Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

Frederick the Great.

It has often been pointed out (by me – amongst lots of other people) that the policies of Otto Von Bismark had a vast influence around the world. They mark the turning away from the (relatively) free market liberalism of the 19th century to the Welfare State “ism” and general statism of the 20th century. They also mark a turn from a culture in which at least lip service was given to virtue of peace and the virtue of honesty – to a culture (the culture of the early 20th century) where war, or at least organzing a country on the basis of war, was seen as a positive good. And where deceit (trickery) was seen as good – as long as it was for a “good cause”.

A move away from the German culture of (for example) the composer Mendelssohn (with its almost obsessive concern for personal morality), to a cynical power seeking culture – where anything (ever whipping up ethnic hatred – such as, of course, anti semitism) was O.K. as long as it led to POWER (both personal power and collective power).

Bismark himself did really love war (in fact he was always very nervious that his gambles might go wrong – and spent the last years of his life worried that everything had gone too far and that Germany he had unified was heading to destruction), but this did not stop his bombastic speeches about “blood and iron”. And Bismark did not really believe evil Jews ran the world (in private he mocked such absurdities), but this did not stop him digging up the spirit of antisemitism when it served his political purposes in the late 1870s (denouncing German liberals as a “party of Jews” because they opposed his plans for higher taxes on imported goods).

Nor was Bismark a socialist (at least not in the full sense), but this did not stop secretly subsdizing the socialist moverment in the 1860s (in order to scare factory owners, and so on, into supporting the Prussian government) – even though his concern was genuine when the Red monster he had helped create started to get out of control…..

Bismark believed that the state should dominate education (a traditional Prussian belief – very much connected to the man I will get on to presently), and he also put into the practice the dream of so many collectivists over the years that the state should dominate such things as health care and old age provision also (Bismark was indeed the man who took the concept of the “Welfare State” from the theories of the old, and discredited, economics and political science of the “Cameralists”, and made it a practical reality – although the schemes he created were at first of very modest cost, as such schemes always are at first).

Bismark would not have welcomed the 20th century (with its, in many nations, state control of just about everything – and with its extermination of hundreds of millions of human beings). But the ideology of his time led, logically, to it. The German “Historical School” rejected the idea of “economic law” based upon reason – and held that if a problem existed it was the job of the state to fix it (and one “fix” leads to more problems which lead to more “fixes” and….) they may not have gone as far as “Closed Commercial State” Fichte (let alone Karl Marx) in their attacks upon free enterprise – but by denying the concept of economic law they opened the door to modern 20th (and 21st) century collectivism.

Prussian (German) education also instructed Richard Ely and the rising school of American collectivists. They did not slavishly support the Germany of Bismark – but only because (after their time in Germany) they thought they could home and make America a “better” version of it (by “better” read a version of collectivism that had no silly aristocrats or Kings, and where there were no barriers of custom and tradition as a bar to the will of “the people” and the “modern age” – Adolf Hilter and his “National Socialists” had a very similar vision, even in racial matters and eugenics, to such American “Progressives”, see Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism”).

In economics they managed to purge American universities and texts of much of the old French lassiez-faire school of Bastiat and so on (in Frace intself the government created a new subject “Public Administration” to have the same effect – to purge France of limited government ideas, and imitate Germany, just “do it better”). And, in philosophy, such Schools as “Pragmatism” (with its denial of reason and objective truth – and its insitance that government was there to solve problems) would replace the old philosophy of “Common Sense”.

Sometimes all this purging was (and is) done by the normal tricks of academic politics (by people who, with no sense of irony, screamed “academic freedom” when there was any effort to fight back), sometimes by more direct means – have a look into the stange death of Mary Stamford (of Stamford University).

The reactionaries and their silly things (such as the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights) must be destroyed – by any means necessary. And so it was (and is) in the rest of the West also. Although the conflict has been a lot longer (and with many more setbacks – setbacks produced by desperate resistance, in many parts of the world, by the “reactionaries”) than the Progresssives thought it would be.

