From Prussia With Love

Review: Tim Blanning, ‘Frederick the Great’

Frederick the Great plays the flute in Sanssouci, his summer palace / Adolph von Menzel
• July 15, 2016 4:55 am


As his brutal, bullying father neared death, and Frederick—within just a few years, Frederick ‘the Great’—neared the threshold of absolute authority in the second-rate kingdom of Prussia, the well-read twenty-something wrote a book called Against Machiavelli. The prince opened by comparing the sinister Florentine to Spinoza, a corrupter of ethics just in the way that the Dutch philosopher had "drained the spirit" of religion, and announced that his book would "defend humanity against this monster who wants to destroy it."

The volume’s publication coincided with Frederick’s accession to power in 1740. In a passage quoted by Tim Blanning, the author of a new biography of the great man, Frederick took particular exception with Machiavelli’s ruthless prescriptions for warfare:

War is so full of misfortune, its outcome is so uncertain, and its consequences so ruinous for a country that sovereigns should think twice before undertaking it. … [P]rinces who wage unjust wars are more cruel and cold-blooded than any tyrant ever was. They sacrifice to their impetuous passions the well-being of an infinity of men whom they are duty-bound to protect.

Blanning then adds, dryly: "Less than three months after the publication of those fine-sounding words, Frederick invaded Silesia." There was no serious way to portray the campaign as anything other than an opportunistic land grab meant to take advantage of the death of the Habsburg emperor. (Indeed, Frederick congratulated the diplomats who contrived an elaborate historical fiction to justify it as "good charlatans.") It served as the opening of a bloody war across the continent, the War of Austrian Succession. The result, after several years of tough campaigning and devastating setbacks, was total victory. Frederick gained Silesia and his sobriquet, Prussia was set on its way to becoming very much a first-rate power, and crowned heads across Europe were now on notice that there was something new and dangerous brewing in northern Germany, and that it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.

As Voltaire, a confidant of Frederick, noted, "If Machiavelli had had a prince as a pupil, the first thing he would have recommended would have been that he write against him." Blanning finds the straightforward interpretation that Frederick wrote his book (the first of many) as a kind of philosophical head fake to be "too cynical," but the man he sketches in this rich study comes off as a ruthless, Shakespearean Prince Hal-cum-Henry V, only real, and more talented, and much, much more terrible—not in the common sense of low or immoral, but in the sense of one who rightly inspires fear.

How did this gifted, relentless human come to be? The main influence was the unspeakable cruelty of his father. Did you have trouble with dad growing up? Subjected to harsh, even abusive treatment? Well buckle in, because Frederick’s first two decades or so included scenes that make Game of Thrones at its most lurid look like a documentary. The parade of horribles culminated in Frederick’s lover, Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte, having his head chopped off in front of the prince in a prison yard on orders of dear old Vater. The official charges had to do with von Katte’s involvement in a plot to help the 19-year-old Frederick run away to England, an entirely botched affair that also resulted in the king beating his daughter unconscious, the confiscation of Frederick’s library, and the public flogging of a young woman whom Frederick had chanced to play music with during his flight—after which she was sentenced to life in prison.

But the heart of the problem was that von Katte, along with every other association or proclivity maintained by the young Frederick, offered his father evidence of the prince’s effeminacy, his tendency toward "sodomy," and thus his unsuitability for manliness and rule. The king, Frederick William, liked hunting and God, despised "culture" and the arts, took a rather conventional approach to sex, and dedicated his life to a regime of harsh military discipline. His despised young son took rather the opposite line across the board. Years of Frederick’s youth were thus spent in military training he loathed, and long before he turned to open rebellion the prince developed a sophisticated talent for irony and deception, with which to placate the masters appointed by his father while nurturing his own intellectual curiosities and homosexual pursuits—this last a long controversial conclusion in Frederick scholarship, but one for which Blanning presents a largely circumstantial case that permits no easy refutation.

The execution of von Katte proved to be a turning point. This was a good thing for Frederick, as it is unlikely he would have survived to take the throne had he not literally kissed his father’s feet as an act of ritual humiliation and married a woman of Frederick William’s choosing—a wife whom, after his father’s death, Frederick installed in a separate palace and spent the rest of his life ignoring. (Needless to say he died childless.) But if his father’s tyranny would never change his sexual proclivities, one thing that did shift was Frederick’s attitude toward military life. Given a regiment to command, he soon received deserved praise for his troops’ efficiency. During his own reign, he would of course establish the reputation of Prussian arms—indeed, the excellence of the Prussian infantry got Frederick out of any number of tactical bungles caused early on by his inexperience in battle.

A famously harsh commander ("Men should fear their own officers more than the enemy" is an oft-quoted line of his) Frederick had a common touch at home, and was given to doffing his cap to commoners and making himself available for any and all to petition. He was rather more vexing to nobles and ministers, as he was not only tireless, rising well before dawn to attend to business, but an incorrigible micromanager, to such an extent that foreign powers despaired of gaining information from spies in Berlin as only Frederick himself ever knew what was coming next. Ministers were merely instruments, and the only figures with real authority besides him were his personal secretaries and factotums, who were sometimes raised from common families and were likely favored by Frederick in a manner that went beyond purely administrative concerns. His despotism in the details extended to the arts—a modestly talented flutist, not to mention a composer of concertos and, while he was still a prince, a symphony—he eschewed the royal box and preferred to sit in the front row of his opera house where he could see the maestro’s score. Easier to supervise that way.

Frederick was loved by many, despised by many, and feared by virtually all, especially by the complacent great powers who had not yet had to confront the cynical, godless, militaristic boldness of a modern state like his, with its key ingredient of a powerful cult of personality. This Prussian cocktail was to inflict incalculable suffering on Europe in subsequent centuries.

Blanning enjoys mastery over an impressive amount of material, seems as much at home writing of statecraft as of the opera, has a talent for constructing plausible accounts of Frederick’s state of mind despite a mass of evidence, controversy in the secondary sources, and a somewhat unreliable narrator in his subject. Still, this ruthless, brilliant (and camp) man’s shift from a soft, if precocious, youth to a commander whose victories in the Seven Years War are still studied in war colleges today remains something of a mystery—though perhaps little more needs to be understood about it than Frederick’s own Machiavellian observation to a friend during his invasion of Silesia: "I love war for the glory."

Published under: Book reviews