Frederick II of Prussia acquired the sobriquet ‘the Great’ within four years of the commencement of his 46-year reign. One of the sharpest minds ever to grace a European throne, he was impressively well read, passionately engaged as a connoisseur of music, art and architecture and a prolific writer of prose and verse. These are qualities which are unusual but not unknown among hereditary rulers; in Frederick, quite exceptionally, they were combined with fierce executive energy, indomitable will and ruthlessness of action in the service of both civil governance and military matters.
To his contemporaries, Frederick was the most salient and divisive ruler of the eighteenth century, abhorred and adored in equal measure. Subsequent students of German history have also been divided, and controversy continues. Was he one of the greatest generals of all time, or merely the lucky beneficiary of an army he inherited? (Blanning’s verdict: ‘he was an indifferent general but a brilliant warlord.’) Apostle and friend of Voltaire and insistent on equality before the law, he has been lauded as the Enlightenment enthroned; but he was also absolutist, capricious, vindictive and cruelly disdainful of the common people.
What is beyond controversy is that he turned Brandenburg and Prussia from a third-rate power into one that was feared and respected throughout Europe. There is somewhat less wholehearted agreement that he began the process which, if not exactly lineal, led to a united Germany under Prussian leadership becoming the dominant power in continental Europe. That Frederick seems to be at the source of developments that led to the Third Reich still adds a frisson to the mention of his name. This is one of the many themes the tour will explore.
Tim Blanning is the author of a biography of Frederick which has received accolades from all quarters. Formerly Professor of Modern European History at the University of Cambridge, and a renowned lecturer, he has spent a lifetime studying the eighteenth century and the German speaking lands. His depth of understanding of music and the visual arts adds a dimension which is not often provided by political historians.
Any study of Frederick must begin with his monstrous bully of a father, Frederick William I, to whom his intellectual and aesthetic interests as well as his sexual preferences were an anathema (most biographers have drawn a discreet veil over the latter). The son attempted to exorcise the ghost of his uncouth, foul tempered and militaristic parent by exceeding him in agression, beginning within weeks of becoming king by seizing Silesia, the Austrian monarchy’s richest province.
For the twenty-first-century traveller, however, Frederick’s legacy consists most strikingly of a series of palaces – Rheinsberg, Charlottenburg, Sanssouci and the New Palace at Potsdam – which are exquisitely decorated and filled with furniture and works of art.
Berlin. Fly at c. 9.00am from London Heathrow to Berlin Tegel (British Airways). A walk along Unter den Linden passes buildings erected during Frederick’s reign – opera house, Catholic cathedral, library, Prince Henry’s palace – and the famous statue unveiled 1851. All four nights are spent in Berlin.
Frederick later said of his years at Schloss Rheinsberg, his court from 1736 until his accession, that they were the happiest of his life. It has been restored after subsequent vicissitudes.
Charlottenburg. The palace and gardens at Charlottenburg originated at the end of the 17th century, but Frederick added a wing with his favoured Rococo decoration and installed there his collection of paintings by Watteau and his followers. There is free time to visit the other museums at Charlottenburg including the collection of Berlin porcelain whose production Frederick encouraged.
Potsdam. Created by Frederick as a retreat from the affairs of state, the extensive, park of Sanssouci consists of gardens, parkland, palaces and pavilions. Visit his relatively modest single-storey palace atop terraces of fruit trees, the exquisite Chinese teahouse and the large and imposing Neues Palais. Drive through Potsdam town centre with its Dutch quarter and Nikoleikirche by Schinkel.
Berlin. The German Historical Museum is a fascinating and unflinching display of the sort which Germany does well. Some free time for the museums on Museums Island. Fly to Heathrow, arriving c. 6.00pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £1,980 or £1,840 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,240 or £2,100 without flights.
Included: flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Regent Hotel, Berlin: an elegant 5-star hotel decorated in Regency style, located close to Unter den Linden. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
Quite a lot of walking is required and standing around is unavoidable. Average distance by coach per day: 42 miles (primarily on two days of the tour.)
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Suggested travel for combining with King Ludwig II, (20–25 August 2018)
17 August: stay 3 extra nights in Berlin (17th, 18th & 19th August).
20 August: fly with Air Berlin from Berlin to Munich at 10.15-11.25. Meet King Ludwig group at Munich airport (due to land at 12.00) to join the first visit en route to the hotel.
MRT can book the extra nights in Berlin (or Munich if preferred). Prices on enquiry. You would need to book the Air Berlin flight yourself.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.