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Frederick The Great: A Life in Deed and Letters [Paperback]

Giles MacDonogh
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 April 2000

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) was one of the most successful and controversial European monarchs. He became King of Prussia at the age of 29, which he went on to weld into one of the most formidable powers of Europe. He created a Royal Court that was the envy of Europe, surrounding himself with intellectuals, musicians, artists, philosophers, and in many ways he was the embodiment of the enlightened monarch of the 18th century. He abolished physical punishment, he was the architect of his houses and several public buildings in Potsdam, he dabbled in musical composition, and was a brave and much-feared soldier. Admired and idolized during the years after German unification, he suffered a downturn in his reputation with the cataclysmic defeat of the Germans in 1918.

Giles MacDonogh¿s biography gives us the most modern and fully-rounded portrait yet of a much misunderstood king.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; New edition edition (6 April 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1842120026
  • ISBN-13: 978-1842120026
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.5 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 461,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Giles MacDonogh is a British writer, historian and translator. His blog may be read on

He has worked as a journalist most notably for the Financial Times (1988 - 2003), where he covered food, drink and a variety of other subjects. He has also contributed to most of the other important British newspapers, and is a regular contributor to the Times. As a historian, MacDonogh concentrates on central Europe, principally Germany.

He was educated at the City of London School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read modern history. He later carried out historical research at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris.

MacDonogh is the author of fourteen books, chiefly about German history, but also on gastronomy and wine. In 1988 he won a Glenfiddich Special Award for his first book A Palate in Revolution (Robin Clark) and was short listed for the André Simon Award. His books have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Slovakian, Russian, Bulgarian and Polish.

Writing in the Spectator Magazine, Graham Stewart said "Giles MacDonogh has repeatedly shown himself to be in the front rank of British scholars of German history. The depth of his human understanding, the judiciousness of his pickings from source material and the quality of his writing make this book at once gripping and grave. Graham Stewart, playing for high stakes, Spectator Magazine, 15 August 2009.
His latest book is The Great Battles (Quercus 2010).

Product Description

Amazon Review

The 18th-century Prussian monarch Frederick the Great continues to divide opinion. For some he remains a model king, politically talented and culturally engaged, "a man", his friend Voltaire said, "who gives battle as readily as he writes an opera ... who has written more books than any of his contemporary princes has sired bastards." For others, though, he was a militaristic absolute monarch, the first example of what we could later come to think of as a distinctively German phenomenon, the fascist "führer". Giles MacDonogh's superb biography manages to steer a line between these extremes, and to explore a complex and fascinating figure. Around such a character myriad legends accrue, and MacDonogh examines them all dispassionately and penetratingly, from Frederick's philosophical ideas and military prowess down to his "maniacal coffee drinking" (he was eventually able to reduce his intake to "six or seven cups in the morning"). We are also treated to balanced examination of his sexuality--his mistresses, his alleged homosexuality, and even the intriguing charge that he was "physically underdeveloped in the sexual organs". Through all this, Frederick emerges as a curiously appealing character, bitchy and paranoid but nonetheless a human being rather than a stuffed historical waxwork. MacDonogh writes beautifully, and balances exquisitely between scholarly rigour and absorbing narrative. --Adam Roberts --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Book Description

