This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
When the Crown Prince Friedrich began his education at age 7, he was set to learn only those subjects his father thought a good Prussian king needed to know. There was to be no Latin, because it was the language of the classical civilization of Rome, which Friedrich Wilhelm despised. There was to be history, but only of events that happened after the 16th century and had something to do with the Hohenzollern family. Young “Fritz” was to learn religion and practical subjects, such as mathematics (as an aid to the art of warfare); he had to speak German fluently, and even French, though he was to have nothing to do with French culture. The boy’s day was to be filled with activity, and he was not to be left alone from the time he rose at 6:00 in the morning to when he retired to bed at 10:30 at night.
The king hated all things French, because he thought the French effeminate. Despite this, he made a French Huguenot exile, Jacques Duhan de Jandun, Fritz’s tutor. Friedrich Wilhelm admired Duhan as a brave soldier but had no idea he was also a scholar; from Duhan, Fritz acquired his lifelong admiration for all things French.
The crown prince even came to speak French better than his native tongue, German, which he never mastered. Instead of Luther’s Bible, Fritz took to reading French literature and poetry — and his ambition was to become a great French poet. As he grew older, Fritz even began curling his hair, a French style that made the king boil over with rage. Besides the French language and French literature, Fritz’s other great passion was playing the flute. In every way, it seemed, Fritz was the opposite of his father.
Friedrich Wilhelm loved his son greatly, but the boy was disappointing him. As the king’s sickness grew worse and worse, so did his harshness toward his son. Fritz needed toughening up, and his father forced to him to hunt and to join the carousels where the king and his companions got very drunk and often committed acts of cruelty. Fritz also had to accompany the king to the military camps. It was in the camps that Fritz met Captain Hans Hermann von Katte, who, like Fritz, loved music, poetry, French, and conversation. Von Katte, however, was also a freethinker and probably an atheist. He introduced the crown prince to skepticism and rationalism — the thought of the Enlightenment.
To his disappointment, Friedrich Wilhelm saw that all his efforts to “make a man” out of Fritz were failing. Frustrated, the king grew ever more cruel and harsh. At times he beat Fritz mercilessly with a stick. And what was the king’s rage when Fritz neither cried out nor begged mercy from his father? Instead of cringing, Fritz did what he could to aggravate the king.
Finally, Fritz could no longer bear life in his father’s house. In 1730, when he was 18, he plotted with Von Katte to escape to England, where Fritz’s maternal uncle, George II, ruled as king. The plot was discovered, and Von Katte was arrested. Fritz himself was placed in solitary confinement to await trial for deserting the army, for which the punishment was death.
In his confinement, Fritz could receive no visitors. To increase his son’s suffering, the king ordered that Von Katte be beheaded outside Fritz’s cell window. After being court-martialed, Fritz awaited his own death; but in the end, his father relented. Instead of being executed, Fritz was set to learn the art of governing. But he had to keep his distance from his father. The king said he would not see his son until he was “reformed.”
It was not until about a year after his arrest, on August 15, 1731 (Friedrich Wilhelm’s birthday), that Fritz at last received a visit from the king. Meeting his father after so long a time, Fritz fell at his feet. Making him rise, Friedrich Wilhelm began to relate all of Fritz’s misdeeds. At last, the father said, “I’m afraid my company isn’t good enough for you — I am a German Prince — I can’t make jokes in French; but you hate everything I like. May God in his mercy help you, Fritz — as for me, I forgive you.” The two men, weeping, fell into each other’s arms. Later, Fritz confided that for the first time in his life, he had come to know that his father loved him.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Offering to King Fritz
Some 16 years, after becoming king, Fritz (then King Friedrich II, “the Great”) challenged Johann Sebastian Bach to compose a fugue on a theme the king himself wrote. Bach accepted the challenge. Then, in Leipzig, Bach, using the theme (Thema Regium), composed a set of fugues, canons, and a trio sonata, which he collected in the Das Musikalisches Opfer (The Musical Offering), dedicated to the king. This performance of the Musical Offering is by the Concert des Nations, directed by Jordi Savall.