Frederick the Great has been revived as a figure of national interest among the Germans. The anticipated attendance of German government leaders at a reinterment of the great Prussian king (ruling between 1740 and 1786) spread horror throughout the journalistic profession. In a particularly revealing report in the Washington Post of August 17, readers were reminded that the German people, despite all efforts at reeducation, continue to hold Konrad Adenauer, Martin Luther, Otto von Bismarck as well as Frederick in higher esteem than Karl Marx. Political correctness in Germany obviously involves repudiation of even non-Nazi political and religious celebrities who failed to foreshadow the progressive views of the 1990’s.
As late as my graduate school education in the mid-1960’s, Frederick the Great remained an authentic hero to my social democratic emigre professors. A friend of Voltaire and Moses Mendelssohn who insisted on writing and speaking in French, the animating spirit behind the Prussian Landrecht that aimed at minimizing legal distinctions among social classes, and a practitioner of religious tolerance, Frederick was held up by my impeccably left-leaning and usually Teutonophobic graduate professor, Hajo Holborn, as a relative progressive. Though Frederick used his army to fight in dynastic wars for territory, so did his neighbors, including Frederick’s English allies in the Seven Years War. In fact, his father Frederick William I, also now reputed to be a militarist, had used his armies less often than Prussia’s neighbors and had allowed himself to be grievously swindled out of part of his territorial inheritance by the Holy Roman Emperor.
My purpose is not to show Frederick in any kind of angelic light. It is rather to point out what was once generally assumed, except by the Austrian monarchy of the 1740’s and 1750’s: that Frederick’s geopolitical conduct was indistinguishable from that of other 18th-century dynasts, save by the fact that he brought religious tolerance to the territories under his rule.
Why, then, the sudden furor being unleashed against him and the German government by Western journalists? The answer is the left’s need for Teutonophobia: without a German threat to rail against, leftists cannot be content. Having claimed to fear the Germans for so many years, even as they vegetated in a militarily weak welfare state democracy, the Western, “voice of conscience” will certainly not give up its hysterical tone now that Germany is unified. But the unceasing outcry has become less and less convincing with the passage of time. Our progressive journalists are keeping alive the fear of a German menace by linking both Nazi militarism and aberrant nationalism to the popularity of a clearly anti-nationalist Prussian and certified enlightened despot. Nevertheless, much to the regret of Western journalists in general and of Washington Post feature-writer Marc Fisher in particular, “warts and all,” Frederick still enjoys a two-to-one advantage over Karl Marx in terms of the number of Germans who consider them “great.”
But it is possible to see another tendency in these attacks on Germans who admire Frederick. Though leftist intellectuals, including East German Communists, once praised the Prussian ruler in the context of his time, the left no longer permits admiration for anyone different from itself. Frederick was clearly different from the current left, perhaps irreconcilably so. Unlike the exemplary German leftist Willie Brandt, for example, he was not a social democrat who spoke of national atonement. Nor was he someone, like Marx, who declared war on his own class, though he certainly forced all classes to contribute money and talent to the Prussian state. Frederick even had the misfortune to be a military genius as well as a good composer and passable writer of French prose. And since Hitler extolled his military abilities (though not his nationalism), Frederick must surely have been a proto-Nazi. The reasoning is open to question, but recurs with regularity, especially in tasteless reports about Frederick’s bones being dragged from a West German castle (where his descendant placed them after World War II) and reinterred, with state honors, at Potsdam. Both the journey and reinterment have been condemned by Western journalists (as well as by Thomas Mann’s usually intelligent son, respected historian Golo Mann) as an ominous evocation of Germany’s militaristic past.
Perhaps the Germans could avoid a repetition of this contretemps if they could figure out the historical figures whom they believe are worthy of note. Such a list might eventually include Brandt, Marx, and Bertolt Brecht, among other interwar German Stalinists. A list of this kind would not be hard to compile, for all the historians of my acquaintance whom the Germans have paid to study and teach in their country hold proper views on this subject. In fact, I have never known an American scholar of German history who did not leave his host speaking of that “pathological nation” with that irredeemably wicked history. The Germans’ record of support for their loudest detractors may bear witness to their collective masochism, but it could also help identify those who are able to provide acceptable role models for a nation seeking to “overcome the past.” In the meantime, there will be more finger-wagging about Old Fritz—and about others who have gone from being good to bad Germans.