It’s true. Potatoes have a king, and he’s German. Frederick II of Prussia or Frederick the Great as he is better known, is affectionately remembered as Der Kartoffelkönig, the Potato King, in Germany. Sanssouci was his beloved summer palace and it is where he came when the affairs of state became too much and he needed peace and quiet. He’s buried on the terrace in front of Sanssouci Palace, next to his much loved greyhounds, overlooking Potsdam.
The man who would make Prussia a European power was as famous for his mastery of military tactics and crushing military victories, particularly over Austria, as he was for embracing the principles of the Enlightenment and patronage of artists, musicians and philosophers. At the same time as he aggressively expanded his territorial possessions through warfare, he was renowned as the embodiment of ‘enlightened absolutism’. He would reform the judicial system, enforce religious tolerance, and liberalise Prussia’s education system.
Sanssouci became the playground of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. Voltaire would briefly call it home and corresponded with the King for many years. Frederick was also passionate about farming, he transformed vast areas of Prussian wilderness into farm land, draining swamps and building canals, and he introduced new crops, including the turnip and the potato. England’s Viscount Townsend was already known as ‘Turnip Townsend’, so Frederick presumably had to settle for the title, ‘Potato King’.
Modern day visitors to Sanssouci honour his agricultural achievements by adorning his grave with the tuber with which he is most associated. On a frozen winter morning, the frost still clinging to the ground under a faint sun, we ascended the many steps of the stone staircase through multiple terraces to the Palace of Sanssouci. In summer, vines cover the terraces, but in winter they are bare. Sanssouci itself is an expression of pure joy that befits the meaning of its name: without a care.
The former royal estate that began life with Frederick’s modest summer retreat, was expanded over the centuries by his descendants until it contained over 150 buildings and covered 1,200 acres. The grandest and most imposing of all the many wonders of Sanssouci is the massive pink wedding cake of a building, the Neues Palais, which you can reach on a stroll down the wooded central avenue. The whole park is justifiably an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I spent a large part of my young life studying 18th and 19th century European history, and Frederick the Great featured heavily in my education. Prussia’s philosopher king was a legendary figure, his shadow cast across nearly 300 years of German history. It was reassuring to discover that a man who spent most of his reign engaged in bloody wars, which he often started, was somehow relatable as a person through the intimate palace where he preferred to spend his time.
History though is a strange thing. Although Frederick was highly regarded for more than a century after his death – Napoleon visited his grave to pay his respects – his reputation was tarnished during the second half of the 20th century because he was embraced by the Nazis. Hitler is said to have had a picture of Frederick with him in the bunker as the Russian’s closed in. This is bitterly ironic given that Frederick was almost certainly homosexual, and would have ended his life in an extermination camp under the Nazis.
It’s easy to see why Frederick loved Sanssouci, so much so in fact that he left orders to be buried on the terrace. This was ignored by his successor, Frederick William II, who buried him in Potsdam’s Garrison Church. Towards the end of the Second World War the Nazis transferred his remains to Marburg, where the US Army captured Germany’s greatest military leader in 1946. Sadly for Frederick, the Russian’s controlled Potsdam, so his burial wishes would only be carried out in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall.