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Frederick, Maria and Catherine

Frederick the Great and the Enlightenment | Empress Maria Theresa in the Age of Mozart | Catherine the Great, to 1796

Russia expands

Russia expands to the Black Sea, 1725-95.

Frederick the Great, Germany and the Enlightenment

In the realm of ideology in the mid-1700s, the so-called Enlightenment was underway, especially among the British, French and Dutch – a movement among a minority. Among Germans it extended to the middle classes, was spiritualistic and didn't threaten governments or established churches. Europe meanwhile remained predominantly rural and predominantly devoted to agriculture – except for the more commercially advanced Dutch.

After the Seven Years' War, Brandenburg-Prussia's King Frederick, of the German Hohenzollern family, lived modestly while promoting reconstruction and agriculture in his realm. Content to remain an absolute monarch, he called himself the first servant of the state. Next in line in power remained his landed nobility – his Junkers – the backbone of his army and leaders in his government. He was content to leave the landed nobility with their privileges and serfs.

Frederick was at least in a small way influenced by the Enlightenment. He renewed his friendship with Voltaire, the French Enlightenment star. In a letter to Voltaire he wrote that he wanted to enlighten "my people, cultivate their manners and morals, and make them as happy as human beings can be, or as happy as the means at my disposal permit." With others of the Enlightenment he continued to believe in tolerance, especially the tolerance of his subjects toward one another. But regarding this he would not be completely happy with the results. To Voltaire in 1771 he would write: "Drive out prejudices through the door, and they will return through the window."

Frederick transformed the university at Halle into a showplace of Enlightenment. But it was an enlightenment that he controlled. Professors were state officials and dependent on the state financially. His realm had few of the wealthy patrons of the arts that allowed artists and writers independence from government control. Criticizing Frederick was discouraged. Subversion was not tolerated. Frederick allowed his subjects freedom of thought and expression in religion and some other areas. But some were to describe free speech in Brandenburg-Prussia as amounting to little more than permission to make anti-clerical jokes.

Education for the common people remained poorly developed. Schools were in a rented room of the home of a pastor or artisan. Often there were no books. Many parents resented the expense of books and the little money they paid the schoolmaster. Farming families did not want their children removed from work on the farms, so in rural areas attendance was poor. During the growing season there was no attendance. And Frederick allowed the education of peasant children to consist almost entirely of reading religious manuals and other simple religious texts.

In the whole of Germany, including Frederick's realm, some families were eager to have their children educated, and some were not satisfied with religion as the only subject. In Germany, Pietism's opposition to pleasure was declining, and the reading of non-religious books was rising. Books in Germany in the late 1600s had been in Latin, but by the 1760s only a fourth of the books were. Then the most popular book aside from the Bible was Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and there was an appetite for travel books and interest in poetry. Humanism was creeping into some of German life, as was the Enlightenment's devotion to reason.

A greater respect for science and devotion to reason was on the way. Some intellectuals were opting for Deism – the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a Creator and that God does not intervene in the natural world. Appearing also among the Germans was Biblical Criticism, which fit with the Pietist tradition of interpreting the Bible without the authority of church leaders.

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