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Frederick the Great

The Boy of Potsdam: 1712-1788

A little boy and girl sat playing on a harpsichord in one of the great stiffly-furnished and lofty-ceilinged rooms of the Potsdam Palace, outside Berlin. The boy wore his yellow hair in long curls, his eyes were merry and he laughed often, while his sister, who was a little older, seemed quite as happy. The children were practicing for their music lesson, and only too glad to be free of their teachers for a time, because music was dearest to them both.

Without a word of warning the door of the room was thrown open, and a big, heavy-faced man stood on the threshold.

“What’s all this?” he cried, his voice snarling with anger, and his small eyes shot with red. “Haven’t I given orders that you’re never to touch that thing again?”

At the sound of the man’s voice both children had jumped from their chairs and stood, stiff as ramrods, facing the speaker. The boy had raised his hand to the side of his head in salute.

“Please, sir,” said the girl, “we’re both so very fond of music.”

“Silence,” commanded the man, who was no other than their father, Frederick William, King of Prussia. “Fritz can speak for himself; he doesn’t need a girl to defend him.”

“Wilhelmina has told you, sir,” said the boy, “how much we both love music. Indeed I’d rather listen to it than do anything else, and I want to learn how to play it for myself. I don’t care anything about being a soldier.”

The King’s face was almost purple with anger. He looked as though he would box the boy’s ears on the spot, but he held himself in check.

“You little brat!” he cried. “A soldier you shall be, and nothing else! Do you think the kingdom of Prussia can be ruled by a crazy fool of a musician? Don’t talk to me of harpsichords, or books, or pictures. You’re not to be a woman, but a king!”

The boy knew his father too well to attempt any answer; there was no one in Prussia who would dare speak freely before King Frederick William.

After scowling at his son in silence for some minutes the man spoke again. “Listen to my orders and see that you obey them. From to-day your music-masters are discharged, every instrument is moved from the palace, and if either of you two is found playing such things I will have you locked in your rooms for a week to live on barley and water. Now, sir, step before me to the hair-dresser. I’ll have those locks of yours shorn so that you’ll look less like a girl and more like a grenadier.”

Fritz, keeping back the tears in mingled shame and terror, walked to the door and paced down the hall before his father. He tried to hold himself straight like a soldier, but it was hard when he felt as though he were being marched to execution.

The King handed the boy over to the hair-dresser, and in fifteen minutes the curls were all gone and Fritz’s hair was close-cropped like a man’s. As soon as he was free he ran to his mother’s room, and there the gentle Queen, Sophia Dorothea, took him in her arms and comforted him. She knew how sensitive her little son was, how absolutely different from his father, and she could sympathize with both the children’s suffering under the King’s cruelty.

For once the mother dared to disobey her husband. The next week she told the two children to go to a distant part of the palace grounds where there was a deep wood, and see what they should find there. They obeyed, and ran eagerly down the path to the forest where they had often played under the trees and in the caves in the rocks. They came to a little greenwood circle completely hidden from the roads and there found their music-master. He led them to a cave, and showed them Wilhelmina’s little spinnet, and Fritz’s flute lying on it. That was their mother’s surprise. She had arranged that the children’s music teacher should meet them out there and give them the lessons they wanted. Boy and girl were happy again; they took up their music eagerly, and were soon playing as of old. Perhaps the very secrecy lent the lessons charm.

The hours spent in the forest and cave were a great success, but one day Fritz found a small drum at the palace, and forgetting the King’s orders he started to march about the halls beating it, followed by the admiring Wilhelmina. Suddenly, in the middle of the triumphal procession, the King came upon them. Poor Fritz dropped the drumsticks and stood at attention, while Wilhelmina, behind him, grew white with fear of what should happen.

To their amazement the King’s stern face softened; he smiled, then he laughed and clapped his hands. “Ah, Fritz, now you’re a soldier! I mistook you for one of my own guard, boy.”

The King was delighted. He thought that at last his son was fired with martial fervor. While the boy went back through the halls beating his drum Frederick called the Queen to watch his soldier son, and immediately ordered the court artist to paint a picture of the scene on canvas. A day or two later he told Fritz of a plan he had in store. He would form a military company of boys of his own age for him, build them an arsenal on the palace grounds, and have them drilled by officers of the army.

With the King to speak was to act. A month had not passed before the small boy, dressed in a general’s uniform, found himself in command of about three hundred youths of his own age, all properly equipped with uniforms and arms, and known as “The Crown Prince Cadets.” They made a remarkable contrast to that other regiment of which King Frederick William was so proud, which was made up of giants, men all over six feet six inches tall, seized wherever they were found in Prussia and elsewhere and forced into his army.

The boy general and his cadets were drilled hours at a time day after day by the Prussian officers, in the hope of making soldiers of them and nothing else. Fritz hated it; he wanted to read and to learn music, and day by day he found less and less time to steal off to those wonderful meetings in the woods or to romp with Wilhelmina in the schoolroom. The French governess who had taught him was taken away, and he was placed under military tutors who made him learn gunnery and battle tactics at the arsenal which his father had built for him on the grounds.

When the boy was ten the King started to take him to all the military reviews. In going from garrison to garrison the King rode on a hard wagon called a sausage-car, which was simply a padded pole about ten feet long on which the riders sat astride. Ten or more men would jolt over the roads on such cars with the King summer and winter, and he made the boy ride in front of him, through the broiling sun or the winter snow, waking him whenever he fell asleep by pulling his ear and saying, “Too much sleep stupefies a fellow.”

In such iron fashion the father did his best to change the sensitive, gentle nature of his son to something like his own.

At the age of ten Fritz’s days were marked out hour by hour by Frederick William. Not even Sunday was free. He was marched from teacher to teacher, all sports were denied him, and he was never allowed to read or play. His hair was kept close cut, his clothes were heavy and coarse, he was treated more like a prisoner than a prince. To the boy’s masters the King gave one direction: “Teach him to seek all glory in the soldier profession.” When his mother or sister dared to interfere the King would turn on them in a rage; Wilhelmina was sent time and again to her room, to be starved until she grew more docile.

The boy’s time was divided between Berlin and the Palace of Wusterhausen, a country seat some twenty miles outside of the capital. The palace was a very simple dwelling set in the middle of swampy fields, with a fringe of thickets. In the grounds were many natural fish-ponds, and game of all kinds was plentiful in the woods. The somber old monarch loved this place, and had built there a fountain with stone steps, where he liked to sit in the evening and smoke his long porcelain pipe. He often had his dinner served by the fountain, and afterward would throw himself down on the grass for a nap. Aside from this simple entertainment, the King’s only pleasure lay in hunting in the woods.

The children and their mother found Wusterhausen very unattractive. The only pets they were allowed were two black bears, very ugly and vicious. They had no comforts indoors, and were treated as though they were children of the meanest peasant. Some boys might have found sport in the fish-ponds, the groves and the streams about the place, filled as they were with fish and game, but Fritz cared nothing for such things. Their loneliness drew the two children closer and closer together, and their dislike of their father increased with each year that he took them out to Wusterhausen.

The father, on his part, was growing more and more contemptuous of his son. He found Fritz cared nothing for the army, nothing for the chase, that the hardship and exposure of rough life were torture to him. Worse than that, he had discovered some verses in French that Fritz had written, and spoke of him scornfully to the men of his court as “the French flute-player and poet.” It would have been very hard for the boy if he had not had a mother and sister who were so devoted to him, and did everything they possibly could to protect him from his father’s tyranny.

When he was fourteen, Frederick William appointed Fritz captain of his Grenadier Guards. This was the regiment made up of giants, and was one of the most singular passions of the very singular old King. He sent men through the whole of Europe and Asia to search for very tall men. Some of the regiment were almost nine feet high. When a foreign monarch wished to curry favor with the King of Prussia he would send him a giant. The King showered favors on these men. He had court painters paint portraits of each one of them. They were the very centre of that great army which was the sole pride of the old warrior, and which he was building up so that it should become the greatest military force in Europe.

Fritz tried to do his duty as captain of the regiment, and gradually acquired something of a military bearing. For a short time his father was pleased, but his pleasure did not last long; for the boy could not keep away from the fascinations of music and of books, and all of the various arts which were constantly coming into Prussia from France.

The flute was Fritz’s favorite instrument, and it so happened that a very celebrated teacher of the flute came from Dresden about this time, and gave lessons in the Prussian capital. As soon as Fritz learned that this man was a splendid teacher he arranged to have him come secretly to his room at Potsdam. The boy’s mother knew of this plan, and did her best to keep his secret; but it was a very dangerous matter, for the old King was growing more and more suspicious, and also more and more fierce. A friend of Fritz’s, who was about his own age, stood guard outside the boy’s room, while he was having his lessons on the flute, and another guard was stationed at the entrance to the palace grounds with orders to send word at once if the King should appear.

When Fritz was satisfied of his safety, he would go up to his own room, throw aside the tight, heavy military coat which he hated, and put on a flowing French dressing-gown, scarlet colored, and embroidered with gold. Then, dressed to suit himself, he would take his music lesson, and enjoy every minute of the stolen pleasure.

One day, however, in the middle of his playing, the friend at the door rushed into the room announcing that the King was coming. This boy and the teacher seized the flutes and music books and ran into a wood-closet, where they stood shaking with fear. Fritz threw off his dressing-gown, pulled on his military coat and sat down at a table, opening a book.

Now the old King, his brows bent with anger, burst into the room. The sight of his delicate son reading seemed like fuel to his rage. He never minced his words, and proceeded to heap abuse on the head of the poor Prince, when all of a sudden he caught sight of the end of the scarlet gown sticking out from behind a screen. “What is that?” he cried, and stepping across the room pulled the gown out. Beside himself with rage he crammed it into the fireplace, and threw after it many of the ornaments the boy had used to decorate his room. Then he walked to the bookshelves and swept all the volumes to the floor, saying that he would have a bookseller buy the library next day, because his son was to be a soldier and not a scholar. For an hour he stayed there, pacing up and down the room, lecturing Fritz until the boy was almost sick with shame. Finally he left, and the two in the wood-closet were able to come out, both of them almost as badly frightened as the Prince himself.

But if the King treated his son so badly, he treated his daughter Wilhelmina none the less so. He could hardly stand the sight of her at times, and her mother had to arrange a series of screens in her room so that when Frederick William came to see her the daughter could escape behind them. After such scenes Fritz and Wilhelmina would try to comfort each other, but the boy was gradually growing more sullen and rebellious.

Again and again the boy thought of escape; he would have been only too glad to give up his position as Prince in exchange for the chance to live simply in some foreign land, free to follow his own tastes as other boys did theirs. He would have made the attempt, but he knew only too well that should he escape his father’s hand would fall in terrible wrath on his dear sister Wilhelmina. He decided to stay and bear the burdens of this life the King had planned for him rather than desert his mother and sister. He was not a coward even if he was not made of iron.

At last the boy felt that he must act in self-defense. His father, suffering from the gout, took to flogging Fritz in the very presence of the lords and ladies of the court. The boy had pride, though his father had done his best to kill it. Once, after striking blows at Fritz’s head before the assembled court, the King cried, “Had I been so treated by my father, I would have blown my brains out. But this fellow has no honor. He takes all that comes.”

Fritz could stand such treatment no longer. Praying that Wilhelmina might not suffer he planned an escape with a friend.

His father was taking him on a journey to the Rhine in the company of a small guard of soldiers who were told to treat the boy like a prisoner. Three officers were ordered to ride in the same carriage with Fritz, and never to leave him alone. The King was a hard traveler, and seemed positively to wish for extra hardships and fatigues, the party scarcely stopping for food or sleep. At one place, however, a short stay was made, and there Fritz planned to escape.

