715 pages, Ticknor & Fields, ISBN-13: 978-0899193526
I rank Frederick the Great (or King Frederick II of Prussia, if you prefer) as one of my first historical loves, right up there with Alexander the Great and Napoleon. I had first heard of him while watching Hitler: The Last Ten Days starring Alec Guinness for the umpteenth time on HBO and saw Hitler (Guinness) rhapsodically speak of this guy who had saved Germany back in the day. With that, I just HAD to find out about this Fred the Great cat and what he was on about. My Dad was a member of the History Book Club at the time and was able to buy several books for cheap, relatively speaking. After perusing the monthly catalog for himself, he always passed it on to me…and therein I saw this 700+ page tome on just the fella I was looking for: Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma by Robert B. Asprey. At the time I judged this book as much by its cover as by its content and was (thankfully) rewarded; it features a reproduction of Das Flötenkonzert by Adolph von Menzel and it is gorgeous…as was the content, luckily (as I thought at the time; more on that below). I was swept up with the early life of this fascinating, peculiar and central figure in German and European history…until I reached the halfway point of the book, whereupon I found to my confusion and chagrin that about a hundred pages of The Magnificent Enigma had been replaced with a history of Christianity in the Roman Empire. We sent it back and I had to wait a whole year for a replacement copy. Gosh, was I cheesed. But I started over from the beginning and finished in record time.
First, a little background on Prussia. The story of how a comparatively minor collection of northern German provinces, loosely ruled by the Elector of Brandenburg, became, in just a few score years, the Kingdom of Prussia and a major European power is oft-told and unfailingly fascinating. During the life of Frederick the Great, the city of Potsdam (a suburb of Berlin) was the Prussian equivalent of Versailles (and was thought by many people in the know to be the superior of the French chateau, if not in size surely then in splendor, taste and sheer costliness). Yet there was a curious characteristic about the palace and its nearby royal town: the population of 6000 nobles and commoners was dwarfed by a garrison of twice that many soldiers in permanent residence. Even in Berlin, the capital, officers in uniform could be seen along the wide avenues in greater abundance than civilians. “The town” noted a visitor in 1775 “looked more like the cantonment of a great army than the capital of a kingdom in time of profound peace”, while a Scottish duke wrote that “[t]he court itself resembled the levee of a general in the field” (thus, the nature and price of national development, Prussian-style). The life of Frederick the Great, the central artist of this sterling display of early modern statecraft, is no less interesting, though less for what Asprey imagines to be his “enigmatic” characteristics than because he practiced well an entirely unenigmatic military Realpolitik, ruthlessly and over a long lifespan. So the population of uniformed males in Potsdam or Berlin was due less to the personal whim of a cynical and misogynist king than to the deliberate policy of a military dynasty.
Asprey's 715 pages convey the basic facts of the king’s life, leaning, with typically Frederician predilection, towards all things martial. In nearly two decades of war, Frederick increased his realm’s population by 250%, doubled its territorial holdings, virtually founded its civil bureaucracy, and enlarged the army to take in, at one point or other in his life, just about every young man in Prussia. The result was a rigid, immobile garrison state where one serious defeat in the field could spell national dissolution and, hence, where even endless victory kept the level of royal anxiety at “merely tolerable”. Asprey’s book is at its best when it is straightforward narrative history; as biography, however, it is rather mediocre, for if one has no fresh evidence or differing take to offer on the man in question, then the major justifications for yet another life of a familiar figure come down to two: literary style, and new interpretation. Asprey offers neither. As a stylist, he has an unerring touch for the cliché: “proved a dud”, “up to scratch”, “ate humble pie”, “no slouch”, “lesser fry”, “all was scarcely roses”, “(he) was no ball of fire”, “but smoke there was and…fire as well” – etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. When it comes to interpretation, the book is as weak as it is in style. The great mass of its pages constitutes a nearly day-to-day trek through Frederick’s innumerable campaigns and battles, and it is here, where the actual history is rather complex, that the author’s narrative and explanatory acumen are dullest. After minute descriptions of 14 full-blown battles one is left perplexed, unable to see how Asprey arrives at or justifies his conclusions. Frederick’s first important victory, Mollwitz in 1741, gets a score of pages, but Asprey’s analysis leaves us scarcely knowing how this was “a victory snatched from defeat”, just as we never grasp how the battle of Hohenfriedenberg in 1745 catapulted the king “to the top rank of military commanders”.
And yet, and yet…I have a case of the warm fuzzies when I think of this book, as it was the first that really educated me about a little-known (to me) figure who played such a pivotal role in the history of Germany and of Europe. Asprey deals frankly with his subject: his intelligence, his wit, his talents, his (possible) homosexuality; all of it. Part of the “enigma” of the title is how a man such as this could somehow embody seemingly contradictory elements at once: he was a flute-playing esthete and a vitally active military genius; he wore brocaded clothing (then all the rage with European royalty, I might add) who was so careless with his appearance that he regularly had snuff scattered about his person; he (seemingly) enjoyed the favors of his pages while neglecting his wife and queen, and seemed never to have formed any true lasting connections with anyone around him; all very “enigmatic”, to be sure. Frederick also managed what would be a 42-year correspondence with Voltaire, always pitched on the highest intellectual note…that is, when he wasn’t drilling his troops; as Voltaire said, Prussia was like “Sparta in the morning, but Athens in the afternoon”. It was good that Frederick was found to be a brilliant military commander, as most of his adult life was an almost uninterrupted series of battles (caused by his own impetuosity upon seizing the Austrian dominion of Silesia in 1740). He did manage to amass a notable art collection, comprising Watteau and others in his Potsdam palace, Sans Souci (“carefree”).
Asprey tries to maintain a degree of objectivity throughout the book but he doesn’t always succeed, and as fascinating as such (well-known) material is, there is hardly anything mysterious in it. Asprey strives arduously to learn, as Frederick’s father put it, “what is passing in that little head” of this writer/poet/composer/flutist/philosopher/king. Arduously, but naively at times. The author gives us a long quote from the young prince’s preface to his Anti-Machiavel, his youthful “refutation” of Machiavelli – “I venture to undertake the defense of humanity against this monster” – and finds noteworthy Frederick’s passage from youthful idealism to adult Realpolitik. But where is the mystery? There wasn’t a crown prince in Europe who wasn't raised on pabulum of such moralisms, nor was there one who wouldn’t have acted with Frederician cynicism if he’d had half the temerity and the skill. The complexity of Frederick – the conflict between opposing elements of his personality – gives Asprey’s biography its continuing interest, but savoring that dimension requires poring over pages of graphic though undramatic descriptions of marches, assaults and sieges, as well as accounts of duplicitous treaties and alliances, and complicated dynastic rivalries that require mental maps and fingertip family trees. When the king died the year after Lafayette saw him, crumpling into a chair and traversing, perhaps in memory, an enemy boundary, he was heard to whisper, “We have crossed the mountain; things will go better now”. The enigmatic end reflects the man?