No ruler in history ever worked so hard at his trade, except perhaps his pupil Joseph II of Austria. Frederick disciplined himself as he did his troops, rising usually at five, sometimes at four, working till seven, breakfasting, conferring with his aides till eleven, reviewing his palace guard, dining at twelve-thirty with ministers and ambassadors, working till five, and only then relaxing into music, literature, and conversation. The “midnight” suppers, after the war, began at half past nine, and were over at twelve. He allowed no family ties to distract him, no court ceremonies to burden him, no religious holidays to interrupt his toil. He watched the work of his ministers, dictated almost every move of policy, kept an eye on the treasury; and over all the government he established a Fiscal, or bureau of accounts, empowered to examine any department at any time, and instructed to report any suspicion of irregularity. He punished malfeasance or incompetence so rigorously that official corruption, which flourished everywhere else in Europe, almost disappeared from Prussia.

He prided himself on this, and on the rapid recovery of his devastated country. He began with domestic economies that earned him gibes from the extravagant courts of defeated Austria and France. The royal household was as frugally managed as a tradesman’s home. His wardrobe was a soldier’s uniform, three old coats, waistcoats soiled with snuff, and one ceremonial robe that lasted him all his life. He dismissed his father’s retinue of huntsmen and hunting dogs; this warrior preferred poetry to the hunt. He built no navy, sought no colonies. His bureaucrats were poorly paid, and he provided with like parsimony for the modest court that he maintained at Berlin—while he stayed in Potsdam. Yet the Earl of Chesterfield judged it “the politest, the most shining, the most useful court in Europe for a young fellow to be at,” and added, “You will see the arts and wisdom of government better in that country now [1752] than in any other in Europe.”26 Twenty years later, however, Lord Malmesbury, the British minister to Prussia, perhaps with a view to consoling London, reported that there was “in that capital [Berlin] neither an honest man nor a chaste woman.”27

Frederick checked his parsimony when national defense was concerned. By persuasion and conscription he soon restored his army to its prewar strength; only with that weapon in hand could he maintain the territorial integrity of Prussia against the ambitions of Joseph II and Catherine II. That army, too, had to buttress the laws that gave order and stability to Prussian life. Organized central force, he felt, was the only alternative to disorganized and disruptive force in private hands. He hoped that obedience through fear of force would grow into obedience through habituation to law—which was force reduced to rules and hiding its claws.

He renewed his behest to jurists to codify into one system of law—an “Allgemeine Preussische Landrecht”—the divers and contradictory legislation of many provinces and generations; this task, interrupted by the death of Samuel von Cocceji (1755) and by the war, was resumed by Chancellor Johann von Carmer and Privy Councilor K. G. Svarez, and was completed in 1791. The new code took feudalism and serfdom for granted, but within those limitations it sought to protect the individual against private or public oppression or injustice. It abolished superfluous courts, reduced and quickened legal procedure, moderated penalties, and raised the requirements for appointment to magistracies. No sentence of death could be executed without sanction by the king, and appeal to the king was open to all. He won a reputation for impartial justice, and Prussian courts were soon acknowledged to be the most honest and efficient in Europe.28

In 1763 Frederick issued a “Generallandschulreglement” confirming and extending the compulsory education proclaimed by his father in 1716-17. Every child in Prussia, from his fifth to his fourteenth year, was to attend school. It was characteristic of Frederick that Latin was dropped from the elementary curriculum, that old soldiers were appointed as schoolmasters, and that most learning was by semimilitary drill.29 The King added: “It is a good thing that the schoolmasters in the country teach the youngsters religion and morals.... It is enough for the people in the country to learn only a little reading and writing. … Instruction must be planned … to keep them in the villages and not to influence them to leave.”30

Economic reconstruction received priority in time and money. Using at first the funds that had been collected for another, now unneeded, campaign, Frederick financed the rebuilding of towns and villages, the distribution of food to hungry communities, the provision of seed for new sowings; he dispersed among the farms sixty thousand horses that could be spared from the army. Altogether 20,389,000 thalers were spent in public relief.31 War-ravaged Silesia was excused from taxes for six months; eight thousand houses were built there in three years; a land bank advanced money to Silesian farmers on easy terms. Credit societies were established at various centers to encourage agricultural expansion. The marshy area along the lower Oder was drained, providing cultivatable land for fifty thousand men. Agents were sent abroad to invite immigrants; 300,000 came.32

As serfdom bound the peasant to his lord, there was not in Prussia that freedom to move to the towns which, in England, made possible the rapid development of industry. Frederick worked in a hundred ways to overcome this handicap. He lent money on easy terms to entrepreneurs; he permitted temporary monopolies; he imported workmen; he opened technical schools; he set up a porcelain factory in Berlin. He strove to establish a silk industry, but the mulberry trees languished in the northern cold. He promoted vigorous mining in Silesia, which was rich in minerals. On September 5, 1777, he wrote to Voltaire as one businessman to another: “I am returning from Silesia, with which I am well content. … We have sold to foreigners 5,000,000 crowns’worth of linen, 1,200,000 crowns’worth of cloth.... A much simpler process than that of Réaumur has been discovered for making iron into steel.”33

To facilitate trade the King abolished internal tolls, widened harbors, dug canals, and built thirty thousand miles of new roads. Foreign trade was held back by high duties on imports and by embargoes on the export of strategic goods; international chaos compelled the protection of home industry to ensure industrial adequacy in war. Nevertheless Berlin grew as the hub of trade as well as government: in 1721 it had 60,000 population; in 1777 it had 140,000;34 it was preparing to be the capital of Germany.

To finance this amalgam of feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and autocracy Frederick drew from his people in taxation almost as much as he returned to them in social order, subsidies, and public works. He kept for the state a monopoly on salt, sugar, tobacco, and (after 1781) coffee, and he owned a third of the arable land.35 He taxed everything, even street singers, and brought in Helvétius to devise an inescapable system of taxgathering. “The new projects of excise [taxation!,” wrote an English ambassador, “have really alienated the affections of the people from their sovereign.”36 At his death Frederick left in the treasury 51,000,000 thalers—two and a half times the annual revenue of the state.

Mirabeau fils, having made three visits to Berlin, published in 1788 a devastating analysis De la Monarchie prussienne sous Frédéric le Grand. Inheriting from his father the free-enterprise principles of the physiocrats, he condemned the Frederician regime as a police state, a bureaucracy choking all initiative and invading every privacy. Frederick might have replied that in the chaotic condition of Prussia after the Seven Years’ War laissez-faire would have annulled his victory with economic anarchy. Direction was imperative; he was the only one who could effectively command; and he knew no other form of command than that of a general to his troops. He saved Prussia from defeat and collapse, and paid by losing the love of his people. He realized this result, and comforted himself with righteousness:

Mankind move if you urge them on, and stop as soon as you leave off driving them. … Men read little, and have no desire to learn how anything can be managed differently. As for me, who never did them anything but good, they think that I want to put a knife to their throats, so soon as there is any question of introducing a useful improvement, or, indeed, any change at all. In such cases I have relied on my honest purpose and my good conscience, and on the information in my possession, and have calmly pursued my way.37

His will prevailed. Prussia, even in his lifetime, grew rich and strong. Population doubled, education spread, religious intolerance hid its head. It is true that this new order depended upon enlightened despotism, and that when, after Frederick’s death, the despotism remained without the enlightenment, the national structure was weakened and collapsed at Jena before a will as strong as Frederick’s own. But the Napoleonic edifice too, depending upon one will and brain, collapsed; and in the long run it was Frederick’s distant heir and beneficiary Bismarck who chastened the France of Napoleon’s heir, and made from Prussia and a hundred principalities a united and powerful Germany.

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