Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

The Youth of Frederick the Great

An extraordinarily rude, coarse, and fierce old despot was Frederick William, first King of Prussia, son of the great Elector and father of Frederick the Great. He hated France and the French language and culture, then so much in vogue in Europe; he despised learning and science; ostentation was to him a thing unknown; and he had but two passions, one being to possess the tallest soldiers in Europe, the other to have his own fierce will in all things on which he set his mind. About all that we can say in his favor is that he paid much attention to the promotion of education in his realm, many schools being opened and compulsory attendance enforced.

Of the fear with which he inspired many of his subjects, and the methods he took to overcome it, there is no better example than that told in relation to a Jew, whom the king saw as he was riding one day through Berlin. The poor Israelite was slinking away in dread, when the king rode up, seized him, and asked in harsh tones what ailed him.

"Sire, I was afraid of you," said the trembling captive.

"Fear me! fear me, do you?" exclaimed the king in a rage, lashing his riding-whip across the man's shoulders with every word. "You dog! I'll teach you to love me!"


Statue of Frederick the Great, Unter den Linden, Berlin.

It was in some such fashion that he sought to make his son love him, and with much the same result. In fact, he seemed to entertain a bitter dislike for the beautiful and delicate boy whom fortune had sent him as an heir, and treated him with such brutal severity that the unhappy child grew timid and fearful of his presence. This the harsh old despot ascribed to cowardice, and became more violent accordingly.

On one occasion when young Frederick entered his room, something having happened to excite his rage against him, he seized him by the hair, flung him violently to the floor, and caned him until he had exhausted the strength of his arm on the poor boy's body. His fury growing with the exercise of it, he now dragged the unresisting victim to the windows, seized the curtain cord, and twisted it tightly around his neck. Frederick had barely strength enough to grasp his father's hand and scream for help. The old brute would probably have strangled him had not a chamberlain rushed in and saved him from the madman's hands.

The boy, as he grew towards man's estate, developed tastes which added to his father's severity. The French language and literature which he hated were the youth's delight, and he took every opportunity to read the works of French authors, and particularly those of Voltaire, who was his favorite among writers. This predilection was not likely to overcome the fierce temper of the king, who discovered his pursuits and flogged him unmercifully, thinking to cane all love for such enervating literature, as he deemed it, out of the boy's mind. In this he failed. Germany in that day had little that deserved the name of literature, and the expanding intellect of the active-minded youth turned irresistibly towards the tabooed works of the French.

In truth, he needed some solace for his expanding tastes, for his father's house and habits were far from satisfactory to one with any refinement of nature. The palace of Frederick William was little more attractive than the houses of the humbler citizens of Berlin. The floors were carpetless, the rooms were furnished with common bare tables and wooden chairs, art was conspicuously absent, luxury wanting, comfort barely considered, even the table was very parsimoniously served.

The old king's favorite apartment in all his places of residence was his smoking-room, which was furnished with a deal table covered with green baize and surrounded by hard chairs. This was his audience-chamber, his hall of state, the room in which the affairs of the kingdom were decided in a cloud of smoke and amid the fumes of beer. Here sat generals in uniform, ministers of state wearing their orders, ambassadors and noble guests from foreign realms, all smoking short Dutch pipes and breathing the vapors of tobacco. Before each was placed a great mug of beer, and the beer-casks were kept freely on tap, for the old despot insisted that all should drink or smoke whether or not they liked beer and tobacco, and he was never more delighted than when he could make a guest drunk or sicken him with smoke. For food, when they were in need of it, bread and cheese and similar viands might be had.

A strange picture of palatial grandeur this. Fortune had missed Frederick William's true vocation in not making him an inn-keeper in a German village instead of a king. Around this smoke-shrouded table the most important affairs of state were discussed. Around it the rudest practical jokes were perpetrated. Gundling, a beer-bibbing author, whom the king made at once his historian and his butt, was the principal sufferer from these frolics, which displayed abundantly that absence of wit and presence of brutality which is the characteristic of the practical joke. As if in scorn of rank and official dignity, Frederick gave this sot and fool the title of baron and created him chancellor and chamberlain of the palace, forcing him always to wear an absurdly gorgeous gala dress, while to show his disdain of learned pursuits he made him president of his Academy of Sciences, an institution which, in its condition at that time, was suited to the presidency of a Gundling.

