Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia


Frederick II of Prussia by Anna-Dorothea Liszewska-Therbush, Chateau Ferney


Battle of Leuthen by Carl Röchling

The writings of Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, especially his political testaments, fully confirm the concerns of the encyclopedist. As a young man of 27, Frederick in his Anti-Machiavell (1739) had extolled the virtues of peace and of a stable equilibrium of powers in Europe, noting the dangers to all of Europe that would result from the upsetting of this delicate balance by a new parvenu monarchy set upon expansion (Frederick II 1739). In 1748, after the First and Second Silesian Wars against Empress Maria Theresia of Austria (1740-2 and 1744-5) he could still postulate in his military writings that wars should be short and sharp because long wars would undermine discipline and would be too draining of the resources of a kingdom (Frederick II 1882: 86). Soon the Seven Years War proved that shortness was less easily attained than propagated.

A good dozen years after writing his Anti-Machiavell, when Frederick wrote his first political testament, he found himself in agreement with Machiavelli, who had posited that a disinterested power surrounded by ambitious neighbours, refusing to play their game, would soon go under (Frederick II 1752: 366). Just cause no longer features in Frederick’s discussion of wars: he now saw but two causes, `vanity’ and `self-interest’, of which he dismissed the first and fully endorsed the second, elsewhere stressing the importance of `glory’ (Frederick II 1752: 348, 396). A decade later, when Frederick wrote his second political testament, he came even closer to seeing the world like Louis XIV before him:

A prince who makes war because he is worried, frivolous, [and] has upsetting [désordonnée] ambition, is just as worthy of being condemned as a judge who uses the sword of the law to pierce an innocent. War is good if it is made to support the interests [considerations] of a State, to maintain its safety or to contain the projects of an ambitious prince consisting of conquests harmful to your interests. Honour, the yearning for glory and the good of the fatherland must animate those who dedicate themselves to arms, without vile passions sullying such noble sentiments. (Frederick II 1768: 556)

The Hohenzollerns’ interest was to expand their territorial possessions, until they would become `one of the most considerable powers of Europe’ (Frederick II 1752: 376). In 1768 he wrote, `The first preoccupation of a prince must be to protect what he has [de se soutenir], the second his aggrandisement’, aims which required the utmost adroitness of manoeuvre (Frederick II 1768: 650). Prussia was rapidly becoming the expansionist upstart of which, as heir to the throne, the Hohenzollern prince himself had warned in his Anti-Machiavell. It was indeed upsetting the status quo, based on the delicate balances of interests, territorial ambitions and powers in Europe. Frederick further contributed to this confusion and upheaval by deliberately attempting to defy predictability and advocating that the successful prince should always vary his conduct so as not to become a calculable entity in the other powers’ plans (Frederick II 1752: 396). This also meant that one could not be a dependable constant – at least in the medium or long term – for one’s own allies, and, mutatis mutandis, meant that no power could rely on the assistance of allies: Frederick warned his heir to count less upon the help of allies than upon his own forces. `You never make conquests except by yourself’ (Frederick II 1768: 652).

For Frederick, alliance politics should be entirely free of sentiments or other personal preferences (such as, for example, religious affiliation or family ties). Alliances should be formed for short periods of time, and entirely as a function of one’s own short-term interests (Frederick II 1752: 344). At least, he advised against breaking treaties without a very good reason (Frederick II 1752: 396). In practice, Frederick did not always follow this maxim, as his family ties with the Hanoverians and Brunswick and his `irreconcilable enmity’ with the Habsburgs whose lands he coveted were the two recurrent patterns in his alliance policies. But Frederick’s articulation of the value- and sentiment-free pattern of alliances is the clearest representation of the post-Westphalian (and thus post-religious), ancien régime counterbalancing- of-powers game which played such a prevalent role in passive culture and assumptions about interstate relations until at least the end of the twentieth century.

Examples of this prevailing culture are the respective war aims of the belligerents in the Seven Years War. For Frederick, as we have already noted, they were the increase of territory ruled by the Hohenzollern dynasty. For Empress Catherine II of Russia, Great Chancellor Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhnev-Rjumin defined the aim of reducing the Hohenzollern’s possessions (by dividing them up with the Habsburgs) to the point where they returned to being minor princelings with a negligibly small power base. In a letter of 24 July 1759 to her Field Marshal Daun, Empress Maria Theresia claimed that nothing but `the weakening of the king of Prussia’ would eliminate a host of evils, and that this was thus

the true aim of the present war, not merely the reconquest of Silesia and Glatz, but the happiness of the human species and the maintenance of our holy religion, of which I constitute almost the only support in Germany. (q. i. Kunisch 1975: 220)

In this context, war was the norm, peace only the time in which one prepared and trained for war, as Frederick mused with a reference to Vegetius (Frederick II 1752: 406). Nevertheless, princes sought to seek justifications – just causes – for their action, finding which they might well leave to their lawyers or diplomats, as Kant suggested (Kant 1795/1796: 17). That they did so shows that, however callous they were, they recognised the moral imperative of presenting their war as fought in a just cause.




