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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 out a document at random…and finally indicate his wishes in a brief marginal note. When they were brought back to the prince next morning, they were thrown onto a second pile at the other side of the desk, and there they remained until the prince was going away on a long journey, leaving town for his summer residence, or having the room decorated. Then he would begin to think it was time to clear out his study and would send the signed documents down pell-mell into the chancellery.

What makes this story tragic rather than comic is that most of the neglected documents were personal petitions from subjects who could do nothing without the ruler’s personal approval. At worst, a man might languish years in jail because a prince like Ernst August could not be bothered to sign the order of release.

Weimar would be rescued by Goethe, whom we forget was a civil servant when he was not practicing as a genius. Prussia never needed rescuing, because Frederick had during his reign the most scrupulous business habits. Much against his natural inclinations, he trained himself to rise at four in the morning, remain at his desk until ten, and “complete the work of the day in the day.” During his forty-six-year reign, he probably issued a quarter of a million administrative instructions, each of which he had composed in outline. He was the antithesis of Ernst August, a man who knew everything about his kingdom and forgot nothing. In his later years he summed up his philosophy of being—he was probably an atheist—in the words, “It is not necessary that I live, but it is necessary that I perform my duty.” If this seems to contain an echo, or indeed an anticipation, of the categorical imperative, it may be illuminating to recall that Kant was one of Frederick’s subjects.

Mere timely discharge of duty, however, would not have won for Frederick the title of “great.” That was won in the field, where his extraordinary powers of character and intellect brought him victories that were strictly beyond the material power of his kingdom to deliver. His generalship has always been admired. It has rarely been explained in a way that the layman can readily grasp. Christopher Duffy has now set out to do that, in a biography he firmly calls a “military life.” His attempt has amply succeeded.

What was the secret of Frederick’s military success? It has to do with his grasp of what today is disagreeably called “the state of the art,” as it had been reached in his own time. Frederick began campaigning—against the Austrians, who were his most frequent enemies—in 1740, when cavalry was at last on the brink of losing its power, but before artillery had acquired its battlefield dominance. It was the infantry, therefore, that had to deliver the decisive blow, if it could. But infantry continued to suffer from the same defect that had attached to it since the dawn of organized warfare. It could fight effectively only in line. But, once lined up and in contact with the enemy, it could no longer be maneuvered. The result of the fight turned therefore on the winning of moral advantage. But if neither side would take fright and run, then stalemate ensued.

Frederick could not afford stalemate. His was a tiny kingdom encircled by more powerful enemies. Strategically he needed allies if he was to survive at all. Tactically he needed to make his infantry a decisive arm if he was to survive even within an alliance system. The solution he hit on has come to be called the “oblique order.” It was not altogether novel. Epaminondas had defeated the Spartans at Leuctra by this method in 371 BC, a victory that had “fired the imagination of military men anew when the early modern world rediscovered the literature of antiquity.” But though educated seventeenth-century soldiers had tinkered with the notion of adapting it to the gunpowder battlefield, none before Frederick had found means to do so. Frederick was an educated soldier par excellence; his irascible father had rightly identified him as an intellectual, wrongly foreseen what would ensue when power was thrust upon him. Frederick took the legacy he had been given, a highly trained army, perfected its qualities, and then taught it to maneuver as the Thebans had done at Leuctra. That is, while one part of the army advanced to confront the enemy, the other marched at high speed to a flank, and took the enemy by surprise from an oblique direction when he had lost the opportunity to change alignment. By this means Frederick succeeded in beating armies not only of equal but of superior numbers.

He by no means got it right from the outset. At Mollwitz in 1741, panicked by the strength of the Austrian resistance, he fled from the battlefield, leaving his subordinate, Schwerin, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. During the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) his technique steadily improved. Finally, at the outset of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), his mastery of the oblique order created sensations perhaps not to be repeated until Hitler unleashed blitzkrieg on the world in 1939. The battle of Rossbach, in particular (November 5, 1757), astounded friend and enemy alike. For a loss of 500 men from the 21,000 he had engaged, Frederick drove the 41,000 French and Austrians he opposed in confusion from the field. The French foreign minister wrote to Choiseul in the aftermath: “We are dealing with a prince who is at once his own commander in the field, chief minister, logistical organizer, and, when necessary, provost marshal.”

The reference to “provost marshal” is perhaps the most significant in this passage. Frederick was a ferocious disciplinarian. He had soldiers flogged for trivial offenses and really did insist that his soldiers should “fear their officers more than the enemy.” Fear and intellect were, however, to prove diminishing assets in the long run. Rossbach was almost the last of the great Frederician coups. The oblique order, like blitzkrieg, was not an infallible means to victory. It was an expedient by which a weaker power might temporarily subdue a stronger. Just as the Russians and the Western allies were eventually to see through blitzkrieg in 1942 and 1943, so too did the Russians and Austrians identify the weak spots in Frederick’s methods during the later stages of the Seven Years’ War. At its end, he was saved from otherwise unavoidable defeat only by the death of the most implacable of his enemies, the Czarina Elizabeth.

The death of the czarina, as Hugh Trevor-Roper has unforgettably reminded us in The Last Days of Hitler, came to have a millenarian influence on the minds of the men in the Berlin bunker in 1945. Goebbels believed that the Third Reich would be saved, as Frederick’s Prussia had been saved, at the eleventh hour. When he got word of Roosevelt’s death, he exulted to Hitler that the hour had come. Their subsequent suicides were, in a sense, protests at the Fates having treated them worse than they had Frederick, whom Goebbels by then identified with Hitler.

Such an identification is deeply unfair. Frederick’s offenses were against international law, not against fundamental morality. Nevertheless, his influence upon the German mind has not been for the good. Frederick left to such of his successors as chose to draw the lesson the example of how fundamental material weakness might be offset by the principles of dividing one’s enemies and striking first. Bismarck, least Frederician of German statesmen, pursued the contrary policy of placating potential enemies but, if it came to a fight, letting them put themselves in the wrong. Wilhelm II and Hitler, who might have dealt with Germany’s predicament by Bismarckian methods, chose instead to adopt Frederick’s. Obsessed with the specter of encirclement, each sought comfort in manipulating the “strategy of interior lines,” which had been the secret of Frederick’s temporization with weakness. For him it had worked, for them it did not. Unfortunately, the penalties of their failure were borne not only by Germany but by the rest of Europe as well.

Today, most of Frederick’s Prussia lies within East Germany, which many believe to be its spiritual descendant—it is certainly thrifty, disciplined, and hard working. It also contains his most tangible relics, the toy-town city of Potsdam, where he was most at ease, and the prettily rococo palace of Sans Souci, in which he pretended to be a Frenchman. Frederick spoke and wrote by preference in French, and probably thought in French also. He was, indeed, a child of the Enlightenment, rational, cultivated, and literary by habit. Had he been born the king of a larger or a smaller state, circumstances might have spared him the urge to harness his remarkable intellectual powers to war making. As things were, the flute-playing, dilettante “Féderic” felt driven to grow into “Old Fritz.” It was an awful fate, great though the glory it brought him. It is a particular merit of Christopher Duffy’s “military life” that the tension between the king’s will and his wishes is kept constantly before us, so that in the end we come to sympathize with him in the awful burden he felt compelled to bear. “To each his own,” was Frederick’s motto. He lived it out—childless, friendless, loveless—to the end.

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