Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke

Treitschke's Life of Frederick

Heritage History Editor's Note:—Treitschke's Life of Frederick was originally published as a single tract without chapter divisions. The following divisions were added by Heritage History editors in order to enhance readability. Chapter headings were chosen to provide an overview of the major topics covered, but the work itself is integrated and sections breaks were not easily determined.

  • Character and Statescraft
  • The Silesian Wars
  • The Rise of Prussia
  • Partion of Poland and German Princes Bund
  • Frederick's Influence on Europe
  • Frederick as a Reformer
  • Legacy

As these divisions make clear, the book is not organized as a biography, but rather as a commentary on Fredick's role in the history of Germany. The reader must already be familiar with all of the major events in the life of Frederick the Great in order to make sense of Treitschke's analysis. The primary purpose of this text therefore, is less to provide insight into the 18th century world of Frederick, than to illustrate the state of mind of 19th century and early 20th century German scholars and intellectuals such as Treitschke and his disciple Berdhardi.

Treitschke was one of the most respected German writers of his time, and he was especially influential with the generation that came of age around the turn of the 20th century. It was this generation, coming to power after the retirement of Bismarck, that was responsible for the atrocities of the Great War. The alarming reality of the Great War was not so much that diplomacy failed to resolve long-standing conflicts; but rather, Germany's willingness to dispense with long-standing restraints on the behavior of Christian nations at war. Bombing of civilian populations, targeting of passenger ships, poison gas, execution of nurses, and the strategic sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in colossal battles; these were some of the unprecedented crimes attributed to the German regime that shocked Western sensibilities and changed the nature of modern warfare.

It would be unfair to attribute these crimes to Treitschke, but it is also undeniable, that some of the worst characteristics of German thinkers of the early 20th century—German racism, militarism, social Darwinism, hero-worship, relativism, anti-semitism, and chauvinism are evident in many of his writitings. German pride and patriotism are evident in all his writings, but so is that arrogant disregard for traditional institutions, customs, and restraints that characterizes the worst of German influence.

Since the views of Treitschke himself are of particular interest a little more information about the author is provided in the following sections. The first essay is the original editors introduction to Treitschke's study of Frederick the Great. The second includes information about Treitschke himself, and was provided as an appendix to the original work.

Editor's Introduction
to Treitschke's Life of Frederick

Treitschke's study of Frederick would be interesting if it were only as a tour de force of character analysis. I think he overestimates the value of Frederick's Anti-Machiavel and his Letters on Patriotism, which are practically dead as far as the foreign reader is concerned; but in other respects his delineation of Frederick is comparatively free from the advocate's partisanship which depreciates Treitschke's value as an historian.

Whether Treitschke would have treated Frederick so impartially if he had been alive now is doubtful. To give an instance: a couple of pages after his magnificent summing-up of Frederick's greatness, he has a paragraph which is about the strongest condemnation of the present war which ever came from a German pen:

"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 honour 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 was never tired of portraying the hollowness of objectless military fame. . . . 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.'"

To show how different from this is the undiluted Treitschke, one may quote a passage which has inspired numberless passages in von Bernhardi:

"The educational power of war awakened again in these North-German races above all that rough pride which once inspirited the invaders of Italy (Romfahrer) and the conquerors of the Slavs in the Middle Ages."

And a few sentences later on he talks of the "descendants of those heroic nations, the Vandals and the Goths," in the same way as the present Emperor bade his soldiers emulate the Huns in an unfortunate speech which has given, through newspaper-headings, a severe blow to the German cause in America.

Yet Treitschke, like von Bernhardi, was, when he was not crusading, very sane and fair. He writes, for instance: "The alert self-reliance of the Prussians contrasted strongly with the inoffensive kindly modesty of the other Germans," just as the war news of to-day often contrasts the Saxons' or Bavarians' behaviour in Belgium or France with that of the Prussians. And a little lower down he says: "It was betrayed now in confident bragging, in the thousand satirical anecdotes of Imperial stupidity and Prussian Hussar strategisms." For which von Hindenburg's name will probably supply dictionaries with a new word.

Yet you can see in Frederick many signs of the anticipation of modern Prussian ideas which make him one of the most interesting figures in history, as he is one of the greatest figures at the present time. For in many ways the Prussia of to-day is the Prussia of Frederick's time come to life again. It was Frederick who said:

"With such soldiers there is no risk: a General who in other armies would be considered foolhardy, is only considered with us as doing his duty. . . . It seems 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 fathers intended them?"

But I do not agree with Treitschke when he writes: "It was Frederick's work that ... a third tendency should arise, a policy which was only Prussian, and nothing further: to it Germany's future belonged." And he writes later on: "Dohm concluded a clever pamphlet with these words: 'German and Prussian interests can never stand in one another's way.' The discerning mind of the old King was not moved by such dreams."

And we know how widely spread the distrust of Prussia was in Frederick's day, because Goethe, quoted by Treitschke, tells us that: "Even the humblest and weakest of the allied States, Weimar and Dessau, secretly discussed how they could protect themselves against their Prussian protector's lust of power."

When Treitschke talks of the moral justification of the treacherous seizure of Silesia, one is irresistibly reminded of the justification of the present war by von Bernhardi and others, for the beneficent results likely to happen from the spread of Prussian Kultur—the culture which it would be more reasonable to call the Prussian vulture. Treitschke damns Frederick's excuses for seizing Silesia with faint apologies:

"He wished to spare Austria, and contented himself with bringing forward the most important of the carefully pondered pretensions of his House. Alone, without vouchsafing one word to the foreign Powers on the watch, with an overwhelming invading force, he broke into Silesia. Germany, used to the solemn reflections and cross-reflections of her Imperial lawyers, received with astonishment and indignation the doctrine that the rights of States were only to be maintained by active power."

Elsewhere in this book it will be seen how Frederick excelled himself on this occasion by ordering Podewils to find excuses because he had already given orders to his troops. The doctrine of the active power has been exploited for all it is worth by von Bernhardi in his Germany and the Next War.

Treitschke is not very convincing upon the subject of Poland. His complaints of "the Poles' horrible outrages in the Weichsel district, with that insolent disregard of the rights of others and the nationality of others which distinguishes the Poles above all the nations of Europe," leaves us cold, when our paper every morning brings news of fresh devastation in Poland. And the sentence in which Treitschke complains that: "Others repeated credulously what Poland's old confederates, the French, invented to stigmatize the partitioning Powers," simply kills Treitschke's reputation as an impartial historian. The world of honest men has never ceased to condemn the Partition of Poland, and hailed with almost religious delight Russia's proclamation that the ancient nation of the Poles should be reconstituted as a practically autonomous people under the shield of the Lion of the East, the great protector of Slav nationality. Any criticism, which Germany might have to make on the subject, is discounted by the fact that she at once proceeded to suggest a German parody of the movement, a highly improved province to embrace Russian Poland as well as Prussian Poland. And any advantages, which may have been latent in this suggestion, are rendered difficult of realization by the Belging of Russian Poland.

The question of the Balance of Power, which is handled so destructively by von Bernhardi, comes up a good deal in Treitschke's Life of Frederick the Great. I think von Bernhardi was right, but I arrive at my conclusions from a standpoint which he would hardly share. The European balance of power for many years has been like a wooden garden fence, whose bottom under the soil has rotted. From time to time—the last time was during and after the Balkan War against Turkey—Europe has been on the verge of a conflagration like the present because Austria has resisted any intelligent solution of the Balkan question.

Now, if the war goes as we all hope and believe it will go, the question will be settled. [This was written in 1915, before the outcome of the Great War was established] The Turk, who has no business in Europe, because he is incapable of sharing European ideas, will be driven out of Europe. Russia will have Constantinople, essential to her as giving her that free entrance to the Mediterranean which is her right. England will take the Persian Gulf and make the Euphrates Valley as prosperous as the Nile Valley, and Egypt also will be managed in a less anomalous fashion. Servia will have her sea-board on the Adriatic. Bulgaria, if she is not seduced into sharing the suicide of Turkey, will have her port on the Aegean. Greece will get back all the islands in which the races of ancient Greece, who taught the world its civilization, have remained so much purer than in Athens itself. Rumania will annex all the Rumanian districts which lie outside of its present borders, and Italy, if she joins the Powers of the Triple Entente, will not only get back the Italian provinces which still remain under the rule of Austria, but will have a footing on the Balkan Peninsula, lower down, which will enable her to fulfil her natural mission of being the channel of commerce and civilization for all the Balkan nations.

