Nov 20, 2007

Book Review: Frederick the Great of Prussia - Absolutism and Administration

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Frederick II of Prussia, also known as Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große) and nicknamed der alte Fritz (the old Fritz)Hubatsch, Walther
London: Thames and Hudson, 1975


Hubatsch was a prolific writer who taught at the University of Bonn, specializing in German political and military history. Frederick the Great of Prussia: Absolutism and Administration examines the seeming paradox between the centralizing reforms of Frederick the Great and the Prussian state’s simultaneous existence within the political, cultural, and military spheres of the Holy Roman Empire.

One of the most useful aspects of Hubatsch’s Frederick the Great of Prussia is the wealth of ancillary materials the author included. Hubatsch procured dozens of illustrations and photographs related to Frederick from collections across Europe in a 16-page center section. The appendices include such practical accoutrements as a glossary, a genealogical table of the Hohenzollerns, a list of the Prussian governmental authorities and their offices circa 1775, a four-page chronological summary of the life and reign of Frederick, detailed maps, population charts, and bibliographical and archival summaries. The book follows a chronological progression, and the infrequent page notes are supplemented by a lengthy section with bibliographical notes. In addition, the careful translation of the text from the original German by Patrick Doran brings this excellent resource to an international English-speaking audience previously unfamiliar with the work of Hubatsch.

The idealistic young Frederick composed a number of works on governance, and perhaps the most noteworthy of these was the 1740 anonymously-published pamphlet Anti-Machiavel. Hubatsch included an excerpt that provides insight into the Prussian monarch’s views on absolutist rule, and – despite Frederick’s efforts to critique Machiavelli – there are prescient glimpses of the nature of future Frederician rule in the text:
There are two kinds of princes in the world: those who see everything with their own eyes and who really govern, and those who depend on their ministers, allowing themselves to be led by those who have gained influence over them. Princes of the first kind are, so to speak, the embodiment of the state. On them rests the burden of government, like the world on the shoulders of Atlas. They direct internal as well as foreign affairs; all orders, laws and instructions emanate from them; they are, simultaneously, ministers of Justice, commanders-in-chief of the army and ministers of finance: in short, every aspect of policy demands their decision.
Territorial expansion of Prussia, from 1600 to 1795Left: Territorial expansion of Prussia, from 1600 to 1795; click for larger image

One of the first policy changes Frederick enacted after his coronation was the 1740 creation of what was to become known as the Fifth Department. Frederick envisioned that this agency would coordinate economic and financial policy between the far-flung Prussian territories, and this department initially focused on promoting Prussian manufactures, establishing new industries, and attracting skilled artisans to Prussia from the surrounding nations. Hubatsch argued that, while perhaps influenced by the mercantilist programs of French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Frederician financial reforms could better be described as cameralist in nature. Chief among the industries Frederick sought to bolster – after first stabilizing the supply of grain at affordable prices - were textiles (especially wool and silk), porcelain, and armaments, and Hubatsch argued that the Prussian king was determined to develop national self-sufficiency as much as he was interested in turning a profit.

Frederick viewed territorial expansion as a means to improve the geopolitical position of Prussia in Europe, and the young monarch wasted little time in adding to the territories controlled by the state. The mineral-rich region of Silesia was the first target of Frederick’s expansionist policies, and his successful 1740 Silesian invasion was confirmed at the end of both the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. The annexations of East Prussia and West Prussia during the partitions of Poland gave the Prussians control over the vital Vistula River grain traffic. However, it was the acquisition of East Friesland, argued Hubatsch, that was the most important territorial gain during the reign of Frederick II, as this provided Prussia with access to two seas.

While Frederick’s military exploits are among the dimensions of his reign most memorable to historians, Hubatsch singled out the Prussian king for his strengths in managing state finances. The accomplishments of Frederick are even more impressive given the fact that there were few years in which Prussian troops were not engaged in some form of military action, and the Seven Years’ War in particular proved to have devastating effects on the Prussian treasury. Hubatsch lauded the financial acumen of the Prussian king:
At the end of his reign Frederick had more than 51 million talers in the Staatschatz [state treasury] and its associated funds. With this amount of money he could have waged six campaigns without raising taxes or incurring debt… Frederick kept almost obsessively free from debt. This gave him almost unlimited possibilities in the use of his financial means and resources. His reserves never reached the rumored 100 million talers but – given the basic poverty of the country – Prussia’s financial accomplishments during his reign are astonishing. They are a testimonial to the energy of its population and the financial management of its ruler.
Left: Crown Prince Frederick, circa 1730

Yet all monarchs have limits to their abilities to exercise power and bring about reform, even practitioners of the enlightened absolutism for which Frederick the Great is famed. Hubatsch argued that Frederick’s agricultural policies were the area in which the Prussian king’s efforts to bring about change were weakest, noting that in “no other field of Frederician administrative reform” was the execution of royal decree “so long, laborious and full of divergences as in the field of agriculture.” Despite his Enlightenment-era views on the human condition, Frederick was unable to bring significant reform to the institution of serfdom. Hubatsch quoted from a 1779 essay that Frederick penned in which the Prussian monarch decried the resistance by the nobility toward abolitionist and reformist initiatives:
Of all the conditions this is the most unhappy and must stir human feeling most deeply. Surely no human being can be born to be the slave of his equals. One rightly despises this abuse and thinks that only will power is necessary to abolish this barbaric custom. But this proves not to be so… If one tried to abolish this loathsome custom at one stroke, one could cause upheavals throughout all agriculture and the nobility would have to be compensated for the financial losses sustained by them.
While not a true biography, Frederick the Great of Prussia provides a significant amount of biographical material in its examination of the absolutist tendencies of the Prussian king. General readers familiar with Prussian and German history should be able to follow the narrative, and the text is ideal for both upper-level undergraduates and graduate students seeking greater knowledge of the Prussian bureaucracy. The paucity of direct footnotes, however, limits the use of this text by scholars specializing in Frederician absolutism, and this might explain the reason why such a useful text has unfortunately gone out of print.

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