The King of Carlyle

Giles MacDonogh visits the History Today archive to examine Nancy Mitford’s 1968 article on one of the ‘oddest’ biographies ever written, Thomas Carlyle’s massive study of Frederick the Great.

Thomas Carlyle’s life of Frederick the Great was published in eight volumes between 1858 and 1865. Nancy Mitford produced a single volume life of the Prussian king in 1970 which her History Today article anticipates. Between these two publications fell the chasm of the Victorian age, the solid Edwardian years and two world wars in which the Germans (always vilified as ‘Prussians’) were decidedly the villains of the piece.

Both books were revolutionary in their different ways. The first life of Frederick to be published after the Second World War – by the fine historian George Peabody Gooch – suffers from a perceived need to view the king through the lens of the tragedy of the 20th century. As Jürgen Habermas might have desired it, Gooch’s account of the Prussian king makes a passing nod to Auschwitz. His appraisal was certainly not the worst; the war, the Ministry of Information and other bodies concerned with anti-German propaganda had influenced a collection of books that wrought the cultured, homosexual sage of Sanssouci (and he was a warrior too) into the precursor of Hitler.

It cannot be denied that Hitler was fascinated by Frederick and desperate to see him as a precursor. The Führer was one of many Austrian-German nationalists for whom their country’s history had been a disaster because it had looked to its multinational empire for inspiration rather than hitch its ancient galleon to the nimble frigate that was the post- Bismarckian German Reich. And Hitler loved Carlyle. It was his nightly reading in the Bunker – or rather Goebbels read it to him – pointing out the parallels between the king’s inept brother Augustus William and Hermann Goering and suggesting Hitler sack the latter as the king did his brother.

In her article Nancy Mitford points out just how diligent Carlyle had been in his descriptions of the battles, visiting each and every field. His book had become a textbook for students of military history.

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