Book Review of Frederick the Great: A Military History

Dennis Showalter. Frederick the Great: A Military History. Barnsley, England: Frontline Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84832-640-8. Maps. Notes. Bibliographical Essay. Index. Pp. xi, 372. $50.00.

Frederick II (or Frederick the Great) ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786.  War and diplomacy consumed most of his time and interest during his reign.  Frederick II commanded Prussian forces in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and Seven Years War (1756-1763).  His efforts resulted in the acquisition and maintenance of Silesia in those conflicts.  He also gained additional territory at the expense of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the First Partition of Poland (1772).  Frederick II’s army kept the Habsburg Austrian monarchy, seeking to acquire the Duchy of Bavaria, in line during the brief War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779) in Bohemia and Silesia.  Frederick II is credited with making Prussia one of the Great Powers in Europe.  In this classic study, Dr Dennis Showalter, Professor of History at Colorado College, concentrates on Frederick II of Prussia’s involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession and Seven Years War.  This work was originally published as The Wars of Frederick the Great in Longman’s Modern Wars in Perspective series in 1996.  The author is also known for such works as Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany (1975), Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, 1914 (1991), and The Wars of German Unification (2004).

Frederick II launched the First Silesian War (1740-1742) (part of the War of the Austrian Succession) against the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria by invading Silesia in 1740.  The Prussian monarch refused to accept the Pragmatic Sanction (an edict by Emperor Charles VI that allowed his daughter Maria Theresa to inherit the hereditary lands that belonged to the Austrian Habsburgs), and sought Silesia, a prosperous Austrian province, for himself.  Prussia was supported by Bavaria, France, and Sweden.  Austria had the support of Russia, Britain, the Dutch Netherlands, and Hanoverians.  The Prussian army took control of Silesia, defeated the Austrians at the battle of Mollwitz (1741) in Silesia and Chotusitz (1742) in Bohemia, and gained most of Silesia in the Peace of Breslau (1742).  Prussia rejoined the War of the Austrian Succession when Austria attempted to regain Silesia, beginning the Second Silesian War (1744-1745).  In this struggle Prussia defeated Austria and Saxony at the battle of Hohenfriedberg (1745)  in Silesia, and the Austrians at Soor in Bohemia and Kesselsdorf in Saxony.  Maria Theresa recognized Prussia’s possession of Silesia in the Peace of Dresden (1745).

Maria Theresa sought to regain Silesia.  Frederick II began the Third Silesian War (1756-1763) (part of the Seven Years War) by launching a preemptive strike against Austria’s ally, Saxony.  He caught the Saxon and Austrian forces unprepared.  Prussian forces besieged Saxon troops at Pirna (1756), defeated the Austrians at the battle of Lobositz (1756) in Bohemia, and then occupied Saxony.  In this conflict Prussia was an ally of Britain and Hanover against the developing alliance of Austria, Russia, France, Saxony, and Sweden.

In 1757, Frederick II invaded Bohemia.  He beat the Austrians at the battle of Prague, but was then defeated at Kolin.  The Prussian king was forced to retreat to Prussia to defend against a Russian invasion in East Prussia.  He then overcame a French army at Rossbach in Saxony and an Austrian force at Leuthen in Silesia.  Prussian forces stopped a Swedish invasion in the north (Pomeranian War of 1757-1762), drove them back, and then occupied most of Swedish Pomerania.  Meanwhile, the French routed the Anglo-Hanoverian army at Hastenbeck, occupied Hanover, and forced Britain and Hanover out of the conflict in the Convention of Klosterzeven (1757).  But, Hanover soon rejoined the conflict and drove the French back across the Rhine River.  Even so, Austrian forces temporarily occupied the city of Berlin before Frederick II forced them out.

Frederick II invaded Moravia in 1758.  His goal was to besiege and capture the city of Olmütz.  However, Austria destroyed a Prussian supply convoy bound for Olmütz at the battle of Domstadtl, and forced the Prussians to withdraw from Moravia.  In August, the Prussians and Russians fought to a standstill at the battle of Zorndorf in Brandenburg.  Prussia was fortunate that Sweden did not follow up a victory at Fehrbellin to attack Berlin.  Then, in October, the Austrians defeated Frederick II at Hochkirch in Saxony but could not liberate the electorate.

