Front Page Titles (by Subject) XVIII: FREDERIC THE GREAT - Lectures on Modern History
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XVIII: FREDERIC THE GREAT - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History 
Lectures on Modern History, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1906).
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FREDERIC THE GREAT
The peace of Utrecht was followed by a period of languor and depression. Spain and Sweden asserted themselves unsuccessfully; whilst England under Walpole, France under Fleury, Austria under the ceremonious majesty of Charles VI., were inactive and pacific. The generation lacked initiative, and was not rich in eminent men.
In Prussia there was no repose, no leisure, but simply the tension of a tiger crouching for a spring. The king, who had devoted his life to creating the greatest army in Europe, never attempted to employ it, and left it a thunderbolt in the hands of his son. The crown prince was a musician and a versifier, with a taste for clever men, but also for cleverish men, an epicurean student, with much loose knowledge, literary rather than scientific, and an inaccurate acquaintance with French and Latin. To Bayle, Locke, Voltaire in his first manner, he owed an abundance of borrowed ideas, conventionally rational; but to the rising literatures of his own country, which ruled the world before he died, he did not attend. Hardened by his father’s heartless severity he learnt to live without sympathy, to despise mankind, to rely on himself. He was the author of a commonplace treatise against Machiavelli, partly founded on Montesquieu’s Grandeur et Décadence. This unamiable youth, with the aspirations and the vanity of a minor poet, was the most consummate practical genius that, in modern times, has inherited a throne.
In the same year, 1740, in which Frederic II. succeeded his father, the Emperor Charles VI. died, leaving his hereditary dominions to his daughter Maria Theresa, wife of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, of the House of Lorraine. By an instrument called the Pragmatic Sanction, which was the subject of protracted negotiations, the Powers had agreed to acknowledge her right. She was a sensible and reasonable woman, much the best that had ever reigned; but she was without culture or superior talent, and her husband was not able to supply the deficiency. Frederic at once made himself master of Silesia. There were certain territorial claims. The succession was about to be disputed, and a scramble might be expected. The death of the Russian empress, Anne, made it improbable that Austria would be protected on that side. Frederic was ambitious, and he was strong enough to gratify his ambition. No accepted code regulated the relations between States. It could not be exactly the same as that between men; and in what respect it differed was not determined. States were absolute, and acknowledged no law over them. Grave and disinterested men would have admitted that that may be done for the State which could not be done for the individual; that robbery was not robbery, that murder was not murder, if it was committed in the public interest. There might be a want of generosity, a want of delicacy about it; but if conquest by unprovoked attack was a crime, in the same sense or the same degree as poisoning a man to obtain his property, history must undergo a fundamental revision, and all respect for sovereign authority must be banished from the world. How far that revision has been accomplished or that respect has departed, at the present day, may be hard to say. At that time, Frederic was much more widely applauded for his prompt success than detested or despised for his crime.
At Molwitz, his first battle, the Austrian cavalry carried all before them, and Schwerin got the king to quit the field before the solid infantry of Brandenburg won the day. Voltaire, who hated him behind a mask of flattery, said that he had never known what it was to be grateful, except to the horse that carried him out of fire at Molwitz. That humiliation taught Frederic to remodel and increase his cavalry, and he afterwards owed to it much of his success. Nobody again advised him to ride out of the way of danger. He was soon known and dreaded as an invariable victor, and Maria Theresa ended the war by surrendering the contested province. Frederic concluded a treaty of alliance with France, which was to last fifteen years, and did last until, in 1756, Kaunitz effected the great change in the attitude of European Powers.
On the extinction of the Habsburg dynasty of emperors, the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach claimed the succession; and the French, supported by Frederic, traversed Germany and invaded Bohemia. Maria Theresa was loyally defended by Hungary in both the Silesian wars, and maintained her right, without recovering the country she had lost. She was ineffectively supported by England against the superiority of French arms in the Netherlands. That good understanding now came to an end.
