Less than two weeks after near annihilating the Prussian army at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, Napoleon Bonaparte called upon the tomb of Frederick the Great – to meditate on the memory of a man whose legacy stood as colossal as that of Napoleon’s in his time. Remarking on his recent victories, the French Emperor would address his entourage: “Hats off, gentlemen, if he were still alive, we should not be here.”
Frederick remains one of the greatest enigmas of German – and dare say also, world – history. His true identity still leaves much room for speculation. A celebrated military commander who greatly expanded his kingdom’s territory through his military victories. But also a supporter of enlightenment values, dedicated to the arts and sciences, who composed more than 100 flute sonatas – and aspired to be remembered first and foremost as a philosopher.
He would inherit his father’s kingdom in 1740 and with it a formidable army. One that would become the envy of the world over time – and the scourge of Frederick’s European enemies. His first act on assuming the throne was one of belligerence, invading neighbouring Silesia to the east. His greatest military achievement though came twenty three years later, in 1763, when Frederick effectively dispatched the Austrian, French, and the thoroughly negated Russian forces. Succeeding where it mattered most for the kingdom he ruled from 1740 to 1786 – as the longest standing Hohenzollern monarch – by turning Prussia into a Great Power.
Despite his skills as a military tactician, Frederick was also an incessant gambler, who often risked everything – his army, his kingdom and his life – on the outcome of a single battle. The son of an abusive father, he grew to become a renowned battlefield commander as much in spite of his father, and because of him. As a boy he would be woken every morning with cannon fire, forced to drill his own unit of ‘Potsdam Giants’, and come to witness his close friend (and possible lover) be executed by his father’s soldiers after an attempt at flight to England in his youth. Terrorised by his harsh and demanding father, Fredrick dreamed of a life of quiet contemplation and philosophy.
A life he would create for himself in 1747, at the top of a hill he had been allowed to play on as a boy, when he constructed the Sanssouci Palace – his private residence in Potsdam, south west of the Prussian capital of Berlin. A must-see on any visit to Berlin’s neighbouring city, this 13 room villa, decorated in an intimate Frederician Rococo style, sits at the top of a vineyard and amongst the pleasant surroundings of the Potsdam Sanssouci park.
Rather than an expression of the strength and power of Frederick’s kingdom, Sanssoucci can be studied as nothing short of an architectural manifestation of the values Fredrick would seek to embody as the so-called ‘enlightened monarch’. Held up by Bacchal statues alluding to the pleasures of hedonistic intoxication, with the graduation of decorative leaf and vines embracing the building’s exterior and interior – a romantic reference to the harmony of man and nature. It was here that Frederick would entertain guests, practice his flute in the music room, or retreat to his extensive library.
Only occupied during the summer months – from April to October – this somewhat humble abode (by the standards of a King) would be a celebration of life – to be lived ‘without worries’ (Sans Soucci) – but also where Frederick intended to spend eternity. Even before construction started, the Prussian King would designate Sanssouci as his final resting place – in 1744 saying: “Once I am there, I shall be carefree”.
Despite being in charge of a German speaking kingdom, Frederick preferred to communicate in French - except where German was used for military matters.
In the later years of his life, Frederick was frequently concerned with his own death. He would recite his political will and testament before almost every battle, and prepared, down to the finest details, the events that should occur upon his death. “I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as such, without circumstance, without solemn pomp, without splendour,” he would say. “I want to be neither opened nor embalmed.”
In 1769, he would state: “Bury me in Sanssouci at the level of the terraces in a tomb which I have had prepared for myself… Should I die in time of war or whilst on a journey, I should be buried in the first convenient place and brought to Sanssouci in the winter.”
Despite his clarity on the matter it was not on the steps of the Sanssouci Palace, and his final resting place constructing following Frederick’s orders in 1744, that Napoleon stood. But in the crypt of the Garnisonkirche in central Potsdam, where Frederick’s remains would reside, against his wishes, for almost 160 years.
Frederick’s nephew and successor – Frederick William II – chose not to obey his uncle’s instructions. Instead, insisting that he should be buried in Potsdam, next to his father – Frederick William I. Two hundred and five years later, a sarcophagus with Frederick’s remains was finally lowered into the ground in the forecourt of the Sanssouci Palace. He would finally be allowed the burial he so desired, on the steps of his favourite residence – surrounded by his dogs.
Despite belonging to the leader of one of the greatest powers in European history, Frederick’s grave is surprisingly modest. A single stone on a small plot, surrounded by other stones (indicating the presence of his beloved Italian greyhounds). Two things are most remarkable, though, on closer inspection; one that often inspires consternation from uninformed visitors, the other that could easily be missed without explanation.
Most days of the year, visitors to Frederick’s grave will find small mounds of potatoes littered across the stone – a friendly reference to the Prussian king’s substantial contribution to the German kitchen. As it was Frederick who popularised the potato in the 1700s, turning an otherwise suspect vegetable – sometimes referred to as the ‘Devil’s Apples’ at the time – into a widely cultivated and cheap staple of local cuisine.
Transforming the humble potato into a royal dish meant serving numerous courses of various preparations in his own household – but also executing an ingenious trick on his own citizens. Frederick ordered his soldiers to plant potatoes in royal fields and lightly guard the crops, allowing the locals to sneak in and pillage the vegetables – as what is worth guarding, the Prussian king would conclude, is also worth stealing. To thank Frederick for his contribution and impressive use of reverse psychology, visitors now lay potatoes at Frederick’s grave.
A grave which bears not his royal title – Frederick II – or his family name (Hohenzollern) but a moniker reportedly given to him by his enemies, fearful of his military prowess – Frederick the Great. Although the first known instance of the use of this term is in a document almost certainly written by Frederick the Great. Despite his intention to be buried in a simple grave; it would not be one completely free from the confines of his ego.