They had arrived at the town very late, and the boy with his officers slept in a barn, as was not infrequently the case. The usual hour for starting in the morning was three o’clock. A little after midnight Fritz saw that his companions were sound asleep, and rose and crept out into the open air. He had made arrangements with a servant to meet him with horses on the village green. The boy reached the green and found the horses, but at the same moment one of the guards, who had been awakened by the noise Fritz made in leaving the barn, caught up with him, and demanded of the servant who held the horses: “Sirrah! What are you doing with those beasts?”

The man answered, “I am getting the horses ready for the start.”

“We do not start till five o’clock. Take them back at once to the stable.” The officer pretended not to see Fritz, who had to slink back at his heels to the barn, fully conscious that his chance to escape was gone.

News of this attempt reached the King, and the next day, when he met his son, he said sarcastically, “Ah, you are still here then? I thought that by this time you would have been in Paris.”

All the boy’s spirit had not been crushed out of him, and he dared to answer, “I certainly would have been there now had I really wished it.”

Again he tried to escape, and again he was caught, and this time he was brought directly to the King. The father stared at his son as though he were some wild beast, and then said angrily: “Why did you attempt to desert?”

“I wanted to escape because you never treat me like your son, but like some common slave.”

“You’re a cowardly deserter,” said the King, “without any feelings of honor.”

“I have as much honor as you have,” answered Fritz, “and I’ve done only what I’ve heard you say you would have done if you had been treated as I have.”

The King, maddened beyond description, drew his sword, and would have struck the boy had not a general in attendance thrown himself between them, exclaiming: “Sire, you may kill me, but spare your son.”

The boy was taken out of the room and locked in prison, where he was guarded by two sentries with fixed bayonets. The King proclaimed him a deserter from the army, and ordered him tried for that crime. It is small wonder that Fritz declared he would have been glad to exchange his place for that of the poorest serf in Prussia.

Fritz was placed in a strongly barred room like a dungeon, with no furniture in it, and lighted by a single slit in the wall so high that the boy could not look out of it. The coarsest brown clothes were given him to wear. He was allowed only one or two books. His food was bought at a near-by butcher-shop, and was cut for him, for he was not allowed a knife. The door of his prison was opened three times a day for ventilation, and he was provided with a single tallow candle which had to be put out by seven o’clock in the evening. This was the way the Crown Prince of Prussia lived when he was nineteen years old, and if the father did not actually succeed in breaking all the boy’s spirit, he was at least changing this lovable, gentle-natured youth into a stern and gloomy young man.

Eventually the boy was released from his prison, but as long as his father lived he was treated with all the harshness the King’s mind could devise. His sister Wilhelmina was kept away from him, and finally married to a man for whom she cared little. Fritz was cut off from all interests save that of the army, but gradually he began to acquire something of his father’s interest in creating a splendid fighting machine.

In time he became King of Prussia himself, free at last to do as he would. He sought out men of genius, musicians, poets, and thinkers. He offered Voltaire, the great Frenchman, a home with him, and his happiest hours were spent in his company, or listening to music, or playing the flute he had loved as a boy. But that was only one side of him, and the side which was least seen. On the world’s side he was the grasping ruler, the great general who forced war on all his neighbors, and who came to be known as the conqueror of Europe.

The boy Fritz of Prussia might have become one of Europe’s greatest sovereigns, for he was naturally endowed with a love of all the finer things of life. Instead he became a despot who plunged Europe for years into the horrors of useless war. For this misfortune his father was responsible. The loving mother and sister could not counterbalance the terrible severity of the cruel King. Gradually Fritz changed from the sunny lad who had played in the gardens of Potsdam with Wilhelmina to a severe and arbitrary monarch.

His father had taught him that a country’s greatness depended on its soldiers, and so Fritz made Prussia an army and compelled the world to admit the might of his troops. To Europe he was the ambitious tyrant, Frederick the Great. It was only to Wilhelmina and a few friends that he showed a little of that softer nature which had been his as the boy of Potsdam.

At the Charlottenburg Palace hangs the famous portrait of him playing upon the drum. It was a long step from that boy to the man Frederick the Great.