In Britain also both many Liberal party people and many Conservative party people were wildly impressed by the example of the new Imperial Germany (although sometimes in the was Saruman is impressed by Sauron in the “Lord of the Rings” – they envyed it as a rival, and wanted to make Britain a “better” version of it).

Even the young Winston Churchill sneered at the “old women”, the hopeless reactionaries of such groups as the Liberty and Property Defence League, and the Personal Rights Association, who resisted the “march of progress”. He accepted much of the statist agenda from a desire to set up government “insurance” schemes (covering just about everything – even unemployment, which Bismark had thought a step too far), to nationalizing the railways (very Prussian), to eugenics (the young Churchill accepted much of what the older man, now become something of a Tory “reactionary” himself, denounced).

By the early 20th century a belief in liberty (both economic and civil liberties) was seen as hopelessly reactionary. Part of a world of Hapsburg Princes (not for nothing did Hitler hate the House of Hapsburg) opposing the killing of helpless Jews because it was not “honourable” (as if individual honour could have any meaning in the modern world – the modern concept of honour was “my honour is loyality” a collective concept), and Polish cavalry (like “the last charge of the Middle Ages” when the Poles led by their hopelessly reactionary King saved Vienna from the Ottoman Machine in 1683) charging tanks with lances (whether this really happened or not is debateable – but the point is, that it is the sort of thing people expected to happen).

The modern world (whether Marxist, Nazi or Progressive) was a collectivist world – the old world of private property rights and personal honour, was gone with the horse and buggy. And the idea that progress (even technolgical progress) might actually be eventually undermined by collectivism was considered absurd by most “enlightned” people.

For the American verison of such “intellectuals” (both political and cultural) see the description of them in Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” – sadly it is not a satire (they were like that – and they still are). The screams for “freedom” turn out to be for the “freedom not to be free” (as the young Nazis of the German university student unions put it), or “freedom” from physical reality, or “freedom” from morality (such as respecting the property rights of others), never freedom in the sense of personal responsbility and the nonaggression principle (that is hoplessly reactionary – ask the Bader-Meinhof gang, or the American “Weathermen” and SDS, or the modern international “Occupy” movement).

So I should just stop there, with no mention of Frederick the Great (and thus leave people scratching their heads at my strange title for this little rant of mine)?

No – because he played a vital part in it all.

Without Frederick the Great there could have been no Bismark – and Frederick is actually (in many ways) more like the modern international elite than Bismark ever was.

Frederick the great is still an inspiration to modern “intellectuals” (including some who call themselves “conservative” such as the Scotsman Nial Ferguson), whereas a modern intellecual would not (today) cite Bismark in a friendly fashion.

Frederick was a composer, and a flute player, and fashionably cultural in every way (talking on equal terms with all the great cultural icons of his time). Even his sexuality may have been fashionable in modern terms (somerthing that can certainly not be said of the women chasing Bismark). Intellecuals have always loved Frederick the Great – partly, perhaps, he shows the false nature of the view that an cultured (and sensitive) intellectual can not also be macho. After all Frederick the Great had more human beings die by violence than any other person of his time. So what if he would have fitted in perfectly (in every way) in the Apostles Club in 20th century Cambridge – he was also one of the great killers of history (so there – you reactionary bigots).

Frederick the Great is the cultured philospher-king (Plato’s dream – and a man who took some of Plato’s ideas out of the books of theory and into the world of practice). A true philospher in that he wrote on issues of philosophy (supporting determinism, the denial of human agency – “free will”). A man who mocked the formal religions of his time (whilst, of course, being “deeply spiritual”….).

