Crazy, vindictive and nasty, but still great.
Frederick II’s first act on assuming the throne of Prussia in 1740 was to take his state to war—a consequence, he later explained, of possessing a well-trained army, a full treasury and a desire to establish a reputation. For the next quarter century, he confronted Europe in arms and emerged victorious, but at a price that left his kingdom shaken to its physical and moral core. As many as a quarter million Prussians died in uniform, to say nothing of civilian losses. Provinces were devastated, people scattered, the currency debased. The social contract of the Prussian state—service and loyalty in return for stability and protection—was broken.
Despite such costs, Frederick always makes the short list of history’s great captains. Yet that legacy is no less questionable: In a reign that stretched to 1786, Prussia’s military leader focused on drill and discipline, leaching the army of initiative and inspiration. He insisted that common soldiers should fear their own officers more than the enemy, yet monitored his generals so closely that none could be trusted to perform independently. Frederick carried grudges against entire regiments for decades.
In an age when physical courage was taken for granted in senior officers, Frederick twice left major battlefields—Mollwitz in 1741 and Lobositz in 1756—under dubious circumstances. Nor was his post-battle behavior such as to impress fighting men. After the defeat of Kolin in 1757, he spent hours aimlessly drawing circles in the dirt with a stick, then left his army, explaining that he needed rest. After losing at Kunersdorf in 1759, the king turned command over to a subordinate, grandiloquently declaring he would not survive the disaster. A more generous generation may speak of post-traumatic stress. Eighteenth-century armies had blunter words for such conduct. Nevertheless, the man who brought Prussia through three brutal wars, oversaw its reconstruction and secured its status as a great power was far more than the sum of his negatives.
As crown prince, Frederick had concluded that Prussia, which stretched from the Rhine River deep into the Kingdom of Poland, could not avoid being drawn into conflict virtually anywhere in Europe. But his country lacked the military, economic and diplomatic strength to support its geographic position. Expansion was a necessity, not just for Prussia’s welfare, but for its very survival.
Frederick rationalized his position by appealing to “reason of state,” a principle independent of moral guidelines applying to individuals. His Anti-Machiaviel, published anonymously in 1740—the year of his accession to the throne—argued that law and ethics in international relations should be based on neither the interests of the ruler nor those of his people. Instead, they should be fundamentally consistent, subject to rational calculation and governed by principles that could be learned and applied in the same way one maintains and repairs a clock. This trope remained central to his foreign policy throughout his reign.
Frederick’s concept of statecraft in turn convinced him that Prussia must fight only short, decisive wars—partly to conserve scarce resources, partly to convince the losers to make and keep the peace, and partly to deter potential challengers. This required development of a forward-loaded military, able to spring to war from a standstill with strong initial results.
While Frederick did not necessarily seek battle for its own sake, he held nothing back once the fighting started. His enemies responded by denying him the initiative whenever possible, fighting only under favorable conditions and limiting their tactical commitments.
Early on, Frederick would experience the randomness of combat. At the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741, the day seemed thoroughly lost until the last-gasp advance of the Prussian infantry turned the tide. The 1745 Battle of Soor began when the Austrians surprised the Prussian camp and ended when Frederick improvised victory from the sheer fighting power of his men. The 1758 Battle of Hochkirch was an even more comprehensive surprise that Frederick dismissed as an outpost fight until taught better by round shot from his own captured guns. He responded to these reverses by striving to make Prussia’s military indomitable, thus minimizing what Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) would later call the “fog and friction” of war. Even in peacetime, Frederick’s army would account for as much as three-fourths of public expenditure.
In 18th-century Prussia, all citizens owed service to the state. The burden of direct military service fell entirely on such least-favored subjects as farm workers, peasants and unskilled urban workers. The conscription process systematically tapped Prussia’s domestic manpower. It succeeded less by direct compulsion than due to the willingness of families and communities to furnish a limited proportion of their sons each year, and the state allowed local entities latitude in deciding which individuals would serve.
Building on that good faith, Frederick integrated the state economy into its war-making function. He institutionalized annual field exercises involving as many men as might serve in a fair-sized battle—44,000 in 1753. While expensive, such maneuvers were not just for show. They served to test formations and tactics, to practice large-scale maneuvers, to achieve precise concert among regiments and to accustom senior officers to handling troops under stress. They were also public displays of raw power, designed to deter any state thinking of confronting “Old Fritz” and his faithful grenadiers.
The failure of that deterrence, and the resulting Seven Years’ War (1756- 1763) between Prussia and the coalition of Austria, Russia and France, tested Frederick’s system to its limits, producing some surprising results.
