Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke




The Rise of Prussia

So far no Kaiser had committed outrages against the Fatherland in such an irresponsible way as this Lorraine augmenter of the Empire, who opened all the gates of Germany to foreign plunderers, delivered up the Netherlands to the Bourbons, and the eastern provinces to the Muscovites. And while the Kaiser trampled on his oath, and forfeited every right of his House to the German crown, at Regensburg the shameless farce of the Reichstag and its criminal anathemas was played. The Reichstag cried to the conqueror of Silesia its Darnach hat Er, Kurfurst, Sich zu richten ("According to that he, the Kurfurst, must conform"). The Ambassador of Brandenburg threw the messenger of the illustrious assembly downstairs; the Imperial army gathered together hurriedly under the flag of the Bourbon enemy of the Empire, to scatter at once like chaff in the wind before Seydlitz's squadrons of cavalry. The German nation celebrated with joyous exultation the victor of Rossbach, the rebel against Empire and Emperor.

With this confused satyr-play the great tragedy of the Imperial history was brought indeed to a close; what was left of the old German community scarcely preserved even the semblance of life.

But the conqueror who, in the thunder of battles, had thrown overboard the old theocratic ideas, was the protector of Protestantism. Exhausted as the ecclesiastical rivalries appeared to the age of enlightenment, Frederick recognized that the permanency of the Westphalian Peace, the equality of the creeds in the Empire, would not be maintainable when once the two great Catholic Powers triumphed; the common Protestant cause offered him the only handle to force the faint-hearted minor princes into war against Austria.

Watchfully his eye followed the intrigues of the priesthood at the Protestant courts; his authority protected the freedom of the Evangelical Church in Wurttemberg and Hesse, when the successors to their thrones went over to the Roman faith; and more clearly than he himself, his minor North German allies recognized the religious significance of the war; in the letters of the Hessian Minister, F. A. von Hardenberg, the allies of Prussia were called simply "the Evangelical provinces," and faithful adherence to the Prussian party was held up as the natural attitude of all the Protestant States of the Empire.

Chanting his Lutheran hymns, the Prussian grenadier went out to battle; the Evangelical soldiers of the Swabian district ran away cursing, because they would not fight against their coreligionists; in the conventicles of the English Dissenters pious preachers prayed for the Maccabeus of Evangelism, the Free-thinker Frederick. The Pope presented the field-marshal of the Empress with a consecrated hat and sword, and every new report of victory from the Prussian camp called up a storm of indignation and fear in the Vatican.

A hundred and twenty years before, the Protestant world had lain at the feet of Rome, as if crushed and destroyed, when the flags of Wallenstein's army waved on the shores of the Baltic, and the Stuarts endeavored to subject their Parliament to their Roman influences. Now a great Protestant Power gave the last blow to the Holy (Roman) Empire, and through the wars on the Ohio and the Ganges it was decided once for all that sea and colonial power should belong to the Protestant and Germanic races.

The struggle for Prussia's existence was the first European war; it created the unity of the new association of States, and gave it the aristocratic form of the Pentarchy. When the new great Central-European Power extorted the recognition of the neighboring Powers, the two old political systems of the east and west melted into one inseparable community; and at the same time the less powerful States, which occasionally before, through their entering into a coalition, had turned the scale in a great battle, but now could no longer meet the heavy demands of the new grandiose scale of war, sank in position.

The States of the second rank decided to leave the control of European affairs to the great naval and military Powers for the future. Among these five leading Powers were two Protestant and one schismatic; that Europe should fall back under the domination of the Crowned Priest (the Pope) was unthinkable from now on. The establishment of the great German Protestant Power was the heaviest defeat which the Roman Curia had suffered since the appearance of Martin Luther; King Frederick had truly, as the English Ambassador Mitchell said, fought for the freedom of the human race.

From the school of sufferings and struggles there sprang for the Prussian people a living sense of nationality: it justified the King in talking of his nation Prussienne. To be a Prussian had up to this been a stern duty: it was now an honor.

The thought of the State, the Fatherland, forced its way, exciting and nerving, into millions of hearts; even the crushed soul of the poor felt a breath of the antique sense of citizenship which emanated from the simple words of the King: "It is not necessary that I should live, but very necessary that I should do my duty and fight for my Fatherland." Everywhere in Prussia, under the stiff forms of an absolute monarchy, stirred the spirit of sacrifice and the great passion of the national war.

The army which had been victorious in Frederick's last battles was national; recruiting in foreign countries was in the nature of things impossible in the catastrophes of the period. The provincial estates voluntarily equipped those regiments which had saved the fortresses of Magdeburg, Stettin, and Kustrin for the State; the Pomeranian seamen banded together to defend with their small navy the mouths of the Oder against the Swedes. For six years the officials, poor as church-mice, received no pay, and yet quietly discharged their duties as if it were an understood thing.

Emulously all the provinces rivaled each other in carrying out their "damned duty," as the Prussian phrase ran (ihre verfluchte Pflicht und Schuldigkeit); from the gallant peasant of the Rhenish county of Mors to the unhappy East-Prussians, who with quiet tenacious opposition had stood firm against the Russian conqueror, and would not be disturbed in their determined faithfulness when the inexorable King accused them of falling-off and overwhelmed them with manifestations of his displeasure.

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. The alert self-reliance of the Prussians contrasted strongly with the inoffensive, kindly modesty of the other Germans. Graf Hertzberg confidently refuted the doctrine of Montesquieu on the virtues of republicanism: where in republicanism had there flourished a stauncher public spirit than here, under the bracing northern sky, among the descendants of those heroic nations, the Vandals and the Goths, who had once shattered the Roman Empire? The same spirit existed in the mass of the people; it was betrayed now in confident bragging, in the thousand satirical anecdotes of Austrian stupidity and Prussian Hussar strategies current, now in pathetic stories of conscientious fidelity.

The young sailor Joachim Nettelbeck comes to Danzig, and is hired to row the King of Poland across the harbor; someone claps a hat on his head with the monogram of King Augustus; for a long time he resists, for it seems to him a betrayal of his Prussian King to wear the badge of a foreign sovereign; at last he has to submit, but the earned ducat burns in his hand, and as soon as he gets home to Pomerania he presents the ill-gotten money to the first Prussian invalid who crosses his path. So susceptible has the political pride in this nation become, which a few decades before was demoralized by its domestic troubles.

It was not to be forgotten that to the two great princes of war, to Caesar and Alexander, from now onwards a Prussian was associated as third. In the character of the North-German, united to a tough perseverance, there is a strain of high-spirited light-heartedness, which loves to play with danger, and the Prussians found this characteristic of theirs again in the General Frederick, raised to the pitch of genius: when he, after a hard apprenticeship, ripened rapidly into the master, threw aside the cautious rules of the old ponderous science of war, and even to the enemy "dictated the precepts of war," being always ready to seek the decision in open battle; when he again raised the sharpest weapon, cavalry, to that place which was due to it in great battles; when he after every victory, and after each of his three defeats, always maintained anew "the prerogative of the initiative."

The successful results show how well the King and his people understood one another. A close circle of heroes gathered round the chief or King, and spread down to the lowest rank of the army that gay love of daring, that spirit of the offensive, which has remained the strength of the Prussian army in all its great periods.

From the provincial nobles and Pomeranian peasants Frederick drew the feared Ansbach-Baireuth Dragoons and the Zieten Hussars, who soon surpassed the wild-riding races of Hungary in their mad dash and their spirited charges. With pride the King said that with such soldiers there was no risk: "A general who in other armies would be considered foolhardy, is considered by us only as doing his duty!" The twelve campaigns of the Frederician period have given the Prussian people and army the martial spirit as their characteristic spirit forever. Even to-day, when the conversation turns to war the North-German falls involuntarily into the expressions of those heroic days, and speaks, as did Frederick, of "brilliant campaigns" and "fulminant attacks."

The good-hearted kindliness of the Germans outside Prussia needed a long time to overcome its aversion to the hard realism of this Frederician theory, which so ungenerously attacked its enemy when it was least welcome. But when the great year of 1757 swept over the German nation, when victorious attack and heavy defeat, new daring recovery and new glowing victory crowded in bewildering haste, and when always from the wild flight of events stood out the picture of the King, uniformly great and commanding, the people felt themselves gripped heart and soul, and were staggered at this vision of sheer human greatness.

