'Frederick the Great' occasionally rises to greatness

The foremost strength of Blanning's biography is its ability to capture the quicksilver nature of the mind of the fabled Prussian monarch.

Frederick the Great: King of Prussia By Tim Blanning Random House 688 pp.

Since long before his death in 1786, the Prussian King Frederick II was known throughout Europe as “the Great,” and in the centuries since, he's been the subject of hundreds of biographies analyzing every aspect of his life, his 46-year reign, his many wars and battlefield victories, the glittering culture of his court at Sanssouci, his tempestuous friendship with Voltaire, his passion for music, his sweeping political and domestic reforms, and his championship of the Enlightenment. Thomas Carlyle devoted six volumes to his life and still left plenty of room for more investigation.

The latest biography of the man to appear in English is Tim Blanning's Frederick the Great: King of Prussia, and although Blanning asserts right away that “to view the reign as a prolonged exercise in therapy would of course be absurdly reductionist,” his Frederick nevertheless spends at least as much time on the psychiatrist's couch as he does on the battlefield.

It's been a perennial tack of biographers, for good reason. Frederick's father, “The Great Elector” Frederick William I, was a hard, gruff man who freely boasted of being a blunt, unlettered German prince, a hostile alien to the Francophile tendencies of the courts of Europe at the time. He was by most accounts a deplorable parent, brutal when he wasn't indifferent, on one account infamously forcing young Frederick to watch the beheading of his best friend when the two of them were caught trying to flee the country. He imprisoned his young son and indeed seemed tempted to execute him as well. As Blanning writes, “So deep was the imprint bludgeoned into Frederick by his terrifying father that it could never be erased.”

The father died in 1740, and at age 28, Frederick now “set about his psychological rehabilitation,” as Blanning puts it, buying clothes, pictures, books, and artwork and generally turning “his father's Sparta into Athens (or even Babylon).” Frederick William passed on to his son a large and well-oiled military force, a populous and very competent imperial bureaucracy, and a full treasury, but, “Unfortunately, Frederick William's dazzling material legacy to is son was accompanied by a psychological burden of corresponding magnitude.”

Psychological biography of course has its interests, but even so, this can be a bit much. Readers won't know whether to smile or grimace, for instance, when Blanning tells us that Frederick invaded Silesia in 1740 “primarily for the sake of his glory, to make a name for himself, to show he was a man, and moreover a man superior to his father.” Frederick himself would doubtless have had a quip ready about preferring cheaper ways to appreciate the Oedipus of Sophocles.

Blanning is equally happy to speculate on the fashionable question of Frederick's rumored homosexuality. “Unless a document can be found in which Frederick relates what he did, when and with whom, a residual doubt must remain,” he writes. “The cumulative weight of evidence, however, is difficult to resist.” But the evidence he produces amounts to Frederick inheriting his father's misogyny and hearty appreciation of male company; readers might find it easier to resist than Blanning thinks. (Such speculation would be more enjoyable if it didn't so much seem to be distracting Blanning, but how else to explain his referring to Frederick, one of the greatest tacticians in European history, as “an indifferent general but a brilliant warlord”?)

Fortunately, our author is on much firmer ground when he turns his attention to the home front. Whenever Blanning discusses the court and social reforms Frederick introduced, the cultural freedom he encouraged, the legal reforms he instigated, "Frederick the Great: King of Prussia" rises to its full potential and rivals the previous two popular-audience biographies of the man, Jessica Mitford's 1970 "Frederick the Great" and Robert Asprey's fantastic 1986 "Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma" (a book Blanning seems not to mention). And his implied case – that its in such civilian realms that the king's true claim to greatness really lies – may just be correct; to the less bellicose readership of the 21st century, it will certainly seem natural, although it might have struck Frederick as bizarre.

Or perhaps not. The foremost strength of Blanning's book is its ability to capture the quicksilver nature of its subject's mind; Frederick could be every bit as coarse and abrupt as his father (him again!), but he had a rare facility for wry self-observation, and Blanning is alive to the twists and turns of such a labyrinthine mind.

Frederick the Great died in August of 1786, and Blanning's brilliant chapter “Death and Transfiguration” hints at the vast and baleful afterlife that followed in the imagination of Europe, where Frederick “turned out to be wonderfully protean, a man of the Enlightenment to be deployed against the reactionaries, an egalitarian against the aristocrats, a military hero against the civilians,” and so on. That protean nature ensures there'll be many more biographies, and probably also ensures that none of them will ever manage to be definitive.

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