- - Sunday, May 15, 2016



By Tim Blanning

Random House, $35.00, 653 pages

It is always a pleasure to review a well-written book on an important subject. Cambridge scholar Tim Blanning’s “Frederick the Great,” a lengthy but never lagging biography of one of history’s most enigmatic monarchs, is both. I must confess to being a bit biased. This after discovering that Mr. Blanning’s biography begins with the same anecdote — centering on a dream the warrior king had when his military fortunes were at low ebb during the Seven Years War — that I used to begin an article of my own on Frederick published nearly half a century earlier (“Father and Son: Frederick William and Frederick the Great” in the July 1976 issue of England’s History Today magazine).

Without giving anything away, let’s just say that Mr. Blanning and I agree on the psychological key to what transformed an effeminate, brutalized, Francophile youth into the ruthless soldier king who established Prussia as a major European power. And that was only the beginning. Frederick’s success set in motion events that would ultimately “Prussianize” and militarize the united Germany forged by Bismarck nearly a century after Frederick’s death. We all know how that ended.

Frederick was on the throne for forty-six years and was exceptionally active in all spheres,” Mr. Blanning writes. “To view his reign as a prolonged exercise in therapy would of course be absurdly reductionist.” But everything has to start somewhere, and the sadistic — but ultimately effective — emotional mine field Frederick’s brutal father marched him through is what stamped both the steel and the cynicism into Frederick’s soul. Besides a wealth of psychological scar tissue, his father left Frederick with a full treasury and a disproportionately large standing army with arguably the best disciplined infantry in Europe.

Frederick was quick to unsheathe the sword his father had forged when, “less than a year after his accession … he took the decision to seize the Austrian province of Silesia” on the death in 1740 of Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI who was succeeded by his young daughter, Maria Theresa. “To put it simply,” Mr. Blanning concedes, Frederick began by robbing an apparently defenseless woman “and spent the rest of his life trying to hang on to his booty, a herculean effort which colored all his foreign and domestic policies and actions. So much flowed from that primal act that his state of mind following the prolonged trauma of adolescence and early manhood is a legitimate, not to say essential, dimension to an understanding of his amazing life.”

Toward the end of his reign Frederick was also a prime player in another unscrupulous land grab, the first partition of Poland, this time acting in collusion with his former Russian and Austrian foes. This occurred just when Poland had begun to institute military, administrative and educational reforms in an attempt to modernize the once-proud Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and spelled the beginning of the end for what had once been a crucial buffer against Russian expansionism. It also sowed the seeds of historic grievances with toxic effects that linger on today.

Mr. Blanning is equally adept at leading his readers through the labyrinthine complexities of Frederick’s psyche and the almost equally tangled intricacies of 18th-century dynastic politics. In only one respect does his sense of proportion fail him. To the casual reader, he gives the impression that his biography is one of the first to take Frederick the Great out of the closet and honestly examine his sexuality. Actually, what at the time would have been called Frederick’s “sodomitic proclivities” were well known and commented upon by his sophisticated contemporaries, much as worldly Manhattanites in the 1930s and 1940s knew all about Cole Porter’s homosexuality decades before anything hit the press. Frederick himself did nothing to conceal it in his private correspondence, much of it with friends who shared his tastes. On a few occasions he even tipped his hand in official documents as when, with suggestive irony, he reduced the death sentence of a Prussian cavalryman who had been court-martialed for having sexual relations with his horse … to a transfer to the infantry.

Sex aside, Frederick was a mixed bag of good and bad qualities, an unscrupulous militarist, a competent amateur flute player and composer, a writer of mediocre French verse, a remarkable polymath who posed as an enlightened philosopher but generally acted as a tyrant, and an emotionally crippled misogynist with little compassion for others and a particularly mean streak dealing with his own family circle: in short, a great ruler who was also a rather nasty man.

Aram Bakshian Jr. an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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