The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Frederick the Great
FREDERICK THE GREAT. “A tyrant of extraordinary military and political talents, of industry more extraordinary still, without fear, without faith, without mercy” is Macaulay's estimate of the greatest of all the Hohenzollerns. In the light of the Great War, Macaulay's essay reads like prophecy, while Carlyle's glorification of unscrupulous force as embodied in Frederick seems like courting the destruction which burst upon the world in August 1914. All that Macaulay wrote about Frederick's great crime of violating his plighted faith, of robbing the ally whom he was bound to defend, and of plunging all Europe into “a long, bloody and desolating war” applies to Frederick's descendant; but Carlyle admired Old Fritz because he was the only man in the 18th century who managed not to be a hypocrite. Carlyle was a romantic historian, and his history of Frederick was his magum opus. That he should select this subject was almost the inevitable result of his German studies. Having acquired the language as a key to mineralogy, he translated various German works, wrote, in a series of essays, what is practically a history of German literature, and found in Goethe a working theory of life. With this vivid interest in everything German, it was only natural that Carlyle should be attracted by the military genius who made his little German kingdom great and formidable, and set it on its career of ever-growing power. To tell Frederick's story, Carlyle found it necessary to trace the history of his house from the earliest times. This was the greatest task of his life, and it set the pinnacle upon the edifice of his fame. It rounded out his literary life. Upon its completion, he received the honor he valued most, election as Lord Rector of his old university of Edinburgh, whither he had come a poor country boy of 13, more than 50 years before. In the hour of his greatest triumph came his greatest loss, the sudden death of his brilliant wife. He did no more work. His remaining years were a gradual declension to the grave.
Carlyle himself called his greatest work, his ‘Thirteen Years War’ with Frederick. In 1852 he made his first trip to Germany to gather material, visiting the scenes of his hero's battles and noting their topography with unerring accuracy. The first two volumes appeared in 1858 and the last two in 1865.
Emerson considered it “Infinitely the wittiest book that was ever written.” Lowell criticized it with discrimination. While pointing out its obvious faults, he wrote: “The figures of most historians seem like dolls stuffed with bran, whose whole substance runs out through any hole that criticism may tear in them; but Carlyle's are so real in comparison, that, if you prick them, they bleed.”
So true are Carlyle's narratives of Frederick's battles, that his work was studied as a textbook in the military academies of Germany.