A fresh and authoritative account of one of the legendary European monarchs of the age of Enlightened Despotism.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read, but not a thorough history 10 Oct 2000
By A Customer
Giles MacDonogh has written a very good book charting the personal history of Frederick the Great. He has done an excellent job analysing Frederick's character and personal relationships, but the book is weak in terms of the 'global' political, economic and military events that took place during Frederick's reign. The descriptions of battles are weak (with no maps of any sort), with more consideration given to Frederick's sexual preferences and relationship with Voltaire.
A very good book, if you are interested in Frederick the person, but certainly not a comprehensive history of Prussia during his lifetime.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Generally good but a wasted oportunity 28 July 2000
With the spectre of Hitler and Prussian militarism hovering in the back of the readers mind, the writer does much to dispell the image of Old Fritz as another German bogey man. It's interesting to read a book which recreates this varied and fascinating character, whoes reputation is still hotly debated. The political background is well described and a modern reader will be shocked by the pathetic reasons cited by the various states for war. Frederick's pre-emptive strike against Silesia plunged Europe into a series of protracted wars.
Unfortunately the book fails dismally to explain the campaigns and battles. So we are left with very little idea of why Napoleon amongst others cites Frederick as one of the great generals in history. This is a major over sight in an otherwise fascinating read. The scarcity of info on Frederick means this failure is a real wasted opportunity.
On the plus side Frederick's tyrannical father is vividly brought to life. When the young Prince repeatedly tried to flee Prussia, his father imprisoned him and forced him to watch the execution of one of his friends!
It's in the more intimate portrayal where the book excels - Frederick's long friendship with the slippery genius Voltaire, Frederick's writing and musical output is well documented. His alleged homosexuality is perhaps suitably skirted around due to the lack of actual evidence. In conclusion Frederick's reputation as an enlightened monarch is well debated and allows the reader to make up his/her own mind. My main fault with this book is, as I have said the cursory covered of Frederick as a soldier.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.4 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A new kind of biography in the form of an intellectual and social history of the man 5 July 2008
By Zendicant Penguin - Published on
Wow, this is the kind of popular history that one likes to find, for it is an easily read, quite original and highly entertaining piece of work. Most treatments of important historical figures are, of necessity, heavily-laden with names, dates, geography, and the minutiae of day to day and month to month activities. This is, after all, what a history is meant to be: An accurate recording of the events described. Most pleasure-readers want a lively, entertaining read that is also factually accurate. Unfortunately, an accurate history almost requires all of the relevant details. On the other hand, by including all of the detail the lively and entertaining parts are left out of the equation. (A marvelous exception to this rule is Robert Caro's singular and unrivaled biography of LBJ which, by the way, is still uncompleted three volumes and twenty years later).
Giles MacDonogh has crafted a solution by focusing on Frederick's social and intellectual life. Essentially this is a kind of monograph in which the machinations of the war campaigns, for instance, are summed up in a few lines or a paragraph rather than parsed in painful, niggling detail in mind-numbing liturgical fashion. Likewise, many important characters in Frederick's life are glossed over or mentioned in passing (with the exception of a fine exposition of his father's life, and a rather hilarious on-going description of the decades-long sometimes charming sometimes brutal battle of wills between Voltaire and Frederick). The unspoken premise is a familiarity with Frederick the Great. MacDonogh's mission is to uncover aspects of Frederick's character -those things that went into making him great- that weren't fully developed in other treatments of the man, so be prepared to read another to get one's fill of mind-numbing tactical data and a full calender of events and daily briefings. We find the essence of the man through an examination of the ideas that motivated him, a reasonable explanation of how they were inculcated and developed and how they were applied. It is, if you will, a pointillist portrait done in broad brush strokes.
Although you will likely come away from this book marveling at the genius of Frederick, the book suffers from not having at least a couple of maps to enable one to picture the puzzle-piece character of Frederick's home geography (one also wishes for more pictures of the players in Frederick's life, 16 pps. of pictures is just not enough). Also it doesn't supply quite enough for war campaign material for one to fully apprehend the awesome strategist that Frederick undoubtedly was (perhaps the author expects that this follows logically from a look at the man himself). It would also help to have a working knowledge of written French because the book is liberally sprinkled with lines in the French. The author seems to go out of his way to use obscure words so that one will frequently consult a dictionary. Funny enough because of the author's odd word choice I found myself looking up words that while completely familiar were still surprisingly ill-defined in my mental dictionary. I genuinely learned some new words and came to appreciate others which I believed I already knew. The biggest complaint I have is that the author expresses far too much interest in Frederick's sex life. Admittedly Voltaire's numerous scurrilous allegations against Frederick make for entertaining reading, but it seems that the author worries the issue like a small dog on a large bone.
