Thoroughly Modern Freddy

Thoroughly Modern Freddy

Mini Teaser: A new biography of a talented and enlightened despot.

by Author(s): Michael Howard

Giles MacDonogh, Frederick the Great (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999).

Frederick the Great has always puzzled posterity. "We hardly know any instance of the strength and weakness of human nature so striking and so grotesque", Macaulay famously wrote of him, "as the character of this haughty, vigilant, resolute, sagacious blue-stocking, half Mithridates and half Trissotin, bearing up against a world in arms, with an ounce of poison in one pocket and a quire of bad verses in another." Giles MacDonogh points out in this latest biography how each generation has formed a different image of Frederick, all equally false. For nineteenth-century Germany he was the great Founder of their Nation--in spite of the fact that he hardly spoke a word of German, thought that German singers sounded like "the neighing of a horse", and regarded his own subjects as "nasty animals" who had to be ruled in their best interests by an enlightened elite. For Germany's enemies, he was the creator of the "Prussian militarism" that was to disturb the peace of Europe for two hundred years. For military buffs he is one of the "Great Captains" of history, whose campaigns should be studied to find the philosopher's stone of military success; while for some he was the archetypal Hero sketched by Carlyle, a Nietzschean Superman grimly battling against impossible odds, whose picture hung on the wall of the Führerbunker in Berlin and whose example was to inspire Adolf Hitler in the last days of the Third Reich.

In all these images, other aspects of Frederick's character are suppressed; his gifts as a flautist and a composer, his wide reading, his patronage of the arts, his friendship with Voltaire and other luminaries of the Enlightenment, his huge literary and epistolary output, and the circle that he created around himself of a talented and witty group of men friends, the sexuality of at least some of whom was highly ambiguous. Giles MacDonogh makes a gallant effort to escape from the traditional stereotypes, and to depict Frederick in the round by "letting him speak for himself." The result is a pleasantly written and very readable biography based largely on Frederick's printed writings and correspondence; but the author's very lack of selectivity means that, in spite of all his efforts, he ends up by presenting yet another misleading picture of his subject.

Frederick sought relief from the huge pressures of office, partly through his music (he played the flute for at least an hour every day and composed about two hundred concertos for it), partly through manic composition of very indifferent poetry, but very largely through a huge correspondence with the illuminati of Europe as a whole, and a group of intimates in particular, among whom Voltaire was pre-eminent. MacDonogh allows this correspondence to mold his own portrait of him. Frederick's military exploits are dealt with very summarily indeed, and his administrative achievements get a bare mention; whereas great attention is given to his lavishly documented patronage of the arts and to his relations (usually bitchy) with his intimates at court--particularly with Voltaire, who gets an entire chapter to himself. The picture that emerges is consequently one of a brilliant and talented amateur of the arts who ruled his country in his spare time and was also, when he had to be, a successful soldier; but one for whom these occupations were disagreeable duties interfering with his preferred civilized lifestyle among a group of cultured cronies. It is an image no more misleading than some of the others with which we are familiar, and perhaps one that Frederick himself might have relished. Nonetheless, it comes nowhere near capturing his real greatness and historical significance.

Frederick had a mind of truly Napoleonic range and scope, and as with Napoleon his military genius was only one facet of his overall ability. But unlike Napoleon, he had a conscience, one inherited from generations of Calvinist ancestors. Certainly he did not believe in God, although he found it convenient that others should do so; but he did believe in a rational world order, the understanding of which imposed on the minority who possessed it both the right and the duty to rule those who did not. "The true function of man", in his view, "was to work for the common good, the fatherland, and only those who did were worthy of respect." If, like the Corsican, Frederick had had to make his own way in the world, it might have been a different matter, but as it was he inherited power and responsibility, and with it a sense of duty that disciplined what might otherwise have been an egotism as huge and irresponsible as that of Napoleon himself.

Frederick reacted in youth against the sottish parochialism of his father's court, flaunting the affectations of an exceptionally clever young man and falling into very dubious political company--for which he was ferociously and very effectively punished. But his father, Frederick William I, was not only sottish and parochial. He had also created, out of the sprawling lands of Brandenburg-Prussia, the best administered, the most prosperous and the best-armed principality in Germany, and for its size--a bare two and a half million souls--in Europe. Elsewhere the power of rulers was still shackled by aristocratic privileges, local immunities, cantankerous estates, or an immensely powerful Catholic Church. Frederick inherited what was already a modern, centralized, efficient state, administered by a docile bureaucracy, defended by a highly professional army; and one over which he had unfettered personal control.

Frederick William had not intended to create such a state: he blundered backwards, as it were, into the modern age, his eyes fixed on the past. Like his contemporaries, he regarded his lands not as a "state" but an "estate", a property to be prudently administered and passed on intact to his successors. Politically as well as socially he was intensely conservative. He exacted total obedience from the underlings he protected, and to his own overlord, the Emperor, he displayed loyalty that never wavered. In the words of the historian Gerhard Ritter, he "created a modern power system without the slightest aptitude for power-politics." But his son possessed such an aptitude almost to excess. Having inherited power, he was determined to use it.

If one had to create a stereotype for Frederick--and it is hard to understand him without doing so--it would be as the first thoroughly modern European ruler; the first, that is, to shake himself free of the mindset, both of the Middle Ages, with its hierarchical system of obedience based on landed tenure and ecclesiastical sanction, and of the Renaissance, of the Prince using his power for purposes of personal glory and virtu. Frederick had an absolutely clear, and entirely novel, concept of his function: it was to be the first servant of the State. MacDonogh quotes what he rightly describes as one of Frederick's most famous lines, written within five years of his coming to power:

A prince is the first servant and first magistrate of the State; it is he who decides to what use taxes should be put, he levies them in order to be able to defend the state by means of the troops he maintains, in order to uphold the dignity with which he is invested, to reward service and merit, to establish some sort of balance between rich and poor, to relieve the unfortunate in every walk of life, in order to breed magnificence in every limb of the body of the State in general. If the sovereign has an enlightened mind and an honest heart, he will direct all expenditure for the commonweal and to the greatest advantage of his subjects.

