POTSDAM, Germany (Reuters) - Portraits of Frederick the Great line the streets, bookshops are bursting with new biographies, talk shows debate his legacy and toymaker Steiff has made a limited edition teddy bear of the Prussian ruler in his blue uniform coat and tricorn hat.
Germans gearing up for a year of celebrations to mark Frederick’s 300th birthday are showing a new, relaxed pride in the much-disputed figure and in Prussia itself, long considered a byword for the militarism glorified by the Nazis.
Between 1740 and 1786, Frederick the Great transformed Prussia from a small, barren territory into a mighty European power by waging wars with a well-trained, disciplined army.
He also abolished torture and promoted religious tolerance and education, and the arts and sciences flourished under his rule.
A revised view of such a pivotal historical figure, coming as modern German politicians are pushing their diplomatic and economic agenda in Europe, is an important step for a country still in the process of defining what its international role should be in the 21st century.
“When I think of Frederick the Great and Prussia I think of culture as well as of war. That is something to be proud of,” said Hans Bierdke, a 26-year-old student in Potsdam.
“I think we have moved on from being embarrassed by him.”
Frederick has been used to suit a series of different agendas over the decades, from Adolf Hitler as an inspiration for military expansion to the Allies after World War Two as a way of stamping out German nationalism.
But these days Germans have started to view him in a more nuanced way, lauding his military prowess and tolerant rule while criticizing his ruthlessness in war and character flaws.
Berlin and Potsdam, the residence of Prussian kings, plan some 150 exhibitions, concerts, films and seminars this year. And German politicians are happy to invoke, and even praise, him.
President Christian Wulff spoke of Frederick’s “tolerant immigration policy” on Tuesday in his anniversary speech, saying Prussia welcomed Hugenots, Catholics and Muslims alike.
“Even if this openness was driven by economics, it was inextricably linked to the most valuable sentence from his young years: ‘Let every man seek heaven in his own fashion’,” Wulff said, quoting one of Frederick’s best-known lines.
Germany is not the only one in Europe seeking to evoke a historical figure for its own ends these days.
In France, political parties are competing to claim the legacy of Joan of Arc, whose 600th birthday is also this year.
The French National Front, which has long used Joan as their own symbol, has attacked President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party for trying to co-opt her before this year’s election.
“What is new about this anniversary is that for the first time no-one need be afraid of it - either here or abroad,” said Tillmann Bendikowski, author of a new biography on the ruler.
“Frederick is no longer a political figure and he has no link to German nationalism,” he told Reuters.
The Nazis manipulated the image of Frederick most, say historians, embracing his military prowess and turning him into a national hero.
His legacy of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat inspired them, and Hitler is even said to have talked to a portrait of Frederick in his Berlin bunker in the last weeks of the war.
Ironically, it was Prussian aristocrats who led the 1944 plot to kill Hitler, an Austrian by birth.
And although the Prussia established by Frederick laid the foundations for German unification in 1871, the “German-ness” of the king is actually a matter of some dispute.
He spoke French as his main language and is more associated with the Enlightenment of France than with German Romanticism.
“He was not German but Prussian. He used the word Vaterland but meant Prussia,” historian Johannes Kunisch told Reuters.
“Bavarians and Rhinelanders don’t have the same affinity to him as people in the area that was Prussia (focused on the lands around Berlin),” he said, but added that this year’s birthday was being celebrated across Germany.
The backlash to the Nazis’ glorification was harsh. After the war, Prussia became associated with the blind discipline that led to Hitler’s rise and Frederick was vilified.
When the Allies dissolved Prussia in 1947, they described it as a “bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany.” In Communist East Germany, Frederick was also reviled.
“In school, Frederick was a very negative figure, “ said Sabine Gombert, a Potsdam bookshop assistant in her 50s.
“You visited his palace to see an example of decadence. It’s totally different now. People love the palace and have warmed to him. We’re relaxed about being interested in him.”
The last time there was this much fanfare over Frederick was in 1991 when his coffin was transferred to Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace, with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, army officers and foreign dignitaries in attendance.
“At this time there was a widespread fear of a revival of Prussian ambition,” said Thomas Weissbrich, co-curator of an exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin entitled “Frederick the Great, Honored, Transfigured, Damned.”
“It was looked at critically both internally and by some of our neighbors, including Poland and Britain,” he told Reuters.
“But that was the end of it. Now Frederick is depoliticized.”
Dozens of museums, palaces and art works have been renovated and restored in the last two decades, helping Germans appreciate Prussia’s cultural significance.
But no matter how popular Frederick may have become, few would advise Chancellor Angela Merkel to mimic his solution to financial crises.
After the successful wars that brought Prussia to the brink of bankruptcy, Frederick called in all the silver coins, melted them down and reintroduced them with a lower silver content.
“He was Prussia’s top coin fraudster... I’m pretty sure our finance minister won’t do that,” said Bendikowski.
“There’s a limit to the lessons you can learn from history.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall