Friedrich the (Not So?) Great

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October 31, 2004 by AK

In the comments to the previous entry, John Cassian reminds us that Thomas Carlyle’s History of Friedrich II of Prussia had among its fans Adolf Hitler himself — and, may I add, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Was it Frederick’s reputation as an enlightened autocrat (a reputation dubitable — but suppose Chesterton was too tough on the Protestant Hero) that so lured the benighted corporal? More probably, it was Frederick the general, Frederick the builder of the Prussian military state who inspired his brilliant heirs.

That must mean Frederick’s greatness emanates from his victories, and this is why, looking from the Russian side, one can hardly take it seriously. However many steps there are from the sublime to the ridiculous, the Russian observer would place the Prussian commander in-between. It was during the Seven Years’ War that the Russian army first took Berlin. By the end of 1761, the Russians had taken both Berlin and Königsberg, and East Prussia had effectively fallen under Russian protectorate. Frederick was on the brink of ruin; had Russia persisted in its hostility, it might have annexed Eastern Prussian lands and ended the very existence of Prussia-Brandenburg. Russia had a chance to break the growing heart of German militarism, with which all of Germany came to be unfairly and unfortunately identified.

It did not happen. Empress Elizabeth of Russia, the younger daughter of Peter the Great, died in January 1762, leaving the throne to Peter III, an infantile admirer of Fredrick. A peace treaty ensued; Prussia got to keep all of its lands. But Alexander Suvorov, the famous Russian general, who as a lieutenant colonel took part in the taking of Berlin in 1760, was technically correct to remark, “Russians have always beaten Prussians.”


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