Franz Mehring

Absolutism and Revolution in Germany



The Brandenburg-Prussian state

Frederick’s diplomacy and his wars

The foreign policy of the Prussian military state was determined by the conditions of its existence. It could not continue to exist permanently as long as it was based, apart from a few parcels of land on the Rhine, solely on the two separated territories of Brandenburg and East Prussia, of which East Prussia was moreover still a fief of the Polish King. To shake off this vassalage, to secure an independent position between Poland and Sweden and to seize for itself domination of the Baltic – the apple of discord between those two powers – by gaining control of the other areas of colonization east of the Elbe, particularly Pomerania and Silesia, possession of which brought the whole politico-economic region of the Oder under Prussian control; to create an economically and politically-rounded commonwealth, this was at the outset the foreign policy of the Prussian military state – a policy that circumstances dictated and which to a certain extent circumstances brought to pass. The greater or lesser ‘genius’ of the individual princes had any influence only to the extent that it enabled them to have a greater or lesser insight into the necessary course of events and thus granted them the choice, as the Latin proverb puts it, of being either carried by the fates or led by them.

We have seen that, quite early on, the Elector Frederick William drafted the plan for the annexation of Silesia and gave the extinction of the male Habsburg line as the time to put this work of conquest into operation. He himself first gained possession of the Duchy of Prussia, on the basis of which his successor, Frederick I, founded the royal dignity. For this purpose the Elector threw himself into the wars between the Poles and the Swedes over the Baltic, first upon one side then upon the other, with a lack of scruple in his choice of means that even makes the Hohenzollern court historians shiver a little. The Elector succeeded, moreover, in gaining control of the larger part of Pomerania, but not of its ports. Eastern Pomerania and Stettin remained in the hands of the Swedes. Twice the Elector thought he had this part of Pomerania also in his hands; twice, in the Treaty of Westphalia and the Treaty of St. Germain [51], he had to relinquish it, to his bitterest annoyance. As early as 1646 he declared that he would not withdraw from the Oder unless his House was ruined and he contested every foot of the ground around the mouth of the Oder. But just as he did, his enemies also knew what the Brandenburg-Prussian state needed. However undeniable the Elector’s hereditary claims to the whole of Pomerania were, France, Austria and Sweden all opposed them. Rather than permit the Elector a dominating position on the Baltic, they preferred to stop his mouth with the Bishoprics of Kammin, Halberstadt and Minden and the Wardenship of the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, with possessions, that is to say, which in extent as much as in culture were far superior to the part of Pomerania they denied him. Nevertheless, as the Elector signed the Treaty of Westphalia, he sighed that he rued the day he had learned to write. It was much later that his grandson, King Frederick William I, managed to gain possession of Stettin and the mouth of the Oder, as well as part of eastern Pomerania, out of the shipwreck of King Charles XII of Sweden.

The male Habsburg line died out in 1740, only a few months after Frederick II had come to power. Now it was neither a stroke of genius nor a revolutionary insurrection, but the immutable policy of the Prussian military state that led the King to invade Silesia immediately, even before Maria Theresa of Austria had rejected his proposals for a peaceful settlement of the hereditary Brandenburg claims on individual parts of that territory. Understandably, Frederick always spoke ironically of these hereditary claims. He simply wanted to use this unique opportunity to round out the Prussian state so that his army could, to a certain extent, keep pace with the growing military might of the great states. He knew that his hereditary claims would make no impression in Vienna and he only asserted them for tactical reasons, partly to give his policy of conquest a ‘legal’ colouration and partly to overcome the scruples of Marshal Schwerin and his Minister, Podewils. Let us therefore not waste our breath discussing the fact that he occupied Silesia even before he had received a final rejection from Vienna. But these ‘peaceful’ negotiations are one more disproof of the revolutionary insurrection. If Maria Theresa had acceded to Frederick’s offer (support with money and arms against her other enemies, and the Brandenburg vote for the election of her husband as Holy Roman Emperor) and if she had ceded even only Lower Silesia in return, Frederick would have supported the ‘foreign Habsburg rule’ and whatever else the fine-sounding slogans of today call it, with all his strength. Once Vienna had refused him, he had no choice but to go to war, but it could be neither a ‘revolutionary insurrection’ nor a ‘patriotic reform of the Empire’. For if the Habsburg Empire was but a shadow of the Papal blessing, then the banner of a Wittelsbach Empire, which Frederick allegedly now bore, was merely the shadow of a shadow of France. A league with France against the Habsburgs had been Brandenburg dynastic policy of old. Had not Elector Joachim I promised the German Crown to the French King Francis I in 1519, and the Elector Frederick William promised it to Louis XIV in 1679? [52]

On top of this, there is the remarkable fact that it was not really Frederick who conquered Silesia but his father, a prince piously loyal to Emperor and Empire, who had been held for years in leading strings by the Imperial Ambassador, Seckendorf, to the derision of the whole of Europe. Frederick broke and fled prematurely from the battle of Mollwitz, which he directed very clumsily, after a few successful attacks by the Austrian cavalry on the Prussian, but the Prussian infantry, drilled by Frederick William and the Prince of Dessau, stood like a wall and decided the victory without any particular help from the high command. Frederick’s first attempt at diplomacy was just as unfortunate. In the Treaty of Kleinschnellendorf he betrayed his French allies to Austria, and, ‘for the keys of a single fortress which was not even very strongly defended’, permitted the Austrians to fall on his French confederates, who, as he himself admits in his memoirs, had given him no reason to break his word. [53] Again, let us not waste our breath on the moral of the story. France and Prussia both had the same interest in weakening Austria, but only to the extent that their own ally did not become too strong as a result. It would be difficult to say whether Frederick left the French in the lurch more often than they did him. In the same way the outcry of his contemporaries over Frederick’s ‘treachery’ was generally not moral indignation but the pain of the biter bit. Frederick anticipated Goethe’s winged words in a sentence in a letter to Podewils: ‘If there is going to be dirty work let us be the rascals (fourbes).’ But the Treaty of Kleinschnellendorf was a piece of rascality in which Frederick was duped when he thought he was doing the duping, and a diplomat can do nothing worse than betray an ally in return for no advantages worth mentioning to himself and do it to the greatest advantage of the common enemy. It was then that Frederick earned the reproach, which was not justified by his later diplomacy, that he sacrificed the greatest advantages in the future for a small momentary profit. It is easier to explain his second betrayal of his allies, when Frederick concluded the separate Peace of Breslau, in which Maria Theresa, on the special urging of English diplomacy, ceded Silesia in order to get rid of her most dangerous enemy and to have a free hand to deal with her other opponents. That means, of course: with quiet reservations for the future.

