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Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) became king in 1740. He inherited a well-organized state with an efficient army, which he used to increase Prussia's power in Europe. He was a cultured man, but Frederick's real genius was for military campaigning.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) decided who should succeed the Austrian king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and so take over the Habsburg inheritance. When the emperor died in 1740, he named his daughter Maria Theresa as his heir, but Frederick invaded and annexed the Habsburg property of Silesia. Philip V of Spain and two German princes emerged as claimants to the Habsburg domains, and made an anti-Austrian alliance with France. Britain sided with Austria and attacked French and Spanish colonies overseas. After various campaigns - in the course of which Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, acceded to the Austrian and imperial throne - the war was ended with the restoration of all conquered lands except Silesia, which was retained by Prussia.

The War of Austrian Succession failed to calm the rivalry between European powers, and unresolved disputes eventually sparked off the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Frederick gained land for Prussia, invading neutral Saxony in the northeast. In 1758 the battle of Zorndorf took place between the Russians and Prussians. The Russians, who were allies of Austria, attacked troops led by Frederick. The battle was fierce and neither side won. His greatest victory was at Rosbach, when with 30,000 troops he routed a combined French and Austrian army of more than 80,000. Prussia emerged from the war a major power and Frederick adopted a peaceful policy from then on. At home, he ruled as an enlightened despot. He believed that only a monarch with absolute power could improve the people's situation. With this aim, Frederick introduced economic reforms, granted religious freedom, and abolished torture. He also introduced freedom of the press, and founded the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He set up village schools in 1763. But the peasantry remained subject to feudal restraints.

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