FREDERICK THE GREAT
Frederick the Great – one of the few rulers in history ever accorded the epithet – was, in David Fraser’s description, ‘One of the most extraordinary men ever to sit on a throne or command an army’. He was an artistic patron and himself a distinguished musician whose attributes of mind and taste were recognised throughout civilised Europe. He was a man of letters, corresponding with, and the intimate of, many of the leading intellectuals of his day. He was a dedicated ruler and lawgiver, who said he wanted nothing more than to be remembered as ‘le Roi de Gueux’, the king of beggars. He was made famous at the age of 33 by his military capacities, and he lived the rest of his long life acknowledged as the greatest soldier of his time.
David Fraser’s new biography, which aims to be definitive, explores every aspect of Frederick’s life and career with complete thoroughness. Frederick committed immense amounts to paper throughout his life – letters to his friends and family across Prussia and the whole of Europe, orders to his generals, reflective memoranda to himself in which he tried to work out the nature of the situations he faced and what he should do, and his more formal Political Testaments. From all these Fraser has drawn in detail and to great effect, demonstrating the extraordinary range of Frederick’s achievement.
As readers of Fraser’s lives of Rommel and Alanbrooke will expect, it is Frederick’s life as a soldier which is at the centre of the book. Fraser’s own superb sense of battle – not only of strategy and manoeuvre, but of psychology, morale, the impact of defeat and victory on victors and vanquished – allows us to understand Frederick’s strengths and weaknesses in the field more completely than in any previous biography. The war is never seen in isolation; the book summarises the complex diplomatic and strategic situations of eighteenth century Europe with concision and elegance, so the reader fully understands the ever-shifting balance of diplomatic and military forces, and what was going on in Frederick’s mind in reaction to them. Above all Fraser allows us to appreciate the unending weariness of the European war which began with Frederick’s invasion of Silesia, and which left Prussia and indeed the whole continent (Britain alone excepted) exhausted.
Frederick excited violent opinions for and against in his lifetime and has continued to do so ever since. ‘He is the completest tyrant God ever made for the scourge of an offending people,’ wrote the British diplomat Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, who was accredited to his court. To the Prince de Ligne who fought against him and was a loyal servant of his enemies, he was on the contrary ‘the greatest man who has ever lived’. David Fraser’s book explores the ground between these two opinions, and clearly sets out his own view. The result is a marvellously satisfying and engrossing biography.
PUBLICATION DATE: January 2000View all Books