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.

The pivotal moment came on August 15, 1760, at Liegnitz, a battle Frederick could not afford to lose. Defeat would have been more catastrophic than at Kunersdorf. Instead, Frederick coerced a much larger Austrian force into retreat after a short, sharp engagement. Liegnitz broke an almost-two-year-long pattern of defeats, saving Prussian morale and Frederick’s prestige. The Austrians and Russians knew they had lost their best chance to end the war swiftly and they never regained the strategic initiative.

Frederick won enough battles to avoid defeat until the coalition against him broke apart. Russia defected when Peter III, who admired Frederick, became czar. France opened negotiations with Britain, and Austria finally realized it could not defeat Prussia alone. The Treaty of Hubertusburg ended hostilities on the basis of the status quo antebellum, which effectively confirmed Frederick’s earlier gains. As a shrewd Dane remarked, by not losing Frederick had gained everything he sought. The double-or-nothing gamble started in 1740 and ended with Frederick keeping Silesia in 1763. It transformed Germany by establishing dualism within the Holy Roman Empire, with Prussia alongside the Habsburg monarchy as a garrison state in the north that could hold the balance among Europe’s great powers.

The Seven Years’ War taught a lesson, as the more cautious policies that followed it suggest. Frederick later told a British visitor that war for such high stakes was not a game to be played often. Instead, force backed diplomatic efforts to build on past gains. He maneuvered among the other great powers to secure advantages and deflect threats. Carving up Poland to resolve differences between Russia, Prussia and Austria also rounded out Prussian borders. Frederick justified it to Voltaire—sincerely or otherwise—as necessary for avoiding war. When Austria sought to annex Bavaria, the now elderly poacher turned gamekeeper, rallying German states to resist a step that would have shifted the balance of power within Germany to Habsburg advantage. The short War of Bavarian Succession (1778–79) cost more money than lives and concluded without major fighting when rulers of the continental powers drew back from a protracted struggle. It also revealed a shortfall in the Prussian army’s effectiveness that pointed to future dangers. Frederick died in 1786 before their impact could be felt.


BLANNING DESCRIBES Frederick as “an indifferent general but a brilliant warlord.” The king’s “indomitable will and ruthless determination to keep going no matter how desperate the situation” carried him through the most dangerous setbacks of two wars. Frederick’s army and the generals commanding it—along with institutions of the Prussian state—deserve more credit for the result than they received. Success brought lasting acclaim. While German nationalism emerged much later, Blanning points out how Frederick’s victories anchored it in a heroic episode that gave a powerful twist toward Prussia. Victory against France, resistance to the Habsburgs and recovering from seemingly insuperable setbacks forged a narrative that influenced German history no less than Frederick’s accomplishments at home and abroad.

The narrative also made Frederick’s Prussia the standard of military best practice, especially among soldiers who shared his commitment to the offensive. It provided an attractive alternative to the prudential art of war taught by much of the period’s professional literature. The spirit of Frederick’s campaigns inspired. The substance of his approach matched new ideas on strategy that emerged before the French Revolution—hence the prestige Frederick enjoyed. The collection of his artifacts that Napoleon carried to Paris for public display, Blanning writes, demonstrated the importance the French emperor set on defeating Prussia. Ironically, Frederick’s example and legacy also set the foundation for a national revival that enabled Prussia to contribute disproportionately to the final coalition against France in 1813–15. The Prussia he had shaped again sprang back against the odds to help beat Napoleon at his own game.

William Anthony Hay, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, has recently completed a biography of Lord Liverpool, Britain’s prime minister in the early nineteenth century.

image: Portrait of Frederick the Great/Wikimedia Commons