Prussia owes its reputation as the personification of militarism to Frederick the Great (1712-1786), who, though mocked by his own father as a weakling, foreshadowed Napoleon’s military genius.
British Academy fellow Blanning (The Romantic Revolution: A History, 2012, etc.) divides his biography into childhood, the Seven Years’ War period, and Frederick’s domestic efforts and policies. Throughout, the author explores and questions his subject’s sexuality. Frederick’s court was homosocial, even homoerotic, and lacked women. There are plenty of hints in his writings, and in those about him, but never a definitive statement. Blanning leaves it to readers to decide. Frederick despised Christianity and the Catholic Church. His music, his flute, and his art collection were his escapes from enforced religion. He corresponded with Voltaire for more than 40 years and accepted counsel only from him. Upon acceding to the throne, Frederick first dismissed his wife and then set out to surpass in war and conquest the father who abused him physically and psychologically. He invaded Silesia, the first of three Silesian wars; the third was better known as the Seven Years’ War. In the middle section, Blanning concentrates on that war, demonstrating his abilities as a military historian. Frederick built a top-notch military machine, and his highly trained, devoted soldiers were well-provisioned; they not only followed him, they often saved him from his own errors. The author shows Frederick as inexperienced, inept, and overconfident. During the war, his reconnaissance was faulty, and the intelligence he received was inadequate. Facing numerically superior enemies, this absolute commander succeeded as they failed to coordinate attacks, their councils debated actions, and parliaments refused funding. His decisions to attack were quick and often wrong. As Blanning notes, “when madness succeeds, it has to be renamed audacity.” Frederick made many mistakes, but his will and determination ensured success.
While the sections about Frederick’s childhood and reign are well-written and informative, it is the war coverage that will win over readers looking for a different view of the Seven Years’ War.