In Our Time: Frederick the Great

I’d heard of Frederick the Great before I listened to this In Our Time programme about him – I knew he was an 18th Century ruler of Prussia, and I knew he was a flautist (having seen a painting of him playing the flute). What I wasn’t aware of before was that he was obsessed with being famous, and had quite serious Daddy issues. The experts who discussed him on the programme were Tim Blanning (University of Cambridge), Katrin Kohl (University of Oxford) and Thomas Biskup (University of Hull).

Frederick was born in 1712 and had what sounds like a rather appalling childhood. The first part, until the age of 7, when he lived in his mother’s court was the better part. It was during this time that he acquired his interest in and love of literature, philosophy and the arts. He also forged a strong bond with one of his sisters in particular – so much so that in later life he built a temple to friendship for her with a statue of her in it. But the court was full of intrigue and he and his siblings were frequently pawns in the schemes of various factions. So as well as the arts he also learnt to live his life on display and to cultivate an image that he wished to present to the rest of the world.

His later childhood and early adulthood were spent at his father’s court. Frederick Wilhelm I was a parsimonious Calvinist, a pious, frugal man who was also keenly interested in military matters. He had spent his reign building up Prussia’s military and treasury. His son shared none of his interests nor his Calvinist virtues and resented the pressure to become a chip off the old block. Frederick Sr would abuse his son both in private and in public, by beatings and by humiliating the young man. During his teenage years Frederick once attempted to escape his father’s court. He and some friends concocted a plan to escape from their military assignment and flee to Britain – the experts described this as a fiasco that failed almost before it began. Frederick and one of his friends were captured and locked up. For some time Frederick was allowed to believe he would be executed for desertion – this (obviously) did not happen, but his friend was executed. Frederick was forced to watch this execution which left him somewhat traumatised – the friend was someone Frederick was very close to, perhaps even his boyfriend.

Summing up this section the experts all agreed that a childhood such as Frederick had has the potential to be psychologically damaging – and that in Frederick’s later behaviour there is evidence that he was indeed damaged by it.

When his father died in 1740 Frederick inherited the throne of Prussia. At the time Prussia was too big to count as a minor European state, but too small to be a major power. It did, however, have a fantastic military and a large treasury – due to Frederick Wilhelm I’s frugal military obsessiveness. However the military hadn’t actually been used – and so practically the first thing Frederick did on coming to the throne was invade Silesia, in part to prove himself a mightier man than his father. It wasn’t just a response to his Daddy issues – it was also an astute political move. At the time the Hapsburg dynasty was undergoing a crisis so it was a good time to try and snap up a few territories whilst they were otherwise occupied. Silesia was near Prussia, and rich, so a good choice for Frederick. The initial campaign went very well, and this was the beginning of several military campaigns. By one point Frederick’s Prussia stood almost alone against all the other powers of Europe who had allied against him – his only ally was Britain. Despite being vastly outnumbered Prussia had the advantage that Frederick was the sole decision maker and was actually on the scene. The other countries all had different aims, which hampered co-ordination between them, and they had to send communications long distances between the commanders on the field and the decision makers at home. Although of course this advantage for Prussia could also backfire if Frederick’s decisions were unwise!

Napoleon regarded Frederick as a great strategist – I imagine he saw Frederick’s standing alone against the other European powers as mirroring his own situation. However the experts were firm in their disagreement with this assessment – one of them (I forget who) dismissed it with the words “Napoleon was wrong about a lot of things”! The consensus was that Frederick was a great warlord – charismatic and capable of leading his troops – but not a particularly good general. Frederick’s brother was a better general, and never lost a battle – however he would’ve lost Silesia in the first campaign by (sensibly, based on the situation at the time) taking the peace deal that involved handing the territory back. Frederick had the drive and desire to win at all costs, and because of his charisma the army would follow him and he lead them to greater gains.

One key success was the capture of West Prussia. The kingdom that Frederick inherited was made up of two geographically separated territories and annexing West Prussia made his country contiguous. In retrospect this was the beginning of the partition of the territories making up Poland between the surrounding countries until there was no Poland left.

