Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke




Frederick's Legacy

The French enlightenment of the eighteenth century was tainted with a deep insincerity: it had neither the will nor the strength to make the life agree with the idea: people raved of the holy simplicity of Nature, and were unutterably pleased with the most unnatural customs and costumes which ever governed the European world; people jeered at the absurd chance of birth, dreamed of the original freedom and equality, and yet lived gaily on in an insolent contempt of humanity, and all the sweet sins of the old fawning society, borne up with the hope that sometime in a distant future Reason would set up her throne on the fragments of all existing things.

At the Prussian Court, witty, malicious Prince Henry was a faithful representative of this new culture; theoretically a disdainer of that empty smoke, which is called fame and power by the mob, practically a man of hard and fast conception of political rulership, unscrupulous, versed in all tricks and intrigues. And Frederick, too, in his way, led this double life of the men of the French enlightenment. His was that tragic fate to think and to speak in two languages, neither of which did he absolutely master. The crude gibberish which was shouted at the Tabakskollegium (smoking club, or the Tobacco Parliament of Frederick William I of Prussia) of his father seemed to the beauty-intoxicated youth just as offensive as the ponderous literary German of the learned pedantism which he came to know from the works of orthodox theologists; good or evil, he contented himself with this clumsy language, discharged passing business now in rough dialect, now in stiff pulpit-style.

For the world of ideas, with which his head bubbled over, he found worthy expression only in the language of cosmopolitan culture. He knew well that his bizarre and Teutonic Muse spoke a barbaric French, and in the consciousness of this weakness estimated the art-worth of his verses at a lower value than they deserved. The one thing, at least, which makes the poet, the protean gift, was in no way denied him. His Muse commanded the whole scale of emotions; she now expressed with lofty earnestness the great and noble, now, in a satirical mood, with the mischievousness of an elf—or, to tell the truth, with the mischievousness of a Berlin street-arab—teased and tormented her victim. And yet instinct tells him that the richness of his mind does not flow so full and clear in his verses as in the notes of his flute; the fullest melody, the deepest feeling were unattainable to the German in the foreign language.

The philosopher of Sans Souci never became quite at home in the foreign culture which he so earnestly admired. Above all, the strictness of his moral conception of the world divided him from his French companions. It is the greatness of Protestantism, that it imperiously commands or requires the unity of thought and will, the unity of the religious and moral life.

Frederick's moral training was too deeply rooted in the German Protestant life not to perceive the secret weakness of the French philosophy. He viewed the Church with a more liberal mind than the Catholic Voltaire, who, in his Henriade, the gospel of the new toleration, in the end arrived at the conclusion that all respectable people should belong to the Roman Church; he had never, as Voltaire, bowed his neck to religious forms which his conscience condemned, and could endure with the calm serenity of the born heretic the fact that the Roman Curia placed his works on the Index of forbidden books. Although he from time to time condescendingly defined philosophy as his hobby, yet the reflection on the great problems of existence was far more to him than an ingenious pastime; in the fashion of the ancients, he sought and found in intellectual work the rest of the mind at peace with itself, that lofty superiority of the soul to all vicissitudes of fortune.

After the errors of his passionate youth, he soon learned to subdue that impulse of artistic tenderness and sensuality, which threatened to drive him to epicurean pleasures. Boldly as scorn and skepticism stirred in his head, the moral order of the Universe, the idea of duty, remained inviolable to him. The terrible earnestness of his life, wholly dedicated to duty, was divided as by all the breadth of heaven from the effeminate and loose morals of the Parisian enlightenment. As his writings—in that clear and sharp style, which at times becomes trivial, but never vague—always irresistibly aimed at a certain decided and palpable conclusion, so he wished to fashion his life according to what he recognized as truth; as far as the opposition of a barbaric world allowed, he sought to ensure in State and Society a humane conception of things, which he called the cardinal virtue of every thinking being, and went to meet death with the calm consciousness "of leaving the world loaded with my good deeds."

For all that, he never succeeded in wholly overcoming the duality of his mind. The struggle within betrays itself in Frederick's biting wit, which came out so harshly because the hero in his arrogant directness never thought of hiding it. The life of genius is always mysterious, but seldom does it appear so difficult to understand as in the richness of this dual mind. The King looks down with superior irony on the coarse ignorance of his Brandenburg nobility; he breathes freely when he can refresh himself from the boredom of this unintellectual company with the one man to whom he looks up admiringly, the Master of the French poetry; at the same time he recognized what he owed to the sword of that rude race, he could not find sufficient words to praise the courage, the fidelity, the honorableness of his nobility; he curbs his jeering before the stern Biblical faith of old Zieten. The French are welcome guests for the cheerful after-dinner hours; his respect belongs to the Germans.

No one of the foreign companions got so near to the heart of Frederick as that "Seelenmensch" [A man of great feeling and tactful understanding] Winterfeldt, who courageously maintained his German nature even against his royal friend. In his letters Frederick often yearned for the new Athens away on the Seine, and bewailed the envy of jealous gods, who had condemned the son of the Muse to rule over slaves in the Cimmerian land of the North. And yet he shared as patiently as his father the troubles and cares of this wretched people, glad from the bottom of his heart of the new life which was springing up under the rough fists of his peasants, and cried proudly: "I prefer our simplicity, even our poverty, to those damned riches which corrupt the dignity of our race." Woe to the foreign poets if they presumed to give the King political advice; hard and scornful he waved them back to the limits of their art.