For these dignities he made the poor butt suffer. On one occasion the kingly joker had a brace of bear cubs laid in Gundling's bed, and the drunken historian tossed in between them, with little heed of the danger to which he exposed the poor victim of his sport. On another occasion, when Gundling grew sullen and refused to leave his room, the king and his boon companions besieged him with rockets and crackers, which they flung in at the open window. A third and more elaborate trick was the following. The king had the door of Gundling's room walled up, so that the drunken dupe wandered the palace halls the whole night long, vainly seeking his vanished door, getting into wrong rooms, disturbing sleepers to ask whither his room had flown, and making the palace almost as uncomfortable for its other inmates as for himself. He ended his journey in the bear's den, where he got a severe hug for his pains.

Such were the ideas of royal dignity, of art, science, and learning, and of wit and humor, entertained by the first King of Prussia, the coarse-mannered and brutal-minded progenitor of one of the greatest of modern monarchs. His ideas of military power were no wiser or more elevated. His whole soul was set on having a play army, a brigade of tall recruits, whose only merit lay in their inches above the ordinary height of humanity. Much of the revenues of the kingdom were spent upon these giants, whom he had brought from all parts of Europe, by strategy and force where cash and persuasion did not avail. His agents were everywhere on the lookout for men beyond the usual stature, and on more than one occasion blood was shed in the effort to kidnap recruits, while some of his crimps were arrested and executed. More than once Prussia was threatened with war for the practices of its king, yet so eager was he to add to the number of his giants that he let no such difficulties stand in his way.

His tall recruits were handsomely paid and loaded with favors. To one Irishman of extraordinary stature he paid one thousand pounds, while the expense of watching and guarding him while bringing him from Ireland was two hundred pounds more. It is said that in all twelve million dollars left the country in payment for these showy and costly giants.

By his various processes of force, fraud, and stratagem he collected three battalions of tall show soldiers, comprising at one time several thousand men. Not content with the unaided work of nature in providing giants, he attempted to raise a gigantic race in his own dominions, marrying his grenadiers to the tallest women he could find. There is nothing to show that the result of his efforts was successful.

The king's giants found life by no means a burden. They enjoyed the highest consideration in Berlin, were loaded with favors, and presented with houses, lands, and other evidences of royal grace, while their only duties were show drills and ostentatious parades. They were too costly and precious to expose to the dangers of actual war. When Frederick William's son came to the throne the military career of the giants suddenly ended. They were disbanded, pensioned off, or sent to invalid institutions, with secret instructions to the officers that if any of them tried to run away no hinderance should be placed in their path to freedom.

It is, however, with Frederick William's treatment of his son that we are principally concerned. As the boy grew older his predilection for the culture and literature of France increased, and under the influence of his favorite associates, two young men named Katte and Keith, a degree of licentiousness was developed in his habits. To please his father he accepted a position in the army, but took every opportunity to throw aside the hated uniform, dress in luxurious garments, solace himself with the flute, bury himself among his books, and enjoy the society of the women he admired and the friends he loved. He was frequently forced to attend the king's smoking-parties, where he seems to have avoided smoking and drinking as much as possible, escaping from the scene before it degenerated into an orgy of excess, in which it was apt to terminate.

These tastes and tendencies were not calculated to increase the love of the brutal old monarch for his son, and the life of the boy became harder to bear as he grew older. His sister Wilhelmina was equally detested by the harsh old king, who treated them both with shameful brutality, knocking them down and using his cane upon them on the slightest provocation, confining them and sending them food unfit to eat, omitting to serve them at table, and using disgusting means to render their food unpalatable.

"The king almost starved my brother and me," says the princess. "He performed the office of carver, and helped everybody excepting us two, and when there happened to be something left in a dish, he would spit upon it to prevent us from eating it. On the other hand, I was treated with abundance of abuse and invectives, being called all day long by all sorts of names, no matter who was present. The king's anger was sometimes so violent that he drove my brother and me away, and forbade us to appear in his presence except at meal-times."

This represented the state of affairs when they were almost grown up, and is a remarkable picture of court habits and manners in Germany in the early part of the eighteenth century. The scene we have already described, in which the king attempted to strangle his son with the curtain cord, occurred when Frederick was in his nineteenth year, and was one of the acts which gave rise to his resolution to run away, the source of so many sorrows.

Poor Frederick's lot had become too hard to bear. He was bent on flight. His mother was the daughter of George I. of England, and he hoped to find at the English court the happiness that failed him at home. He informed his sister of his purpose, saying that he intended to put it into effect during a journey which his father was about to make, and in which opportunities for flight would arise. Katte, he said, was in his interest; Keith would join him; he had made with them all the arrangements for his flight. His sister endeavored to dissuade him, but in vain. His father's continued brutality, and particularly his use of the cane, had made the poor boy desperate. He wrote to Lieutenant Katte,—

"I am off, my dear Katte. I have taken such precautions that I have nothing to fear. I shall pass through Leipsic, where I shall assume the name of Marquis d'Ambreville. I have already sent word to Keith, who will proceed direct to England. Lose no time, for I calculate on finding you at Leipsic. Adieu, be of good cheer."

