Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke




Frederick's Influence on Europe

When the great King departed, it is true, he left behind a generation which looked on the world more joyfully and proudly than its fathers, and enormously had the State power which might in the future bring Germany a new day been raised. But the question: By what ways and means could a vital scheme for the German community be created? appeared at Frederick's death still almost as problematical as it had been at his ascension to the throne; indeed, it had not once been seriously raised by the great majority of Germans. The first beginnings of a formation of parties in the nation scarcely existed; it seemed as if only a miracle from heaven could help the helpless. The terrible confusion of the situation was shown with sinister clearness by the one fact, that the hero who with his good sword had once proved the futility of the institutions of the Empire had come himself to defend these lifeless forms against the head of the Empire.

If Frederick could only prepare, and not complete, the settlement of the German constitution, he had, on the other hand, deeply and lastingly influenced the inner policy of the German territories, and brought our nation to a nobler public spirit and a worthier view of the character of the State. He stood at the end of the great days of unlimited monarchy, and yet appeared to his contemporaries as the representative of a new conception of the State, an enlightened despotism.

Only genius possesses the strength for propaganda, is capable of gathering the resisting world round the banner of new ideas. As the ideas of the Revolution were first circulated effectively by Napoleon, so was that serious comprehension of the duties of the kingdom which governed the Prussian throne from the time of the Great Elector first transferred to the consciousness of the people by Frederick. Only after the brilliant successes of the Silesian wars was the gaze of the world, which so far had hung wonderingly on the magnificence of the Court of Versailles, turned seriously to the unostentatious crown of the Hohenzollerns.

In war and in his foreign policy the King showed the incomparable creative power of his genius; in the inner administration he was the son of his father. He invigorated the traditional forms of the State with the strength of genius, developed the free and incomplete in a free and comprehensive spirit; he did not undertake to erect anything new. And yet he knew how to unite the idea of a political kingdom, which his father, as a firm, practical man, had realized, with the civilizing influences of the century; incessantly he gave himself and others an account of his doings. Already as Crown-Prince he had won a place among the political thinkers of the age; his Anti-Machiavellism remains, in spite of all the weakness of immaturity, surely the best and deepest exposition of the duties of the princely office in an absolute monarchy which was ever penned. Afterwards, in the first years of the joy of conquest, he wrote the Furstenspiegel ("Mirror for Princes") for the young Duke of Wurttemberg; but louder than all theories spoke his actions, as he proved his words in the days of trial, and showed the world what it meant "to think, live, and die as a King."

Lastly, Providence showed him that favor which even genius needs, if it is to impress its seal on a whole age: the good fortune of adequately living up to his gifts until a ripe old age. He was now the Nestor, the recognized first man of the European princes. His fame raised the prestige of all thrones; from his words and deeds other Kings learned to think highly of their vocation.

The old-established conception of the minor princes, that the land and the people belonged to the Most Serene Princely House, lost ground after Frederick drily observed: "The Sovereign has no nearer relation than his State, whose interests must always stand before the ties of blood."

The dynastic over-weening conceit of the Bourbons showed up in its futility when he, on his ascension to the throne, turned his back to the light pleasures of life with the words: "My duty is my only god," and then for half a century served this one god with all his strength, and to the thanks of his people gave always the deliberate answer: "For that I am here." With such secular impartiality no crowned head had ever spoken of the princely dignity as this autocrat, who unhesitatingly recognized the right of a Republic as of a parliamentary kingdom, and sought the greatness of absolute monarchy only in the arduousness of its duties: "The Prince should belong to the State head and heart; he is the Pope of the Civil Religion of the State."

The new generation of the high nobility fashioned itself by Frederick's example and the social ideas of the new civilization. The small sultans who raged in the time of Frederick William I were followed by a long succession of well-meaning, dutiful fathers of their peoples, such as Charles Frederick of Baden and Frederick Christian of Saxony.

Already it often happened that, in the Prussian fashion, the princes had a military education; Christian toleration, the advancement of schools, and the well-being of his people, were considered princely duties; individual minor States, like Brunswick, granted to the Press even greater freedom than Prussia itself. Even in certain ecclesiastical districts there was a change for the better; the Munster district extolled the mild and careful administration of Furstenberg. [There is a noble Westphalian family called Furstenberg, one of whom was Prince-Bishop of Munster about this time, who effected important reforms in the administration.]

Of course, it was not everywhere, and at one blow, that the deeply rooted offences of minor-princely despotism disappeared; the old bad practice of selling soldiers now, during the American war, reached the summit of its infamy, and showed what the German princes were capable of. The Frederician system of benevolent absolutism for the benefit of the people often led in the narrow spheres of the minor States to empty sport, or to oppressive guardianship. The Margrave of Baden called his exchequer shortly: "the natural trustee of our subjects"; many a well-meaning minor prince abused his dominions by the new-fangled physiocratic system of taxation, by all sorts of unripe philanthropic experiments, and the Oettingen-Oettingen-Landesdirektorium had to give the inquisitive reigning prince an accurate account of the "names, breed, use, and external appearance" of the collective dogs to be found in princely lands, besides "additional, unpresuming, most humble advice." But, on the whole, the generation of princes of those eighty years formed the most honorable which had sat on German thrones for a long time. Wherever he could, the King opposed the excesses of his compeers, freed old Moser from prison, and ensured the Wurttembergers the continuance of their constitution. The Empire as a whole lay hopeless, but in many of its members a new hopeful life was pulsing.