These reservations were still so much in the air that it is easy to explain why Frederick, when Maria Theresa had a series of successes against the French and the Wittelsbach pretender to the German Imperial throne in the continuing War of the Austrian Succession, signed a new pact with France and, as an Estate of the German Empire, brought his troops to the assistance of the German Emperor, who was wounded both in his honour and in his dignity. But this time, too, he committed a serious diplomatic error by secretly reserving for the Prussian state a good slice of the Kingdom of Bohemia that he had considered conquering for the Emperor. The secret soon got out and left the King morally and politically naked, simply for the sake of a completely illusory prospect. This was one of the occasions on which Frederick really was mistaken about the means at his disposal. For however easy it was to incorporate Silesia, given its geographical and economic circumstances, into the Prussian state, the same task was insoluble when it came to even a part of Bohemia. In the conquest of this Kingdom, too, Frederick had some very bitter experiences. This time it was his French allies who left him in the lurch, and old Marshal Traun, whom Frederick himself had the praiseworthy honesty to call his teacher in the art of war, manoeuvred him back over the Silesian border despite the almost complete dissolution of the Prussian army. The winter of 1744 to 1745 was an exceptionally difficult time for Frederick. In the same way that – as the foreign ambassadors testify – he matured outwardly into a man, he freed himself inwardly from all the illusions produced in the field of foreign policy by ambition, the lust for fame and, as he himself occasionally put it, ‘secret instinct’. Although he beat the Austrians and Saxons in 1745 with his reconstructed army in a whole series of battles and engagements (Hohenfriedburg, Soor, Katholisch-Hennersdorf, Kesseldorf), he still offered a second separate Treaty confirming his possession of Silesia at the end of the year, to the painful astonishment of the French and the at first incredulous and later delighted astonishment of Austria. And when his conditions were fulfilled he returned into his possessions determined ‘never to attack even a cat again’ for the rest of life.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that the King was entirely serious about this decision. It is true that, when the Seven Years’ War broke out eleven years later, the reproach was immediately raised against him that he had deliberately taken up arms again for reasons of wanton ambition, and this accusation is all the graver for the fact that it was first raised by Frederick’s own brother, and found secret support from the majority of his Generals and Ministers. His sudden invasion of Saxony and his ruthless battering of that country also appears to be an infamous breach of the peace. But the King only made up his mind to take this violent step very unwillingly and under the inevitable force of circumstances. Through the treachery of Austrian and Saxon officials he had for several years been kept up to date with documentary evidence of the negotiations between Austria, Saxony and Russia aimed at a surprise attack on him and the destruction of the growing military power of the Prussian state. The fact of these negotiations was undeniable even then, but Frederick’s brothers were of the opinion that it was all still hanging in the air, and that, without the King’s untimely intervention it would possibly have dissolved into thin air. Possibly indeed, and Frederick covered this possibility by following the Austro-Russo-Saxon negotiations with rapt attention for several years but without doing anything. There was also, meanwhile, another possibility, and Frederick could not let it become a certainty without falling into the most extreme peril. This possibility grew into a certainty when the conflict of economic interests between England and France broke out into open war in the North American colonies [54], thus making a war inside Germany inevitable, since it was only logical that France would attack Hanover as England’s weakest point. The Franco-Prussian pact ran out in June 1756, and Frederick’s attempts to renew it had failed. This was not because of the favourable attitude that Maria Theresa showed to Frederick and the unfavourable attitude that Frederick showed towards Madame de Pompadour. Even in the absolutist France of the eighteenth century such things only had a completely incidental effect on the making of great political decisions, or as the courts say, were only ‘accessories after the fact’. On the contrary, neither side had had their expectations fulfilled by the pact. If the party which was still the strongest at the French court, true to the tradition of Mazarin and Richelieu, saw the source of French power in the disunity of Germany, still wanted to maintain the pact with Prussia, and therefore managed to get one more negotiator sent to Berlin, then the latter, the Duke de Nivernois, had too much to ask for and too little to offer for Frederick to be able to agree to the deal. For example, in return for the assistance of Prussian arms in the threatening war with England, the Duke offered Frederick the island of Tobago, to which Frederick replied with justified scorn: ‘The island of Tobago? You mean the island of Barataria, but I can’t play Sancho Panza for that.’ [55] In those days Prussian policy had not yet learned to utter those big-mouthed fanfares with which Herr Bismarck greeted the raising of the flag on some tropical desert or swamp as a deed of national greatness.

Briefly, in order to avoid total isolation, on January 16, 1756, Frederick concluded the Convention of Neutrality of Westminster with England, a mutual agreement to drive away by force any armed non-German intervention on German soil. There followed as a counterstroke the Franco-Austrian defensive pact of May 1 of the same year, and Austria began to rearm on a large scale. Frederick now sent two further diplomatic inquiries to Vienna, one asking the purpose of this rearmament and one seeking assurances that he was safe from Austrian attack for that and the following year. On both occasions he received evasive, meaningless, indeed even contemptuous answers, and now, given the peculiar nature of the Prussian military state, he could not hesitate for a moment longer. In Carlyle’s striking metaphor, he possessed a sword that was incomparably shorter than that of France or Austria, but he unsheathed it three times faster than those two great powers, and he could not wait for this important, but only, advantage of his to be rendered illusory by opponents, who were in every other respect his superiors. From the standpoint of his and his state’s interests, and that is decisive in our subjective estimation of him, one could rather say that he had hesitated too long, and that he could have done without at least the second inquiry to Vienna. Perhaps he would have done so had it not been important to him to delay the beginning of the campaign until as late a season as possible, in order not to have a French army on German soil that year. In any case, his plan to force his nearest and most dangerous opponents, Saxony and Austria, to sue for a lasting peace by stunning them with a series of rapid blows, thus overcame the first obstacle that the Saxons could concentrate their troops at the last moment on the clifftop camp at Pirna.

The Seven Years’ War was therefore not a war of Prussian conquest, but what was it? The Prussian bourgeois historians answer that it was a continuation of the Thirty Years’ War, a religious war, the final salvation of German spiritual freedom, the first foundation of the German national state, and all the other fine-sounding slogans. Let us put on one side all these tirades, which have no intelligible content at all and concentrate on the question of the religious war, which does deserve some consideration. It seems to be completely self-evident. After the power-groupings in the War of the Austrian Succession and the first Silesian War, France and Prussia on one side and England and Austria on the other, after these ‘secular’ wars with their promiscuous mixture of the religions, we now have the ‘religious’ war, in which the religions are sharply distinct: on the one side, the Catholic powers of France and Austria backed by the Papal blessing, and against them the Protestant powers of England and Prussia. Here, darkness, the Middle Ages, spiritual slavery; there light, the future, spiritual freedom. Here, Roman degeneration or Slavic barbarism; there civilization under the banner of all things German. It is only a pity that the war did not arise out of a religious conflict but out of an economic conflict between England and France. It is only a pity that it ended with the political hegemony of a really barbaric state over one nation of fighters for freedom and enlightenment, a hegemony which must be laid at the door of another nation of fighters for freedom and enlightenment’s economic considerations.

In the Treaty of Westminster, which followed a year after the Neutrality Convention we have already mentioned, England had promised, as well as the payment of subsidies to Prussia, to send a fleet to the Baltic – eight ships of the line and several frigates, and more vessels if necessary. The stipulation was clear and unambiguous, as was its purpose. The English fleet in the Baltic would have kept East Prussia and Pomerania for Frederick; above all, by blockading Russia’s ports and destroying her trade, it would have made that barbaric state pay for its intervention in European affairs. But England had never had the slightest intention of sending even a gunboat into the Baltic. Indeed, she kept her Embassy at St. Petersburg throughout the war. It was not the interests of her Protestant allies that were decisive, but the interests of English trade. At that time England did not possess her Indian Empire; her North American colonies were only sparsely populated and cultivated; thus no English minister could interfere with the Baltic trade. When Pitt took overall control he made no attempt to conceal from Frederick the fact that he could never count on seeing that stipulation of the Treaty of Westminster carried out. All the enthusiasm of the English nation for the Protestant cause in general and for Frederick in particular did not alter the fact that an English ministry that sent a war fleet to the Baltic would immediately lose its parliamentary majority. Clever statesmen know quite well that the world is ruled by economic facts, and among themselves they make no bones about it. They leave the ideological disguises to the statesmanlike historians, of whom – much to the edification of all the enlightened and yet-to-be enlightened portions of mankind – there has never yet in any country been a lack.

