Frederick the Great at Peace--Not Germany


The remains of Frederick the Great were returned to his beloved Sans Souci palace Saturday for burial alongside his faithful greyhounds, fulfilling the Prussian king’s last wish 205 years late in a Germany still wrestling with the militaristic image that was his legacy.

The sarcophagi of Frederick II and his father, the “soldier king” Frederick William I (Friedrich Wilhelm), arrived in Potsdam aboard a vintage train. They were then carried by horse-drawn wagon to the castle grounds, where thousands of spectators waited in a hissing rain.

Unification of the two Germanys made the kings’ final journey possible from the ancestral castle of the Hohenzollern dynasty in the south to the rococo Sans Souci in what used to be the Communist east. But public opinion about “Old Fritz” and Prussia was anything but united on the anniversary of his death in 1786.


About 1,500 protesters, including a mock funeral party, opposed the ceremony, especially the participation of an eight-member Bundeswehr honor guard and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who interrupted his Austrian vacation “to pay my respects.”

“Today It’s Old Fritz’s Bones--In the Next War, It’s Yours,” read one protester’s banner. Others shouted slogans such as “Nazis out!” Outside the palace gates, a smiling youth handed out neo-Nazi leaflets announcing the founding of the United States of the German East in the German Reich and demanding the return of all prewar German territories.

Scuffles broke out between small numbers of demonstrators, police and counter-demonstrators, but no arrests or injuries were reported, authorities said.

Saturday’s reinterment was viewed by critics--among them many historians, clergy and liberals--as a “state funeral” for a monarch who expanded his realm through three of his era’s bloodiest wars, molding Prussia into a state that became synonymous with military might.

Adolf Hitler later appropriated the Prussian tradition for his Nazi troops. Hitler so admired Frederick the Great and his father that he ordered their remains hidden in a salt mine when Allied bombs began falling near Potsdam.

The Americans found the remains and moved them to what became West Germany, where they remained until Saturday.


By nightfall, police estimated that 80,000 people had filed past Frederick the Great’s casket, draped with the black-and-white Prussian flag beneath a black canopy in the palace courtyard. The parade of spectators ranged from shutter-bug tourists in shorts and sandals to members of military and historical societies in plumed uniforms, who lowered their sabers to the ground to honor the former king. Viewing was extended 90 minutes to accommodate the crowds.

“Militarism is not good, but what’s wrong with tradition?” asked Ilona Seiler, a 53-year-old Potsdam grandmother who came with her daughter-in-law and young grandson. “It’s a part of history. We told my grandson the king was coming back home,” she said.

“He belongs here,” said Gerd Dammhayn, a 49-year-old engineer who drove nearly three hours from Leipzig to see the spectacle. “Frederick the Great is a part of our history. It’s not a question of being ashamed of him or proud of him.”

In a small, private ceremony at the New Palace at Sans Souci, public officials also remembered Frederick the Great’s more positive contributions, such as abolishing torture and granting sanctuary to Jews, Huguenots and other religious refugees.

The comments apparently were an attempt to calm any concerns of a Prussian revival, particularly in eastern Germany, where violent gangs of neo-Nazis and skinheads are growing.

Descendants of the once-royal Hohenzollern family planned a private burial of Frederick the Great on the terrace at midnight, in accordance with his last will and testament. He had also demanded a funeral “without pomp, without ostentation and without the least ceremony.”


Frederick William I was reinterred in a royal mausoleum on the palace grounds earlier in the day.