Modern history


Struggle for Mastery

On 16 December 1740, Frederick II of Prussia led an army of 27,000 men out of Brandenburg across the lightly defended frontier of Habsburg Silesia. Despite the wintry conditions, the Prussians swept through the province meeting only light resistance from Austrian forces. By the end of January, only six weeks later, virtually all of Silesia, including the capital Breslau, was in Frederick’s hands. The invasion was the most important single political action of Frederick’s life. It was a decision taken by the king alone, against the advice of his most senior diplomatic and military advisers.1 The acquisition of Silesia changed permanently the political balance within the Holy Roman Empire and thrust Prussia into a dangerous new world of great-power politics. Frederick was fully aware of the shock effect his assault would have on international opinion, but he could hardly have foreseen the European transformations that would unfold from that easy winter campaign.


It is worth pausing to reflect on the man who single-handedly launched the Silesian wars and remained the custodian of the Hohenzollern territories for forty-six years – nearly as long as his illustrious predecessor the Great Elector. The persona of this gifted and spirited monarch enthralled contemporaries and has fascinated historians since. Getting a sense of who the king was is no simple matter, however, for Frederick was enormously loquacious (his posthumously published oeuvres run to thirty volumes), but rarely self-revealing. His writing and speech reflected a quintessentially eighteenth-century esteem for esprit – the style was aphoristic, light and economical, the tone always detached: encyclopaedic, amused, ironic or even mocking. But behind the laboured gags of the satirical verses and the cool, reasoning prose of the historical memoirs and the political memoranda, the man himself remains elusive.

About the superiority of his intellect there can be no doubt. Throughout his life, Frederick devoured books: Fénelon, Descartes, Molière, Bayle, Boileau, Bossuet, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Locke, Wolff, Leibniz, Cicero, Caesar, Lucian, Horace, Gresset, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, Montesquieu, Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, Sallust, Lucretius, Cornelius Nepos and hundreds more. He was always reading new books, but he also regularly reread the texts that were most important to him. German literature was a cultural blind spot. In one of the eighteenth century’s funniest effusions of literary bile, Frederick, a grumpy old man of sixty-eight, denounced the German language as a ‘semi-barbarian’ idiom in which it was ‘physically impossible’, even for an author of genius, to achieve superior aesthetic effects. German writers, the king wrote, ‘take pleasure in a diffuse style, they pile parenthesis upon parenthesis, and often you don’t find until you reach the end of the page the verb on which the meaning of the entire sentence depends’.2

So visceral was Frederick’s need for the company and stimulation of books that he had a mobile ‘field library’fitted up for use during campaigns. Writing (always in French) was also important, not just as a means of communicating his thoughts to others, but also as a psychological refuge. It was always his aspiration to combine the daring and resilience of the man of action with the critical detachment of the philosophe. His coupling of the two species, encapsulated in the youthful self-description ‘roi philosophe’, meant that neither of his roles had an absolute claim over him: he passed as a philosopher among kings and a king among philosophers. His letters from the battlefield at the lowest points in his military fortunes pretend to the true stoic’s fatalism and immunity from care. The essays on practical and theoretical matters, conversely, breathe the confidence and authority of one who wields real power.

Frederick was also an accomplished musician. His preference for the flute was entirely in character, for this instrument more than any other was associated with the cultural prestige of France. The transverse flutes that Frederick played were a recent invention of the French instrument makers who had transformed the old cylindrical, six-holed flute into the subtle and chromatically versatile conically bored instrument of the baroque era. The most renowned players of the early eighteenth century were all French. French composers – Philidor, de la Barre, Dornel, Monteclaire – also dominated the flute repertoire. This instrument thus carried a strong note of that cultural superiority that Frederick and many of his German contemporaries associated with France. The king took his flute-playing seriously. His tutor, the virtuoso flautist and composer Quantz, was paid a salary of 2,000 thalers a year, which placed him on a par with some of the most senior civil servants in the kingdom – by contrast, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, a composer of infinitely greater historical significance who worked for Frederick as a keyboard player, was paid only a fraction of this sum.3 Frederick practised and performed on the flute incessantly, with a perfectionism verging on the obsessive. Even during campaigns, his tuneful warbling could be heard at evening across the Prussian encampments. He was also a gifted composer, though his works were competent and graceful rather than brilliant.


18. Johann Gottlieb Glume, Frederick the Great before the Seven Years War

The relationship between Frederick’s political writing and his practice as ruler was remarkably straightforward. At the centre of his thinking was the maintenance and extension of the state’s power. Notwithstanding its rather misleading title, Frederick’s famous early essay The Anti-Machiavelset out quite clearly his position on the permissibility of the pre-emptive strike and the ‘war of interest’, in which rights are in dispute, the prince’s cause is just and he is obliged to resort to force in order to prosecute the interests of his people.4 A clearer blueprint for the seizure of Silesia in 1740 and the Saxon invasion of 1756 could hardly be asked for. He was even more outspoken in the two Political Testaments (1752 and 1768) he penned for the private edification of his successor. The Second Testament spoke with remarkable sang froid about how ‘useful’ it would be for Prussia to absorb Saxony and Polish Prussia (the territory dividing East Prussia from Brandenburg and Eastern Pomerania), thus ‘rounding out’ its borders and rendering the eastern extremity of the kingdom defensible. There was no reference to the liberation of coreligionists or the defence of ancient right, just uninhibited fantasizing about the state’s expansion.5 It is here that Frederick comes closest to the ‘foreign-political nihilism’ of which one historian has accused him.6

Frederick was also a formidable and highly original historian. Taken as a whole, the History of the House of Brandenburg (completed in February 1748), the History of My Own Times (completed in a first draft in 1746), the History of the Seven Years War (completed in 1764) and his memoir on events during the decade between the Peace of Hubertusburg and the first Polish partition (completed in 1775) amount to the first comprehensive historical reflection on the evolution of the Prussian lands, despite a tendency to superficial judgements.7 So attractive and cogent are Frederick’s historical notes and memoirs that they have shaped perceptions of his reign – and those of his predecessors – ever since. In Frederick II, the sharp awareness of historical change that one senses in the political testaments of the Great Elector and Frederick William I is raised to the level of self-consciousness. Perhaps this was because the absence of a divine providence from Frederick’s universe made it impossible for him to embed himself and his work within a timeless order of truth and prophecy. Whereas his father Frederick William I closed his Political Testament of February 1722 with the pious wish that his son and his successors might prosper until the ‘end of the world’ with ‘the help of God through Jesus Christ’, the opening passage of Frederick’s Testament of 1752 confronted the contingent and fleeting character of all historical achievement: ‘I know that the moment of death destroys men and their projects and that everything in the cosmos is subject to the laws of change.’8

Throughout his life, Frederick displayed a remarkable disregard for the conventional pieties of his era. He was vehemently irreligious: in the Political Testament of 1768, he described Christianity as ‘an old metaphysical fiction, stuffed with miracles, contradictions and absurdities, which was spawned in the fevered imaginations of the Orientals and then spread to our Europe, where some fanatics espoused it, some intriguers pretended to be convinced by it and some imbeciles actually believed it.’9 He was also unusually relaxed on questions of sexual morality. Voltaire’s memoirs recall the case of a man who was sentenced to death for engaging in sexual intercourse with a she-donkey. The sentence was personally annulled by Frederick on the grounds that ‘in his lands one enjoyed freedom of both conscience and penis’.10 Whether or not this story is true (and Voltaire is not always to be trusted on such matters), it conveys an authentic sense of the libertinism that prevailed in Frederick’s milieu. Jules Offray de la Mettrie was a sometime star of Frederick’s court and author of the materialist treatise Man as Machine (l’Homme Machine) in which he expounded the view that man is merely a digestive tract with a sphincter at both ends. Mettrie found time during his sojourn in Berlin to write two essays on scurrilous themes: The Art of Orgasm (l’Art de jouir) and The Little Man with a Big Prick (Le Petit Homme è grande queue). Baculard d’Arnaud, another of Frederick’s French guests, was the author of a study on The Art of Fucking (l’Art de foutre); Frederick himself is believed to have written a verse (now sadly lost) exploring the pleasures of the orgasm.

Was Frederick homosexual? A contemporary mémoire secrète published pseudonymously in London alleged that the Prussian king presided over a court of catamites, enjoying sex with courtiers, stable hands and passing boys at regular intervals during the day. The thankless Voltaire – who had himself once professed his love for Frederick in openly erotic terms – later alleged in his memoirs that the king was in the habit after his lever of enjoying a quarter-hour of ‘schoolboy amusements’ with a chosen lackey or ‘young cadet’, though he added bitchily that ‘things didn’t go all the way’ because Frederick had never recovered from his father’s ill-treatment and was ‘unable to play the leading role’.11 German memoirists responded with dutiful counterblasts stressing the young Frederick’s vigorous heterosexuality. It is difficult to say which of these views comes closer to the truth. Voltaire was writing after his estrangement from the king with an eye to the lubricious tastes of the Paris reading public. The tales of early ‘mistresses’ all come from the world of court rumour, gossip and hearsay. Frederick certainly confided to Grumbkow, one of the most influential ministers at his father’s court, that he felt too little attracted to the female sex to be able to imagine marriage.12 It is impossible – and unnecessary – to reconstruct the king’s sexual history; he may well have abstained from sexual acts with anyone of either sex after his accession to the throne, and possibly even before.13 But if he did not do it, he certainly talked about it; the conversation of the inner court circle around him was peppered with homoerotic banter. Frederick’s satirical poem Le Palladion (1749), which was read out to great amusement at the king’s petits soupers, offered reflections on the pleasures of ‘sex from the left’ and painted a lurid scene in which Darget, one of the Potsdam favourites, was sodomized by a band of lecherous Jesuits.14

This was men-only, locker-room stuff and indeed one of the enduring features of Frederick’s narrower social milieu was its pungently masculine tone. In this sense, the Frederician court was an elaboration of the Tobacco College he had contemplated with such disgust during his father’s reign. The masculinization that had transformed court life after 1713 was not reversed, indeed in some respects it was reinforced. Only during the Rheinsberg years, when Frederick was still crown prince, were women integrated into the social life of his court. Clearly there was not much room within this constellation for a functioning heterosexual marriage. Whether the union between Frederick and his wife, Elisabeth of Brunswick-Bevern, was ever consummated is unclear. What is certain is that from the time of his accession to the throne, Frederick severed social relations with his wife, consigning her to a twilight zone in which she retained her formal rights and attributes as consort and occupied a modest residence of her own (on a very tight budget), but was not encouraged to seek contact with the king.

This was an unusual course of action: Frederick took none of the more obvious contemporary options – he did not divorce her, nor did he banish her from the country or replace her with mistresses. Instead he condemned her to a kind of suspended animation, in which she was scarcely more than a ‘representative automaton’.15 From 1745, she was persona non grata at Sans Souci; other women were invited to the king’s elegant summer refuge (mostly to Sunday lunch), but not his wife. During the twenty-two years from 1741 to 1762, Frederick was only twice present to celebrate her birthday. Although she continued to preside over what remained of the Berlin court, the horizons of her life gradually narrowed to the perimeter of her suburban residence at Schönhausen. In a letter written in 1747, when she was thirty-one years old, she talked of ‘peacefully waiting for death, when God will be pleased to take me from this world in which I have nothing more to do [… ].’16 Frederick’s correspondence with her was conducted for the most part in a tone of icy formality and there were occasions on which he treated her with a remarkable lack of feeling. Best known of these is the unforgettable greeting ‘Madame has grown fatter’, with which he saluted his wife, after years of separation, on his return from the wars in 1763.17

Whether all this gets us any further in the quest for the ‘real Frederick’ is a moot question. Frederick’s persona was fashioned around a rejection of authenticity as a virtue in its own right. To the injunction of his brutish father: ‘be an honest fellow, just be honest’, the teen-age Frederick had responded with a sly, foppish civility, striking the pose of the wry, dissembling, morally agnostic outsider. In a letter of 1734 to his former tutor, the Huguenot Duhan de Jandun, he compared himself to a mirror that, being obliged to reflect its surroundings, ‘does not dare to be what nature made it’.18 A tendency to efface himself as a subject, as an individual, runs like a red thread through his writings. It can be found in the affected stoicism of his wartime correspondence, in the sarcasm and pastiche with which he kept even close associates at a distance, and in his inclination, when reflecting on matters of political principle, to merge the person of the king into the abstract structure of the state. Even Frederick’s lust for work, which was immense and never-ending, could be construed as a flight from the introversion that idleness brings. The protective screen Frederick threw up against the cruel regime imposed by his father was never dismantled. Frederick remained the self-styled misanthrope, lamenting the turpitude of humanity and despairing of happiness in this life. In the meanwhile he continued, with astonishing energy, to consolidate his cultural capital. He endlessly practised and played his flute until his teeth fell out, leaving his embouchure in ruins. He read and reread the Roman classics (in French) and honed his French prose-writing skills, devouring the latest works of philosophy and recruiting new conversation partners to fill the places vacated by friends who had died or betrayed him by taking wives.


Why did Frederick invade Silesia and why did he do so in 1740? A banal answer to this question would be: because he could. The international setting was highly favourable. In Russia, the death of the Tsarina Anna in October 1740 had paralysed the political executive, as court factions struggled to dominate the regency of the infant successor Ivan VI. Britain, though a friend of Austria, had been at war with Spain since 1739 and was thus unlikely to intervene. Frederick also calculated (correctly) that the French would be generally supportive. He possessed the means to carry it off. His father had left to him an army of some 80,000 men, rigorously trained and well supported and equipped, but untested in battle. Frederick had also inherited a substantial war chest of 8 million thalers in gold, bagged in hessian sacks and piled in the cellars of the royal palace in Berlin. By contrast, the Habsburg monarchy, having suffered a sequence of disastrous setbacks in the War of the Polish Succession (1733–8) and the Turkish war (1737–9), was close to exhaustion.

The new Habsburg monarch, Maria Theresa, was a woman. This was problematic, because the laws governing inheritance within the House of Habsburg did not provide for female succession. Foreseeing this difficulty, Emperor Charles VI, the father of three daughters, had invested much effort and money in securing domestic and international approval for the ‘Pragmatic Sanction’, a technical device that would allow the dynasty to bend the rules. By the time of his death, most of the key states (including Prussia) had signalled their acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction. But it was doubtful that these undertakings would actually be honoured. Two German dynasties in particular, the Saxon and the Bavarian, had married their eldest sons to nieces of the Emperor in 1719 and 1722 respectively; they later argued that these compacts entitled them, in the absence of a male Habsburg heir, to parts of the monarchy’s hereditary lands. During the early 1720s, the Saxons and the Bavarians signed various treaties by which they promised to work together in making good these dubious claims. The Elector of Bavaria even went so far as to forge a sixteenth-century Austro-Bavarian marriage treaty that supposedly awarded most of the Austrian hereditary lands to Bavaria in the absence of a direct male line of succession. There were thus clear indications even before 1740 that trouble would break out when the Emperor died.