The king's journey took place. Frederick accompanied him, his mind full of his projected flight. The king added to his resolution by ill-treatment during the journey, and taunted him as he had often done before, saying,—

"If my father had treated me so, I would soon have run away; but you have no heart; you are a coward."

This added to the prince's resolution. He wrote to Katte at Berlin, repeating to him his plans. But now the chapter of accidents, which have spoiled so many well-laid plots, began. In sending this letter he directed it "via  Nürnberg," but in his haste or agitation forgot to insert Berlin. By ill luck there was a cousin of Katte's, of the same name, at Erlangen, some twelve miles off. The letter was delivered to and read by him. He saw the importance of its contents, and, moved by an impulse of loyalty, sent it by express to the king at Frankfort.

Another accident came from Frederick's friend Keith being appointed lieutenant, his place as page to the prince being taken by his brother, who was as stupid as the elder Keith was acute. The royal party had halted for the night at a village named Steinfurth. This the prince determined to make the scene of his escape, and bade his page to call him at four in the morning, and to have horses ready, as he proposed to make an early morning call upon some pretty girls at a neighboring hamlet. He deemed the boy too stupid to trust with the truth.

Young Keith managed to spoil all. Instead of waking the prince, he called his valet, who was really a spy of the king's, and who, suspecting something to be amiss, pretended to fall asleep again, while heedfully watching. Frederick soon after awoke, put on a coat of French cut instead of his uniform, and went out. The valet immediately roused several officers of the king's suite, and told them his suspicions. Much disturbed, they hurried after the prince.

After searching through the village, they found him at the horse-market leaning against a cart. His dress added to their suspicions, and they asked him respectfully what he was doing there. He answered sharply, angry at being discovered.

"For God's sake, change your coat!" exclaimed Colonel Rochow. "The king is awake, and will start in half an hour. What would be the consequence if he were to see you in this dress?"

"I promise you that I will be ready before the king," said Frederick. "I only mean to take a little turn."

While they were arguing, the page arrived with the horses. The prince seized the bridle of one of them, and would have leaped upon it but for the interference of those around him, who forced him to return to the barn in which the royal party had found its only accommodation for that night. Here he was obliged to put on his uniform, and to restrain his anger.

During the day the valet and others informed the king of what had occurred. He said nothing, as there were no proofs of the prince's purpose. That night they reached Frankfort. Here the king received, the next morning, the letter sent him by Katte's cousin. He showed it to two of his officers, and bade them on peril of their heads to keep a close watch on the prince, and to take him immediately to the yacht on which the party proposed to travel the next day by water to Wesel.

The king embarked the next morning, and as soon as he saw the prince his smothered rage burst into fury. He grasped him violently by the collar, tore his hair out by the roots, and struck him in the face with the knob of his stick till the blood ran. Only by the interference of the two officers was the unhappy youth saved from more extreme violence.

His sword was taken from him, his effects were seized by the king, and his papers burned by his valet before his face,—in which he did all concerned "an important service."

At the request of his keepers the prince was taken to another yacht. On reaching the bridge of boats at the entrance to Wesel, he begged permission to land there, so that he might not be known. His keepers acceded, but he was no sooner on land than he ran off at full speed. He was stopped by a guard, whom the king had sent to meet him, and was conducted to the town-house. Not a word was said to the king about this attempt at flight.

The next day Frederick was brought before his father, who was in a raging passion.

"Why did you try to run away?" he furiously asked.

"Because," said Frederick, firmly, "you have not treated me like your son, but like a base slave."

"You are an infamous deserter, and have no honor."

"I have as much as you," retorted the prince. "I have done no more than I have heard you say a hundred times that you would do if you were in my place."

This answer so incensed the old tyrant that he drew his sword in fury from its scabbard, and would have run the boy through had not General Mosel hastily stepped between, and seized the king's arm.

"If you must have blood, stab me," he said; "my old carcass is not good for much; but spare your son."

These words checked the king's brutal fury. He ordered them to take the boy away, and listened with more composure to the general, who entreated him not to condemn the prince without a hearing, and not to commit the unpardonable crime of becoming his son's executioner.

Events followed rapidly upon this discovery. Frederick contrived to despatch a line in pencil to Keith. "Save yourself," he wrote; "all is discovered." Keith at once fled, reached the Hague, where he was concealed in the house of Lord Chesterfield, the English ambassador, and when searched for there, succeeded in escaping to England in a fishing-boat. He was hung in effigy in Prussia, but became a major of cavalry in the service of Portugal.

