Why they Put Potatoes on Frederick the Great’s Grave

You might wonder, “Why have all these people been putting potatoes on top of Frederick the Great’s grave?”

That’s an excellent question. Before we get to the whole potato-grave thing (presumably why you came to Potsdam), we ought to talk a bit about Prussia first.

Pop quiz: What is the only state in the history of the world to be abolished by the United Nations?

You’re very good. Yes, indeed. It is Prussia.

For most of its history Germany was a compendium of several German-speaking countries which continually swapped territory and wars between their kings and dukes. As far back as Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th Century the French recognized that if the German-speaking folks to their east ever quit squabbling and got their act together, France would have an even bigger problem on its hands than the pesky British. Which is exactly what happened.

That stage was set in large part by Frederick Wilhelm, the Soldier King. He loved military parades and drills, and even tried to breed his own special regiment of tall soldiers called the Potsdam Giants (which also sounds like a terrific baseball team). He was so enthusiastic about breeding his own regiment of super-tall Europeans that he indicated to talent scouts that he was okay with kidnapping reluctant but tall men. When he was ill or particularly depressed he would order a couple hundred servicemen to parade through his bedroom until he felt better. By the time of his death one of every nine Prussian men were in the army, not including 40,000 mercenaries.

In addition to a militaristic bent, Frederick Wilhelm also aimed to inject a decent work ethic into Prussia. He used to wander around Berlin with a cane beating people he thought were acting lazy. He would deliver his rallying cry, “Prussia needs you– now!” along with a sharp whack to the head. Then lecture the aggrieved about how they ought to be knitting, or that young men should be marching or taking guns apart and putting them back together instead of sitting around playing cards. If a minister spent more than an hour preaching on Sunday it was considered excessive and the preacher was fined. On one occasion a peasant saw him and ran the opposite direction, so Frederick Wilhelm chased him down and asked why he had run away. When the man replied he was afraid of the king, Frederick Wilhelm shouted “You should love me!” and proceeded to beat him senseless with a cane.

On top of his belief that the whole of Prussia should be in a constant state of workaholism, Frederick Wilhelm was immensely frugal to the point of selling the royal yacht and firing all of his court musicians. Sometimes, if he thought a woman was dressed too extravagantly on the street, he would rip off her clothing. For kicks he wrote a manual for literally every single civil servant in Prussia, detailing what their exact duties were. Fun guy.

He was also a terrific dad. While “the soldier king” never actually declared war on anyone (far too expensive), he wanted Prussia to be in a constant state of ready-to-fight. And so he groomed his son, Frederick, to grow up as a great military strategist.

This was slightly problematic as his son Frederick ideally wanted to be a flutist. Not even a trombone player. A flutist. So Frederick Wilhelm forbade the prince from flute playing, and subjected him to a rigorous military upbringing. Not only did Frederick continue clandestinely fluting (the most rebellious thing teenagers could do prior to the invention of cocaine) he also convinced his tutors to get him a secret library of poetry and Greek and Roman classics, which his father objected to on the grounds that they were neither military strategy nor math.

A good military upbringing is what King Frederick Wilhelm had in mind. Each day young Prince Frederick was awoken by the sound of a cannon going off outside of his window. At the age of six the king gave him his own regiment of children to drill and order around.

Strangely enough Prince Frederick didn’t particularly like his father’s parenting methods, and decided at the age of eighteen to the flee the country to England, which by Prussian standards was nearly fun-loving and carefree in its attitudes. So he and his best friend escaped from Berlin, were quickly caught, and then brought back to the enraged King Frederick Wilhelm. The king debated executing young Frederick on grounds of treason, or at least disowning him, but ultimately settled for the lesser punishment of forcing his son to watch his accomplice be decapitated in front of him.

Frederick’s staunch upbringing seems to have actually paid off, because he ended up becoming a gifted tactician and strategist. (He personally lead his armies and had not one but six horses shot out from underneath him.) Utilizing the frugal and battle-ready army his father had developed, Frederick proceeded to so effectively wage war and expand his territory that Prussia went from being the Vermont of Europe to a fearsome Great Power. A few years later Otto von Bismarck would be able to dominate the other German kingdoms beneath the rule of Prussia, uniting them all under the kaiser in Berlin. Hence, the grand strategist and premier flutist would come to be known as Frederick the Great.

Ah, right. The potatoes.

Okay, so Potsdam is basically the Windsor of Germany. It’s just outside of Berlin, and became a romping ground for the royal family. Hence it’s covered with palaces, including two which Frederick the Great had constructed for himself. Following World War II the Allies were going to meet up in Berlin to discuss the partition of Germany, but upon arriving discovered that they had already reduced it to a pile of rubble and so instead went to nearby Potsdam, which was hardly bombed and full of palaces.

One, Schloss Sanssouci, was Frederick’s Summer Palace and ultimately the site of his burial. Frederick had never been particularly fond of his wife, and so instead elected to be buried alongside his trusty greyhounds, which he usually named after the King of France’s mistresses in order to anger the man.

Among his many accomplishments Frederick the Great also happened to introduce potatoes to Germany. He thought they were a great idea, and made a big production out of eating potatoes and smacking his lips enthusiastically at state dinners. Sometimes, when not fighting Austrians, he would visit towns and pass out potatoes. His endorsement worked, and potatoes became a staple crop in the nation.

So that’s why people put potatoes on top of his grave.

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  • November 26, 2011 - 1:19 am | Permalink

    Haha, sohudln’t you be charging for that kind of knowledge?!

  • Chris
    December 6, 2011 - 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Well, actually there is more to it I believe. Perhaps my sources are not reliable, but Frederick apparently had his armies watching the potato fields he had planted around Berlin to trick the peasants into thinking these potatoes were really worth something. I’ve also heard that because Prussian towns had transitioned many of their fields to the potato, it was more difficult for the invading French to ruin their crops, either because the French didn’t yet care for this potato or didn’t know it was a valuable crop nutritiously, or because it’s difficult to damage a potato yield by fire or hacking, since the actual nutrition is underground.

  • Heaton
    December 6, 2011 - 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Chris! I appreciate the informative comment.

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  • Nick
    December 10, 2016 - 12:58 am | Permalink

    So, I grew up and went to school in Berlin. One addinal thing we were taught in school was that the reason that the soldiers had to initially guard the potato fields, was that Germans were incensed and suspicious they should be asked to eat these foreign tubers as a staple – and they would try to ruin the fields. Previously, staples of the German diet had come from grain. Imagine – enmity towards the potato by Germans!