Frederick the Great got rid of torture (so some modern civil libertarians love him) – the fact that he got rid of it for the practical reason that a confession extracted by torture could not be trusted (so the real guilty might escape his punishments) can be glossed over (perhaps RIGHTLY so). Although, it should be remembered, that torture was itself was a Progressive concept, it is from Roman law (Imperial Roman law – late Imperial especially), and “putting the question” (torture) was formally incorporated in the laws of nations when they got rid of chaotic “Common” (“Feudal”) law. England never did – which meant that torture (whilst sometimes practiced) had a doubtful legal status here (as it is not part of Common Law, the idea of attacking, torturing, someone who is tied up and unable to defend themselves is not a “Feudal” law concept).

Of course the Empress Elizabeth of Russia (who ruled at the same time as Frederick the Greate) swore an oath that she would never have anyone executed – and in all the years of her reign she never did. But Elizabeth was not an intellectual (Elizabeth was tall blond who looked, and acted, like she should be driving a charriot with knives sticking out of the wheels or, alternatively, side by side in the shield wall that Aethelflead, “White Lady of the English” and daughter of Alfred the Great, formed in a ditch against a Viking raid – when she was 15 years of age), so Elizabeth gets no credit for this (“have you seen her taste in art? those paintings are so chocolate box…..”).

He also established “freedom of the press” (as long as his own right to rule was not questioned – a very modern, “social”, view of this freedom, to be found in the Constitutions of many countries now, freedom of speech unless…..). As Frederick said – “they can say what they like – as long as I can do what I like”.

Frederick is also supposed (in most textbooks) to have established freedom of religion. Actually this had long been the de facto practice in many lands ruled by the Electors of Prussia – for historical reasons.

The Electors came from the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order – an order set up to defend Christians against Pagans (of course it soon became an Order to wage war against Pagans), but the Order did not die when the Slavs became Christians (of course some of the Slavs, such as the Russians, were already Christain before the Order was founded), it continued to fight and take land (because that was all its structure could do) – till the Slavs finally defeated the Order and the Grand Master agreed to become a Feudal vassel of the King of Poland (something old German history books glossed over – as they did the fact that virutally every German aristocratic family was intermarried with Slavic aristocratic families).

Anyway the rulers of Prussia (a land named after a slav tribe) tended to have a pragmatic attitude to religion. As the Grand Masters showed when they dropped their Roman Catholic faith and became Protestants – so they could marry and create a de facto (if not legal) kingdom of Prussia – “the army that became a state”.

In the chaos of 16th and 17th century Germany the Grand Masters of the Order ended up remaining Electors of Prussia (“elector” as in “entitled to a vote on who was Emperor” the Holy Roman Emperors being, formally anyway, elected). And they controlled land a long way from traditional Prussia – lands with a mixed population of Lutherians and Roman Catholics. The Electors themselves were (at least formally) Calivinsts – but it did not really matter, they worked through the Lutherian Church and tolerated the Catholics (just as Frederick the Great was famous for doing later) and all this was noted by the English philosopher John Locke.

There was some “danger” that the power of the Electors of Prussia would be undermined – with the growth of “Feudal” elements (such as independent minded aristocracy and a Parliament, “Estates”, made up of nobles and townsmen and …..).

However, 18th century “enlighted” despotism saved the power of the Electors (as it did state power virtually everywhere in Europe – bar such places as England and Poland, where such things as the independence of the nobles remained strong, arguably too strong in the choatic Polish case).

The “Great Elector” (the forefather of Frederick the Great) had managed to snuff out all reactionary elements in Prussia – and create an “enlightned despotism” (these late 17th and 18th century rulers thought of themselves as totally unlike the unlightened despotism of the Ottoman Turks) – although with a Prussian twist (worthy of the Grandmasters of the Order).

In the lands controlled by the Great Elector war would not be a way of surviving in a hard world – no it would be a positive good that the entire state machine would be organized around. Everything else (religious faith – everything) would be trumped by the army – in the army that had become a country. Even the greatest aristractic families would become loyal servants of the state (in a way that the English did not dream of – and the French Kings, who did dream of it, could not manage to do).