Russia and Austria dealt Frederick several setbacks in 1759.  Russia defeated the Prussians at Paltzig (Kay) in Brandenburg.  Austrian forces then vanquished the Prussians at Maxen in Saxony.  In August 1759, Austria dealt Frederick II his most devastating defeat at the battle of Kunersdorf in Brandenburg.  In the meantime, Russian troops defeated Prussian forces at Gross-Jägersdorf in East Prussia.

Things became worse for Frederick II in 1760.  In June, Austria defeated Prussian troops at Landeshut in Silesia.  Russia and Sweden invaded Prussian Pomerania in 1760 and 1761.  Even so, in August 1760, Frederick II beat the Austrians at Liegnitz in Silesia.  But, the Russians and Austrians briefly occupied Berlin in October.  The Prussian monarch responded by defeating the Austrians at Torgau in Saxony.

The pressure on Prussia was great.  In 1761, Austria captured Schweidnitz in Silesia and Russia took the seaport city of Kolberg in Prussian Pomerania.  Prussia looked like a defeated power.  However, after the death of Empress Elizabeth of Russia in 1762, her heir, Peter III, a Prussophile, dropped the Russian alliance with Austria, recalled his forces from Brandenburg, agreed to a separate peace with Prussia (Peace of St Petersburg), and mediated a Prusso-Swedish truce.  This allowed Frederick II to concentrate his remaining forces against Austria, driving them out of Silesia, and defeating them at Freiberg in Saxony in October 1762.  The conflict between Austria, Prussia, and Saxony ended with the Peace of Hubertusburg in February 1763.  Prussia retained Silesia.  As Showalter writes: “The Peace of Hubertusburg established Prussia as a great power beyond question — but not beyond challenge.  Frederick’s contemporaries were generally united in agreeing that any state able to hold its own for seven years against three major enemies itself belonged in the first rank” (p.321).

Showalter discusses the controversial views of Frederick the Great as a great soldier-king.  The author points out that the Prussian monarch twice left the battlefield (Mollwitz 1741 and Lobositz 1756) under “dubious circumstances.”  He notes Frederick II’s mental state after the defeat at Kolin (1757) and during the battle of Kunersdorf (1759), hinting at his suffering from “post-traumatic stress” (p.viii).  Despite his controversial personality and miscalculations, Frederick II of Prussia became a legend as a soldier and statesman, with a reputation that endures to today.

It is great to see this outstanding study back in print.  This version includes a new introduction and bibliographical essay.  Showalter’s study remains one of the most important recent military studies on Frederick the Great, along with Christopher Duffy’s Frederick the Great: A Military Life (1985) and The Army of Frederick the Great (2nd ed., 1996).  Reed S. Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession (1993) and M.S. Anderson, The War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-1748 (1995) focus on the first conflict.  Franz A.J. Szabo’s The Seven Years War in Europe, 1756-1763 (2007) is a great study of the second conflict.  Many of the most recent studies on the Seven Years War tackle the conflict on a global scale.  These include Matt Schumann and Karl W. Schweizer, The Seven Years War: A Transatlantic History (2008), Daniel A. Baugh, The Global Seven Years War, 1754-1763: France and Britain in a Great Power Contest (2011), and Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1763 (2000).  For operational studies dealing with Frederick II’s wars, see Christopher Duffy’s Prussia’s Glory: Rossbach and Leuthen 1757 (2003), along with Simon Millar’s Kolin 1757 (2001), Rossbach and Leuthen 1757 (2002), and Zorndorf 1758 (2003).  Frederick II’s opponents are addressed in Christopher Duffy’s two-volume The Austrian Army in the Seven Years War (2000/2008) and Russia’s Military Way to the West: Origins and Nature of Russian Military Power, 1700-1800 (1981).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Europe in the 18th Century (1713-1789), Prussian Foreign Policy, Prussian Military History, Seven Years War (1756-1763), War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review of Frederick the Great: A Military History

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History.

  2. MSW says:

    Reblogged this on War and Game and commented:
    Mint Book on Frederick, reviewed by Professor Young.

  3. Dr. Young, this is a great overview of Frederick’s wars and the book. The bibliography at the end is very helpful, as I had not heard of some of those books. Thank you for reviewing.

  4. Pingback: Medieval, Military, and History News of Interest… « Venti Belli: The Winds of War

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