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Atheist and gay, Frederick the Great was more radical than most leaders today

Tim Blanning's instructive, entertaining and surprising new biography of Prussia's colourful king will become the standard English-language account

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

Frederick the Great: King of Prussia Tim Blanning

Allen Lane, pp.625, £30

Reacquaintance with Germany is long overdue for most English people. Before 1914 it was at least as familiar as France and Italy. Tim Blanning, former professor of Modern European History at Cambridge, has already written brilliantly about Germany in books such as The Culture of Power and The Triumph of Music. His latest is a 625-page biography of Frederick II (a hero in his lifetime to many Englishmen), which also illuminates Berlin, Potsdam and Prussia in the 18th century. It is sure to be the standard English-language account for many years. It instructs; it entertains; and it surprises. Blanning shows that this hereditary monarch, born in Berlin in 1712, could be more radical than most leaders today. Atheist and homosexual, he called Christianity an ‘odd metaphysical fiction’, and Jesus the ‘Ganymede’ of the Apostle John.

Thanks to Blanning’s use of newly discovered (or previously ignored) poems and letters, readers learn that the Prussian royal family was so odious that it makes the House of Hanover, to whom it was closely related (Frederick the Great was a cousin, namesake and role model for Frederick, Prince of Wales), seem normal. Frederick’s father, Frederick William I, was a screaming psychopath who traumatised his son by forcing him to witness the execution of his lover, Lieutenant von Katte.

After Frederick’s accession in 1740, he became, in his turn, the tormentor of the family. Although he did not imprison his wife like George I, he repeatedly humiliated ‘this incorrigibly sour subspecies of the female sex’, as he called her. They barely met. His nephew and heir, the future Frederick William II, wrote of him in 1780: ‘That animal is a right scourge of God, spat out of Hell on to earth by God’s wrath.’

After his accession, in Blanning’s words Frederick ‘came out’. He spent most of his time far from prying eyes in Potsdam, south- west of Berlin, and enjoyed ‘intimate relations’ with young officers, as well as his first valet Fredersdorf. The king called him ‘du’ and he acted as an unofficial prime minister. Frederick commissioned a fresco of Ganymede and filled his parks with statues of Antinous or pairs of male lovers. His poems ‘The Orgasm’ and ‘Palladion’, the first written for his handsome Italian favourite Count Algarotti, praise ‘glorious heroes, responding both actively and passively to their lithe and obliging friends’.

Blanning emphasises the luxury and grandeur of the court of Prussia. Berlin had one of the largest city palaces in Europe and was surrounded by at least 20 country palaces for the monarch and the ruling family — many more than Vienna. Frederick II extended Charlottenburg, built Sans Souci, and the 638-room Neues Palais in Potsdam and bought a new palace in Breslau, capital of Silesia, in which he installed a throne room. On campaign he shared his troops’ hardships: they loved him. In peacetime, he amassed magnificent collections of pictures, sculptures, jewelled rings and snuff boxes. Frederick’s greenhouses were as luxurious as his gilded rococo bedrooms and music rooms. He built the Berlin opera and founded the Berlin porcelain factory.

Far from being ‘the first servant of the state’ as he sometimes claimed, in reality he was driven by desire for what he called ‘the aggrandisement of my house’, ‘the glory of the House of Brandenburg’, however much he hated its members; also for personal glory, to surpass his father and win the admiration of foreigners and posterity. Hence his conquest of Silesia from the House of Austria in 1740. He also devoted himself to the class interests of the nobility, which he called ‘the finest jewel in his crown and the lustre of his army’. He would not tolerate ‘non-noble vermin’ in the officer corps.


Frederick admired Louis XIV, who he resembled in his aversion to his capital, and in his love of music, rare marbles and colonnades. His carousel of 1750 was modelled on Louis XIV’s carousel of 1662. The Neues Palais was his Versailles, Sans Souci his Marly. Before the inevitable quarrel, Voltaire, who stayed at Potsdam in 1750–53, called his royal master ‘greater than Louis XIV… he thinks like Marcus Aurelius and writes like Cicero’.

Like the recent books of John Röhl on Wilhelm II and Jonathan Steinberg on Bismarck, Blanning shows that Prussia had a court society and culture — a ‘deep state’ not always visible on the surface. If more diaries and memoirs, such as those of Count Lehndorff and Hildegard von Spitzemberg, or the journalism of Alfred Kerr (father of the children’s author Judith Kerr) were translated, they would help us understand the driving force of the country which, before the self-inflicted cataclysm of 1914, was the powerhouse of Europe.

Frederick reviews his troops
Frederick reviews his troops

Frederick’s legal system was a major achievement. Equality before the law was less elusive than in other European states. Peasants could appeal to the King against landowners’ manorial courts. Civil oppression of Jews decreased. The public was consulted on new laws. In an age which judged people by manners, his subjects were impressed that — unlike other monarchs — he took off his hat to anyone whom he encountered.

Frederick II’s toleration, however, was less exceptional than it appears. The construction of a Catholic church in Berlin in 1747–73 would, as Blanning points out, have been impossible in Amsterdam or London. However, it merely enabled Berlin to catch up with other German cities. Dresden already had Catholic and Protestant churches — in Mannheim the same church had been used by Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics. Few Catholics rose to senior positions in Prussia.

Frederick micro-managed his monarchy. Ministers were ‘only instruments of his will’, who rarely discussed his decisions. He despised the ‘turbulence’ of the English constitution. Frederick annexed West Prussia in 1772 in the first partition of Poland, a European catastrophe which he initiated. Thereafter, Blanning writes, ‘neither the peasants nor the numerous Jews experienced any improvement in their wretched lot’.

Frederick inherited the best disciplined army in Europe. Prussian soldiers’ firing sounded ‘like a constant roll of thunder’. Unlike most other biographers, however, Blanning shows how many battles Frederick lost. His brother Prince Henry was not only a nicer man but also a better general — as the King occasionally acknowledged. Austria often defeated Prussia. Frederick was saved by British subsidies, the sacrifices of (and brutal discipline in) his rank and file, divisions among his enemies, above all his own willpower. In Blanning’s words he was ‘an indifferent general but a brilliant warlord’. If he had lost a war, he was ready to commit suicide (there were opium pills in a locket round his neck), and ‘see everything perish and buried with me, right down to the name of Prussia’. In that case, Europe might have been spared a lot.

In his lifetime he was hailed by admirers (including his fellow freemasons) as ‘the greatest man history has ever known’, ‘the greatest of the great’, and so on. In the long term, his reign was also a poisoned chalice. Victories can be almost as damaging as defeats; ‘great men’ often do more harm than good. With the help of official editions of his collected works and correspondence, Frederick’s policies and campaigns were studied with reverence by later Prussian officers and officials. His elevation of the Prussian army, inculcation of military spirit in ‘ordinary people’, cults of risk-taking,‘preventive’ wars and expansion (‘if one does not advance, one retreats’), his overestimation of Germans and contempt for Poles and Russians, repeatedly demonstrated in Blanning’s wonderful book, were subsequently imitated by increasingly militaristic German governments. Annexed in 1871 without the pretence of consultation, Alsace-Lorraine became another source of wars and tension — the Silesia of the late 19th century.

The wars that Frederick’s successors helped to start led to — among far worse horrors — the expulsion of 13 million Germans from their homes east of the Oder, and the expansion of Russia and Poland into the territories which Frederick had fought hard to annex. The Prussian monarchy was abolished in 1918, the Prussian state in 1947. Today almost no Germans live in Silesia or Prussia. Breslau is called Wroclau, Konigsberg Kaliningrad. Poland and Russia have the last laugh.

Frederick despised his neighbours to the south, the Saxons, whose land his troops devastated during the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. The Saxon Crown Prince Frederick Christian, for his part, lamented the ‘insolence, cruelty and barbarism’ of the Prussian occupiers. The two states were opposites. Unlike the rulers of Prussia, the rulers of Saxony were friends of Poland. Saxon troops were often used as opera extras rather than killers: in 1727 Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, gave Frederick William I a regiment of dragoons in exchange for pieces of blue-and-white porcelain.

Lali Hortsmann recounts in her superb memoirs Nothing for Tears that she heard a former footman of the last King of Saxony declare in 1945, as he surveyed the destruction of his country: ‘If my king had governed Germany, we should have had no war and suffered no defeat.’ Perhaps Tim Blanning will next turn his attention to Saxony, and write a biography of Augustus II, the ruler who transformed Dresden into a centre of European culture — and a favourite destination for English travellers.

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