Over all this varied life of politics, religion, industry, amusement, music, art, science, philosophy, philanthropy, and sin loomed the aging hero whom Germany called Der Alte Fritz—not loving him, but honoring him as the most amazing Teuton of his time. Not content with ruling his kingdom and his orchestra, he envied Voltaire’s pen, and longed to be lauded as a poet and historian. He bequeathed to posterity thirty volumes of writings: seven of history, six of poetry, three of military treatises, two of philosophy, twelve of correspondence; all in French. His poems were mostly of the “fugitive” kind, and have escaped remembrance. He was one of the leading historians of the age. Early in his reign he wrote the history of his ancestors—Mémoires pour servir à Phistoire de la maison de Brandebourg (1751). Like most historians, he claimed impartiality: “I have risen above all prejudice; I have regarded princes, kings, relatives, as ordinary men”;111 but he rose to rapture when describing Frederick William, the Great Elector.
His literary masterpiece was L’Histoire de mon temps, recording his own rule. He began it soon after the close of the First Silesian War (1740-42), and continued it at intervals till late in life. Probably under the influence of Voltaire—though writing much of this book before the appearance of Voltaire’s Le Siècle de Louis XIV and L’Essai sur les moeurs— Frederick included the history of science, philosophy, literature, and art. He apologized for spending space on “imbeciles clothed in purple, charlatans crowned with a tiara. … But to follow the discovery of new truths, to grasp the causes of change in morals and manners, to study the processes by which the darkness of barbarism has been lifted from the minds of men—these, surely, are subjects worthy to occupy all thinking men.”112 He praised Hobbes, Locke, and the deists in England, Thomasius and Wolff in Germany, Fontenelle and Voltaire in France. “These great men and their disciples struck a mortal blow at religion. Men began to examine what they had stupidly adored; reason overthrew superstition. … Deism, the simple worship of the Supreme Being, gained many followers.”113 Despising the French government but loving French literature, Frederick rated Voltaire’s Henriade above the Iliad, and Racine above Sophocles; he equaled Boileau with Horace, and Bossuet with Demosthenes. He laughed at the language and literature, praised the architecture, of Germany. He labored to excuse his invasion of Silesia: a statesman, he felt, may violate the Ten Commandments if the vital interests of his state require it; “it is better that the sovereign should break his word than that the people should perish”114—which he hoped we would believe had been the danger to Prussia in 1740. He admitted making many mistakes as a general, but he thought it unnecessary to record his flight at Mollwitz. All in all, these two volumes rank with the best historical writing of modern Europe before Gibbon.
Hardly had the Seven Years’ War been concluded when Frederick set himself to writing his Histoire de la guerre de Sept Ans. Like Caesar he aspired to be the best historian of his own campaigns, and like Caesar he avoided embarrassment by speaking of himself in the third person. Again, and perhaps with better reason, he sought to justify the bold initiative with which he had opened hostilities. He lauded his great enemy, Maria Theresa, in all that concerned her domestic government, but in foreign relations he condemned her as “this proud woman” who, “devoured by ambition, wished to reach the goal of glory by every path.”115 Amid his fairly impartial record of the campaigns, he stopped to mourn the death of his mother in 1757 and of his sister in 1758; the page in which he described Wilhelmine is an oasis of love in a waste of war.
He concluded that history is an excellent teacher, with few pupils. “It is in the nature of man that no one learns from experience. The follies of the fathers are lost on their children; each generation has to commit its own.”116 “Whoever reads history with application will perceive that the same scenes are often repeated, and that one need only change the names of the actors.”117 And even if we could learn, we should still be subject to unpredictable chance. “These Memoirs convince me more and more that to write history is to compile the follies of men and the strokes of fortune. Everything turns on these two articles.”118
Twice (1752, 1768) in a Last Testament, he tried to convey some of the lessons of his own experience to his heirs. He urged them to study the aims and resources of the various states, and the methods available for protecting and developing Prussia. He followed his father in stressing the need of keeping the army in good order. He cautioned his successors against spending beyond revenue; he predicted political trouble for fiscally reckless France; and he advised that revenues be increased not by imposing new taxes but by stimulating the productivity of the economy. All religions should be protected if they kept the peace—though “all religions, when one looks into them, rest on a system of fable more or less absurd.”119 The royal power should be absolute, but the king should consider himself the first servant of the state. Since Prussia was endangered by her smallness amid large states like Russia, France, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the king should seize upon any opportunity to enlarge and unify Prussia—preferably by conquest of Saxony, Polish Prussia, and Swedish Pomerania. “The first concern of a prince is to maintain himself; the second is to extend his territory. This demands suppleness and resource. … The way to hide secret ambitions is to profess pacific sentiments till the favorable moment arrives. This has been the method of all great statesmen.”120
The king should prepare his successor for government; he should have him educated by enlightened men, not by ecclesiastics, for these will stuff him with superstitions calculated to make him a docile tool of the church.121 Such an education produces a mediocre mind soon crushed by the responsibilities of state. “That is what I have seen, and if I except the Queen of Hungary [Maria Theresa] and the King of Sardinia [Charles Emmanuel I], all the princes of Europe are merely illustrious imbeciles.”122 This was written when Elizabeth ruled Russia; the Testament of 1768 was more polite, for Catherine had already shown her mettle; now Frederick prophesied that Russia would be the most dangerous power in Europe.123
As he aged he began to wonder if his nephew and presumptive heir-Frederick William II—was fit to inherit the government. “I labor for you,” he wrote, “but one must think of keeping what I make; if you are idle and indolent, what I have accumulated with so much trouble will melt away in your hands.”124 And in 1782, still more pessimistic, he wrote: “If, after my death, my nephew goes soft, … within two years there will no longer be a Prussia.”125 The prediction was verified at Jena in 1806, not so much because Frederick William II was soft, but because Napoleon was hard.
Frederick himself, in his final decade, became unendurably hard. He curbed much of the freedom that he had allowed to the press before 1756. “Your Berlin freedom,” Lessing wrote to Nikolai in 1769, “reduces itself … to the freedom to bring to market as many absurdities against religion as you like. … But let someone … raise his voice on behalf of subjects, and against exploitation and despotism, … and you will soon discover which is the most servile land in Europe today.”126 Herder hated his native Prussia, and Winckelmann turned in “horror” from that “despotic land.”127 When Goethe visited Berlin in 1778 he was surprised by the unpopularity of the King. Yet the people reverenced Frederick as an old man who through forty-five years had not missed a day of service to the state.
War and peace alike had worn him out. His attacks of gout and asthma, of colic and hemorrhoids, had increased in frequency and severity, and his predilection for heavy meals and highly spiced foods intensified his ailments. On August 22-25, 1778, near Breslau, he reviewed his Silesian army. On the twenty-fourth, dressed only in his usual uniform, he sat on his horse for six hours in a heavy rain; he returned to his quarters drenched and shivering; he was never well again. In June, 1786, he summoned Dr. Zimmermann from Hanover. He balked at the drugs prescribed for him, and preferred lively conversations about literature and history; to keep him quiet Zimmermann prescribed Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.128 Dropsy was added to his troubles, and incisions made to reduce the swellings developed gangrene. Pneumonia completed the siege, and on August 17, 1786, Frederick died, aged seventy-four. He had asked to be buried in the garden of Sanssouci near the graves of his dogs and his favorite horse; this parting edict on humanity was ignored, and he was interred beside his father in the Garrison Church at Potsdam. When Napoleon, after defeating the Prussians at Jena, came and stood before Frederick’s tomb, he said to his generals, “If he were alive we should not be here.”129