Frederick the Great: King of Prussia 
by Tim Blanning.
Allen Lane, 648 pp., £30, September 2015, 978 1 84614 182 9
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On 17 August 1991​ , the 205th anniversary of Frederick the Great’s death, his body returned to Potsdam. It was the end of a circuitous journey that began in 1943, when, as allied bombing raids reached deep into the Reich, the king’s remains were moved from Potsdam’s Garrison Church to the safety of a potash mine in the Thuringian forest. This is where American troops found the coffin in May 1945; in Operation Bodysnatch, they discreetly transported it to Marburg and then, seven years later, allowed it to be quietly buried in the chapel of a castle near Hechingen. Following the reunification of Germany, Frederick could finally be interred where he had always wished to be, under a simple marker on a terrace near his favourite palace, Sanssouci, surrounded by the graves of the Italian greyhounds who were among the few objects of his unwavering affection. Choosing to be buried among his dogs seems a typically Frederician touch, perhaps intended as a posthumous insult to his wife, Elisabeth Christine of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, who was clearly not supposed to share his final resting place. In death, as in life, Frederick wanted his body to be as far from hers as possible.

Bringing Frederick to Potsdam was part of the new Germany’s search for a useable past, or so it must have seemed to some of the 60,000 spectators, Helmut Kohl among them, who stood in summer rain to acknowledge the great monarch. Even before reunification, when the East German government returned Frederick’s statue to Unter den Linden and the Federal Republic held a popular Prussia exhibition in West Berlin, critics of Prussian traditions such as the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler had quipped that ‘Preussen ist wieder chic’ (‘Prussia is fashionable again’). Others warned that Frederick’s return to the capital of a unified Germany heralded the dawn of a new age of Teutonic aspiration for power. In fact, there was as little left of Frederick’s Prussia in the Germany of 1991 as there was of the king inside the coffin. Prussia had been formally dissolved by the victors in 1945; the German army, once the most powerful in the world, was now underfunded, badly equipped and poorly trained; and Kohl hardly modelled himself on Frederick the Great.

By 1991, Frederick was no longer relevant. But for almost two centuries, Frederick’s reign had been central to the story Germans told about themselves, that of Prussia’s struggle, often against great odds, to realise her destiny as Germany’s leading power. In this national epic Frederick had always had a starring role, which Tim Blanning brilliantly analyses in his deeply learned and fluently written biography.

Frederick’s claims to greatness began almost as soon as he inherited the Prussian crown in 1740. Two years later, Voltaire, an early admirer and sometime friend, declared that the 30-year-old monarch should be known as ‘le grand’ because of his conquest of Silesia. When the young king returned, triumphant, to Berlin in December 1745, he was greeted by crowds shouting: ‘Vivat Fredericus magnus!’ All this might have looked like the spontaneous expression of popular enthusiasm, but, as Blanning shows, the king’s heroic image was carefully created by Frederick and his advisers. He would become the object of respectful curiosity from those tourists who hoped to catch a glimpse of him as he rode through Berlin and perhaps even see him tip his hat, a gesture that was regarded as emblematic of the king’s modest courtesy.

Frederick the Great was remembered at both the beginning and the end of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. On 31 March 1933, two months after Hitler became chancellor, a newly elected Reichstag held its first meeting in Potsdam’s Garrison Church. President Paul von Hindenburg, in his field marshal’s uniform, joined hands with the former corporal in front of Frederick’s grave, symbolically affirming the legitimacy of the Nazi regime. The ‘Day of Potsdam’ was political theatre, designed to reconcile respectable Germans to the consolidation of Nazi power. Nevertheless, the Führer seems to have felt an affinity with Frederick, whose misanthropy, appetite for risk and sense of historic destiny he shared. Himmler, with a courtier’s instinct for his master’s tastes, presented Hitler with Anton Graff’s portrait of the ageing king on the Führer’s 50th birthday in 1939. Six years later, the picture hung in Hitler’s bunker, where the contemplation of Frederick’s vicissitudes during the Seven Years’ War consoled him as his enemies closed in. On 13 April 1945, when Goebbels called with the news of Roosevelt’s death, he reminded Hitler that in 1762, at Frederick’s nadir, the Czarina Elisabeth had died, shattering the coalition against him and enabling Prussia to survive.