Compulsion might put men in uniform, but neither force nor conditioning can keep men in the ranks at the height of a battle, particularly during the era of the Seven Years’ War, when conflict resembled nothing so much as feeding two candles into a blowtorch and seeing which melted first.
A soldier’s relationship to the state differs essentially from all others because it involves a commitment to dying. Yet for most soldiers the “death clause” remains largely dormant. An individual can spend 30 honorable years in uniform and face only collateral risks such as training accidents. Even in war the commitment is not absolute. As casualty lists mount, however, soldiers are increasingly likely to scrutinize the moral fine print in their agreements with their respective states.
During the Landsknecht era of the late 15th to late 16th century and the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), becoming a soldier meant being able to carry a sword, wear outrageous clothing and swagger in ways denied the peasant or artisan. In later years the introduction of uniforms and systematic enforcement of camp and garrison discipline removed much of the patina of liberty from a life that was likely to be nasty, brutish and short. In its place emerged a commitment-dependence cycle, whereby the state demonstrated concern for the soldiers’ well-being as a means of boosting the soldiers’ dependence on the state.
Frederick took the commitment-dependence cycle further than any of his counterparts. Prussia’s uniforms were among the best in Europe. Its medical care in peace and war was superior to that typically available to civilians. Its veterans had good opportunities for public employment or maintenance in one of the garrison companies that served as both local security force and de facto retirement home. As the Seven Years’ War dragged on, however, retaining a soldier’s fealty would require more than material appeals. It would take leadership, and not merely that of a battle captain but a Kriegsherr (warlord).
At the 1757 Battle of Kolin, in one of the final desperate attacks against the Austrian line, Frederick would shift from an institutionalized model of leadership to one far more personal, seeking for the first time to inspire his men directly. While his battle cry of “Rogues! Do you want to live forever?” was scarcely on a par with the rhetoric of a Julius Caesar, it did strike at least one responsive chord, when a musketeer reportedly replied, “Fritz, we’ve earned our 50 cents for today!”
While almost certainly apocryphal, the exchange is portentous. The army had suffered heavy and irreplaceable casualties at Lobositz, Kolin and in front of Prague. Russian troops invaded East Prussia that summer, while a mass of French troops reinforced with contingents from the Holy Roman Empire advanced against Frederick from the west. The king’s unprovoked attack on Saxony and subsequent plundering of that state had deprived him of whatever sympathy he might have garnered elsewhere in Germany. Prussia’s prospects were grim.
The victory at Rossbach on November 5, 1757, furthered Frederick’s transformation. The phrase allegedly uttered by a French officer to his Prussian captor, “Sir, you are an army—we are a traveling whorehouse,” reflected a baggage train that actually did include “valets, servants, cooks, hairdressers, courtesans, priests and actors…dressing gowns, hairnets, sunshades, nightgowns and parrots.” Propagandists seized on that fact to trumpet the purported Prussian virtues of simplicity and chastity, and Frederick became legend, unwittingly lending his name to taverns, streets and towns as far off as Pennsylvania.
As Frederick had learned, however, warfare can be random. The Prussian surrender at Breslau on November 25, 1757, marked the nadir of an ill-conducted local campaign that left Berlin vulnerable, and when the king arrived in Silesia on December 2, he was left with one option: fight…and win. His behavior over the coming days would lay the foundations for the myth of Old Fritz. Contemporary accounts describe a man overcoming sickness and exhaustion, moving from bivouac to bivouac, warming himself at the men’s fires, listening to stories and hearing complaints, and promising reward for loyal service. The king capped his performance on December 3, when he invited not only his generals but also the army’s regiment and battalion commanders to his headquarters.
Frederick appeared before his officers not as a commander radiating confidence and vitality, but as a tired, aging man in a threadbare and snuff-stained uniform. The army, he declared in a barely audible voice, would attack. Its only alternatives were victory or death. “We are fighting for our glory, for our honor and for our wives and children….Those who stand with me can rest assured I will look after their families if they are killed. Anyone wishing to retire can go now, but will have no further claim on my benevolence.” Lest anyone think he had gone soft, Frederick finished by vowing that any cavalry regiment failing in its duty would lose its horses and any infantry battalion that flinched faced confiscation of its colors, the ceremonial braid from its uniforms and even its swords.
The Parchwitz speech, named for the campsite, was a subtle blend of sincerity and artifice that lost nothing in the retelling. Years afterward men could remember everything they saw and heard—regardless of whether they were actually present. Two days later, on December 5, 1757, the Prussian army outmaneuvered, then smashed, the Austrians at Leuthen.
