Frederick William II (Prussia) (1744–1797; Ruled 1786–1797)

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FREDERICK WILLIAM II (PRUSSIA) (17441797; ruled 17861797)

FREDERICK WILLIAM II (PRUSSIA) (17441797; ruled 17861797), king of Prussia. Frederick William II was what one might call a transitional monarch in Prussia. As king, he followed his uncle, Frederick II the Great (ruled 17401786), renowned as a military leader, administrative reformer, and cultural icon, and preceded his son, Frederick William III (ruled 17971840), who reigned during the turbulent Napoleonic years and oversaw the reforms that laid some of the foundations for the Prussian political and economic juggernaut of the later nineteenth century. Compared to those two, many historians consider Frederick William II unimportant.

One of the weaknesses of late-eighteenth-century enlightened absolutism was that its effectiveness depended a great deal on the ability and dedication of the ruler. Frederick the Great had created a remarkable state in large part because he paid attention to so many details. His nephew, however, was not as focused on his royal duties. While Frederick at first had confidence in his nephew, as time went on he was less sure that Frederick William would be the sovereign Prussia needed, and he predicted that, after his own death, "women will rule and the state will come to ruin." Anticipating that his nephew's son, Frederick William III, would have to reconstruct the Prussian state after the neglect his father seemed bound to display, Frederick the Great assumed responsibility for his grand-nephew's upbringing, selecting his teachers and issuing them detailed instructions.

The atmosphere in Berlin certainly changed when Frederick the Great died. Frederick William II became widely popular, in part because one of his early acts was to end the state monopolies on tobacco and coffee, which cut the price of both considerably, but also reduced their substantial contributions to the state coffers. He was a great patron of the arts and enjoyed fine paintings, good theater, and music; he even played the violoncello. During his reign, salon society, intellectual life, and tolerance flourished in Berlin. Rahel Levin and Henriette Herz, both Jewish Berliners, hosted two of the most popular salons, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's play Nathan the Wise, which encouraged religious toleration, was first performed in 1799.

Women may not have ruled in Berlin, as the old Frederick had predicted, but they did play an important role in Frederick William II's life. He married twice, first to Elizabeth of Brunswick, with whom he had a daughter, and then to Princess Frederica of Hesse, with whom he had seven children. Besides his wives, he had numerous mistresses and two morganatic marriages to his queen's ladies-in-waiting. His true love was probably Wilhelmine Enke, the daughter of a horn player in the royal orchestra. He had fallen in love with her twenty years before he came to the throne, had five children with her, and, although he ended the physical relationship before becoming king, he enjoyed her company until the end of his life. It was she who introduced him to the architect Johann Carl Gotthard Langhans, who designed and built the Brandenburg Gate (17881791), now considered a symbol of Berlin.

The most important domestic act of his reign was the publication of the Prussian General Civil Code of 1794, a codification of laws that Frederick the Great's jurists had been working on for some time. This code reflected the struggle between the two powerful political ideas of the time: the preservation of the traditional separation of society into nobility, bourgeoisie, and peasantry and the Enlightenment principle that everyone should be equal before the law. The writers of the Code declared that, whereas society would retain its tiered structure, each person within his tier would be granted the widest freedom possible and would be assured security of life and property. In his comments on the Civil Code, Alexis de Tocqueville noted its contradictions, even calling it a "monster," but he added that in many respects it embodied the principles of the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789).

In foreign affairs Frederick William II embarked on a number of adventures. Whereas early in his reign he regarded Austria as the traditional enemy of Prussia, he joined with Austria in 1792 to resist Revolutionary France. In 1793, still in the midst of that struggle, Frederick William II participated in the second partition of Poland, along with Russia but without Austria. This acquisition added to Prussia the important cities of Gdańsk and Toruń, plus over 22,000 square miles of territory and over one million subjects. When the Poles rebelled against this violation of their country, Frederick William in 1795 joined with Austria and Russia in the third partition of 1795, which eliminated Poland as an independent state for over a century and gave Prussia Warsaw and its environs, although these were ceded to Russia after the Napoleonic Wars.

The military campaigns in France and the campaigns in Poland exacted a physical toll on Frederick William II. After their conclusion his health deteriorated, and he died in November 1797, cared for by his first love, Wilhelmine Enke.

See also Enlightenment ; Frederick II (Prussia) ; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim ; Prussia .


Dwyer, Philip G., ed. The Rise of Prussia, 17001830. Harlow, U.K., 2000.

Koch, H. W. A History of Prussia. London and New York, 1978.

Karl A. Roider

Frederick William II

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Frederick William II (1744–97) King of Prussia (1786–97), nephew and successor of Frederick II (the Great). He joined (1792) the alliance against France, but made peace in 1795 in order to consolidate his acquisitions in the e as a result of the Second (1793) and Third (1795) Partitions of Poland. He kept an extravagant court and left the country virtually bankrupt.

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