Frederick the Great and Sans Souci, plus a strange comma

Frederick the Great by Warhol

Frederick the Great by Warhol

Frederick the Great? Who he?
(A question asked by Brits, perhaps, but probably not by Germans.)

Not many monarchs get to be called “the Great”. Here, in England, we had Alfred.
In Russia, they had Peter and, later, Catherine (though she was a German, not a Russian).
In Prussia, there was Frederick. So what made him Great?

I mentioned in the blog about my passport woes that I really wanted to visit Sans Souci, Frederick the Great’s summer palace, south-west of Berlin. Well, now I have. And it was fascinating in ways I hadn’t expected at all.

Frederick the Great’s summer palace

The palace of Sans Souci is in Potsdam. In German, it’s Schloss Sanssouci, though the name inscribed on the palace itself is two words, not one. (More on that later.) Frederick II (Frederick the Great) came to the throne of Prussia in 1740 and building began a few years later. Frederick wanted a summer residence where he could relax in a refined cultural atmosphere. Sanssouci was it.

Sanssouci palace main entrance

The palace has an impressive front entrance (shown above) from which uninvited guests would be turned away. It is a long thin building formed of interlinking rooms as can be more easily seen from the back (shown below).rear of Sanssouci palace

The terrace at the rear overlooks a splendid tiered garden with fountains, though Frederick the Great never saw them working because there was insufficient water pressure. The study of hydraulics was in its infancy back then and these fountains needed steam power.gardens viewed from terrace at rear of Sanssouci palace

A refined cultural atmosphere?

Frederick was an intellectual, a lover of music and philosophy, a reader and collector of books, with a passion for French art and culture.  J S Bach visited Sanssouci and his son, Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach was a court musician to Frederick. Frederick played the flute and wrote over 100 sonatas and concertos for the instrument. In this painting, from 1852, after he was king, we see Frederick playing the flute at Sans Souci accompanied by CPE Bach.

Flute Concert at Sans Souci by Adolph Menzel

Flute Concert at Sans Souci by Menzel: Frederick accompanied by CPE Bach

Visitors to the palace can see the music room where they played. It contains a harpsichord and Frederick’s flute in a glass case. The room itself is even more sumptuous than it appears in the Menzel painting.

Frederick’s palace became a gathering place for men of letters and philosophers. (Yes, they were always men.) Voltaire stayed there for about three years and one of the palace rooms (shown below) bears his name.Voltaire room, Sanssouci palace

And you can see Voltaiare in this painting of one of Frederick’s round tables. Frederick is sitting in the middle, in the dark suit. Voltaire is in the purple suit, leaning forward.

Round Table at Sans Souci by Menzel 1849

Round Table at Sans Souci by Menzel 1849

Frederick insisted that the language spoken was French. He was, after all, a lover of French culture and his favourite painter was Watteau, many of whose paintings are in the palace. The discussions were high-flown, often on important subjects of philosophy. According to our guide when we visited the palace, however, the language to be used was the French of the gutter, or of the brothel. Frederick wanted to talk dirty.

Which suggests that he was an odd kind of man, doesn’t it?
When you read about his childhood, you may not be surprised.

Frederick and his parents

Frederick was born in 1712, the eldest surviving son of Frederick William I, King in Prussia, and his queen, Sophia Dorothea. Sophia’s father became George I of Great Britain and Ireland after Queen Anne’s death in 1714. So Frederick the Great was George I’s grandson and George II’s nephew.

Study at Sanssouci, with portraits of Frederick the Great's parents

The study at Sanssouci, with portraits of Frederick’s parents

Frederick’s parents were worlds apart. Frederick William I, the “Soldier King”, may have left his heir the most formidable army in Europe, but he was authoritarian, parsimonious and violent, often beating his own children in public. Sophia Dorothea’s interests were in art, science, literature and fashion, all of which her husband regarded as frivolous. Worse, she liked to gamble.

Frederick the teenage rebel

Frederick’s father wanted his heir brought up as a soldier. At age 6, Frederick (then called Fritz) received a regiment of children to drill! The boy was to focus on the army and statesmanship. But Fritz, following his mother, was more interested in intellectual pursuits which his father found unmanly. Fritz became defiant; his father more brutal.

Katte's execution

Katte’s execution 1730

Their relationship became more difficult when 16-year-old Fritz was suspected of having homosexual inclinations. Then, at age 18, Fritz plotted with his close friend (and possible lover) Hans Hermann von Katte to flee to England to get away from his despotic father. They did not succeed and, as army officers, faced a trial for treason. Katte was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The king changed that sentence to death by beheading.
And then he forced his son to watch the execution of his intimate friend.

According to Voltaire, King Frederick William intended to have his son executed as well but, following the intervention of the Holy Roman Emperor, Fritz was merely imprisoned and exiled from court until 1732. His father permitted him to return only on condition that he married the king’s choice of bride. The marriage produced no children. Once Fritz became King Frederick II, in 1740, he separated from his wife and never permitted her to visit Sanssouci, though he did continue to honour her as queen.

Frederick: soldier or intellectual? Or both? And Great?

