Frederick’s Germany



WHO was this ogre, internationally feared and admired, who had stolen Silesia, defeated half of Europe united against him, laughed at religion, snubbed marriage, given lessons in philosophy to Voltaire, and torn off a limb from Poland if only to keep Russia from absorbing it all?

He looked more like a ghost than an ogre when he returned, sad and victorious, from the Seven Years’ War and entered Berlin (March 30, 1763) amid the plaudits of a destitute populace. “I return to a city,” he wrote to d’Argens, “where I shall know only the walls, where I shall find none of my acquaintances, where an immense task awaits me, where I shall before long leave my bones in a place of refuge troubled by neither war nor calamities nor the villainy of man.”1 His skin was parched and wrinkled, his blue-gray eyes were somber and swollen, his face was lined with battle and bitterness; only the nose had retained its pristine majesty. He thought that he could not long survive the drain made by the protracted war upon his resources of body, mind, and will, but his temperate habits preserved him for twenty-three years more. He ate and drank sparingly, and knew no luxury; he lived and dressed in his Potsdam New Palace as if he were still in camp. He grudged the time given to the care of his person; in his later years he gave up shaving, merely clipping his beard now and then with scissors; and gossip said that he did not often wash.2

The war completed that hardening of his character which had begun as a defense against his father’s cruelty. He looked on with stoic calm as condemned soldiers ran the gauntlet thirty-six times.3 He harassed his officials and generals with secret spies, sudden intrusions, abusive language, stinted pay, and such detailed commands as stifled initiative and interest. He never won the love of his brother Prince Henry, who served him so effectively and loyally in diplomacy and war. He had some women friends, but they feared rather than loved him, and none of them was admitted to his inner circle. He respected the silent suffering of his neglected Queen, and on his return from the war he surprised her with a present of 25,000 thalers; but it is doubtful if he ever shared her bed. She learned to love him nevertheless, seeing him heroic in adversity and devoted in government; she spoke of him as “our dear King,” “this dear Prince whom I love and adore.”4 He had no children, but he was deeply attached to his dogs; usually two of them slept in his room at night, probably as a guard; sometimes he took one of them into his bed to warm him with animal heat. When the last of his favorite dogs died he “wept all day long.”5 He was suspected of homosexuality,6 but of this we have only surmise.

Beneath his martial carapace there were elements of tenderness which he rarely exposed to public view. He wept abundantly over the death of his mother, and he repaid with sincere affection the devotion of his sister Wilhel-mine. He spread little inconspicuous kindnesses among his nieces. He laughed at Rousseau’s sentiment, but he forgave his hostility and offered him asylum when the Christian world cast him out. He passed from the stern drilling of his troops to blowing melodies from his flute. He composed sonatas, concertos, and symphonies which he shared in performing before his court. The learned Burney heard him there, and reported that he played with “great precision, a clean and uniform attack, brilliant fingering, a pure and simple taste, a great neatness of execution, and equal perfection in all his pieces”; Burney adds, however, that “in some of the difficult passages … his Majesty was obliged, against the rules, to take a breath in order to finish the passage.”7* In later years his increasing shortness of breath, and the loss of several front teeth, compelled him to give up flute playing, but he resumed study of the clavier.

Next to music, his favorite diversion was philosophy. He liked to have a philosopher or two at his table to flay the parsons and stir the generals. He held his own in exchanges with Voltaire, and remained a skeptic when most of the philosophes developed dogmas and fantasies. He was the first avowedly agnostic ruler of modern times, but he made no public attack upon religion. He thought that “we have sufficient degrees of probability to reach the certainty that post mortem nihil est,9 but he rejected the determinism of d’Holbach, insisting (like a man who was will incarnate) that the mind acts creatively upon sensations, and that our impulses can, through education, be controlled by reason.10 His favorite philosophers were “my friend Lucretius, … my good Emperor Marcus Aurelius”; nothing of any importance, he thought, had been added to them.11

He agreed with Voltaire in believing that the “masses” bred too fast, and worked too hard, to allow time for real education. Disillusionment with their theology would only incline them to political violence. “The Enlightenment,” said Frederick, “is a light from heaven for those who stand on the heights, and a destructive firebrand for the masses”;12 here was a history of the September Massacres of 1792 and the Terror of 1793 before the French Revolution had begun. And to Voltaire in April, 1759: “Let us admit the truth: philosophy and the arts are diffused amongst only a few; the great masses … remain as nature made them, malevolent animals.”13 He called mankind (half in humor) “diese verdammte Rasse”— this damned race—and laughed at utopias of benevolence and peace:

Superstition, self-interest, vengeance, treason, ingratitude, will produce bloody and tragic scenes until the end of time, because we are governed by passions and very rarely by reason. There will always be wars, lawsuits, devastations, plagues, earthquakes, bankruptcies. … Since this is so, I presume it must be necessary. … But it seems to me that if this universe had been made by a benevolent being, he should have made us happier than we are. … The human mind is weak; more than three fourths of mankind are made for subjection to the most absurd fanaticism. Fear of the Devil and of hell fascinates their eyes, and they detest the wise man who tries to enlighten them.... In vain do I seek in them that image of God which the theologians assert they bear upon them. Every man has a wild beast in him; few can restrain it; most men let loose the bridle when not restrained by terror of the law.14

Frederick concluded that to allow governments to be dominated by the majority would be disastrous. A democracy, to survive, must be, like other governments, a minority persuading a majority to let itself be led by a minority. Frederick thought like Napoleon that “among nations and in revolutions aristocracy always exists.”15 He believed that an hereditary aristocracy would develop a sense of honor and loyalty, and a willingness to serve the state at great personal cost, which could not be expected of bourgeois geniuses formed in the race for wealth. So, after the war, he replaced with Junker most of the middle-class officers who had risen in the army.16 But since these proud nobles could be a source of fragmentation and chaos, and an instrument of exploitation, the state should be protected against division, and the commonalty from class injustice, by a monarch wielding absolute power.

Frederick liked to picture himself as the servant of the state and the people. This may have been a rationalization of his will to power, but he lived up to the claim. The state became for him the Supreme Being, to which he would sacrifice himself and others; and the demands of that service overrode, in his view, the code of individual morality; the Ten Commandments stop at the royal doors. All governments agreed with this Realpolitik, and some monarchs accepted the view of kingship as a sacred service. Frederick had the latter notion through contact with Voltaire; and through contact with Frederick the philosophes developed their these royale— that the best hope for reform and progress lay in the enlightenment of kings.

So, despite his wars, he became the idol of the French philosophers, and softened the hostility even of the virtuous Rousseau. D’Alembert long refused Frederick’s invitations, but did not withhold his praise. “The philosophers and men of letters in every land,” he wrote to Frederick, “have long looked upon you, Sire, as their leader and their model.”17 The cautious mathematician at last succumbed to repeated calls, and spent two months with Frederick at Potsdam in 1763. Intimacy (and a pension) did not diminish d’Alembert’s admiration. He was delighted with the King’s disregard of etiquette, and with his remarks—not only on war and government, but also on literature and philosophy; this, he told Julie de Lespinasse, was finer converse than one could then hear in France.18 When, in 1776, d’Alembert was desolate over Julie’s death, Frederick sent him a letter which shows the ogre in a wise and tender vein:

I am sorry for the misfortune which has befallen you. … The wounds of the heart are the most sensitive of all, and … nothing but time can heal them.... I have, to my misery, had only too much experience of the suffering caused by such losses. The best remedy is to put compulsion upon oneself in order to divert one’s mind. … You should choose some geometrical investigation which demands constant application. … Cicero, to console himself for the death of his dear Tullia, threw himself into composition.... At your age and mine we should be the more readily consoled because we shall not long delay to join the objects of our regrets.19

He urged d’Alembert to come again to Potsdam. “We will philosophize together concerning the nothingness of life, … concerning the vanity of stoicism.... I will feel as happy in allaying your grief as if I had won a battle.” Here was, if not quite a philosopher king, at least a king who loved philosophers.

This no longer applied to Voltaire. Their quarrels in Berlin and Potsdam, and the arrest of Voltaire in Frankfurt, had left wounds deeper than grief. The philosopher remained bitter longer than the King. He told the Prince de Ligne that Frederick was “incapable of gratitude, and never had any except for the horse on which he ran away at the battle of Mollwitz.”20 The correspondence between these two most brilliant men of the century reopened when Voltaire wrote to dissuade the desperate warrior from suicide. Soon they were exchanging reproaches and compliments. Voltaire reminded Frederick of the indignities which the philosopher and his niece had suffered at the hands of the King’s agents; Frederick answered: “If you had not had to do with a man madly enamored of your fine genius, you would not have gotten off so well. … Consider all that as done with, and never let me hear again of that wearisome niece.”21 But then the King stroked the philosophic ego bewitchingly:

Do you want sweet things? Very good; I will tell you some truths. I esteem in you the finest genius that the ages have borne; I admire your poetry, I love your prose. … Never has an author before you had a touch so keen, a taste so sure and delicate. … You are charming in conversation; you know how to amuse and instruct at the same time. You are the most seductive being that I know. … All depends for a man upon the time when he comes into the world. Though I came too late, I do not regret it, for I have seen Voltaire , … and he writes to me.22

The King supported with substantial contributions Voltaire’s campaigns for the Calas and the Sirvens, and applauded the war against l’infâme, but he did not share the philosophes’ trust in the enlightenment of mankind. In the race between reason and superstition he predicted the victory of superstition. So, to Voltaire, September 13, 1766:

Your missionaries will open the eyes of a few young people. … But how many fools there are in the world who do not think! … Believe me, if the philosophers founded a government, within half a century the people would create new superstitions. … The object of adoration may change, like your French fashions; [but] what does it matter whether people prostrate themselves before a piece of unleavened bread, before the ox Apis, before the Ark of the Covenant, or before a statue? The choice is not worth the trouble; the superstition is the same, and reason gains nothing.23

Having accepted religion as a human need, Frederick made his peace with it, and protected all its peaceful forms with full toleration. In conquered Silesia he left Catholicism undisturbed, except that he opened to all faiths the University of Breslau, which had previously admitted only Catholics. He welcomed, as valuable teachers, the Jesuits who, expelled by Catholic kings, sought refuge under his agnostic rule. He protected as well Mohammedans, Jews, and atheists; and in his reign and realm Kant practiced that freedom of speech and teaching and writing which was so sharply rebuked and ended after Frederick’s death. Under this toleration most forms of religion declined in Prussia. In 1780 there was one ecclesiastic per thousand population in Berlin; in Munich there were thirty.24 Frederick thought that toleration would soon put an end to Catholicism. “It will take a miracle to restore the Catholic Church,” he wrote to Voltaire in 1767; “it has been struck by a terrible apoplexy; and you will yet have the consolation of burying it and writing its epitaph.”25 The most thorough of skeptics had forgotten for a moment to be skeptical of skepticism.

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