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Frederick the Great: THE MAGNIFICENT ENIGMA by Robert B. Asprey (Ticknor & Fields: $29.95; 715 pp.)

May 24, 1987|Steven Englund | Englund teaches French history at the Universite de Paris-VIII. He is writing a study of French nationalism, 1880-1900.

Potsdam, the late 18th-Century Prussian equivalent of Versailles, was thought by many cognoscenti to be the superior of the French chateau, if not in size surely then in splendor, taste and sheer costliness. Yet there was a curious characteristic about the palace and its nearby "royal" town: The population of 6,000 nobles and commoners was dwarfed by a garrison of twice that many soldiers in permanent residence. Even in Berlin, the capital, officers in uniform could be seen along the wide avenues in greater abundance than civilians. "The town," noted a visitor in 1775, "looked more like the cantonment of a great army than the capital of a kingdom in time of profound peace," while a Scottish duke wrote, "The court itself resembled the levee of a general in the field."

Thus, the nature and price of national development, Prussian-style. The story of how a comparatively minor collection of northern German provinces, loosely held by the Elector of Brandenburg, became, in a few score years, the Kingdom of Prussia, and a major European power, is oft-told and unfailingly fascinating. The central artist of this sterling display of early modern statecraft, Frederick II (1712-86) called "The Great," is no less interesting, though less for what Robert Asprey imagines to be his "enigmatic" characteristics than because he practiced well --which is to say ruthlessly and over a long period--an entirely unenigmatic military Realpolitik . In short, the surpopulation of uniformed males in Potsdam or Berlin (where even male prostitutes lived in abundance) was due less to the personal whim of a homosexual and misogynist king than to the deliberate policy of a military dynasty.

Asprey's 715 pages convey the basic facts of the king's life, leaning, with typically Frederician predilection, toward things martial. In nearly two decades of war, Frederick increased his realm's population by 250%, doubled its territorial holdings, virtually founded its civil bureaucracy, and enlarged the army to take in, at one point or other in his life, every young man in Prussia. The result was a rigid, immobile garrison state where one serious defeat in the field could spell national dissolution, and, hence, where even endless victory kept the level of royal anxiety at "merely tolerable."

At its best when it is straightforward narrative history, Asprey's book as biography is barely mediocre. If one has no important fresh evidence to offer, the major justifications for yet another life of a familiar figure come down to two: literary style and new interpretation. Apsrey offers neither.

As a stylist, he has an unerring touch for the cliche: "proved a dud," "up to scratch," "ate humble pie," "no slouch," "lesser fry," "all was scarcely roses," "(he) was no ball of fire," "but smoke there was and . . . fire as well," etc. ad nauseam . But worse, oh far worse, are the moments when he tries to escape cliche and "write." Then we read: "a cloud of self-righteousness whirling down on a plain of sycophancy"; "he had a rendezvous with his favorite whore, battle"; "Frederick's seed had grown to a plant of permanent inquiry"; "he was tired as a bird's neck"; "(he) was at panic station in Munich"; and my very favorite: "the Saxon court brushed off these objections as fleas of fear."

When it comes to interpretation, the book is as weak as it is in style. The great mass of its pages constitutes a nearly day-to-day trek through Frederick's innumerable campaigns and battles, and it is here, where the actual history is rather complex, that the author's narrative and explanatory acumen are dullest. After minute descriptions of 14 full-blown battles, one is left perplexed, unable to see how Asprey arrives at or justifies his conclusions. Frederick's first important victory, Mollwitz (1741), gets a score of pages, but Asprey's analysis leaves us scarcely knowing how this was "a victory snatched from defeat," just as we never grasp how the battle of Hohenfriedenberg (1745) catapulted the king "to the top rank of military commanders."

Asprey is slightly better at glossing Frederick's well-known book, "The General Principles of War" (1748)--advocating rapid offensive movements, using a small army fighting as a complete unity, cavalry, infantry, and artillery mutually supportive--but the reader has slight sense of how these principles related to the actual battles.

In short, on the decisive military front, despite Asprey's reputation as the author of an important history of guerrilla warfare, one exits, exhausted, from his account of Frederick's last campaign with no sense of the military whole. For this, the reader is advised to consult Christopher Duffy's recent and excellent "The Military Life of Frederick the Great" (Atheneum).

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