After Leuthen there were no more easy victories, no more brilliant maneuvers—just the close-quarters massacres at Zorndorf (1758) and Kunersdorf in Silesia (1759), at Hochkirch (1758) and finally at Torgau (1760). None suggested a warrior king who led by force of will and intelligence. Yet his army endured part of the winter of 1759–60 in tents pitched on the Silesian plateau. While short on rations and racked by dysentery and respiratory diseases, it neither exploded in mutiny nor dissolved in desertion. The following summer, many of the same men took part in a month’s worth of forced marches that saw many stragglers but few deserters.
These were no longer the seasoned soldiers who had filled Prussia’s ranks in 1756. By the spring of 1761, three-fifths of the army’s replacements still came from the regimental depots, but many were foreigners—prisoners of war pressured into taking new colors, brought in by recruiting parties that differed little from press gangs, the flotsam of five years’ hard war. About half of the prewar officer corps was gone, and some of their replacements were as young as 13. Yet this unpromising amalgam continued to stand its ground against steadily improving enemies. When Russia’s Empress Elizabeth died unexpectedly in 1763, Frederick was able to exit from the Seven Years War, his kingdom and reputation intact.
In the end, it was their king who kept the Prussian army on task in the war’s waning years. Frederick was in part a figurehead, a tangible focus for soldiers in the absence of such ideals as patriotism or religion. But the campfire tales and tavern legends did not rest entirely on a phantasm sustained by the gallows and the firing squad. Frederick demonstrated the kind of endurance he demanded of his men. On the march and in camp he was present and visible. His soldiers had seen Frederick rally the broken ranks at Hochkirch and knew a spent ball had struck him at Torgau. This was no Alexander, no white-plumed Henry of Navarre. Frederick was a workaday warrior who commanded respect by not demanding it.
Likewise, Prussian officers were neither courtiers nor uniformed bureaucrats, but men of war. Frederick’s indifference to dress and rank set the tone: Officers’ insignia were not introduced until after the war, and Frederick granted lieutenants the same direct access as that granted to generals. And the king’s unpredictable harshness contributed not a little to the cohesion of his officers.
Frederick’s demeanor also struck a chord among his soldiers. Warfare in the 18th century was largely a matter of endurance rather than performance. While battles seldom lasted longer than a day, their close-quarters nature tried a soldier’s capacity to stand firm. Campaigns, particularly in the barren expanses of East Prussia and central Europe, were exercises in survival. By willingly sharing the general lot of his soldiers, Frederick engendered admiration as well as loyalty.
What today’s soldiers might refer to as “chickenshit” was also remarkably absent from a Prussian camp. While expecting clockwork precision on parade, Frederick didn’t drive hard on field exercises. Pickets and sentries were kept to a minimum. Duties were functional and shared within each company. Discipline was relaxed while on the march. Frederick enjoyed riding along with his men and trading barbs with them in dialect. Only in camp would he impose his authority; and in common parlance, it was as if God himself had descended to earth dressed in a common soldier’s blue coat.
Following the 1763 Treaty of Hubertusburg, Frederick’s image as general, statesman and Landesvater (father of his country) only flourished, despite his professed indifference to public opinion. In fact, this nonchalance paradoxically enhanced the king’s appeal. In turn, Prussia’s reputation attracted soldiers and administrators from throughout Germany. They wanted to be part of the best.
Postwar adulation of Frederick’s military genius was by no means universal among his officers, who remembered the fiascoes as well as the triumphs. But with the passage of time, the Seven Years’ War took on a meaning for them similar to that held by veterans of the American Civil War a century later. It was the defining event of their lives, not to be trivialized. Perhaps things had not been as bad as they recalled. While Frederick lived, his critics kept silent.
By the mid-1770s, the Prussian army looked on Frederick as a symbol of past glories and future hopes. A parallel could be drawn to Robert E. Lee’s status in the Army of Northern Virginia by the end of 1862. In each case independent thought gave way to a general feeling the “old man” knew what he was doing, even if the wisdom of a particular course might not be apparent. Dissent was tantamount to disloyalty.
Ironically, the monarch who initially sought a state and an army in which charismatic leadership was superfluous ultimately became the center of the first modern cult of personality. To a degree, “Old Fritz” was the creation of his soldiers and subjects, a Teflon monarch to whom no criticism stuck because he was a projection of their own needs, desires and myths. For good or ill, Frederick II of Prussia remains Frederick the Great.
For further reading, Dennis Showalter recommends: Frederick the Great, by Theodor Schieder, edited and translated by Sabrina Berkeley and H.M. Scott; and Frederick the Great: King of Prussia, by David Fraser.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.