A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – December 2015 (2)


Frederick the Great, King of Prussia – Tim Blanning

It was Philip Larkin who wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do”. If there is any truth in what Larkin says, then Frederick the Great (1712-1786) may be the perfect example. Der Alte Fritz endured a brutal upbringing at the hands of his father, Frederick William I who doubtless saw his boy’s sensitive side and wanted to knock it out of him. Our hero eloped with his best friend, Hans Hermann von Katte, but were caught on the border, Frederick just escaping execution but forced to watch the beheading of his squeeze.

On ascending the throne in 1740, Frederick was able to give full rein to his repressed feelings and interests. He was a keen and accomplished flautist, loved jewels and was passionate about exotic fruits. There is little doubt that he was homocentric and his court was almost exclusively male. He was married – he treated abysmally his wife, Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, whom his father had foisted on him in an attempt to frustrate his natural predilections – but bore no heirs. A rather catty comment by Voltaire, one of his confidantes, suggested that so traumatic was Frederick’s treatment at the hands of his father that he was good for nothing other than the passive role.

Blanning’s book falls into three parts – what made the man, his military career and then his influence. This does mean there is some repetition as he goes over the same ground from different angles – on more than occasion I felt I had read the same sentence elsewhere – but on the whole he does his subject justice.

I have always regarded the Holy Roman Empire and its collection of German Electorates and palatinates as being the equivalent of the Schleswig-Holstein question. But I am neither mad, dead nor like Palmerston have forgotten the answer so even having read this book I must confess I’m none the wiser. But what is clear is that Frederick was a master strategist and saw that the key to Prussia’s survival and eventual dominance was wresting Silesia from the Austrians. Taking advantage of a power vacuum in the Holy Roman Empire he launched an attack on the province in December 1740, just 6 months after ascending the throne himself, and within seven weeks had occupied most of it.

The Prussian hold on Silesia was confirmed after the second Silesian War and despite being threatened by four enemies from all sides he navigated Prussia successfully through the Seven Years War, despite some devastating defeats along the way. Frederick was also instrumental in engineering the first partition of Poland, a country and race he despised, acquiring some 20,000 square miles of territory in 1772. It was his military achievements as a strategist and tactician that won him his renown. When Napoleon defeated the Prussians in 1806 and marched into Berlin, he made a bee-line to Frederick’s tomb to pay homage.

In a staunchly Protestant country Frederick was agnostic but promoted an atmosphere of religious tolerance, except for the Jews. He was a micro-manager, taking a central role in all the affairs of state and in the running of the country, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. His tastes and ideas seemed to have come to a crashing halt in the 1740s so that towards the end of his reign he was an arch-conservative.

Blanning’s portrait of this man of contradictions, a camp, music loving man in private and a pre-eminent military strategist in public, does his subject proud.

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