The interests of the English nation’s trading policy gave the Seven Years’ War its decisive turn. Immune from any attack, Russian Tsardom could indulge to the full its dissolute instinct for conquest and robbery. Three times it took the liberty of changing sides in the Seven Years’ War. In the first and, longest period, the Russian army fought against Prussia, pocketed the Province of East Prussia entirely; laid waste Pomerania and the Mark in the most bestial manner; almost always beat the Prussian troops in the most devastating defeats, for even the battle of Zorndorf was more of an undecided encounter than a victory for Frederick; and, in short, drove the Prussian state to the very edge of the abyss. To this extent they remained true to the decision, raised to the level of a ‘consistent maxim of state’ by the Russian Senate as early as 1753, not only to resist any further growth of Prussian power, but also to seize the first convenient opportunity to suppress the House of Brandenburg by superior force and to return it to its previous mediocrity. But obviously this maxim, which had been adopted under the influence of the alcoholic and tyrannical Empress Elisabeth, went over the mark. The interest of the Russians lay in political domination over the Prussian state, not in its political annihilation. Prussia could not be allowed to become a rival of Russia, but a vassal; but at the same time it had to remain a thorn in the flesh of Austria. This is what was demanded by Russia’s plans for conquest, whether they were directed against Poland, Turkey or Germany itself. One can also follow quite exactly how the Russian Generals, in opposition to the Empress’ will, always avoided giving the coup de grace to the Prussian army, which they could easily have done, for example, after the battle of Kunersdorf. After the Empress Elisabeth’s sudden death there followed the Russo-Prussian pact, which was nothing but a silly caprice of the silly Peter III. A poor ham actor, Lessing calls him’ chosen to cut the clumsy knots of a bloody drama behind the mask of a god. But it was Catherine II who first disentangled the dénouement. When she had villainously murdered her husband, Peter, and ascended the Russian throne without the slightest trace of legality, this clever person immediately grasped where Russia’s interests lay. By her neutrality, she let the Seven Years’ War die of general exhaustion, and then harvested the fruits in the Prusso-Russian pact of April 14 1764, whose secret articles already left the way open for the partition of Poland. King Frederick, who was by no means as thick-skinned in respect of Russian impudence as Herr Bismarck, felt himself to be most deeply humiliated by his position as a Russian satrap, but he could not resist that ‘terrible power’. He had to subsidize Catherine’s wars against the Turks and shoulder the greater part of the odium for the first partition of Poland, while he carried off only the smaller part of the booty. In the Treaty of Teschen of 1779, which ended the War of the Bavarian Succession, he had, along with Austria, to recognize Russia as the ‘guarantor of the Treaty of Westphalia’.

A continuation of the Thirty Years’ War indeed, but not quite in the sense that the Prussian mythologists mean! Just like the Thirty Years’ War, the Seven Years’ War ended with the failure of the attempt to bring the whole of Germany under the rule of the Habsburg Papal Empire. Just like the Thirty Years’ War, the Seven Years’ War died of general exhaustion. Just as the Thirty Years’ War ended with the ‘guarantee of the Treaty of Westphalia’ by France and Sweden, that is to say with the unlimited right of two civilized nations to intervene as much as they liked in German affairs, so the Seven Years’ War closed with the ‘guarantee of the Treaty of Westphalia’ by Russia, that is to say foreign rule by a barbaric state, the evil results of which have still not been overcome, and indeed only now can possibly be overcome, since the German working class has awoken to political consciousness.

Strange, that with all this, through this very same Seven Years’ War, ‘the first higher meaning’ is supposed to have entered the spiritual life of the German people!



On the psychology of the Seven Years’ War

But people say: whatever the results of the Seven Years’ War were, the war itself, the fact that a German Prince by almost superhuman genius was able to maintain himself for seven years against a world of enemies and beat all the enemies of the Empire who had been rampaging through Germany for so long, the Russians, Hungarians, French and Swedes – this fact rekindled the national spirit of the German nation, or at least of its Protestant majority. And indeed a view of this kind comes closest to what Goethe said about ‘higher meaning’. But it is questionable whether people at the time looked at the matter in that way, whether Frederick’s ‘patriotic warlike deeds’ inspired them with the national spirit from which our classical literature is supposed to have sprung.

For the King himself, this conception, had he read it, would have been about as comprehensible as the language of the Iroquois. His best quality, his serious and sober grasp of things, always saved him from boasting. He wanted nothing more than to be a warlord of his age, and that was all he was. Certainly, ideological excesses have recently had a certain echo even in Prussian military literature. For the last ten years, a violent feud has been waged in that literature, not exactly to the credit of the classical military state. It is over whether Frederick brilliantly anticipated his age by fifty or a hundred years and applied the Napoleonic strategy, which sees its first and only goal in the rapid destruction of the enemy army in battle, or whether he fought the wars of his own century, those cautious, slow, methodical wars, which sought to gain an advantage against the enemy by destroying the magazines destined to supply his armies, by denying him this stretch of land or that fortress, by trying to manoeuvre him artificially out of the field with ombrages (deceptive manoeuvres), and diversions (feints), by regarding battle only as an extreme measure, a sort of last resort, only to be used in cases of extreme urgency, or if a very great advantage could thus be achieved in a very safe manner. Now it requires no very great consideration to see what is the correct view. The Napoleonic strategy rests on the people’s army, skirmishing tactics and the requisition system. Its prerequisites are mass armies, which advance rapidly, skirmishing, which means fighting on any terrain, and requisitioning, which means being able to supply yourself directly from the population. The army of the last century was, on the other hand, a mercenary army, which as such was tied down to linear tactics and supply from magazines. Because of the expense of recruiting, it could not grow beyond a certain size. It could only be brought up to the enemy in rigid lines, held together by the threat of flogging or a bullet at the hands of the officers, and it could thus only fight on the open plain, to a certain extent as a sort of automatic shooting machine. Indeed, the rapidity of mass fire, which Frederick finally got to six shots a minute with a further loading for a seventh shot, became the main object of military training. Finally, it had to be closely guarded in camp and correspondingly supplied by its commanders. Its movements were tied down to the magazine and the bakery, and thus its mobility was very limited. If Frederick had tried to use Napoleonic tactics and sent his mercenaries out skirmishing, his army would immediately have run away to all four corners of the globe. If he had sent his mercenaries out to requisition supplies, he would, in the drastic words of a recent military historian, simply have turned at least half of his army into robber bands.

The psychological impossibility for Frederick of adopting Napoleonic strategy was almost larger even than the practical. Not even in a dream could he have stumbled upon the idea, any more than he could have thought of installing a field railway or a field telegraph. Even the greatest military genius cannot invent a new strategy, which in the last analysis is determined by economic development. The Napoleonic strategy is not called by that name because it was invented by Napoleon, but because it reaches its highest level of perfection in the Napoleonic wars. It arose quite spontaneously in the American War of Independence. There, the British mercenary armies faced hordes of rebels who were fighting for their own interests and therefore did not desert like enlisted troops, who did not drill, but could shoot all the better for that with their long rifles, who did not therefore attack the English in lines on the open plain, but in swarms of sharpshooters in the cover of the woods. It is high praise for Frederick to say that he followed the American war very closely in order to learn from it. It sounds moreover very ironic when he writes, on the 3 November 1777 to his brother Heinrich: ‘We are observing the Washingtons, the Howes, the Bourgoynes and the Carletons in order to learn from them this great art of war, which is inexhaustible, in order to laugh at their stupidities and to approve of what they do according to the rules.’ But he seems to have become dubious nonetheless about the infallibility of these ‘rules’ and he seems to have seen the sense to a certain extent of Washington’s ‘stupidities’, for shortly before his death he ordered a few battalions of light infantry to be formed from native-born Prussians, ‘people who know what they are doing’, who are to learn how to use the terrain, who are to receive a freer and more mobile training, in short, more of a rifleman’s training.

In this Frederick was a well-informed military theoretician for his day, and far in advance of all of his officers. They did not even understand the new strategy when they had to deal with it physically – when in the French revolutionary wars of the nineties hastilygathered hordes of peasants defended their social interests against the émigrés who returned with the Austrian and Prussian mercenary armies, in the same way that the American hunters and farmers had fought against the English mercenaries. Goethe recognized the sign of the times with the prophetic gaze of the poet when he told the Prussian officers after the cannonade at Valmy [56]: ‘From here and today a new epoch of world history is starting, and you can say that you were there.’ His hearers did not understand him; but one should not hold that against them, for Goethe himself felt, rather than understood, what he said. How else could he have discovered, twenty years later, a ‘higher meaning’ in the Seven Years’ War? But even accumulated experience did not enlighten the Prussian officers. The mercenary armies remained tactically superior to the French volunteers in every encounter for a long time, and still France could not be beaten. There was no getting round the fact, although its causes could not be discovered. Finally it was treated as a senseless monstrosity that made a mockery of all received military knowledge but which would have to be accepted for better or for worse. Therefore a renowned General of the Frederician school, the Prince of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen, in 1794 recommended a treaty with France. He said that no favourable result could be expected from continuing the war with France, since ‘you are never finished with fools.’ Simultaneously an official Austrian memorandum expressed itself in exactly the same way: ‘In the normal course of events’ the French would already have been beaten, but they were always breaking out again with ‘fearful violence’, like a ’raging torrent’. Indeed, even in the wars of 1813 to 1815, of all the Generals of the European Coalition, except for Scharnhorst, who died young, only Gneisenau was able to master the Napoleonic strategy thoroughly. He had to put up the sharpest fights, particularly with his Prussian subordinates, the Bülows and the Yorks, and in the same way he was a thorn in the flesh of the allied Monarchs, whose military advisers, Knesebeck on the Prussian side and Duka and Langenau on the Austrian side, were still deeply rooted in the military outlook of the eighteenth century. In court circles he and his staff were derided as ‘Wallenstein’s Camp’. Even at Waterloo, the linear tactics of the English army were still put to practical use, quite logically, since the army consisted of enlisted mercenaries. But it too would have lost at Waterloo were it not for the timely arrival of the Prussians under Blücher and Gneisenau. It was only decades later that the Prussian army absorbed the Napoleonic strategy into its flesh and blood through the classical writings of Clausewitz, and a Prussian General answered the idle chatter about the Prussian schoolmaster who was supposed to have won the battle of Königgratz with the fitting words: ‘Yes indeed, the schoolmaster was called Clausewitz.’ [57]

The ‘genius’ of the great military commander is a peculiar thing altogether. In Anti-Dühring Engels describes how, at the battle of St. Privat [58], where two armies with essentially the same tactical formations were fighting, the regular company columns on the German side dissolved into dense swarms of sharpshooters under the fearful fire of the French chassepot rifles, and how in the vicinity of the enemy rifle fire the soldiers moved only at the double. He then continues: ‘The soldier had once again been cleverer than the officer; he had instinctively discovered the only tactic which up to now has proved to be of any value under fire from breech-loaders, and carried it out successfully despite all the efforts of the command.’ That sounds very disrespectful, but in a slightly different wording, and certainly without any plagiarizing from Engels, the Prussian General Staff says the same thing, when it reports, through the mouth of one of its most gifted members, on the French revolutionary wars of the previous century: ‘It is most significant that skirmishing among the French troops of the day was in no way prescribed by the rules, for these were in all their essential features the same as the Prussian ones. The dispersed battle order of the French had not been ordered but came into being; a necessity had been made into a virtue, and because it corresponded with real conditions it became a power.’ Marx’s proposition that ‘not men’s consciousness determines their being, but on the contrary their being determines their consciousness’ emerges in a very clear light in the field of military history. The more powerful and the more direct is the contact with being, the faster and the more clearly does consciousness develop. In war, the soldier will generally feel reality and instinctively act in accordance with it much faster than the officer, and the highest ‘genius’ in the military commander consists in recognizing the inner reasons for the soldiers’ instinctive behaviour and acting decisively in accordance with this recognition. How hard that is even for Generals of great repute we can see from the reports and memoirs of Carnot, Dumouriez, Hoche, Gouvion St. Cyr and other officers who had to organize the volunteers of the French Republic and lead them in the field. According to these testimonies, which were later so zealously exploited in order, despite 1813 and 1814, to exclude the native element of the Landwehr as much as possible from the Prussian army, the volunteers were not much better than Falstaff’s rogues in buckram, and yet the model troops of Austria and Prussia broke on the dam that these apparently so hopeless hordes threw in their path.

Military history only becomes comprehensible when it is traced back to its economic bases. If, on the other hand, one tries to make the greater or lesser ‘genius’ of the military commanders into its motive lever, it evaporates into historical romance. The better-educated generals of the eighteenth century knew very well what a marvellous thing a nation in arms was. Count zur Lippe and the Marshal of Saxony both said so openly, as did Frederick, even as Crown Prince, in his Anti-Machiavell. There he says: ‘The Romans knew nothing of the desertions without which an army today is inconceivable. They fought for their hearth, for everything that was dearest to them; so they did not think of frustrating this great purpose by cowardly evasion. But with our people it is quite different. The burghers and the peasants do, it is true, supply the army, but they do not go into the battlefield themselves, the soldiers have to be taken from the dregs of the people and chained to the colours by the harshest violence.’ One can if one likes call it ‘genius’ that Frederick and other warriors of his age saw through the whole fragility of a mercenary army, but this ‘genius’ changed nothing in the strategy and tactics of mercenary warfare, and even theoretically it was of so little significance that the learned strategists of great military powers did not understand a nation in arms even when they met one face to face in an extremely practical course of instruction.

With the revolution in economic conditions, the structure of the army was also revolutionized, and it is in the nature of things that the practice of the mass adapted itself much more quickly to the changed circumstances than the theory of the individual. This was why the officers learnt from the soldiers and not the soldiers from the officers. It was American and French peasants who invented the strategy of the nineteenth century, and old Ziegler was speaking to some purpose when he said in a military debate in the German Reichstag that the so-called experts always made a mess of things. They have always made a mess of things when they have tried to place their military expertise higher than the logic of economic development. Frederick achieved his successes by adapting to the mercenary army as the only one that was possible in his day, although he knew the advantages of the peoples’ army very well. After his death, the expert officers of his army, irrespective of their personal military talent, suffered the greatest variety of fates, depending on whether or not they could adapt their expertise to the changed economic conditions, and whether or not they could learn from the soldiers.

Captain von Steuben and Major von Berenhorst were among the most important officers on Frederick’s staff during his later years. Both experienced the ‘disfavour’ of the King, who always distrusted intellectually-outstanding officers, and left the Prussian army. Steuben went to America where, as we know, he rendered great service to the military organization of the rebellion. As early as 1793 he told a German visitor there, the military writer von Bülow, that the French volunteers, about whose military abilities their own officers could meanwhile not complain enough, were waging the same kind of war as the American farmers, and that they would be just as invincible. Berenhorst did not re-enter military service, but wrote his famous Betrachtungen über die Kriegskunst (Considerations on the Art of War), in which he subjected Frederick’s army to a sharp criticism which has been fully justified by subsequent experience. Of Frederick he said very aptly: ‘He knew very well how to use the machine, but not how to make it;’ he scathingly criticized the ‘extremes of coarseness, harshness and slavery to the service’, ‘the micrology and the minutiae of the art of the parade’. Yet this incisive observer understood so little of what it was really all about that even two years after the Battle of Jena he could still write that ‘tactical genius’ would have to invent a ‘superior remedy’ in order to defeat the Napoleonic style of warfare.

