Notes on German Culture

A German Duke of Saxony simultaneously also ruled as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania

“August der Starke” (Augustus the Strong) was an unusual man, not only because of his fabled strength, but most interesting to me is that he was a German Duke of Saxony who simultaneously also ruled as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. He inherited his German dukedom by birthright, but his rule over Poland/Lithuania was not inherited nor the result of warfare. At the age of 24 he convinced the Poles that he would be a great leader and thus ruled as their King for 33 years, starting in 1694, and upon his death his son Augustus III succeeded him in all three positions.

The highlights are that he was physically imposing…bending horseshoes with his bare hands, for example…and very ambitious. He strove to make Poland a hereditary Kingdom for his family and lived life to the fullest, leaving behind beautiful architecture and art in the cities of Dresden in Germany and Warsaw in Poland.

It was also Augustus who sponsored efforts to discover the secret of manufacturing porcelain… a world famous process that has continued ever since at the porcelain factory in Meissen, Germany.

Frederick Augustus I started out as the Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. He kept this title and duties but after 3 years in office also managed to become King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania (as Augustus II). He reigned for 9 years until his army and that of his Russian ally Tsar Peter the Great were defeated in 1706 by Charles XII of Sweden. After 3 years of Poland and Lithuania under Swedish rule, Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great, who had reformed his army, dealt a crippling defeat to the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava. This historic event spelled the end of the Swedish Empire and the rise of the Russian Empire. With the help of his Russian ally, Augustus returned to the Polish throne in 1709 for an additional 24 years.

Although he had tried and failed to make the Polish throne hereditary, his eldest son, Frederick Augustus II did succeed him to the Polish throne as Augustus III of Poland and Lithuania.

As Elector of Saxony, Augustus is perhaps best remembered as a patron of the arts and architecture. He established the Saxon capital of Dresden as a major cultural center, attracting artists from across Europe to his court. He introduced the first public museums, such as the Green Vault in 1723, and started systematic collection of paintings that are now on display in the Old Masters Gallery. Augustus built lavish baroque palaces and magnificent baroque buildings in and around Dresden that still bear witness to this period. Dresden’s Zwinger Palace is famous around the world for its beautiful baroque architecture. It was built in 1709 and contains remarkable sculptures adorning the gallery walls that help make this one of the main attractions in Saxony’s regional capital even today.

In Poland he led the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Great Northern War and achieved internal reforms that led to an enlightenment in Poland. In November 1705 August founded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s first and preeminent order of chivalry. He also built lavish baroque palaces in Warsaw, where the Saxon Garden (Polish: Ogród Saski) commemorates the role of August II in expanding the city’s public places.

There is also the origin of the famous Meissen porcelain. Augustus sponsored efforts to discover the secret of manufacturing porcelain. He was pursuing this goal In 1701 when he encountered the young alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger, who had fled from the court of the King Frederick I of Prussia when he failed to produce gold as he boasted he could. Böttger was imprisoned in Saxony by Augustus who gave him a way to save himself: find a way to produce an equivalent to gold…porcelain. In time Böttger was able to produce porcelain. His approach was to bake clay at higher temperatures than had ever before been attained in European kilns. That approach yielded the breakthrough that had eluded European potters for a century. The manufacture of world famous fine porcelain has continued ever since at the porcelain factory in Meissen.

August II’s body was interred in Poland…all but his heart, which rests in Germany at Dresden’s Katholische Hofkirche.

German postage stamp featuring Augustus der Starke

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