Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia

Watch Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia which is now available on demand on BBCTV4 iPlayer. It's superb, an excellent example of what can be done by film makers who don't dumb down. The presenter is a real historian, Christopher Clark, whose book is one of the key sources. Also read Giles McDonough and David Fraser.

Frederick the Great shaped Prussia, and in doing so shaped western  culture as a whole. Der alte Fritz is  influential even today. He is surprisngly "modern". His bad luck was to be born a Prince because that carried obligations. To harden him for a difficult job, his father abused him, killing the son's boyfriend while he watched. As the film says, Frederick withdrew emotionally, "the mirror that dare not reveal what made it". As soon as he became King, he attacked Austria: political Vatermord. Conquering Silesia and Saxony changed the whole political balance, making way for the unification whose fallout would lead to two world wars. Austria's a rump, but the Federal Republic is Europe's biggest player.

Frederick didn't do kingly in the usual sense. He was a brilliant miltary strategist, who wernt into battle himself, dressed in a plain costume. Even more radically, he embraced the Enlightenment. In France Louis XV ruled brutishly as Absolute Monarch. Frederick was no democrat but Voltaire was house guest at Sans Souci for three years. Frederick's enlightened ideas led to an intellectual Renaissance. Prussia modernized through idealism, the emphasis on learning and intellect. Humboldt, Moses Mendelssohn, Immanuel Kant, Lessing, many others. Educating the people, and changing society from above staved off revolution, which kind of explains the dilemmas of the 20th century.

The filmakers don't do the usual caricature waffle. They get real experts and German experts at that. To discuss the Junkers, they get Heinrich von Kleist-Retzow, no less. Much nonsense is written about the Prussian military class, but as Von Kleist explains, the idea of honour was ingrained. Duty and self discipline, not petty selfishness. Knightly ideals, as relevant to the idea of Enlightenment as to the Teutonic Knights and real Christian ideals. Von Kleist's ancestor wrote The Prince of Homburg, who could have been a prototype of young Frederick the Great, except that the real Prince was tougher material and understood his place in society. Duty screws people up, but sometimes it's the nobler way. By being a King, Frederick achieved much more for the world than if he'd run off and had a good time.

Education and an effficient military machine - is this the enigma of Prussia? (Hitler was a southerner). After the battle of Leuthen, the Prussian army spontaeously broke into song - Bach, Nun danket alle Gott. If Frederick hadn't had a demanding day job, he might have been a musician. He was an extremely accomplished flautist who composed and commissioned difficult works. Perhaps in music, Frederick revealed his sensitive soul, obliquely. It's never occured to me that he wasn't gay, but that wasn't something he would have expressed openly as it wasn't relevant to his public life. Again, the idea of service to society rather than self. He had no illusions. This is his famous portrait, where he's shown with wrinkles and jowls, no fake vanity and self image. Even now, politicans could learn from him.

BBCTV4 is also running other shows with a German theme, but they're nowhere as good as this. The one on Berlin is shamefully shallow even though it claims to deal with "Dangerous Ideas", prettiy much parallel with the ideas in this film. At one stage the presenter tells a Berlin drag queen that he's a presenter, and needs tips for his makeup. Is he kidding? Drag queens are much more interesting for who they are and why, not what lipstick they use. Though like Frederick the Great, they'd never admit it. Me, I'd let the diva do the show.
Please see my other posts on Berlin and Prussian culture.


Katrin Schulze said...

Fascinating fair. Its always healthy to have somebody from outside explain "your own" history. Born and brought up in Potsdam I was intrigued when Clark claimed the Alte Fritz was largely forgotten. I had been brought up on ideas of him as an enlightened, modernizing and by-and-large benign ruler. But of course, I schooled after the re-imagining by the later East German governments. Fascinating, I would never even have considered that this is where my image of the old geezer originates. I always "blamed" the loyal Prussian civil servant that my grandpa was ...

Doundou Tchil said...

That was the main thing I didn't get in this film, too, because Frederick is so extremnely important. Most Germans are better educated compared to British. Prussians have much to be proud of. Everyone thinks they were bad guys but they did fairness reforms in education, pensions, wages, etc. Immer treu und Redlichkeit !