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The Prussian king strove for a well-ordered state—no matter the cost.

We hardly know an instance of the strength and weakness of human nature so striking and so grotesque as the character of this haughty, vigilant, resolute, sagacious blue-stocking…bearing up against a world in arms with an ounce of poison in one pocket and a quire of bad verses in the other.

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s aphorism, from an 1842 essay, remains a trope for students of Prussia’s Frederick II. His statesmanship and his generalship, his image and his legacy, have been defined from almost as many perspectives as there are professors. The usual result has been Frederick’s presentation as “a kingdom of contradictions.” But the monarch who created modern Prussia in the context of three great wars—the First Silesian War (1740–42), the Second Silesian War (1744–45) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63)—that eviscerated a continent and reconfigured a world was anything but a chameleon responding to discrete events. A review of Frederick’s career shows that his behavior reflected a set of principles adding up to one big idea—an idea that carried Frederick to greatness against the odds and despite his own mistakes and failures.

On first impression that idea may seem remote from military history. But Frederick was more than a general. His military career was a subset of his position as a king, and as such Frederick was the West’s first modern ruler. His one big idea shaped the Prussia he governed into a “security state,” whose pattern endures into the present century. Today the synergistic integration of domestic and foreign policy, of economic, political and military systems into a structure able to sustain its existence and welfare and those of its people is––for good or ill––the touchstone of a state’s legitimacy. Today a state’s effective functioning is correctly regarded as demanding a complex network of individuals and institutions. It is a measure of Frederick’s greatness that he managed those demands essentially by himself—and was the last modern ruler to do so successfully.

Though born in 1712, Frederick’s development as a sovereign began in the aftermath of his failed attempt to flee into exile in 1730. The young prince’s preference for the British court over his father’s enraged Frederick William I, who was perfectly ready to execute his 18- year-old son as a traitor—and Frederick knew it. Indeed, the king forced his son to witness the beheading of a co-conspirator and close friend. Frederick appealed successfully to his strong-willed father for clemency and thereafter behaved as a model crown prince. Frederick applied himself assiduously to the study of administrative and military matters. He also embarked on a comprehensive reading program intended in good part to compensate for his lack of practical instruction in the craft of governance.

Frederick did not assume the mantle of gravitas merely to save himself from an executioner’s ax and restore himself to his father’s royal favor. He seems rather to have accepted his position and resolved to develop its possibilities—an act of will informed by reason. The intellectual result combined the mechanistic rationalism of the high enlightenment and the top-down authoritarianism of enlightened despotism. Internationally, Frederick sought to affirm and confirm Prussia’s place at Europe’s head diplomatic table, in a context of self-sustaining stability requiring no more than periodic adjustments. His ultimate domestic goal was the creation of a well-ordered state, organized and regulated along rational lines, requiring not even the personal interventions familiar in the reign of Frederick William I, whose royal cane directly chastised Prussia’s slackers and wrongdoers between 1715 and 1740.

Frederick was 28 when he assumed Prussia’s throne in 1740 —a young 28 in terms both of preparation and experience. He was correspondingly convinced that any show of uncertainty would mark the beginning of his downfall, whether at the hands of foreign powers or in the minds of senior councilors who doubted whether the new king would ever be the man his father was. Frederick could depend neither on a personal charisma he above all knew he did not possess, nor on an inherited position for which all Europe was aware his fitness had been challenged by the one best placed to know—his own father. Failing those, he believed his best approach was a projection of expertise. Frederick had to appear as a Man Who Knew How— what contemporary political discourse called a roi connétable (“king constable”), ruler and commander in the same person.

Since the emergence in Europe of the early modern state in the 15th century, rulers’ crucial functions had been representational and heroic. A crowned head was expected above all to look and act the part, sustaining a lifestyle and maintaining a court system that would reflect and enhance his state’s gloire while sustaining its gravitas. In that context rulers were expected to play a heroic role. Some notables from lesser states, like Victor Amadeus II of Savoy, were active commanders. France’s Louis XIV, however, presided over sieges because they posed the lowest risks to the royal person and the royal dignity. Britain’s George II accompanied his army into the field in 1743 but did no more than show courage under fire. He was not expected to personally plan and conduct battles.

From the beginning Frederick eschewed both representation and heroism—a denial aphoristically expressed in his self-characterization as “field marshal and first minister of the king of Prussia.” That meme came readily to someone who regarded himself as an intellectual—taking counsel of history, evaluating moral and political situations, then forming rational and appropriate judgments. If, moreover, particular events were less important than general principles, then youth mattered less than knowledge and practice less than judgment. Nor was this mere rhetoric. Among the most consistent elements of Prussian policy during the Seven Years’ War was the king’s insistence that should he be captured, the war must continue, without efforts being made to rescue or ransom him. As opposed to Louis XIV’s reputed claim, “L’État, c’est moi” (“The state is me”), Prussia was not its king.

Frederick’s first demonstration of his purported expertise was to take his state to war. As crown prince he had developed the premise that international relations were fundamentally consistent. The behavior of states was subject to rational calculation and, therefore, governed by principles that could be learned and applied. With its territories stretched randomly across Germany, Prussia could not avoid being drawn into virtually any conflict anywhere in Europe. At the same time Prussia lacked the strength to support its geographic position; a kingdom in name, the state was an electorate in fact. Expansion was a corresponding necessity —but a necessity itself governed by reason.

The challenge would lie in knowing when to stop. The genius would involve convincingly demonstrating Prussia’s fundamentally limited aspirations. The instrument would be a forward-loaded military system, an army able to go to war from a standing start, with its effectiveness highest in the beginning. Frederick’s Prussia must fight only short, decisive wars—partly to conserve scarce resources, partly to convince the losers to make peace and keep it, and partly to deter other potential enemies from trying their fortunes in the field.

That proved far easier said than done. Between 1740 and 1763 Frederick sought decision in campaigns and battles alike. The collective wisdom of 18th century war making responded by minimizing Frederick’s military opportunities: marching and fighting only under conditions perceived favorable against the formidable Prussian war machine. Combined with the objective constraints imposed on operations by logistics and fortifications, Frederick’s opportunities for rapid closure were narrow at best. His neighbors, Austria in particular, were also reluctant to accept Frederick’s definition of rational behavior in the context of such issues as the 1740 seizure of Silesia, the 1756 invasion of Saxony and the resistance under arms to Austria’s exchange of Belgium for Bavaria in the 1778–79 War of the Bavarian Succession (aka the Potato War).

A “fox” might well have reconsidered his paradigm. Frederick was a “hedgehog.” An intellectual before he was anything else, Frederick, like most intellectuals, lived by ideas. Denied “rational” options of rapid victory and stable peace, he sought the same goal by an alternate path. Frederick became increasingly committed to maximizing Prussia’s opportunities by increasing Prussia’s capacity for endurance.

His success depended heavily on his recognition of two basic aspects of Prussian culture. The first was Pietism. This 18th century religious movement emphasized service to and reform of the community. Pietism cultivated a sober, level view of the world and of mankind’s place in it. It offered little room for the kind of public posturing that confused status with hubris and performance with visibility. For its part Frederick’s Prussian state justified itself not by divine right in the manner of Louis XIV, or on prescriptive grounds of the kind later articulated by Edmund Burke, but in instrumental terms. The state offered stability and protection in exchange for service and obedience. This was the kind of social contract, no less firm for being unwritten, that Pietists were most likely to affirm. And Frederick, whose disdain of formal religion went almost as deep as his misogyny, nevertheless fit the Pietist template of an ideal ruler as well as any mortal was likely to match it.

The second cultural parameter was patriarchy. That concept has been defined so often in a model of overt dominance and submission that it is easy to forget patriarchy is most functional when least obtrusive. Whether in the context of family, village or Junker estate, collective wisdom and individual experience indicated the counterproductivity of direct intervention—internally or externally—in the routine course of events except when absolutely necessary. That which disrupted the least was also likely to work the best. While the Frederician state was by no means invisible, it did not interfere at random or change policy on a whim. The proverb “there are still courts in Berlin,” quoted in many 18th century contexts, highlights the developing image of Prussia as a Rechtsstaat, a state of laws—and practices with the force of law—not even the king himself could ignore, and which sustained Prussia even through the darkest days of the Seven Years’ War.

The army is a central case study in the synergy of public, official authority and its social, unofficial counterpoints in Frederician Prussia. The state’s conscription system succeeded less by direct compulsion than because of the willingness of families and communities to furnish a proportion of their sons each year. The patriarchy was conciliated because the bureaucratic system allowed those institutions a significant role in deciding precisely which individuals donned a uniform and sustained rather than challenged the social order. The Pietist concept of duty provided a moral dimension to conscript military service that was by no means artificial. Self-discipline and social discipline are significant contributors to self-awareness and self-esteem: pride in tasks consciously and conscientiously performed in an environment validating those tasks.

Between 1756 and 1763 Frederick confronted Europe in arms and emerged victorious by the standard of his idea. The price left his kingdom shaken to its physical and moral foundations. As many as 180,000 Prussians had died in uniform, to say nothing of civilian losses from disease and privation. Provinces were devastated, people scattered, currency debased. Frederick was correspondingly determined to restore as quickly as possible the social contract of the Prussian state—stability and protection in return for service and obedience. The army’s reviews and maneuvers transformed from testing grounds for war to overt displays of power, intended to sustain peace through deterrence. The administrative apparatus grew more complex, more comprehensive, as a guarantor of steadiness. The general code of law, the Allgemeines Landrecht, finally published in 1794, confirmed and extended the Rechtsstaat, while bringing lawyers to an equal footing with soldiers and bureaucrats among Prussia’s primary elites.

In his persona as servant of the system, Frederick toured Prussia’s ravaged provinces. He oversaw the distribution of seed grain and draft animals, the payment of officials’ back salaries, the opening of royal land to emigrant settlers. The king’s professed indifference to public opinion had the paradoxical result of enhancing his appeal to political and cultural pilgrims. The German Aufklärung saw Frederick as a focal point for intellectual and cultural perspectives challenging those emanating from Paris. Proto-Romantics saw hidden depths in Frederick’s denial that he possessed or valued such depths. An embryonic nationalist movement interpreted Frederick as an embodiment of German virtue on a level with Martin Luther.

Soldiers and administrators from everywhere in Germany and Europe saw a future that seemed to be working, even when it was not. Prussia recovered in less than a decade from the catastrophe of 1806 to play a leading role in Napoléon Bonaparte’s downfall. A half-century later Prussia established a unified Germany on the rubble of Austria and France. Twice in the 20th century Prussia was the core of fundamental challenges to world order. By that time Frederick’s concept of a security state had morphed into a warfare state. Its matrix was, however, derived from and sustained by the synergy of military power and domestic endurance derived from Frederick’s one big idea. Greatness can have unexpected and negative consequences, as well as foreseeable and positive ones.


Dennis Showalter is a professor of history at Colorado College, co-editor of the quarterly journal War in History and past president of the Society for Military History. For further reading Showalter recommends Frederick the Great: King of Prussia, by David Fraser; The Military Life of Frederick the Great, by Christopher Duffy; and Frederick the Great, by Theodor Schieder.

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.