History of Frederick II of Prussia Critical Essays

Thomas Carlyle


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Sometimes called Carlyle’s Thirteen Year War with Frederick of Prussia, the six-volume HISTORY OF FRIEDERICH II OF PRUSSIA CALLED FREDERICK THE GREAT is still a controversial masterwork, more talked about than read. Undisputably original, the work departs radically from the Gibbon-Macauley tradition which Carlyle called the Dryasdusts in order to bring back life to a great man, a hero who exercised the divine right of kings with military and diplomatic might to overcome diabolic wrongs. Such was the belief of Carlyle, a historian who found his theory of history explicit in one great man, and who then accommodated history to fit the thesis, a most objectionable practice to most of his critics, but lively and compelling both as literature of power and literature of knowledge, as De Quincey defined them.

Much of the knowledge, however, is outdated because of recent historical discoveries. Also, the historical method is suspect, Carlyle having explained the past in terms of his present and prejudices. Much of the documentation is edited, especially that concerning Voltaire, to the convenience of the historian. In addition, most of the geneology serves only to confuse without advancing the biography. Careful attention and great ingenuity, however, brings Frederick II to life in his setting, especially on the battlefields which Carlyle traversed with such care and understanding.

The power of the book cannot be overstated; the hundred-year test of a classic has been met. The quality of the framing, the immensity of the design and the execution, the ruggedness of style stand idiosyncratic but firm.

The biography of the author under the stress or the compulsion of writing this work is well known: five years of reading, traveling, and writing and rewriting, to bring out the vigorous first two volumes, the slow, tedious job of digesting and disgorging “truckloads of Dryasdusts” of battles and treaties, the neglecting of his fatally ill wife Jane who saw the hand of God in the enterprise, the fact that his conscience bothered him for the rest of his life.

Frederick II, known in history as Frederick the Great, shaped modern Europe almost single-handedly with his own great strength of character, personality, and resolve. To Carlyle, his might did mean right. No hero, however, made a less auspicious start, and in looking backward to the first volume no hero appeared less impressive in his fullest unpretentious dress. He possessed, however, an internal vigor, a sharp gray eye, and a cloak of inpenetrability learned well in youth.

The protracted opening of the biography traces the history of the Brandenberg and Hohenzollern families back to the Middle Ages, covering both sides of the inbred family.

Emerging from medieval beginnings, born to a militaristically and cruelly imperative father and a seemingly calm but conniving mother, young Frederick, the fourth in the family of ten, seemed destined to failure as a son and...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)