Katte was less fortunate. He was warned in time to escape, and the marshal who was sent to arrest him purposely delayed, but he lost precious time in preparation, and was seized while mounting his horse.

His arrest filled the queen with terror. Numerous letters were in his possession which had been written by herself and her daughter to the prince royal. In these they had often spoken with great freedom of the king. It might be ruinous should these letters fall into his hands.

Some friend sent the portfolio supposed to contain them to the queen. It was locked, corded, and sealed. The trouble about the seal was overcome by an old valet, who had found in the palace garden one just like it. The portfolio was opened, and the queen's fears found to be correct. It contained the letters, not less than fifteen hundred in all. They were all hastily thrown into the fire,—too hastily, for many of them were innocent of offence.

But it would not do to return an empty portfolio. The queen and her daughter immediately began to write letters to replace the burned ones, taking paper of each year's manufacture to prevent discovery. For three days they diligently composed and wrote, and in that period fabricated no less than six or seven hundred letters. These far from filled the portfolio, but the queen packed other things into it, and then locked and sealed it, so that no change in its appearance could be perceived. This done, it was restored to its place.

We must hasten over what followed. On the king's return his first greeting to his wife was, "Your good-for-nothing son is dead." He immediately demanded the portfolio, tore it open, and carried away the letters which had been so recently concocted. In a few minutes he returned, and on seeing his daughter broke out into a fury of rage, his eyes glaring, his mouth foaming.

"Infamous wretch!" he shouted; "dare you appear in my presence? Go keep your scoundrel of a brother company."

He seized her as he spoke and struck her several times violently in the face, one blow on the temple hurling her to the floor. Mad with rage, he would have trampled on her had not the ladies present got her away. The scene was a frightful one. The queen, believing her son dead, and completely unnerved, ran wildly around the room, shrieking with agony. The king's face was so distorted with rage as to be frightful to look at. His younger children were around his knees, begging him with tears to spare their sister. Wilhelmina, her face bruised and swollen, was supported by one of the ladies of the court. Rarely had insane rage created a more distressing spectacle.

In the end the king acknowledged that Frederick was still alive, but vowed that he would have his head off as a deserter, and that Wilhelmina, his confederate, should be imprisoned for life. He left the room at length to question Katte, who was being brought before him, harshly exclaiming as he did so, "Now I shall have evidence to convict the scoundrel Fritz and that blackguard Wilhelmina. I shall find plenty of reasons to have their heads off."

But we must hasten to the conclusion. Both the captives were tried by court-martial, on the dangerous charge of desertion from the army. The court which tried Frederick proved to be subservient to the king's will. They pronounced sentence of death on the prince royal. Katte was sentenced to imprisonment for life, on the plea that his crime had been only meditated, not committed. The latter sentence did not please the despot. He changed it himself from life imprisonment to death, and with a refinement of cruelty ordered the execution to take place under the prince's window, and within his sight.

On the 5th of November, 1730, Frederick, wearing a coarse prison dress, was conducted from his cell in the fortress of Cüstrin to a room on the lower floor, where the window-curtains, let down as he entered, were suddenly drawn up. He saw before him a scaffold hung with black, which he believed to be intended for himself, and gazed upon it with shuddering apprehension. When informed that it was intended for his friend, his grief and pain became even more acute. He passed the night in that room, and the next morning was conducted again to the window, beneath which he saw his condemned friend, accompanied by soldiers, an officer, and a minister of religion.

"Oh," cried the prince, "how miserable it makes me to think that I am the cause of your death! Would to God I were in your place!"

"No," replied Katte; "if I had a thousand lives, gladly would I lay them down for you."

Frederick swooned as his friend moved on. In a few minutes afterwards Katte was dead. It was long before the sorrowing prince recovered from the shock of that cruel spectacle.

Whether the king actually intended the execution of his son is questioned. As it was, earnest remonstrances were addressed to him from the Kings of Sweden and Poland, the Emperor of Germany, and other monarchs. He gradually recovered from the insanity of his rage, and, on humble appeals from his son, remitted his sentence, requiring him to take a solemn oath that he was converted from his infidel beliefs, that he begged a thousand pardons from his father for his crimes, and that he repented not having been always obedient to his father's will.

This done, Frederick was released from prison, but was kept under surveillance at Cüstrin till February, 1732, when he was permitted to return to Berlin. He had been there before on the occasion of his sister's marriage, in November, 1731, the poor girl gladly accepting marriage to a prince she had never seen as a means of escape from a king of whom she had seen too much. With this our story ends. Father and son were reconciled, and lived to all appearance as good friends until 1740, when the old despot died, and Frederick succeeded him as king.

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