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The last of King Frederick the Great’s many talents to develop was his skillful command of the military.

By Blaine Taylor

At a critical moment in the Seven Years’ War, King Frederick II of Prussia harangued his soldiers, exclaiming: “Scoundrels! Do you want to live forever?” One of his weary troops immediately shot back, “Fred, for sixpence we have done enough today!” Notwithstanding his insolent reply, that Prussian soldier and his comrades did not hesitate to follow the soldier-king–whom posterity calls Frederick the Great, but whom they called Der Alte Fritz (Old Fritz)–into battle once more.

In 1772, the French writer and philosopher Voltaire described Frederick the Great as a man who “gives battle as readily as he writes an opera; who takes advantage of all the hours that other kings waste following a dog chasing after a stag; he has written more books than any of his contemporary princes has sired bastards; and he has won more victories than he has written books….” Frederick himself would probably have thought Voltaire’s words a fitting epitaph, but he was not always as fearless or infallible as his reputation would suggest. In his new comprehensive biography Frederick the Great (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2000, $27.95), British author Giles McDonough outlines the contradictions that humanize the legendary 18th-century warrior-king who was also a poet, scholar, reformer, playwright, author, composer and builder of famous palaces in Europe.

Although touted as the premier soldier of his century, Frederick fled many a fight in his younger days and was not always a great general. On at least three occasions he lost a third of his army to the commanders of his two most formidable opponents, the armies of Austria and Russia. Throughout his life he blamed others–marshals, generals and even his rank-and-file soldiers–for blunders that were more rightfully his own. In fact, his eventual success in staving off defeat in the Seven Years’ War was due in no small measure to the death of Russian Czarina Elizabeth–which he had awaited with bated breath–rather than to his skills in battle. Her successor, Czar Peter III, who was an admirer of Frederick, promptly dropped out of the alliance with Austria.

As a boy, Frederick had seen his best friend, Hans von Katte, decapitated with a saber at the orders of his brutish father, King Frederick William I, after the two had tried to flee to Britain in August 1730. Raised by his father to be a soldier–and nothing else–Frederick was happier writing plays and poetry or playing his flute than riding at the head of his troops. His brothers, who commanded armies at his behest, hated him. One brother, Prince Heinrich, moaned, “If only it had pleased God to give our dead mother a miscarriage on January 24, 1712.”

Frederick the Great presents the most famous Hohenzollern monarch in all his splendor… and at his pettiest. His loveless sham of a marriage is explored, as is his much-touted–and in the author’s opinion overemphasized–homosexuality. McDonough takes the view of one of Frederick’s contemporaries that the Prussian monarch was impotent. Frederick compensated with his political, intellectual and musical achievements, but the author reveals that he only gradually evolved into his best-known role as a masterful commander.

Ironically, each succeeding age has remade the Prussian king in its own image. “Fewer than three years after his death [in 1786] the French Revolution broke out, and a new Frederick was about to be born,” writes McDonough. “With time he would cede his place to a whole panoply: Frederick of Germany, Frederick the Hero, Frederick Hitler and Frederick the Militarist; while the real Frederick lay there moldering in an unquiet grave.”

In 1991 Frederick’s remains were finally given the unpretentious burial he had always wanted. McDonough’s suitably multifaceted treatment would suggest that the king himself would probably rest easier knowing that his musical compositions are still being performed today and are remembered as much as his martial accomplishments.