Old Fritz

A scholar's account of Prussia's enlightened despot.

In 1717, Frederick William, the king of Prussia, gave his 5-year-old son a full company of lead soldiers for Christmas. This was in keeping with the monarch’s insistence that the boy's education should be guided by the principle "that there is nothing in the world that bestows on a prince more fame and honor than the sword." But his son, who later would be called Frederick the Great, barely glanced at his father's gift. Instead, as Tim Blanning writes in this fascinating new biography of the Prussian ruler, "the little boy . . . turned away to a magnificently bound volume of French melodies and was soon entrancing his female audience with his lute."

Blanning, a former professor of modern European history at Cambridge and prolific author, peppers his latest hefty volume with numerous revealing anecdotes of this ilk. As he points out, he has been studying Prussia's most famous king "for as long as I can remember." The result is a book that is both panoramic in scope and crammed full of often-petty rivalries and personal details, along with the seemingly incessant military campaigns. That can make for a dense narrative at times, but his subject defies easy characterization—or any categorization. Frederick, after all, has been portrayed as an enlightened ruler who disregarded many of the social conventions of his time, while he was later hailed by Hitler as one of his heroes, a leader who demonstrated the virtues of Prussian militarism and discipline.

Over the ages, monarchs have abused, tortured, imprisoned, and even killed their own children, so it was hardly surprising that the little boy who spurned the gift of lead soldiers was destined to suffer mightily at the hands of his wrathful father. Blanning devotes the early part of his book to "the breaking of Frederick," as he aptly puts it, which makes for grim but utterly mesmerizing reading. While Frederick did not experience anything remarkably extreme by the standards of his times, the modern reader cannot help but be struck by the humiliating nature of his relentless mistreatment—and how it shaped his character.

Frederick's father, who suffered from porphyria, a hereditary affliction that often triggered his violent rages and mood swings, quickly became alarmed by his oldest son's "effeminacy"—his lack of interest in hunting and other "manly" pursuits, his love of literature and music, and as he grew older, his close friendships with other young men. After Frederick tried to run away to England, his father punched him repeatedly in the face and sent him off to prison, treating him as a traitor. His life was spared, but not before he was forced to witness the beheading of Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte, who was branded a co-conspirator—but whose fate was probably sealed by the almost certainly well-founded belief that he was one of the crown prince's lovers.

Recognizing that only complete capitulation would satisfy his father, Frederick "submitted and dissembled," as Blanning puts it, to win a pardon. He pledged obedience and repeatedly threw himself at the ruler's feet. Most important, he agreed to marry Elizabeth Christine, his father's choice, sleeping with her "out of duty rather than inclination," as he explained to a friend. When his father died in 1740, he quickly abandoned the pretense of a normal marriage. He rarely saw the woman who was nominally the queen, and he ostentatiously elevated the queen mother, treating her as the first lady of Prussia.

While cautioning that the boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuality were "more fluid" in Frederick's era than in more recent times, Blanning maintains that his father's death freed him to transform his court into a "homosocial, homoerotic and probably homosexual" milieu. He was also free (and wealthy enough) to indulge his taste for the arts that his father had always despised. He built Berlin's lavish new opera house, which could seat an audience of 2,000, and multiple palaces, rapidly acquiring collections of paintings and sculptures to fill them. The city's fame as a cultural capital spread rapidly, attracting the haut monde of Europe.

Frederick offered Voltaire, whose subversive writing he had admired in his youth, refuge and then a paid position, with both men displaying, as Blanning points out, "an extraordinary fluency in turning out page after page of short rhyming lines on every kind of subject." With his "busy pen," Blanning adds, Frederick also churned out a volume called Anti-Machiavelli or An Examination of Machiavelli's Il Principe Together with Historical and Political Notes.

Viewed selectively, Frederick's pronouncements could be seen as truly revolutionary. In his treatise on Machiavelli, he argued, "Princes who wage unjust wars are more cruel and cold-blooded than any tyrant ever was." On other occasions, he defended basic freedoms: "I want everyone in my state to be able to pray to God and to make love as they see fit," he declared. He also pointed out that "if newspapers are to be interesting, they must not be interfered with." But of course, interfere he did, demanding effective control and imposing his own, often quirky, literary judgments. Shakespeare wrote "abominable plays," he opined. And after his ardor for Voltaire cooled, he publicly burned one of his pamphlets.

The king's often-contradictory actions were tied to the many targets of his fierce contempt. He voiced, in the most vulgar terms, his misogynistic views of powerful women like the Holy Roman empress Maria Theresa and Russia's Catherine the Great. He dismissed German literature as "a farrago of inflated phrases" and even the "semi-barbaric" German language, which accounted for his preference for French. While espousing tolerance, he despised all religions, dubbing Christianity "an old metaphysical fiction." He also discriminated against the Jews, explaining that they were part of the "most dangerous" sect.

Frederick may have been an enlightened despot, in the sense that he embraced some of the arts and claimed to value poor peasants as much as nobles. This stood in stark contrast to his father, who held the rigidly conventional views of most monarchs on such subjects. But in reality, Frederick could be as autocratic as his predecessor, not allowing "non-noble vermin" in his officer corps, for example, and insisting on the classic notions of honor, duty, and service—which meant subservience to his will.

Father and son were most alike when it came to warfare, despite Frederick's early lack of interest in martial matters. Disregarding what he had written in his attack on Machiavelli, he admitted that "I love war for the glory." He was soon embroiled in three wars for Silesia, along with the Seven Years' War that pitted Prussia and England against Austria, France, and Russia. "If one does not advance, one retreats," Frederick declared by way of explanation for his "constantly advancing . . . from conquest to conquest."

In fact, there were also costly defeats, and his attempts to compare himself to Alexander the Great hardly stood up to scrutiny. He was guilty of "bone-headed obstinacy," Blanning writes, when he refused to listen to his generals in one key battle against the Austrians. The tens of thousands of dead and dying in this and other battles were "victims of his ambition," Blanning adds. But there was no doubting Frederick's personal courage. Unlike leaders today, he risked as much as the men he sent into battle. During a near-disastrous defeat at the hands of Russian forces in 1759, Frederick barely escaped with his life: "My coat is riddled with musket balls," he wrote, "and I have had two horses killed beneath me." Despondent, he predicted that "I shall not survive this cruel turn of fortune."

Survive he did, of course—and more. In a region of conflicting, often bewildering, loyalties and intrigues, Frederick became a de facto partner of Austria and Russia in the first partial partition of Poland in 1772. This accelerated the country's decline that would culminate in its total partition after his death, but Frederick would have had no problem with that. "Poland is in a perpetual state of anarchy," he wrote. "The Poles are vain, haughty when fortune smiles upon them, and mean in adversity."

Frederick died in 1786 at the age of 74, having ruled his kingdom for 46 years. Appropriately, neither his wife nor any clergy were at his side when he breathed his last. Although his military record was decidedly mixed, Blanning concludes that "Frederick could congratulate himself on having garnered sufficient resources to take his state from third-rate to first-rate status in Europe," especially by conquering Silesia and adding the province of West Prussia.

Even for readers who are reasonably familiar with the broad outlines of Europe's upheavals in the 18th century, Frederick the Great can be tough going at times, particularly in the recounting of the incessant fighting and complex royal politics that crisscrossed borders. But as Frederick would say—in French, of course—chapeau bas (hats off) to Blanning for navigating this treacherous terrain as skillfully as he does. In the process, he has provided a highly authoritative, rich, multilayered profile of a leader whose record is still debated to this day.

Andrew Nagorski's latest book, The Nazi Hunters, is published this month.