Anton Graff, Portrait of Frederick the Great, oil on canvas, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

As king, Frederick William I of Prussia gets credit for having created a strong army and an efficient civil service, but, as a father, he left something to be desired. A crude and violent man, his chief pleasures were hunting, relaxing with his “tobacco parliament” of beer-quaffing officers, and inspecting his soldiers on the parade ground in Potsdam, which he spelled varyingly as Bostdam or Postdam. Book knowledge and cultural pursuits in general he despised as unmanly and “the work of Satan.” In his ledgers, wages for academicians came under the heading of “expenses for the various royal buffoons.” In his zealous frugality, he had fired the court’s castrato singers and its chocolatier and ordered its elaborate silver centerpieces and precious knick-knacks melted into bars to be stashed away in the cellar. He was subject to drastic mood shifts and spells of insanity, brought on by porphyria, a congenital illness which causes multiple swellings and blisters and, to top it off, turns the sufferer’s urine blue.

The brunt of the king’s wrath was borne by Frederick (1712–1786), his eldest son, a precocious boy who preferred books and flute lessons to hunting and military reviews. From an early age, Frederick learned to dissemble—“I would very much like to know what is going on in that little head,” his father noted—but could not hide his fear of gunfire or his clumsiness on horseback.

A precocious boy who preferred books and flute lessons to hunting and military reviews.

On his own, Frederick had assembled a secret library with works by the main enlightenment figures Voltaire, Locke, and Bayle. And a visit at the age of sixteen to Augustus the Strong’s splendid court in Dresden opened Frederick’s eyes to a very different world of refinement, opera, and literature. Meanwhile, the humiliations increased: at mealtimes, he was placed at the bottom of the table—his mother had to send food to his room so he wouldn’t starve—and the physical abuse reached a point where the king forced him to kiss his feet. If he had been subjected to such indignities from his father, he would have killed himself, Frederick William mocked.

At his wits’ end, Frederick thought up a plan to flee to France and then on to England. When caught, he was subjected to solitary confinement and threatened with execution. His friend Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte was beheaded, the girl who had accompanied him on flute was whipped and sent to Spandau prison, his library was sold and his tutor was banished. After which his father forced him to undergo a strict regimen of religious observance and to become engaged to Elisabeth Christine of Bevern, “thick as two short planks” according to his mother, and smelly to boot, no doubt caused by “a dozen or so anal fistulas” in the catty words of one of his sisters. Frederick finally submitted, started taking military matters seriously and learned to sit properly on a horse, and with marriage got his own household, easing his situation somewhat.

The ultimate father from hell, Frederick William in “all his appalling glory” roars and bullies his way through the early chapters of Tim Blanning’s extraordinarily rich biography of his son, Frederick the Great: King of Prussia, until he thankfully dies in 1740.1 But even when in deepest despair, Blanning notes, “Frederick never seems to have considered the most obvious solution—regicide.” Rather, as is not unusual in such cases, the victim still hankers after the praise of his parent. In a dream long after his father’s death, Frederick heard himself saying to him, “Your approval is worth more to me than that of everyone else in the universe.” Thus as king, Frederick was determined to surpass the achievements of his old man, and, without ever becoming a “reductionist” Freudian, Blanning sets out to explore the many facets of Frederick’s character: the hedonist who was a stern ruler, the atheist who tolerated religion, the anti-Machiavellian who could deceive with the best, and the philosopher king who as warlord transformed Prussia into a great power.

After an upbringing like this, a certain amount of mental repair work is necessary, notes Blanning. For Frederick, this meant wholeheartedly cultivating the interests he had been forced to pursue in secret, and creating an aesthetic environment to his liking, “turning his father’s Sparta into Athens (or even Babylon).” Rather than Berlin, he chose Potsdam as his main residence, where he spent the winter in the Town Palace and the summers at Sanssouci, his rococo idyll, which he crammed with sugary fête galante scenes by Watteau, Lancret, and Pater and with enough statues of naked youths indoors and outdoors to make the horses blush. Blanning certainly does not hold back in conveying the “camp” aspects of Frederic’s all-male court, with its hothouse maliciousness and exotic practices.