Our conception is reflected even more clearly in the careers of two famous Generals. If ever the Prussian army had a military commander and organizer of genius, who rose by his own ability and despite the intrigues of the Junkers and his own peasant birth to the highest military positions, but who nonetheless kept a heart that was open to the people and kept himself free of the taint of the military moustache, it was Scharnhorst. In the decade before the battle of Jena, he worked with the maximum effort on the reform of the Prussian army but, living in the midst of that army, he remained caught up, despite all his theoretical study of Napoleon’s campaigns, in Frederick’s strategy. It was not until the autumn campaign of 1806, when he actually saw the French troops manoeuvering, in the last moves before the battle of Jena, which he as Chief of the General Staff of the Prussian Supreme Commander had to command, that the scales fell from his eyes. He immediately attempted to imitate the superior tactics of the French, but of course without success, given the condition of the Prussian army. No military ‘genius’ could hope to avert the shattering defeat of that army. But Scharnhorst’s real genius now busied itself in recognising the real relationship of things, in not counting on ‘genius’, but in putting the Prussian army, in seven years of almost superhuman struggle against the incredibly narrow-minded King and the incredibly selfish Junker class, on that economic basis that enabled it to fight successfully against the French army. Scharnhorst, like his friends, Gneisenau, Boyen and Grolman encouraged the liberation of the peasants at least as energetically as Stein, Schön and Hardenburg.

But in the shameful retreat after Jena, Colonel York and his regiment distinguished themselves in the successful actions at Altenzaun and Wahren. They were the only successes, and small ones at that, that the Prussian army won in that whole campaign. York beat the French detachments that were pursuing him by using their own skirmishing tactics. Now York was Scharnhorst’s opposite in all respects. He was an officer of the old school, who would have preferred to leave Frederick’s army intact down to the last gaiter-button, a morose, choleric exponent of the most iron discipline, a Kashubian [59] Junker with the most narrow-minded class prejudices. But he had served his way up the ladder of promotion in that battalion of light infantry that Frederick had ordered to be set up shortly before his death, and if, in general, this battalion had not been able to escape the conditions of life of the Prussian army as a whole and accordingly soon became the same strictly-drilled troops of the line as all the other battalions, there was still one regiment in the army which stood on more or less the same economic basis as the French army – that very regiment of Jüger (riflemen) of which York had been appointed Colonel a few yeas before Jena. The regiment had been formed by Frederick during the Silesian wars in order to have at least a few highly-mobile troops to fight the Croats and Pandours in the Austrian army. For this purpose it could not, understandably, be made up of foreign mercenaries and underfed peasants, but had to be composed of people who were bound to the colours by their own personal interests. It was therefore recruited solely from skilled huntsmen, the sons of senior and junior foresters and other officials who obtained the prospect of a post in forestry through service with the regiment. Such people could not be beaten into goose-stepping; even at royal revues they were allowed to march past in comfortable swarms. While peace lasted the regiment, which had done very good service during the war, thus became the laughing-stock of all Frederician gaiter-buttons, who called it ‘an old baroque gable’ left over from the past in the magnificent facade of this magnificent army. The regiment had become a military curiosity, and York only took over command with the greatest reluctance. But since he was nonetheless a capable and ambitious officer, the practical experience of daily service made him realize that the only way to make something out of these troops was to treat them with respect and train them in open order tactics. The social being of the soldiers determined the military consciousness of the officer. And this consciousness was extinguished immediately when, as a result of his successes at Altenzaun and Wahren, York was promoted to a level in the hierarchy where he could have some say an the army reforms. Then he flowed over with gall and wormwood; then he was so spiteful in his denunciations to the King that Scharnhorst fell into a nervous disease that almost cost his life; then he gloated over the dismissal of Stein, which Napoleon had ordered, saying that a thoughtless head had been stamped upon and that the rest of the brood of vipers would now dissolve in their own poison. Indeed, even as a corps commander in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, York, with his ideological and theoretical illusions, placed the most difficult obstacles in the way of Gneisenau’s Napoleonic conduct of the war, whereas the being of the Landwehren (territorials) under his command determined his military consciousness to the extent that Blücher was able to boast of him that no one was harder than York to bring into battle, but that once there, no one got his teeth into it like him.

These few examples, which could be supplemented at will from Prussian military history, or any other for that matter, will suffice for the purpose for which they are quoted. It was extraordinary enough that from his theoretical study of the American War of Independence, Frederick had some presentiment of the approaching revolution in warfare and made a sober attempt to meet it, but for that very reason it was practically and psychologically impossible for him to anticipate in his mercenary wars, the strategy and tactics of Napoleon. Seen in the light of day, the ideological school of history is more dangerous, precisely for the Great Men it seeks to inflate beyond all human measure than it is for anybody else. It has been said very correctly in the debate over Frederick’s strategy that his campaigns, measured against the standards of Napoleon’s strategy, appear very botched. In this, too, Frederick’s real importance lies in the fact that he understood how to be completely clear about what was permitted to him and what was not permitted, what he could do and what he could not do. In a certain sense, one must even say that the fearful burden of the Seven Years’ War fell on him because, irrespective of his intentions, he achieved a success of Napoleonic proportions which, exploited with the means Napoleon had at his disposal, would have finished the war at a stroke but which, since Frederick could not produce that kind of Napoleonic stroke, became a fatal setback. His plan of campaign for 1756 was primarily invalidated because the Saxon army succeeded, by the skin of its teeth, in concentrating on the clifftop camp at Pirna [60], so that Frederick had to waste a lot of very valuable time starving them out. The decisive reason for its failure, however, was that on May 6, 1757, Frederick stunningly defeated the Austrian army and threw two thirds of it back into the fortress of Prague. From now on Austria, it is true, appeared defenceless. Prague was bound to fall and then the way to Vienna lay open, apart from a weak reserve army which was approaching under Daun. [61] But when Frederick faced this with part of the forces investing Prague at Kolin on June 18, he suffered a severe defeat that forced him to retreat immediately from Bohemia and thus abandon all the successes he had achieved at Prague.

An entire literature has now grown up on the subject of the battle of Kolin, which seeks to prove that, if General Manstein had not committed this mistake and Prince Moritz of Dessau the other, Frederick would have won the battle and, after the fall of Prague, which would have been inevitable under these circumstances, would have immediately marched on Vienna to dictate a Treaty under the walls of the Austrian capital. Clausewitz meanwhile has put an end to this literature with a single stroke of his pen by explaining that, if Frederick had not failed at Kolin, he would have been bound to fail elsewhere, for, given the military conditions of the day and the extent of his military means, it was impossible for him to conquer the Austrian capital or overthrow the Austrian state. The correctness of this observation is so clear that even Frederick’s mythologists have had to accept it. Their only objection is that if Frederick had won at Kolin, the Austrians would have been so paralysed that they would have signed an immediate peace. But if we are to get involved in this somewhat airy argument at all, we ought rather to start from the supposition that the extent of the Prussian success would not have discouraged the Viennese but encouraged them. Maria Theresa and Kaunitz were quite clever enough to let the King stifle in his own fat. [62] By imputing superhuman qualities to their hero, the creators of the Frederick myth make him seem smaller than he really was. Frederick’s actual plan of campaign, which was frustrated by a surfeit of success at Prague, has recently been made public from the English archives, from the papers of the English diplomat, Mitchell, accredited to Frederick. The plan simply aimed at seizing Saxony and a piece of Bohemia in the autumn of 1756 to gain bargaining power, and it rests on the psychologically quite acceptable hope that the Austrians and the Saxons would then withdraw from a match which had become so much the more difficult for them. While this modest plan does honour to the King’s insight into his position, the suggestion that he tried to strike and win in the Napoleonic manner would mark him as a pure Don Quixote.

