Sunday, January 5, 2014

Frederick II, "the Great" of Prussia as a military commander

A Flute Concert at Sanssoucci 
Dear Reader,

Few figures in the Kabinettskriege era have attracted so much attention as Frederick II of Prussia. He has been the subject of numerous biographies, and his actions changed the face of European power dynamics. If I was to recommend one biography, it would have to be that of German historian Gerhard Ritter. It is available both in the original German, and in English.  However, many have tried to give their take on the life of this, "Great Man."

Thomas Carlyle, a biographer and pseudo-historian of the nineteenth century wrote a massive biography of Frederick. Carlyle believed that Frederick's choices had changed the course of history, and that he was a, "Great Man." Needless to say, Carlyle downplayed Frederick's more feminine qualities, such as his love of the French language, his flute playing, and his possible homosexuality.

In the most recent monograph on the Seven Years' War, Franz Szabo's The Seven Years' War in Europe, Szabo demonizes Frederick. In Szabo's opinion, Frederick was, "an opportunist and risk taker, dressed in the veneer of an intellectual, but at root, a heartless killer." He lambasts Frederick's dental hygiene,  flute playing ability, and poetry. He rightly points out that Frederick lost half of the major battles during the Seven Years' War, and uses this as evidence that Frederick was a poor commander.

The Prussian army won all the battles of the War of Austrian Succession, and won a string of victories at both the beginning and end of the Seven Years' War. Frederick was involved in many of these battles, but he was not exclusively responsible the victories or defeats. Szabo's greatest fault is that he attributes all Prussian victories to other leaders, while the defeats are Frederick's sole responsibility.

Friedrich und seine Generale

One of Frederick's greatest talents was his ability to see talent in others. In addition to being a capable military commander, Frederick surrounded himself with excellent military men, who served him well, even when his judgement was in error. Schwerin saved the day at Mollwitz, and Seydlitz won the victory at Rossbach.

Frederick had expansionist designs for his kingdom: that is, he was willing to fight wars with his neighbors to expand his territory. However, Peter I of Russia and Louis XIV of France also fought expansionist wars: it was a normal activity for kings in the Kabinettskriege era.

As the debate concerning Frederick and his "greatness" continues into the 21st century, I would like to see more emphasis placed on the actions and decisions of Frederick's generals, who have stood in the shadow of their king for too long. In addition, as opposed to examining Frederick's great victories such as Rossbach, Hohenfriedburg and Leuthen, and his defeates, such as Kolin and Kunersdorf, I believe we should pay more attention to his middling battles, such as Chotusitz, Soor, Lobositz, Prague, Burkersdorf, and Torgau. Finally, while this post has focused on Frederick as a military commander, we should also examine Frederick's "greatness," in non-military matters.

What do you think of Frederick II? Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


  1. Regardless of whether one feels he was a great general/state-builder or not, there is no arguing that Frederick II was a very interesting personality.

    Best Regards,


    1. I cannot agree more! Frederick is a fascinating personality.