In a punishment that was fitting of the iron-willed Prussian king but proved to be too much, Crown Prince Frederick died from what was officially declared “fever.” Historians as well as contemporary scholars disagreed what “fever” meant, whether a brain hemorrhage from stress or legitimate illness. Another theory stands that the prince might well have killed himself. Some even suggest a conspiracy to assassinate a would-be foppish king before he could ruin his throne.
The matter at hand was something of a youthful dreamer’s ideal of escape from an authoritarian father. Frederick was born January 24, 1712, and was eagerly welcomed as a surviving heir second in line to his grandfather, Frederick I, the first King in Prussia. One of many states within the aged Holy Roman Empire and a fiefdom of the Kingdom of Poland, Prussia sat at the southern shore along the Baltic Sea with several scattered territories separated from one another by Poland and various other German dukedoms and principalities. Although devastated in the Thirty Years War with invasions by the Swedes and riotous counterattacking armies marching up from the south, Prussia had gained greater strength over the latter seventeenth century. They were liberated from Poland as a buffer for Sweden in 1657, and further gains were made as native coal became an increasingly valuable resource as well as the issuance of the Edict of Potsdam in 1685 that welcomed Protestants, especially encouraging Huguenots expelled from France, to transplant to Prussia, bringing valuable wealth and skills with them. In terms of joining the War of Spanish Succession against France, the Duke of Prussia was allowed by treaty to upgrade himself to king, and the new title “King in Prussia” was born despite Prussia not being a true kingdom as it was still an electorate under the Holy Roman Emperor.
Thus, in 1701, Frederick I would crown himself king. Bubonic plague would ravage the country a few years later, but the capital at Berlin would be spared and from then on would stand as a centralized point of authority. Frederick William I came to the throne shortly after his son Frederick’s birth and, only months later, his father Frederick’s death. He continued efforts to improve Prussia and was soon nicknamed the “Soldier King.” Establishing effective bureaucracy and creating a modern, professional, standing army, Frederick would prove an able leader and oversee the defeat of Sweden as a world power through the Great Northern War. He added territory to the small kingdom and forcibly included aristocracy into the army, giving seriousness to warfare that was often considered a “gentleman’s sport.” Frederick William was notably spartan, thrifty and calculating, and not participating much in art, except in military display, where he sent proclamations throughout Europe seeking the tallest men for a unit known as the “Potsdam Giants.”
Prince Frederick, however, thrived in the arts. His father gave him no aristocratic tutors, demanding his children would be taught as “simple folk” with pragmatism and religion. Frederick sought the company of his sister Wilhelmina and comfort of his gentle mother rather than facing the austere temper of his father. Frederick William (himself terrified of not being among the Elect) attempted to block Frederick from Calvinism. Frederick firmly held onto the tenet of the Elect while being otherwise irreligious, causing many to think he was spiting his father.
The greatest spite, however, was Frederick’s plan to escape his father’s weight and flee to Britain in 1730, where he would be welcome in his uncle George I’s court to pursue philosophy and music as he pleased. He and his friend Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte planned to slip away along with a contingent of other junior officers. Word leaked of the escape, and Katte and Frederick were captured. His father determined to deal with them as would fit a soldier. Katte was found guilty of desertion by trial and given life imprisonment, but Frederick William announced that both would be executed under treason law. Katte was beheaded on November 6, and Frederick was forced to watch until he ultimately fainted and began to suffer hallucinations. The next morning, he was discovered dead in his cell.
His father became distraught. Frederick William had wanted to toughen his son and planned to pardon him in a few days. The last ten years of the king’s reign would be spent quietly reviewing the military and ensuring that Prussia would be able to defend itself during the reign of the new heir, Frederick’s younger brother Augustus. Augustus became king in 1740, and he worked to keep Prussia free from the potentially disastrous entanglements of the War of Austrian Succession. His son Frederick William II succeeded him in 1758, and the king proved soft: unwilling to put forth great efforts and rather delight himself with simple pleasures, such as good food. After a half-hearted alliance against the French Republic during Frederick William II’s term, Frederick William III attempted to clean up Prussia’s wasteful decadence, but it came as too little too late when the armies of Napoleon swept across Europe.
After Napoleon, Europe attempted to rebuild, and Austria managed to cut off Russia’s attempt at land-grabbing by surrendering claims to Pomerania, land for which Frederick William III’s ancestors had fought bitterly. The German Confederation fell under the sway of Vienna, and Austria would be the dominant power of Central Europe over the next century. Troubled times would come in 1848 with waves of revolution, but Emperor Franz Joseph I was adept in granting improved autonomy to the German kingdoms of Bavaria, Hanover, and Prussia. After the Great War at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be broken up, and the three German states would gain independence with Hanover competing with Prussia for political influence in Mecklenburg, but failing. It wouldn’t be until 1945 when the Bavarian Fuhrer Adolf Hitler would manage to fulfill his dream of a united German-speaking people from the Rhine to the Danube and Baltic.
In reality, Frederick survived two days of hallucinations and was pardoned on November 18 by his father. He was a changed man by the experience and never spoke of Katte again. Frederick married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern but did not love her, and the two had no children. Instead, Frederick threw himself into work improving his kingdom (he would upgrade his title to “King of Prussia” just before his death) and making Prussia into one of the most powerful military forces in Europe in the mid-1700s, defeating opponents such as Austria and Poland.