With the battle of Kolin, Frederick had been thrown back upon the defensive, although admittedly not completely. After the victories at Rossbach and Leuthen he attempted, in the spring of 1758, one more advance into Moravia in order to secure, in the shape of the fortress of Olmutz, a surety that could be traded in return for a treaty. But Daun and Laudon forced him to raise the siege and manoeuvred him out of Moravia. The rest of the Seven Years’ War was nothing more than the destructive rage of battle in Saxony, Silesia, the Mark and Pomerania. It lacked even that appearance of dramatic, heroic excitement that is still attached to the year 1757. What Frederick suffered in the years that followed with his chin up and, as Lassalle says, ‘poison in his pocket’ deserves all our respect, and it would deserve all our admiration too, if the prize of the struggle had been an advance in human culture, and not simply the strengthening of a militarism that was hostile to all culture. But the creators of the Frederick myth do a disservice to the King’s real importance when they present him as the overwhelming genius and the enemy commanders, even indeed his own Generals, as more or less incompetent. What kind of great art would it have been, then, to defeat Daun and Laudon? In reality these Austrian commanders stand up well in comparison with Frederick; they were his inferiors, not in personal ability, but in another connection which Clausewitz has depicted very well in the words: ‘The commanders who opposed Frederick the Great were men acting under orders and, for that very reason, men whose chief characteristic was caution; their antagonist was, to put it briefly, the God of War himself.’ This hits on the salient point, the particle of truth from which the legend of Frederick’s Napoleonic warfare has sprung.

It was a difference, not of kind, but of degree. Frederick waged war in the same way that every commander of the last century had to wage it, but he waged it more boldly because he had a more unlimited control over his military means – more unlimited in the military as well as the moral sense. Frederick was not bound by any orders and he had no responsibility to fear. Whether he was, from the military point of view, the most important military commander even only of his own day, is still very much open to question. According to the testimony of his adjutant, Berenhorst, he was always disturbed and disconcerted during battle, not to mention the spiteful remark that the very unlovable Prince Heinrich used to love to make at his table in Rheinsburg: ‘My brother really had no courage.’ Daun and Laudon gave the King many a rebuff that he could well have avoided. The first plan of campaign for the Seven Years’ War came from Schwerin and Winterfeldt. Seydlitz won the battles of Rossbach and Zorndorf. Despite his greatly more favourable circumstances, Frederick never led any campaigns that were as consistently successful as those of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick and his Confidential Secretary Westphalen. Prague and Leuthen were, it is true, entirely his own, but then so were Kolin and Kunersdorf. Only someone who did not have to face responsibility for the latter crushing defeats could risk the fortunes of war on the former crushing victories. This is what Clausewitz meant by the ‘God of War’. Or, to translate this mythological comparison into the language of our capitalist age: Frederick was the boss who himself speculated on the Stock Exchange, while the Dauns and the Laudons were only the business managers who always had to ask the boss before they could risk the whole capital of the business on the fall of a single card. In the prevailing state of communications, it was usually weeks before they got an answer, and it was usually as much good as a kick in the teeth, given the complete changes in the situation in the meantime. Here, however, where Daun and Laudon were inferior to the King himself, they were the superiors of the Prussian generals, who regularly lost as soon as they had to fight on their own responsibility – with the single exception of the battle of Freiburg, which in Napoleon’s judgement Prince Heinrich would also have lost if he had been faced by a real army instead of the miserable imperial troops. The Prussian generals risked their necks if they lost a fortress or a battle, which understandably did not make them more heroic but more cautious, whereas Maria Theresa judged her generals’ defeats more leniently, which of course in her powerful position she could afford to do.

Moreover, the comparison with capitalism that we drew just now is by no means as unfitting for the wars of the last century as it may at first glance appear. Wars of royal intrigue in appearance, they were in fact wars over trade, and we have indeed already indicated the considerations of trading policy that determined the course of the Seven Years’ War. The essential nature of the wars however also placed its stamp upon the manner in which they were waged. They were so to speak a matter of calculated business finance. One knew more or less the financial means, the treasury and the credit of one’s opponents; one knew the size of his army. Significant increases of financial and military resources were excluded in time of war. The human material of the armies was more or less the same everywhere; and it also had to be used in the same way everywhere, that is to say with great care, for once the army was shattered a new one could not be created, and apart from the army there was nothing. Nothing or next to nothing, for even more valuable in the last analysis than the last soldier was the last taler with which one could enlist a new soldier. Thus success in these wars rested essentially on an exact and certain estimate of the war budget, and in this connection Frederick’s words, which we have already mentioned, that the last taler is the decisive factor in victory, are seen in their true light. They are so correct for their age that they remained true even when, as in Frederick’s case, that last taler was counterfeit. Frederick did not survive the Seven Years’ War by virtue of his victories, for in the last two years he did not fight a single battle, and his writings speak of the battles he fought from 1758 to 1760 with a modesty that puts his admirers to shame and almost with apology. On the contrary, he saved himself and his crown by exhausting his own country to the limit, by sucking Saxony fearfully dry, by English subsidies and by – debasing the coinage.

A continuation of the Thirty Years’ War indeed! The coin clippers of the seventeenth century were in great demand, however much Frederick personally despised this old princely industry. He was really ashamed of it, and had his counterfeit coins struck on Polish and Saxon dies, (indeed the ‘Polish’ eight groat pieces remained as a scourge on the Prussian population until the introduction of the German national currency) or brought a few of his royal brothers under God’s grace, like the Prince of Anhalt Bernburg, in order to decorate his bits of tin and brass with their paternal countenances. But it was to no avail; money, money and yet more money was, in Montecuculi’s apt words the one and only sinew of war in those days. And we must also not overlook the fact that Frederick was not at first driven by necessity to what he shamefacedly called his ‘industry’. Even before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, the King signed a contract with the three Jewish coiners Herz Moses Gumpertz, Moses Isaak and Daniel Itzig for the coinage of small change, in order to wage war abroad without spending much precious metal. As necessity increased, the currency became worse and worse, and thus the greater part of the peoples’ hatred and execration has fallen on Frederick’s last Jewish coiner, Veitel Ephraim. It was also very unkind of Frederick to pay his mercenaries and subjects in the debased coinage, but to demand that they paid him in good money; in this way he took all the good money out of the country to coin it into bad money; it was only when good money had entirely disappeared that, in 1760, he permitted the royal treasury to accept the debased coinage as well ‘as a special favour’. His most daring enterprise however was to pay back in the debased currency after the closure of legal cases the deposits that had been paid into court in good money by the parties involved. If the parties to the case, who had been so shamefully deceived in their faith in Prussian justice, complained about it, all the legal authorities needed to do was profess ignorance.

