Frederic II the Great
Recently I wrote about reading the political philosophy of Frederic II of Prussia, (1712-1786), without a doubt the greatest King of Prussia of the Hohenzollern dynasty.
What I found fascinating about these books, there are several books in one presentation, you are actually reading what he wrote, so it is his thoughts and his voice, not that of some author interpreting what was said or a discussion on what it all meant then and now. It is rare that you can read a book which is so direct, similar to having a conversation with Frederic II. The only other book I read some years ago was the correspondence of Louis XVI on the events around him as the revolution struck in France. Correspondence to other family members and princes, trying to make sense of a situation he did not fully understand and the danger he and his family faced. There is also similar correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and Queen Charlotte in London, the Prussian wife of George III, full of anxiety and fear but also very dignified. I remember seeing the original letters in Rome, they are in a private collection, on beautiful paper, she had a very nice hand and it is quite easy to read.
Frederic II in his first book attacks Niccolo Machiavelli and his book The Prince written in 1532 for the Medici Prince in Florence. Machiavelli was hoping to get a job with the Medici, he did not and it is not clear that the Prince ever read his book dedicated to him.
In his own time, Machiavelli was known as the author of histories, poems, and plays (including a widely produced popular comedy). Respected as a statesman, he represented Florence on foreign missions and wrote reports admired for their style and substance. But the Catholic Church censured Machiavelli for his criticism of Christianity and for the tone and content of the political counsel he offered, especially in The Prince. By the seventeenth century, the name Machiavelli had become synonymous with diabolical cunning, a meaning that it still carries today. Modern readers exhibit the same ambivalence about Machiavelli himself, alternately recognizing him as a precursor of the discipline of political science and recoiling from the ruthless principles he frequently articulates. Both views of Machiavelli, as innovative modernist and cynical politician, have their origins in The Prince.
Frederic II as a Prince and Sovereign presents his views chapter by chapter and why The Prince is an awful book according to him because of its lack of ethics and morals and the promotion of fear of the ruler amongst the people. According to Frederic if your subjects fear you they will hate you and you will gain nothing. Frederic is also against the use of mercenaries in armies which was a common practice in his time by several princes in Europe. He does not think much of these Italian Princes who rule small Principality like Tuscany. He sees them as mediocre rulers.
Frederic II, promotes telling the truth to people and to other Princes, being honest, being tolerant of other peoples religions and differences, maintaining a strong civil government and freedom of conscience, he writes; a Prince must remain neutral and not encourage one group over another. During his reign he will welcome to Prussia, Jews and Huguenots from all over Europe and specially France. He is also very much opposed to war for the sake of grabbing territory and empire build, he writes think of the horrible misery war creates for all and the social ills they bring, warning Princes to be more aware of how the population and youth feels about wars in general. On the other hand he promotes what he calls a just war, one where your enemy attacked you and you defend yourself and your State, in such cases you have no choice but to give a strong response. He goes further in writing that men are born free and must not be slaves to their King. This is a direct criticism of other rulers in France and Austria. He praises the Constitutional Parliaments of England and the Netherlands as models to follow, is political allies, the King of England being his nephew. He advocates for limits on the power of rulers like himself and an independent judiciary, concept which would be championed by the new American Republic, he will be the first Sovereign in Europe to recognize the new Republic.
What is also fascinating about Frederic II is his attitude to Monarchs who sought to have him killed, Austria’s Empress Maria-Theresa being one, Empress Elizabeth of Russia being another, he always maintained polite cordial correspondence with them, despite the threat. The only time he lost his cool was during a battle when his beloved dogs small Italian Greyhounds or Whippets who accompanied him everywhere were dognapped by Austrian soldiers. They were returned after a few days, Frederic II was livid with the Austrians for what he thought cowardice on their part. He also had a love of horses and his favourite was Conde, the one depicted in the famous equestrian monument on Unter den Linden, he rides down the avenue.
The Philosopher King reputation as he became known suffered greatly after his death, not having children to succeed him, his nephew and the more conservative elements of his family took on a very different agenda. By 1860 and the politics of Chancellor Bismarck were clearly regressive and belligerent towards other European countries. By 1933 the Nazi used Frederic’s re-fashioned his image to one of warmonger in a series of nazi propaganda film he is portrayed as belligerent towards everyone. He probably would have been horrified by this portrayal. He did not do much better after 1945 with the Strategic Eastern Part of historical/governmental Berlin under Communist rule who either demolished historical building or blackened his image.
In 1991 with a re-united Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, some 234 years after his death, in an Official ceremony reburies Frederic II with his dogs in the garden of his favourite home Sans Souci has he wished in the vault he had built for himself. It is a beautiful simple site and fitting for a man who had a progressive view of the world.
Frederic II the Great on the right and his 10 dogs to the left in the Gardens at Sans Souci, Potsdam.