This concept of the State as the sole fount of legitimacy and power was as old as Bodin and Hobbes, but no previous ruler had accepted and internalized it as did Frederick. We know what Louis XIV thought of the State: l'état c'est moi. He himself embodied the State, a very different matter from serving it. For Frederick, on the contrary, the State was not the mere instrument of his own greatness, but rather the other way around. Certainly he had a strong sense of the "magnificence" owed to his princely office, which enabled him to indulge his enjoyment of building and decorating palaces. He did so not with the baroque splendor of his predecessors, but in a light-hearted and informal rococo that matched his own aesthetic preferences.

But the formalities at his court were minimal, and his own appearance, always in a military uniform increasingly shabby, patched and snuff-stained, carried to extremes his contempt for the formal dignities of royalty. Voltaire, Algarotti and the other chatterers who surrounded him provided necessary light relief; but his principal occupation, as he described it, lay in "combating ignorance and prejudice in a country where an accident of birth has brought me to power, to enlighten minds, to cultivate morality and make the people as happy as it suits human nature, and as the means at my disposal permit." At least so he wrote in 1770. But in fact his principal occupation during the first half of his reign had consisted in waging war, and during the second half, repairing its damage.
Frederick had always seen waging war as part of his job specification: "The arts are cultivated in peacetime", he observed bleakly, "only under the protection afforded by arms." But he neither foresaw in prospect, nor relished in retrospect, the amount of war that he was to let himself in for when, within a few months of coming to the throne, he seized the province of Silesia from the imperial authority to whom his father had always been so slavishly deferential. In his decision to do so, there was certainly an element of Renaissance rhodomontade: the youthful prince, soaked in the heroic literature of the classics, wanted to show the world that he had cojones.

But there was also a calculated element of state-building. The lands of Brandenburg-Prussia were spread thinly and indefensibly across the thin soil of north Germany, a poor relation to its wealthy neighbors Saxony and Bavaria and Hanover, and a minor player on the European scene. Silesia, one of the wealthiest of the Habsburg provinces, lay adjacent to Frederick's own lands. Its possession increased their population and income by half and furnished a solid power-bloc in the center of Europe. With the acquisition of Silesia, Brandenburg-Prussia--which Frederick himself described as "a mongrel state, part electorate, part kingdom"--became indisputably the Kingdom of Prussia, a fully paid-up member of the club of European Powers, one whose ruler sat at the top table with France, Russia and the Habsburg Empire.

The entry costs into the club were tolerable: five years of intermittent warfare that made the reputation of the Prussian army and established Frederick as the foremost soldier of his day. It was the expenses of membership that were to prove so crippling. The Austrians remained implacable, and found in the Russians an ally who feared Prussian expansion toward their own borders. Prussia's ally, France, changed sides, and the acquisition of England in her place could provide little immediate help. Watching his enemies closing around him, Frederick launched a pre-emptive strike against the still neutral Saxony--a precedent that German statesmen were to recall in 1914--and found himself involved in a life-or-death struggle with a coalition of powers whose combined population of ninety million dwarfed his own five million--a precedent that Adolf Hitler, if no one else, would recall in 1945. And "life or death" was no exaggeration: if Frederick had been defeated, the Kingdom of Prussia would probably have been erased from the map for good. No wonder he carried an ounce of poison in his pocket. "I am in no way thinking about glory, but about the state", he wrote in his darkest hour, 1761, "and if it succumbs . . . I must shed this burden of life."

It did not succumb, and for better or worse, Prussia survived, having lost a tenth of its population and with its economy in ruins. So did Frederick, a prematurely old man at fifty, who had to spend the last two decades of his life putting the pieces together again: rebuilding a shattered economy, encouraging the middle classes in their entrepreneurial activities, pioneering agricultural improvements, rounding off his territories by acquiring, in the share-out of the first Polish Partition, the lands of the lower Vistula that linked his territories with the outpost of East Prussia and colonizing them with good peasant stock. All this was "state-building", but certainly not "nation-building." Frederick remained oblivious, and disdainful, of the great stirrings in German literature and philosophy that were already well under way in the last decades of his reign. And it certainly involved no trace of democratization, for like many Third World leaders in our own day, Frederick found modernization a great deal simpler if it contained no element of popular participation. He bequeathed to his successors the political structure he had inherited: an absolute monarchy, an efficient bureaucracy, a bourgeoisie given every opportunity to enrich themselves, and a nobility confirmed in all their privileges in return for a monopoly of posts in the civil service and in what was universally regarded as the finest army in Europe. Twenty years after Frederick's death Napoleon was to smash the whole thing to smithereens.

This was hardly Frederick's fault. He had always known that Prussia was boxing far above its weight, and only his personal genius had enabled it to do so. His successors muddled their way into a "total war" that they were quite unequipped to fight. Yet even after the catastrophe of 1806 the foundations Frederick had laid remained intact: an industrious and well-educated middle class and an uncorrupt bureaucracy able to ride the crest of the Industrial Revolution; a grimly professional army; and a population on the whole happy to do what it was told. Thus equipped, Bismarck's Prussia was able, two generations later, to re-enter the Great Power club, and be accepted there as a stabilizing influence for a further twenty years. Frederick can certainly not be blamed for all that went wrong after that.

Essay Types: Book Review