Military History Frederick the Great
by
Patrick Shrier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0094

Introduction

Frederick the Great (1712–1786) is one of the most fascinating figures of the Early Modern period. He cut a path across Europe both militarily and intellectually, although today he is mostly remembered for his military accomplishments after his ascent to the throne of Prussia in 1740. Frederick corresponded with the greatest philosophers of his day, most famously Voltaire, whom he hosted at his court for a short while. Militarily, Frederick took the army his father had spent thirty years building but never used and put it to use to expand his kingdom and then defend his gains and achieve victory against the combined weight of some of the greatest powers of Europe. Frederick arguably deserves the sobriquet “the Great”; he took Prussia from its status as a second-rate central European power to one of the great powers of Europe—a status Prussia, and later Germany, would not lose until 1945 and the final defeat of Nazi Germany.

Primary Sources

The first place to start in any study of Frederick the Great is the conditions in and around Prussia just before and during his reign. Augstein 1968 presents a thematic look at the life of Frederick covering different aspects of his reign and his rule. Barker 1976 and Simon 1963 are both good introductions to the events in Frederick’s youth that shaped the king he was to become. Perhaps the best general history of Prussia to appear in recent years is Clark 2006, which benefits from new access to Eastern Europe and eastern archives since the collapse of communism. Paret 1972 is an intriguing series of essays that examine various elements of Frederick’s life. Neugebauer 2006 also is a good general history of Prussia with a slightly different interpretation than that of Clark. To better visualize what Prussia looked like in the 18th century, Deutsches Historisches Museum 2012 presents many illustrations and paintings from the period illuminating Frederick’s life. Although somewhat dated, Reiners 1960 is an invaluable straightforward narrative account of Frederick’s life. Reddaway 1969 is an older book but one of the few that includes an intensely critical interpretation of Frederick and his reign.

  • Augstein, Rudolf. Preußens Friedrich und die Deutschen. Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1968.

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    This older biography presents a very balanced account of Frederick’s life arranged in thematic chapters rather than chronologically. What make this work stand out are the more than one hundred pages of endnotes, which provide a very thorough overview of the state of German scholarship on Frederick at the time of its publication. In German.

  • Barker, Thomas M. Frederick the Great and the Making of Prussia. Huntington, NY: Krieger, 1976.

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    A solid history of Frederick’s life and reign. Originally written as a college textbook, it remains a good, short reference work and good place to start learning about the life of the king.

  • Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006.

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    This extensive history of Prussia includes a large section that details Frederick’s life and the wars he fought that brought Prussia to prominence in the affairs of Europe. Of particular note is the account of his imprisonment and being forced to watch the execution of his best friend when he was a young man.

  • Deutsches Historisches Museum, ed. Friedrich der Große: Verehrt. verklärt. verdammt. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.

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    This book is the companion piece to the Frederick the Great exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, which ran from 21 March to 29 July 2012, in remembrance of the three-hundredth anniversary of Frederick’s birthday in 2012.

  • Neugebauer, Wolfgang. Die Geschichte Preußens. Munich: Piper Verlag, 2006.

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    This history of Prussia does not quite follow the standard accounts as known in the English-speaking world. Dr. Neugebauer is known as being part of the modern “New Way of Prussian History” pioneered by his department at the Humboldt University in Berlin. In German.

  • Paret, Peter, ed. Frederick the Great: A Profile. New York: Hill & Wang, 1972.

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    Has a short introductory biography followed by a series of essays examining different facets of Frederick’s life by historians but also by contemporaries to Frederick.

  • Reddaway, William F. Frederick the Great and the Rise of Prussia. New York: Haskell House, 1969.

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    This is a reprint of a work that originally appeared at the turn of the 20th century. The author is critical of Frederick and finds much fault in his life and reign. The interpretation of this work is that Frederick was anything but Great.

  • Reiners, Ludwig. Frederick the Great: A Biography. Translated by Lawrence P. Wilson. New York: Putnam, 1960.

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    A straightforward account of Frederick’s life with almost nothing in the way of analysis or interpretation.

  • Simon, Edith. The Making of Frederick the Great. London: Cassell, 1963.

    E-mail Citation »

    A dated but very good biography of Frederick that explores the conditions of his youth and upbringing in detail.

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