Prussia was among those German states that had ratified the Pragmatic Sanction, partly in order to expedite negotiations over the transfer of the Salzburg Protestants to the eastern borderlands of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1731–2. But relations between Prussia and the House of Austria had been deteriorating for some time. The Habsburgs had long regretted their support for Prussia’s acquisition of a royal crown in 1701, and from around 1705, when Emperor Joseph I came to the throne, they pursued a policy of containment that aimed at preventing any further consolidation of the Hohenzollern dynasty in Germany. Prussia and Austria fought on the same side, broadly speaking, during the War of the Spanish Succession, but the reports of the British envoys in Berlin reveal frequent tensions and resentments over issues ranging from the acknowledgement of titles to the deployment of coalition troops and delays in the payment of subsidies.19 Although Frederick William I (who acceded in 1713) was something of an imperial patriot who had no wish to contest the Emperor’s primacy, there was periodic friction over Protestant rights within the Empire and fury in Berlin over the Emperor’s willingness to have the complaints of the Estates of the Hohenzollern lands aired before the Imperial Aulic Council in Vienna, as if the King in Prussia were just a minor imperial potentate, a ‘Prince of Zipfel-Zerbst’, as Frederick William himself put it.

The breaking point for Frederick William I was the Emperor’s failure in 1738 to support the still outstanding Brandenburg claim to the Rhenish Duchy of Berg. Frederick William’s foreign policy was almost exclusively focused on securing the Berg title, and the Emperor had promised, as a quid pro quo for Berlin’s approval of the Pragmatic Sanction, to support Brandenburg against the other claimants in the region. In 1738, however, Austria broke this commitment and supported a rival claim. This came as a bitter blow to Frederick William, who is said to have pointed to his son, saying: ‘There is the man who will avenge me!’20 A shared rage over Austrian ‘betrayal’ did much to bridge the divide between father and son during the last years of the reign, and a secret treaty of April 1739, by which France acknowledged Brandenburg’s ‘ownership’ of the Duchy of Berg, foreshadowed the orientation away from Austria and towards France that would be a feature of his son’s early reign. In his ‘last address’ to his son, delivered when the old king was dying on 28 May 1740, Frederick William warned the crown prince that the House of Austria should not be trusted and would always strive to diminish the standing of Brandenburg-Prussia: ‘Vienna will never forsake this invariable maxim.’21

Why Silesia? There was an outstanding Hohenzollern territorial claim to various parts of the province, based on the Habsburgs’ earlier appropriation of the Hohenzollern fief of Jaägerndorf (1621), and the Silesian Piast territories of Liegnitz, Brieg and Wohlau (1675), to which the Hohenzollerns claimed the right of succession. Frederick himself made light of these moth-eaten titles and historians have generally followed him in this, seeing the legal briefs drawn up in support of the Silesian claim as a mere fig-leaf for an act of naked aggression. Whether they should be dismissed altogether is questionable, given the elephantine memory of the Hohenzollern dynasty – and indeed of early-modern European dynasties in general – for unfulfilled inheritance claims.22 But a more pressing reason for the choice of Silesia was simply that this was the only Habsburg province that shared a frontier with Brandenburg. It happened also to be very lightly defended – there were only 8,000 Austrian troops stationed in the province in 1740. It was a long, thumb-shaped territory that extended to the north-west from the borders of Habsburg Bohemia to the southern margin of the Neumark. Through its length ran the river Oder, whose stream rises in the mountains of Upper Silesia and meanders to the north-west, bisecting Brandenburg and entering the sea at Stettin in Pomerania. Silesia yielded more income in tax to Vienna than any other of the hereditary Austrian lands. It was one of the most densely industrialized areas of early modern German Europe, with a substantial textiles sector specializing in linen manufacture, and its annexation would bring to the Prussian lands an element of productive intensity that they had hitherto lacked.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that economic factors weighed heavily in Frederick’s calculations – the habit of assessing the value of territories in terms of their productive potential had not yet established itself. Strategic considerations were more important. Of these the foremost was probably the apprehension that the Saxons, who also had claims to make against the Austrians, would themselves attempt to take the province, or part of it, if the King of Prussia did not act first. Like Britain and Hanover, Saxony and Poland were at this time in personal union, Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony doubling as King Augustus III of Poland. The lands of the Saxon dynasty thus lay on either side of Silesia and it seemed highly likely that the Saxons would attempt to close the gap in some way. Sure enough, when Charles VI died, the Saxons offered Maria Theresa their support in return for the cession of a land corridor across Silesia between Saxony and Poland. Had this project been realized, the Saxon monarchy would have controlled a vast swathe of contiguous territory completely enclosing Brandenburg to the south and the east. It might well have eclipsed Prussia permanently, with long-term consequences that are difficult to imagine.

Frederick’s behaviour around the time of the attack on Silesia suggests a spontaneity verging on recklessness. He acted with breathtaking speed. He appears to have reached his decision to invade within a few days – perhaps in one day – of receiving the news of Charles VI’s unexpected death.23His contemporary utterances convey a tone of youthful machismo and a thirst for renown. ‘Depart for your appointment with glory!’, he called to officers of the Berlin regiment about to leave for Silesia. References to his ‘rendez-vous with fame’ and his desire to ‘see his name in the gazettes’ recur frequently in the correspondence.24 To this we should add the personal animus that Frederick had harboured against the House of Habsburg since their involvement in the crisis precipitated by his attempted flight in the summer of 1730. Frederick had experienced in the most intimate way the meaning of Brandenburg-Prussia’s subordinate position within the Empire, and though he bore his tribulations with an outward show of equanimity, a smouldering resentment of his lot made itself felt in his refusal to be reconciled to the marriage arranged for him – with Austrian approval – to Elisabeth of Brunswick-Bevern. The emphasis on emotional motivation may run against the grain of Frederick’s later historical chronicles, in which he presents himself as the hyper-rational executor of a bloodless raison d’état, but it is fully in accordance with his more fundamental beliefs about the motive forces behind historical change: ‘It is the lot of human affairs to be guided by the passions of men,’ he wrote in his History of the House of Brandenburg, ‘and reasons which were originally childish can ultimately lead to great upheavals.’25

Whatever the relative weight of the motives behind it, the invasion of Silesia committed Frederick to a long, hard struggle over the newly won province. The Austrians counter-attacked in the spring of 1741, but the momentum of their campaign was broken on 10 April by a Prussian victory at Mollwitz to the south-east of Breslau, which gave the signal for a general war of partition, known as the War of the Austrian Succession. By the end of May, France and Spain had pledged in the Treaty of Nymphenburg to support the Bavarian Elector Charles Albert’s candidacy for the imperial throne and his dubious claim to most of the Habsburg hereditary lands (France and Spain were to be awarded Belgium and Lombardy for their pains). The League of Nymphenburg eventually included not only France, Spain and Bavaria, but also Saxony, Savoy-Piedmont and Prussia. Had the plans hatched by this coalition been realized, Maria Theresa would ultimately have been left with only Hungary and Inner Austria. Hyena-like, the states of western Europe gathered for the kill, each warily watching the others.

Although the emergence of the Nymphenburg coalition served Frederick’s interests in 1741, his commitment to it was half-hearted. He did not wish to see Austria dismembered and he certainly had no desire to see Saxony or Bavaria aggrandized at Austria’s expense. After the spring campaign, his money was running out fast and he had no intention of being dragged into further adventures by a coalition whose objectives he did not share. In the summer of 1742, Frederick abandoned his coalition partners and signed a separate peace with Austria. Under the terms of the Treaty of Breslau and a supplementary agreement signed in Berlin, Brandenburg-Prussia agreed to abstain from further campaigning in return for formally acknowledged possession of Silesia.

During the following twenty-four months, Frederick stayed outside the fight, monitoring its progress and making various military improvements. In August 1744, when the balance tipped back in Austria’s favour and a renewed counter-offensive against Silesia seemed likely, he re-entered the fray, scoring two further impressive victories at Hohenfriedeberg (June 1745) and Soor (September 1745). In December 1745, following a further Prussian victory at Kesselsdorf, Frederick once again left the Nymphenburg allies in the lurch to sign a separate peace with Austria. Under the terms of the Peace of Dresden, he agreed to withdraw once again from the war in return for a renewed ratification of his possession of Silesia. Having won two Silesian wars (1740–42 and 1744–5), Prussia would remain a non-combatant throughout the remainder of the War of the Austrian Succession. The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, signed in October 1748, formally ended the war and reconfirmed Prussian ownership of Silesia with an international guarantee signed by Britain and France.

Frederick had pulled off an extraordinary coup. For the first time, a lesser German principality had successfully challenged Habsburg primacy within the Empire to place itself on an equal footing with Vienna. In this, the army created by Frederick’s father played a crucial role. The Prussian victories of the first two Silesian wars were due above all to the discipline and striking power of Frederick William’s infantry. At the battle of Mollwitz (10 April 1741) in southern Silesia, for example, the Prussians initially lost control of the field after an Austrian cavalry charge against the Prussian right-flank cavalry. So great was the panic and confusion among the Prussian horsemen that Frederick was prevailed upon by his experienced commander General Kurt Christoph von Schwerin to flee the field – an incident that would often be retold and embellished by his enemies. But in the meanwhile, the infantry, packed in their lines between the two Prussian flanks, unaware that the king had left the field, moved forward in perfect order, ‘like moving walls’, according to an Austrian observer, using their coordinated weapon drill to concentrate firepower against the Austrian infantry lines and sweeping all before them. By evening, it was clear that the Prussians, despite heavy casualties, controlled the field.

This was hardly a triumph of resolute leadership, but it demonstrated the potency of the weapon fashioned by Frederick William I. The battle of Chotusitz on the Bohemian-Moravian border (17 May 1742) exhibited some analogous features: on this occasion the Prussian cavalry was worsted by the Austrian horse early on in the action; it was the infantry, deploying with rigour and flexibility on uneven terrain, that broke the Austrian lines with tightly focused enfilade fire. Frederick’s rather inept dispositions on the eve of the battle gave as yet little hint of the strategic talent for which he would later be celebrated. At Hohenfriedeberg, perhaps the most decisive of the battles fought during the Second Silesian War, Frederick was more securely in control of events and showed an impressive ability to tailor his plans to changing conditions on the field. Here too, the decisive strokes were delivered by the infantry, advancing three ranks deep towards the Austrian and Saxon lines, shoulder to shoulder with sword bayonets fixed, at the regulation speed of ninety paces a minute, slowing to seventy as they closed with the enemy – relentless, unstoppable.26

Frederick had opened hostilities in December 1740 with a spontaneous and unprovoked attack, and historians of the later twentieth century viewing these events through the lenses of two world wars have sometimes seen Frederick’s invasion as an unexampled act of criminal aggression.27 Yet there was nothing exceptional in the context of contemporary power politics about an attack of this kind on another’s territory – one need point only to the long history of French aggressions in Belgium and the western German lands, or the seizure of the island of Gibraltar by an Anglo-Dutch raiding force in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, or, closer to home, to the bold partition plans of Saxony and Bavaria. One impressive feature of Frederick’s war planning was his capacity to stay focused on a specific, circumscribed objective (in this case the acquisition of Silesia) and not to be seduced by allies or good fortune into gambling for higher stakes. This helps to explain why Prussia spent fewer years at war during Frederick’s reign than any major European power.28

What amazed contemporaries about Frederick’s Silesian adventure was the combination of its speed and success with the apparent mismatch between the two opponents – Prussia, a third-rank player in the European system, and Austria, the leading dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire and an established member of the great-power club. Prussia’s achievement seemed all the more striking for the fact that it contrasted so sharply with the contemporary fortunes of Bavaria and Saxony. The Bavarians suffered a chain of defeats, in the course of which the Elector Charles Albert was forced to seek refuge outside his country. The Saxons fared little better; having found that there was nothing to gain through their collaboration with the League of Nymphenburg, they changed sides to fight with the Austrians in 1743, in time to stand against Prussia on the losing side at Hohenfriedeberg. This unimpressive record cast the Prussian success in sharp relief. In 1740, Prussia had been just one – and certainly not the wealthiest – of a group of German territorial states with the potential to transcend their status within the Holy Roman Empire. But by 1748, Prussia had pulled ahead, eclipsing its closest German rivals.

It was by no means clear, however, that Frederick would succeed in holding on to his booty. The taking of Silesia had created a new and potentially very dangerous situation. The Austrians absolutely refused to be reconciled to the loss of the monarchy’s richest province, and declined to sign the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, because it formalized Prussian possession of the stolen province. The creation of an anti-Prussian coalition capable of prising Silesia out of Frederick’s hands and thrusting Prussia back into the ranks of the lesser German territories now became the leitmotif of Habsburg policy. Russia could already be counted on: alarmed at Prussia’s unexpected military success, Tsaritsa Elisabeth and her chief minister, Chancellor Alexis P. Bestuzhev-Riumin, came to see Brandenburg-Prussia as a rival for influence in the eastern Baltic and a potential block to Russian westward expansion. In 1746, the Russians signed an alliance with Vienna; one of its secret clauses foresaw the partition of the Hohenzollern monarchy.29

So powerful was the Habsburg fixation with Silesia that it brought about a fundamental reorientation of Austrian foreign policy. In the spring of 1749, Maria Theresa convened a meeting of the Privy Conference (Geheime Konferenz) whose purpose was to sort out the implications of the Silesian disaster. Present at the meeting was a brilliant young minister, the 37-year-old Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz. Kaunitz argued for a fundamental policy rethink. Austria’s traditional dynastic ally was Britain and her traditional foe was France. But a detached look at the history of the British alliance, Kaunitz argued, showed that it had yielded little of real use to the Habsburg monarchy. Only the year before, the British had played an ignominious role in the negotiations at Aix-la-Chapelle, pressing the Austrians to accept its loss as irreversible and hurrying to guarantee Prussian possession of Silesia. The root of the problem, Kaunitz argued, lay in the fact that the geopolitical interests of a maritime power such as Britain and those of a continental power such as Austria were objectively too divergent to sustain an alliance. The interests of the monarchy thus demanded that Vienna abandon her unreliable British ally and sue instead for the friendship of France.

This was a radical stance in the Austrian setting, not only because it involved a transformation of the traditional alliance structure, but also because it was grounded in a new kind of reasoning framed not in terms of dynastic authority and tradition, but of the ‘natural interests’ of a state, as defined by its geopolitical position and the immediate security needs of its territory.30 Kaunitz was the only participant at the Privy Conference debate of 1749 to take this position; the others, all of whom were older than he, shrank from his extreme conclusions. Yet it was Kaunitz’s view that Maria Theresa chose to adopt, and he was duly sent off to work towards a French alliance as ambassador to the court at Versailles. In 1753 he was appointed state chancellor with responsibility for the Habsburg monarchy’s foreign policy. The Silesian shock thus dislodged Habsburg foreign policy from the web of assumptions in which it had traditionally been embedded.

The Seven Years War (1756–63) that followed happened because these Austrian and Russian calculations became entangled with the escalating global conflict between Britain and France. During 1755, there were skirmishes between British and French troops in the remote watery plains of the Ohio river valley. As London and Paris drifted back into open war, King George II of Britain looked to prevent Prussia, an ally of France, from falling upon Hanover, the king’s German homeland. Just as the French had used the Swedes to menace the Brandenburgers in Pomerania in the early 1670s, the British now offered to finance Russian troop and naval deployments along the borders of East Prussia. The details were set out in the Convention of St Petersburg, which was agreed (though not yet ratified) in September 1755.

Frederick II was deeply alarmed at this threat on his eastern frontier – he was well aware of Russian designs on East Prussia and always tended to overestimate Russian power. Desperate to alleviate the pressure on his eastern frontier, he entered into a curiously open-ended agreement with Britain, the Convention of Westminster of 16 January 1756. The British agreed to withdraw their offer of subsidies from the Russians and the two states decided to undertake joint defensive action in Germany in the event that France should attack Hanover. This was a hasty and ill-judged move on Frederick’s part. He did not take the trouble to consult his French allies, although he ought to have guessed that this unforeseen pact with France’s traditional enemy would infuriate the court at Versailles and drive the French into the arms of the Habsburgs. Frederick’s panic reflex of January 1756 exposed the weakness of a decision-making system that depended exclusively on the moods and perceptions of one man.

Prussia’s position now unravelled with perilous speed. The news of the Convention of Westminster sparked fury at the French court, and Louis XV responded by accepting the Austrian offer of a defensive alliance (the First Treaty of Versailles, 1 May 1756), under which each of the two parties was obliged to provide 24,000 troops to the other in the event of its coming under attack. The withdrawal of the British subsidy offer also enraged Elisabeth of Russia, who agreed in April 1756 to join in an anti-Prussian coalition. Over the next few months, it was the Russians who were the driving force towards war; while Maria Theresa took care to confine her preparations to relatively inconspicuous measures, the Russians made no effort to conceal their military build-up. Frederick now found himself encircled by a coalition of three powerful enemies whose joint offensive, he believed, would be launched in the spring of 1757. When the king demanded categorical assurances from Maria Theresa to the effect that she was not combining against him and had no intention of starting an offensive, her answers were ominously equivocal. Frederick now resolved to strike first, rather than waiting for his enemies to take the initiative. On 29 August 1756, Prussian troops invaded the Electorate of Saxony.

Here was another totally unexpected and profoundly shocking Prussian initiative, and the king was alone in deciding upon it. To a certain extent, the invasion was based upon a misapprehension of Saxon policy. Frederick believed (wrongly) that Saxony had joined the coalition against him and had his officers search the Saxon state papers (in vain) for documentary proof. But his action also served broader strategic objectives. In his Anti-Machiavel, published shortly after his accession to the throne, Frederick had delineated three types of ethically permissible war: the defensive war, the war to pursue just rights, and the ‘war of precaution’, in which a prince discovers that his enemies are preparing military action and decides to launch a pre-emptive strike so as not to forgo the advantages of opening hostilities on his own terms.31 The invasion of Saxony clearly fell into the third category. It allowed Frederick to start the war before his opponents had amassed the full strength of their forces. It provided him with control of a strategically sensitive area that would otherwise almost certainly have been used as a forward base – only eighty kilometres from Berlin – for enemy offensives. Saxony was also of considerable economic value; it was ruthlessly milked during the war, supplying more than one-third of Prussia’s entire military expenditure, though it is difficult to establish how heavily the issue of finance and resources weighed in Frederick’s calculations.

The invasion of Saxony might have been defensible in purely strategic terms, but its political impact was nothing short of disastrous. The anti-Prussian coalition acquired the momentum of self-righteous outrage. Russia had already put an offensive construction upon the alliance, but the French had not. They might well have remained neutral if Frederick had bided his time and become the victim of an unprovoked attack by either the Austrians or the Russians. Instead, France and Austria now contracted a Second Treaty of Versailles (1 May 1757) with an openly offensive character, in which France promised to supply 129,000 troops and 12 million livres each year until the recovery of Silesia had been accomplished (France was to be rewarded with control of Austrian Belgium). The Russians joined the offensive alliance with a further 80,000 troops (they planned to annex Polish Courland to Russia and compensate a Russian-controlled Poland with East Prussia); the territories of the Holy Roman Empire put forward an imperial army of 40,000 men; even the Swedes joined in, in the hope of grabbing back some or all of Pomerania.

This was not, in other words, just a war to decide the fate of Silesia. It was a war of partition, a war to decide the future of Prussia. Had the allies succeeded in their objectives, the Kingdom of Prussia would have ceased to exist. Shorn of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, along with the lesser territories claimed by various members of the imperial contingent, the Hohenzollern composite state would have returned to its primordial condition: that of a landlocked north German Electorate. This would have been in precise accordance with the plans of the key Austrian policy-makers, whose objective was, as Kaunitz crisply put it, ‘la réduction de la Maison de Brandebourg à son état primitif de petite puissance très secondaire’.32

That Frederick should have prevailed against such a massive preponderance of forces appeared miraculous to contemporaries and still seems remarkable to us. How can it be explained? Clearly the Prussians enjoyed certain geographical advantages. Frederick’s control of Saxony gave him a compact territorial base (excluding East Prussia and the Westphalian principalities, of course) from which to launch operations. He was sheltered on the southern fringes of Silesia by the Sudeten mountains of northern Bohemia. His western flank was covered by the British-financed Army of Observation in Hanover; this sufficed to keep the French at bay for a time in that sector. For the four years 1758–61, Prussia received a hefty annual subsidy of £670,000(roughly 3,350,000 thalers) from the British government, a sufficient sum to cover about one-fifth of Prussian war expenditures. Frederick (who decided early on not to defend either East Prussia or the Westphalian territories) also enjoyed the advantage of internal defensive lines, while his enemies were operating (with the exception of Austria) at a great distance from home. Dispersed around the periphery of the main theatre of operations, the allies found it difficult to coordinate their movements effectively.

There was also, as in virtually all instances of coalition warfare, a problem of motivation and trust: Maria Theresa’s obsession with the destruction of the Prussian ‘monster’ was not shared by most of the other partners, who had more limited objectives. France’s concerns were focused primarily on the Atlantic conflict and French interest in the struggle with Prussia dwindled fast after the devastating Prussian victory at Rossbach (5 November 1757). Under a renegotiated Third Treaty of Versailles, signed in March 1759, the French cut their military and financial commitments to the coalition. As for the Swedes and the assorted German territories represented in the imperial army, they were in it for easy pickings and had little inclination to persevere with an exhausting war of attrition. The strongest link in the coalition was the Austro-Russian alliance, but here too there were problems. Neither wished to see the other benefit disproportionately from the conflict and, on at least one crucial occasion, this distrust translated into Austrian reluctance to commit forces to the consolidation of a Russian victory.

But this should not be taken to imply that Prussia’s ultimate success was in any sense a foregone conclusion. The Third Silesian War dragged on for seven years precisely because the issue proved so difficult to resolve militarily. There was no uninterrupted string of Prussian victories. This was a bitter struggle, in which success, for Prussia, meant surviving to fight another day. Many of the Prussian victories were narrowly won, costly in casualties and insufficiently decisive to shift the balance of forces engaged in the conflict definitively in Prussia’s favour. At the battle of Lobositz (1 October 1756), for example, the Prussians managed to gain tactical control of the battlefield, at heavy cost in men, but left the main body of the Austrian army unbroken. Much the same can be said of the battle of Liegnitz (15 August 1760) against the Austrians in Silesia; here Frederick accurately assessed enemy positions and moved quickly to strike at one of the two separated Austrian armies and disable it before the other could respond effectively. This initiative was successful, but left the Austrian forces in the area largely intact.

There were a number of battles in which Frederick’s intelligence and originality as a field commander were brilliantly in evidence. The single most impressive victory was at the battle of Rossbach (5 November 1757) against the French. Here 20,000 Prussians found themselves outnumbered two to one by a combined French-imperial force. As the French-imperials wheeled around the Prussian position, hoping to outflank them on their left, Frederick redeployed with impressive speed, despatching cavalry to sweep away the regiments of horse at the front of the allied advance and repositioning his infantry in a lethal scissors formation from which they could subject the French and imperial columns to heavy fire and attack. Prussian losses totalled 500 men to the enemy’s 10,000.

One of the central traits of Frederick’s battle-craft was a preference for oblique over frontal orders of attack. Rather than approach in parallel frontal array, Frederick tried where possible to twist his attacking lines so that one end, often reinforced by cavalry, cut into the enemy position before the other. The idea was to roll the enemy up along his own lines rather than assault him head on. It was a mode of manoeuvre that required especially skilled and steady infantry work, particularly where the terrain was uneven. In a number of battles, Prussian attacks from the flank using complex infantry deployments worked with devastating effect. At Prague (6 May 1757), for example, where Prussian and Austrian numbers were roughly matched, Frederick managed to wheel the Prussians around on to the right flank of the Austrians. When the latter redeployed in haste to meet his advance, local Prussian commanders recognized and exploited a gap in the ‘hinge’ between the old and the new positions and drove a salient through it, irreparably shattering the Austrian force. The classic example of the oblique marching order in action was the battle of Leuthen (5 December 1757), where the Prussians were outnumbered by the Austrians nearly two to one; here a Prussian feint attack gave the impression of a frontal approach while the mass of the Prussian infantry swept around to the south to scoop up the Austrian left wing. In this extraordinary set piece, the ‘moving walls’ of the Prussian infantry were flanked by coordinated artillery fire as the Prussian guns moved from firing position to firing position along the line of attack.

However, the very same tactics could also fail if they found the enemy prepared, were not supported by sufficient troop numbers or were based on a faulty understanding of the situation in the field. At Kolin (18 June 1757), for example, Frederick tried as usual to wheel around the Austrian right flank and roll the enemy up from the wing, but found that the Austrians, in anticipation of this, had extended their lines across his route of approach, committing him to a disastrous uphill frontal assault against heavily defended and numerically superior positions – here it was the Austrians who won the field, at a cost of 8,000 men to Prussia’s 14,000.33


19. Battle of Kunersdorf, 12 August 1759. Contemporary engraving.

In the battle of Zorndorf (25 August 1758) against the Russians, Frederick completely misread the Russian deployment and, wheeling around from the north to roll up the Russian left wing, found that the enemy was in fact facing him head-on; the fighting was savage and losses were very high – 13,000 Prussian and 18,000 Russian casualties. It is still unclear whether we should regard Zorndorf as a Prussian victory, a defeat or simply a brutal stalemate. Frederick’s next major encounter with the Russians exhibited some similar features. The battle of Kunersdorf (12 August 1759) opened promisingly with accurate Prussian artillery and infantry fire on the Russian right flank, but soon became a disaster as the Russians turned to construct a solid local front against the Prussian advance and the Prussian infantry got themselves jammed into a narrow depression where they were exposed to the Russian guns. Here again, Frederick showed a flawed awareness of how the battle was unfolding; the unevenness of the terrain made cavalry reconnaissance difficult and he seems to have failed to take adequate account of the poor quality of his intelligence. The cost was hair-raising: 19,000 Prussian casualties of which 6,000 were dead on the field.

Frederick was not, then, infallible as a military commander. Of the sixteen battles he fought during the Seven Years War, he won only eight (even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and count Zorndorf as a victory).34 Yet it is clear that in most respects he had the edge over his opponents. His isolation was also a kind of advantage – he had no allies to consult. By comparison with Russia, France and Austria, the Prussian military decision-making process was fantastically simple, since the commander-in-chief in the field was also the sovereign and (effectively) the foreign minister. There was no need for the kind of elaborate discussion that slowed the reflexes of the Habsburg monarchy. This advantage was reinforced by the king’s personal indefatigability, talent and daring, and by his readiness to recognize where mistakes had been made (including by himself). If one contemplates the course of the Third Silesian War as a whole, it is surprising how often Frederick succeeded in throwing his enemies on to the tactical defensive, how often it was he who defined the terms on which battle would be joined. This was partly due to the by now widely acknowledged superiority of Prussian drill training, which allowed the walls of blue uniforms to turn at will as if on invisible pivots, and to redeploy at twice the speed of most European armies at this time.35 With these assets Frederick combined the ability to keep a cool head at times of crisis. Nowhere was this more evident than after the catastrophe at Hochkirch (1758), where the king, drenched in the blood of his horse, which had been hit under him by a musket ball, commanded and oversaw a calm and effective withdrawal under fire from the killing ground to a safe defensive position, and thereby prevented the Austrians from driving home their advantage.

Frederick’s ability to keep recovering from defeats and inflicting new and painful blows on his enemies was not enough to win the war on its own, but it sufficed to keep Prussia above water for as long as it took for the allied coalition to fall apart. Once it became clear that Tsaritsa Elisabeth was terminally ill, Russia’s days in the coalition were numbered. Elisabeth’s death in 1762 led to the succession of Grand Duke Peter, an ardent admirer of Frederick, who lost no time in negotiating an alliance with him. Peter did not survive for long – he was thrust from the throne by his wife, Catherine II, and murdered shortly afterwards by one of her lovers. Catherine withdrew the offer of an alliance, but there was no resumption of the Austro-Russian compact. The Swedes, who had little hope of securing their objectives in Pomerania without great-power support, soon defected. After a string of shattering defeats in India and Canada, the French, too, lost interest in pursuing further a war whose objectives now seemed strangely irrelevant. The peace they signed with Britain at the Treaty of Paris (10 February 1763) left the Austrians high and dry. Their treasury was exhausted. At the Peace of Hubertusburg (15 February 1763), after seven years of bitter struggle and prodigious sacrifice in money and lives, Maria Theresa confirmed the status quo ante bellum. In return, Frederick promised that in the next imperial election, he would vote for her son, the future Joseph II.


20. Portrait of Frederick the Great by Johann Heinrich Christoph Franke (copy)

There is a tendency, when we reflect on the European wars of the mid eighteenth century, to visualize them as diagrams with rectangles and sweeping arrows, or as compact arrays of brightly painted soldiers on the green baize of the war-gamer’s table. When we focus on ‘moving walls’, ‘oblique marching orders’ and the ‘rolling up’ of enemy flanks it is easy to lose sight of the terror and confusion that reigned on most battlefields as soon as the serious fighting began. For the troops on an exposed front or flank, coming under fire meant maintaining formation and discipline while projectiles ranging from musket balls to canister shot and cannon balls scythed through closely packed rows of standing men. Opportunities to display individual dash and daring were limited – it was more a matter of mastering an overwhelming instinct to flee and take cover. Officers stood in especially exposed positions and were expected to display absolute calm before their men and each other. It was a question not just of personal bravado, but of the collective ethos of an emergent military-noble caste.

Ernst von Barsewisch, the son of a modest Junker landowner in the Altmark, had been educated at the Berlin Cadet School and later served as a Prussian officer in many of the battles of the Seven Years War. His memoirs, based on diary entries sketched while on campaign, capture the mixture of samurai fatalism and schoolboy camaraderie that could sometimes be observed among officers in action. At the battle of Hochkirch, Barsewisch happened to be positioned near the king on a section of the Prussian wing that came under Austrian attack. There was a thick hail of musket balls, most of which were aimed at the chests and faces of the standing men. Just next to the king, a Major von Haugwitz was shot through the arm and shortly afterwards another ball buried itself in the neck of the king’s horse. Not far from where Barsewisch was standing, Field Marshal von Keith (a favourite of the king’s) was torn from his horse by a shell and died on the spot. The next commander to fall was Prince William of Brunswick, brigadier of Barsewisch’s regiment, who was drilled through by a musket ball and fell dead to the ground. His terrified horse, an immaculate white stallion, galloped riderless back and forth between the lines for nearly half an hour. To help master their nerves, Barsewisch and the young noblemen around him engaged in light-hearted banter:

Early in the action I had had the honour that a musket ball had drilled through the peak of my hat at the front just above my head; not long afterwards, a second ball shot through the large upturned rim on the left side of the hat, so that it fell from my head. I said to the von Hertzbergs, who were standing not far from me: ‘Gentlemen, should I put this hat back on my head, if the Imperials want it so badly?’‘Yes, do,’ they said –‘the hat does you honour.’ The eldest von Hertzberg took his snuff box in his hand and said: ‘Gentlemen, take a pinch of courage!’ I stepped up to him, took a pinch and said: ‘Yes, courage is what we need.’ Von Unruh followed me and the brother of von Hertzberg, the youngest, took the last pinch. Just as the eldest von Hertzberg had taken his pinch of snuff from the box and was raising it to his nose, a musket ball came and flew straight into the top of his forehead. I was standing right beside him, I looked at him – he cried out ‘Lord Jesus’ – turned around and fell dead to the ground.36

It was through this collective sacrifice of its young men – note the presence of three von Hertzberg brothers on one section of the Prussian line! – that the Junker nobility earned its special place within the Frederician state.

The great majority of first-person battle narratives stem from officers, mostly of noble birth, but this should not be allowed to overshadow the phenomenal sacrifice of humbler men in the field. For every officer killed at the battle of Lobositz, more than eighty private soldiers were slain. In a letter to his family, the cavalryman Nikolaus Binn from Erxleben near Osterburg in the Altmark reported twelve deaths among the men from his home district, including an Andreas Garlip and a Nicolaus Garlip who must have been brothers or cousins, and added reassuringly: ‘all those who are not named as dead are in good health.’37 On 6 October, five days after the battle, Franz Reiss, a soldier of the Hülsen Regiment, described his arrival at the battlefield. As soon as he and his fellows had formed up in line, he wrote, they had come under heavy Austrian cannon fire:

So the battle began at six o’clock in the morning and dragged on amidst thundering and firing until four in the afternoon, and all the while I stood in such danger that I cannot thank God enough for [preserving] my health. In the very first cannon shots our Krumpholtz took a cannon ball through his head and the half of it was blown away, he was standing just beside me, and the brains and skull of Krumpholtz sprayed into my face and the gun was blown to pieces from my shoulder, but I, praise God, was uninjured. Now, dear wife, I cannot possibly describe what happened, for the shooting on both sides was so great, that no-one could hear a word of what anyone was saying, and we didn’t see and hear just a thousand bullets, but many thousands. But as we got into the afternoon, the enemy took flight and God gave us the victory. And as we came forward into the field, we saw men lying, not just one, but 3 or 4 lying on top of each other, some dead with their heads gone, others short of both legs, or their arms missing, in short, it was an amazing sight. Now, dear child, just think how we must have felt, we who had been led meekly to the slaughterhouse without the faintest inkling of what was to come.38

In the aftermath of an action the battlefield descended into chaos. To remain wounded on the field could be a miserable fate. In the nights that followed the battles of Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, the battlefield echoed with the shrieks of the Prussian wounded being killed by Cossack light troops of the Russian army. Even if they escaped deliberate brutality, wounded soldiers needed determination and good luck to survive. The Prussian army had a relatively large and well-organized surgical support service by the standards of the day, but in the disorder following an action (especially a lost one), the chances of finding one’s way in time to proper care might be very slim. The quality of treatment varied enormously from surgeon to surgeon and the facilities for handling infected wounds were very rudimentary.

After Leuthen, where a musket ball bored through his neck and lodged itself between his shoulder blades, Ernst von Barsewisch had the good fortune to run into a captured Austrian soldier who happened to be a Belgian graduate of the surgical school at the University of Lyon. Sadly, the Belgian no longer had his fine surgical tools to work with – his Prussian captor had snatched them as booty. Using the ‘very bad and blunt knife’ of a shoemaker, however, he was able to hack the ball out of Barsewisch’s back with ‘ten or twelve cuts’. Less fortunate was Barsewisch’s comrade Baron Gans Edler von Puttlitz, whose foot had been shattered by canister shot and had grown infected while he lay out in the cold untended for two nights and a day. The captured surgeon told him that an amputation of the leg below the knee was his only hope, but Puttlitz was too confused or too terrified to consent. The infection gradually spread and he died a few days later. Shortly before he died, he told Barsewisch that he was his parents’ only child and begged him to be sure that they were informed of the place of his burial. ‘This death affected me greatly,’ wrote Barsewisch, ‘because this was a young person of about seventeen years, and from his wound he had watched his death draw nearer, creeping slowly, hour by hour.’39

The Seven Years War, unlike the Thirty Years War of the previous century, was a ‘cabinet war’ fought by relatively disciplined bodies of troops equipped and supplied by their own governments through relatively sophisticated logistical organizations. It was thus not marked by the kind of pervasive anarchy and violence that had traumatized the populations of the German territories in the 1630s and 1640s. But this did not mean that the civilians in occupied areas or theatres of combat were not subject to arbitrary exactions, reprisals and even atrocities. Following their invasion of Pomerania, for example, the Swedes demanded from the neighbouring Uckermark in northern Brandenburg contributions totalling 200,000 thalers, double the amount of contribution raised annually by the king from that province.40 The Hohenzollern provinces of Westphalia were under French and Austrian occupation for much of the war; here the military authorities imposed an intricate system of contributions and extortions, often supported by the kidnapping of local notables as hostages.41 French soldiers from the defeat at Rossbach committed numerous excesses as they passed through Thuringia and Hessen. ‘If one wished to relate all of these disorders, one would never get to the end of it,’ one French general reported. ‘Over a forty-league compass, the ground was swarming with our soldiers: they pillaged, killed, raped, sacked, and committed every possible horror…’42

Particularly problematic were the ‘light troops’ used by most armies at this time. These units were recruited on a voluntary basis, operated semi-autonomously from the regular army, were not provided with the standard logistical support, and were expected to support themselves entirely through exactions and the acquisition of booty. The best-known examples of such troops were the Russian Cossacks and the exotically clothed Austrian ‘Panduren’, but the French too retained the services of such units. During the first phase of the Russian occupation of East Prussia, some 12,000 light troops made up of Cossacks and Kalmucks rampaged through the country with fire and sword: in the words of one contemporary, they ‘murdered or mangled unarmed and defenceless people, they hanged them from trees or cut off their noses or ears; others were hacked in pieces in the most cruel and disgusting manner…’43 During 1761, the Fischer Free Corps, a light unit in French service, broke into East Frisia – a small territory in the north-west of Germany that had fallen to Prussia in 1744 – and terrorized the civilian population with a week of rape, murder and other atrocities. The peasants, drawing on a local tradition of collective protest and resistance, responded with an uprising that reminded some contemporaries of the Peasants’ War of 1525. Only through the deployment of French regular army units stationed nearby could peace be restored in the area.44

Conflict at this level of intensity was the exception, not the rule, but in all provinces touched by the war, there were substantially raised mortalities, mainly through the so-called ‘camp epidemics’ that spread from overcrowded troop hospitals. In Kleve and Mark, the mortality for the war years amounted to 15 per cent of the population. In the city of Emmerich, situated on the bank of the Rhine in Kleve, 10 per cent of the townsfolk died during 1758 alone, mainly of diseases contracted from French soldiers fleeing out of north-west Germany. The demographic losses for nearly all of the Prussian lands were breathtaking: 45,000 in Silesia, 70,000 in Pomerania, 114,000 in the Neumark and the Kurmark combined, 90,000 in East Prussia. In all it seems that the war took the lives of about 400,000 Prussians, amounting to roughly 10 per cent of the population.


The diplomatic reorientation of 1756, in which the Austrians and the French overcame their ancestral antipathies to form a coalition, was so out of tune with the traditional pattern of inter-dynastic partnerships that it came to be known as the ‘diplomatic revolution’.45 And yet, as we have seen, the events of that year were in large part the working out of a process of change that had been set in train in December 1740. The Prussian invasion of Silesia was the real revolution. Without this powerful stimulus, the Austrians would not have abandoned their British allies to embrace their French enemies. From here unfolded a sequence of shocks and realignments that runs like a long fuse through the history of modern Europe.

In France, the alliance with Austria, and especially the abject defeat at Rossbach, played disastrously with the home public, raising doubts about the competence of the Bourbon regime that would persevere until the revolutionary crisis of the 1780s. ‘More than ever before,’ the French Foreign Minister Cardinal de Bernis observed in the spring of 1758, ‘our nation is outraged against the war. Our enemy, the king of Prussia, is loved to the point of distraction… but the court of Vienna is hated because it is seen as the bloodsucker of the state.’46 In the eyes of critical French contemporaries, the treaties with Austria of 1756 and 1757 were ‘the disgrace of Louis XV’, ‘monstrous in principle and disastrous for France in practice’. The defeats of this war, the Comte de Ségur recalled, ‘both wounded and aroused French national pride. From one end of the kingdom to the other, to oppose the Court became a point of honour.’ The first partition of Poland in 1772, in which Prussia, Austria and Russia joined in despoiling one of France’s traditional clients, deepened such apprehensions by demonstrating that the new alliance system operated to the benefit of Austria and the detriment of France.47 To make matters worse, the French monarchy chose to cement the Austrian alliance by marrying the future Louis XVI to the Habsburg princess Marie Antoinette in 1771. She later came to personify the political malaise of Bourbon absolutism in its terminal phase.48 In short, we can follow at least one strand of the crisis that culminated in the fall of the French monarchy back to the consequences of Frederick’s invasion of Silesia.

For Russia, too, the end of the Seven Years War inaugurated a new era. Russia did not achieve the territorial objective Elisabeth had set herself, but it emerged from the conflict with its reputation substantially enhanced. This was the first time Russia had played a sustained role in a major European conflict. Its place among the European great powers was confirmed in 1772, when Russia joined Austria and Prussia in the synchronized annexation of territories on the periphery of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and again in 1779, when Russia acted as guarantor of the Treaty of Teschen, signed between Prussia and Austria. The long journey towards full membership of the European concert of powers that had begun with the reign of Peter the Great was now complete.49

Russia’s combination of expansionism, power and invulnerability eclipsed the threat once posed by the Swedes and the Turks. Russia would henceforth play a crucial role in the power struggle within German Europe – in 1812–13,1848–50,1866, 1870–71,1914–17,1939–45,1945–89 and 1990, Russian interventions determined or helped to determine power-political outcomes in Germany. From this moment onwards, the history of Prussia and the history of Russia would remain intertwined. Frederick was no clairvoyant, but he could sense Russia’s arrival and was intuitively aware of its irreversibility. After the slaughter at Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, he could never contemplate the spectacle of Russian power without a frisson of dread. The Empire of Catherine II, he told his brother Prince Henry in 1769, was ‘a terrible power, which will make all Europe tremble’.50

In Austria, the protracted struggle with Prussia prompted, as we have seen, a radical rethinking of external policy. Kaunitz, the mastermind behind the realignment of 1748–56, remained in office until 1792, although his authority declined after the death of Joseph II in 1790. The Prussian challenge also had profound domestic implications. The raft of initiatives launched in 1749–56 and known as the First Theresian Reform focused exclusively on tightening the administration of the Habsburg monarchy in ways that would enable it to strike back effectively at Prussia. The central executive was substantially recast so as to centralize and simplify the most important administrative organs. A new tax regime was introduced, indirectly inspired by the new Prussian administration in Silesia, which was closely watched by the Austrians. The architect of these changes was Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz, a convert to Catholicism who had fled his native Silesia when the Prussians invaded. No one was more determined to learn from the example set by Frederick II than Maria Theresa’s eldest son and successor, Joseph II. It was partly from contemplating Frederick’s achievement that Joseph derived his passionately held view that the Habsburg monarchy must become more like a unitary state if it were to master the challenges it faced in a competitive European environment. His attempts to bring this about in the 1780s would bring the Habsburg monarchy close to internal collapse.51

Prussia too bore the marks of the three wars it had fought for Silesia. The Prussian lands had been extensively devastated and the tasks of reconstruction consumed the lion’s share of domestic investment during the last two decades of Frederick’s reign. The population of deserted areas and the draining of marshes for new arable land and pasture remained a high priority. In largely agrarian Polish-speaking Masuria, for example, colonists were lured in from Württemberg, the Palatinate and Hessen-Nassau to live and work in a host of new settlements: Lipniak (1779), Czayken (1781), Powalczyn (1782), Wessolowen (1783), Ittowken (1785) and Schodmak (1786). These settlements advanced in parallel with the construction of an extensive canal network designed to drain the waterlands of southern Masuria, hitherto one of the most isolated and underdeveloped regions of the kingdom. The excess water was drawn away into the rivers Omulef and Waldpusch and new villages sprang up on what had once been a vast impassable marsh.52

It was above all in the aftermath of 1763 that Frederick began to show an expanded sense of the state’s social obligations – especially to those who had risked life and limb in the service of his armies. ‘A soldier who sacrifices for the general good his limbs, his health, his strength and his life,’ Frederick declared in 1768, ‘has a right to claim benefits from those for whom he risked everything.’ An institute was established in Berlin to house and care for 600 war invalids and a fund was set up in the war chest from which payments were made to poverty-stricken soldiers who had returned to their rural homes. Low-wage jobs with the excise, customs and the tobacco monopoly and other minor government-paid posts were reserved for soldiers who had fallen on hard times.53 Perhaps the most dramatic expression of the king’s heightened willingness to use the apparatus of the state for the purposes of social provision in the broadest sense was the intensified use of the grain excise and magazine system to counter the effects of food shortages, price rises and famines. In 1766, for example, Frederick suspended the excise on grains in order to ease the flow of cheap imports into Prussia; three years later the excise was reintroduced, but only for wheat, so that the burden of the bread tax fell exclusively on the better-off consumers who chose to purchase white bread. The high point of Prussia’s post-war food policy came in the winters of 1771 and 1772, when the administration kept a Europe-wide famine at bay through the controlled release of large amounts of grain from the magazine stocks. The needs of the civilian population were allowed to override the military imperatives for which the magazine system had originally been fashioned. We can thus speak of these massive subsidies in kind as an exercise in social welfare policy.54

The war also slowed the pace of administrative integration. In the early years of his reign, Frederick had furthered this process through the creation of new administrative organs such as the Fifth Department, responsible for industrial policy throughout the territories, or the Sixth Department for Military Affairs, another authority with all-Prussian responsibility.55 Yet the momentum of integration was not maintained after 1763, mainly because the experience of war had taught Frederick that he would never be able to defend his peripheral possessions against attack – it was characteristic that he should allow this geostrategic consideration to determine his economic priorities in peacetime. East Prussia was thus never fully integrated into the grain magazine system, and after the Seven Years War grain transfers from East Prussia to the core provinces were gradually scaled down to make way for cheaper Polish imports.56 The effort to integrate the western provinces into the fiscal structure of the core provinces also flagged from 1766, when the project of a unitary excise regime was abandoned and the grip of Berlin on the local administrations loosened tangibly thereafter.57 It is worth emphasizing these retardatory effects, since it is often assumed that war was the crucial driver of state-building in the Prussian lands.

Frederick had greatly increased the international standing of his kingdom through the acquisition of Silesia, yet it would be wrong to presume that this imbued him with confidence and a sense of strength. Indeed, quite the opposite was the case. Frederick remained acutely aware of the fragility of his achievement. In the Political Testament of 1768, he observed that the European continental ‘system’ comprised only ‘four great powers, which overshadow all the others’; Prussia was not among them.58 In 1776, after a spell of serious illness, the king became preoccupied with the idea that the state he had worked so hard to consolidate would disintegrate after his death.59 Frederick recognized that there was a fundamental mismatch between Prussia’s international reputation and its meagre domestic resources.60 There was thus, in his eyes, no excuse for complacency. Prussia stood in desperate need of measures to compensate for its power-political weakness. The years after 1763 thus witnessed, as we have seen, a programme of intensified domestic reconstruction. In the diplomatic sphere, Frederick’s first priority was to neutralize the threat from Catherine the Great’s expanding Russia. In keeping with his own doctrine that a prince should always ally himself with the power best placed to strike at him, Frederick focused his efforts on securing a non-aggression pact with Russia. The high point of this diplomacy was the Prussian-Russian alliance of 1764, which cancelled at one stroke the threat from Russia and the danger of an Austrian revanche.61

Since alliances are flimsy things whose duration depends upon the good will of individuals – the treaty of 1764, for example, collapsed in 1781 with the fall from power of the Russian Foreign Minister Nikita Panin – Frederick’s ultimate security was still the deterrent effect of his army. Prussia remained heavily armed after the Peace of Hubertusburg. In 1786, it was the thirteenth largest European state in population and the tenth largest in area, yet boasted the third largest army. With a population of 5.8 million, Prussia sustained an army of 195,000. In other words, there was a soldier for every twenty-nine subjects. The size of the army, expressed as a percentage of the total population, was thus 3.38 per cent, a figure that compares with the highly militarized states of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War (the figure for the German Democratic Republic in 1980, for example, was 3. 9 per cent). It was the size of this army that moved Georg Heinrich Berenhorst, an adjutant to Frederick II during the Seven Years War, to make the memorable observation that ‘the Prussian monarchy is not a country which has an army, but an army which has a country, in which – as it were – it is just stationed.’62

Yet the percentage figure is somewhat misleading, since only 81,000 of these soldiers were native-born Prussians. Expressed as a percentage of total population this yields a figure of only 1. 42 per cent, which is comparable with the western European states of the late twentieth century (the figure for the German Federal Republic in 1980, for example, was 1. 3 per cent). Prussia was thus a highly militarized state (i.e. one in which the military consumed the lion’s share of resources), but not necessarily a highly militarized society. There was no universal conscription. Peacetime training was still short and perfunctory by present-day standards, the social structure of the army still porous. The hiving off of the military into barracks, where troops could be concentrated and indoctrinated over years of training, was still in the distant future.

And what of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation? Observing the progress of the Seven Years War, the Danish minister Johann Hartwig Count Bernstorff noted that the issue at stake in this great conflict was not simply the ownership of a province here or there, but the question of whether the Holy Roman Empire should have one head, or two.63 We have seen that the relationship between Brandenburg and Austria had always been troubled by intermittent tension. As Brandenburg began to operate with a degree of autonomy within imperial politics, the potential for conflict grew. Yet for a long line of successive Electors, the pre-eminence of the Emperor and, by extension, of the House of Habsburg, was beyond question. With the invasion of 1740, all this changed. The annexation of Silesia provided Prussia not only with money, produce and subjects, but also with a broad corridor of land extending from the Brandenburg heartland straight to the margins of Habsburg Bohemia, Moravia and the Austrian hereditary lands. It was a dagger poised over the heart of the Habsburg monarchy. (This would prove decisive in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, when two of the four Prussian army groups entered Bohemia from assembly points in Silesia to crush the Austrian army at Königgraätz.) ‘Never will Austria get over the pain of Silesia’s loss,’ Frederick wrote in his Political Testament of 1752. ‘Never will it forget that it must now share its authority in Germany with us.’64

For the first time, the political life of the Empire began to orient itself around a bipolar balance of power. The era of Austro-Prussian ‘dualism’ had begun. Henceforth, Prussian foreign policy would focus first and foremost on safeguarding its place in the new order and containing Vienna’s efforts to redress the balance in its own favour. The most prominent example of such power-political sparring was the conflict that broke out over the Bavarian succession in 1778. In December 1777, the Bavarian Elector Maximilian III Joseph died, leaving no direct heirs. His successor, Charles Theodore, agreed with Vienna to exchange his prospective Bavarian inheritance for the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), and a small contingent of Austrian troops entered Bavaria in mid-January 1778. Prussia’s first response was to demand territorial compensation – in the form of inheritance rights to the Franconian duchies of Ansbach and Bayreuth – for Austria’s acquisition of Bavaria. But Kaunitz was having none of it and refused to heed Berlin’s threats of armed intervention.

In the summer of 1778, Frederick decided to take action and entered Bohemia, aged sixty-six, at the head of a Prussian army. He now claimed to be acting on behalf of a rival heir to Bavaria, Duke Charles of Zweibrücken. In northern Bohemia Frederick found his progress blocked by a large and well-managed Austrian force. There followed long months of manoeuvring without a serious engagement, in increasingly cold and wet conditions. Frederick was eventually forced to winter his troops in the Sudeten mountains. In withering cold, Austrian and Prussian foraging parties skirmished over patches of frozen potatoes. Although the ‘Potato War’ produced no decisive engagement, Maria Theresa was keen to bring it to a swift end, even if this meant making concessions. Under the terms of the Treaty of Teschen (13 May 1779), negotiated through Russian and French mediation, she agreed not only to relinquish all of Bavaria, but also to accept Prussia’s eventual succession to the duchies of Ansbach and Bayreuth. The episode revealed the extent of Austrian unwillingness to stand alone against Frederick, a symptom of the enduring trauma inflicted by the Silesian wars and a mark of the respect in which his armed forces were now held. Equally significant was the response of the other German states. Many of these sided with Prussia, seeing Frederick as the defender of the Empire’s integrity against a predatory power play by the House of Habsburg. In 1785, when Joseph made a second attempt to trade the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria, Frederick emerged once again as the defender of the Empire against the designs of the Emperor. In the summer of that year, he joined with Saxony and Hanover and a handful of lesser territories in a League of Princes (Fürstenbund) whose objective was to defend the Empire against the designs of the Emperor. Within eighteen months, the league counted eighteen members, including the Catholic Archbishop of Mainz, vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire and traditionally a Vienna loyalist.65

The poacher had become the gamekeeper. It was a role that Frederick learned to play with great panache. Nowhere is this more evident than in his exploitation of the complex confessional machinery of the Empire. The balance between the Catholic and Protestant camps within the Empire remained a live issue in the mid and later eighteenth century. In the reigns of the Great Elector, Frederick III/I and Frederick William I, Prussia had gradually emerged as a champion of the Protestant cause within the Empire. Although his personal interest in confessional squabbles was minimal, Frederick II was an astute executor of this tradition, successfully intervening, for example, in support of the Protestant Estates in territories whose ruling houses had converted to Catholicism (there were thirty-one such conversions between 1648 and 1769). In Hessen-Kassel (1749), Württemberg (1752), Baden-Baden (1765) and Baden-Durlach (1765), Frederick became a co-signatory and guarantor of contracts securing the rights of Protestant Estates against Catholic-convert monarchs. In such cases, he acted, with the enthusiastic support of the Protestant caucus of the imperial diet, as the supposed champion and enforcer of the rights enshrined in the Peace of Westphalia.

What better way for a Protestant power like Prussia to use the structures of the Empire to its own advantage than to define itself as the protector of all Protestants in the German territories? Such a posture vindicated the Protestant view of the Empire, namely that it was not a form of Christian universal monarchy, but rather a power-sharing arrangement between two separate confessional parties who were obliged to practise solidarity and self-help. At the same time, it undermined the standing of the Habsburg Emperor, who was in theory supposed to be the guarantor of the rights of all imperial subjects adhering to a tolerated confession. The Catholic Emperor in Vienna now faced a Protestant anti-emperor in Berlin.66

The Seven Years War marked a high point in the confessional polarization of the Empire. By allying with France and continuing to discriminate against her Protestant subjects, Maria Theresa swelled the sails of Frederick’s pretensions. So did her husband, Emperor Francis Stephen I, who unwittingly played the Prussians’ game, repeatedly urging the Catholic princes to take united action against the ‘ligue protestante’ and thereby further accelerating the bifurcation of the Empire into two confessional warring parties. Enormous use was made on both sides of printed propaganda with a confessional bent. Prussian wartime propaganda consistently played up the confessional element in the conflict, arguing that the Habsburg court, in allying with Catholic France, was attempting to inflict a new war of religion on the Holy Roman Empire. In the face of this threat, Prussia represented the only hope for the integrity of the constitutional order established in 1648, indeed its interests were identical with those of ‘Germany’ itself. Prussian propaganda thus played on the traditional strengths of Hohenzollern confessional policy, pushing Prussia’s claim to represent a larger ‘Protestant interest’. What was perhaps less familiar was the tendency to equate this community of interest with the German fatherland tout court, an argument that anticipated in some points the idea of a Prussian-and Protestant-dominated ‘lesser Germany’ that would come to the fore during the dualist struggles of the nineteenth century.67 These efforts yielded results. A French envoy observed at the end of the Seven Years War that the Peace of Hubertusburg found the Prussians in a stronger position at the imperial diet than ever before, because the Prussians had succeeded in placing themselves at the head of a largely Protestant anti-imperial (for which read anti-Austrian) party in the diet.68


On 11 December 1757, Karl Wilhelm Ramler attended a service of thanksgiving in the Cathedral of Berlin for the recent Prussian victory at Rossbach. Returning to his apartments, he dashed off a letter to the poet Johann Wilhelm Gleim:

My dearest friend, [… ] I have just come out from hearing the victory sermon of our incomparable [Court Chaplain] Sack. Almost all eyes were weeping for love, for gratitude. [… ] If you would like to read some of our victory sermons, I can send them to you. The one on the victory at Prague and the one he gave today are without doubt the best that Mr Sack has held. Our young men have not stopped firing off victory shots and there is shooting all around me as I write these lines. Our merchants have produced every sort of silk ribbon in honour of both victories and we have festooned our vests, hats and swords with them.69

The upsurge of patriotic sentiment in the Prussian lands during the Seven Years War is one of the most remarkable features of the conflict. Today it seems natural to assume that wars will reinforce patriotic allegiances, but this had not always been the case in Prussia. The devastating conflicts of the Thirty Years War had rather the opposite effect. In the 1630s, the Elector’s subjects did not for the most part identify with him or the territorial composite over which he reigned. Indeed, many felt stronger ties of sympathy with Brandenburg’s Lutheran Swedish enemies than with the Calvinist Elector in Berlin. The Brandenburg army of the later 1630s was hated and feared almost as vividly as the occupying forces of the enemy. Even after the notable victory of the Great Elector against the Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675, there was little sign of popular enthusiasm for Brandenburg’s cause, or of popular identification with the struggles of its head of state. The exalted sense of history in the making that attended the events at Fehrbellin remained confined for the most part to a tiny court-centred elite. Nor was there much popular interest in Prussia’s contribution to the Wars of the Spanish Succession (1701–14); these were complex coalition campaigns fought for arcane political objectives in which Prussian troops served far from home.

By contrast, the defeats and victories of the Prussian armies in the Seven Years War generated a widespread sense of solidarity with the objectives and person of the monarch. Johann Wilhelm Archenholtz, an officer who had served in the Prussian army for the greater part of the war and later wrote an epic narrative of its course, recalled the wave of enthusiasm that had animated his fellow Prussians during the darkest years of the conflict. Prussian subjects, he wrote, ‘looked upon the king’s ruin as their own’ and ‘took part in the fame of his great deeds’. The Estates of Pomerania had come together of their own accord to raise 5,000 men for the king’s service; their example was emulated in Brandenburg, Magdeburg and Halberstadt. ‘This war,’ Archenholtz concluded, ‘generated a love of fatherland that had until then been unknown in the German lands.’70

The churches played a crucial role in stirring public enthusiasm for the wartime exploits of the monarch, encouraging the faithful to see Frederick as the instrument of a divine providence. After the – in fact rather marginal – Prussian victory at the battle of Prague in 1757, Court Chaplain Sack delivered a thundering sermon from the pulpit of Berlin Cathedral:

The king has won a victory and lives! Give honour to our God! [… ] For what would all our victories and conquests be worth, if we had already lost our father? But the providence that protects us was once again his guard and an angel of God shielded him in the hour of greatest danger from all the darts fired down on him by death.71

Another preacher celebrating the victory declared that God himself had chosen to distinguish Prussia above all lands and had chosen the Prussians as ‘his particular people’, ‘so that we may walk before him in the light as his chosen people’.72 The impact of such performances reverberated far beyond the congregations who heard them. Sack’s sermons in particular appeared in various printed editions and were widely reread at private gatherings across the central provinces of the Prussian lands.73

These efforts to mobilize the population from the pulpit were supplemented by agitation from Prussian literary patriots. There was a striking contrast here: in 1742, Prussia’s acquisition of most of Silesia in the Peace of Breslau was greeted by the publication of a small number of Prussian panegyrical texts. Composed in Latin and published in expensive folio or quarto editions, these were clearly intended for a circumscribed and highly educated audience. By the 1750s, however, propagandist scribes and freelance patriots were churning out large numbers of texts in cheap, German-language octavo editions.74 One highly influential example was the tract On Death for the Fatherland, published in 1761 at the nadir of Prussia’s military fortunes by Thomas Abbt, a professor of philosophy at the University of Frankfurt/Oder. Abbt’s lively and accessible essay argued that the classical values of patriotism, conventionally associated with the ancient republics, were actually better suited to monarchical states, where the monarch personified the abstract power of the state and provided a focus for the loyalty and sacrifice of his subjects. In a ‘well-established’ monarchy, Abbt suggested, the attachment of the subject to the homeland was reinforced by a love for the person of the monarch, a love so intense that it abolished fear and sanctified death in battle.

[When I behold the king surrounded by his brave soldiers, living and dead,] I am overcome with the thought that it is noble to die fighting for one’s fatherland. Now this new beauty that I am reaching for comes more sharply into focus: it delights me; I hasten to take possession of it, tear myself away from anything that could hold me back in an effeminate tranquillity; I do not hear the call of my relatives, but only that of the fatherland, not the din of the fearful weapons, but only the thanks that the fatherland sends me. I join the others who form a wall around the defenceless [king]. Perhaps I will be torn down, satisfied that I have given another the chance to take my place. I follow the principle that the part must, when necessary, be lost in order to preserve the whole.75

Death in battle was also an important theme for Christian Ewald von Kleist, a poet, dramatist and melancholic who also served as an officer in the Prussian army. In 1757 he composed a poem in the form of an inscription for the grave of Major von Blumenthal, a friend who was killed during a skirmish with Austrian troops near the town of Ostritz in Upper Lusatia. His verses for the fallen major acquired a certain poignancy in retrospect, because they seemed to foretell Kleist’s own death only eighteen months later as a result of a wound received at the battle of Kunersdorf:

Death for the fatherland is worthy

Of eternal veneration!

And how gladly will I die

This noble death –

When my fate summons me.76

Kleist subsequently became an early prototype of the fallen patriot poet – his poetry and his death merged to become part of the same oeuvre. The verses bestowed unique meaning upon the death by transforming it into a voluntary and conscious act, while the death wove a glimmering halo of sacrifice around the writings and the narrative of his life.

Among the most vociferous of the patriot publicists was the Halberstadt poet and dramatist Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim. Gleim followed the campaigns of the Prussian armies with passionate interest, relying on reports sent to him from the field by his old friend Kleist. Before the outbreak of war, Gleim was best known as the author of esoteric, classically inspired poems on the themes of love, wine and the pleasures of sociability, but after 1756 he became a military balladeer and cheerleader for the Prussian troops in the field. His Prussian War Songs in the Campaigns of 1756 and 1757 by a Grenadier, published in 1758 with a supportive foreword by the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, represented an innovative attempt to achieve immediacy and emotional impact by adapting the idiom and tone of the marching song. Gleim evoked the movement and confusion of battle; his imaginary protagonist, the Prussian grenadier, provided him with a hinge on which to swivel the perspective of the battle narrative – the grenadier looks to his commander, then to the flag, then to the king, then to his fellow soldiers, then to the enemy. The result was a succession of scenes delivered with a disorienting immediacy, as if through a hand-held camera. This technique seems hackneyed to us, but to contemporaries it was fresh and arresting. It took the reader into the theatre of battle in a way that was new for the Prussian reading public.

The impact of this kind of patriotic literary production was broader than one might imagine. Abbt’s On Death for the Fatherland quickly sold out in its first edition and appears to have had a powerful mobilizing effect upon readers. Johann Georg Scheffner, a former volunteer who served in the years 1761–3, later recalled that as young men he and his friends in his native city of Königsberg had walked with copies of Abbt’s tract in their pockets to the recruitment offices of the Prussian army.77 In a novel published over a decade after the war, the Berlin publicist Friedrich Nicolai described the wife of a pastor – the main protagonist – who had fallen under the spell of Abbt’s rhetoric and demanded that her husband preach the gospel of patriotic sacrifice from his pulpit.78 Gleim’s ‘Grenadier Songs’ sold out in individual editions and were subsequently reprinted as an anthology.

For the first time, there was widespread interest in the contours of specific battles, not only among academically trained literati, but also within the artisan classes of the towns. The Berlin master baker Johann Friedrich Heyde is a case in point: his diary interspersed notes on the price of rye and other grains (a matter of existential interest for a master baker) with often detailed descriptions of the movements of the Prussian army and of its deployments in key battles. Heyde’s involvement in these often distant events is testimony not only to the expansion of patriotic commitments, but also to the rapid popularization of military knowledge. For Heyde there was also a personal dimension; like many Prussian subjects, he had sons serving in the field. The symbiotic relationship between the Prussian garrisons and the towns in which they were stationed and the deep roots that the canton system had put down within the villages ensured a wider and deeper form of sympathetic engagement with the Prussian military enterprise than had ever been witnessed in the Hohenzollern lands before.79

In the western provinces, too, there were expressions of sentimental attachment to Prussia, or at least to its ruling dynasty. In Kleve and Mark, for example, there were many who provoked the Austrian occupation authorities by demonstratively wearing black to mark the death of Frederick’s brother, August William, heir to the Prussian throne, in 1758. In 1761 there were newspaper reports of a ‘patriotic soirée’ on the occasion of the king’s name day, but the Austrians never succeeded in finding out where it had been held. These manifestations of solidarity with the dynasty were confined to an elite consisting of officials, academics and Protestant clergy, but patriotic images and messages were also transmitted through more popular media. The most striking example must be the famous tobacco tins manufactured for the mass market in Iserlohn (Kleve) during the war. These enamelled containers, decorated with images depicting the victories of the Prussian and allied armies or idealized portraits of the Hohenzollern king and his generals, were enormously popular, not only in the Hohenzollern territories, but across north-western Germany and the Protestant Netherlands. In silk-producing Krefeld, the manufacturies churned out silken ‘long-live the-king sashes’ (Vivatbaänder) bearing patriotic slogans and emblems.80 Patriotism was good business.

Prussian patriotism was a complex, polyvalent phenomenon that expressed much more than a straightforward love for homeland. It reflected a contemporary esteem for extreme affective states – this was, after all, an age of the sentimental, in which a capacity for empathetic emotional response was regarded as a mark of superior character. Tied in with the patriot wave was also the idea that love of fatherland might form the basis for a new kind of political community. As Thomas Abbt argued in his tract on death for the fatherland, patriotism was a force that could overcome the boundaries between the different estates of society. ‘Seen from this perspective, the difference between peasant, burgher, soldier and nobleman disappears. For every burgher is a soldier, every soldier a burgher and every nobleman a burgher and a soldier…’81 In this sense, patriotism expressed a yearning for that ‘universal society of burghers’ that would become the political ideal of generations of nineteenth-century liberals. There was also much enthusiasm for the idea that the bond honoured by the patriot was founded not on compulsion or obligation, but on an entirely voluntary allegiance. As she read Abbt’s lines, the pastor’s wife in Nicolai’s novel experienced ‘rapture at the thought that even the subject of a monarchy was not a mere machine, but rather had his own particular value as a person, that love for the fatherland of a nation could vouchsafe a great and new way of thinking…’82

In other words, patriotism resonated because it bundled together various contemporary preoccupations. Not all the ingredients in the mix were positive or emancipatory. The flip-side of a heightened allegiance to the beleaguered Prussian polity was an intensified derision or even hatred for its foes. The Russians in particular (and especially the Cossacks) figured in most patriotic narratives as bestial, cruel, brutal, bloodthirsty, wretched and so on. Such stylizations drew to some extent on the actual behaviour of Cossack light troops, but they were also rooted in an older set of stereotypes about ‘Asiatic’ and ‘barbarian’ Russia that would resonate in Prussian and German culture over the next two centuries. The French were mocked as cowards and braggadocios who talked big but turned tail when the going got tough. Even the German territories fighting in alliance with Austria came in for a drubbing. Gleim’s victory hymn after Rossbach includes a long list of strophes lampooning the German contingents; they feature (among others) a Palatine trooper who stands wailing on the field because he has burned his finger; a soldier from Trier who falls while fleeing and mistakes his bleeding nose for a war-wound; a Franconian who squeals ‘like a cat in a trap’; a soldier from Bruchsal who tries to evade capture by donning a woman’s bonnet; a Paderborner who dies of sheer fright when he sees the Prussians, and many more.83

Perhaps the most striking feature of the patriot wave of the 1750s was its fixation on Frederick II. For Abbt, it was above all the flesh-and-blood person of the monarch – rather than the political order that he represented, or the character of the homeland – that commanded the love of the patriot.84Throughout the war years there was a flood of poems, engravings, biographies, pamphlets and books celebrating the achievements of the Prussian king, ‘Frederick the Great’, or in another widely used contemporary epithet, ‘Frederick the Unique’. The victories of the Prussian armies were universally celebrated – reasonably enough – as victories of the king. The king’s birthdays – formerly rather down-beat events – served as occasions for demonstrative celebrations involving the firing of rifles and the wearing of various royalist memorabilia. In many representations, the king appeared as a towering, almost supernatural figure, as in this dreamlike, almost cinematic passage from Gleim’s Ode to the Muse of War, written after the slaughter at Zorndorf:

From a stream of black murderer’s blood

I trod with timid foot upon a hill

Of corpses, saw about me far and wide

That none was left to kill, stood up

And peered, and searched with craning neck

Through pitch-black clouds of battle-smoke

For the Anointed One, fixed upon him

And the envoy of God, his guard,

My eyes and thoughts…

The reference to Frederick as ‘the Anointed’ (der Gesalbte) is noteworthy – Frederick I had been anointed as part of his coronation ceremony, but as there were no further coronations, this ritual was not performed upon his successors. Here we discern muted echoes of the exalted conception of monarchy inaugurated by the first king.85 Frederick was frequently apostrophized, moreover, with the familiar form ‘du’, a usage that suggested a utopian intimacy with the person of the monarch while awakening associations with the language of prayer and liturgy. In a verse composed for the occasion of Frederick’s return from the Seven Years War, the celebrated poet Anna Louise Karsch blended panegyric with the private intensity of prayer, invoking the intimate mode of address no fewer than twenty-five times over forty-four lines.86 In other contexts, the king could appear pitiable, suffering, self-sacrificial, masked in perspiration and dust, trembling for his men, drenched in tears for the slain, a man of pains in need of comfort and protection. It was one of the central themes of Abbt’s tract that the subject’s love for the king arises not from the fear of his power, but from the desire to shield him against the overwhelming might of his enemies.

There was a sharp irony here, for the king, though sensitive to public opinion in a general way and aware of the need to impress (especially when it came to foreign potentates and envoys) appears to have found this adulation deeply distasteful. He refused, for example, to play any part in the celebrations organized by the city of Berlin to mark his return to the capital at the end of the Seven Years War. On 30 March 1763, a delegation of worthies gathered at the Frankfurt Gate and guards of honour of mounted burghers and liveried torchbearers formed up to accompany the royal carriage as it re-entered the city and made its way to the palace. Appalled by the prospect of this welcome, Frederick delayed his arrival until dusk, slipped away from his hosts and drove unaccompanied to the palace by an alternative route.87

This epic display of diffidence set the tone for the rest of his reign. Frederick had spent much of his year away from the Berlin court since the late 1740s, but after 1763 he withdrew almost entirely from the capital and retreated to the residential complex in Potsdam, spending his winters in the Potsdam city palace and the summers in Sans Souci.88 The king was content to project the majesty of the state with representative buildings, such as the Neues Palais (which was built at great expense after the Seven Years War but reserved solely for official purposes), but hostile to efforts to focus adulation on his own person.89 Frederick refused, for example, to sit for official portraits after his accession to the throne. When the renowned engraver Daniel Chodowiecki produced an elaborate image showing the king returning in triumph from the Seven Years War, Frederick rejected it as excessively theatrical.

With the exception of coins such as the Friedrich-d’or and various medallions displaying the king crowned in the laurels of victory,90 the only image of himself that Frederick deliberately propagated was a likeness of 1764 by the painter Johann Heinrich Christoph Franke (see p. 205). In this painting, the king appears as an old man with sunken lips, sagging face and bent back. He is presented in casual pose, as if captured unawares, raising his trademark three-cornered hat and turning to glance at the viewer as he passes a stone plinth behind him. It is not known whether Franke’s painting was commissioned or not, but it was not in any case painted from life. Frederick took to it, sending engraved versions as a mark of his good will to favoured subjects. What precisely he liked about the picture is not known. The modesty of the pose and the sketchiness of the execution may have appealed to him. He may also have seen in the tired old man depicted by Franke a faithful reflection of his own self-image.91

The concentration of interest in Frederick’s person proved the most lasting legacy of the patriot wave in Prussia. After 1786, when the king died, the Frederician cult roared back into life with a redoubled intensity. There was a massive proliferation of objects commemorating the dead king, from sculpted mugs, tobacco tins, ribbons, sashes and calendars to ornamental chains, newspapers and books.92 There was a wave of new publications celebrating Frederick. Of these, the most famous and successful was a two-volume compendium edited by Friedrich Nicolai, the most important publisher of the Berlin enlightenment. Nicolai was one of the great majority of Prussian subjects alive in the late 1780s to whom Frederick seemed always to have been on the throne. As Nicolai himself observed, his recollections of the king’s life and achievements were intertwined with memories of ‘the happy years of my youth and the flowering of my manhood’. He had been an ‘eyewitness’ to the ‘indescribable enthusiasm’ that had taken hold of his fellow subjects during the Seven Years War, and the extraordinary efforts the king had invested in the reconstruction of war-torn Prussia after 1763. The anecdote collection (which took Nicolai four years to complete) was thus a project that connected the passions of a private identity with the public work of patriotic memory. To contemplate the king, Nicolai declared, was ‘to study the true character of one’s fatherland’.93


21. Frederick the Great opens the sarcophagus of the Great Elector in 1750, saying: ‘Messieurs, this man accomplished so much!’ Engraving of 1789 by Daniel Chodowiecki. By the reign of Frederick the Great, Prussian kingship was marked by an intense awareness of historical legacy.

Nicolai’s was only one – though perhaps the most authoritative – of many such volumes of anecdotes. Anecdote became the most important vehicle for the remembrance and mythologization of the dead king. In these apparently random tatters of memory, the king appeared falling from his horse, responding to impertinence with an indulgent witticism, forgetting someone’s name, prevailing over adversity through sheer nerve.94 He is sometimes the hero, but the majority of anecdotes accentuate his physical presence, his mortality, his modesty, the ordinary trappings of an extraordinary individual. We are presented with a king who commands our respect precisely because he refuses to adopt royal airs.

Being compact and memorable, anecdotes circulated as swiftly in oral as in literary culture, much as jokes do today. Like today’s celebrity magazines they catered to an appetite for intimate glimpses of the revered personality. Charged with the humanity of the king, they appeared innocent of politics. Their apparently random quality concealed the artificiality of the image being offered up for consumption. Anecdotes could also take pictorial form. The supplier of the most sophisticated visual anecdotes was the Berlin engraver Daniel Chodowiecki, who provided illustrations for some anecdotal collections, but whose images also circulated independently. Many of these depict poignant unguarded moments in the life of the king, creating an energetic tension between the modesty of his person and the singularity of his status. Like verbal anecdotes, Chodowiecki’s images were concise enough to be memorable in their entirety, concentrated enough to reproduce themselves in the mind of the observer. Adolph Menzel’s remarkable mid-nineteenth-century series of history paintings, which fixed the image of the king for generations of modern Prussians, also preserved the kaleidoscopic quality of the anecdotal tradition, as did the cinematic narratives of his life produced by the film studios of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.

Not everyone was inundated by the patriot wave. There was much less enthusiasm for the Prussian cause in the Catholic than in the Protestant areas of the western provinces during the Seven Years War.95 It is probably safe to assume that Prussian patriotism was a phenomenon above all of the Protestant core areas (including East Prussia), much as it was in late eighteenth-century Great Britain.96 Here we can speak of a process by which literate Prussian subjects ‘discovered’ themselves as members of a common polity. Prussianness acquired the ‘critical mass’ it required to sustain a stable collective identity.97 By the last decades of the century, the composite term ‘Brandenburg-Prussia’ was scarcely heard. Frederick was no longer (as of 1772) King in, but King of Prussia.98 Contemporaries spoke of ‘the Prussian lands’ or simply ‘Prussia’ (although the latter was officially adopted only in 1807 as the collective term for the Hohenzollern territories).

We can thus speak of a thickening of collective allegiances in late eighteenth-century Prussia. It was the visible face of a sedimentary formation whose deeper layers recalled earlier phases of mobilization – the confessional solidarities of the early-modern era, the service ethic, at once dutiful and egalitarian, of Pietism, the remembered trauma of warfare and invasion. And yet there was something fragile about the perfervid patriotism of the Prussians. While British, French and American patriots died – in theory at least – for their country or for the nation, Prussian patriotic discourses focused above all on the person of Frederick the Great. When Thomas Abbt talked about death for the fatherland, it is difficult to escape the impression that he really meant death for the king. The highly textured stereotypes of national self-identification that we see emerging in the literary and print culture of late eighteenth-century Britain had no counterpart in Prussia. Prussian patriotism was intense, but also rather narrowly focused. With the death of ‘Frederick the Unique’, Prussian patriotism acquired a flavour of retrospection and nostalgia that it would never quite shake off.


During the last third of the eighteenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a country larger than France, disappeared from the political map of Europe. In the first partition of 1772, Prussia, Austria and Russia joined in slicing off and annexing large pieces of Polish territory on the western, southern and eastern peripheries of the Commonwealth. The second partition of Poland, formalized in the Treaty of St Petersburg in January 1793, saw Prussia and Russia carry off further spoils, leaving to the Poles a grotesquely depleted rump of land stretching from northern Galicia to a narrow stretch of Baltic coast. In the third partition two years later, all three powers joined in gobbling up what remained of the once-mighty Commonwealth.

The roots of this unprecedented erasure of a great and ancient polity lay partly in the deteriorating condition of the Commonwealth. The Polish monarchy was elective, a fact that opened the system to chronic international manipulation as rival powers fought to establish their clients on the throne. The vagaries of the Polish constitution paralysed the system and obstructed efforts to reform and strengthen the state. Particularly problematic were the ‘liberum veto’, according to which each individual member of the Polish diet, or Sejm, had the right to obstruct the will of the majority, and the right to form ‘confederations’ – armed associations of nobles who convened their own diets – to support or oppose the crown. Recourse to this form of ‘legalized civil war’ was especially common in the eighteenth century, when major confederations formed in 1704, 1715, 1733, 1767, 1768 and 1792, more frequently, indeed, than the diets of the Commonwealth itself.99

Poland’s inner turmoil was exacerbated by the interventions of its neighbours, and of Russia and Prussia in particular. The policy-makers in St Petersburg viewed Poland as a Russian protectorate and westward salient from which to project Russian influence into Central Europe. Prussia had longstanding designs on the Polish territory between East Prussia and Brandenburg. Neither state had any interest in allowing the Commonwealth to reform itself to the point where it might regain the autonomy and influence it had once enjoyed in European affairs. In 1764, Prussia and Russia collaborated in excluding the Saxon Wettin candidate from the Polish election and installing the Russian client Stanisław-August Poniatowski on the Warsaw throne. When Poniatowski emerged, to everyone’s surprise, as a Polish reformer and patriot, Prussia and Russia intervened to thwart his plans. His efforts to establish a unified Polish customs zone met with reprisals from the Prussians. In the meanwhile, the Russians intervened with armed force, extending their patronage networks and supporting the opponents of reform. By 1767, the commonwealth had polarized into two armed camps.

It was against this background of deepening anarchy in Poland that Frederick II produced a first Polish partition proposal in September 1768. The acquisition of a chunk of Poland was one of Frederick’s long-cherished dreams – he had mused on this theme in the Political Testament of 1752 – where he famously described Poland as an ‘artichoke, ready to be consumed leaf by leaf’ – and he periodically returned to it in later years.100 Of particular interest to him was the area known as ‘Royal Prussia’, which had been subject to the authority of the Polish Crown since 1454. Royal Prussia was the western half of the ancient principality of Prussia, whose name the Brandenburg Electors and kings had adopted for themselves after 1701. A small part of Royal Prussia was already under Prussian administration, thanks to a complex system of leases that dated back to the beginning of the eighteenth century.101 Yet it would be overstating the case to call Frederick the sole or chief architect of the partition.102 It was the Austrians who took a small first bite from the Polish pie, by invading and occupying first Spisz, an archipelago of Polish enclaves in northern Hungary, and then the adjoining territories of Nowy Targ and Nowy Sącz in 1769–70. And it was Russia whose increasingly aggressive involvement in Polish affairs had done most to undermine the autonomy and peace of the Commonwealth. This in turn provoked legitimate concern over the westward extension of Russian power and fed fears that Poland’s disorder might eventually draw the three regional powers into a major conflict.103

As turmoil spread across the kingdom of Poland in 1771, Russia and Prussia agreed a partition in principle; Austria joined in the following year. The Convention of Partition of 5 August 1772 justified this act of cold-blooded predation with an almost comically cynical preamble:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity! The spirit of faction, the troubles of intestine war which had shaken the Kingdom of Poland for so many years, and the Anarchy that acquires new strength with each passing day [… ] give just grounds for expecting with apprehension the total decomposition of the state…104

The smallest share went to Prussia, which acquired 5 per cent of the Commonwealth’s territory (the Russians took 12. 7 per cent and the Austrians 11. 8 per cent). In addition to Royal Prussia itself, the Prussians annexed two adjacent territories, namely the Netze district, a long river valley adjoining the southern border of West Prussia, and the bishopric of Ermland to the east. This regional agglomerate covered the territory that still divided East Prussia from the core provinces of the Hohenzollern monarchy; its acquisition was thus of immense strategic value. The area was also of considerable economic importance to the region, since whoever controlled it could exert a stranglehold on the Polish trade routes via Danzig and Thorn (both of which remained Polish) into the Baltic.

The legal justification for the invasion of Silesia had been slender enough; in the case of Royal Prussia there was no question of any authentic rationale for the annexation beyond the security interests of the Prussian state. The Prussians advanced various fanciful claims along the lines that Brandenburg’s inheritance rights to the annexed territories had been usurped in times of yore by the Teutonic Knights and the Polish Commonwealth, and that they were thus merely reclaiming a long-lost heritage.105 These claims were solemnly reiterated in various official documents, but it is hard to believe that anyone within the Prussian administration took them seriously. It is also worth noting that Frederick made no use – even in internal communications – of ethnic arguments in staking his claim for Royal Prussia. This may appear surprising in retrospect, given that the annexed territories included substantial areas of predominantly German (i.e. German-speaking Protestant) settlement. Germanophone Protestants accounted for about three-quarters of the urban population of Royal Prussia and the Netze district combined, and for about 54 per cent of the population as a whole. In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, German nationalist historians cited this German ethnic presence in Royal Prussia as grounds for its rightful annexation.106 Yet this is a profoundly anachronistic view. The notion that Brandenburg-Prussia had a ‘national’ mission to unite the German nation under German rule was utterly alien to the Francophone Frederick the Great, who was famously dismissive of contemporary German culture and believed in the primacy of the state, not that of the nation.

Far more important in reinforcing the self-righteousness of the usurpers was a generalized (and characteristically enlightened) assumption that their rule would establish a fairer and more prosperous and efficient administration than had hitherto been known in the region. Prussian views of Polish governance were in general extremely negative – the proverbial expression ‘polnische Wirtschaft’ (‘Polish management’) was used – and still is in some quarters – to describe a chaotic or disordered state of affairs. The Polish nobility (szlachta) was widely viewed as wasteful, lazy and negligent in its custodianship of the land. The Polish towns were denounced for their dilapidated condition. The Polish peasantry was held to be languishing in the deepest servitude and misery under the yoke of the imperious szlachta. Prussian rule would thus mean the abolition of personal serfdom and liberation from ‘Polish slavery’.107 These were all, needless to say, tendentious and self-interested justifications. The notion that a record of negligent custodianship might attenuate ownership rights, and that acts of usurpation and annexation might be legitimated through an enlightened appeal to the idea of ‘improvement’ was already a commonplace in the imperialist political cultures of Britain and France, and it served the Prussians well in their new Polish lands.

Frederick renamed his new province ‘West Prussia’ and throughout the last fourteen years of his reign he intervened more intensively in its domestic affairs than in those of any other province of his kingdom. It was a reflection of his low regard for the native Polish administration

that he adopted a relatively centralized approach, sweeping aside the traditional organs of local governance and imposing an alien cohort of officials drawn mainly from the Berlin and East Prussian bureaucracies. Of all the district commissioners appointed to posts in West Prussia following the annexation, only one hailed from the province; most of the rest were East Prussians. There were clear contrasts here with the handling of Silesia thirty years earlier.

In Silesia, too, there was a major administrative restructuring, but an effort was made wherever possible to preserve continuity at the level of the local elites; the reformed judiciary in particular was staffed almost entirely by native-born Silesians.108 The office of the Silesian provincial minister also ensured Silesia a distinctive place within Berlin’s quasi-federal governmental system. The provincial minister, a kind of viceroy with wide-ranging powers who reported only to the king himself, was in a position to resolve key conflicts of interest in a way that was sensitive to the special conditions of the province. By contrast, there was no authoritative centre in West Prussia that was capable of ensuring even a minimal degree of self-administration. The most senior West Prussian official after 1772 was the Chamber President Johann Friedrich Domhardt, but he had no control over the fiscal administration in the province, and the judiciary and military both reported directly to Berlin.109

The Catholic church was handled with particular caution. During the preliminary negotiations for the first partition, Frederick had expressed concern that the news of an impending Prussian annexation of exclusively Catholic areas such as the bishopric of Ermland on the eastern periphery of Royal Prussia would provoke public outrage. After 1772, as in Silesia thirty years before, the Prussians went to great pains to preserve the appearance of Catholic institutional continuity in the annexed areas. There was thus no outright expropriation of episcopal properties. Instead ecclesiastical properties were placed under the control of the chamber administrations in East and West Prussia. They thus remained church property in a formal sense; thanks to heavy taxation and other costs, however, only about 38 per cent of the church’s gross domain income actually made its way back into the coffers of the clergy.110 The West Prussian clergy were even worse off; it seems that the state paid only about one-fifth of ecclesiastical estate income back to the church. One might therefore speak of a process of secularization by stealth. Here again, there were contrasts with the rather more generous arrangements made for the Silesian clergy after 1740.

The mainly Polish nobility of West Prussia did not, by and large, offer any resistance to the Prussian annexation. In some areas, such as the Netze district, local landed families boycotted the homage ceremonies to the new monarch, but there were virtually no acts of outright opposition.111 Yet this did not suffice to endear the Polish nobles to Frederick, who spoke of them with contempt in numerous internal government documents. They were taxed at a higher rate in contribution than their Protestant (German) counterparts; they were forbidden to meet in county diets; they were not permitted to form a provincial credit society.112 The policies adopted by the king in his other lands to consolidate noble land ownership were inverted in the new province: Frederick actively encouraged Polish noblemen to sell up their lands and urged the provincial administration to find Protestant buyers, whether or not these were of noble stock. As a result, the proportion of noble land in bourgeois hands in West Prussia rose at almost twice the average rate across the Hohenzollern lands.113 The reason for these measures, Frederick declared, was that the Polish magnates were sucking wealth out of the country by drawing income from their West Prussian estates and spending it in Warsaw. In June 1777 he issued an ultimatum demanding that landowners with properties on both sides of the Polish border take up sole residence within West Prussia or lose their West Prussian estates.

The impact of these policies is difficult to establish with any precision. There was often more bark than bite in Frederick’s orders; little seems to have been done, for example, to implement the ultimatum of 1777. The king’s anti-nobiliary policies were in any case directed mainly at the small elite of true magnate nobles, such as the Czapskis, Potockis, Skorzowskis, Prebendows and Dabskis, who remained attached to the Warsaw court and social scene; Frederick was far less hostile to the minor Polish nobility in West Prussia and actually took steps to conserve it.114

West Prussia became a focus of energetic administrative intervention: money was set aside for the improvement of the towns, especially Bromberg and Kulm; marshes were drained; forests were cut back to open up new arable and pasture land; a new canal was built linking the river Netze with the Brahe, thereby permitting ships to transfer from the Oder to the Vistula. Frederick threw himself into countless matters of detail, ordering, for example, that fruit trees be planted, schools founded, potatoes introduced, dikes built and cheap seed grain made available to the peasantry.115 The impact of the new regime on the peasants who made up the bulk of the population in the annexed areas was mixed. The talk of ‘liberating’ them from their former ‘Polish servitude’ was largely propaganda, since peasants in Polish Royal Prussia had already enjoyed extensive freedom of movement. On the other hand, the installation of independent judicial organs within the domains administration did provide peasants with enhanced legal protection against the caprice of landlords.116 As the rigorous fiscal regime of the Brandenburg-Prussian state was imposed, taxes naturally went up for everyone, just as they had in Silesia, though they were now more transparent and more evenly distributed. By the mid-1770s, the new province was contributing 10 per cent of Brandenburg-Prussian state revenues, a share that was fully proportional to its size and population. The major capital investments made in the province could thus largely be funded without recourse to external income.

The impact of the annexation on the regional economy is difficult to assess in the absence of precise statistics. Population growth in the urban sector was very slow; this may suggest that heavy taxation drew money away from local investment. The effort to maintain a substantial war chest ensured that much local wealth was taken permanently out of circulation. The introduction of tariffs on the Polish border inevitably caused serious disruption, since they blocked the north–south trade routes that had traditionally been the bread and butter of the towns. On the other hand, the agrarian sector benefited from the boom conditions driven by the opening up of the real estate markets and Britain’s enormous appetite for imported grain, a state of affairs reflected in the rapidly rising cash value of landed estates.

The success of the royal administration in winning the trust and loyalty of its new subjects varied from region to region. The ethnically German Protestants who formed the majority in the towns were quickly assimilated into the new system, despite some early cries of protest. Feelings among the Catholics were less favourable, despite Frederick’s repeated promises that he would respect the liberty of all Catholics to worship in the accustomed fashion. Among the Polish nobility there was, with good reason, a general feeling of distrust towards the new masters. ‘After the sovereign became Prussian,’ one observer of conditions in the Netze district noted in 1793, ‘the Polish nobility was no longer what it had been; an element of bitterness entered its character and a distrust of Germans that will long endure.’117 Yet much depended upon one’s precise location within the social structure of the province: the new Cadet School at Kulm, for example, was popular with families of the lesser Polish nobility and after the turn of the century, we encounter many double-barrelled surnames in which the original Polish names have been paired with adopted German equivalents – Rosenberg-Gruszcyński, Hoike-Truszczyński and so on.118 Among the Kashubian peasants and landlords who farmed the poor sandy soils in the north of the province, there is even some indirect evidence – in the form of Polish-language anecdote collections – for participation in the fashionable cult of Frederick the Great.

