Frederick the Great: King of Prussia

Tim Blanning. Random House, $35 (688p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6812-8
Blanning (The Romantic Revolution), retired professor of modern European history at Cambridge University, ambitiously explores the origins, outlook, and impact of Frederick II (1712–1786) in this wide-ranging biography. The enigmatic king was a man of contrasts: miserable during his strict military upbringing, he later proved an adept and enterprising wartime commander; a cosmopolitan man of letters more comfortable in French than his native German, his rule helped consolidate the foundations of a coherent German identity. Harangued by his father for preferring reading to “hunting, drinking, or praying,” Frederick nonetheless held himself out as “a beacon of reason,” establishing in Berlin an open and tolerant society unprecedented at the time. But as much as Frederick enjoyed exchanging poetry with philosophers, his reign was defined by the Seven Years’ War, a grueling conflict spanning four continents and entangling the Prussian forces in simultaneous fighting on five fronts. The youth who ran away from his barracks became a man “who could hold the balance between the other great powers of Europe,” yet expressed reluctance to return to Berlin even at the close of war. Blanning’s lively prose and command of the economic, social, and artistic currents of 18th-century Europe make this an attractive book even for those unaccustomed to scholarly reading. Maps & illus. Agent: Scott Moyers, Wylie Agency. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 01/25/2016
Release date: 03/29/2016
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