Frederick the Great

By Nancy Mitford

New York Review Books | 2013

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Nancy Mitford

Frederick the Great is not a new book—it was first published in 1970 and just has been re-released in paperback by the New York Review of Books. From its introduction by Liesl Schillinger: “In 1969, Nancy Mitford, the sparkling, supercilious British debutante turned novelist, began work on a biography of Frederick the Great, the eighteenth-century Prussian king who outfoxed the combined forces of France, England, Russian and the Holy Roman Empire to make Prussia master of Germany. The reader who opens this book may wonder what attracted an apolitical Francophile socialite to a fearsome Teuton whose foes reviled him as a ‘monster,’ a ‘sodomite,’ and ‘the compleatest tyrant that God ever sent for a scourge’; and whose friends, notably the French sage Voltaire, could be almost as uncomplimentary. Mitford and “der alte Fritz” (as his soldiers called him) hardly sound like a natural pairing.”

How does the saying go? It takes one to know one. For, Ms Mitford, no slouch herself, recognized in Frederick a greatest that made him unique among monarchs. It’s a pleasure to read a biography of a worthy subject written by a writer who had the wit, elegance, and insight that allowed her to consolidate information of lesser importance into a volume of a mere 231 pages—nothing can be duller than to read a biography written by a lesser writer, who feels the necessity of ponderously ploughing through the subject’s life.

Mitford’s own colorful, privileged life gave her an affinity to the colorful, privileged men and women whose biographies she composed (she also wrote biographies of Voltaire, The Sun King—Louie XIV, and Madame de Pompadodur, mistress to Louis XV). While writing Voltaire in Love, she became intrigued by his fraught, self-serving friendship with Frederick the Great.

Frederick was not highly regarded by the English, who saw him as a clever but trouble-making homosexual monarch. He was the bane of the existence of Marie Theresa, the female ruler of the Habsburg dominions, the sovereign of eighteenth century Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia (and, incidentally, the mother of Marie Antoinette.)

He was a pariah among the European monarchs of his time, but he was also feared and respected as he was a brilliant military strategist.

He was third of King Frederick William and Sophia Dorothea’s fourteen children but became heir to the throne when both his older brothers died. He was so close to his sister Wilhelmine, who resembled him, that many thought them twins. He resisted his father’s domination and was a relentless tease—by the age of twelve, he and his father were on the worst of terms. But, the people who met him were struck by his enormous intelligence—“his face contained two enormous blue eyes—dazzling like the sun.”

Also from Ms. Schillinger’s introduction: “An attractive youth, clever, musical, high-spirited, and entranced by the aesthetic and philosophical charms of France, he in no way embodied his father’s brusque, ascetic male ideal. Frederick William I, anti-intellectual, anti-French, hostile to luxury…regarded his son…as a disobedient, effeminate fop.”

Clearly, Frederick’s talents would not come into fruition until he was out from under his father’s thumb. When Frederick William I died, in May 1740, the 28-year old Frederick must have felt liberated. His first act as the King of Prussia was to seize Silesia from the Hapsburg empress.

Frederick married Princess Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel only because it was expected of him, but he had no wish for a wife and no interest in women—“he is not the wood out which one carves good husbands.” Though she loved him, he had no time for her and discarded her, shipping her off to another palace, only rarely asking for her well-being. However, he treasured his friendships with men, especially with those who shared his love of music (he played the flute,) poetry, and witty conversation. Ms. Mitford maintains that his disdain for women does not mark him as a homosexual because most homosexual men revel in the company of women.

Except for Wilhelmine no woman counted with him. To his credit Frederick truly loved his male friends, and his life was saddened by their deaths. Like Queen Elizabeth I, Frederick was an entity unto himself, a person who did not require a mate to complete him—he was to Prussia as she was to England.

Well-known and documented was his friendship with Voltaire, the popular French philosopher and leader of the Enlightenment. It was not unusual for Frederick to invite friends to live with him at San Souci, the house he built for himself at Potsdam. When Voltaire’s mistress, Mme du Châtelet, died during childbirth, Voltaire was unhinged and accepted Frederick’s offer to live at San Souci. At first all went well. Voltaire had beautiful rooms at Sans Souci next door to Frederick’s, and Frederick wandered in and out at all hours, chatting and joking. But soon Voltaire began to get on the King’s nerves.

For one thing he talked stupidly about warfare, a subject that interested Frederick and about which he was an authority. When Voltaire was asked to leave, the situation degenerated into pure comedy, with Voltaire sticking his head out of the cab taking him to a hotel and screaming at the top of his lungs that he had paid 1,000 thalers for his freedom to the King, who was now double-crossing him.

Imagine! The greatest intellectual of the eighteenth century carrying on like an utter child! Frederick was more even-handed.

Voltaire always said “qui plume a, guerre a” (he who has a pen has war.) Now he declared war on Frederick with his pen, but one wonders whether his feelings for the King were the result of his wounded pride and unrequited passion.

Frederick put down his thoughts on war in Discours sur la Guerre. In it he says that though he dislikes war, it begets such virtues as resolution, mercy, greatness of soul, generosity and charity.

Though Frederick had no use for religion, regarding it as childish superstition, he did not interfere with his subjects’ rights to worship as they pleased and their right to free expression. He was among the most enlightened leaders of his time. Despite all the energy and devotion he put into governing Prussia, he was not a well man—he suffered from digestive disorders that rendered him skeletal.

On May 30th, 1778, Voltaire died in Paris. Frederick lived for another eight years, dying on August 17, 1786.

Twenty years later Napoleon stood by his coffin. “Hats off, gentlemen,” he said to his soldiers, “If he were still alive we should not be here.”

Frederick paved the way for the unification of German states, which occurred almost another 100 years later, on January 18th, 1871, under Bismarck as Chancellor.

Return to home page