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.