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Reflecting on the Leadership of Frederick II of Prussia

Above: A bronze statue of Frederick II, King of Prussia 1740-1786, located at the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania (photo taken Summer 1983).

What is a Legacy of Leadership?  Reflecting on Frederick II of Prussia…

Article by A170 Tom Rozman

Now 232 years after the end of his reign, I find myself thinking on aspects of one of Europe’s leadership legacies.  I and countless millions are where we are today as citizens of the countries we are, in degrees, as part of that leader’s legacy.   This commentary is not a recounting of Frederick II of Prussia’s career, or the massive scale of the consequences, good and less so, of his career trajectory. It is instead reflective thought that I think appropriate considering today’s situation regarding leadership and the status of states.  If anything, this reflection seems worthwhile for context relative to the approach this leader took to address situations and the follow through of his demonstrated leadership.

Certainly the social, cultural, demographic, and governmental environments were very different than anything that we tend to operate with today. Or were they? Certainly in an age when any sizeable military force ceased major operations in winter in the temperate and northern latitudes, we are confronted with a difference. For these armies that had no internal combustion engine powered overland transport…all heavy weapons, materiel and supply transport of a military force of any size overland was dependent on draft animal drawn transport.  The “gasoline” for this “bio-engine” powered transport system was grass, grain and fodder, the supply of which almost disappeared in winter in Central Europe except for what had been stored.

And if an army were to attempt movement in winter, much of the limited space for food stuffs, other supply and ammunition in the transport wagons and the draft teams to draw these supplies, as well as any artillery considered necessary, would have to be diverted to haul the “bio fuel” for the “bio engines” hauling the supply.  This reality was a significant difference of these earlier times to today. And there were other differences.

Nevertheless, there were aspects of the times that translate leadership wise to today. As well, there are larger sets of conditions that apply.  The following comment explores some of these.  The comment notes some parallels of relevancy that may apply to today.

Prussia by 1740 on Frederick’s accession to the fairly brand new Prussian throne on the death of his father Frederick William I, the second Prussian king, was a very diversely populated, small, crown state in Central Europe.  It only possessed  several million souls.  It was very much a “created” and fairly new state with older antecedents that had been evolving along the Baltic Sea’s southern rim, the most significant being the German led duchy that came into existence under an ethnically German aristocracy.

This German led duchy had its inception when Duke Konrad I of Mazovia, a Polish duchy, invited the Order of the Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, symbol a black cross on a white field, to address the raiding of the then non-Christian Prussians on the duchy’s northern frontier in the 13th Century.  This was necessary at the time to allow the duke to concentrate on extending the duchy’s lands to the east.

The Prussians were a Baltic people.  They were constantly conducting incursions on the duchy’s northern frontier. The knights drew their membership primarily from the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, though there were some members from other areas such as France.

The knights, today known as the Teutonic Knights, were a late forming, in terms of the crusades, crusading knightly military order.  They had some limited experience in the Holy Lands.  Most recently at the time they had been employed in Hungary where ultimately they had been expelled by the Hungarian King.

Again, the origin of most of the knights was from the German lands. This factor over time would play a role in the cultural over arch that would develop for what would be the new formed Prussian culture though many other cultural strains would significantly make up and impact that culture such as Slavic and French groups.

From these antecedents, the still forming Prussian Kingdom was comprised of a small but highly diverse population.  It was composed ethnically of surviving elements of the original Prussians, Slavic groups such as the Kashubians, Mazovians, Pommeranians, as well as Lithuanians, Swedes, Wends and German colonists from several of the German states brought in by the knights.  Later, in the early 18th Century, French Huguenots were welcomed.

In time, a form of Prussian German culture would dominate. But significant Slavic groups and languages would comprise the lands of the kingdom and would persist as cultural elements until 1945, even with the domination by the then National Socialist German State in 1939.   Then the victorious allies would assume temporary rule in 1945.

In Prussia’s case, the Soviet government would rule, with the severe dislocations of population that followed.  Today, with exception of the East Prussian capital of old Konigsberg which remains under Russia, all of the old Prussian provinces of East Prussia, perhaps half of Pomerania and all of Silesia are again Polish territory as before the three Polish partitions of the 18th Century, and formation and expansion of the Prussian state.

The forming duchy on Mazovia’s northern frontier would thus evolve into East Prussia and as the duchy secularized and increasingly, through dynastic combinations with western lands of Brandenburg, Dessau, the Mark, and Pomerania, increase its lands and dramatically consolidate these significantly under the rule of the Great Elector of Brandenburg, then Frederick I, the first “King in Prussia.”   The name Prussia would be applied to the whole, the name ironically of the original people who fiercely resisted the Knights of the Cross and suffering subjugation and worse for that resistance.

As the electors, then king first in and then kings of Prussia formed a kingdom by patching these disparate land parcels into a larger state, a perennial challenge was almost a constant…developing sufficient population in these lands, population in numbers able to sustain and grow a state.

Many of these lands had a poorer agricultural potential than other areas of Europe.  Thus, new sources of immigration were always attractive to the rulers of the forming state whose developing pretensions exceeded the demographic available.  Illustrating the flexibility of the leadership in this regard, as different groups elsewhere in Europe experienced disenfranchisement or worse, the Prussian rulers were quick to offer inducements for these groups to resettle in Prussia.  One of the larger and most beneficial and industrious of these groups in the early 18th Century were the Huguenot French, French protestants suffering under counter-reformation discrimination and pressures and persecution in France.

This polyglot state, that would continue to absorb different ethnic populations integrating them into a German speaking “Prussian” culture, in addition to demographic challenges, had frontiers to the east, south and west that were open to attack overland and in the north from the sea.  The rulers, after some fits and starts and less than happy conflict results with other neighboring states, settled on a means to address the openness of the frontiers.  That was to develop an army capable and able to discourage attack.

The small population, however, made the idea of a large army seem a pipe dream.  As well, the economics didn’t argue well to build and sustain such an army.  But the rulers persisted.  Economic means were painfully developed over time. Population as mentioned was, through a range of expedients, nurtured and gradually grown.  Creative mechanisms to fill the ranks of regiments, yet not denude the especially important agrarian work force such as the cantonal system where the cantonists came to the regimental colors for specific training and or filling the regiments for campaign but otherwise remained available to the Prussian economy for most of the year, were developed and employed.  As well, to fill the ranks, the Prussian sovereigns made aggressive use of recruiting parties deployed across Europe to draw soldiers into Prussian regimental ranks from neighboring countries, some recruits from fairly distant states beyond even the borders of neighboring states.   The movie “Barry Linden” captured this practice well.

The extreme form of these policies occurred when the entire Saxon Army after capitulation was wholesale incorporated into the Prussian Army.  The expedient was not overly successful as many Saxon soldiers deserted at the first opportunity.

This “created” Prussian State and Army significantly larger than the army of any state its size and larger was the one the young Frederick II assumed the leadership of in 1740.  In a drive that some find reprehensible today, to confront the developing Prussian Kingdom’s ever-apparent need for enhanced economic and demographic situation, the new king seized an opportunity to the south.  Maria Theresa had just assumed the Austrian Throne on her father’s death, a throne that by tradition, law and custom could only be assumed by a male heir.

Her father, as Holy Roman Emperor and sovereign of the Austrian/Hungarian lands had negotiated among the electors of the empire and other major European powers the “pragmatic sanction.” the sanction’s purpose was to allow his daughter to ascend to the Austrian throne.  Despite the negotiated acceptance, the ascension was not a sure thing.  Frederick perceived an opportunity.

On a questionable pretext at a moment when Austria was in the throws of investing Maria Theresa and consolidating her situation, Frederick mobilized his Army headed south and in an almost lightening campaign seized one of Austria’s richest provinces, Upper Silesia which bordered the Kingdom of Prussia.  Frederick would have a less than stellar leadership moment at the battle of Mollwitz, a behavior he would never repeat.  But he had been successful. He lopped off a rich province and its population.

Holding onto the province would be a process of holding a tiger by the tale as Maria Theresa and her Army fought back over the years…Maria Theresa proving to be one of history’s greatest leaders.  And many years, approaching a decade on and off, of war, grueling war, would follow.  Frederick would ultimately prevail but the contests would take their toll, in one case Prussia’s capital Berlin being occupied.

Frederick would also cooperate in various ways with Catherine of Russia in a program of great strategic consequence that would ultimately dismember the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through three partitions dramatically increasing the growing Prussian Kingdom’s lands and population, albeit with primarily Polish speakers.  An irony was that Prussia had initially formed under the royal authority of the Kings of Poland.

Frederick had led decisively and well against the kingdom’s strategic objectives.  He had greatly enhanced the geopolitical and the demographic situations of Prussia and he had consolidated the increases.  Until 1945, only one equally decisive and opportunistic leader would partially and temporarily undo what Frederick had accomplished with the defeat of the Prussian Army at Jena…Napoleon, Emperor of the French.

There were many consequences to Frederick’s leadership.  One that unfolded over time…because of the machinations of Frederick and Catherine regarding the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an event was set in motion that would ultimately cause tens of thousands of people to immigrate to the United States and Canada from lands that were part of that commonwealth.

The lands of the Commonwealth ceded to Prussia became Prussian provinces. Then on defeat of the Prussian Army by Napoleon, the Duchy of Warsaw, was later formed.  The Duke for the new duchy was selected from the Saxon Wettin House that had provided two previous Kings of the Commonwealth.  On defeat of Napoleon and determined by the following Congress of Vienna, the lands became the Congress Kingdom of Poland under the Russian Czar.  Many thousands would make their way out of the kingdom after a series of uprisings against Russian rule and hatred of Russian dominion.

I and thousands like me are Americans or Canadians today as a legacy of the impact of leadership demonstrated by Frederick in his time.  His leadership set in motion forces that over the next hundred years would cause many to immigrate to North America, an ironic legacy given Prussia’s quest for demographic critical mass.  My grandfather and grandmother were two who made the decision to leave their Mazovian homeland for America.

Certainly, Frederick’s decisive leadership, his leadership by example, his hands on leadership of his Army at war and in peace, achieved the strategic objectives that produced an enhanced and strong Prussia.  But aspects of that leadership legacy produced other less desirable results, one being an Army that would be decisively defeated by Napoleon within two decades of Frederick’s departure and another being large scale immigration from Central European lands.

There was one caveat to the immigrating population out of Europe.  As Berlin industrialized in the 1870s a vast and rapid need for workforce developed that could not be met locally.  Consequently, thousands of people from the old Kashubian and Mazovian and other Polish ethnic areas immigrated to the city for employment opportunity.

It is interesting that in the Central European borderlands between today’s European Union and Russia, the drama continues to play out 232 years after Frederick left the stage.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with Frederick’s display of leadership in his time, no European leader seems to be emerging of a stature commensurate with Frederick.  Of course the times and conditions of leadership today may not permit such a leader to function.  Nevertheless, one cannot argue with the long reaching effects of his often bold leadership.

On a personal level, considering what befell the lands affected by Frederick’s leadership in his time, during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and World War II and the following Soviet dominated period, conflicts that caused great destruction and death in the lands my people came from, being born in the U.S. or Canada in the mid 20th Century was clearly a blessing.

Reflecting on that blessing aspect of Frederick’s leadership legacy and its long term strategic effects personally, I certainly would have to assess it as beneficial.   There is no doubt in my mind that more than a few ancestral relations from old Mazovia served in a Prussian regiment or two.

Vielen dank Alte Fritz.