The Awful Fate of Frederick the Great

The Military Life of Frederick the Great

by Christopher Duffy
Atheneum, 407 pp., $25.00

Fashions in greatness come and go. Frederick the Great is not a man for our times. Peter the Great, yes, because, like it or not, the Russia that dominates half of our world is a state of his making. Louis le Grand—Louis XIV—also, because the cultural splendor achieved by France under his kingship still speaks to us with a commanding voice. And even Charles the Great—Charlemagne—because he offers Western Europeans a memory, however faded, of a regional unity they have so far failed to re-create. But Frederick? Cultural triumphs were scarcely his métier. The politics he practiced were those of the sword. And to whom, after all, was he a hero? To Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler. He was, in short, the darling of men we deplore or detest, and the maker of a kingdom from which most of Europe’s ills in this century have emanated. Why should we concede him greatness at all?

Because we are bound to recognize that he brought to statecraft an energy, intelligence, strength of character, consistency of purpose, and capacity for self-denial almost without parallel in the history of politics. He was a master, perhaps the inventor, of modern state administration. And unless we reject the benefits that statehood confers, which almost none of us do, we are therefore bound to admit that he was a quite exceptional human being, “great” according to the standards by which greatness is conventionally estimated.

The Prussia to which he succeeded in 1740 was a poor North German kingdom, its lands scattered between the Rhine and the Polish border. Industrially and commercially it was of no importance, agriculturally it was notably unproductive. All that its earlier rulers had bequeathed of worth to Frederick was the army, which the royal revenues were inadequate to support. His father, who had terrorized Frederick, cackled on his deathbed that he expected to scream with laughter in his tomb at the mess his son would make of everything. When Frederick went to his tomb, in 1786, he left behind him a kingdom that had increased in surface area by 50 percent, that had more than doubled in population, and that was feared from Paris to Vienna. When Napoleon visited his burial place, as the conqueror of Europe, in 1806, he said to his entourage; “Hats off, gentlemen, if he were still alive, we should not be here.”

How had he done it? In part by cultivating the most ruthless—and demanding—administrative efficiency. K.H. von Lang gives us a picture of how a German princeling of Frederick’s time might behave:

Ernst August of Weimar used to open all reports that came to him from his permanent officials and heap them up on the floor beside his desk, until the pile was as high as he could reach. Then one day, in the midst of walking up and down and chatting to his secretary about everything under the sun, he would go to the pile and take …

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