The Seven Years’ War, otherwise called the Third Silesian War, because it finally settled the question whether Silesia should be Austrian or Prussian, though it involved almost every European Power, was an episode in a far larger controversy. French and English were at peace in the old world, but a feud had broken out in the backwoods of the new, where their strife was for the grandest prize ever disputed by man, dominion over America from the Atlantic ultimately to the Golden Gates of the Pacific, and for the future of the world. The French were masters of the lake region and the St. Lawrence, and also of the Mississippi basin. They claimed the intervening country by right of discovery, and they began, in 1748, to establish an effective occupation of the valley of the Ohio. The English might retain the Atlantic fringe; the French would possess the hinterland from Louisbourg to New Orleans. They planted a chain of posts, choosing the place for them with superb intuition. One is now Detroit, another Chicago. And under the inland slope of the Alleghanies, where the waters fall towards the Gulf of Mexico, at the confluence of the Monongahela with the Ohio, a French officer, Duquesne, built a fort, the most important of all, which closed the interior to our colonies, but which has undergone a significant change of name, for Fort Duquesne is called after Pitt, and is the Birmingham of America.
This annexation of debatable land was an act of aggression to which the colonists were not bound to submit. The first to understand that it was a question of existence was the man on whose head the destinies of the country rested. Washington twice led expeditions against Duquesne, the second time with Regulars under Braddock, and was each time defeated. The question of the possession of the interior was left to be decided on the Heights of Abraham. It was worth more to the English people than any continental issue. The quarrel spread to the ocean, and we made no scruple to assail French ships wherever the conditions were favourable.
Kaunitz, the minister of Maria Theresa, saw his opportunity for a grand stroke of policy. By transplanting the struggle from the New World to the Old, and from sea to land, he would obtain a French alliance against Prussia. Ostensibly his purpose was the recovery of the lost province; but the circumstances seemed promising, and he spoke of reducing Frederic to the position of a margrave of Brandenburg. He asked, at first, for no assistance in the field. If France would set up an army of observation on the frontier, the house of Hanover would be disabled from joining Prussia. France was glad, in a quiet way, to check the House of Hanover. By degrees a complete understanding was achieved, and Lewis XV. undertook to help Austria with an army in the field and a vast sum of money. Belgium was to be the price of it, partly for France, partly for the Bourbon, who was Duke of Parma, in exchange for his Italian dominions. This change of front was much facilitated by the civilities of Kaunitz to the person whom the Austrian envoy described as the French Prime Minister, Madame de Pompadour.
He was equally successful with Russia. There the government had come to the conclusion that the danger to the empire was not from Austria, which was expanding towards the Mediterranean, and had just lost its northern province, but from Prussia, which was aspiring and aggressive, and on the watch for opportunities. Therefore the Russians were only too eager for the attack to begin, and had to be restrained by the Austrians, who could only bring France into line by a negotiation in several stages. The Russian government agreed, reluctantly, to wait for the spring of 1757. But the hereditary grandduke was an admirer of Frederic; the chancellor, Bernstorff, was secured by the English; and the action of the Russians was half–hearted throughout.
The first half of 1756 was spent by the three great military Powers in preparing the attack for next year. Nobody could blame the Austrians for plotting to reconquer what had belonged to them, and it is at Vienna that their initiative has been demonstrated. At Berlin, the discovery has been received with some resistance. They were proud of the great Frederic as a warrior and a conqueror; they were not ready to admire him as a quaker, and the victim of designing foes. He had been quite willing to commence a new war when the occasion should warrant it. He hoped, some day, to conquer Bohemia as he had conquered Silesia, and to exchange it for Saxony. But the conditions needed for such an enterprise did not exist, and he was in no hurry. He concluded a very harmless Convention at Westminster, in January 1756; but he was not arming at a time when the scheme of Kaunitz was about completed. It was midsummer before he knew the danger that threatened him. Certain despatches which were opened as they passed through the Prussian Post Office, others which were stolen, revealed the whole plot. Without an ally, except the House of Hanover, and such confederates from North–western Germany as English gold might induce to join, he had to defend himself against Austria, Russia, France, great part of Germany, and eventually Sweden and Spain. The help of England was assured, for, in May, war had been declared between England and France. But the English had not been preparing for a very formidable effort. They at once lost Minorca, the advanced post in the Mediterranean, from which they watched the Gulf of Lyons and the naval arsenal of Toulon, and felt the loss so acutely that they shot the admiral who had failed to relieve the place. Calcutta too was taken, and the English perished in the Black Hole. In the Lake region the French, at first, had the best of it.