Sometimes this got a bit silly (such as with the detailed Prussian regulations on….. well on just about everything, and with Frederick the Great’s father “the Soldier King” who played toy soldiers with real people, a special guard of men all over six feet tall….).

Anyway, Frederick the Great got rid of the sillyness aspects that had crept in – and returned Prussia to a pure war machine (rather as if The Order had become a whole country – which, in a way, it had).

This did not mean that everyone in Prussia was a soldier – far from it. Frederick (being a highly intelligent man) understood that he needed a functioning economy to support his wars, so although there was peacetime conscription in Prussia (had been even before Frederick the Great) most people who could serve a useful economic function were left alone. For he did not intend his army for toy soldier games (like his father) – from the first, Frederick wanted real war, real blood, and as much blood as he could possibly get. Although he found more philsophical language to express this desire (and we are all the slaves of our desires – free will is an “illusion”, philosophy proves it…..), indeed he often expressed his desire for PEACE (although this was normally either just before he attacked – or after he had been defeated and needed time to rebuild his forces), as “truth” is not a objective thing…..

And he drenched Europe in this blood – in his wars against Austria (Marie Theresa), and later France (where, in typical French fashion, it was King Louie’s mistress who took the lead in advising that France should oppose Frederick) and Russia (the wild Elizabeth).

Over a million people died in these wars, but Frederick did gain Silesia (which may even have mattered to him – sightly) and (vastly more importantly) gained Frederick a great name – so that he was admired everywhere.

Particularly in Britain – which had first allied with him for balance-of-power reasons (to counter balance the France of Louis XV), but where Frederick became wildly popular (can you finally see where this is going gentle reader?) and some of the upper classes even (it is said) started to mimic the “clipped” way that Prussian “Junker” military officers spoke. This may be the origin of the “tight assed” English accent, that Americans sometimes note (have no fear – I am not going to go into the black leather and whips).

There were even “useful idiot” British people who went to Prussia and reported that (alone of all the major cities involved in the wars) there were no cripples in Berlin.

The fact that the Prussian army did not really bother with medical services (even by the low standards of the 18th century) so that soldiers who were likely to be crippled by their wounds, were just left to die…. well that was not important, the fact remained “no cripples in Berlin”.

In reality Frederick the Great’s economic planning (the endless law codes, the state barns, the state sponsered factories…..) was all a bit of a failure. His one great “economic success” was getting hold of the dies by which the Poles minted coins – which allowed him to produce lots of debased coins that looked as if they were real Polish coins (shades of the Nazis with “Pounds” during World War II), but Frederick was not enough of a “Keynesian” to pretend that this was not a massive fraud.

Prussian ECONOMIC strength actually comes from the time long after Frederick, the free market reforms of the early 19th century – made in reaction to Prussia’s defeat by France. It was these free market reforms that created a Prussian economy strong enough to take over all Germany (which Frederick never had a hope of doing), they were the true foundation that Bismark exploited (he exploited something that neither he nor Frederick the Great had bugger all to do with).

But that was not how British (and other) people viewed the matter. To them Bismark was building on the glorious example of Frederick – it all PROVED that state planning worked.

And Frederick really was a great General (that part of his legend is true) – although he came within an ace of losing everything.

Russian troops were closing in on Berlin itself (having defeated Frederick) when the Empress Elizabeth died, replaced by a German Tzar (Peter III – who hero worshipped Frederick and called off the Russian army).

So the legend of Frederick was secure – the man whom the universe (we must not say God) favoured, who would always win in the end (even if not by his own efforts – after all FATE determins all, we are but puppets in its hands…..).

And the intellectuals had more important things to look at than the exact position of the Russian army in 1762.

After all Frederick (after long preperation and many previous edicts) finally made EDUCATION compulsory (for all) the following year.

No more would local churches dominate education (which they did – even in Scotland, up to 1872 in the Scots case). Now the State would organize everything – and make it compulsory for all.

