Anyone whom Adolf Hitler put a large portrait of prominently over his desk must have a dark side. This is certainly true of Frederick II of Prussia, commonly known as Frederick 'the Great'. A brilliant military general, he took full advantage of his father's consolidation of Prussian military power and became a potent symbol of German militarism, administrative efficiency, duty and enhancement of glory. Among his worst aspects was his treatment of Poland. Indeed, among his the oppressions which resonated with later Nazism, he boasted that he would gradually rid the world of Poles.
The other side of Frederick was his so-called 'enlightened absolutism', which first drew me to him when I studied the 18th century 'enlightened despots' at school. Fascinated by radical thought and a leading sponsor of music, fine architectural buildings and the arts, Frederick was, for example, a notable patron of Voltaire. In some respects he also offered significant religious toleration within his realm, albeit with disdain for genuine religious faith, particular acts of active opposition to Polish Catholicism and with little real time for Jews. Whilst historians argue over his sexuality, with women certainly finding little place in his world, there may be some grounds for seeing positive aspects of homo-erotic life, albeit distorted by power. Aspects of his governance were also certainly forward-thinking, including sponsorship of immigration, recognition of the new United States of America and of the rights of prisoners of war, criticism of hunting, and protection of some plant life.
The ambiguity of Frederick the Great, on so many levels, is partly explained by his context and upbringing, not least the brutality of his father's treatment of him and the deep-seated aggressive insecurities of Prussia as a whole, consequent on the bitter experiences of the Thirty Years War and other catastrophes. Understandable, if typically one-sided and distorted, Nazi enthusiasm for him has meant that both Eastern and Western Germans have subsequently been wary of his legacy. Yet he remains, in various senses, a fascinating figure, both as a symbol of the bad and good in German history itself, and of the human character.
If walking through the Brandeburg Gate and down Unter den Linden this year was the fulfilment of a lifetime's desire, visiting Potsdam ran things close, particularly the visit to the astonishing 18th century summer palace Sans Souci. The name itself is French rather than German, reflecting its first owner's cosmopolitan aspect. Roughly translated it approximates to that key Australian term 'no worries'. What a blessing that would have been for much of German history and still would be for so much of our world today! Not generally a great fan of the buildings of the historically 'super-rich', I have nonetheless always been fascinated by Sans Souci, mainly for its association with Frederick the Great. I was not disappointed. Putting aside the cost, in various terms, it is an amazing creation and I was staggered as I turned a corner of the grounds and saw it afresh in all its ambiguous glory.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.