Frederic underrated the value of the alliance, and mismanaged it badly. He knew that there was a Whig dogma against letting England be taken in tow by Hanover. The great propounder of the doctrine was William Pitt, who now rose to power. Frederic did not know that this turgid declaimer was as able, as powerful, as ambitious as himself, and did not divine that he would make the German quarrel and the compulsory defence of Hanover the means of occupying the military forces of France until the contest for oceanic empire was decided in favour of England. Pitt declared that he would conquer America in Germany. He armed one hundred and fortyeight ships of the line and fifty frigates, with which he swept the Atlantic, and Montcalm, for many months, received neither instructions nor supplies. But Frederic required that the army in English pay, which was to defend Hanover, and thus to cover his right flank, should be commanded by the Duke of Cumberland. Upon this Pitt went out of office. The duke did not justify the king’s choice of him. He was beaten by d’Estrées, and agreed to dissolve his force. But Pitt, who had soon returned to power, rejected the Convention, gave Frederic a subsidy of £670,000 a year, and maintained a force against the French, under Ferdinand of Brunswick, who did his work well. There was more of English gold in his camp than of English steel. One of our commanders was court–martialled. When the Marquis of Granby did better, at Warburg, the joy was great, and he became a popular hero. His hat and wig were blown off as he led the charge, and his portrait, bareheaded, in a high wind, is at Trinity, and was on the sign of many an inn, especially of a well–known one at Dorking, in Mr. Pickwick’s time.
On 21st July, 1756, when Frederic II. discovered the whole of the peril that confronted him, although it was far more than he had dreamt of, he lost neither hope nor courage. His army of 145,000 men was not the largest, but was much the best. Three or four of his generals, his brother Henry, the Prince of Brunswick, Schwerin, who had served under Eugene at Blenheim, and had followed Charles XII. into Turkey, above all, Seydlitz, were superior to the men on the other side, so far as these were known. There were three millions in ready money, which was enough for two campaigns in those economical days. The Russians had a long march before them, in order to come within range; the French might be left to the army of English mercenaries. The king might hope, by energy and rapidity, to crush the Austrians in the valley of the Elbe, which is Bohemia, or the valley of the Oder, which is Silesia, before their friends came to aid them. Nearer still than Austria were the Saxons, whose elector was King of Poland, and whose minister, Brühl, like Beust in 1866, was the centre of anti–Prussian politics.
Frederic began by seizing Dresden, and carrying off the secret papers of his enemies. The Saxon army held out for some weeks, and was then forced to serve in the ranks of their conqueror, who thus altered the proportion of numbers, by moving 20,000 men from one side to the other. The Saxon officers remonstrated when called on to take the oath of allegiance to their enemy. They said that such a thing was unexampled. He replied that he was not afraid of being original. Their resistance had compelled him to withdraw from Bohemia, after an indecisive action. In 1757 he won a great battle at Prague, where he sacrificed 18,000 men and Schwerin was killed. The main Austrian army was shut up in the city, and Frederic expected them to surrender; but a relieving force, under Daun, defeated him at Kollin, and he withdrew to his own country, that is, he withdrew into Saxony, which he had made his home, Dresden being then the most civilised and luxurious place in Germany. For six years he did not see Berlin, which was twice occupied by the enemy. Up to that midsummer of 1757 his success in war, like that of Marlborough, had been unbroken. Kollin was the first of three great battles which he lost. In the following year he was again defeated by Daun, in a night attack at Hochkirch, with the loss of 100 guns. And in 1759, which is the turning of the tide, the Russians beat him at Kunersdorf. And yet it is to this chequered year 1757, not to the preceding career of incessant victory, that Frederic the Great owes the immensity of his military fame.