Perhaps the people most completely won over to the promises and propaganda of the new regime were the Prussian administrators themselves. Again and again in the documents relating to the administration of West Prussia, we find references to the need to set local institutional and economic life on a ‘Prussian footing’.119 The term ‘Prussian’ occurs as an antonym to the allegedly Polish vices of servitude, disorder, lassitude. The idea that Prussianness stood for certain abstract virtues acquired a sharper focus in this protracted encounter with subjects from outside the ambit of the Holy Roman Empire. It has often been observed that the experience of colonial government in India and elsewhere gave rise to a ritualized enactment of Britishness that found full articulation only as part of a discourse of moral and cultural superiority. In the same way, an overwhelmingly negative perception of native Polish traditions blended with the sanguine ameliorism of the enlightenment to heighten confidence in the distinctive merits of the ‘Prussian way’.


What kind of state did Frederick II bequeath to his successors? ‘The state’ was one of the central themes in Frederick’s political writings. His father, Frederick William I, tended, as we saw in chapter 5, to legitimate his policies in terms of the need to consolidate his own ‘sovereignty’. By contrast, Frederick insisted upon the primacy of the state as an abstract structure quite separate from his own person. ‘I have held it to be my duty,’ he wrote in the Political Testament of 1752, ‘to work for the good of the state and to do this in all domains.’120 ‘I have devoted my life to the state,’ he told his brother Henry in February 1776. The state represented, in a subjective sense, a vicarious form of immortality: whereas the death of the king would extinguish his consciousness, rendering his hopes for the future meaningless, the state would endure. ‘I am thinking only of the state,’ Frederick wrote, ‘for I know only too well that everything – even if the sky should crash in upon the earth – will be a matter of absolute indifference to me from the moment of my death.’121 Taken to its logical conclusion, the primacy of the state implied a relativization, a demotion, of the ruler’s status. Nowhere is this more pointedly expressed than in the Political Testament of 1752, where Frederick observed that ‘the ruler is the first servant of the state. He is paid well so that he can maintain the dignity of his office. But he is required in return to work effectively for the well-being of the state.’122

This idea was not new – the idea of the sovereign as the ‘premier domestique’ of the state can be found in the writings of Fénelon, Bossuet and Bayle.123 Samuel Pufendorf, biographer of the Great Elector and the most influential German student of Hobbes, defined the sovereign in functional terms as the guarantor of the state’s collective interest. The same line of argument runs through the works of the sometime professor of philosophy at Halle Christian Wolff, whose works Frederick read with admiration as crown prince. Wolff celebrated the ascendancy of an abstract legal and bureaucratic state with wide-ranging responsibilities for health, education, labour protection and security.124 But no Prussian dynast had ever made this concept so central to his understanding of the sovereign office. It explains (or at least rationalizes) his distaste for the Frederician personality cult and his renunciation of the conventional trappings of dynastic kingship. His insistence on wearing a worn blue officer’s coat, stained at the front with long streaks of Spanish snuff, signified the self-subordination of the monarch to the political and social order he represented.

So completely did Frederick personify the idea of the state, that prominent officials came to see serving the monarch and serving the state as one and the same thing. In his inaugural address to the new chamber in Glogau (Silesia), the Provincial President Ludwig Wilhelm Count von Münchow declared that the highest aim of the Prussian administration must be ‘to serve the best interest of the King and the country without any ulterior motive’; ‘no day – indeed, if possible, not even an hour – should pass without our having rendered some service to the king.’125 The king was thus more than an employer; he was a model whose values and way of life were internalized by senior civil servants. We get a sense of what this could mean for an individual official from the service diary of Friedrich Anton von Heinitz, head of the Mines and Foundries Department of the General Directory. Heinitz was not a Prussian but a Saxon who had entered Frederick’s service in 1776 at the age of fifty-two. In a diary entry dated 2 June 1782, Heinitz noted that one should view hard work in the public cause as an act of divine worship. ‘You have as your example the King; who can match him? He is industrious, places obligation before recreation, sees first to his business [… ]. There is no other monarch like him, none so abstemious, so consistent, none who is so adept at dividing his time…’126

Frederick also projected the abstract authority of the state through architecture. Nowhere is this idea more eloquently realized than in the ensemble of public buildings that bordered the Forum Fridericianum (now the Bebelplatz) at the beginning of Unter den Linden in the centre of Berlin. One of Frederick’s first acts as king was to order the court architect Georg Wenceslaus von Knobelsdorff to build an opera house on the eastern side of the square. The resulting theatre was one of the largest in Europe, capable of seating 2,000 people. Flanking the opera house on the southern side was St Hedwig’s Cathedral, built in honour of the king’s Catholic subjects – a remarkable monument to inter-confessional tolerance in the heart of a Lutheran city. To drive the message home, the portico of the church was modelled on the syncretic Pantheon of ancient Rome. In the 1770s, a new and capacious royal library was erected on the western side.

There were, to be sure, elements of traditional monarchical self-representation in these projects. But the Forum was also a highly conscious articulation of the cultural purposes of the state.127 Plans and elevations of the new buildings and of the square as a whole were widely circulated; they were the subject of sometimes controversial discussion in the Berlin journals and salons. Both the opera and the library remained open to the general public after their completion.128 Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the whole ensemble was the absence of a royal palace. Frederick had originally intended to include one, but he lost interest in the idea after the Second Silesian War. The opera house was thus the first building of its kind north of the Alps not to be physically joined to a royal palace. The royal library was likewise a freestanding structure, highly unusual for the period. The Forum was, in other words, a Residenzplatz without a Residenz (palace); the contrast with virtually every European square of this kind was not lost on visitors.129 In architecture, as in the person of the king, the representation of the Prussian state was uncoupled from that of the Prussian dynasty.

If the state were to wean itself from the need for constant dictatorial interventions by the sovereign, it needed to have a coherent fabric of law; here too Frederick practised what he preached, rationalizing the court system and setting the leading jurists of the day to the work of constructing a general law code for the Prussian lands. Though unfinished at his death, the Prussian General Code of Law (1794) would later serve as a kind of constitution for the kingdom of Prussia.130 In his work towards the post-war reconstruction of Prussia, Frederick was a conscientious servant of the general interest – villages devastated during the wars were rebuilt in accordance with the principle later set out in the General Code that the state is obliged to ‘compensate’ those who have been ‘forced to sacrifice their special rights and advantages to the welfare of the generality’.131 By the same token, as we have seen, Frederick accepted that the state had an obligation to war-orphans and invalids, and institutional care for these groups was expanded during his reign.

The doctrine of the primacy of the state also framed Frederick’s attitude to the international context. It implied, firstly, a fairly cavalier attitude to treaties and other such obligations, since these could at any time be cast aside if they no longer served the state’s interest. Frederick applied this idea in practice when he abandoned the Nymphenburg coalition in 1742 and 1745, leaving his allies in the lurch while he settled a separate peace with the Austrians. It can also be seen at work in the invasion of Silesia, which tore holes in the international legal order of the Holy Roman Empire. Yet this was of no concern to Frederick, who, unlike his father, regarded the Empire with contempt. Its mode of governance, he observed in the Political Testament of 1752, was ‘bizarre and outdated’.132 From Frederick’s standpoint (and that of Pufendorf and many eighteenth-century German critics of the Reich), the Holy Roman Empire, with its overlapping jurisdictions and its multiple, interpenetrating layers of sovereignty, represented the antithesis of the state principle. There were still angry memories of 1718 and 1725, when delegations of noblemen from the province of Magdeburg had succeeded in winning an appeal against a new Prussian tax before the imperial court in Vienna. One of the important steps by which Frederick consolidated the constitutional autonomy of his kingdom was the agreement of 1746, by which the Habsburg Emperor formally renounced imperial jurisdiction over the territories of Prussia. Frederick could now instruct Samuel von Cocceji, a brilliant jurist who had already served under his father, to draw up a general law code based ‘solely upon reason and the legal practices in the [Prussian] territories’. This was an important moment, because it signalled the beginning of the end for the old imperial system. The struggle between Prussia and Austria represented in this sense a conflict between the ‘state principle’, based on the primacy of the state over all domestic and supra-territorial authorities, and the ‘imperial principle’ of diffused authority and mixed sovereignty that had been a defining feature of the Holy Roman Empire since the Middle Ages.

For all the sincerity of Frederick’s commitment to the abstract authority of the state, however, there were some glaring discrepancies between theory and practice. Although Frederick acknowledged in principle the inviolability of the published laws and rules of procedure, he was prepared, when he deemed it necessary, to override the kingdom’s judicial authorities. The most famous example of such unilateral intervention was the ‘Miller Arnold Affair’ of 1779–80. A miller by the name of Christian Arnold had refused to pay lease-rent to his landlord, Count Schmettau, because the local district commissioner, Baron von Gersdorff, had excavated a system of carp-ponds that had cut off the stream to his mill-wheel and thus deprived him of his livelihood. Having been condemned to eviction by the local court, Arnold and his wife sought the help of the king himself. Despite an irritable cabinet order from the king to the effect that the judgement against Arnold was to be suspended, the Justice Department in Küstrin confirmed the original verdict. Furious at what he saw as the manipulations of a provincial oligarchy, Frederick ordered that the case be transferred to the Chamber Court in Berlin. When the Chamber Court in its turn confirmed the verdict against Arnold, Frederick ordered that the three judges responsible be arrested and detained for one year in a fortress. The commissioner’s carp-ponds were to be demolished, the water-course to Arnold’s mill-race restored, and all his costs and losses made good. The case scandalized the senior administration, but it was also a public sensation. In a cabinet order published in newspapers and gazettes across the kingdom, the king justified his actions, stating that his intention was to ensure that ‘every man, be he of high or low estate, rich or poor’ should receive ‘prompt justice’ at the hands of an ‘impartial law’. In short: a gross breach in legal procedure was justified in terms of a higher ethical principle.133

Frederick’s concept of the state was also less inclusive in a territorial sense than his father’s had been. He was much less concerned with the integration of the outlying territories. Many of the mercantilist economic regulations applied to the Brandenburg heartland were not extended to the western provinces, whose goods were treated for taxation purposes like foreign merchandise. The government’s efforts to integrate East Prussia into the grain economy of the entire kingdom through the magazine system slackened during Frederick’s reign. The canton system was not extended throughout the western provinces. The three regiments of the city of Wesel, he noted in 1768, have no cantons, ‘because the population of these provinces is not suitable for military service; it is limp and soft, and when the man of Kleve is transferred far from his home, he suffers from homesickness, like the Swiss’.134 Little attempt was made to integrate the small outlying principality of Neuenburg-Neuchâtel, a French-speaking canton of Switzerland acquired in personal union by Frederick I in 1707. The Prussian governor was absent during long periods of the reign of Frederick the Great, so that the influence of Berlin was scarcely felt.135

Frederick assigned clear priority to the central provinces of the kingdom. In a revealing passage of the Political Testament of 1768, he even declared that only Brandenburg, Magdeburg, Halberstadt and Silesia ‘constituted the actual body of the state’. This was in part a matter of military logic. What distinguished the central lands was the fact that they could ‘defend themselves, as long as the whole of Europe [did] not unite against their sovereign’.136 East Prussia and the western possessions, by contrast, would have to be given up as soon as hostilities began. Perhaps this helps to explain why Frederick discontinued the momentous East Prussian reconstruction programme his father had launched.137 The conduct of his subjects under foreign occupation during the Seven Years War also seems to have given him pause. He was particularly resentful of the fact that the Estates of East Prussia had sworn an oath of fealty to his nemesis Tsaritsa Elisabeth in 1758. After 1763, Frederick, the indefatigable chief inspector of his realm, never made a single visit to East Prussia. He simply ordered the East Prussian chamber presidents to report to him in Potsdam or to attend him at his headquarters during the annual manoeuvres in West Prussia.138 This reflected a significant demotion in the importance of this province, which had been something of a fetish to Frederick William I and his grandfather the Great Elector.

If we read them literally, Frederick’s comments on the state sometimes seem to imply that the functions of the sovereign have been partly absorbed into the impersonal collective structures of an administration working in accordance with transparent rules and regulations. Yet the reality could hardly have been more different, for the governance of Prussia during Frederick’s reign was an intensely personal affair; indeed, in some respects the political process was even more concentrated on the person of the king than it had been under his father, Frederick William I. His father had created a collegial system of ministerial government in which the monarch often took his cue from the recommendations of a powerful council of ministers. But this system fell into disuse after Frederick’s accession to the throne. His personal contacts with ministers became ever more rare after 1763, as their functions were duplicated and partly displaced through the king’s growing reliance on cabinet secretaries attached directly to his own person.

The political process thus came to centre more and more around the small team of secretaries who controlled access to the king, oversaw his correspondence, kept him up to date on developments and advised him on policy issues. Whereas the secretaries travelled around with the monarch, the ministers generally remained in Berlin. While the ministers tended to be aristocratic grandees such as Karl Abraham Freiherr von Zedlitz (the minister charged with educational affairs), the secretaries were mostly commoners. A characteristic example was the reclusive but enormously influential August Friedrich Eichel, the son of a Prussian army sergeant who usually began work at four o’clock in the morning. Under Frederick William I, responsibility and influence had been tied to the function of the individual within the administrative system; under Frederick, by contrast, proximity to the sovereign was the decisive determinant of power and influence.

Paradoxically, this concentration of power and responsibility in the king reversed the centralizing impetus of the reforms introduced by Frederick William I. By communing directly with the chamber officials in the provinces, Frederick undermined the authority of the General Directory, whose purpose was to act as the supervisory authority overseeing the various provincial officialdoms. On many occasions, Frederick even issued orders to the provincial chambers without informing the central administration, thus enhancing the authority of the provincial administrators, shifting power away from the centre and loosening the sinews of the territorial state structure.139

Frederick saw no reason to doubt the efficacy of this highly personalized system. As he pointed out in the Political Testament of 1752, it was necessary ‘in a state like this one that the prince conducts his affairs himself, because if he is clever he merely pursues the interest of the state, whereas a minister always follows ulterior motives that touch upon his own interests…’140 In other words, the interests of the state and those of the monarch were quite simply identical in a way that did not apply to any other living person. The hitch with this arrangement lay in the conditional clause ‘if he is clever’. The Frederician system worked well with the indefatigable, far-sighted Frederick at the helm, applying his quick and capacious intellect, not to mention his courage and decisiveness, to the problems that came to his desk. But what if the king were not a genius-statesman? What if he found it difficult to resolve dilemmas? What if he were hesitant and risk-averse? What, in short, if he were an ordinary man? With a monarch like that in the driving seat, how would this system function under pressure? Frederick, we should remember, was the last of a freakish run of abnormally gifted Hohenzollern rulers. Their like would not be seen again in the history of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Without the discipline and focus of a powerful figure at the centre, there was the danger that the Frederician system might splinter into warring factions, as ministers and cabinet secretaries competed for control of their overlapping jurisdictions.

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