No one​ would have been more surprised at Frederick’s posthumous reputation than his father, King Frederick William I (1713-40). The Hohenzollern dynasty was unusually lucky; for almost three centuries, they managed to produce relatively healthy, relatively sane males, who all lived long enough to avoid the struggles for succession of so many of Europe’s ruling families. The Hohenzollern paid for their genetic good fortune with arguments between monarch and heir that began in the 17th century and extended to William II’s Dutch exile after 1918 when the last Hohenzollern and his disagreeable offspring devoted much of their free time to making each other miserable. Relations between Frederick William I and his son were especially bad. No doubt a good deal of the trouble was down to the father: Frederick William was irascible, narrow-minded and stubborn, easily annoyed at the best of times and often driven to fits of rage by his ailments, including chronic porphyria and gout. Frederick William’s son and heir was a constant source of disappointment and irritation. Flamboyantly dressed, physically delicate, fluent in French but awkward in German, drawn to unmanly pursuits like listening to music and reading books, Frederick was everything his father despised. To make matters worse, the king suspected (correctly, Blanning believes) that the prince was homosexual, and that some of the handsome young men around him were also his lovers.

In 1730, following an especially brutal confrontation, Frederick attempted to flee to England. He was swiftly apprehended, imprisoned and forced to watch the beheading of his companion and perhaps lover Lieutenant Hans von Katte. After barely escaping Katte’s fate himself, the prince spent the next decade struggling to gain his father’s trust, which meant hiding his feelings, establishing a household (including marriage to Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, whom he intensely disliked) and commanding troops in impatient anticipation of Frederick William’s death.

The man who emerged from this purgatory was wilful, resolute and ruthless; by learning to master his desires, Frederick thought himself ready to master the world. Although occasionally capable of affection – he seems to have been fond of his older sister – he was a difficult, lonely man, who quarreled with his friends, neglected his wife and treated his nephew and heir (another Frederick William) with the disdain he received from his father. In turn, Prince Frederick William devoted himself to the things his uncle disliked: the German language, religious observance and attractive women.

When his father finally died, in 1740, Frederick inherited a substantial collection of territories across central Europe (Prussia was, and in many ways would remain, the model of a composite state), extensive royal domains (the king owned close to a quarter of his territory, which produced almost half of the state’s revenues), a cash-rich treasury and, perhaps most important, a well-organised and superbly trained army. To these instruments of political power, Frederick could add luck. In 1740, two other royal deaths quickly followed the one that made him king: on 17 October, Czarina Anna of Russia died, setting off a power struggle that temporarily paralysed Russian political institutions. Three days later, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the complex Habsburg realm, unexpectedly succumbed to food poisoning. Charles’s heir was his 23-year-old daughter, Maria Theresa, who, Blanning writes, described herself as having been left ‘without money, without credit, without an army, without any experience or any knowledge of my own, and finally without any kind of advice’. While the Habsburgs and Romanovs were distracted, France, still the most formidable Continental power, was tied up overseas thanks to an intensifying rivalry with Britain.

Frederick moved swiftly. Within days of learning of the Habsburg ruler’s death, he gave an order to mobilise his army. By early December, Prussian forces had invaded Silesia, one of Austria’s richest provinces. In addition to Silesia’s 1.1 million inhabitants, more than half a million square kilometres of fertile soil, mineral deposits and productive manufacturing enterprises, possession of Silesia enabled Prussia to control the economically and strategically important River Oder. Prussia’s gain was matched by a weakening of Austria’s position in Northern Germany – the Habsburgs would never fully recover.