The French had triumphed on the western side of the seat of war, and had driven Cumberland before them, when Frederic attacked them with a much smaller force, at Rossbach, in Saxony. With hardly any resistance and hardly any loss, he gained a complete victory over them and their Imperialist allies. Then he hurried to Silesia, where the Austrians were masters. He defeated them at Leuthen, a month after Rossbach, recovered Breslau, and made 38,000 prisoners. Nothing like it had been seen in war. The defeat of the French made him a national hero. Previously, his enemies were Germans, and the French were his allies. That was forgotten and rectified. That Germany had so much to suffer at his hands was forgiven. And the victory was so complete, so artistic, that he was not less admired in France, where they laughed at their unsuccessful marshals. Not long before he was spoken of in Paris as one who had just missed being a great man. Such language was never used again. And the tremendous reduction of Austrian forces at Leuthen and Breslau was a still greater surprise. A man who could do that might do anything, and was out of proportion with the ordinary race of men.
There is an undefinable quantity in military genius which makes the event uncertain. At the beginning the emperor had written that Frederic’s secret had been discovered, and consisted in what was called the oblique order—that is, to make one wing much stronger than the other, to refuse with the weak wing, and to attack with overwhelming force with the strong. That method did not originate with him, but he repeatedly employed it. Then there was his innovation in the use of cavalry. He had learnt its value, against the musket of those days, by experience; and he believed that Seydlitz, in the open, at the head of seventy squadrons, was a thing which no infantry could resist. Then there was the impetus his troops derived from the extraordinary renown of their king, that there was nothing to counterbalance on the other side. This was evident, was matter of common knowledge. But even in his own army, on his own staff, in the royal family, there were two opinions. There was a school which taught that actual fighting must not be resorted to until the use of brains has been exhausted, that the battle comes in when the manœuvre has failed, that the seizure of a strategic position, or a scientific retreat, like that of Wellington into Portugal, of Barclay in 1812 before Napoleon, of Johnston before Sherman, is the first defence of armies, so that a force which is tactically inferior may be strategically superior. Frederic was, I believe, the first great soldier to reject this doctrine, and to act on the principle that nothing can destroy the enemy except a pitched battle, and that the destruction of the enemy, not the weakening of the enemy, is the right object of war. His battles were very numerous and very sanguinary, and not always decisive. Napoleon followed in his footsteps, manœuvring less, as he grew older, and fighting more. It is the adopted teaching of the Prussian school, since Clausewitz and Moltke.
During the French campaign of 1814 Napoleon said to Marmont: “We are still 100,000.” “No!” said the marshal; “only 60,000.” “Exactly,” Napoleon replied; “60,000 and myself, that is 100,000.” Something of this kind must be allowed in the person of the great king; and it kept up his hopes after his enemies began to prevail in 1759. In 1760 he was still successful at Liegnitz and at Torgau. But his country was exhausted; his ranks were thinned by the wasteful expenditure of life; there was nothing to look forward to, unless the Turk effected a diversion on the Danube; and Frederic was repeatedly on the point of taking poison. In 1755 he had written that war must always be aggressive. Even a successful defence weakens the victor.
The zeal of his only ally was beginning to cool. Pitt had accomplished more than he intended when he offered his subsidies to Prussia. Our fleet commanded the ocean. The Mediterranean squadron had been defeated at Lagos, the Atlantic squadron at Quiberon; Canada had been conquered, and with Canada the interior of North America, with its population of savages and its inexhaustible resources. Bengal was English, and the rivalry of the French in India had ceased to be formidable. In four years England had grown into a boundless empire, offering, what no other war had done, compensation for expenditure and increase of debt. Trade had learnt to follow the flag, and Pitt’s profusion was not waste. Much of this success was due to the Prussian alliance. The vicissitudes of the French army had hampered the French navy. Frederic, who was several times very near destruction, had been saved by his ally. He had retained his disputed province, while England annexed dominions as vast as Europe. His genius and his power had been made so manifest that he was not again attacked during the remainder of his reign. England possessed that which, if it had been duly husbanded and developed, would make her mistress of the world. The object of each, in concluding their alliance, had been gained, but there was no proportion between them. In 1760 Pitt rejected peace with France when it would have damaged his treaty with Prussia. But when there was no prospect of a final triumph, and Frederic was only thinking of the terms on which he might obtain peace, Pitt advised him to negotiate. Then, in the autumn of 1761, under a new king, he was expelled from office. The subsidy came to an end, and Bute opened negotiations.
