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A King’s last journey

Frederick II, accorded the epithet ‘the Great’ already during his own lifetime, had in fact, a whole other life after death, aside from his legacy. The great King’s legend stalks the eighteenth century like a gigantic historic shadow, much as the oversize silhouette of him prowls the terrace at his beloved refuge of Sanssouci, the palace he built for himself at Potsdam, as portrayed by the German actor Otto Gebühr. But Frederick was pursued in another way, too. The awesome father who had dominated his brain, Frederick William I (history’s ‘Soldier King’) followed his son to the very end – at least, until 1991. He had haunted him literally in life, featuring in at least one of Frederick’s (recorded) nightmares.

The memoirs of Frederick’s sister, Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth, tell a dreadful tale of a persecuted childhood, youth and psychological warfare in Berlin. Whilst these memoirs are almost certainly exaggerated, the truth such as we suspect it might have been, was itself bad enough and had no need of embroidery. Perhaps Wilhelmine remembered the truth through a bitter lens of retrospection. But she describes terrible scenes indeed.

Frederick’s wish, as self-styled philosophe, was to be ‘brought by the light of a lantern… to Sanssouci and there buried simply, at the height of the terrace’, as he set out in his political testament of 1752. He had caused his father’s body to be laid in state, according to royal protocol. He desired differently for himself: ‘I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as one – without pomp, without splendour and without ceremony…’ A popular anecdote had Frederick in conversation on the terrace with the Marquis d’Argens, suggesting as he pointed to the burial vault under construction there, that only there would he truly be ‘sans souci’ [free of care]. Frederick died in his chair at Sanssouci at 2.20 a.m on 17 August 1786. The chair survives.

His unloved and neglected wife, Queen Elisabeth Christine, was buried in the Hohenzollern vault in Berlin Cathedral, accorded in death the true respect due to her status, something she only really achieved in life after the death of the husband she had revered and loved, despite her humiliation.

His body however, then took on a whole life of its own. Frederick’s body was laid in state and then placed beneath the pulpit in the ‘King’s Vault’ or crypt of the Garnisonkirche [Garrison Church] in Potsdam, opposite that of his father. Even in death, the shadow of his father followed him figuratively. Incredibly, as circumstances dictated, it would not let him go until the twentieth century.

Queen Victoria visited Sanssouci in 1858 and thought the terraces ‘lovely’, although she found the palace itself ‘very low dark damp and cheerless’. She added, however: ‘the flat grave stones of Frederick the Great’s dogs, are very interesting with their inscriptions & all the names engraved. It is said that he wished himself to be buried there’. (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 157). Queen Victoria of course, would later place numerous memorials to her beloved dogs.

The coffins remained there until the Second World War, when they were removed to safeguard them from bomb damage. The Garnisonkirche in Potsdam suffered heavy damage on 14 April 1945. The coffins of Frederick and his father, Frederick William I, were put in a potassium mine in Thuringia at Bernterode and taken to the Elisabethkirche in Marburg by American soldiers, where they stayed until 1952. Finally, they were moved to Burg Hohenzollern near Hechingen, the ancient seat of the Hohenzollern dynasty and placed in the Christuskapelle where they remained until German Reunification.

At Reunification, the coffins were put on a special train bound for Potsdam. For Frederick’s body, it was the end of a journey of a lifetime after death. The coffin of his father Frederick William I, was also taken to Sanssouci but finally separated from that of Frederick. It now rests in the Mausoleum of Emperor Frederick III and Empress Frederick, near to the Friedenskirche [Church of Peace] in Park Sanssouci, Potsdam.

Finally, Frederick’s coffin was interred on the terrace at Sanssouci, according to his political will. It took place on the 205th anniversary of Frederick’s death, approved by the then head of the House of Hohenzollern, Prince Louis Ferdinand.

For the aged King, isolated through misanthropy, illness and loneliness, feeding his beloved whippets titbits, it was not however, a burial ‘without pomp, without splendour and without ceremony…’ Nor could it be, in the full gaze of the world’s media. The coffin rested under a black and silver baldachin in Sanssouci’s cour d’honneur, watched over by a Guard of Honour of the German armed forces.

The King’s final journey, begun in 1786, finally found its end in our own lifetime, 1991.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.