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A King’s grave and his dogs: Frederick ‘the Great’ at Sanssouci

Uniquely among the early modern kings, Frederick II – King ‘in’ Prussia until ‘of’ Prussia was finally adopted in 1772, who was already known as ‘the Great’ by an admiring Europe – does not rest in the ancestral vault of the royal house to which he belonged, nor is his tomb to be found within a mausoleum or church built to house his remains. Instead, Frederick’s grave is to be found at Sanssouci, the summer palace which he built in Potsdam, his favourite place of refuge.

Even more unusually, he is buried next to the greyhounds that he loved; for whilst the love of dogs amongst his royal contemporaries was common, Frederick’s affection for his greyhounds was so great that he explicitly wished to be buried near them. Words attributed to Frederick as spoken to the Marquis d’Argens record him having chosen the spot on the upper vineyard terrace at Sanssouci, saying that only “there” – meaning the burial vault that had been dug for him in his lifetime – would he be truly ‘free of cares’. This was the weary (but probably accurate) pronouncement of a philosopher-king and a sad pun on the French name of his beloved palace.

Frederick withdrew here to be with his books, his music, his intimate friends and his Italian greyhounds – and now, it is as if he has retired here, at last, surrounded in death by the dogs who had shared his palace with him. As he stated in his Testament of 1752: “I will be brought by the light of a lantern… to Sanssouci and there buried simply, at the height of the terrace...” But it would take, in fact, two hundred and five years for this wish to be honoured. So, why did it not happen when he died?

The grave of Frederick II ‘the Great’ at Sanssouci, Potsdam, since 1991 (By Hannes Grobe (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

There is a dual Frederick that has come down to posterity, for alongside the King who invaded Silesia and spent the rest of his reign trying to hold on to his prize, is one of an enlightened monarch, musician and above all a philosopher; the latter was how he referred to himself, signing his earliest surviving letter as ‘Frederic, le philosophe’, when he was Crown Prince – a letter written in the midst of the luxurious court culture of August II of Saxony’s Dresden – a court which could not have been a greater contrast to the Pietist, militaristic court of his parsimonious father, Frederick William I. As it was, Frederick’s death in 1786 merely resulted in a further set of peregrinations for his body, in a strange parallel to the King’s restless military campaigns during his lifetime. For Frederick had specifically stated that he wished for his grave to be at Sanssouci and not as one might have expected, in the ancestral ‘Hohenzollerngruft’ of Berlin Cathedral, where his mother, Queen Sophia Dorothea, had designated for her body to be placed and where his unloved wife, Queen Elisabeth Christine, also wished for herself.

Frederick II and the Marquis d’Argens inspecting the vault at Sanssouci (Johann Christoph Frisch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, Frederick chose Sanssouci, and a vault on the palace’s upper vineyard terrace, which was already occupied by some of his beloved greyhounds. Frederick’s love for his dogs was significant. A dog features in the early portrait by the court painter Antoine Pesne, of the boy Frederick and his elder sister Wilhelmine in around 1714; but as an old man, Frederick’s love for his dogs became even more pronounced. This was for many reasons; Frederick had prematurely aged as a result of the campaigns that he relentlessly pursued (“my teeth are falling out”) and bore the deep impressions of the failures he had sustained during the Seven Years’ War. By this point, many of his closest friends were dead. Increasingly misanthropic and afflicted by gout, he gorged on the sad concomitant to isolation – loneliness, surrounded by his dreams and – his dogs.

Like Louis XIV’s chefs, who produced special biscuits for the royal sporting dogs, the palace kitchens at Sanssouci prepared food especially for Frederick’s greyhounds. It is probable that the philosopher in Frederick was fascinated by his canine ‘family’ – for these animals offered unequivocal fealty and also occupied a world wholly outside of human reasoning. A greyhound features in one of the celebrated paintings by Adolf Menzel, called ‘Die Tafelrunde in Sanssouci’, a retrospective painting made in 1850, showing an intellectual gathering in the Marmorsaal at Sanssouci, which vanished in 1945. Whilst the dog is painted into the imaginary scene, its being included in these homosocial gatherings, with all the polish of French conversation and philosophical discussion, is important. Frederick’s dogs were royal and as such, were fellow honoured guests, part of the King’s intimate, inner circle – and mingling at the same table as Voltaire.

