The Great Friedrich in Zorndorf, the painting by Carl Röchling, summarized the Prussian image of the Empire. The king himself grabs the standard of von Bülow’s regiment and leads the troops into the attack. The ground is trampled, full of dead, the grenadiers are battered – but the king never falters, instead he moves forward resolutely and boldly – the light of the sun on his face. And with that, foresight is on his side.

This episode occurred in the Seven Years’ War in the rather confusing Battle of Zorndorf. Prussia under Frederick against the Russians under Wilhelm von Fermor. One of the beliefs of the time was: Nobody can resist the assault of the Prussian infantry. This time the Russians did, the Prussians were unable to create a gap in their front. One of the Prussian king’s tricks – attacking with wings of varying strength – could not be carried out on the site. Finally the Prussian left wing gave in. Only the king himself could save the situation. He jumped off the horse. When he turned against the enemy on foot with the flag of von Bülow’s regiment, the soldiers gathered and followed their king. The crisis was now resolved, but not over. It was only the cavalry under General Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz that saved them.

He waited cold-bloodedly for the right moment to catch the main Russian force in the rear. Much more cold-blooded than Friedrich. Contrary to the king’s express orders, the general had delayed the attack. If Seydlitz had obeyed the great Frederick, the battle would probably have been lost. But this meant that the heartland of Prussia, the March of Brandenburg, could be held.

The victory of Zorndorf can be seen as a decisive battle in the Seven Years’ War. The picture shows the transfiguration of Old Fritz. Frederick II inherited a large army from his father Frederick William I. Friedrich Wilhelm, the soldier king, had built this army carefully and with obsessive love over decades. But he always shied away from major conflict, but not his son. Six months after taking the throne, he began the First Silesian War in 1740. The two Silesian Wars and the subsequent Seven Years’ War were ventures that brought Prussia to the brink of defeat. In the end, Friedrich won this game of Va Banque. After that, Prussia was a major European power whose importance was based primarily on the military.

The heroism of its soldiers was the myth on which the state was founded. This was accompanied by further myth formation. Frederick II was a difficult person. The only thing popular about him was the language. Friedrich spoke perfect French, he couldn’t speak “good” German, but he could speak the language of the common people. A whole series of anecdotes dealt with the ruler’s encounters with his people and gave the rather unpleasant man an almost affable character. For example when it comes to potatoes. The farmers absolutely did not want to grow the new tuber plant. According to legend, the monarch fell for a ruse. He had fields planted and the “precious” fruit closely guarded by soldiers. Now the farmers became curious and started stealing potatoes at night. Old Fritz had bet on that; the guards were instructed never to discover the robbers.

The king’s wars caused great casualties and devastation. In posterity, a story mended these wounds. Allegedly, at the Battle of Kolin, Frederick beat his defeated soldiers and shouted: “Guys, do you want to live forever?” Until a veteran intervened. Fontane – the poet of Old Prussia – reads it like this:

The grenadiers don’t want any more either.

The king chases along like a madman

And raises his stick and shouts with trembling:

“Rogue, do you want to live forever?


“Fritze, nothing about Bedrug;

Fifteen pfennigs is enough today.”

The painting shows Frederick II as a determined military leader. For this he was called the Great and put the Prussian King on a par with the Emperors Charles and Otto I. And rightly so, because he made Prussia a great power. But at the end we can tell another anecdote: Frederick inherited the best army in Europe from his hated father, and in 1786 he left his successor the most overrated army in the contingent. When she meets Napoleon’s troops in the double battle of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806 with Old Fritz’s recipes, the glory of old Prussia is lost in just one day.