Vigorously as he was occupied with the ideas of the modern France, he was only a great author when he was expressing German thoughts in French words, when he spoke as a German Prince and General in his political, military, and historical works. Not in the foreign school, but through his own strength and an unrivalled experience, Frederick became the first publicist of our eighteenth century, the only German who approached the State with creative criticism, and spoke of the duties of the citizen in lofty style: no one before of that people without a country had known how to speak so warmly and deeply as the author of the Letters of Philopatros about the love of the Fatherland.

The old King no longer considered it worth the trouble to climb down from the height of his French Parnassus into the lowlands of the German Muse, and judge with his own eyes whether the poetical art of his people was not awakened at last. In his essays on German Literature, six years before his death, he repeated the old impeachment of the fastidious Parisian critic against the undisciplined wildness of the German language, and dismissed the horrible platitudes of Gotz von Berlichingen, which he had hardly read, with words of contempt. And yet this infamous discussion itself gives an eloquent proof of the passionate national pride of the hero. He prophesied for the future of Germany a period of intellectual fame, which already irradiated the unsuspecting nation with its dawning glory. As Moses he sees the Promised Land lying in the distance, and concludes hopefully: "Perhaps the late-comers will surpass all their predecessors." So close and so distant, so foreign and so familiar, was the relationship of Germany's greatest King to his people.

The great period of the old monarchy was setting. Round the King it became more and more silent; the heroes who had fought his battles, the friends who had laughed and reveled with him, sank one after the other into the grave; loneliness, the curse of the great, came over him. He was never accustomed to spare with his irony any single human emotion; for all the rapturous dreams of his own youth had been trampled underfoot by his pitiless father. In old age inconsiderate austerity became inexorable harshness. The stern old man, who in his rare leisure hours paced along the picture-gallery at Sans Souci with his greyhounds, or in the round temple of the Park dwelt dejectedly on his dead sister, saw far beneath his feet a new generation of tiny human beings growing up around him: they must fear him and obey him; he was indifferent to their love. The preponderance of one man weighed oppressively on the people. On the rare occasions when he went to the Opera House, opera and the singers seemed to the audience to be swallowed up; everyone gazed towards that place in the parterre where sat the failing old man, with the large, hard eyes. When the news of his death came, a Swabian peasant, from the hearts of countless Germans, cried: "Who will rule the world now?"

To his last breath all the will-power of the Prussian Monarchy emanated from this one man; the day of his death was the first day of rest of his life. His will told the nation once more how differently from the domestic politics of the minor courts was the Hohenzollerns' idea of kingship: "My last wishes at the moment of my death will concern the happiness of this State; may it be the happiest of States through the mildness of its laws, the most justly administered in. its internal affairs, the most valiantly defended by an army which breathes only honor and noble fame, and may it last and flourish until the end of time."

A century and a half had elapsed since a Frederick William sought among the fragments of the old Empire the first materials for the building of the modern Great Power. Hundreds of thousands of Prussians had found a hero's death, colossal labor had been expended on the establishment of the new German kingdom, and at least one rich blessing of these terrible struggles was felt forcibly in the Empire: the nation felt at home again, mistress on her own soil. A long-missed feeling of safety beautified life for the Germans in the Empire; it seemed to them as if this Prussia was destined by Nature to protect the peaceful industries of the nation with its shield against all foreign disturbers. Without this strong feeling of national ease our German poetry would never have found the joyous courage to achieve great things.

Public opinion began gradually to be reconciled to the State which had grown up against their will; one took it up as a necessity of German life, without troubling much about its future. The difficult question: how such a bold conception of the State could be maintained without the invigorating strength of genius?—was only seriously raised by one contemporary, by Mirabeau. The old and new epochs gave each other a friendly greeting once more, when the tribune of the approaching revolution stayed at Sans Souci, shortly before the death of the King. With the glowing color splendor of his rhetoric, Mirabeau portrayed the greatest man he had ever beheld; he called Frederick's State a truly noble work of art, the one State of the present which could seriously occupy a brilliant mind; but it did not escape him that this daring building unfortunately rested on much too weak a foundation. The Prussians of those days could not understand such uncertainty; the glory of the Frederician epoch seemed so wonderful that even this most fault-finding of all European peoples was blinded by it.

For the next generation the fame of Frederick proved fatal; men lived in delusive security, and forgot that only renewed hard labor could uphold the work of unutterable toil. But when the days of shame and trial came, the Prussian again experienced the surviving efficacy of genius; the memory of Rossbach and Leuthen was the last moral force which kept the leaking ship of the German Monarchy above water; and when the State once more took up arms for the struggle of despair, a South-German poet saw the figure of the great King descend from the clouds, and call to the people: "Up, my Prussians! Under my flag! and you shall be greater than your ancestors!"