Though many historians have ignored it or tiptoed around it, says Blanning, Frederick’s sexuality “was not something peripheral, to be passed over in furtive silence or to be explained away. It was central to his assertion of his own personality.” After his father’s death, he settled Queen Elisabeth Christine in a modest château in Berlin and thereafter totally ignored her. He likewise despised Maria Theresa of Austria and Elizabeth of Russia for the fact that they were women. His misogyny extended to his beloved greyhounds who sensing the unease of their master would howl at the mere sight of a woman.

The philosopher king who as warlord transformed Prussia into a great power.

In Frederick’s daily routine, music played a crucial part. He played the flute at the crack of dawn, at midday, and in the evenings with a small orchestra, and he wrote music himself. Musically, notes Blanning, he had definite dislikes. He dismissed Handel as being past it and Haydn’s symphonies he described as “a shindy that flays the ears.” He was a strict taskmaster: regarding orchestration, tempo, key, “there was nothing he did not decide, and the punishment for transgressors was severe,” his conductor wrote. Unwilling to be treated like some recruit, the Italian singer Ferrandini turned down an invitation.

Along with music, reading remained his favorite occupation. There were libraries in his six major palaces and a mobile one for his campaigns. He wrote extensively on politics, war, and history. Poetry, too. One of his first acts when becoming king was to invite Voltaire, who helped polish his early essay Anti-Machiavel, to come and stay with him. Voltaire’s impact on Frederick’s personality Blanning finds in his “mocking tone,” his use of “much wit, but also in much spite,” his penchant for finding “something ridiculous in everyone he met.”

Though often described as a Francophile, notes Blanning, he did not think much of contemporary French culture. A cultural conservative, what he enjoyed were the plays of Corneille and Racine. But the most important influence on him, says the author, was not French, but classical, though he had to read the classics in French as his father had considered Latin lessons a waste of time. Predictably, what he called “the abominable plays of Shakespeare,” received short shrift: “Ridiculous farces which merit only to be performed in front of savages in Canada.”

His native German he considered much too harsh, a language only fit for soldiers and horses, in the opinion of Voltaire. It could be “much improved,” Frederick muses, by sticking an “a” on to the end of words, turning the verb “sagen” into “sagena,” for instance. Goethe and the other German authors of his day left him cold. But, as he stated, “What greater service could I have performed for German literature than that I did not bother with it?”

On the matter of religion, his father’s brand of harsh Christianity had put him off the subject for good. Seeing himself as a philosopher king, “a beacon of reason,” he viewed Christianity “as an old metaphysical fiction spawned in the fevered imaginations of the Orientals.” But mindful of the havoc wrought by the Thirty Years’ War and of the self-inflicted economic wound when the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes drove out the Huguenots from France, he provided freedom of worship for his subjects. Considering himself “neutral between Rome and Geneva,” he even allowed a Catholic church to be built in Berlin: “From my subjects I demand nothing more than civil obedience and loyalty.”

Instead, Blanning speaks of “the sacralization of culture,” with art being promoted from “being an instrument for the glory of God to being God itself.” In Berlin, Frederick built an opera house, the first “freestanding” edifice of its kind in Europe—before, such venues were either found within the royal palace or right next to it. So big was it that during the winter, soldiers were drafted to help heat it with their warm bodies. The opera became “the metaphysical cathedral of Frederick’s art reign.”

For all his hedonist inclinations, Frederick had an “exceptional capacity for hard work.” And, says Blanning, just because he was indifferent to German literature does not mean that he was not conscious of his German nationality. He repeatedly hammers the French for arrogance and decadence and for persecuting dissent. “Frenchmen, flaunt your riches/ Your luxury, and your languor. . . . My more frugal nation/ Can only oppose its virtues.”

