Writing in the present edition of the Spectator William Cook says the
Germany is rediscovering a once taboo part of its heritage (From Prussia with Love, 26 May). It’s reflection on a new exhibition being held in the Neues Palace in Potsdam. Under the title of Friederisiko, this celebrates the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great, Prussia’s greatest and most delightfully paradoxical monarch.
The suggestion is that that the rebirth, and rebranding, of
Frederick is somehow a recent phenomena. It’s actually nothing of the kind. In an article I wrote last year (Praising Prussia, 9 March) I touched on the fact even in the old communist German Democratic Republic Frederick was resurrected from the crypt in its twilight years. It was all part of an attempt to root the decrepit pseudo-state in German history. An equestrian statue of the king, previously removed from central Berlin in the 1950s, rode right back to prominence in the 1980s.
It’s difficult not to admire a monarch who managed successfully to be all things to all people; who could be admired by Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker; who could be an avatar for the Third Reich and the Communist Reich. This was a man, moreover, whose sexuality, for all his military militancy, was as ambiguous as that of
England’s Edward II.
It’s not just Frederick who is undergoing a renaissance in the new
Germany. The old state of Prussia, formally abolished by the Allies in 1945, is also being reappraised with fresh enthusiasm. Of course this is not the militaristic Prussia, the imperial Prussia, the very thing that Frederick would have been most proud of, but a gentle, cultured and artistic Prussia, the antithesis of the commonly accepted stereotype. This is the Prussia of the Piccolo not the Pickelhaube. This is not the Frederick of the Seven Years War but the amateur musician and composer, the friend of poets and thinkers, Plato’s philosopher king at his finest.
Friederisiko is scheduled to run until 28 October. The chief focus, as I say, is not on his martial but his cultural exploits. After all, here was a king as much at home in the salon as the battlefield; here was a King who could hobnob with men like Goethe and Voltaire. The exhibition apparently makes much of his tolerance and philo-Semitism. “All religions are equal”, he said, “Everyone must find salvation in their own way.”
We invariably recreate the past and past heroes in our own image. The Potsdam Frederick is most certainly not Hitler or Honecker’s Frederick; he is far too laid back and arty for that! But it’s comforting to note that he has not been completely divested of his Prussian starkness. He is the
Frederick for this season, for Angela Merkel’s season. He has become, as Cook suggests, a symbol for the current campaign to save the euro, a Spartan figure whose grim asceticism fits perfectly with Auntie Angela’s austerity programme.
The king himself is buried in the grounds of the nearby
. Apparently those who come in tribute place not flowers on his grave but potatoes! Yes, that’s right, because it was Frederick who brought the spud to Sanssouci Palace Prussia, a functional symbol for a functional king.
Alles oder nichts – all or nothing – was Old Fritz’s battle cry, even so far as potatoes. Personally I’m more than happy for
Germany to reclaim him as the philosopher king and gentle aesthete. But so far as the euro is concerned it may be as well to look to the warrior king, and not to the Battle of Rossbach but to Kunersdorf. The House of Brandenburg may be a miracle, but the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg is one of those things in history that is unlikely to occur twice.