No wonder the intellectuals loved Frederick and his legacy – the enlightened “Prussian Schoolmaster” taking the population from the darkness of ignorance into the glorious light of the state.

Even liberal (after all was not the Prussian philospher Kant a liberal – true he believed in World Government and government with a positive welfare role, but……) philosophers, such as Sir William Hamilton, made a point of going to Germany to study philosophy (and Hamiton’s rival, J.S. Mill, was just as influenced – though he stayed here), and it shows.

It shows, for example, in Hamilton’s DEFINITION of certain key concepts – such as a “university”.

A university is DEFINED by Hamilton as a institution that is given by the state…. (by the STATE – it is in his definition, even though many universities were not created by the state historically).

The word “state” starts to be used (in a positive way) in English in the very late 18th and early 19th century – and it is German (really Prussian) influence.

Not everyone went along with all the above.

For example, Edmund Burke did not. Every piece of his writing that mentions Prussia mentions it with contempt or hostility. Even his “Annual Register” attacks Prussia whenever it can.

For example, the wars of aggression against Poland – the partitions of Poland, and the raiding (including the stealing of the Polish Crown Jewels from a city no where near the area “assigned” to Prussia).

And the persecution of the Poles (far more than the Austrians, or ever the Russians, did in the late 18th century) and Frederick did it first – before the other powers were led into it. And Prussia contined with Frederick’s tradition long after Frederick’s time (perhaps, one could argue, right up to 1939 – “that is absurd”, quite so Hitler lost, the “universe” or “fate” did not act to give him victory from the jaws of defeat in 1945 so he can not have been any connection with Frederick, who won).

In a way the intellectuals are correct. After all (like Bismark and unlike Hitler) Frederick did not exterminate the Jews (although he did make very clear their numbers should be controlled) and was pragmatic in ethnic matters (he used Jews – rather than murder them) – his contempt for the Poles was not a matter of “scientific” racism (as this nonsense had not yet been invented).

However, more and more people (over the cause of the 19th century) moved away from Edmund Burke’s view of the Prussia created by Frederick the Great.

They may have seen Prussia-Germany as rival – but one to be copied (not opposed in its principles).

Nor was this just wrong headed “liberals” British (such as the British ones I have already mentioned – or others I could mention such as Lloyd-George) or American – such as H. Mann, who long before Richard Ely was born, was trying to spread Prussian (Plato) notions of compulsory state education in the United States – but “in an American way” of course, as part of a “religion of humanity” (as opposed to traditional Christianity), close to Frederick the Great’s own thinking.

“Conservatives” also loved (or envyed) Prussia-Germany.

The front page of the “Daily Telegraph” on the first day of the 20th century is given over to a comparison of Britain with another country – and Britain is declared to compare badly.

“Well yes Paul – American output (per man, and in total) was far higher than British output even at the start of the 20th century”.

Accept it is not the United States that Britain is being compared to – it is Prussia-Germany (I keep saying “Prussia-Germany” as such writers were not interested in the “other Germany” of old free cities, and little Grand Dukedoms and so on – they were not really interested even in big places like Bavaria).

German real living standards were HALF those of Britian at the start of the 20th century.

But it is Britain that must copy Germany – not the other way round.

Of course this is partly a love of conscription and war (as opposed to the America of the time – the “Carthage” with its love of money and the contempt that many American businessmen still, WISELY, showed for the creatures in academia – Plato’s bastard children).

But it is other things to.

Yet more state education – check.

State control of railways and telegraph services – telegraph services were quickely taken over (a Parliamentry report admitted that government control proved to a be a mess – but just said the government must try harder, the PRINCIPLE of statism was now taken for granted). Railways took more time to take over.

Government industrial accident “insurance” – check.

Government medical “insurance” – check.

Government old age “insurance” – check.

And we will add government unemployment “insurance” as well – the Germans have not even done that yet (i.e. at the start of the 20th century – they did later).

By the 1940s the British “progressives” (in the Labour party and outside it) were overjoyed that Britain was finally OVERTAKING Germany in statism.

