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Famous Men of Modern Times by  John H. Haaren


 

 

FREDERICK THE GREAT

(1712—1786)

[243] IN the year 1730 all Europe was startled with strange news. Tidings went from kingdom to kingdom that the crown prince of Prussia had been condemned to death by a court martial on a charge brought by his father the king.

When the news reached Vienna, the emperor of Austria sent word to the Prussian king begging him not to allow his son to be executed, and the kings of Poland and Sweden made the same request.

The young man was charged with being a deserter from the Prussian army. He belonged to a famous regiment called the "Potsdam Guard," of which his father was very proud.

His father was a hard, harsh man. The one thing that he loved to do was to save money—the one thing that he disliked to do was to spend it.

Frederick had been made to study hard when he was only seven years old. His father's rule was that he should get up at six in the morning, not staying in bed one minute after he was called.


[Illustration]

FREDERICK THE GREAT.

[245] On Saturday morning he was examined on the lessons learned during the week, and if he passed a good examination, the afternoon was given him as a half holiday; if the examination was not good, he had to stay in and study.

Then besides studying he was obliged before he was twelve years old to drill as a. soldier. But young Frederick was not so fond of playing soldier as most boys are.

You will not be surprised to hear that the crown prince was not very fond of his father, and the king seems to have really hated the prince. Once it is said that he tried to strangle him to death with the cord of a curtain.

The prince at length made up his mind that he would run away from his father's palace and go to stay with his uncle, George II, who was king of England. But his father discovered his plan and thwarted it.

Then came the court martial. The prince was found guilty of deserting his regiment, and was sentenced to death. He would have been executed had not the emperor of Austria and the kings of Poland and Sweden said so much against it.

A few days later the prince signed a promise to submit to his father. He was then released [246] from prison and watched very carefully. As he now behaved himself to suit the crusty old king, he was made colonel of the Potsdam Guard.

Not long after this his father had a serious sickness, and was never quite strong again as long as he lived. He became softened and affectionate toward his son, and before his death he saw what a mistake he had made in thinking so little of him.

Frederick II began his reign on May 31, 1740. The next day he made this promise to the people, "Our great care shall be to make every one of our subjects contented and happy."

He began well. Some time before his father's death, the crops in Prussia had failed, and a famine prevailed; but the miserly old king was afraid of being cheated and would not sell to the people the wheat which belonged to the crown. Frederick II at once sold the grain to all who needed it, and ordered that a thousand poor women should be comfortably fed and clothed at his own expense.


[Illustration]

THE JUSTICE OF FREDERICK (ALLEGORICAL)

He altered his manner of living. He made a great change in the army, enlarged it to the number of one hundred thousand, and, very early in his reign, he went to war.

His reason for fighting was this. About a [248] hundred years before he was born one of his ancestors made an agreement with the duke of a province called Silesia, that if either of them should die without an heir, his territory should go to the other.

This agreement was duly written on parchment and signed and sealed. The Duke of Silesia died leaving no heir. So, by the agreement, Silesia ought to have become part of Prussia. However, the archduke of Austria took possession of it. It had been a part of Austria so long that most people seemed to have forgotten that Prussia had a claim to it.

Frederick II did not forget; and soon after he came to the throne he wrote to Maria Theresa, the archduchess of Austria, and made the claim that Silesia was part of his dominions. He offered to pay a large sum of money for the province, though he said it was his; but Maria refused to give it or sell it.

Frederick without loss of time marched with a large army into the country. Breslau, the capital of Silesia, opened its gates to him without resistance, and most of the other towns followed its example.

Maria Theresa sent a large army into the field, and Frederick's first battle was fought. It took [249] place near a town called Mollwitz. This battle is famous not because of the number of men who were killed and wounded, but because King Frederick himself fled from the field. After his flight the tide turned, and his troops gained the victory.

Maria Theresa was greatly alarmed. But she did a very wise thing. She was queen of Hungary as well as archduchess of Austria. She knew that the Hungarians were great fighters. So she invited the nobles of Hungary to meet her, and said to them, "You are my only allies, and I throw myself on your generosity." These words went to their hearts and they voted that all Hungary should arm and fight for her.

But her troops were again badly defeated and she was forced to surrender nearly all of Silesia to Frederick. In twenty months Frederick thus won for Prussia a territory larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island put together.