And far beyond Germany's borders the example of Frederick carried influence. Maria Theresa became his most docile pupil; she spread the idea of the Frederician monarchy in the Catholic world. Surrounded by weak neighbors, old Austria had so far lived on careless and sleepy; only the strengthening of her ambitious rival in the north forced the Imperial State to exert her powers boldly. The North-German Haugwitz fashioned the administration of Austria, as far as was possible, according to the Prussian pattern, and from these Austrian reforms, in turn, came the enlightened despotism which from now on began its impetuous, violent attempts at a millennium in all Latin countries, in Naples and Tuscany, in Spain and Portugal.

The pride of the Bourbons stood out longest against the new conception of the monarchy; at Versailles, with jeering smiles, it was told how at the Court of Potsdam the lord-high-chamberlain had never yet handed the King his shirt. Only when it was too late, when the forces of the Revolution were already knocking at the doors, did the French Court begin to surmise something of the duties of the kingdom.

The Crown of the Bourbons never wholly emerged from the dull atmosphere of smug self-adulation and contempt of the people; therefore it collapsed shamefully. But among the Germans the spirit of monarchism, which lay in the blood of our people, and even in the centuries of polycracy was never wholly lost, was strengthened anew by King Frederick. In no other nation of modern history has a kingship had such a large and high-minded view of its problems; therefore the German people remained, even when the time of the Parliamentary struggles came, the most faithful of the great civilized peoples to the idea of monarchy.

The love of peace of the House of Hohenzollern remained alive even in its greatest war-princes. Frederick valued power, but only as a means for the well-being and civilization of the nations; that it should be an end in itself, that the struggle for power as such should bestow historic fame, seemed to him as an insult to the honor of a sovereign. Therefore he wrote his passionate polemic treatise against Machiavelli. Therefore, in his writings, he returned again and again to the terrible warning of Charles XII of Sweden.

He might have felt secretly that in his own breast were working irresistible forces which might lead him to similar errors; and he was never tired of portraying the hollowness of objectless military fame, and had the bust of the King of Sweden contemptuously erected beneath the feet of the Muse in the round hall at Sans Souci.

Already in his impetuous youth he had made up his mind about the moral objects of power. "This State must become strong [he wrote at that time], that it may play the lofty role of preserving peace only from love of justice, and not from fear. But if ever injustice, bias, and vice gain the upper hand in Prussia, then I wish the House of Brandenburg a speedy downfall." That says all.

When at the end of the Seven-Years' War he felt strong enough to preserve peace out of justice, then he turned his attention to the restoration of the national prosperity with such zeal that the army was actually injured.

It is a fact: the general who had overwhelmed the Flag of Prussia with laurels left the army in a worse condition than he had found it on his ascension to the throne; he could not approach his father as a military organizer. He needed the industrial population for his devastated country, and therefore patronized on principle the enlisting of troops for his army in foreign countries. The regimental commanders were to draw up the register of their recruiting-districts in agreement with the Landrate (sheriffs) and surveyors of taxes.

From that time there occurred in every district each year that struggle between the military claims and the civil interests which, afterward, in changing forms, occurred again and again in Prussian history. This time the struggle was decided in favor of political economy. The civil authorities sought to preserve every man who was in any way capable or well-to-do from the red cantonal collar. The King himself interfered to help, and freed from compulsory service numerous classes of the population—the new immigrants, the families of all traders and manufacturers, the household servants of landowners. Many cities—nay, whole provinces, as Ostfriesland—obtained privileges. Soon after the peace the majority of the army consisted of foreigners.

Frederick thought highly of the army, and liked to call it the Atlas who carried this State on his strong shoulders; the military fame of the seven years had an after-effect; the service of the common soldier, it is true, was counted in Prussia, as everywhere else in the world, as a misfortune, but not as a disgrace, as it was in the rest of the Empire. The King brought the great summer maneuvers on the Mockerauer Heath to a technical completeness which the art of maneuvers has probably never reached since then. He was never tired of impressing on his officers "to love the detail, which also has its distinction," and wrote for their instruction his military handbook, the most mature of all his works.

Not one improvement in military affairs escaped him; at a great age he yet adopted a new arm of the service, the light infantry, the green Fusiliers according to the pattern of the American riflemen. The fame of the Potsdamer parade-ground drew spectators from all countries. In Turin Victor Amadeus and his generals faithfully copied every movement of the great Prussian drill-sergeant down to the bent carriage of the head; and when the young Lieutenant Gneisenau saw the pointed helmets of the grenadiers on parade glittering in the sun, he cried enthusiastically: "Say, which of all nations could well copy this marvelous sight?"

In spite of that, in Frederick's last years the army sank undoubtedly. The flower of the old officers' corps lay on the battle-fields; during the seven years—an unprecedented occurrence in the history of war—all the renowned generals, with scanty exceptions, were left on the field or were disabled; their successors had known war only in subalterns' positions, and looked for the secret of the Frederician conquests only in the mechanical exercises of the parade-ground. Among the foreign officers were many doubtful adventurers who only courted favor; for the proud frankness of a York or a Blucher there was no more room.

The King, less friendly to the bourgeoisie than his father, believed that only the aristocracy had a sense of honor, and dismissed the bourgeois officers from the majority of the regiments. In the noble officers' corps there arose an aristocratic arrogance (Junkersinn), which soon became more intolerable to the people than the coarse roughness of earlier times. The old hired soldiers lived in the end comfortably with wife and child, in civil employment, and abominated war for a country which had always remained foreign to them. Frederick had already noticed with astonishment in the war of the Bavarian Succession how little this army accomplished; the reason for the deterioration he did not penetrate. The Eudasmonism of his age made it impossible for him to recognize the moral forces which swayed the army. He had once, after the custom of the period, formed Prussian regiments from Austrian and Saxon prisoners of war, and could not even learn by the desertions en masse of these unfortunate men; he had in the last years of the war sufficiently experienced what an army of his own people was capable of, yet such forcible calling out of the entire national strength always remained to him only an expedient for desperate days, "when the defense of the Fatherland and an imminent danger depends on it."

Of his statesmen, Hertzberg alone had religiously observed the daring ideas of Frederick William I; he wanted to gradually purge the army of all foreigners. "Then we shall be as unconquerable as the Greeks and the Romans!" But the old King saw with satisfaction how his unfortunate land was being strengthened agriculturally, and now defined the ideal of the army with the astounding words: "The peaceful citizen shall not even notice when the nation is at war." So one of the pillars which upheld the edifice of State—universal service—began slowly to totter.

The traditional class-system of the estates of the realm and the organization of government dependent from it the King upheld more strictly than his father; he helped with instruction and ruthless coercion, with gifts and loans, as often as the role which was prescribed for the peasant, the citizen, or the nobleman in the household of the nation no longer seemed to suffice him.

The nobility was to remain the first rank in the State, since "I need them for my army and my civil administration." By the mortgage institutions, and by considerable support with ready money, Frederick attained the conservation of the large estates of the nobles after the devastation of the years of war. Therefore he made as little attempt as his father to abolish the serfdom of the peasants, which was so repugnant to his magnanimity. By the common law, it is true, the harsher forms of serfdom were done away with, but there still remained the somewhat less oppressive hereditary rights of the dynasty. The Government contented itself with modifying the harshness of the existing lordship.

Unnoticed and undesired by the older princes, in the meantime there began a displacement of the conditions of social power, which was rich in results. The new literature drew an educated public from all classes; the merchants and tradespeople of the great cities, the simple tenants of the enlarged dominions of the monarchy, gradually attained to an assured position and to a conviction that the privileges of the nobility could not endure much longer. The nobility lost by degrees the moral as well as the economic foundations of their rank. The structure of the old class-organization was imperceptibly undermined.

The administrative arrangements of the father remained unchanged under the son, except that he added to the provincial departments of the General Direktorium four new ones, embracing the entire State, for the administration of War, Mercantile Policy, Mining Matters, and Forestry, and thus made another step on the way to a united State. The Crown still stood high above the people. Gensdarmes had to force the peasants to use the seed-potatoes presented by the King; the command of the Sheriff (Landrat) and the Board enforced against the tenacious passive opposition of the parties concerned communal drainage and other enterprises, and all improvements of agricultural appliances. The wholly exhausted energies of the people for civil industries could only be reawakened by a violent system of protection.

The flaws of the Frederician political economy were not due to the eternal and well-meant interference of the supreme power, which the age had in no way outlived, but in the fiscal deceptions which the King was compelled to resort to through the embarrassments of his affairs; he had to use fully three quarters of his revenue for the army, and sought to make up what was necessary for his administration by monopolies and indirect taxes. The finances in their clumsiness resembled those of a large private household. Almost half the regular revenues came from the Crown lands and forests; only this rich property of the State rendered his high expenditure possible; it served at the same time for the technical education of the peasants. The amount of the principal taxes was fixed by statute; the movable revenue of the administration had to be drawn on for the extraordinary expenses of settling people on the soil and cultivating.

The carefully accumulated treasure sufficed for several short campaigns; but old Prussia could not carry on a long severe war without a foreign subsidy, since the laws of the Landtag, the traditional views of the bureaucracy, and the crude financial system, forbade every loan. Strong as was the growth of the wealth and well-being of the middle-classes, the greater advance of the more fortunate neighboring peoples was not easily caught up. The Prussian State still remained the poorest of the Great Powers of the West; essentially an agricultural land, it played a modest role in international commerce, even after Frederick had opened up an avenue to the North Sea by the conquest of Ostfriesland; for the mouth of the Ems, like the mouth of the Oder, had no rich industrial Hinterland.