|Frederick Strolls with Voltaire at San Souci|
And so begins the true subject of The Memoirs, Voltaire’s relationship with Friedrich II. Andrew Brown, the translator, notes that The Memoirs were probably written in 1758-59, at the same time as Candide, but not published in Voltaire’s lifetime. It has been ages since I have read anything that offered such a glimpse of the malignant society of the ancien regime. It was a time when literally everyone except the king was on the make, jockeying for position, for favor, for wealth, all the while using their wits to destroy rivals. Voltaire fell under the spell of power, in the person of Frederick. As Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in his own essay on Frederick, Voltaire became “one of the most illustrious inmates” at the court in Potsdam, … the most remarkable of all who entered the enchanted garden in the inebriation of delight, and quitted it in agonies of rage and shame.” Macaulay goes one to say that “Never had there met two persons so exquisitely fitted to plague each other.”
It is interesting to read Goethe’s comments on Frederick in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The first appear in Book 2, with the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1763, when factional differences divided families in Frankfurt, including Goethe’s own. On one side was his grandfather, who was on the side of the empress Maria Theresa, from whom he had received a pendant containing her portrait during the coronation of Francis I. On the other was his father, whose sympathies were Prussian. The young Goethe became a “Fritzian” — “what did we care about Prussia?” Book 3 relates the billeting of the French count Thoranc in the family home from 1759 and the agitation this produced in his father. The presence of the French lieutenant in his house meant that Goethe saw some of the important military figures of the war, including the Prince de Soubise and Marshal de Broglie. And in Easter week of 1759, French troops marched in great numbers through Frankfurt on their way to Berlin.
In Book 7, Goethe is now a student in Leipzig and beginning to doubt the authority of all the individuals he had formerly admired. And these included Frederick, under whom Leipzig had suffered massively in the war:
Frederick II, in my estimation, still outranked all the prominent men of the century, and therefore I found it very perplexing when my praise of him turned out to be just as unacceptable to the inhabitants of Leipzig as it had been in my grandfather’s house. … They agreed that he was certainly a remarkable man, but by no means a great one. They said it did not take much skill to accomplish something if one had great resources, and if one spared neither lands, nor money, nor blood, then one’s project could eventually be carried out. … In proclaiming these sentiments they had endless details to cite that I could not gainsay, and gradually I felt that the implicit respect I had paid this remarkable sovereign from childhood was cooling off.
|Contemporary painting of the battle of Roßbach|
One of the case studies in Albrecht Schöne’s new book on Goethe as a letter writer (Der Briefschreiber Goethe) is a letter addressed to Carl August, dated September 9–10, 1779, regarding action to take in response to a letter from Prussian cousin Frederick (amounting to a “diplomatisch höfliche Androhung der Okkupation”) demanding that Weimar contribute soldiers for his ongoing quarrel with Austria. As Macaulay writes, Frederick’s army at the end of the Seven Years War had been depleted: “Some great generals, and a crowd of excellent officers had fallen, and it had been impossible to supply their place. The difficulty of finding recruits had, towards the close of the war, been so great, that selection and rejection were impossible. Whole battalions were composed of deserters or prisoners. It was hardly to be hoped that thirty years of repose and industry would repair the ruin produced by seven years of havoc.”
According to Schöne, Goethe’s response (“der 7seitige, in gleichmäßig-sorgfältiger Handschrift gehaltene Text”), written within a day of Carl August’s request for advice, was “ein meisterliches Lehrstück strategischen Denkens.” Schöne calls it “ein Paradenbeispiel politischer Beratung überhaupt,” and indeed, we must gather, an example of why the duke prized Goethe:
So gründlich durchdacht und auf den Punkt genau formuliert, von solcher Stringenz nicht nur seiner kritischen Darstellung der Ausgangslage, sondern auch der vorausgreifenden Gedankenzüge, wie sich das gewiß nicht aus dem Stegreif aufs Papier bringen ließ.”
To end this overly long post, let me mention that a new biography of Frederick has appeared, written by Tim Blanning, a scholar who has written much on German history. The reviewer in the Spectator, Peter Mansel, notes that Frederick “could be more radical than most leaders today.” He is referring of course to Frederick’s atheism and homosexuality. Blanning, however, seems to consider that Frederick’s reign, in the long term, was “a poisoned chalice.” Here is meant, among other things, the effect of the elevation of the Prussian army and the inculcation of military spirit in the population as well as Frederick's contempt for Poles and Russians. “Annexed in 1871 without the presence of consultation, Alsace-Lorraine became another source of wars and tension— the Silesia of the late 19th century.”
Images: The Spectator; Total War Center