The hard, weather-beaten figure of old Fritz, as the blows of an inexorable Fate had forged it, exercised its irresistible witchery on countless faithful souls, who had regarded the dazzling figure of the youthful Hero of Hohenfriedberg only with awe. The Germans were, as Goethe said of his Frankfurters, Fritz-mad (Fritzishgesinnt)—"For what did Prussia matter to us?"—and watched with bated breath as the untamable man, year-out, year-in, warded off destruction. That overwhelming union of unmixed joy and love which occasionally illuminates the history of happier nations with a golden light, was, it is true, still denied to rent Germany.

As Luther and Gustavus Adolphus, the only two heroes before that whose pictures had impressed themselves indelibly on the hearts of our nation, so Frederick was feared in the episcopal lands of the Rhine and the Main as the great enemy. But the vast majority of Protestants, and wide circles of the Catholic people, and, above all, certain leaders of the new learning and poetry, followed him with warm sympathy; people caught at his witticisms, and told marvel after marvel of his grenadiers and hussars. The heart of the previously so humble race swelled at the thought that the first man of the century was ours, that the fame of the King sounded as far as Morocco and America.

So far few knew that the Prussian battle-fame was only the ancient military glory of the German nation come to light again; even Lessing occasionally spoke of the Prussians as of a half-foreign nation, and remarked with astonishment that heroism seemed as born in them as in the Spartans. Gradually even the masses began to feel that Frederick fought for Germany. The battle of Rossbach, the bataille en douceur, as he called it mockingly, was the richest in results for our national life of his victories.

If in this domesticated race there still lived a political emotion, it was a silent animosity against French arrogance, which, so often chastised with the German sword, had always in the end remained in possession of the field, and was once again covering the Rhine-lands with blood and ruin. Now Frederick's good sword met it, and struck it down in a pool of shame; a shout of exultation rang through all the German provinces, and the Swabian Schubart cried: Da griff ich ungestum die goldene Harfe, darein zu sturmen Friedrichs Lob ("Impetuously I seize the golden harp, to make it storm Frederick's praise").

For the first time in history the Germans in the Empire succumbed to a feeling like national pride, and they sang with old Gleim: Lasst uns Deutsche sein und bleiben! ("Let us be and remain Germans.") The French officers returning from the German battle-fields proclaimed naively in Paris itself the praise of the victor of Rossbach, since their pride could not yet imagine it possible that this little Prussia could ever seriously threaten the power of France; in German comedies, however, the once-feared Frenchman now filled the role either of the butt or the vain adventurer.

A political understanding of the character of the Prussian State had not, it is true, come to the nation even yet; this learned people lived in a wonderful ignorance of the deciding factors of its modern history as well as of the institutions of its mightiest State-organization.

If the victories of Frederick had somewhat appeased the old hatred against Prussia, even in the Protestant provinces of the Empire every citizen congratulated himself if he was not a Prussian. The industrious fictions of the Austrian party found willing listeners everywhere. "This free people," Frederick Nicolai wrote in the year 1780 from Swabia, "look down on us poor Brandenburgers as slaves."

The force of the mighty State appealed only to strong and ambitious natures. From the beginning of the Frederician period a distinguished phalanx of the brilliant young men of the Empire had begun to enter into the Prussian service; some were impelled by their amazement at the King, others by the longing for exuberant activity, and some had a vague presentiment of the destinies of this Monarchy.

It had now fully outgrown the narrow-mindedness of provincial life and spontaneously absorbed all the healthy elements in the Empire, and found in the ranks of the immigrants many of her most faithful and capable servants, also her deliverer, the Freiherr Karl von Stein.

With the Peace of Hubertusburg there dawned for the North-Germans four decades of deep peace; that richly blessed time of peace, of which old Goethe afterwards thought so often with gratitude.

At that time the old tradition of Prussia's poverty gradually became a fable. Social life, particularly in the capital, took on richer and freer forms, the national prosperity received a surprising impetus, German poetry entered on her great period. The war had at once simplified and rendered more difficult the position of the Empire. Of the old order there was nothing left but the still unsolved opposition of the two Great Powers. A presentiment of a difficult decision went through the German world; the minor Courts discussed in energetic conferences as to how they should protect themselves by forming an alliance of the minor Powers, in case another encounter of the "two German Colossi" threaten to crush them. But King Frederick, thoroughly aware of the infinite power of the inertia in this old Empire, resigned himself to recuperating the exhausted strength of his own State; his German policy for the future had for its only aim to keep out of the Empire every influence of foreign Powers and to balance the power of Austria.