For many years this has been the natural solution of the Eastern Question, but Austria has stood in the way. Austria, which just as naturally pictured herself overrunning the Balkan Peninsula, and finding her way down to the great southern port of Salonika. Germany backed up Austria in the hope perhaps that Austria, containing so many people of German nationality, would one day come into the German Empire. The difficulty was that the Balkan Peninsula was all in Slav hands or a natural inheritance for the Slavs. Without conquering Russia, the Austrian dreams were unrealizable, and rather than allow the Balkan Slavs to fulfil their mission, Austria preferred to perpetuate a state of wars and rumours of wars. Turkey's suicidal entrance into the arena has rendered a settlement possible.

If Frederick had foreseen this he would doubtless have left us his warnings on the subject. He was free enough with his warnings as to the trouble which might ensue from the restless energy of the Emperor Joseph the Austrian.

It would not be right for me to conclude this brief survey of Treitschke's judgment on Frederick without quoting the intelligent anticipation of the Dane Bernstorff, writing to Choiseul, one of the trifling Frenchmen whose employment by Louis XV rendered Frederick's task so much easier in his wars with France. "Everything which you undertake today to prevent the rise of an entirely military Monarchy in the middle of Germany, whose iron arm will soon crush the minor princes—is all labour wasted!"

Douglas Sladen.

Treitschke as a Historian

Lord Acton says of Treitschke:

"He is the one writer of history who is more brilliant and more powerful than Droysen: he writes with the force and incisiveness of Mommsen."

Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) was a Saxon who in 1863 became Professor at Freiburg, in Baden, and in 1866 became a Prussian subject and editor of the Preussische Jahrbucher. After being a Professor at Kiel and Heidelberg, in 1874 he became Professor at Berlin. Prom 1871 he was a Member of the Reichstag. At first a Liberal, he became the chief panegyrist of the House of Hohenzollern. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"He did more than anyone to mold the minds of the rising generation, and he carried them with him even in his violent attacks on all opinions and all parties which appeared in any way to be injurious to the rising power of Germany. He supported the Government in its attempts to subdue by legislation the Socialists, Poles, and Catholics; and he was one of the few men of eminence who gave the sanction of his name to the attacks on the Jews which began in 1878. As a strong advocate of colonial expansion he was also a bitter enemy of Great Britain, and he was to a large extent responsible for the anti-British feeling into which so much of German Chauvinism was directed during the last years of the nineteenth century. . . ."

"As a historian, Treitschke holds a very high place. His work, indeed, lies entirely in the history of the last two centuries. He approached history as a politician; he had none of the passion for research for its own sake, and confined himself to those periods and characters in which great political problems were being worked out; above all, he was a patriotic historian, and he never wandered far from Prussia. His great achievement was the History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century. The first volume was published in 1879, and during the next sixteen years four more volumes appeared, but at his death he had only advanced to the year 1847. It will remain a fragment, and it is much to be regretted that he did not live to complete the account of the Revolution, in which he would have had a subject worthy of his peculiar powers. The work shows extreme diligence, scrupulous care in the use of authorities, and in the years he covered he has left little for future historians to discover. It is too discursive and is badly arranged, but it is marked by a power of style, a vigor of narrative, and a skill in delineation of character which give life to the most unattractive period of German history; notwithstanding the extreme spirit of partisanship and some faults of taste, it will remain a remarkable monument of literary ability. Besides this he wrote a number of biographical and historical essays, as well as numerous articles and papers on questions rising out of contemporary politics, of which some are valuable contributions to political thought, while others are political controversy not always of the best kind."