On the Fritz: Rethinking Frederick the Great

April 28, 2016 Topic: Society Region: Europe Tags: Frederick The GreatPrussiaHistory

On the Fritz: Rethinking Frederick the Great

Soldier, aesthete, enlightened monarch—but a gambler above all.


PEACE OPENED a different field to Frederick’s competitive spirit. Blanning emphasizes culture’s eighteenth-century political role as an expression of power and prestige. Inheriting a fortune in ready cash gave Frederick ample scope. He built Europe’s first freestanding opera house in Berlin as a temple to Apollo and the muses. The musicians, composers and performers he recruited set Prussia on the cultural map, drawing praise that further enhanced his reputation as patron. He argued for music’s centrality to a true nobleman’s existence, calling it “unique in its ability to communicate emotions and speak to the soul.” Frederick’s patronage foreshadowed a characteristically German sacralization of culture. Freed from representational or recreational function, high culture could be worshipped in itself. Before that later trend peaked in the nineteenth century, high culture expressed the magnificence and wealth of courts. It provided a potent tool for statecraft.

Frederick also worked to create “an Arcadian world in which he could recover from his father’s brutality.” Blanning deftly tackles a long controversial issue—Frederick’s homosexuality. Besides spurning a wife forced upon him, Frederick presided over a male-dominated court that kept women at a distance. Homosexuality found expression in misogyny that undermined his diplomacy. It also reinforced his veneration of Greco-Roman classicism. His contempt for religion as superstition contrasted sharply with the piety of the age. Frederick resembled his sometime-friend Voltaire on that score more than Maria Theresa and Britain’s George III.

Enlightenment complemented Prussian traditions of duty rooted in Pietism, a religious movement that shaped the kingdom’s culture. It also kept favoritism at court from corrupting the state. Frederick followed an authoritarian interpretation of social-contract theory. He believed an irrevocable and unconditional grant of sovereignty on leaving the state of nature gave subjects no right of resistance. Still, rulers had a binding obligation to serve the interest of the whole. Frederick demanded obedience to law, which he followed himself. Rather than glorifying a ruler, policy strengthened the state. That approach systematically enhanced an already-formidable military and cultivated the kingdom’s resources.

Frederick believed the social contract limited the absolute powers of kingship and prevented the arbitrary exercise of power. While he insisted on retaining an anachronistic degree of personal control over administration and treated people in a notably dictatorial manner, he did not interfere with private belief. Religious skepticism—contemporaries would have called it infidelity—fostered public toleration. Frederick even sponsored the building of Catholic churches in a Protestant realm. Enlightened progress became an early keynote of his reign, and Blanning sharply contrasts the “seductive combination of culture and power” with the tone of other German courts. It attracted many capable and ambitious men to become Prussians by choice, as they saw Frederick’s realm as a state worth serving.

PRUSSIA STILL remained a target. Losing Silesia had diminished Austrian power as much as it strengthened Prussia. Other rulers noted how the balance had changed within Germany. A poor diplomat, Frederick displayed a haughty manner reminiscent of Louis XIV at his height. He mocked foreign rulers and statesmen privately, with the sarcastic cattiness turned on his subjects. If the wit of the staircase describes a person remembering a clever retort only after they walk away, Frederick had what might be called the tact of the staircase, as he failed to appreciate the offense his jibes inflicted. Louis XV’s mistress resented them enough to help turn France against him. Frederick’s efforts to keep Germany out of a renewed overseas war by a limited defensive agreement with Britain only alarmed other powers. The French saw it as final proof he could not be trusted. A reversal of alliances came with a defensive agreement in May 1756 between France and Austria. Frederick now stood isolated as Vienna prepared for war.

Geopolitical realities and structural changes within Europe framed the context for the diplomacy leading to the Seven Years’ War (1754–63). Overseas tensions, particularly in North America, heightened the prospect of a war in ways Frederick did not see. Indeed, a smoldering determination in Britain and its American colonies to settle scores with France paralleled Maria Theresa’s desire for revenge against Frederick. Austria and Britain had different interests that made cooperation less relevant than when they had joined earlier to check French ambitions under Louis XIV. France had slipped into relative decline, living on the prestige of past victories. It could not mobilize the country’s wealth as effectively as the British. Austria had less to fear from a quondam rival, especially after the French failed to form an eastern barrier out of Sweden, Poland and Turkey. Russia’s emergence as a European power alongside Prussia, but with interests apart from it, also shifted the balance of power. Maria Theresa and her advisors had an opening to form a coalition against Prussia while Frederick had few options of his own.

