Gerhard Ritter,
Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile
(University of California Press, 1968)

This work is the study of a society as reflected in the life of Frederick the Great. The subject of interest is not so much the man per se but rather his interactions with the society he did so much to shape.

Gerhard Ritter's treatment allows the reader to learn about Frederick but not to know him as a man. In fact, the work serves largely to sublimate Frederick the man to the Prussian state. The reader sees Frederick as having succeeded not through divine placement but by luck, reason and a commitment to the state above all personal and worldly considerations. But, despite all Frederick's realism, as revealed by Ritter, he remains an enigma. Indeed, as Paret alludes to in his introduction, certain events of European history and aspects of Frederick's life are not explored in Ritter's European-oriented presentation. Certainly my own lack of understanding of the complicated alliance patterns of early modern Europe detract from my understanding of the book.

Frederick's reign seems to have marked a crucial turning point in history -- one toward the development of the modern European nation-state. Frederick utilized the French designs of emerging nationality to bring to life a state whose purpose was to further the good of all its inhabitants rather than to serve as an instrument of the prince's vainglory. From the mediaeval throes of dynamism was born the modern state. To a large degree, Frederick the Great was Prussia; he raised her to a level of power that would not long outlive him. This is what makes Ritter's biography history.

There was a certain ambivalence evidenced in Frederick's conception of warfare. He only pursued war to further the state, and he learned from war -- especially his initial invasion of Silesia. Always, Prussia in the end seemed to prosper from her ruler's military actions. Central in Frederick's conception of the state was the need for a vigilant standing army. To oversee this grand army, Frederick developed a program for proto-modern statehood -- in all aspects to be overseen by him personally. In his state, he sought to utilize the nobility in a paternalistic system. Patriotism was his goal; his military leaders were not to fight for him but for Prussia. Frederick was deeply involved in military strategy; as a soldier-king he demanded discipline and controlled aggression among his men. Significantly, over time he came to see the value of statecraft over military action; after his Silesian invasion, his wars seemed more defensive in nature; often no decisive victor emerged from battle. He came to realize that warfare was constrained by the state's national resources.

As Ritter describes it, Frederician warfare was defined by maneuverability and limited aggression. It is the birth of patriotism in the form of Frederician absolutism that lies at the heart of Ritter's study. Compelled by the rise to power of Naziism, Ritter seeks to show how such German nationalism had originally been born.

by Daniel Jolley
29 April 2006

Buy it from