Frederick was obsessed with gaining fame and status – he wanted to be remembered himself, and he also wanted Prussia to be a major player in European politics. After the successful campaign in Silesia he instructed the media to refer to him as Frederick the Great (which was a successful PR move as we still refer to him like that today). He carefully crafted other aspects of his image to gain recognition. His patronage and participation in the arts was partly driven by this. He wrote poetry in French which was rather conventional, and whilst not bad it was also not good either. He also, as I mentioned before, played the flute. But art was not just a matter of image for Frederick, it was also his spiritual core. He was not religious himself, and was scathing about religious belief. Art and music were his ways of connecting with a sense of transcendence. He wasn’t, however, particularly interested in German language literature – and the experts said his primary influence in this area was ignoring it enough for independent thinkers to flourish.

His court was renowned for its tolerance and for being a centre of learning. Of course that’s tolerance in a very 18th Century sense – in this case in particular it meant that philosophers who spoke against religion were welcome there after their own countries had hounded them out. Courtier for a while at Frederick’s court was Voltaire – one of the most famous philosophers of the age. He corresponded with Frederick for decades – he was older and something of a mentor to Frederick, including correcting his French (including his poetry). Like Frederick, Voltaire was keen to gain fame and be remembered, and the two collaborated on polishing each other’s images. Despite the long running correspondence Voltaire was only at Frederick’s court for a few years. In person the two big egos did not get along as well as they hoped. Frederick didn’t treat Voltaire with enough respect for Voltaire’s tastes. And Voltaire got mixed up in shady business dealings that embarrassed his host. After 3 years he moved on, but they kept corresponding.

Frederick was almost certainly gay. As I alluded to above his father executed a man who was perhaps his boyfriend whilst Frederick was a teenager. Frederick did marry – a match arranged by his father, and initially it was probably welcome to him. It meant that as a young adult he was able to set up his own court (as a married man) rather than continuing to live in his father’s court. However once Frederick’s father died he had no incentive to continue the charade – the two never lived together again. I don’t think they talked on the programme about what Frederick’s wife thought this (it would be a bit off-topic). She kept court in Berlin after they separated – which was the capital of Prussia, so needed a royal presence. Frederick hated the city (his Daddy issues rearing their head again) and so he had no inclination to live there himself. The experts felt reasonably sure that people at the time were aware of Frederick’s sexuality. The terms “gay” and “homosexual” didn’t exist in their modern sense, but his favourites were referred to as being “like a royal mistress” which implies awareness of his intimacy with them.

Ultimately Frederick was successful in his search for lasting fame. He has been remembered since his death in 1786 as the man who put Prussia on the map. Over the years various groups have held him up as an icon or hero – for his tolerance, for his military successes, for the arts, for the sciences, for pushing on at all costs, etc. After the Second World War (and Hitler’s appropriation of his image for the Third Reich’s propaganda) his star dimmed somewhat, but there has been a more modern resurgence of interest in him. The programme ended with the note that whilst he’s nowadays held up as a proto-Bismarck and pre-figurer of a united Germany, he regarded himself as a Prussian nationalist not a German one.

This Week’s TV including Cute Fluffy Animals, Roman Women, an Anglo Saxon Queen and Jewish History

The Burrowers: Animals Underground

The second episode of The Burrowers continued with the three main species they were looking at in the artifical burrows – with a main theme of “leaving the nest for the first time”. The rabbit babies had their first trip outside, the water voles got over their dislike of each other & had some babies who then visited the outside, and the badger orphans bonded into a group and took their first trip out.

