Frederick the Great: King of Prussia
Allen Lane 672pp £30
Tim Blanning offers a telling comparison at the beginning of this magisterial and insightful new biography. In 16th-century Brandenburg, the Reformation brought a windfall of land to its ruler and, in contrast to England, the new landholding was retained. The long-term consequence was that the Electorate of Brandenburg was transformed into the strsong monarchy of Prussia, as Frederick the Great’s two important predecessors (his great-grandfather Frederick William, ‘the Great Elector’, and his father, Frederick William I) brought even more land under their direct control. The king personally owned a quarter of his own kingdom and produced half of the national revenue. Prussia had widely dispersed territories, yet it was a highly centralised state.
Its nobility was a disciplined military and administrative class at the service of their king. But Frederick William I demanded an even greater and submissive loyalty from Frederick, his eldest son. When young Frederick reacted against the harshness of his father’s discipline by trying to flee Prussia, the reaction was brutal in the extreme. Frederick William forced his son to witness the beheading of his best friend and possible lover. There followed years of humiliation until Frederick’s self-abasement earned him a form of independence. However, as Blanning shows, he never escaped his father’s shadow.
Certainly the new King Frederick was, on a personal level, free to enjoy the art, music, literature and philosophy that his father detested and he did so with a French-speaking cercle intime that was, in Blanning’s words, ‘both homosocial and homoerotic and, for Frederick himself, probably homosexual too’. But, as a ruler, he was yoked to an autocratic style of government. As Blanning makes clear, Frederick found a ‘route to repairing the damage inflicted by his father: to do what the latter desired most, but to do it better’. Whereas Frederick’s father hesitated to unleash the force of the Prussian state for further territorial expansion, Frederick had no such compunction. Within months of becoming king, he seized the resource-rich province of Silesia from Austria and Europe was plunged into conflict. Throughout his 46-year reign Prussia was either at war or preparing for it. Frederick achieved crushing victories but, as Blanning describes, quoting from the king’s own surprisingly candid writings, he was prone to gross tactical misjudgements on the battlefield and in diplomacy.
Blanning does not spare Frederick. He reveals a man who was callous towards his sadly loyal queen and capable of vindictiveness towards anyone, including his brothers, who he felt had in any way failed him.
In everything, Frederick sought control. Rising at daybreak, he went straight to his desk to direct government business. It was the same with his cultural interests: the grand opera house at Berlin was built to his specifications and its music played to his exact direction.
Frederick was an autocrat, not a despot. He demanded civil obedience and loyalty, but did not interfere with the individual beliefs of his subjects. Frederick was dedicated to his own enlightenment, but his control meant that he could introduce religious toleration as a matter of policy. Yet, if his own rural subjects and Protestants across Europe wished to regard him as their champion, he was happy to take political advantage, even though he regarded all religion as nonsense.
As to Frederick’s own ‘greatness’, Blanning demonstrates an acute understanding of 18th-century statecraft to show that the Prussian king, with daring and some fortune, created a wholly new European power and with lasting consequences. For, though Napoleon tried, he failed to destroy Frederick’s legacy: Prussia would bloom again.
This is a remarkable portrait of an exceptionally complex man, as readable as it is scholarly.
George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016).