cover image FREDERICK THE GREAT: King of Prussia


David Fraser, . . Fromm, $40 (720pp) ISBN 978-0-88064-261-3

An oval portrait of Frederick the Great hung in Hitler's East Prussian headquarters behind the Russian front, yet the king can hardly be counted the spiritual progenitor of the dictator. An Enlightenment man, Frederick (1712–1786) wrote elegantly (in French; his German was execrable), composed music, corresponded with philosophers, introduced a humane penal code, tolerated all religions but adhered to none and led brilliant military maneuvers. Inheriting, in 1740, a small kingdom with an oversized army from a cruel father, he made Prussia into a major European power. He chose a Spartan lifestyle: his arranged marriage to an absent princess was unconsummated, his attraction to men suppressed. He wanted to be buried at night, without ceremony, at Sans Souci, his castle at Potsdam, to which he returned only once during the Seven Years War. His blunt, witty, oft-quoted maxims are relished by Fraser, British general and author of Rommel's biography and 10 novels. Fraser is second to none in his adulation of Frederick and sometimes employs admiring if dubious anecdotes, telling us, for example, that Frederick's "regiment" of "Giant Grenadiers" allegedly included guardsmen over eight feet tall. Fraser's principal sources are the king's 30,000 letters, published between 1879 and 1939. This often stirring biography would be more gripping with fewer pages. Some readers will be deterred by Fraser's thorough accounts of military activity, others by his reluctance to translate French and German. Overall, this is an admirable and comprehensive work. 16 pages of b&w photos, 18 maps. BOMC and History Book Club selections. (May)

Forecast: Fraser's reputation as soldier and author should help sales. Some readers, however, may look to Theodor Schieder's recently translated authoritative biography or to Giles MacDonogh's recent biography.