Now it is clear that, since the wars of the last century despised all moral authority, they could have no moral effect on the minds of the people and could awake no national spirit. They could no more do that than the Gumpertz, the Isaaks, the Itzigs and the Veitel Ephraims could be the precursors of Lessing, Herder, Goethe and Schiller. But we must still, nonetheless, test two further claims that have recently been made by patriotic historians in order to preserve the reputation of the Seven Years’ War, despite all, as a national peoples’ war. First the Free Battalions and particularly the Land Militia that Frederick raised are said to have been the germ of the later Territorials (Landwehr). But one only has to put oneself into Frederick’s position for a moment to see that nothing can have been closer to the King’s interests than preserving the war’s character as a war of royal intrigue fought by mercenaries, and that nothing could have been more hateful to him than calling up the masses. Not only would he have been infinitely inferior militarily to the huge populations of his opponents, but he would also have had more to fear from the armed peasants of his own country than from any power on earth. And however impossible a mass call-up actually was given the state of military organization in those days, Frederick nevertheless carefully stamped out any spark that could have lit a fire of that sort. It did indeed happen that here or there the peasants took up their pitchforks and their scythes, not out of enthusiasm for Frederick and his Junkers, but to defend what little they possessed from being plundered and their wives and children from being dishonoured by the enemy mercenaries who had invaded the country. But then the King immediately ordered them to remain true to their inheritance and not to get mixed up in the war, or he would treat them as rebels. When the inhabitants of East Friesland resisted the French invasion and found that they had bitten off more than they could chew, he replied contemptuously to their complaints that he would have done just the same as the French. President Kircheisen even had to forbid the citizens of Berlin, on pain of severe punishment, to take up arms when, in 1757, the town was occupied for a short time by the Austrians. Frederick avoided with the greatest care anything that could have given the war a ‘higher’, a ‘national’ meaning, and he had to if he did not want to give up his goal once and for all.

It is obvious from this that the Free Battalions and the Land Militia that Frederick set up in the Seven Years’ War must have been something very different from what recent Prussian historians claim. These troops did not fight out of enthusiasm for King and Country; they were not better elements than the usual mercenaries. On the contrary, they consisted of the dregs of the human resources that Frederick could use only in the most extreme emergency for military purposes. In his Principles of Tactics he says of those Free Battalions that, in attacks on fortified positions, they should be placed in the front ranks and should go straight for the enemy ‘in order to draw his fire and perhaps disorganize his troops. Whatever happens regular infantry must always be placed behind the Free Battalions to force them, out of fear of the bayonet, into a spirited and pressing attack.’ And Frederick further says: ‘In battles on the level plain the Free Battalions must be placed on the end of that wing which is refused to the enemy, where they can cover the baggage. These royal instructions for the use of Free Battalions contain simultaneously the most exhaustive and the most annihilating criticism of these troops. Frederick had seen at Kolin and elsewhere what destruction the excellent Austrian artillery had wrought from fortified positions on his attacking infantry; the Free Battalions then were to be driven forward at the point of the bayonet purely as cannon fodder, to give as much cover as possible to the attack of the regular infantry, and in the process there would ‘perhaps’ be the advantage that in their desperate situation these desperate elements might do a little damage to the enemy. On the open plain, on the other hand, where the Prussian infantry could develop its full force, the Free Battalions are to be posted as far as possible from shot and shell in the least dangerous position where they can do no harm and may even do some good by covering the baggage. They were simply the most unserviceable elements in the army and, according to all the reports that we have received about them, consisted of the scum of humanity.

The verdict on the Land Militia is morally better but militarily worse, if possible. Frederick ordered them to be set up after his heavy losses at Prague and Kohn, when he had to send for the regular troops from the Mark and Pomerania but did not wish to leave these provinces totally defenceless against the advancing Russians and Swedes. It was to be led by discharged officers and for its upkeep a Land Militia tax and a Land Militia excise were imposed on the country in addition to all its other burdens. The difference between the army and these troops, however, was one of degree rather than kind. They were raised and trained in the same way as the army, but the material was very much worse. They consisted of peasants who had fled to the towns, impoverished burghers, who would otherwise have starved to death, prisoners of war, invalid soldiers and regular recruits for military service who had not yet entered the army and were in this way secured from being carried off by the enemy. Their military effectiveness was inconsiderable, and anyway they had as little to do with a nation in arms as any part of Frederick’s army.

The second claim that is supposed to confirm the ‘national meaning’ of the Seven Years’ War is based on the idea that the war saved the spiritual freedom of Protestantism etc. We have already seen the reality behind this claim, but here too it is said that, be that as it may, the world saw Frederick as the hero of Protestantism and, consciously or unconsciously, that was what he was. The King made religion a very important item in his military calculations, that much is certainly correct. But let us just ask how. In his ‘General Principles of War’, his standing instructions, which he handed over to his generals for strict observance in wartime, he says:

If war is waged in a neutral country, it merely depends which of the two can win the friendship and trust of its inhabitants. Discipline is strictly maintained. ... the enemy is accused of having the worst possible intentions towards the country. If the country is Protestant, like Saxony, one plays the role of a defender of the Lutheran religion; if it is Catholic, one talks of nothing but toleration. The other thing you need here is fanaticism. If a people can be aroused in defence of their freedom of conscience, if they can be taught that they are oppressed by priests and bigots, then one can count on them, that is to say they will move heaven and hell in your interests.

Is it not thus clear that Frederick’s unsuspecting soul was totally innocent of the conscious or unconscious championship of ‘Protestant freedom of conscience’ that he is supposed to have displayed during the Seven Years’ War? Still they say the world fell for the whim of recognizing him as such a champion, and then the patriotic magic lantern is always ready to project the picture of the Austrian Marshal with his consecrated hat and sword onto the screen. But the whole thing is very peculiar. Frederick did, it is true, make a great effort from time to time to play the ‘role of the defender of the Lutheran religion’, not just for the benefit of Saxony but of the whole of Germany, or, as he says elsewhere, ‘to make even those burst out in anger who have the slightest inclination to Martin Luther.’ To this end he had a number of forged documents prepared by the Marquis d’Argens, among them particularly that papal brief in which the Pope is supposed to have rewarded Marshal Daun for the capture of Hochkirch with the award of a consecrated hat and sword. Frederick also tried to make fun of his opponent, who was by no means his inferior, in a most unkinglike manner as the ‘man with the consecrated cap’. (By the by – although the Austrian government immediately announced that the whole story of the consecrated hat and sword was an invention, and although this invention has been exposed dozens of times since in the most convincing and extensive way, it still lives on unflaggingly in the Prussian history books. In comparison with the staying-power of the Prussian patriotic fable one is tempted to look on Egyptian mummies almost as mere mayflies.) But this ‘no-popery’ performance was aimed not at the nation, but at the smaller German courts, and not just the Protestant ones either. There is no doubt that, on the Austrian side, there was in the Seven Years’ War a certain tendency, weakened and limited as it was, to try once more to spread Habsburg papal domination over the whole of Germany. The French diplomats at the German courts reported to Versailles that even the Catholic Imperial Estates were worried about ‘German liberty’, and that it was urgently necessary to make public announcements to belie these fears. The Austrian government defended itself repeatedly against the suspicion that it wanted to break the terms of the Treaty of Westphalia, although the suspicion grew to a certain extent spontaneously out of the whole situation, and it was a clever diplomatic move on Frederick’s part to feed it. He was also not unsuccessful. At the Imperial Diet of Regensburg, the unanimity of the Protestant Imperial Estates prevented the ostracism of Frederick that the Austrian court demanded, and if the Imperial Army turned out to be even more pathetic than it ought to have been given the decayed state of the Empire, this was because most of the Imperial Estates, Catholic and Protestant alike, only supplied their badly equipped troops with the greatest hesitation and unwillingness. To this extent Frederick had every reason to tell the Marquis d’Argens that his anti-papal forgeries were worth as much to him as winning a battle. The only thing is that here he was thinking only of the moral effect on the courts, and not at all of the nations. And even in this his success remained within specific boundaries. The smaller German courts were much too anxious to make independent decisions for themselves. Some of them, who lived too close to Frederick for comfort, combined security with profit and sold or hired their subjects as auxiliaries to England, which, formally speaking, was at war only with France and not with Austria or the German Empire. It is to be hoped that no ‘higher meaning’ for the Seven Years’ War can be found in this trade in human beings.