Directly running healthcare (as well as paying for it).

Nationalizing coal and steel production (even Hitler had not, officially, done that).

Comprehensive state planning – even of someone building an extra room on his house in a remote village.

Yes we finally become more statist than Germany. And more statist in our monetary policy also – “the value of money comes from the state” (argued the German “Historical School”) so, clearly, the state can produce as much of it as it likes, without it losing value (hard experience taught Germans that this was not true – but the British, after World War II, accepted the doctrine).

And the dream goes on.

A world ruled by enlightened experts (even if they are not called Kings), every setback and proof of the utter uselessness of the state is dismissed – with the Progressives comming back (after every defeat by reality, and by the desperate resistance of “reactionaries”, the Progressives come back).

It is not just a theory (in the mind of Plato or Francis Bacon) enlightened statism can work in real life.

Frederick the Great “proved it…..”

Philosophers and politicians who have never heard of the man follow him – for they follow other philosophers and politicians who knew of the example of Frederick the Great and (each in their own particular way) followed it passionately.


  1. Ornithorhynchus says:

    You clearly know a lot more German history than I do. I really don’t have anything to add here, except to say that Prussia was named after a Baltic tribe (related to the Lithuanians and Latvians), not a Slavic one.

  2. Paul Marks says:

    Apologies for what I typed Ornithorhynchus.

    Of course The Order considered Lithuanians and other Baltic people Slavs.

    Because it considered any nonGerman found in the East as Slav – basically someone to rule (to put it nicely).

    However, just because The Order had that attitude does not mean I should copy them (especially when I have just written a post deeply hostile to Prussian influence upon the world).

    So, again, I apologize.

  3. NickM says:


    Like wow!

    You ever read “Three men on the bummel”? It’s the sequel to “Three men in a boat”. It’s out of copyright so ought to cost like a quid. You’ll find it remarkable. And it being JKJ it is extremely funny. Read the first first first – seriously genius – they take a bottle of Scotch on the trip in case they “get upset”.

  4. Tinxx says:


    I think you mean Jane Stanford co founder of Stanford university don’t you?

  5. RAB says:

    Both available online at Project Gutenberg Nick.

  6. RAB says:

    And Paul, that was truly magnificent Sir!

    My A Level European History course ran from Fredrick the Great to the beginning of the First World War. Had we had you as a teacher, our understanding of what caused that war to end all wars (some hope!) would have been complete. Instead we were almost completely clueless.


  7. Paul Marks says:

    I do indeed Tinexx.

    For once I have an excuse.

    There is a nice town a few miles from me called “Stamford” – I had a habit of spelling it “Stanford” (because thart is what it sounds like – same as I tend write Rothbard’s first name as “Murry”, because that is what it sounds like).

    Anyway – I have learned to write Stamford as Stamford, but clearly I am now overcompensating and putting in an “m” for the “n” sound, even when it is an “n”.

  8. MickC says:

    That piece is absolutely brilliant.

    The stuff that should be taught but never will be.

  9. NickM says:

    There was only one portrait in the Fuhrer Bunker, Berlin. Guess who? The game of Civ (in it’s many versions) generally uses Friedrich as Leader of the Germans (It has Elizabeth for England, Montezuma for the Aztecs). I always play as the English because I am on and fey red-headed lasses (looking curiously like Cate Blanchett) promising full-on slaughter in full plate armour talking about their stomachs does something for me. Cry Harry, England and Saint George and fill these walls walls! It’s like this…

    Ah, just look-up the Civ videos on Youtube. Civ 4 starts with the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. It is that epic.

  10. Paul Marks says:

    The typing was hardly brilliant – in my mind what I type is fine, but then when I go to read it the mistakes jump out and hit me on the nose (then check before you post Paul – I know, but I get into a silly emotional state by the time I finish a bit of writing).

    Still many thanks MickC.


    You are right – about all the the stuff in your comment.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: