Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke

Frederick's Character and Statecraft

Frederick William's reign fell in the miserable, Boeotian, idea-less age of the Peace of Utrecht; the small tricks of Fleury, Alberoni, and Walpole governed European politics. The upright Prince was helpless amid the cunning intrigues of the diplomatists. With old-German fidelity he held to his Kaiser, wanted to lay swords and pistols in the cradles of his children, in order to banish foreign nations from the Imperial soil. How often, with the beer-jug of the Fatherland in his hand, had he cried out his ringing: "Vivat Germania, Teutscher Nation!" Unsuspecting by nature, he now had to experience how the Court of Vienna, with its two ambitious neighbors, Hanover and Saxony, would come to a secret understanding on the division of Prussia, and how they would then help the Albertiners to the crown of Poland, deliver Lorraine to the French, and in his own home stir up discord between father and son, while they at last treacherously tried to wrest from him his right of succession to Berg and Ostfriesland.

So for his whole life he was pushed backwards and forwards between enemies and false friends; only at the end of his days did he see through Austria's cunning, and admonish his son to avenge a betrayed father. But at foreign courts it was said that the King stood continually on the watch with his gun at full cock, without ever letting it go off; and when occasionally a latent fear of the sentry at Potsdam overcame the other Germans, they were cheered by the sneer: "The Prussians won't shoot as quickly as all that!"

But the sneering was silenced when Prussia found a ruler who, by the happy practical sense of the Hohenzollerns, with a sense of the possible united the daring and clear vision of genius.

The bright sunshine of youth illuminates the beginning of the Frederician period, when at last, after much faltering and trepidation, the obstinate mass of the benumbed German world got on the move again, and the mighty contrasts which it hid measured themselves in the necessary struggle.

Since the days of that Lion of the Midnight Sun Germany had had no picture of a hero to whom the entire nation could look up with awe; but he who now, in proud freedom, as once Gustavus Adolphus had done, strode through the middle of the Great Powers, and forced the Germans to believe again in the wonder of heroism, he was a German.

The mainspring in this mighty nature is the ruthless, terrible German directness. Frederick gives himself as he is, and sees things as they are. As in the long row of volumes of his letters and writings there is not one line in which he attempts to extenuate his deeds, or to adorn his own picture for posterity, so his statesmanship, even if it did not despise the small arts and ruses of the age as means to an end, bears the stamp of his royal frankness.

As often as he draws his sword, he announces with candid exactitude what he demands from the enemy, and lays down his weapon only when he has reached his goal. From the moment that he awakes to thinking, he feels himself glad and proud that he is the son of a free century, which, with the torch of reason, shines in upon the dusty corners of a world of old prejudices and lifeless traditions; he has the picture of the Sun-god, who climbs up through the morning clouds, victorious, on the ceiling of his gay Rheinsberger Hall.

With the bold confidence of an apostle of enlightenment, he approaches the apparitions of historical life, and tests each one, to see how it will stand the judgment of a penetrating intellect. In the severe struggles of the various States for power, he notices only realities, and esteems only force cleverly used with presence of mind. "Negotiations without weapons are like music without instruments," he says calmly, and on the news of the death of the last Habsburg, he asks his advisers, "I give you a problem to solve; when one has the advantage, shall one make use of it or not?"

The swaggering impotence which poses as power, the senseless privileges which make a show of historical right, the faineants, who mask their helplessness behind empty platitudes, could never find a more arrogant contemner; and nowhere could this inexorable realism operate so cleansingly and disturbingly, so revolutionarily, as in the great fable of the (Holy) Roman Empire. Nothing could be more pitiless than Frederick's derision of the holy Majesty of the Kaiser Francis, who is toddled round on the apron-strings of his wife, and (a worthy King of Jerusalem) executes lucrative contracts for the armies of the Queen of Hungary: nothing more fierce than his mocking of "the phantom" of the Imperial army, of the conceited futility of the minor Courts, of the peddling formalism of "these cursed old fogies of Hanover," of the empty pride of the estate-less petty feudal nobility (Junkertum) in Saxony and Mecklenburg, of "the whole breed of princes and peoples in Austria"—"who bends his knee to the great ones of this world, he knows them not!"

In full consciousness of superiority, he holds out the healthy reality of his modern State beside the shadowy conceptions of the Imperial Law; a sullen ill-nature speaks from his letters when he lets "the pedants of Regensburg" experience the iron necessity of war. Frederick fulfils in the deed what the wrangling publicists of the past centuries, Hippolithus and Severinus, have attempted only with words; he holds the "fearfully corpse-like face of Germany" up to the mirror, proves before all the world the irretrievable rottenness of the Holy (Roman) Empire.

Well-meaning contemporaries may have blamed him, because he delivers up the time-honored community to ridicule; posterity thanks him, for he brings truth to honor again in German politics, as Martin Luther once brought it in German thought and faith.

Frederick had appropriated that severe Protestant view of German history and Imperial politics which had prevailed among the freer intellects of Prussia since Pufendorf and Thomasius, and then, with the embittering experiences of his tyrannized youth, cultivated them further, rigorously and independently.

In the rising of the Schmalkaldener, in the Thirty-Years' War, in all the confusion of the last two centuries, he saw nothing but the unceasing struggle of German freedom against the despotism of the House of Austria, which governed the weaker princes as slaves "with an iron rod," and left only the strong free to do as they chose. Not without arbitrariness he arranged the facts of history according to this one-sided view; one-sidedness turned towards light and life is, after all, the privilege of the creative genius. To bring the old struggle to a victorious end seemed to him the problem of the Prussian State. In his younger years he remained still true to Protestant things: he prized the glorious duty of the house of Brandenburg "to promote the Protestant religion everywhere in Germany and in Europe," and remarked, full of displeasure, in Heidelberg, how here in the old dominions of our Church the monks and priests of Rome again carried on their existence.

Even afterwards, when he estranged himself from the Church, and disdainfully condemned the mediocre parsons' outlooks of Luther and Calvin, from the height of his self-sure philosophical outlook, the conviction remained alive in him that his State, with every root of its being, belonged to the Protestant world. He knew how all the accomplices of the Vatican worked secretly for the annihilation of the new great Protestant Power; he knew that his human ideal of religious toleration, the right of the individual to attain salvation in his own fashion, was possible in the first place only on a footing of Protestantism; he knew that in new and worldly forms he was carrying on the struggles of the sixteenth century, and above his last work, the outline or sketch for the German Princes' League {Furstenbund), he wrote the expressive inscription: "After the pattern of the rules for the League of Schmalkalden."

The earliest of the political writings of Frederick preserved for us show us the eyes of the eighteen-year-old boy already turned to that sphere of political life in which he was to unfold his highest and most characteristic powers—the question of higher politics. The Crown-Prince examined the position of his State in the world, found the situation of his divided provinces heavily imperiled, and, still half-joking and in high spirits, drew up bold calculations as to how the remote provinces were to be rounded off, that they should no longer find themselves "so lonely, without company."

Only a short time, and the unripe youthful projects returned as deep and mighty purposes; three years before his ascension to the throne he already saw, with the clairvoyance of genius, the great path of his life lying open before him:

"It seems [so he writes] that Heaven has appointed the King to make all preparations which wise precautions before the beginning of a war demand. Who knows, if Providence has not reserved it for me to make a glorious use of these war-means at some future time, and to convert them to the realization of the plans for which the foresight of my father intended them?"

He noticed that his State tottered in an untenable position midway between the small States and the Great Powers, and showed himself determined to give a definite character to this anomalous condition (decider cet etre): it had become a necessity to enlarge the territory of the State, and corriger la figure de la Prusse, if Prussia wished to stand on her own feet and bear the great name of Kingdom with honor.

From generation to generation his ancestors had given the House of Austria faithful military service, always conscientiously disdaining to profit by the embarrassments of her neighbor; ingratitude, betrayal, and contempt had been their reward. Frederick himself had experienced heavily in his oppressed youth "the arrogance, the presumption, the disdainful pride of this bombastic Court of Vienna"; his heart was sworn to hatred against "the Imperial gang," who with their crawling and lying had estranged his father's heart from him.

His untamable pride sprang up when, at the paternal court, there was no cold refusal forthcoming to the presumptions of Austria: he wrote angrily that the King of Prussia should be like the noble palm-tree, of which the poet said: "If you wish to fell it, it lifts its proud crest." At the same time he followed with a watchful eye the dislocation of power in the political system, and had arrived at the conclusion that the old policy of the balance of power of the States of Europe had wholly outlived itself; since the victories of the War of the Spanish Succession it was no longer the opportune time to battle with Austria and England against the Bourbons.

The policy now was to lift the new German State "through the frightfulness of its weapons" to such a degree of power that it might maintain its independence against every great neighbor, even against the Imperial House.

So the much misused expression "German freedom" received a new, nobler meaning in Frederick's mouth. It no longer meant that dishonorable minor-princes' policy, which called on foreign countries for help against the Kaiser and betrayed the boundaries of the Empire to the alien; it meant the uplifting of a great German Power, which would defend the Fatherland in east and west, but of its own free will, independent of the authority of the Empire.

For centuries it had been the rule that he who was not good Austrian must be good Swede, like Hippolithus a Lapide, or good French, like the princes of the Rhine-League, or good English, like the kindred of the House of Guelph; even the Great Elector, in the frightful pressure between superior neighbors, could only maintain an independent position from time to time. It was Frederick's work that beside both those equally ruinous tendencies, the veiled and the unveiled foreign lordship, a third tendency should arise, a policy which was only Prussian, and nothing further; to it Germany's future belonged.

It was not the method of this hater of empty words to talk much of the Fatherland; and yet there lived in his soul a sensitive, gruffly-rejecting national pride, grown inseparably with his authoritative self-reliance and his pride of birth. That foreign nations should play the master on German soil was to him like an offence to his personal honor and the illustrious blood in his veins, which the philosophical King, naive as genius is, still prized highly.

When the astonishing confusion of German affairs occasionally drove him to an alliance with foreigners, he never promised the foreign powers a sod of German land, never let them misuse his State for their purposes. His whole life long he was accused of faithless cunning because no treaty or league could make him resign the right of deciding for himself.

All the Courts of Europe spoke with resentment of the travailler pour le red de Prusse; an independent German State was again opposed to their will. The royal pupil of Voltaire had begun for the German State the same work of emancipation as Voltaire's rival, Lessing, accomplished for our poetry.

Already in his youthful writings he condemns in sharp words the weakness of the Holy (Roman) Empire, which had opened its Thermopylae, Alsace, to the foreigner; he is angry with the Court of Vienna, which has delivered up Lorraine to France; he will never forgive the Queen of Hungary for letting loose the wild pack of hounds, those ornaments of the East, the Jazygiens, Croatians, and the Tolpatschians, on the German Empire, and for the first time calling up the Muscovite barbarians to interfere in Germany's domestic affairs.

Then during the seven years his German pride and hate relieves itself in words of furious scorn. To the Russians, who plunder the peasants of his new mark (province), he sends the blessing: "Oh, could they only submerge themselves with one spring in the Black Sea, headlong, the hindmost last, they themselves and their memory!" And when the French overflow the Rhineland, he sings (in the French language, it is true) that ode which reminds one of the ring of the War of Liberation:

Bis in seine tiefste Quelle,

Schaumt der alte Rhein vor Groll,

Fluent der Schmach, dass seine

Welle Fremdes Joch ertragen soil!

(Down to his deepest spring,

The old Rhine foams with rage,

Curses the outrage, that his waves

A foreign yoke must bear.)

"Prudence is very inclined to preserve what one possesses, but courage alone knows how to acquire"—with this voluntary confession Frederick betrayed in his Rheinsberger days how his innermost being forced him to quick resolution, to stormy audacity. To do nothing by halves seemed to him the first duty of the statesman, and of all imaginable resolutions, the worst to him was—to take none. But he showed his German blood in that he knew how to restrain his fiery impetuous activity at the outset with cold, calm calculation. He who felt the heroic power of an Alexander in him, assigned himself to achieve something lasting in the narrow circle in which Fate had placed him.

In war he now and then gave rein to his fiery spirit, demanded the impossible from his troops, and failed through arrogant contempt of the enemy: as a statesman he preserved always a perfect moderation, a wise self-restraint, which rejected every adventurous plan at the threshold.

Never for a moment was he duped by the thought of breaking loose his State from the decayed German community; the position of being a State of the Empire did not cramp him in the freedom of his European policy; it preserved for him the right to have a finger in the destiny of the Empire; therefore he wished to keep his foot in the stirrup of the German steed. Still less did it occur to him to reach out for the Emperor's crown himself.