My complaints are small-beer when compared to the list of very interesting details included one finds fascinating but would never have thought to wonder about. Frederick's taste in music, food, architecture, literature and philosophers, for instance: An overview of Frederick's views on the economy, law, education, agriculture and manufactory: Immersion in the life of Frederick's mind and numerous examples of his sharp, incisive wit and rather deep observations about people and culture. Finally, the author does a brilliant job of bringing various lines of poetry to life with his translations of material issuing from Frederick, Voltaire, and a slew of people within Frederick's orbit. This couldn't have been accomplished by anybody but a person with a flair for language and literature. This engaging read is sure to bring a good few hours of pleasurable reading.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For amateur and enthusiast alike 18 May 2000
By J. B. Tulgan - Published on
At times criticized and commended for its focus on merely Frederick, rather than Frederick the Great, MacDonogh's effort merits the attention of amateurs and enthusiasts alike. In a relatively brief space, MacDonogh is able to reveal a great deal of primary insight about a man who distinguished himself not only with the sword, but also a pen, a flute, etc. MacDonogh also demonstrates his ability to use the personalities to illustrate the time; weaving a thread through the German principalities of Frederick's youth is difficult enough without the need to discuss the circumstances of Frederick, his father and the machinations of foreign and Prussian envoys and courtiers. MacDonogh has given us an insightful piece about a man who lived a life full of something for everyone.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Middle Europe The Great 30 Mar 2001
By Book Mark - Published on
In a society stuffed with anglophiles and, more recently, celticphiles, we have little history available on Middle Europe and its grandeur. We know that it produced the most terrible army of the 20th Century. We also know of colorful snippets about how 18th Century German mercenaries lent a hand in Britain's fruitless effort to keep 13 American colonies from becoming an indepent nation.
The book gives a much deserved look at how Middle Europe's nations evolved through marriage, annexing and (naturlich) war. Frederick is taken off of his pedestal for us to take a closer look, and the authors shows us Frederick's warts and all. His family, especially his father, plays a vitol role in the book, which the author infers that this is a key element in driving Frederick to succeed.
If there is a shortcoming in the book, it would be the battles. Though the book was not published to be a historical guide on tactics and strategics, I would like to know more on how the protagonist became so land rich at Prussia's zenith.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars So why was he "great?" 6 Mar 2001
By Stuart Bloom - Published on
After reading this book, I still didn't know why Frederick II of Prussia had been accorded the title "the Great" by history. This volume spends a lot of time on detailing the personal life of a very flawed man, and very little explaining why he was a seminal force in 18th century politics. I finally turned to his entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which in a short article did a better job of explaining Frederick's place in history than this book did.
Other flaws in this book: for those of us not familiar with 18th century European political geography, a map or two would have been helpful; without maps, it's impossible to understand Frederick's political machinations or (especially) his military campaigns. Also, incredibly, among the pictures there is not a single one of Frederick's queen!
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Friedrich der Grosse 22 July 2010
By J.M.D. - Published on
Frederick the Great A Life in Deeds and Letters was not my first choice, but amazon doesn't have a lot to offer on der Alte Fritz. I found in it about a three star biography with some very neat details.

My main problem with the book was due to the printing of the book itself. The text was very thin and weak, rather than crisp and black,and in retrospect, I'm amazed I was able to deal with it and read the book entirely. The other problem with the printers is that the book has none of the pictures maps or diagrams, as someone else mentioned, that are cited in the book. Another minor problem I had was the way the author used all kinds of archaic obsolete terms for wine and booze that I didn't need to know about, but that made me scour the internet to understand what he was talking about. This was due to his personal interest in Wine, which in my opinion had little place in this biography.

It's a pretty heavy book due to its thick high quality pages, but it's upsetting that the typeface had to look so terrible. This is one I would've read again if the print didn't look so terrible.

If the print looked better it would have gotten 4 stars from me. MacDonogh found some really interesting stories and vignettes to place into the narrative of his life that truly kept me turning the pages. If you don't mind low quality typeface that can be irritating, I'd say go for it.

Also, kudos to MacDonogh for not shying away from Frederick's sexuality. It's irritating and cowardly when authors do a disservice to him by not mentioning his nontraditional preference, a problem that I'm encountering with a biography on the Baron von Steuben.
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