Thursday, June 4, 2009

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great, by Gerhard Ritter
1968, 201 pp. From a series of lectures given at the University of Freiburg in 1933-1934.

Much is popularly known about the Third Reich; amongst people familiar with European history at least a little is known about the Second, but the First is by now entirely ignored. This is particularly true in the United States, where the global conflict known elsewhere as the Seven Years War is known as the "French and Indian War" and where all history is framed as the teleological production of American exceptionalism rather than the Great Power struggle for dominance in Europe. This is unfortunate. There is quite a lot to be learned from the age of so-called "enlightened" absolutism, from the practitioners of calculated diplomacy and limited wars, and specifically from Frederick the Great. For the interested non-specialist, Gerhard Ritter's brief biography is an excellent introduction.

Professor Ritter is probably best known, to the extent that he is still known at all, for his participation in the postwar debate over the sonderweg interpretation of German history. Ritter was a German nationalist, a conservative, and a devout Lutheran, who fought as an infantryman in the First World War and was a strong supporter of the old monarchy. He was not, however, a Nazi, and he argued his entire life for a form of conservative German nationalism separate from the perversions of National Socialism. (This is, incidentally, why arguments that Hitler was purely conservative and not in his own sick way a revolutionary are nonsense: there were genuine German conservatives who ardently wanted a return to the limited aims and stability of the monarchy. Ritter was one of them, Hitler was not.) He was against the Nazi regime and its brutality towards the Jews, and participated in the July 20 Plot and survived, though he did argue that Jews should be stripped of civil rights. Ritter's professional career was limited to works on German political, military, and cultural history: he wrote on Bismarck, Luther, the Schlieffen Plan, and Carl Goerdeler. He was effectively the dean of conservative German historians, and this is probably his best-regarded book.

Ritter packs quite a lot of information into these 200 pages. As a biographer of Frederick, he hits all the major points with admirable concision and illumination. Frederick's father Frederick William was a domineering tyrant and a big, blustering, violent man. We get a good sense of how his antagonism towards Frederick shaped Frederick's personality and style of governance: Frederick William once had his son imprisoned and forced to watch his best friend being executed. When Ritter says that Frederick set out to be a new, tolerant, cultured sort of monarch, we believe him. The two Silesian Wars and the Seven Years War get their due, as does Frederick's administrative, military, and economic reforms, but really this book is less a biography and more of Ritter's consideration of what he knows of Frederick's life. As Peter Paret, the translator, notes in his introduction, the book is "less the product of its author's archival research than of his reflections on the history of political ideas." Therefore we get only a brief discussion of what Frederick did but a strong, considered examination of why he did it and why it mattered. Ritter seems to have absorbed everything there is to read about Frederick, including Frederick's own writings, and considers it all in light of the documented historical facts. This gives him leverage to evaluate Frederick as a leader: "Almost simultaneously with the anonymous appearance of his Anti-Machiavel in 1740, its author outraged Europe by his particularly ruthless use of force," Ritter writes. Was Frederick then really the humanitarian monarch he considered himself to be, or were his writings purely cynical? Ritter considers the matter and concludes that Frederick was concerned with the well-being of his people, but only because it served certain ends.

And here Ritter's book is the strongest, when it focuses less on historical narrative and more on its central thesis. Ritter argues that Frederick recognized that "the unselfconscious kingship of earlier times was a thing of the past...No longer was the state dynastic property, nor was the royal dignity any longer granted by the grace of God" and therefore set out to update and perfect the absolutist system pioneered by Louis XIV. His deep historical studies and voluminous correspondence with leading thinkers led him to some interesting conclusions. "Frederick found it possible to demonstrate dispassionately the theoretical advantages that republican or parliamentary forms of government enjoyed over the system of royal absolutism. If the monarchy was to retain political authority in this completely altered intellectual climate, it must constantly prove itself by supreme achievements in politics and war." To that end, Frederick established total legal security for all, restricted the power of the monarchy, protected against arbitrary governmental power, and reformed the military. He instigated and won three wars against superior forces allied against him, attacking from all sides, and took territory integral to the maintenance of a viable, contiguous Prussian state. "We have suggested," Ritter writes towards the end, "that Frederick's military policy relied on the methods of the absolutist state, which it perfected until they attained their highest possible effectiveness."

Ritter is clear about how this project developed, and how Frederick learned along the way. His youthful impetuosity during the First Silesian War and his total misreading of the diplomatic situation after the death of Charles VI taught him important lessons about Great Power diplomacy, and his early attempt at reforms taught him about the need for unitary power in the monarchy. He learned quickly on the battlefield and pioneered a new tactic of rapid flanking maneuvers. He never emerges as much of a diplomat, though, especially in the run-up to the Seven Years War in which he was constantly and hopelessly outmaneuvered by Kaunitz. But considering that, as Ritter rightly notes, "personal rule driven to such extremes was made possible only by constant, intense activity, and an almost unlimited versatility," the fact that the same man could win the Battle of Leuthen and also write a theme for a composition by Bach is extraordinary.

It is clear from this book that Ritter is interested in Frederick as a military leader first, as a diplomat second, and as a domestic reformer a distant third. The portions of the book dedicated to each subject can equally be ranked by quality. There are a few annoying formatting issues, unfortunately. Since this book is derived from a series of lectures Ritter gave in the mid-1930's, there are no footnotes and no bibliography, so it is impossible to track down the origin of an interesting story (say, Frederick's stirring personal bravery during the great defeat at Kunersdorf) or to verify a quotation from his letters or diary (say, when he writes about his depression to his sister). It also makes the book useless as a tool for further research. A map would have been most welcome, since nobody remembers where Wolfenbuttel was. Since it requires passing familiarity with the 1730 English marriage plot, and with the subtle diplomacy of Kaunitz, it is not particularly accessible to the general reader, so it is difficult to determine who the book is for, exactly. Me specifically, perhaps. Whatever the case, there is probably no other volume which so precisely conveys the essential details of Frederick's life along with such informed consideration on their importance and historical context.

1 comment:

radical royalist said...

Thank you very much for this excellent posting. Gerhard Ritter was an excellent historian. The University of Freiburg is trying to wipe off the memory of his decade long work at the university by re-naming the Gerhard-Ritter-Prize last year.

A shameful effort!