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Frederick the Great: A Singular Life, Variably Reflected

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 13, Number 1, January 2012
pp. 29-33 | 10.1353/hsp.2012.0011

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Frederick the Great was a monarch of more than temporary and regional significance. He matters to the history of the 18th century, influenced events beyond it, and may be said to remain relevant to our concerns today in the way earlier responses to such social and political issues as the relations between government and subject—now citizen—have meaning for later generations. That a kind of mythology soon developed around Frederick—further setting him apart from other rulers of the time, his uncle George II, for instance, or Louis XV—confirms the more than ordinary interest he evoked in his contemporaries. The legends celebrate and mask a man who applied his unusual intelligence and energy to two principal pursuits. One was to rule his state, which he did with a rare attention to detail while seeking major ends. He was fascinated by the cogs in the state's administrative and institutional machinery, and what they made possible. As he declared in his poem "The Art of War": "Love the details, they are not without glory" (Aimez donc ces détails, ils ne sont pas sans gloire).

To gain glory by enlarging and strengthening the state was an early, consuming ambition. When not yet twenty he declared that once king he would join the separate dynastic possessions out of which, under his grandfather, the Prussian monarchy had been formed. After his accession he at once began the process of consolidation and expansion by invading Silesia, part of the Habsburg empire, and with this acquisition expelled Austrian power from northern Germany, which set his state on a broad, complex path toward our own day. But even apart from the immediate and eventual consequences of his reign, Frederick continues to hold our attention with his second occupation: his writings on the conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, on war, on history, his poetry, his many musical compositions, and a vast correspondence, all of which changed him from a fervent but passive admirer of Enlightenment ideas and attitudes in his youth to their energetic if selective and often challenging exponent as king.

Frederick's life and reign have been extensively studied. In the past two centuries his writings and thousands of documents on his administration and wars have been published or become available in archives, making truly comprehensive biographies possible. But the facts now accessible to all are interpreted differently. Compare, for example, two serious modern lives, one by the British historian G.P. Gooch, the other by the German historian Johannes Kunisch. On much they agree. Both, to mention one point, state that no international agreement could justify Frederick's occupation of Silesia, even if Gooch holds the diplomacy of the time to rigid ethical standards, while Kunisch underlines its shifts and mutual deceptions, which gave the young king's ambitions an opening if he was prepared to take great risks. Elsewhere they differ, for example on the significance of the brutal treatment Frederick suffered from his father. Gooch pays relatively little attention to it, since, he writes, "a more intelligent education would hardly have influenced [Frederick's] politics, [even if] it might have made him a happier and better human being," whereas Kunisch traces the conflict of father and son as it unfolded before a shocked but disciplined Prussian court, and finds Frederick's traumatic youth a determining influence in his life.


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Frederick at twenty. Engraving by Georg Paul Busch, 1732. Collection of the author.

Such disagreements express different points of view, particular goals, and always the passage of time. As social and political conditions change, so do the questions we ask of the past and our ways of posing and answering them. The varieties of Frederick's image in history have often been explored, seldom more precisely than Stephan Skalweit in an article of 1951, with its clear exposition of the ways social and political change shapes historical discourse. It would be interesting to extend his reflections to current publications; but today I should like to talk about Frederick himself, and to begin let me return to the impression he made on his contemporaries. Some who knew him, or from afar followed his policies and read his...


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