Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Frederick the Great by Gerhard Ritter

Dr. Gerhard Ritter

This weekend, I traveled to South Bend for the 31st Annual Seven Years' War Convention. While there, I picked up a number of books, including a couple of Dr. Christopher Duffy's excellent works on the Seven Years' War. Duffy was in attendance yet again this year, and on Friday night, I had a chance to stay up late and talk with him and a group of like-minded individuals about the Seven Years' War. At the end of the evening, he said, "Listen up- I am about to ask something profound. Why do you think we like the Seven Years' War?"

Although there were a number of good answers, such as the fashion of the period, the military organization and tactics involved, and many others, the answer that stuck in my head was: the personalities. Frederick II of Prussia, Maria Theresa of Austria, Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz-Rietberg, James Wolfe, and many many others.

As a result, I returned to my favorite biography of Frederick II of Prussia-- Frederick the Great by Dr. Gerhard Ritter. "Heresy!" you shout- surely my favorite biography should be Dr. Duffy's Military Life of Frederick the Great! If we are talking about purely military information, you are, of course right. Duffy's biography is the most useful for military information. However, for a holistic picture of Frederick as a man, Ritter's biography is, at least in my opinion, yet to be surpassed.

Ritter was a product of the German Empire. He loved the strong Germany of his youth, and though he occasionally worked with the Nazi party, did not agree with the principles it stood for. Ritter was arrested for his role in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler, and was one of the few conspiracy members not executed for participation.

The reason why Ritter's biography of Frederick remains captivating is Ritter's masterful understanding of the Prussian state under Frederick. After reading Ritter's work, you will have not only an understanding of Frederick the Great, or the Prussian military, but also the eighteenth century Prussian state. For that reason alone, his book is valuable.

Ritter shows a business-like Frederick, concerned for the well-being of his subjects. On the end of the Seven Years' War, Ritter shares this anecdote, to demonstrate Frederick's indomitable will to restore Prussia:

When he returned to Berlin he did not ride in the ceremonial coach which awaited him, but reached the palace through side streets. There, the following day, he received a deputation of county councillors. He roughly broke into their welcoming address: "Be silent and let me speak. Do you have a crayon? Very well, write down: the gentlemen must draw up a list of how much wheat for bread, how much seed, how many horses, oxen and cows are immediately needed in their counties. Think over it carefully, and come back the day after tomorrow." 

 Ritter's views on Prussia and German nationalism are extremely politically incorrect from today's standpoint. However, if properly accounted for, this does not damage the usefulness of the biography. Read critically, this is one of the best biographies of Frederick available.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns