Once hailed by the Nazis for his military exploits, the 300th anniversary of authoritarian leader's birth is celebrated in Germany, marking the nation's growing self-confidence.
Military hero Frederick is made great again as Germany shrugs off war guilt
BERLIN // Frederick the Great, the Prussian ruler once hailed by the Nazis for his military exploits, is back in vogue in Germany, which is celebrating the 300th anniversary of his birth with a series of exhibitions, books and documentaries that mark the nation's growing self-confidence.
For decades, Germany shunned the memory of Prussia because of the militarism and authoritarianism it symbolised.
The northern German state was officially abolished by the Allies after the Second World War. But fascination with Prussia and especially with Frederick II, an intellectual, cultured ruler who abolished torture and promoted religious tolerance, has revived here.
Historians have said it was a sign that almost 70 years after the end of the war, Germany is adopting a more relaxed, less conflicted view of itself and its history. Yesterday's anniversary was marked by a grand concert in Berlin's Konzerthaus attended by the president, Christian Wulff.
It coincided with growing suspicions in Europe of Germany's diplomatic muscle-flexing in the euro crisis. Some commentators in Britain have accused Berlin of trying to forge a "Fourth Reich" with its insistence that neighbours should adopt supposed Prussian virtues of hard work and fiscal discipline to get their finances back in order.
"The history of Friedrich was tainted for years after the war because Germany didn't want to have anything to do with war anymore," Uwe Oster, a historian who has just written a book on Frederick, said.
"These days people take a more relaxed view. He has no influence on current politics. It is a closed chapter that one can look back on neutrally without having to position oneself politically.
"What makes him fascinating is his complexity. His life was full of drama. He corresponded with Voltaire. He was an exceptional military leader, but he also had this religious tolerance. He once said: 'If Turks and heathens were to come to populate the land, we shall build mosques and churches.'"
The country is being swept by a veritable craze about "Old Fritz," as he is affectionately called.
Steiff, a maker of stuffed toys, has produced a limited edition of 1,000 Frederick the Great teddy bears wearing his trademark blue uniform coat and black tricorne hat. Some 150 exhibitions, plays, films and festivals, mainly in Berlin and neighbouring Potsdam, the residence of the Prussian kings, are being mounted now and in the coming months.
His face is ubiquitous on billboards, magazine covers and in newspaper articles, staring out with his bulging, intense eyes.
Olaf Kappelt, a Frederick impersonator who leads walking tours of Berlin sporting an Old Fritz uniform and an impressively hooked false nose, has been in especially high demand in recent weeks. "Frederick exudes such fascination because he created lasting values that continue to radiate even centuries later," Mr Kappelt said. "He embodied the Age of Enlightenment that paved the way for democracy."
Historians beg to differ, and say Frederick was as uninterested in democracy as he was in forging a German nation.
"Frederick's role as a national symbol is limited because he wasn't motivated by any kind of German nationalism, he was primarily focused on Prussia," said Professor Bernd Sösemann, a historian at Berlin's Free University.
"And he wasn't interested in promoting democracy in the slightest."
Frederick transformed Prussia from a barren backwater into a powerful European state by waging three wars, mainly against Austria, in the mid-18th century, conquering the Austrian province of Silesia with a well-trained and highly disciplined army and creating military traditions that inspired the powerful German armies of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Unlike other monarchs at the time, he directed battles in person, which strengthened his reputation as a skilful commander in the field.
Nationalists seized on him as an icon in the 19th century, as Germany's states unified. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, hailed Frederick as the "first National Socialist", and as the Second World War turned against Germany, the Nazis sought inspiration from the Prussian ruler, famous for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Hitler had a portrait of Frederick in his bunker and spoke to it in the final weeks of the Third Reich.
Today, however, there is no sense that the interest in him stems from a fresh upsurge in German nationalism. The plethora of new books about him contain much criticism of the ruler who sacrificed up to 400,000 lives in his wars, who often blamed subordinates for his own mistakes, and who was irascible and sarcastic and thoroughly absolutist despite his tolerance for minorities and his intellect.
By contrast, France's commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc is far more politically charged.
The heroine who led the French army to several victories against the English in the Hundred Years' War remains a powerful national symbol to this day and has taken on particular significance ahead of the presidential election in April, especially since France suffered the ignominy of losing its treasured Triple-A credit rating.
Germany, which has so far kept its Triple-A credit rating and has reluctantly assumed the mantle of saviour of the euro single currency, has no such need for national symbols at the moment.
Besides, a closer look at Frederick's character and his history shows that the fluent French speaker had a peculiarly un-German streak of pragmatism and cynicism. At the end of the Seven Years' War, when he was met by cheering crowds as he rode into Berlin, he remarked that people would behave the same if "you put an old monkey on a horse and let him ride through the streets".
"He's interesting to me because he had broad interests and a fundamental scepticism towards all ideologies, and because of his intellect which expressed itself in a tendency towards irony that makes him a pleasure to research," said Prof Sösemann.
"And it would be wrong to associate Frederick the Great with austerity and fiscal rectitude. After paying for all his wars, he was up to his ears in debt and poor as a church mouse."