What might have happened had Alexander lived?


Alexander’s career of conquest spanned a dozen years. Had he continued campaigning for that same period of time, he would have been just 44, still a relatively young man. Would he have continued?

He certainly would have campaigned in Arabia as planned, and he probably would have gone beyond. As Arrian writes, “it seems to me that Alexander was insatiably ambitious of ever acquiring fresh territory.”

After Arabia, Africa would probably have been next. He had often mentioned sailing around the southern shore of the continent, which was then believed to be a latitude only slightly south of that of the Arabia peninsula. He would have been in for a big surprise and enormous challenges as the true scale of the continent was revealed. If he had tried a shortcut across the continent at the latitude of southern Arabia, it would have put him into the Sahara Desert, which would have made the Gedrosian Desert seem like a stroll through the palace.

Following Africa’s coastline, he would have reached the jungles of equatorial Africa, and would have found it hard to move ashore with an army, so he might have defaulted to using only his fleet. A circumnavigation of Africa by Europeans 2,000 years before the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century, especially by someone as interested in local culture as Alexander, would have changed the course of history.

Other potential campaigns might also have been possible. In 327 BC, Arrian reports that Alexander had said “when Asia was in his power he would return to Greece, and thence make an expedition with all his naval and military forces to the eastern part of the Euxine [Black] Sea through the Hellespont.”

In his last months, Alexander had sent Heraclides, along with a company of shipwrights, to begin cutting timber from the Hyrcanian mountains to construct ships of war because, as Arrian writes, “he was very desirous of discovering with what sea the one called the Hyrcanian or Caspian unites; whether it communicates with the water of the Euxine Sea . . . just as he had discovered that the Persian Sea, which was called the Red Sea, is really a gulf of the Great Sea.”

During his final days in Babylon, Alexander was actively considering expeditions far beyond Asia, Arabia and Africa. Many were countries that, like so many before, were willing to submit as a matter of course, but this only whetted his appetite for more. Diodorus writes, “from practically all the inhabited world came envoys on various missions, some congratulating Alexander on his victories, some bringing him crowns, other concluding treaties of friendship and alliance, many bringing handsome presents, and some prepared to defend themselves against accusations.”

Arrian names the Bruttii, Lucanians and Tyrrhenians from Italy, and Diodorus tells of Alexander’s receiving emissaries from across North Africa, as well as Europeans, including the Gauls, “whose people became known then first in the Greek world.”

Arrian mentions Alexander’s interest in the ancient city of Gadeira, or Gades, now Cadiz in Spain. He says that Alexander intended to go to Sicily and the Iapygian Cape (Apulia, or the heel of Italy), “for the fame of the Romans spreading far and wide was now exciting his jealousy.”

Arrian recalls that both Aristus and Asclepiades wrote of the Roman Republic’s having “sent an embassy” to Alexander, although he disagrees. Arrian does not think it likely that the Romans would have reached out to Alexander “when they were not compelled to do so by fear or any hope of advantage, being possessed as they were beyond any other people by hatred to the very name and race of despots.”

Had Alexander lived, would he have found himself engaged in combat with the Romans in Italy? Had his unbroken string of victories brought him victory in such a contest, history would certainly have followed a different course.

Paraphrasing firsthand accounts, Quintus Curtius Rufus tells in his History of Alexander the Great how Alexander outlined this vision to Macedonians, Greeks and Asians of many ethnicities.

“My intention [is] that by this sacred union I might erase all distinction between conquered and conqueror,” he told them. “Asia and Europe are now one and the same kingdom. I give you Macedonian arms. Foreign newcomers though you are, I have made you established members of my force. You are both my fellow citizens and my soldiers. Everything is taking on the same hue. It is no disgrace for the Persians to copy Macedonian customs nor for the Macedonians to imitate the Persians. Those who are to live under the same king should enjoy the same rights.”

Though Alexander’s empire did not survive his death intact, the influence of Hellenistic civilization on those parts of the world remained for centuries.

The greed of his successors may have broken his empire into parts, but it is a great posthumous testament to Alexander’s organizational and political skill that the major fragments survived intact for so long. Both the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Dynasty lasted until Roman times.

Perhaps greater testaments to Alexander are that the Diadochi fought over the remains of his empire for longer than it took him to amass it, that none made any significant additions and that no single successor ever ruled over the entire empire of Alexander the Great.