With the possible exception of Frederick’s favourite horse Conde, on whom the King is depicted riding in the famous equestrian statue in Berlin’s Unter den Linden, the dogs reigned supreme in Frederick’s affections. Frederick preferred elegant Italian greyhounds, closely corresponding to modern whippets, going to great lengths to commission them to be sent to him, especially from England. The dogs are well depicted in the 1942 propaganda film, ‘Der Große König’ – starring the acclaimed German theatre and film actor, Otto Gebühr as Frederick – shadowing him into the circular cedar wood Library at Sanssouci, where the philosopher-king could withdraw into what was for him, the most private of spaces, and insulate himself within a literary world in French translation, or Voltaire’s works in the original.

Frederick was particularly close to his elder sister, Wilhelmine, who had herself been forced into a marriage of their father’s choosing, with the young Margrave of Bayreuth, and had her own experiences of a shared, traumatic childhood. Frederick and Wilhelmine both loved their dogs; Wilhelmine’s beloved dwarf spaniel Folichon features in several portraits of her and also in the ceiling painting of her Music Room. In May 1748, she and Frederick exchanged the so-called ‘Dog-Letters’, whereby both pretended to be their respective dogs, in correspondence. The letters reflect the philosophical interest of both siblings, with sharp observations on humankind. Frederick wrote to Wilhelmine’s dog, pretending to be his favourite dog Biche:Only because my master doesn’t walk on all fours, does he not call himself a greyhound…” 

The graves of three of Frederick’s eleven dogs, at the Palace of Sanssouci (By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Biche followed Frederick even on his military campaigns. Biche was painted by the court painter Antoine Pesne, with a collar bearing the King’s name. Biche was given to Frederick by his friend, Count Rothenburg, and she is said to be the dog in the lap of the goddess Diana, in the painting in the Music Room at Sanssouci – a distinct honour. In his later years, the favourite dog of the moment was given its own servant, was allowed under the royal table, to chase leather balls in the exquisite rooms and even allowed to share the sofa and Frederick’s unkempt camp bed at Sanssouci. The King would feed his dogs titbits himself in his Study and Bed Chamber – probably they were the nearest that he ever had to children.

Johann Gottfried Schadow sculpted Frederick in 1822, long after his death, showing the King accompanied by two of his greyhounds, Hasenfuss and Alcmene. Biche is said to have been among the booty captured by the Austrians as a result of the Battle of Soor of the Second Silesian War in 1745; Frederick is reputed to have wept when she was eventually returned to him. When Biche died “in the Music Room” at Sanssouci in 1752, Frederick was distraught: “I was ashamed that the death of a dog struck me so deeply…” Biche featured in a poem written down much later, by Theodor Fontane. Similarly, when one of his favoured dogs was sick, Frederick had a courier sent from Sanssouci each day to report its progress to him, whilst he was away at military reviews in Silesia. When he returned to Potsdam and found that the dog had died, Frederick was heartbroken and shut himself up for the rest of the day, crying for it “like a child” (Tim Blanning, Frederick the Great, Pg 452, 2015).

It is possible to know the names of these eleven favourite royal dogs because the gravestones of the greyhounds that were interred here were cleaned and conserved in 2005; amongst them are such Classical and literary names as “Phillis”, “Diana”, “Thisbe”, “Hasenfuss”, “Alcmene” and of course, “Biche. Notably, perhaps, most of his greyhounds were females – and importantly for Frederick, the dogs’ servant was instructed to respectfully address each by the formal “Sie” as opposed to the familiar “Du”. When Alcmene died, she was allowed the extraordinary honour of sharing the King’s vault, something not accorded to the other ten greyhounds, who simply were buried alongside (J. C. Freier, Leben und Charakter Friedrichs II, Königs von Preussen, Pg 89, 1795).  

Frederick’s Study and Bed Chamber at Sanssouci (Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg: Portikus. Heft 1, 2008, S. 14, via Suse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Frederick died in his chair – still preserved at Sanssouci – in his Study-cum-Bedchamber, in the company of his greyhound Superbe, on 17 August 1786. However, this was for Frederick the philosopher, far from the end. An engraving of the dying Frederick on the terrace at Sanssouci surrounded by two frisking Italian greyhounds, by the artist Daniel Chodowiecki, later became iconic in its own right.

