Posts Tagged ‘Potsdamer Riesengarde’

Frederick William I – A Troubled Ruler

Monday, February 13th, 2017


King Frederick William I (Friedrich Wilhelm I) of Prussia (1713-1740) was a short-tempered and cantankerous ruler. But to his credit, he was also an astute monarch. His reforms transformed Prussia from a second-rate power into an efficient and thriving state. Because the army was his overriding passion he became known as the “Soldier King.” He also concerned himself with many other aspects of his relatively small country. When Frederick William died, he left his son and heir, Frederick II the Great an army of about 83,000, a centralized state, a surplus of more than 8,000,000 taler in the royal treasury, and a Prussia that had become the third military power on the European continent, right behind Russia and France.

King Frederick William I (Friedrich Wilhelm I) of Prussia, photo courtesy of from a portrait by Antoine Pesne.

King Frederick William I (Friedrich Wilhelm I) of Prussia, photo courtesy of – portrait by Antoine Pesne.

Frederick William – complete opposite of his father

Frederick Williams’s father, Frederick I of Prussia (1657-1713) had been the first King of Prussia. Modeling himself after Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, his father had embraced luxury to the point of bankrupting the state finances. Young Frederick William decided to take the opposite path. Once king, he dissolved his father’s extravagant court, cut expenses by about three quarters, lived simply and frugally and worked hard. He spent all the money he saved on his armies to make Prussia independent from its neighbors.

Frederick William’s Accomplishments

Frederick William tried to improve the welfare of his people. Convinced that a thriving state could not afford illiterate subjects, he introduced compulsory primary education. He encouraged farming, reclaimed marshes, stored grain in good times and sold it in bad times. He resettled Prussia’s eastern territories after it had been depopulated by the plague. He freed the serfs and abolished hereditary leases. He never started a war and made considerable reforms to the Prussian army’s training, tactics and conscription program. The lot of the peasantry improved significantly during his reign. He demanded discipline, efficiency and good work ethics from his soldiers, and Prussian discipline and Prussian virtues became accepted concepts.

Frederick William’s shortcomings

Although an effective ruler, Frederick William possessed a violent temper. His inherited illnesses, which resulted in gout, migraines, obesity and severe stomach cramps, may have exacerbated his disposition. At times, his temper was uncontrollable. The most frequent victim of such outbursts was his son Fritz (later known as Frederick the Great). When father and son happened to meet in private or in public, Frederick William often seized Fritz by the throat, threw him to the ground and forced him to kiss his boots.

The reason was that Frederick William had wanted his eldest surviving son to become a fine soldier. To that end, he had Fritz exposed to no more than a minimal education, required him to live a simple lifestyle while focusing on the Army and statesmanship. But Fritz preferred the intellectual pleasures of music, philosophy and French culture. As Fritz’s defiance for his father’s rules increased, Frederick William would beat or humiliate him. When Fritz attempted to flee to England with his friend and tutor, Hans Hermann von Katte, the enraged king had Katte executed and forced Fritz to watch.


During his final years, Frederick William was His last years were dominated by his passion of recruiting tall men for his palace guard, the Potsdam Giants (Potsdamer Riesergarde)

For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of