As well as this they showed us what an actual wild rabbit burrow looks like – by pouring concrete down an abandoned one and then excavating it (which presumably actually happened before they built their artificial one). And Packham also told us about moles. I hadn’t previously realised that moles keep larders of zombie worms. When they catch a worm first they squeeze the dirt out, then they bite the head off and in the process they inject it with their venomous saliva which paralyses the worm. And then they put the still living, paralysed, headless worm in a larder where it stays fresh until they want a meal. o.O

The third episode was set in summer and was mostly wrapping up & talking about what the future holds for the various creatures. The rabbits by this stage had had three litters each – as soon as the female finished giving birth each time the dominant male mated with her. Thus ensuring that all the baby rabbits came out of the nest in waves (presumably there’s some initial way they set up the synchronisation for the first litter) to overwhelm the predators. Only one in ten rabbits normally survives to the age of 1 due to predation, which frankly is just as well given 10 rabbits turned into over 50 in just a few months. They didn’t say on the programme, but that behaviour also means non-dominant males don’t get much of a window of opportunity to impregnate the females. Most of these rabbits were apparently going back to the breeders, but some were staying for future study.

The water voles managed to have another litter as well – almost despite themselves as the breeding pair still didn’t seem to get along peacefully. They’re all being released into the wild in Scotland somewhere as part of a regeneration programme. And the badgers are also being released into the wild. They actually moved out of the pre-prepared sett and started digging their own in their enclosure. The researchers had been testing their response to badger calls by playing sounds in their sett, and they’d provided extra bedding while the badgers were away. So I reckon the badgers moved out coz they thought the old sett was haunted 😉 Noises in the darkness where there were no badgers, randomly appearing plants in rooms you didn’t leave anything in … who’d want to live somewhere like that? 😉

A fun series, although to be honest not much of note beyond “aww, look at the cute fluffy animals”.

Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome

The last episode of Catharine Edward’s series about powerful Roman women covered more ground & more women than the first two. The themes linking them together (other than “these are the rest of them”) were that these women were generally outsiders to the aristocratic Roman culture that the women of the first two episodes came from, and they mostly wielded their power more overtly. Edwards started by telling us about Caenis, who had been a slave to a member of the Imperial family (Antonia, mother of Claudius). Caenis had had an affair with Vespasian long before he was Emperor (and when she was still a slave). She was given her freedom, and after Vespasian’s wife died the two resumed their relationship – however her low social status meant that he could not marry her. Once he became Emperor she continued to live as his wife in all but name, and exerted quite a lot of influence over him including some degree of control over access to him. Next up was Berenice who provides an object lesson in how Roman Emperors weren’t as all powerful as they might hope. The Emperor Titus (son of Vespasian) had formed a relationship with the Jewish Queen, Berenice, while he father was still alive. Once he became Emperor he was forced to bow to public pressure & to set her aside – she was too old (i.e. past child-bearing age) and too foreign.

The next three women were all foreigners, and all related. The wife of the Emperor Septimus Severus was a Syrian woman called Julia Domna. She wielded power alongside her husband much more openly than previous Empresses, and was popular & respected when doing so. After Septimus’s death their son’s inherited jointly, which ended badly as one might imagine. Despite never forgiving her older son for murdering his younger brother she still helped to run the empire, and was grief-stricken at his death (although mostly because she wouldn’t have power any more after that). The next two Emperors were both put on the throne by female relatives of Julia Domna. Sadly the first of these teenage boys was utterly useless as Emperor, and despite the best efforts of his mother Julia Soaemias to rule through him he was overthrown by his aunt Julia Avita and her son Alexander. Alexander might’ve made it as a decent Emperor, but his mother forgot the cardinal rule of keeping the army onside and got stingy with their pay – with the obvious result.

Last of the powerful Roman women was Helena, who can’t really be missed out – mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross (amongst other pious things). Edwards credited her as a major influence on Constantine’s move towards Christianity, and of his changing imperial policy to make the Empire Christian.

A good series, Edwards managed to make it both informative & fun. We did at times wonder how the Roman Empire had got anything done or lasted as long as it did – so many of the Emperors seemed useless or overly concerned with their own debaucheries at the expense of the Empire.

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

The second episode of Michael Wood’s series about the Anglo-Saxons was mostly about Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great. Alfred was succeeded by his son Edward in Wessex, and his daughter Æthelflæd was married to the King of the Mercians. The main political crisis of the time was caused by Alfred naming Edward his heir. Alfred had succeeded his elder brother and re-taken Wessex from the Viking’s who’d killed his brother. His nephew Æthelwold had in many ways a better claim to the throne than Edward, but was cut out of the succession by Alfred. So once Alfred died Æthelwold rose up in rebellion, with the help of the Vikings who still ruled East Anglia & Northumbria. He was eventually beaten back by an alliance of Wessex & Mercia led by Edward & Æthelflæd.

Æthelflæd is known as the Lady of the Mercians, and after her husband’s death she ruled on her own. Unusually for the time there is documentary evidence for her power & rule – the “official” record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t refer to her much, but there is a chronicle written detailing the same events from her perspective (in the sense of she’s the main figure of the chronicle not in the sense of a first person account). She is recorded as acting as a King – she leads armies, she plans military campaigns, she acts as a diplomat. Wood tells us that without Æthelflæd & her leadership of Mercia there would not have been England as we know it. Æthelflæd was even succeeded by her daughter, the only time this has happened in English history, but she was removed from power by her uncle (King Edward of Wessex) and he ruled Mercia as King of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Story of the Jews

The third episode of Simon Schama’s series The Story of the Jews covered the promise of integration of the early Englightenment, and the subsequent dashing of those hopes with the rise of a particularly anti-Semitic form of nationalism. At the start of the Enlightenment a spirit of toleration was growing – that put forward the idea that a Jew could be a person who just happened to follow the Judaic religion and should be treated like any other person. Many Jewish families in Germany & France began to integrate into the culture of the country they lived in, becoming members of society & even notable members of high society. Moses Mendelssohn was one of the first examples of this. Although some of his descendants (like Felix Mendelssohn the composer) were baptised, other families like the Beer family remained true to their Jewish religion & heritage. One of the prominent members of the Beer family was Giacomo Meyerbeer (who started life in Berlin as Jacob Beer, changing his name when he moved to Italy) who was a very popular composer of operas in Paris. He was an early patron of Wagner’s – encouraging him and providing him with opportunities to stage his own operas. Schama had other examples, including banking families & others – the common thread was that they generally thought of themselves as German or French or whatever people who happened to be Jewish, rather than Jews who happened to be living in whatever country it might be.

Sadly this promising mood of integration & an end to prejudice against the Jews didn’t last. Wagner as mentioned above might’ve had a Jewish patron initially, but he published anti-Semitic rants against Meyerbeer late. He took the stance that “true art” had much to do with nationalism and roots in a country and that Jews by definition could not be a part of that and so could not produce any real art – which frankly is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start to shake one’s head at it. This nationalistic stance was common in the late 19th Century, and incidents like the disgrace of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew in the French Army, for allegedly passing state secrets to the Germans hardened this anti-Semitism. The propaganda was that Jews could only be loyal to each other first, and their “adopted” countries second … along with the usual collection of prejudices dating back medieval times. And the rising anti-Semitism lead to a change in Jewish attitudes too and the rise of Zionism. Instead of integration into other countries & cultures many Jews now wanted their own country where they were already the culture.

The programme ended where one would expect – with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, as the extreme towards which that anti-Semitic strain of nationalism was tending. A sombre end to a period which had begun with such hope.


Back in the middle of March J & I spent a long weekend in Berlin. Primarily this was to visit the exhibition about Amarna that was on at one of the museums, but we did manage to look at other stuff as well, even stuff that wasn’t anything to do with ancient Egypt! 😉

Brandenburg Gate

I’ve got several photos up on flickr, there are some highlights in this post 🙂 Not going to talk about things in chronological order here, instead I’ll group it into categories.

Travel & Getting Around

Our trip out went remarkably smoothly – no traffic delays on the way to the airport & the flight was on time etc. And we even managed to figure out buses & U-bahn trains to get ourselves into central Berlin to find our hotel. Even so, it was evening by the time we got there so we just got some dinner at a nearby restaurant and then went back to the hotel & crashed. Tiredness not helped by it being just a couple of days after the Marillion Weekend!

I’d managed to get us a hotel within walking distance of the museums (the ones we went to were on Museum Island), so even though it was bitterly cold we did that rather than figure out the buses or trains. And it was nice, we got to see a bit more of the city than we otherwise would’ve. We walked past the New Synagogue on the way to & from the museums, and several other neat looking buildings. Also lots and lots of graffiti ranging from basic tags through to very elaborate art – I’m not sure where the boundary between graffiti & “official” art was. I wish I’d taken more photos of that in retrospect, I’d only really got one (I was a wimp, my hands were freezing cold if I took my gloves off so the camera stayed in its case too much).

Berlin New SynagogueBerlin BuildingBerlin BuildingMural

And the less said about the flight back the better – getting to the airport was fine, but the airport itself was pretty crappy (busy, cramped, no decent food options, not much information on what was going on) and the flight was delayed. But we made it home to the miserable wet weather that the UK had waiting for us so it worked out OK 🙂

Food & Drink

All my photos of food & drink were on my phone to put on G+ while we were away, except for one, so the quality is pretty crappy (I’m also not sure how to embed them in this post so that they’re a sensible size etc, so I’ll just say the album is here, on G+. The first night we just went for “close” as the primary criterion for food so wound up in an oriental place that did interesting fusion food that wasn’t quite to our tastes (not bad, just we didn’t like it). Breakfasts were in the hotel – a continental breakfast buffet which was rather good. Lunches were mostly in the Neues Museum in between looking at things, which meant club sandwiches or salad for me and slightly more variety for J (there was Egyptian themed stuff). In the evenings we tried to eat German food, which to be honest I found a bit overwhelmingly dense (I was coming down with a cold by the last day tho, so maybe that was it). We also drank beer with our meals, it seemed the thing to do 😉

Berliner Pilsner

Neues Museum

As I said above, the primary purpose of the trip was to see an exhibition at the Neues Museum, and also to look at the rest of their Egyptian collection. I’m going to talk about the things we saw more in another post & share a whole load more pictures of the items (not uploaded yet, and only half-processed). We spent 1 whole day and two half days at the Neues, which for me was in retrospect a bit much – the last day I was feeling coldy and so very done with that museum, I should’ve gone off to somewhere else while J finished up the bits he hadn’t seen or wanted to see again.

J at the Neues MuseumGreek CourtyardJ

One thing I really liked about the museum was the remaining bits of the original decoration. The museum building had been badly damaged during the war, so there wasn’t a lot left, but when the restoration was done they’d preserved as much as they could. The Egyptian wing of the museum had previously been painted to look like an Egyptian temple, and the other wing (Greek, Roman and, pre-historic items) had things like murals of Odin in rooms which used to house the collection of items from Norway.

Paintings of Egyptian TemplesOdin Over the DoorMap on the WallPharaohPainted DoorwayBerlin Green Head

Pergamon Museum

On one of the mornings that we didn’t spend in the Neues Museum we went to the nearby Pergamon Museum. Which could have a sub-title of “Monumental Architecture We Nicked from Around the Ancient World” 😉 The key piece is a Greek altar building from Pergamon, which is stunningly large to have as a museum exhibit. They also have rebuilt a part of the Ishtar Gate from Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar’s time, which is the thing that we went to the museum specifically to see. Again I’ll talk about this more in another post, as I’ve several photos of the buildings and artifacts they have in the museum.

Pergamon AltarJ Photographing Non-Egyptian Stuff!J in Front of the Ishtar Gate

Brandenburg Gate (and assorted nearby buildings)

One of the things I’d wanted to see was the Brandenburg Gate, so on the second full day we were there we walked there from the museum. Getting to it just as the sun went down – took several pics despite the cold, including the one at the start of this (massive) post 🙂 On the way we walked past several statues and grand buildings, including the memorial to the victims of war & tyranny. Oh, and quite a few bears – this being the tourist trap bit of Berlin. In one of the shops we also spotted the most appallingly tacky plates embossed with the image of Nefertiti in gold (on white) and a couple of cartouches (which didn’t have Nefertiti’s name in). It was awful. J has a pic somewhere I think, but I don’t know if he’s sharing it or not 🙂

Memorial for the Victims of War and TyrannyBrandenburg GateBerlin Bear

Berliner Dom

Berliner Dom

On the last full day we spent the afternoon looking at the cathedral that’s next to Museum Island. The physical building of the Berliner Dom has had a bit of an odd history. Underneath it is the crypt where the Hohenzollern family were buried, and this family played a major role in German history from the 12th Century through to the early 20th Century. They provided several Electors, Kings & Emperors of Prussia, Germany and Romania. And the Protestant branch of the family that ruled in Prussia are buried in Berlin from the mid 16th Century onwards. The church building appears to have been pulled down and rebuilt several times – each time to make something grander and more fitting for the family status and aspirations. This finally stopped when the existing church was bombed in the Second World War. It was subsequently rebuilt exactly as it had been pre-bombing, for the first time restored rather than replaced. (My understanding here is based on one small leaflet in English, a skim-read of wikipedia for dates and some attempt to understand the German signs in the church – take with requisite large barrels of salt).

Dome ExteriorCherubDome Interior

The existing building is grandiose & ornate, and by this point this was built the family clearly thought very well of themselves indeed (I think they were Emperors by then, so you can see why). The outside is floridly carved with all sorts of bits & bobs. The inside has mosaics, reliefs, statues, grandiose tombs – you name it, it has that sort of decoration. Around the dome are mosaics of all four evangelicals, statues of four great reformers (e.g. Luther & co), reliefs showing scenes from the acts of the apostles. Higher up in the dome are yet more mosaics. The stained glass actually looks like paintings rather than windows. In the church itself there are also some ornately carved tombs or grave monuments of some of the Hohenzollerns.

Evangelical Mosaic & Reformer StatueAltarGoose!Death Writes in His Book

Upstairs there was a small exhibition of models of the church they didn’t build last time round (ie the ideas that got turned down), plus we could get up to the inside walkway round the dome & look out through the windows. There’s also an outside walkway but this was closed due to bad weather (I’m guessing they were worried about ice & snow). Unfortunately the windows for the inside bit were clarty beyond belief and so the pictures I have are a little spoilt by the grubbiness of the glass.

View from the Dome of the Berliner DomView from the Dome of the Berliner DomJ

Downstairs was the crypt laid out with coffin after coffin of the Hohenzollern family. Quite depressing actually – rather than being glorious monuments these felt very personal and sad. Mostly black coffins, with maybe bits of velvet and the occasional dead bunch of flowers. Even when there was decoration it didn’t lift the sombre mood. And the relatively large number of child coffins dragged it down further.

Hohenzollern CryptCoffins of Kings

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Memorial

On the last morning we were there we managed to pack up our stuff way before time to go to the airport, so decided to walk to a place where we’d seen on the map the Berlin Wall used to run. I had a little guidebook, but it hadn’t mentioned where the memorial stuff for the Wall was, so we were very pleased when by chance we walked directly to the area that’s been set aside for that. This morning was also the only point in the trip we were actually in what used to be West Berlin, and that only briefly. There are some sections of the wall still standing, with several small information points that tell you what happened to whom & where. There’s also a memorial to all the people who died crossing the wall trying to escape to West Berlin during the years the wall was standing. And a section of the wall has been rebuilt so that you can see what it looked like.

Berlin Wall MemorialBerlin Wall MemorialBerlin Wall MemorialBerlin Wall Memorial

It’s almost incomprehensible, to be honest. The Berlin Wall coming down is one of the first current affairs events I really paid attention to (as I said yesterday in my post about Doctor Who) and the mindset of the people who ordered it built in the first place just makes no sense to me. “Oh look, all our people are defecting in their droves because they hate their lives here so much, so lets not change a thing, let’s just wall them in and kill them if they try to get out”. We didn’t end up staying long here, too cold and we had a plane to catch, but I’m glad we managed to see it before we left.

Overall, a good holiday 🙂 A new city I’ve now visited, and we saw quite a few things as well as the Egyptian stuff. I think I’d like to go back sometime, but preferably in the summer!