Frederick’s coffin was taken, against his specific instructions, to rest in the Garnisonkirche (‘Garrison Church’) at Potsdam, where it remained until 1945. For Frederick, this was to mean one hundred and fifty-nine years resting in the glare of his tyrannical father’s sarcophagus, in a shared vault under the pulpit. The resting place of Frederick William I, Prussia’s ‘Soldier King’ and his great son, Frederick, meant that this architecturally and historically important church – built by the architect Philipp Gerlach on the orders of Frederick William I – became a much-visited attraction. It became the place of an act of allegiance, when Frederick William III and the legendary Queen Luise of Prussia, visited the tomb of Frederic ‘the Great’ with the Russian Tsar Alexander I, to symbolically cement their alliance against Napolean Bonaparte.

When Potsdam was heavily bombed during the Second World War, the coffins of Frederick ‘the Great’ and Frederick William I were removed from the Garnisonkirche, to safeguard them from war damage; as a result of the air raid on Potsdam on 14 April 1945, the nave of the Garnisonkirche and its steeple were destroyed by fire. The coffins were later discovered in a potassium mine near Bernterode (Breitenworbis) in Thuringia and taken by American soldiers to the Elisabethkirche in Marburg, where they remained until 1952. They were moved again in that year, to Burg Hohenzollern near Hechingen, the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollerns, where they were placed in the Castle’s Christuskapelle, until German reunification. Only then could the coffins of the two kings be placed on a special train and transported to the station at Hechingen, thence by rail to Potsdam – a return which had taken forty-six years to be realised. For Frederick, it was the end of a war odyssey by which his father had followed him even after death, as the memory of him had haunted him in life. Finally, at last, they were to be separated.

The coffin of Frederick William I was taken to Sanssouci, but placed in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Mausoleum, next to the Friedenskirche in the Palace Park. This is a resting place which the ‘Soldier King’ shares with Kaiser Friedrich III (the ‘ninety-nine day Emperor’) and his English-born wife, Empress Frederick – the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – as well as their sons, Prince Sigismund of Prussia and Prince Waldemar of Prussia, who died prematurely.

The ‘Kings’ Vault’ in the Garnisonkirche, Potsdam (Bundesarchiv, Bild 170-135 / Max Baur / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Christuskapelle at the Burg Hohenzollern near Hechingen, resting place of the coffins of Frederick William I and Frederick ‘the Great’ 1952-1991, (qwesy qwesy [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Frederick was finally interred on 17 August 1991, on the upper vineyard terrace at Sanssouci as he had wished; although even in death, his last will was gainsaid, for reasons which could not be avoided because of Frederick’s sheer historical dimension. The philosopher-king, who had expressly stated that he wanted to be buried “without pomp, without splendour and the slightest ceremony”, was given a burial in the full gaze of the world’s public, attended by a full Guard of Honour of the German Armed Forces. The ceremony before the interment took place in the cour d’honneur at Sanssouci, on the 205th anniversary of the King’s death; in a parallel perhaps to when Frederick’s body lay in state in the Stadtschloss at Potsdam, after his death in 1786.

It was certainly not the quiet burial by night “by the light of a lantern” as he had wished, but nor could it be, as it had taken over two centuries not just to bury the King as he had wanted to, but also to bring him back to Potsdam, where his body began its restless journey in 1945. Today, the Stiftung Preussische Schlösser und Gärten (Foundation of Prussian Palaces and Gardens) conducts a short ceremony on Frederick’s birthday, 24 January – although Frederick himself never celebrated the day.

On the 300th anniversary of Frederick’s birth, which was marked by widespread commemorative events throughout Berlin, Potsdam and Germany, a wreath-laying ceremony took place on the morning of 24 January 2012; also present was the current head of the House of Hohenzollern, Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia, who laid a white cross on the grave of Frederick, a traditional family custom. It was his grandfather, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was approached as the then Head of the House of Hohenzollern, by the former culture minister of the GDR, Hans Bentzien, who formally put before the Prince the request to return the coffins of the two Kings. Prince Louis Ferdinand welcomed the suggestion but added that he would only consent to this taking place within a reunified Germany. Prince Louis Ferdinand witnessed the fall of the Wall on his eighty-second birthday; Louis Ferdinand composed a funeral march for the burial of the two kings – ‘Friedericus Rex‘, in 1991. Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia said during his speech in the Festakt in the Berliner Konzerthaus on the Gendarmenmarkt on 24 January 2012: “For my family, it was extremely unusual, to carry to the grave a family member from the eighteenth century, with two hundred and five years delay…”

Let Frederick’s own words serve as his most effective epitaph: “I have lived as a philosopher and want to be buried as such…” And so he was – next to his dogs.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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