought poetry and music were nonsense and instead demanded Frederick enter a military career and education. Frederick William also abused his son, beating him often and humiliating him for no reason. At the age of 18, young Frederick and his best friend tried to escape to England, where his grandfather was King. However, they were caught, and Frederick's strict father made him watch as his best friend was decapitated.

Frederick continued his military studies while sending musical compositions to Johann Sebastian Back and writing letters to Voltaire on the side. In 1733 he married Elizabeth of Brunswick-Bevern. The marriage was not a love match but a purely political one.

Reign

When his father died, Frederick took the throne on May 31, 1740. Although his father left him a strong army and substantial funds, Prussia consisted of scattered territories across central Europe and had no significant allies, except for England. Frederick immediately launched an attack on the Austrian region of Silesia (in what is now southwestern Poland).

Frederick won Silesia and then went on to take Bohemia with an army of 140,000 men. He was driven back in Bohemia, but a series of quick Austrian defeats helped give him the upper hand. In 1756, Austria, backed by France and Russia, tried to regain control of Silesia. Frederick, along with his ally, England, invaded Saxony and started the Seven Years' War.

Throughout the war, Frederick gained territory, then lost it, and then regained it again. With the death of Empress Elizabeth, Russia finally pulled out of the war and a treaty was made. Frederick was allowed to keep Silesia, which made him extremely popular throughout the many German-speaking territories. As a result, Prussia became one of the dominant powers in Europe.

Accomplishments

Following the war, Frederick was hailed as a military genius and became known as 'Frederick the Great.' He frequently led his military forces personally and had six horses shot from under him during battle. He is often admired as one of the greatest tactical geniuses of all time.

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