AMAZING STORIES from the past
Father and SON at war
Prince Frederick of Prussia, later celebrated as Frederick the Great, was cultured and artistic. His stern and practical father was known as the 'Soldier King'. As the prjnce grew older the two clashed repeatedly. The prince became so frustrated that he conceived a grand escape plan - aided by his friend - Lieutenant von Katte.
At seven o'clock on the morning of November 6, 1730, a roll of drums echoed around the courtyard of the fortress at Kustrin (known today as Kostrzyn in western Poland). The bodyguard of Frederick William I of Prussia encircled the condemned man, Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte. Above him, a voice begged for von Katte's forgiveness. From his cell in the fortress, Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia was forced to watch the execution of his friend. The lieutenant replied, 'I know of nothing for which you require my forgiveness', and the prince fainted from shock and grief. By the time he had recovered, von Katte had been beheaded. The king was without mercy - von Katte's breach of trust in aiding and abetting the Prince in his attempt to escape the hated parental home was too much to forgive.
A FATHER AND SON AT WAR
But why did the prince want so desperately to escape? Disagreements between fathers and sons were hardly unknown in royal families. Prince Frederick loved music and philosophy. In contrast, his father's main focus of interest was the army. He believed that a powerful military force was the basis of a nation's strength. Funding his army required considerable expenditure - and his own father, Frederick I, had almost bankrupted the kingdom with his predilection for the arts and culture, another reason why the Soldier King was not prepared to allow his son to indulge in such frivolous pastimes. He believed that the prince should acquire an interest in administration and economics. He called him 'an effeminate chap' and subjected him to humiliating beatings. The sensitive Prince Frederick, stifled by his father's stern demands, longed to get away. Neither was willing to give ground, and as a result the young Frederick could see only one solution: escape.
THOUGHTS OF ESCAPE
While planning his escape, the Prince enquired of the British ambassador whether he would be welcome in England. But the British government was not enthusiastic about getting drawn into a private dispute between members of the Prussian royal family. So Frederick looked to Paris. Although Prussia was then on the brink of war with France, Frederick scarcely seemed to consider that a flight by the Crown Prince into enemy territory would provoke a scandal. But he knew he could never hope to evade his father's strict surveillance on his own. He needed an accomplice or, better still, a good friend.
A WILLING ACCOMPLICE
Lieutenant von Katte, a dashing officer of the royal bodyguard, loved adventure. He cheerfully boasted of being the Crown Prince's best friend. Together, they hatched a succession of escape plans. Von Katte's ideas had a theatrical flavour: a clandestine meeting with the English ambassador took place under the castle gate at midnight. His romantic notion of conspiracy did little to ensure that the matter was kept secret. The whole court soon knew of Frederick's plans and they were openly discussed, since no one took them seriously. It seemed unlikely that they would ever be put into practice. Nor did that seem to be the young men's intention. He and won Katte refined every last detail of the escape without ever settling on a date for it - until the king's actions led the conspirators to put their plan into action after all.
THE DIE IS CAST
Out of the blue, Frederick William announced to the court that he intended to show his son the wider world. The prince would accompany his father on a journey through the German principalities to learn the skills of diplomacy. Enchanted by the idea, Frederick forgot all thoughts of escape. But the period of harmony with his father was brief. Stringent security on the trip kept the prince under constant supervision. When the king reprimanded him in public, at Freudenstadt, in western Germany, it was the last straw. He had to get away - it was now or never. A glance at the map showed him that in a few days'
[The first kings of Prussia
On January 18, 1701, Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg crowned himself Frederick I, 'King in Prussia.' His love of splendour and the arts almost ruined his country's finances.
Frederick William I
Laid the financial, administrative and military foundations for the expansion of the Prussian state.
Known as Frederick the Great, he made Prussia into a major European power, above all in the three wars he fought over Silesia. Internally, his reign was characterised by an openness to the ideas of the Enlightenment and by absolutist rule.]
time, their route would take them close to the French border. Surely he would never again be presented with such a favourable opportunity to flee?
Von Katte, accompanying the royal party as a member of the guard, had received money and jewels over the long months of planning. He was responsible for supplying the prince with fresh horses during the escape. Frederick's only concern now was how to evade his minders. He bribed one of the king's pages to come along with the horses. Everything was now in place.
The royal party stopped for the night at the village of Steinfurt. Because they only had to cover a short distance the next day, the king decided to make a late start. Frederick saw his chance. He sent a letter to alert von Katte and the page was instructed to ready the horses for three o' clock in the morning. They reckoned that two hours would be enough to reach the French border. It was unlikely that anyone in the royal camp would have even noticed his absence before he reached France.
THE ESCAPE FAILS
As Frederick waited for his horse, one of the king's spies appeared at his rendezvous with the page. The page lost his nerve and revealed his role in the plot. At first Frederick William was at a loss what to do. As they were still on the road, he decided to delay arresting his son until they returned home. Frederick quickly sensed that something had gone wrong. Though he had been closely monitored before, now his minders refused to let him out of their sight. Once they had crossed back into Prussia, his fears were confirmed. His father reproached him angrily and ordered that he be thrown in prison. The prince did not try to deny any of the accusations or to conceal the part played by his accomplice. He had sent a warning letter to von Katte and believed that his friend had escaped. In fact, the lieutenant had already been arrested. As he was repeatedly interrogated, the truth began to emerge.
THE KING SHOWS NO MERCY
Frederick William proceeded strictly by the book. A court martial was set up to try the conspirators and a court hearing held on October 25, 1730. The cautious judges reached agreement. As loyal subjects, they were reluctant to pass judgment on a member of the royal household. They commended him to the mercy of his father, but also let it be known that, in their opinion, the period of detention that Frederick had suffered since his arrest was already punishment enough.
In the case of von Katte, the judges decided on a guilty verdict but put the final sentence into the hands of the king. As a member of the royal bodyguard, von Katte had sworn an oath of loyalty that he had broken. To Frederick William, such an act of betrayal, was deserving of the death penalty. With a stroke of his pen the king sealed the fate of his son's friend, and a few days later the sentence was carried out.
A FRAGILE ACCORD
It was claimed by many that Prince Frederick and von Katte were more than friends and the writer Voltaire implied that Frederick was homosexual. Certainly, his marriage to Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern in 1733 seems to have been primarily a means of atoning for his past behaviour to his father. The union yielded no children and it appears that Frederick largely ignored his wife.
By the late 1730s the prince and his father seem to have reached a peace of sorts. The king gave Frederick the chateau of Rheinsberg. Here he gathered a company of musicians, actors and other artists who made music and performed plays. He also came to form strong opinions about the nature of kingship and in 1739 published a work in which he opposed the views espoused by Machiavelli in The Prince.
A GREAT KING
As part of his rapprochement with his father, Frederick at last studied administration and economics. From 1740, when he ascended the Prussian throne, he aimed to make his small nation a major player on the European stage.
To this end, he encouraged its fledgling industries, reformed the taxation system, abolished torture and granted religious freedom. In a series of wars - mainly against the Habsburgs of Austria - he became admired as a military tactician.
Frederick's legacy was political and cultural. He established a civil service with a code based on a respect for law and ethics.
Magnificent buildings such as the State Opera and St Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin, and the palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam - a rococo masterpiece - were built under his patronage.
'His picture hung in the meanest hovel and the grandest house; he became a legend in his own lifetime.'
THOMAS MANN ON FREDERICK THE GREAT