A complex warrior king

Frederick the Great
January 12, 2001

While a debate rages in Germany about whether to erect a statue of Otto von Bismarck in front of the new German parliament, the personality of another founding father of modern Germany continues to exert a fascination, not least over British biographers. David Fraser's biography of Frederick II of Prussia brings the tally in Britain to three since 1985 alone. The origin of this fascination lies in the understandable if highly nebulous sense that the personality and exploits of Frederick the Great might somehow encapsulate the essence of the Prussian, and in turn German, national character.

Fraser's biography, which "aims to explore every aspect of Frederick's life and career", is informative and well written. It charts Frederick's contribution to the rise of Prussia from the vulnerable and relatively insignificant European kingdom he inherited in 1740 to the formidable military power and European state it was to become. Rivalry with Austria drove Frederick, and his infamous invasion of Austrian Silesia in the first year of his reign heralded the beginning of the century-long struggle between Austria and Prussia for "mastery" in Germany.

The author's fascination with Frederick centres on his status as one of the great "warrior leaders" of European history. Throughout his career Frederick was guided by the military philosophy that when threatened, one should attack. Fraser demonstrates that the most controversial episodes of Frederick's career derived from this theory. The question was not whether, but rather when and where Frederick would be challenged. The longer Prussia waited, the stronger her enemies would be.

This theory of preventive warfare guided his initiation of the first and second Silesian wars in 1740 and 1744, and of the seven years' war in 1756 when Prussia found itself confronted by a great offensive coalition of France, Austria and Russia. In these circumstances, Fraser argues, the king "chose the path of courage and pre-emption". Fraser's admiration for Frederick's ability as a military commander is evident. Indeed, his capacity to evaluate the significance of Frederick's military achievements is the book's great strength. He draws an interesting distinction between the military capabilities of Frederick and those of his father, Frederick William I, arguing that the latter's "approach to military matters was that of a drill-sergeant rather than a commander-in-chief". What distinguished Frederick as a commander were the complementary qualities of introspection and decisiveness, his strategic vision and tactical brilliance and, not least, his capacity for restraint when necessary. In war he believed in the offensive strike and in the importance of speed, energy and movement. And on the battlefield his immense topographical knowledge and sense of timing, combined with his resourcefulness and sheer physical courage, enabled him to lead his army to victory.

Providing lucid analyses of all Frederick's major battles and maps of every battlefield, Fraser demonstrates the way in which Frederick's strategy and tactics evolved with experience. The mediocre performance of the Prussian cavalry at his first big battle at Mollwitz in 1741 impressed on him the need to improve recruitment and training and to transform the cavalry's role so that it could be used to produce a coordinated shock effect. Especially crucial to Frederick's military success was his insistence on the individual initiative of his commanders and many, such as his brother Henry, would distinguish themselves in Frederick's service.

What saves this biography from hagiography is Fraser's capacity to depict Frederick on a human scale with all the contradictions and weaknesses that humanity entails. Moreover, he evaluates in a sensitive and even-handed fashion the failings of the king as a military commander, in particular his tendency to misread intelligence reports, and he blames Prussia's catastrophic defeat at the hands of a combined Austro-Russian force at Kunersdorf in 1759 on Frederick's faulty appreciation of the difficulties of the terrain and his overconfidence in the strength of his initial attack.

Fraser's appreciation of the human scale of Frederick's achievement is especially apparent in his treatment of the Prussian army. Ultimately, as Fraser is keen to point out, Frederick was only as great as his army with its superior discipline, firepower and training. Indeed, this was embarrassingly evident at Mollwitz, where the king lost his nerve but the day was saved by the initiative of his commanders and by the disciplined "moving walls" of the Prussian infantry. The complexities and contradictions of Frederick's character are successfully rendered: his extraordinary dedication to duty, his desire to understand and master all aspects of a problem or task, his personal modesty, his sense of justice and his vigorous, often cynical realism.

Fraser provides a plausible analysis of Frederick's fraught relationship with his often brutal father, Frederick William I, noting the mixture of hatred and admiration experienced by the son. And Fraser's eye for telling details finds expression in the memorable vignette of the Emperor Charles VI surreptitiously slipping the young Frederick an allowance during his incarceration at the hands of his tyrannical father in the fortress of Küstrin.

Fraser also succeeds admirably in navigating the reader through the complex terrain of Frederick's military campaigns while demonstrating a secure grasp of the broader political and diplomatic context in which Frederick lived and worked. Frederick's diplomatic concerns are lucidly outlined, and one of the advantages of Fraser's essentially chronological narrative is to make the reader aware of the frequently limited diplomatic and military insight available to Frederick at any one time. The reader is thus invited to share Frederick's surprise when in 1756, contrary to all his expectations, Austria entered into an alliance with Prussia's erstwhile ally, France. Fraser's command of the military and diplomatic context also enables him to put criticisms of Frederick into the broader perspective of European military history. Denunciations of Frederick for pressing on in the face of horrendous casualties at Torgau in 1760 are compared with similar criticisms levelled at Marlborough and Napoleon.

It is unfortunate, however, that Fraser does not bring his measured judgement and sense of context to bear in any sustained fashion on recent historiographical debates about Frederick's reign, namely the impact of Enlightenment philosophy on his policies as king. Fraser speaks in general terms about Frederick's "tastes for learning, literature and music", lucidly summarises the content of a number of his major writings and discusses the vagaries of his personal relationship with Voltaire, but never explores in any detail the development of Frederick's ideas or the nature of the famous intellectual exchange between the king and the philosopher. His description of Frederick as "a self-questioning undogmatic" seems close to the mark, but his observation that Voltaire's direct influence on Frederick was limited when he moved beyond affectionate literary and philosophical exchanges poses the fascinating question of the broader relationship between Enlightened ideas and political realities.

The biography adopts a resolutely traditional approach that seeks to analyse the character and exploits of an influential historical personality. Though this is not necessarily inappropriate when dealing with a period when the actions of "great men" did make a crucial difference, nevertheless, the reader gains little insight into the interaction between Prussia's monarch and its society, economy or political culture as a whole. It would have been interesting to discover more about Frederick's conception of monarchy and about the dynamics and function of the royal court. For these, ultimately, are some of the questions that lead to a greater understanding of Frederick's legacy to German political culture.

Anita Bunyan is a fellow in German, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Frederick the Great

Author - David Fraser
ISBN - 0 713 99377 4 and 0 14 028 590 3
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00 and £10.99
Pages - 704

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