on 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.
on 15 February 2015
The uses and abuses to which generations of historians have put Frederick the Great have only served to cloud his reputation. So says Giles MacDonogh, who has no wish to rehash, for instance, Carlyle's Frederick the Hero; if anything, he inclines towards Macaulay's Frederick-the-Not-So-Great. But his overriding objective is to present Frederick the way he really was, as an accomplished flute player, man of letters, and the last European king to personally lead his troops into battle, wearing his familiar tobacco-stained coat. MacDonogh's Frederick is far from the patriotic champion of German nationalism, which he regards as an imposter created by 19th century historians.
One strength of this engaging biography is that MacDonogh is not only well-read in the literature of Frederick the Great, he also has a first-hand, intimate knowledge of Berlin and Potsdam. He has taken the trouble to inspect many of the surviving palaces and residences, though apparently not the battlefields. He writes with wit (the reason Frederick felt the German language had no rules was "because he never learned any," pg. 200), and one imagines that he would make a well-informed tour guide with advice on the best beer and wine cellars, while quoting Frederick's bon mot that "champagne carries happiness to the brain" (pg. 207). Throughout, he shows more interest in architecture, painting and music than in tactics or the dull intricacies of siege warfare.
At the same time he avoids sugarcoating the king. "Frederick was a menace to all those who had the misfortune to come too close" (pg. 243). MacDonogh has a sharp eye for the petty jealousies and intrigues at the far-from-splendid Prussian court, and the way courtiers jockeyed for influence.
He faults Frederick for not appreciating the great German writers of his age. This is perhaps somewhat unfair. When Frederick published his essay on German literature (1780), Goethe and Schiller were still considered iconoclastic young rebels, unlikely to appeal to someone of the king's generation (he was born in 1712). After all, the king's tastes were formed when the Rococo was fashionable. One could chastise him with greater justice for not appreciating Lessing, who was more his own age (born 1729). MacDonogh's treatment of this topic would have been fuller if he had consulted the protocols of Frederick's conversations with Gottsched, the so-called German literary pope, and Gellert, the revered author of popular fables.
Naturally enough, Frederick's relationship with Voltaire takes up a large chunk of this biography. One of the chief reasons the king wanted Voltaire to come to Potsdam was to be his tutor in the art of French poetry. They spent hours upon hours in this undertaking – which eventually paid off. Under Voltaire's tutelage, Frederick turned into a decent versifier if not a first-rate poet. While MacDonogh's translations of French poetry are certainly better than average, he fails to do justice to the strides Frederick took as a poet under Voltaire's guidance. He spends rather more time taking a dim view of their shared anti-clericalism, saying that Voltaire fed Frederick's prejudices.
In a fight, it was an advantage to have Voltaire on your side, though perhaps not exactly at your side. Frederick's chief mistake was insisting that Voltaire join him in Potsdam. The king tolerated his guest at first, playing the role of a patient father with a wayward son who was always up to some mischief or other. Soon enough, though, he came to think of him as a kind of highly intelligent but incorrigible monkey. Very likely their friendship would have been much less troubled if they had never met face to face.
In the end, Voltaire plotted to make Frederick so angry that he would grant his wish to return to France. As a professional manufacturer of poisonous rumors, he did not find this difficult. If Frederick had had to learn the art of concealment at the rough hands of his father, Voltaire seems to have enjoyed indulging in duplicity as a kind of malicious sport. He carried on his sniping even after gaining Frederick's permission to depart. MacDonogh shares Frederick's skeptical view of the great skeptic, quoting his summary: "It is astonishing … that this man, so admirable for his talented mind, should be so despicable in his conduct." It took years for them to resume cordial epistolary relations.
Minor shortcomings to this generally first-rate book: First, owing to a dropped footnote, the last forty or so notes in Chapter Four are misnumbered. Also, Hephaestion was not a Greek god (pg. 104) but one of Alexander the Great's closest friends and a commander in his army; generals may at times confuse themselves with gods, but historians should be more careful. Finally, Rudolf Augstein, the publisher of the newsmagazine "Der Spiegel," wrote a thought-provoking and well-researched biography (in German), "Prussia's Frederick and the Germans," which MacDonogh archly brushes off in a single sentence on the next-to-last page.
A somewhat more serious problem is MacDonogh's reliance on certain sources. He is rightly suspicious of the memoirs of Frederick's sister Wilhelmina and Baron Pöllnitz, saying they "may have exaggerated" (pg. 47). As for the allegations that Frederick was homosexual, he is dismissive of Voltaire and skeptical of Roger Peyrefitte. But when it comes to foreign affairs and its relevance to the relationship between Frederick and his father Frederick William, he relies uncritically on books published in the Third Reich (two by Carl Hinrichs, one by Ernst Poseck). Generally speaking, the Nazi agenda was to present Frederick William and his son as wise precursors of Hitler, as leaders who sought to advance the national interests of Germany. This idea would have seemed alien to both kings, whose goal was to consolidate not German but Prussian power and advance Hohenzollern dynastic interests. As MacDonogh himself points out in the opening chapter, the idea of unifying all the German lands under Prussian leadership was not even on Frederick's horizon. So maybe Frederick William really did say, "No English people or Frenchmen should [have control] over German territories, and I will put pistols and daggers into the cradles of my children so that they can help keep foreign nations out of Germany" (pg. 42), but I would feel more secure about it if this quotation did not come from a book published in Hamburg in 1936.