This war, like all the other wars of the eighteenth century, in its military-economic nature, was basically no concern of the civil population. And this too was the general conception that contemporaries had of the Seven Years’ War. Among his impressions Frederick wrote: ‘The peaceful citizen should take no notice when the nation is fighting.’ Lessing wrote in his first Literary Letter: ‘I would prefer to entertain you with the sweet dream that in our more moral times war is no more than a bloody process between independent chiefs, which leaves all other classes undisturbed and has no further effect upon science than awaking new Xenophons, new Polybiuses.’ [63] And Clausewitz writes on the wars of the eighteenth century: ‘In their means as in their ends, they became more and more limited to the army. The army with its fortresses and a few prepared positions became a state within the state, within which the warlike element slowly consumed itself. The whole of Europe rejoiced at this tendency and held it to be a necessary result of spiritual progress. Although this idea was mistaken ... this change had nonetheless a beneficial effect of the peoples. It must not be forgotten, however, that it made warfare even more a mere concern of the government, and made it even more foreign to the interests of the people.’ There are three classical testimonies all at one go, but let us nevertheless add a few more significant facts.

When Frederick, in winter quarters at Leipzig, discussed German literature with Gottsched, [64] he dedicated a French ode to that ‘Saxon swan’ and Gottsched answered publicly in a poem of quite excessive flattery, which ended with the words ‘and your admirer remains Yours truly.’ Lessing [65] scoffed very loudly at this stupidity, but no one at the time was the least put out by the fact that a professor of the Elector of Saxony thus publicly flattered the conquerer of his country, the deadly enemy of his sovereign. What would be infamous high treason today appeared then to be quite natural, or at the most laughable for its lack of literary taste, so much did the civil population consider itself to be unconcerned with the facts of war. The correspondence Lessing had while he was living in Leipzig with his Berlin friends Moses Mendelssohn and Nicolai is also very informative. The year 1757 was the only year in the Seven Years’ War that could give rise to a certain hero-worship. The mightiest battle of the century at Prague, then the sudden reversal of fortune at Kolin and finally, out of the depths, the quick rise to the merry victory at Rossbach and the brilliant victory at Leuthen! What must Frederick’s soul-mate and fellow-revolutionary Lessing and the Brandenburg-Prussian patriot Nikolai have written about that in their letters, in the pure delight of their hearts! Well, to tell the truth – actually nothing. In their correspondence of the year 1757 one finds extensive discussion on the theory of tragedy, all sorts of hair-splitting over grammatical obscurities in Klopstock’s Messiah, consultations about the printing and publication of the Library of the Arts which the Prussians Mendelssohn and Nicolai finally brought out with a Saxon publisher: but about the war? Nothing. Unless you think that Lessing’s report that the poet Ewald von Kleist has been promoted Major in an infantry regiment in the Leipzig garrison, or Moses’ teasing that Lessing must have been recruited by a Prussian press-gang, since he delays so long in answering, amount to something.

Nevertheless, if Lessing and Moses, who were among the most advanced elements of the bourgeois population of Germany at the time, were in general completely indifferent to the war, it is obvious that they were already beginning to see what was wrong with the ‘mistake’ that Clausewitz talks about – but not in the way that the theory of a ‘higher meaning’ would have us expect. In Lessing’s remarks about the ‘sweet dream’ that we quoted above a certain doubt is already evident, which is seen even more clearly in the immediately preceeding sentences. They run: ‘Peace will return once more without them (the Muses); a sad peace, accompanied by the sole melancholy pleasure of weeping over lost riches. Draw back your gaze from that gloomy prospect. One must not make a soldier pay for his inevitable business by showing him its pitiful consequences.’ And Moses writes exactly the same thing to Lessing in 1757, asking him to leave Leipzig as a place of disturbance, affliction and general desperation: ‘Come to us, in our lonely garden house we will forget that the passions of humanity are laying the globe waste. How easy it will be for us to forget the worthless squabbling of avarice if we can continue face to face our debate on the most important matters that we have started in our letters!’ [66] Remarkable that when these spokesmen of the bourgeois classes take a critical look at the Seven Years’ War they are full not of sympathy but of antipathy! Remarkable, or perhaps not! For the illusion that the bourgeois population was not concerned with the war could only last while that population totally lacked self-consciousness. Along with that self-consciousness there inevitably arose the recognition that they alone were to bear the cost of the war, and that the ‘beneficial effect’ that seemed to be a ‘necessary consequence of spiritual progress’ was bought precisely at the cost of any ‘higher meaning’. The Seven Years’ War could not leave the bourgeois population indifferent, and did not leave them indifferent, but to the extent that it aroused any sentiment in them at all it was a sentiment of disgust, not a sentiment of bourgeois self-consciousness or of national pride. The bourgeois contemporaries of the Seven Years’ War could no more draw such a sentiment from it than Frederick could conduct his wars according to Napoleonic strategy. Merely to imagine such a relationship was impossible until the struggles of the American and French revolutions had given war a completely different form and content, and it was in fact only under the fresh impression of the age of the Napoleonic wars that Goethe ascribed to the Seven Years’ War a significance that Frederick’s wars did not, and simply could not, have for his bourgeois contemporaries.




51. The treaty of Westphalia in 1648 marked the end of the Thirty Years War.

52. Droysen, Geschichte der preussischen Politik, Volume 2, pp.68 seq.

53. Koser, König Friedrich der Grosse, Volume I, p.153.

54. The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was fought by Austria, France, Russia, Sweden and Saxony in an attempt to destroy the power of Frederick the Great, who was supported by England. France lost Canada to England in 1760.

55. Barataria – In Cervantes’ Don Quixote this is the name of an imaginary island of which Sancho Panza, the Don’s servant, is made governor.

56. The cannonade of Valmy – An engagement in 1792 between the army of the French Revolutionary Government and the Prussian army under the Duke of Brunswick, which aimed to restore the monarchy in France. The French army was in a dangerous position but the Prussians limited themselves to artillery fire and did not dare to attack. Goethe, who was present at the battle, said of it: ‘A new epoch in world history is beginning.’

57. On the economic developments that led to the transformation of the Frederician strategy into the Napoleonic, see Engels, Anti-Dühring.

58. Battle of Saint-Privat – A battle in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War at which the Germans suffered heavy losses (8,000 men in a matter of minutes) as the result of the accuracy of French rifle-fire.

59. Kashubia – Area on the Lower Vistula inhabited by a Slav population, the Kashubs.

60. Pirna – Town in Saxony.

61. Leopold Joseph Daun (1705-1766) – Austrian Field-Marshal noted for his delaying tactics and lack of aggressiveness.

62. Kaunitz (1711-1796) – Austrian statesman and diplomat.

63. Xenophon (434-355 B.C.) – Greek historian and soldier who led a force of Greek troops from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) across Asia Minor to Byzantium (Constantinople), an expedition he describes in his Anabasis (literally The Military Advance March). Polybius (205-123 B.C.) – Famous Greek historian, one of the first historians not only to record historical facts but to examine their causes and effects. Wrote a history of Rome in 40 books.

64. Ephraim Gottsched (1700-1766) – German scholar and critic.

65. Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) – Famous German classical writer and dramatist.

66. Lessing, Werke, Volume 20, Book II, p.64. Hempel edition.


Last updated on 16.2.2004