Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Frederick the Great

The history of Germany in the past hundred and forty years or so makes it very difficult to revisit famous characters and events from before this period, free of the ghastly ideological accretions which occurred during this time. From the unification of Germany under the dominance of the Prussian House of Hohenzollern in 1871 onwards, German history was interpreted to serve contemporary purposes, most completely and insidiously during the thirteen years of Nazi rule. But the worldwide consequences of Germany’s attempts to dominate Europe and the world also led to widespread ideological interpretations of German history by those who succeeded in defeating these aspirations, from the USA to France and from Britain to Russia.

It is, in all events, a chimera to seek for some kind of “objective” history, beyond a dry chronicle of events – and even such chronicles are the result of “subjective” selection of events seen as significant enough to be recorded and included. History is always at least as much about the attempt of contemporary generations to understand themselves in the multidimensional aspect of what went before and what is currently happening as it is about “what really happened.” We constantly create our own versions of significance and meaning in order to dynamically define our own identity. In this sense, whole memes, themes, concepts and categories are constantly coming into existence which then extend themselves into our understanding of our histories, giving rise to whole new chains of meaning, significance and, frequently, complete stories.

The events of the first half of the 20th Century have given rise to a unique and very difficult situation for Germans in with respect to their relationship with the past (and the present as the organic development of this past) and the whole way they regard and do history. One of the consequences of the disaster of the Nazi period is that many categories which are unquestionably accepted by most other societies have become deeply suspicious in the German context. No-one has any problems, for example, in speaking of le Nation Français or the American People. But use the expression das Deutsche Volk, and already the echoes of Hitler’s Nuremberg harangues start to sound faintly in the background.

One of the themes in which the problem of the prism of subsequent events becomes most apparent in German history is that of Prussia. It is the fascinating story of two small principalities – the Margraviate of Brandenburg (within the Holy Roman Empire) and the Duchy of Prussia (outside the Empire on the Baltic) – and a couple of even smaller counties in the Rhineland and Westphalia, united under the control of the Hohenzollern dynasty in the early 17th Century, which, by a combination of clever dynastic alliances and successful wars and diplomacy became the second great power agglomeration (along with the Austrian Habsburgs) within Germanic central Europe by the second half of the 18th Century, going on to unite almost all of German-speaking Europe (with the exception of Austria) under its control a hundred years later. It continued to exist as a component part of Germany until it was formally abolished by the Allied Control Council on February 25, 1947.

In our general way of thinking, Prussia has become synonymous with militarism, authoritarianism, blind obedience to superiors, uniforms, the goose-step, bushy moustaches and spiked helmets. Jawohl, mein Herr! Even in contemporary Germany, the adjective “Prussian” is often used as a description for mindless, exaggerated organisation and discipline. And there is an historical orthodoxy which sees a direct line running from Frederick the Great to Bismark to the Kaiser and his oath-bound generals (responsible for World War I) directly to Hitler and his Nazi brutes. It was, indeed, a line which Hitler himself accepted and embraced.

I don’t want to carry on a discussion over historical interpretations of German history, its meaning and the lessons which may be drawn from it, interesting though the arguments over a possible German Sonderweg [special way] may be, though I have a feeling I won’t be able to avoid it completely. But, so far as possible, I would like to step back beyond the interpretative floodlights of the intervening years in the next few paragraphs to consider a man who was regarded by his contemporaries and many of their descendants as one of the most important figures of the 18th Century.

Frederick II von Hohenzollern – Frederick the Great, der Alte Fritz – was born three hundred years ago today (January 24). A shy, sensitive and artistically inclined boy, the story of his childhood and youth is one of persistent brutalising by a father with a drastic militaristic fetishist streak who was determined to bring him up as a soldier. The young Frederick fought his father for the survival of his own identity throughout his youth, culminating in an attempt, at the age of eighteen, to flee his father’s kingdom and achieve his freedom. The attempt failed and Frederick was forced (under a sentence of death imposed by his royal father, which the old bastard probably never seriously considered having carried out) to watch the execution of his beloved tutor who had been the organiser and his chief accomplice in the escape attempt.

The drastic, sadistic measure worked. Frederick submitted to his father’s wishes and plans; accepting the overarching concept expressed by the Prussian/German word Pflicht [inadequately translated into English by the word “Duty”] as the organising principle of his life. It also twisted, perhaps even broke, something essential within him. Frederick remained, as he had been, a convinced child of the Enlightenment. He retained his interest in music, playing the flute in an accomplished manner and composing music. As king, he supported freedom of thought, toleration, reason. Yet all of these were now subordinated to an iron understanding of his Pflicht, his duty, to serve Prussia. In the execution of this duty, as he saw it, he fought and schemed to make Prussia secure in the most certain fashion possible – to make it so great and powerful that it was unassailable. This meant, in practice, establishing Prussia as the fourth great power in Europe, alongside France, Russia and the Habsburg Empire. (Spain, in the 18th Century was going through a long decline and England, though an important player, was, by virtue of its insular nature, somewhat removed from the perpetual rivalry, expressing itself in constantly shifting alliances, which defined the domination of the continent by the aforementioned powers.)

In this he very largely succeeded. Turning his keen intelligence to military matters, he was regarded by his fellows – and indeed by Napoleon, the greatest military genius of all – as the paramount general of his century, both in a tactical as well as a strategic sense. As an enlightened absolutist ruler, he reorganised his realm; professionalising public administration, introducing a basic code of law, abolishing torture and corporal punishment, guaranteeing religious freedom, encouraging trade, industry and modernisation, establishing rudimentary general education, being a continuous patron of the arts, science and philosophy.

To achieve his military aims he spent the lives of hundreds of thousands of his soldiers (and caused the deaths of many hundreds of thousands more Austrians, Poles and Russians), yet he was respected and even generally loved by his subjects. Still, spiritually deformed and damaged by his youthful experience, he grew increasing cynical about human nature. It is possible that he was homosexual – shy as a boy, as a man he wanted as little as possible to do with women, never fathering a child and consistently preferring male company. As he grew older, his misogyny developed into an even more general misanthropy. In later life he preferred, when possible, to withdraw to his palace of Sans Souci, which he himself had designed, in the company of his beloved greyhounds, which, he claimed, was better than that of most people. It was his wish that he be buried there – a wish which would not be fulfilled until 1991.

Frederick died on August 17, 1786, his life formed, deformed, defined by his commitment to his duty, his Pflicht. A year earlier, the professor of philosophy in the Prussian city of Königsberg, Immanuel Kant, had, in his seminal work, The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, taken the concept of Pflicht and transformed it into a sublimely liberating idea of the freely acting individual subject in his expression of the Categorical Imperative. Without the general atmosphere of security, tolerance and freedom which Frederick had realised in his kingdom, it can be argued that Kant would never have achieved the intellectual space to develop his magnificent philosophy.

While Prussian intellectuals (and even the elites in general in the kingdom) generally sympathised with ideals of the French Revolution, there was little practical agitation in the Prussian territories to follow the concrete path taken by the French. It seemed so unnecessary, after all, most of what the French Revolutionaries were agitating for in their country had already been achieved in Prussia under the Alte Fritz, with his encouragement and blessing. In this, perhaps, can be seen some of the inspiration for the historical theory of the German Sonderweg in its earliest stages. Prussia had no need to abolish its monarchy and introduce republican democracy in order to guarantee most of “the rights of man” – its absolute rulers, Frederick the Great above all, had been reasonable and enlightened enough to implement them practically in their own realm. It was an example that freedom and enlightenment could be imposed from the top down, rather than be (often bloodily) struggled for from the bottom up. Perhaps this did have some role to play in the late, and comparatively weak, development of a democratic tradition in Germany; a circumstance which may have made it easier for Germans to accede to, and generally enthusiastically embrace a ghastly dictatorship in the 20th Century.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. What a fascinating man. He must have suffered terribly and yet he gave to his kingdom that which he himself was denied by his father.

    It can only be imagined (I don't know much more than what I've read here) how difficult it must have been for him to wages wars and sacrifise the lives of so many people. He must have been very strong. Many in his position would perhaps have taken their own life.

    I always learn new things here. Thank you.

  2. Ah Gina, you've seen through to some of the core of Frederick, as I see him. He was frequently a tortured soul.

    And yes, he too did contemplate suicide - the execution of his beloved tutor, Katte (on orders from his father, Frederick was forced to watch the beheading from the window of his cell), drove him into temporary madness. Following his greatest military defeat, at the Battle of Kundersdorf in 1759, during the Seven Years War (a real World War, fought on three continents, Europe, India/Asia and North America) he wrote:

    " This morning at 11 o'clock I have attacked the enemy. ... All my troops have worked wonders, but at a cost of innumerable losses. Our men got into confusion. I assembled them three times. In the end I was in danger of getting captured and had to retreat. My coat is perforated by bullets, two horses of mine have been shot dead. My misfortune is that I am still living ... Our defeat is very considerable: To me remains 3,000 men from an army of 48,000 men. At the moment in which I report all this, everyone is on the run; I am no more master of my troops. Thinking of the safety of anybody in Berlin is a good activity ... It is a cruel failure that I will not survive. The consequences of the battle will be worse than the battle itself. I do not have any more resources, and - frankly confessed - I believe that everything is lost. I will not survive the doom of my fatherland. Farewell forever!"

    Fortunately for Fritz, his Austrian and Russian enemies failed to take advantage from that particular victory and Frederick and his kingdom survived to fight on, eventually fighting his powerful enemies (France, Austria and Russia) to a standstill.

    The only real victors of the Seven Years War were Frederick's British allies, who managed to throw the French out of India, Canada and the American Colonies - where one of their best commanders was a young Major of the Virginia Regiment, a certain George Washington. The war forms the background for The Last of the Mohicans

  3. I have a problem with the overall premise of your article but I still think its really informative. I really like your other posts. Keep up the great work. If you can add more video and pictures can be much better. Because they help much clear understanding. :) thanks

  4. Your comment to Gina was as fascinating to me as the original article so I'm very glad I arrived when I did and not a little earlier. Now I'm aware of a part of history I hadn't seen in that particular way before and I'm grateful for your reintroduction to Frederick the Great as a portal to understanding the conflicts of the 20th century.

  5. I had another thought about this article and perhaps it goes without saying...

    Frederick's father was probably quite aware of Frederick's "sensitive" tendencies as being unmanly and he tried to force it out of him by turning him into a soldier; a "real man".

    Not unlike what still sometimes happens today when a father notices a son who is perhaps into dance or acting and takes great pains to force that kid to play football or join the armed services.

  6. Yes, Gina and usually at the same ghastly price - the destruction of parts of the personality and creation of a desperately unhappy individual.

  7. I have a feeling that modern schooling started under this Fred. It was for boys only, highly regimented and produced model students for a Model Army.

  8. Thanks for your information!

  9. On a lighter side, I just discovered a distant cousin in Berlin Thomas Vargas von Rentzell who uses a variation on that same portrait of Frederich the Great for his profile picture on facebook.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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