Frederic had resolved that he would not wear a diminished crown; that he would disappear from the scene if he could not preserve by treaty of peace the full integrity of the monarchy which he no longer hoped to preserve by war. But he stood alone. The change of reign, the fall of Pitt, the termination of the subsidy, the pacific disposition of Bute, somewhat exaggerated by those through whom he heard of it, weakened him so seriously that he allowed the struggle to languish while he sounded the courts, and especially sounded the Turk, as to his feelings towards his Austrian neighbour. Then, in an instant, the scene was entirely transformed. Elizabeth, the last of the children of Peter the Great, died in January 1762. She had been his bitter enemy throughout, personally as well as on grounds of pure policy, by which he was held to be the menacing obstruction to the expansion of Russia in Europe. Her heir was a German prince, married to a German princess, the famous Catharine, and they at once offered terms of peace.
Meanwhile Spain went to war with England, and the government began to treat apart from Frederic. Newcastle would have renewed the subsidy, but Bute refused, and Newcastle thereupon resigned, while Bute concluded peace. Frederic, quite unable to continue active operations, retained Silesia, but gave up his conquest, Saxony. Therefore, at the price of immense suffering to his people, he emerged from the unequal contest victorious and successful.
William III., Lewis XIV., Peter of Russia, had been great and able sovereigns; but none had left on the world such an impression of his genius. When he appeared at the Te Deum at Charlottenburg in all his glory, he broke down utterly and burst into tears. He had been the victor, but it was England that carried away the prize. He had acquired in his campaigns immeasurable authority and renown, but his people had been decimated and impoverished, and he had gained no accession of territory.
In the first years of peace that followed, it appeared that there was a neighbouring country in which that deficiency might be repaired, and the disappointing issue of the war might be made good by the art of the statesman. The republic of Poland covered an enormous territory, but was the most backward of the civilised nations. It was governed, socially and politically, by the aristocratic class, and it was their prerogative that any minority, or even a single noble, might exert the right of veto on the proceedings of the Diet. The political conditions were those of the eleventh century. The government was the weakest in Europe. The Poles had been the earliest people to establish religious toleration; but they had succumbed to the Counter–Reformation, and they still refused liberty of conscience to the Dissidents, mainly of the Greek Church. It was the plain policy of Russia to maintain the grievance and the occasion for intervention, and to frustrate every attempt of intelligent Poles to reform their constitution and create a regular government.
In the reign of Catharine in Russia, and of her admirer Stanislas Poniatowski in Poland, the republic became a Russian dependency. The empress desired that this convenient situation should continue, and esteemed that a partition would be injurious to her interests. From the same point of view it appeared desirable to Austria and Prussia. Poland, undivided as it was, was useless to anybody but Catharine. Poland divided among friends would strengthen each of them at the expense of Catharine. What they succeeded in appropriating would be so much taken from the sphere of Russian power. The Russian empress endeavoured to turn their thoughts elsewhere. She pointed to Turkey, which was a dreadful blot on the map of Christendom, and proposed that Austria should rectify its frontier on that side. But Turkey could defend itself, and could not be subjected to spoliation without a struggle, which Austria would have to carry on. That was a wretched bargain compared with Poland, which must yield if the three Powers showed their teeth. And Turkey could be of no use to Frederic the Great. Therefore Kaunitz proposed that he should give back Silesia, and compensate himself richly out of Polish territory, where Austria also had some local claims to enforce.
Frederic was ready to annex part of Poland, but he saw no reason for giving up anything that he possessed. If Austria wished to enlarge her boundaries, Poland was extensive enough to satisfy her demands as well as his own. There would be no difficulty, no obstacle on the spot, no resistance of European opinion. England had already proposed the Polish solution of territorial controversy. In France there would be some genuine or affected displeasure. But Poland was a Catholic country, much influenced by prelates. The men who guided French thought would be easily consoled for its disappearance from the political stage. It was not modern enough to interest them, and its treatment of the Dissidents was a glaring offence. Therefore, although Catharine annexed as much as both the others together, the partition was accomplished in opposition to her real policy. About one–third of Poland was thus taken. The reckoning proved correct. Europe remained unmoved. By a series of treaties it had condoned the seizure of Silesia. It was too late to complain of the dismemberment of Poland. The work was completed, under very different conditions, twenty years later. It was overthrown by Napoleon; but, as he was without a Polish policy, and was disgusted by the obtrusive Liberalism of the Poles in his time, it was revived and sanctioned by the wisdom of united Europe at the Congress of Vienna.
The years which followed the Seven Years’ War were a time of peace for a great part of the Continent, in the course of which a memorable change took place in European polity. It was the age of what may be called the Repentance of Monarchy. That which had been selfish, oppressive, and cruel became impersonal, philanthropic, and beneficent. The strong current of eighteenth–century opinion left the State omnipotent, but obliged it to take account of public, as distinct from dynastic, interests. It was employed, more or less intelligently, for the good of the people. Humanity contended for the mastery with ambition. It was still a despotism, but an enlightened despotism. The competent expert more than ever was supreme, but he was influenced by great writers, — Locke, Montesquieu, Turgot, Beccaria, Adam Smith. There was a serious tendency to increase popular education, to relieve poverty, to multiply hospitals, to promote wealth by the operations of the engineer, to emancipate the serf, to abolish torture, to encourage academies, observatories, and the like. Prisons had never been so bad — attempts were made to reform them. The slave trade had never been so prosperous; people began to doubt whether it was moral. Laws were codified, and though the codes were surprisingly bad, the laws were improved by them. The movement was almost universal, from Spain to Denmark and Russia. Piedmont dealt successfully with the feudal and social question, which baffled the National Assembly in France. The rich plain of the Milanese was administered by a proconsul of Maria Theresa, in a manner which made it the example of Europe. A strenuous disciple of the economists governed Baden. Würzburg and Bamberg, under the last Prince Bishop, were considered the happiest region in the empire. Turgot, Bernstorff, Firmian, were admired and imitated as Lewis XIV. had been in a former phase of absolute monarchy. Society was enjoyable, apart from politics, and was studied like a fine art in the homes of luxury, — Paris, Brussels, Rome, and Venice. Things went very well in those days with any man who was not a Whig, and had no views as to what makes governments legitimate and averts revolution.
In that age of the enlightenment of despotism the most enlightened despot was Frederic II. Of all rulers and reformers he was the most laborious and incessant. “A king,” said he, “is the first servant of the State.” He did more work and had fewer pleasures than any of them. The dominant influence was philosophy, not religion, emancipation of the State from the Church. That corresponded well with Frederic’s temper. He was tolerant, and on the whole consistently tolerant. In those days the Jesuits were suppressed, first by the secular power in Bourbon countries, then by the Papacy. The Jesuits peculiarly represented the old order that was changing, and the authority of the ecclesiastical law that was being restrained. When they ceased to exist in Catholic countries, they sought a refuge in England, and at Petersburg; but their best and most determined protector was Frederic the Great. The only one of all the princes of that generation who saw farther, and understood that the time of absolute monarchy, enlightened or unenlightened, was very near its end, was Leopold of Tuscany, ancestor of the Austrian dynasty. That was a thing which Frederic never perceived. The great change that came over Europe in his time did not make for political freedom. We shall see how that greater change was to come from beyond the Atlantic.