V. FREDERICK AT HOME: 1745–50

The tired victor returned to Berlin (December 28, 1745) vowing “from this day Peace to the end of my life!”81 All Europe outside of (and some souls in) Prussia denounced him as a treacherous, and admired him as a successful, thief. Voltaire reproved his slaughter and called him “Great.”82 Frederick in 1742 had replied to the poet’s protests:

You ask me for how long my colleagues have agreed to ruin the earth. To this I answer that I have not the slightest knowledge, but that it is now the fashion to make war, and I presume it will last a long time. The Abbé de Saint-Pierre, who distinguishes me sufficiently to honor me with his correspondence, has sent me a beautiful book on the way to re-establish peace in Europe and retain it forever… . For the success of the plan all that is lacking is the consent of Europe and a few similar trifles.83

To Europe he made his defense in his posthumous Histoire de mon temps, adopting Machiavelli’s principle that the interest of the state overrides the rules of private morality:

Perhaps posterity will see with surprise, in these memoirs, accounts of treaties made and broken. Though there are many precedents for such actions, they would not justify the author of this work if he had no better reasons to excuse his conduct. The interest of the state must serve as the rule for sovereigns. Alliances may be broken for any one of these reasons: (1) when an ally fails to keep his engagements; (2) when an ally plans to deceive you, and when you have no other recourse but to anticipate him; (3) when a major force [force majeure] lies upon you and compels you to break your agreements; (4) when you have no means for continuing the war… . It seems clear and evident to me that a private individual must scrupulously keep his word… . If he is deceived he can ask for the protection of the laws… . But to what tribunal can a sovereign have recourse if another prince violates engagements made to him? The word of an individual involves the misfortune of only one man; that of a sovereign may bring a general calamity to whole nations. All this can be reduced to one question: Is it better that the people should perish than that the prince should violate a treaty? What imbecile would hesitate to decide this question?84

Frederick agreed with Christian theology that man is by nature wicked. When Sulzer, a school inspector, expressed the opinion that “the inborn inclination of men is rather to good than to evil,” the King answered, “Ach, mein lieber Sulzer, er kennt nicht diese verdammte Rasse [you don’t know this damned race].”85 Frederick did not merely accept La Rochefoucauld’s analysis of human nature as completely egoistic; he believed that man would recognize no restraints on the pursuit of his own interest if he were not checked by fear of the police. Since the state is the individual multiplied, and is deterred in its collective egoism by no international police, it can be checked only by fear of the power of other states. Hence the first duty of “the first servant of the state” (as Frederick called himself) is to organize the power of the nation for defense, which includes pre-emptive offense—to do unto others what they are planning to do unto you. So to Frederick, as to his father, the army was the foundation of the state. He established a carefully supervised and planned economy; he fostered manufactures and commerce; he sent agents throughout Europe to import skilled workers, inventors, industries; but he felt that all this would in the end be of no avail unless he kept his troops the best-drilled, best-disciplined, and most reliable army in Europe.

Having such an army, and a well-organized police, he saw no need for religion as an aid to social order. When Prince William of Brunswick asked did he not think religion to be one of the best props of a ruler’s authority, he answered: “I find order and the laws sufficient… . Countries have been admirably governed when your religion had no existence.”86 But he accepted whatever help religion could give him in inculcating moral sentiments that contributed to “order.” He protected all the religions in his realm, but he insisted on naming the Catholic bishops, especially in Silesia. (Catholic kings also insisted on naming the Catholic bishops, and the English kings named the Anglican bishops.) Everybody—including Greek Catholics, Mohammedans, Unitarians, atheists—was to be free to worship as he liked, or not at all. There was, however, one limitation: when religious controversy became too abusive or violent Frederick put a damper upon it, as upon any threat to internal peace. In his later years he was less tolerant of attacks upon his government than of attacks upon God.

What was he like, this terror of Europe and idol of philosophers? Five feet six inches tall, he had no commanding height. Rather stout in his youth, he was now, after ten years of rule and war, slender, nervous, taut, a wire of electric sensitivity and energy; eyes sharp with a penetrating and skeptical intelligence. He was capable of humor, and his wit was as keen as Voltaire’s. As a man uncrossed he could be quite amiable; as a king he was severe, and seldom tempered justice with mercy; he could talk philosophy with his associates while calmly watching soldiers suffering the knout. His cynicism had a biting tongue that sometimes cut his friends. He was usually parsimonious, occasionally generous. Accustomed to being obeyed, he became dictatorial, seldom brooking remonstrance, rarely seeking advice, never taking it. He was loyal to his intimates, but contemptuous of mankind. He spoke seldom to his wife, kept her in financial straits, tore up before her face the note in which she had humbly stated her wants.87 He was normally kind and affectionate to his sister Wilhelmine, but she too sometimes found him coldly reserved.88 Other women, except for visiting princesses, he kept at a distance; he had no taste for feminine graces and charms of body or character, and he abominated the light chatter of salons. He preferred philosophers and handsome youths; often he took one of the latter to his rooms after dinner.89 Perhaps he liked dogs still better. In his later years his best-loved companions were his greyhounds; they slept in his bed; he had monuments raised over their graves, and gave orders that he should be buried near them.90 He found it difficult to be at once a successful commander and a lovable man.

In 1747 he suffered an apoplectic stroke and remained unconscious for half an hour.91 Thereafter he countered his unsteady health with steady habits and a frugal regimen. He slept on a thin mattress on a simple folding bed, and wooed sleep by reading. In these middle years he was content with five or six hours of sleep per day. He rose at three, four, or five in the summer, later in winter. He had but one servant to attend him—chiefly to light his fire and shave him; he scorned kings who had to be helped to put on their clothes. He was not noted for cleanliness of person or elegance of dress; he spent half the day in his dressing gown, half in the uniform of a guardsman. His breakfast began with several glasses of water; then followed several cups of coffee, then some cakes, then much fruit. After breakfast he played the flute, pondering politics and philosophy while puffing. Every day, about eleven, he attended the drill and parade of his troops. His main meal, at noon, was usually mixed with conferences. In the afternoon he became an author, spending an hour or two in writing poetry or history; we shall find him an excellent historian of his family and his times. After several hours given to administration, he relaxed with scientists, artists, poets, and musicians. At seven in the evening he might take part as flutist in a concert. At eight-thirty came his famous suppers, usually (after May, 1747) at Sanssouci. To these he invited his closest associates, distinguished visitors, and the leading lights of the Berlin Academy. He bade them be at their ease, forget that he was king, and discourse without fear, which they did on every subject but politics. Frederick himself talked abundantly, learnedly, brilliantly. “His conversation,” said the Prince de Ligne, “was encyclopedic; the fine arts, war, medicine, literature, religion, philosophy, morals, history, and legislation passed, turn by turn, in review.”92 Only one added ornament was needed to make this a feast of the mind. He came on July 10, 1750.

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