Battle of Zorndorf 1758

Frederick at the Battle of Zorndorf 1758

Frederick may have enjoyed getting down and dirty with his intellectual cronies, but he also led his army in many battles and succeeded in acquiring both new territories and subjects. After Austria was forced to cede Silesia to Prussia in 1745, Frederick was first called “the Great”. During his reign, Prussia increased its territories and became a major military power.

But Frederick was clever, too. For example, he exploited the position of Polish protestant dissenters to establish himself as their protector in the name of religious freedom. He acquired considerable territory in the First Partition of Poland in 1772, without going to war at all. That made him powerful enough to proclaim himself King of Prussia, rather than King in Prussia which he had been until then. (The difference relates to what was permitted under the Holy Roman Empire and is too complicated for this blog, or its author!)

Frederick was also a reformer. He reorganised the Prussian army, the civil service and the judicial system. He encouraged immigrants to Prussia, emphasising that nationality and religion were of no moment to him. As a result, many fleeing protestants, such as weavers from Bohemia, fled to Prussia and enhanced the country’s wealth.

Land, potatoes and a gravestone

Frederick inspects potato harvest

Frederick inspects the potato harvest

He was interested in land reclamation for farming and was instrumental in introducing the potato as a staple crop.

Apparently, the people were wary of the new vegetable so Frederick told them they could not have it because it was too valuable to be shared with them. The psychology worked and the potato became a desirable crop.

For that, he was called the Potato King (Kartoffelkönig) and people still leave potatoes on his grave, as you can see in my photo taken only this month (July 2023) at Sanssouci.

Grave of Frederick the Great, with potatoes

Grave of Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse) with potatoes

Frederick wanted to be buried at Sanssouci but his successor buried him next to his father, in the garrison church. In 1991, after German reunification, Frederick was reinterred at Sanssouci, as he wished. Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor at the time, attended but had to take a holiday to do so, as it was not deemed appropriate for the Chancellor of the Federal Republic to attend the interment of a King of Prussia. Or so I was told.

And the comma?

Sans Souci with comma and full stop

Sans Souci as two words, with comma and full stop, meaning???

The potential monotony of the rear façade is broken by a bow window with a cupola above. The words in the cornice, in gilded bronze letters, read “Sans, Souci.” That is, there are two separate words, with a comma after the first and a full stop after the second. Not Sanssouci, but Sans Souci. Or is it? What is that comma doing there?

It’s not correct French to have a comma there. And Frederick certainly knew his French. However, he also liked riddles. It has been suggested that the letters should be read as:

sans comme à souci [with, as well as without, worry] 

A rather more down and dirty interpretation is as follows. Virgule, French for comma, derives from the Latin for little rod. So the letters could mean:

without little rod, worry

It is suggested that, as a result of youthful indiscretions, part of Frederick’s genitals were amputated. Is it true? Who knows, but in later life he certainly preferred the company of dogs and horses. Those extra gravestones in the picture are of his beloved animals. Frederick’s stone is on its own, at the far end (with potatoes).animal gravestones Sanssouci

Isn’t historical research fascinating?

Joanna Maitland author


14 thoughts on “Frederick the Great and Sans Souci, plus a strange comma

  1. Margaret Totterdell

    Absolutely fascinating, including the potatoes. I love the noble vegetable so much that I am known in my family as the Queen of the Potato People. Now I know who the king was I shall tell everyone. What a brutal father he had.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome Queen of the Potato People 😉 Yes, it was all news to me and so interesting that visitors (Germans, I presume) still bring potatoes to place on his grave.

  2. Liz Fielding

    What an interesting blog, Joanna. I have thoroughly enjoyed the television series The Great, about Catherine. Frederick, I feel, could have an equally outrageous, horrific and entertaining series.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Interesting idea, Liz. Not as raunchy as a Catherine series, though, especially if the story about the comma is right.

  3. lesley2cats

    Thank you for that, Joanna. When I was first married, husband and I went to see a play about him at the Cambridge Arts Theatre with James Bolam. Interesting and rather tragic man.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, he appears to have been a polymath, interested and involved in everything. There was loads I didn’t have room to include. If he was gay (and there’s no proof) he suffered for it. Actually, he suffered for being suspected of being gay.

  4. christinahollis

    Absolutely fascinating. Thanks, Joanna. My history with hessian (the sacks, rather than the boots!) means that the story of “some king having armed guards patrolling a potato field to make the locals think potatoes were worth stealing” was well known in my family, although nobody knew which king.

  5. Elizabeth Anna Bailey

    Fascinating rabbit hole you went down there. 18th century parents were not in general the most caring and brutality towards children was rife, so no surprise there. Cruelty of making him watch his friend’s execution surpasses belief though. Still, at least he did in the end manage to follow his preferred cultural pursuits. A strange kind of building, but following the vogue of one room leading into the next – at least that’s what it looks like. Enjoyed the tale of Frederick.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes it’s the classic room leading into room. Behind some of the panelling, there are hidden doors for servants but there didn’t seem to be a whole hidden passageway for them because so many of the room had windows on both sides. It wasn’t made clear and, of course, we weren’t allowed to look.

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