And really it was a fortunate thing for the Silesians that they became Prussians. The province was soon far more productive and prosperous than it had ever been, and the people were a great deal happier.

When peace came, Frederick was as busy at [250] home as on the field of battle. To do what he thought a king ought to do, he found that his day must contain a great many hours. So he gave orders that a servant should awaken him at four o'clock.

On several mornings he dropped asleep again after being called. So he ordered the servant to mop his face at four o'clock with a cold wet towel. This made him wide awake, and through his life, four was his hour for rising. He went to bed about nine or ten; so he hardly ever had more than six hours sleep.

Maria Theresa kept him busy, for she did not rest content with the loss of Silesia. Frederick had reason to suppose that she was going to try to regain the lost province; so he immediately invaded her territories. He gained four victories, and thus secured Silesia a second time.

After Frederick had conquered her in the second Silesian War, she found Russia, France, Sweden, and Saxony ready to fight against him.


[Illustration]

FREDERICK ADDRESSING HIS GENERALS.

Maria Theresa and her new friends agreed that they would destroy Frederick's army, get possession of Prussia, and divide it among themselves.

But Frederick took his enemies by surprise. On August 24, 1756, he invaded Saxony, and thus began what is known as the Seven Years' War.

[252] At the very beginning he was successful and forced the whole Saxon army to surrender. After this, however, his good fortune left him. The Austrians gained a great victory over him at a place called Kolin (ko len'); and in about three years from the beginning of the war the allies had really almost ruined him.

Another great battle was fought with the Austrians and Prussians at a place called Kunersdorf (koo' ners dorf). When Frederick saw that this battle also was likely to be lost, he led the attack three times himself. Three horses were killed under him. A bullet struck a small metal box in his vest pocket and was flattened. Had it not been for the box he must have been killed.

All his efforts, however, were in vain. The defeat was terrible, and Frederick was in despair. He wrote to a friend, "All is lost. I will not survive the ruin of the Fatherland. Adieu forever." It is said at this time he kept in his pocket some little pills of poison ready to take, if all seemed hopeless.

Then a piece of good luck happened. The Russians expected the Austrians to feed their army because it was fighting for them; but, instead of sending flour, the Austrians sent money. The Russian general said that his men could not [253] eat silver; and as winter was approaching, he marched home to Russia.

The campaign of the year now closing, 1759, the year so famous in America for the conquest of Canada by the English—had been most unfortunate for Frederick. He had lost six thousand men, and Prussia was nearly exhausted both of men and of money.

But the king was wonderfully brave, and he inspired all Prussia with courage and hope. Besides, he gained some victories. One night when he was sitting half asleep by one of his watch fires, a horseman galloped into camp, exclaiming, "Where is the king?"

"Here!" answered Frederick.

The rider hurriedly said, "The enemy has driven in our outposts and is not five hundred yards from our left wing."

Instantly Frederick gave his orders, and in a few minutes ten cannons were pouring shot into the ranks of the enemy. The attack of the Austrians was terrible; but the Prussians stood their ground heroically, and the Austrians were driven back. They lost ten thousand men, the Prussians only eighteen hundred.

The tide had turned, and another great battle gained at Torgau (tor'gou) left Frederick a third [254] time master of Silesia When a treaty was made, Maria Theresa was obliged to give up the province forever.

Prussia at the beginning of Frederick's reign had been small and insignificant. At the end of the Seven Years' War she was one of the Great Powers of Europe.

Frederick was as great in peace as in war. He lent money to those in need. He furnished seed to the farmers. He called himself "the chief servant of the state," and really worked like a slave for the good of his people. It is said that in seven years the country was as prosperous as ever.

One of the most remarkable and one of the saddest things ever done in Europe was what is called the "Partition of Poland." Russia, Austria, and Prussia determined to cut up the little kingdom and divide it among themselves.

Yet Prussia's share of Poland was much benefited by being brought under the government of Frederick. When he took charge of it the people were in a wretched condition. Frederick soon changed all this and the country became prosperous and its inhabitants comfortable.

To the last he was a rigid disciplinarian; he was as severe upon himself as upon others. In [255] August, 1786, he ordered the army to go through a number of sham fights. While witnessing one of these he caught a chill which brought on an illness from which he never recovered.

At about twelve o'clock on the night of his death, one of his dogs which was sitting near him was shivering with cold, and Frederick said "Throw a quilt over him." These were the last words which he spoke, and at half past two he was dead.


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