Maria Theresa spent the next two decades trying to win back what she had lost. As a result, Silesia, so easily acquired, turned out to be extremely difficult to hold. Frederick first fought the Habsburgs and then, in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), a European coalition of hostile powers. He managed to survive the conflict in part because of his refusal to admit defeat, but he was also lucky that the coalition collapsed on Czarina Elisabeth’s unexpected death – the ‘miracle’ of 1762 that gave Hitler his brief moment of hope in the bunker.

Frederick’s victories, however costly and contested, made Prussia one of the five states that would dominate European politics until the second decade of the 20th century. Prussia was traditionally the weakest of the five – it was the only one to come close to collapse during the Napoleonic maelstrom. Nevertheless, in an arch of states extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, it provided the link between Russia and the West. The new international system wasn’t Frederick’s aim, but it seems highly unlikely it would have happened without him.

While Frederick’s importance for European affairs was enduring, his impact on culture, society and domestic politics is more difficult to calculate. Take his contributions to culture, which Blanning describes in detail. How many monarchs can be said to have provided the theme for a masterpiece like Bach’s Musical Offering? And while Wilhelm Dilthey may have overstated the case when he declared Frederick one of the four greatest writers of his generation, he wrote very well considering everything else he was doing. His permissive attitudes towards publishing helped ideas to flourish. His own tastes, however, were conventional. He ignored or derided many of his greatest contemporaries: his remarks about Goethe are often cited as an egregious example of bad judgment. He owned two masterpieces by Watteau, but also a large number of mediocre and sometimes fraudulent works. Among the buildings that he inspired only Sanssouci can be considered first rate.

His impact on German society is equally ambiguous. He managed to limit the use of torture, open several new schools, and introduce some agricultural improvements. Efforts to codify Prussian law were made at the beginning of his reign, interrupted by war, then resumed in the 1770s and finally completed after his death with the enactment of the Allgemeines Landrecht in 1794. But the effect of all these measures on Prussian subjects was limited, first by the state’s administrative weakness, and then by the king’s reluctance to undermine the landed aristocracy, who kept order in the countryside and, more important, provided the officers for his army.

Blanning is right to be sceptical about the conventional presentation of Frederick’s reign as a classical example of enlightened absolutism. He made no secret of his antipathy to religious doctrine. He had no interest in courtly ritual; he ignored Berlin’s courts. Frederick’s world was sharply divided between the private and the public. The former, which Blanning describes as ‘camp’, was ‘a special kind of milieu involving flamboyant decoration, consumption and self-indulgence’. This was a world of wit, food and music – luminously depicted in Adolph von Menzel’s Flute Concert at Sanssouci, which is now in Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie. But most of Frederick’s contemporaries were aware only of the king’s cleverly constructed and constantly affirmed public image, which emphasised his modesty, diligence and concern about his subjects’ fate. He wanted to be seen as the state’s first servant, joined to his people by shared duty and mutual obligation.

Blanning makes it clear we shouldn’t accept Frederick’s self-presentation as the state’s servant or his admirers’ emphasis on the enlightened aspects of his rule. The Frederick who emerges from Blanning’s account is heroic and petty, tolerant and prejudiced, concerned about the welfare of his subjects but prepared to spill their blood and squander their wealth in the pursuit of glory. As Tocqueville remarked of the Allgemeines Landrecht, many of his reforms were radical in principle but extremely timid in practice. Moreover, the decision that would shape his entire reign was the one to invade Silesia in 1740 and, as Blanning argues, he did this not to serve the Prussian state, but on his own quest for fame. More deeply rooted than a commitment to the common good was Frederick’s appetite for what the Greeks would have called kleos, glory won by heroic deeds. He had enough self-knowledge to realise that, as he wrote to Voltaire, the pursuit of glory was ‘a great lunacy, but a lunacy that is very difficult to shed once one is infatuated with it’.

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