Considering himself the first servant of the state, he had inherited the stern Pietist work ethic, “an ethos of duty, service, self sacrifice, fairness and efficiency.” And he was acutely conscious of his public image, says Blanning. While at the court at Sanssouci he would fop around in a resplendent white suit with fancy trimmings; when out riding among his subjects, he would wear a modest uniform and doff his hat at the people he passed.

Not the delegating kind—“his ministers [were] only the instruments of his will,” wrote a senior minister—he made constant inspection tours, and Blanning enumerates a series of choice epithets in his marginal comments when he encountered foot-dragging in the bureaucracy, including “Thieves, apes, rascals, lackeys, scallywags, jokers, idiots, cheats and rogues.”

He abolished torture and saw to it that capital punishment was used sparingly. We see him personally trying to intervene in a court case where he believed a miller had been treated unfairly in his case against a nobleman—he was wrong, it turned out, but the incident shows his commitment to the principle of equality before the law.

Blanning also has him reduce a six-year sentence for poaching, which would fall in Frederick’s category of crimes committed by poverty or folly. But if violence was involved, there was no leniency. Violent and premeditated robbery earned the perpetrator a death sentence or life imprisonment. Blanning also mentions the summary execution of an army chaplain who had heard confession from two soldiers who intended to desert and had kept quiet about it. His body was allowed to rot in the roadside gallows.

And make no mistake: though he had sided with the said miller, notes Blanning, he was very much the nobility’s man—“I will not tolerate non-noble vermin in the officer corps.” What the incident merely showed was his willingness “to distinguish between actions of individual nobles and the interest of nobles as a class.”

Also, says Blanning, one should not overstate his commitment to freedom of expression. Although he is famous for having stated that, “If newspapers are to be interesting, they must not be interfered with,” and for ordering pamphlets attacking himself to be placed lower on the gates of Sanssouci to be easier to read, he soon reinstated press censorship, though perhaps not so effective in practice.

And while Julien Jean Offray de La Mettrie, the materialist author of L’homme machine benefitted from Fredrick’s policy of offering refuge to persecuted writers and was given a post at the Berlin Academy, his Discourse on happiness with its advocacy of flagrant hedonism was burned publicly. Rousseau, for his part, was granted asylum in Neuchâtel, the Swiss principality, then a Prussian possession, but Frederick cautioned, “anything should be done to stop his writing. The man is a lunatic.”

Not content with merely possessing a strong army and bragging about it, as his father had been, says Blanning, Frederick actually wanted to use it.

Thus, as a ruler, while Frederick does not fall in the despot category, says Blanning, “he was definitely an autocrat,” of whom “it is safe to assume that he would never have ceded one jot of his absolute authority.”

This same steeliness we find in Frederick the soldier. Not content with merely possessing a strong army and bragging about it, as his father had been, says Blanning, Frederick actually wanted to use it: his country’s status as what he called “the sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire” badly needed changing. Exploiting the predicament of Maria Theresa of Austria, who after the death of her father Charles VI in her own words was left “without money, without credit, without an army, without experience or any knowledge of [her] own, and finally without any kind of advice,” he chose Silesia, the richest of the Habsburg provinces, as his prey.

Frederick had just published the Anti-Machiavel, emphasizing that only defensive wars were just, and that for a statesman to lie was counterproductive, as his credibility would be destroyed. Yet he was perfectly willing to have his foreign minister cook up a phony justification for invading Silesia: “Bravo, that is the work of a good charlatan.” Here Blanning cites the historian Theodor Schieder’s argument that whereas Frederick’s anti-Machiavellianism was more of an intellectual exercise, his Machiavellianism came naturally. Having underestimated Maria Theresa’s resolution, writes Blanning, “he spent the rest of his life trying to hang on to his booty.”

Reviewing the three wars Frederick fought over Silesia, Napoleon praised him to the skies for the 1757 battle of Leuthen, where 35,000 Prussians licked 65,000 Austrians: “a masterpiece of movements, enough to . . . rank him among the greatest generals,” Blanning is less impressed: examining his record as a battlefield commander, Blanning joins Christopher Clark, the author of Iron Kingdom, in reminding us that out of sixteen major clashes, he lost eight. In fact, says Blanning, his brother Henry proved himself to be a better field commander.

But Frederick did enjoy some crucial advantages over his enemies: unity of command against the bungling decision-making process of his opponents, which at key moments prevented them from coordinating their efforts; the superior training of his infantry, which enabled them to fire at more than double the rate of the Austrians; and the loyalty of his troops, even when things looked most bleak, which he had earned by his willingness to share their privations.

After the peace of Dresden, which ended the Second Silesian War, Frederick was hailed as Frederick the Great for the first time. But this peace didn’t last for long, and seeing his enemies massing on his borders, in 1756 he launched a preemptive attack on Saxony, thereby triggering the Third Silesian War, which was part of the greater Seven Years’ War. Facing him was a powerful coalition consisting of France, Austria, and Russia, while he only had a limited agreement with Britain himself. The thought that old enemies like France and Austria could combine had never occurred to him, says Blanning.

In the ensuing war, Frederick came close to losing several times. After the battle of Kunersdorf (1759), his greatest disaster, where “my coat was riddled with musket balls” and two horses were killed under him, the allies could have ended it, if the Russians and the Austrians had joined forces and marched on Berlin: but in what he referred to as the miracle of the House of Brandenburg, they didn’t.

“He was an indifferent general, but a brilliant warlord.”

In 1762, he had another stroke of luck when the Tsarina died. Peter, the new Tsar, had an “inexorable passion” for Frederick, turning Russia from enemy to ally overnight. And when Peter was assassinated, his widow Catherine remained passive. But Blanning dismisses the idea that Frederick was saved by “a fluke”: “By this time all the continental combatants were exhausted, out of money and willpower. It was the Prussian state that could still generate the necessary funds and manpower to win the last battles.” The Treaty of Hubertusberg confirmed Silesia as Prussian property.

To sum up Frederick as a warrior: while Frederick’s brother Henry may have been a better field commander, if Frederick had been killed by the Russians at Kummersdorf, says Banning, Henry would have thrown in the towel and ended Prussia’s great power dreams: “Frederick’s tenacity made sure that Prussia held on to Silesia, no matter how dire the situation.” “In short,” writes Blanning, “he was an indifferent general, but a brilliant warlord.”

As Blanning notes in his conclusion, “Frederick’s protean nature leaves him open to many conflicting interpretations”: to suit their own agenda, some have overstressed his enlightenment side, others his authoritarian side. But in his enlightened absolutism, Blanning finds “enough progressive elements” that would make educated Prussians feel good about their country. “The severity and security of the administration of justice gave the Prussian subject a certain noble defiance and rare self-confidence that one finds among common people only in England and Holland,” says Blanning. “In an ocean heaving with irrational cruelty, a sovereign who was merely severe stood out as an island of humanity.”

As a warlord, his feat of turning Prussia from a backwater into a European great power caused Churchill and others to speak of an inexorable progression of Horrible Huns stretching from Frederick through Bismarck and Der Kaiser and culminating in Hitler’s Third Reich, a process whose inevitability, however, has been convincingly refuted by Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom.

But “whatever one might think of the impact on subsequent German history, no one can read [Frederick’s] works or listen to his music without realizing he possessed extraordinary gifts,” concludes Blanning. And while the careers of the Sun King and Napoleon certainly conform to Enoch Powell’s old line, quoted here, that “all political careers end in failure,” Blanning sees Elizabeth I and Frederick as exceptions, two monarchs who went out on a note of triumph.


1 Frederick the Great: King of Prussia, by Tim Blanning; Deckle Edge, 688 pages, $35.