Anticipating the imminent threat against him, Frederick launched a preemptive strike against Saxony in August 1756, activating France’s alliance with Vienna. The stakes could not have been higher. Prince Kaunitz, Austria’s foreign minister, had asserted the previous year “that Prussia would have to be destroyed if the Habsburg Monarchy were to survive.” Europe’s largest continental powers—Austria, France and Russia—aided by Sweden and most of the German states accordingly fought to partition Prussia. Frederick approached “the very brink of total disaster.” He emerged “in muted triumph only after six and a half long years of constant danger and anxiety.”

Survival against such odds amounted to victory. But what landed him in that predicament? Blanning calls Frederick’s invasion of Silesia in 1740 “his original sin, for which no amount of suffering could atone.” A step taken to convey his superiority to an abusive father who never would have dared it had landed Frederick in the top level of European politics. It also ensured the enmity of rivals who spent the following decades trying to beat him. Blanning quotes Talleyrand’s famous line, “it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.” Frederick could never escape the mistake’s consequences. Heroic efforts during the Seven Years’ War conferred his reputation as a skilled strategist and general. Victory overshadowed slips and setbacks along the way, but Frederick had a far more mixed record in command than contemporaries or many later historians credited.

Frederick planned in 1756 to invade Saxony, cross into Bohemia with little opposition, occupy Prague and thus compel Austria to settle for peace. Saxon resistance delayed him long enough for an Austrian force to bring aid. Frederick won a costly, close-fought victory at Lobositz when the Austrians withdrew, but the battle showed they were not the same opponent he had beaten so many times before. Reforms had made the Austrian army more effective. More experienced commanders now led it. Instead of occupying Bohemia and denying the Austrians its resources, Frederick had to make do with Saxony as a winter base.

Hoping to knock Austria out of the war in 1757 and free his army to face looming attacks on Prussia from all sides, Frederick invaded Bohemia in April. His tactics—deploying his main field army in four divisions across a hundred mile front and concentrating them before Prague—presaged Napoleonic warfare. It did not, however, win a Napoleonic victory. Frederick’s errors at Kolin brought a complete defeat that shattered his reputation along with his army. Success would have forced Austria into a peace and kept other adversaries at home, but defeat transformed a war of movement that played to Prussian strengths into a struggle of attrition that worked against them.


Frederick had to keep Austria and France from concentrating their forces against him. He met a French army reinforced by Austrian and German troops at Rossbach that outnumbered his own strength nearly two to one. Both sides miscalculated, but Frederick realized his error first. The ability of Prussian troops to move rapidly enabled him to spring a trap that inflicted a crushing defeat. Rossbach had serious long-term consequences for France, undermining its influence in Germany and exposing deeper weaknesses. Frederick won prestige and security on his western frontier merely to face other threats. Even a stunning victory over Austria at Leuthen only staunched the bleeding. Losing would have finished Frederick; winning restored his reputation. But it did not shift the larger balance. A failed campaign ended Frederick’s final attempt to invade the Habsburg monarchy.

As the allies failed to act together effectively in the last three campaigns, Frederick could face them one after the other. He realized, however, that they now intended to act simultaneously. With enemies converging on four fronts, Frederick had to strike each “quickly and repeatedly” lest they combine to overwhelm him. His determination to win at Kunersdorf in August 1759 brought a crushing defeat by the Russians when he pressed his exhausted troops too far, despite his generals’ objections. Delay would have forced the enemy to retreat without an attack, but Frederick gambled on outright victory and lost. The Prussian army crumbled under a counterattack, leaving nothing to stop their opponents from joining the Austrians and marching on Berlin. Setbacks posed danger on other fronts as Frederick struggled to hold Saxony and Silesia.