Book review: Frederick the Great: King of Prussia

Frederick the Great is judged by many historians to have been an enlightened despot. Geoffrey Roberts on an  impressive, comprehensive new biography by Tim Blanning.

Book review: Frederick the Great: King of Prussia

Tim Blanning

Allen Lane €47.40; ebook, €19.99I

N the ‘great man’ pantheon of European history Frederick the Great stands alongside Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill.

Indeed, Thomas Carlyle had in mind Frederick and Napoleon when he famously declared the history of the world to be “but the biography of great men”.

Frederick II, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, raised Prussia to the status of a great European power.

Through war, diplomacy and domestic reforms he created the core of an Imperial Germany that was to emerge a century later.

In wars that pitted Prussia against France, Russia, Sweden and Austria, Frederick won renown as a battlefield tactician and military strategist.

As a legend in his own lifetime Frederick was labelled “the Great” by his contemporaries and bred a cult of his personality that lasted for more than a century.

When Napoleon invaded Prussia in 1806 and captured Berlin 20 years after Frederick’s death, the Emperor went on a pilgrimage to Frederick’s tomb in Potsdam, saying that he would not have been there if Frederick were still alive.

Less than a decade later, Prussian troops tipped the balance leading to Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

The 19th century Germany military theorist von Clausewitz, revered both Frederick and Napoleon as exemplary practitioners of warfare while Carlyle’s contribution to this hero-worship was an exhaustive six-volume biography.

In the 20th century, Frederick’s image as a warrior-king was used by Hitler and the Nazis to embed their aggressive nationalism.

In response liberals criticised Frederick’s militarism, his unnecessary and bloody wars, and his forced divisions of other peoples’ territories, most notably during the partition of Poland in 1772.

Yet, in contrast to the German nationalist view, Frederick is judged by many historians to have been an enlightened despot who espoused liberal and humanist values and whose regime prefigured the democratic and secular societies of our own age.

He was also a philosopher-king, a latter-day renaissance man who believed princes were duty-bound to implement the rational teachings of philosophers.

And central to Frederick’s own political philosophy was that the rule of law must apply to the sovereign as well as to citizens.

While he was the king of a pious Protestant country, he did not believe in Christian doctrine.

He nevertheless favoured religious toleration, including of Catholics and gave refuge to the Jesuits when their order was dissolved by Pope Clement XIV in 1773.

Frederick also granted political asylum to Voltaire and other persecuted luminaries of the European Enlightenment. He was less tolerant towards Jews but even they prospered in his Prussia. So, apart from Great Britain, Frederick’s Prussia was regarded as the most liberal society in all of 18th century Europe.

Frederick was a multi-linguist but detested his native language and had little time for such German national icons as the poet Goethe. But nor did he appreciate Shakespeare, preferring instead the classics of French literature and philosophy.

As an active poet, a musician and a patron of the arts, he built the Berlin Opera House and amassed a huge collection of paintings and sculptures. It was during Frederick’s reign that art and high culture became a new, secular religion in Europe.

In recent years interest in Frederick’s colourful private life has come to the fore. He was a camp king, who revelled in homo-erotica, surrounded himself with homosexuals and may even have been a practising homosexual, notwithstanding his arranged marriage to a German princess.

Not surprisingly, Frederick’s life and career has generated a vast literature. His own collected writings fill 30 volumes while his voluminous correspondence fills another 50.

Much of his writing chronicled the prosecution of his military campaigns because, as Winston Churchill later proved, Frederick believed history would judge his actions to be both right and just because he was the one writing it!

In the 21st century, the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2012 saw a further revival of interest in Frederick, especially in Germany where the lessons of past German leadership in Europe are a highly topical subject of discussion.

Tim Blanning’s contribution to this literature is a grand synthesis of research and writing on Frederick that probes each and every aspect his life and reign — military, political, cultural, economic and, above all, personal. The book is long — more than 600 pages of text with maps and illustrations — but is as accessible as it is erudite. Blanning was Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and was for many years associated with University College Cork as an external examiner. His expertise is the history of 18th century Europe and this book is the culmination of a lifetime of scholarship.

The first half is devoted mainly to Frederick’s childhood and early life and to the various military campaigns he undertook after becoming King in 1740.

Frederick’s father — Frederick William — was a brutal parent who, writes Blanning, “never praised his son, never showed him any affection and treated him worse than he did his court buffoons.”

At 18 Frederick ran away with a military friend but was caught and imprisoned while his companion was beheaded. Thereafter Frederick buckled down to his father’s authority but kept his own counsel and nurtured his own identity as an intellectual and aesthete. When he ascended the throne, Frederick rebelled against his father’s austere regime but benefitted greatly from the strong military foundations of his inheritance.

When I worked with Tim in the 1990s, what impressed me most was the careful judgement he brought to bear as an external examiner. That same measured quality shines through in this work as he navigates the myriad of issues associated with Frederick. Blanning is neither a debunker nor a mythologist of Frederick.

After a detailed treatment of his wars and campaigns, Blanning’s verdict on Frederick’s best-known claim to fame, his military success, is that he was an “indifferent general but a brilliant warlord” because of the clarity and persistence with which pursued his goals.

Frederick was in many ways a great humanitarian — one of his first acts as King was to abolish torture — but abominable in his treatment of family members. He had no children and his elder brother August Wilhelm was heir-apparent. A younger brother, Henry, played an important role in Frederick’s military campaigns.

As Blanning notes, Frederick was not violent towards his male siblings (he treated his sisters more kindly) but inclined to humiliate them publicly — driving poor August to an early death, or so it was said. It was “a classic case of a victim of bullying being turned into a bully himself”.

Frederick supported free speech and shrugged off personal criticism but could be imperious towards dissenting journalists. One such victim was an editor in Cologne who published a newspaper supporting Austria against Prussia.

Frederick paid someone to beat him up. But such roughhouse politics was not uncommon at the time. Frederick was popular with his troops because he shared their hardships and was liked by the people because he paid attention to their concerns.

But while Frederick played up his image as a man of the people he was also careful to protect the interests of the Prussian nobles whose sons were the bedrock of his army.

According to Blanning, Frederick was an outstanding but autocratic ruler with micro-management tendencies.

“The compulsive wish to keep secrets and to monopolise decision-making probably had its roots in his childhood experiences. Forced to keep his true self concealed from his fearsome father, he created for himself an iron mask which he took off only among his circle in time.”

One consequence of such personalised rule was that Frederick did not prepare the succession and Frederick William II — August’s son — squandered much of his legacy and reversed many of his liberal reforms.

On the vexed question of Frederick’s homosexuality, Blanning argues that he was homosexual but the jury remains out on whether he had sex with other men. More importantly, his campness was “about a lot more than sex or impudence, it is also about a special kind of milieu involving flamboyant decoration, consumption and self-indulgence.”

Tim Blanning’s book is a suitably rich and engaging testimony to the enduring fascination we have with complexities of Europe’s philosopher-king.

Geoffrey Roberts is Professor of History at University College Cork.

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