Secondhand Rows 

Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.

March 2019

Gleebooks Bookshop - Tuesday, February 26, 2019
History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle – Chapman and Hall, London. 1873. People’s Edition. 10 volumes. Terracotta decorative cloth with gilt and black lettering. Pages rough cut. Some light foxing and age stains to book edges and some endpapers. Mild shelf wear with light rubbing and bumped corner edges. Internally, about Near Fine condition. Foldout maps. Publishers insert in Vol I. $150.00.

I wonder if the Scottish historian, philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) is much read these days. Although astonishingly popular in his day, he is indeed an acquired taste. He may be most widely known for his famous statement that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. In a collection of lectures published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841), Carlyle sought heroes as his subjects and found them in such world figures as Muhammad (the hero as Prophet); Dante, Shakespeare (as Poet); Luther (as Priest); Rousseau (as Man of Letters) and Napoleon and Oliver Cromwell (as Kings). Having completed a biography of Oliver Cromwell in 1845, Carlyle sought another hero to worship and chose Frederick the Great (1712–1786), King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786—colloquially known as ‘Old Fritz’. This history was originally published in six volumes between 1858 and 1865 and was Carlyle’s last major work. Thirteen years were spent were spent on writing and research. Trips were made to Germany to visit the scenes of Frederick’s military triumphs. Carlyle struggled to complete the work, naming his biography ‘the Nightmare’.
He admired the Soldier-King, the determined administrator and the masterful leader of the Germans. Yet Frederick was also an accomplished poet, musician, philosopher (pupil of Voltaire), builder of baroque palaces (Sanssouci in Potsdam) and whose court was a centre of 18th Century European Enlightenment culture. These were aspects of Frederick that Carlyle found ‘uncongenial’ and less to his taste. The biographer was however, too honest to ignore them. Carlyle wrote his biographical works in a unique, distinctly ‘unhistorical’ style. Instead of calm detachment and observation and reflection, he often wrote in the first-person plural, present tense—the reader is an observer and participant in the maelstrom of historical events being described. This was especially so in his acclaimed work The French Revolution (1837), with dramatically rendered scenes of the storming of the Bastille and the execution of King Louis XVI. This work was a direct influence on Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

In 1945, almost two centuries after Frederick’s reign, another German leader immersed himself in Carlyle’s dramatic portrait of the masterful military ruler. As the Nazi Third Reich crumbled into ruin, Adolf Hitler, the beleaguered Führer, drew inspiration from Frederick’s military struggles – and ultimate miraculous salvation when all seemed lost - against an overwhelming coalition of enemies arrayed against Prussia in the Seven Years War (1756-63). In March 1945, less than six weeks before his end, Hitler, who had fused and distorted Prussia’s past glories to provide ‘historical’ legitimacy for his Nazi regime was presented with a gift by his most loyal acolyte, Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels who recorded the occasion in his diary: I pay a visit of several hours to the Führer in the evening…I hand him a copy of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, which gives him great pleasure. The Führer knows the book…He says that of the great men on whom we must model ourselves today, Frederick the Great was the most exceptional…What an example and what comfort and consolation in these dark days! One’s heart lifts as one reads this account. It must be our ambition to set an example on which later generations can model themselves in similar crises. Of all the bizarre scenes recorded of the Hitler’s last days, this may be the most surreal. I wonder if Hitler feverishly read (and re-read) Book XIX: Friedrich Like to Be Overwhelmed in the Seven-Years War (1759–1760) and Book XX: Friedrich is Not to Be Overwhelmed: The Seven-Years War Gradually Ends (25 April 1760–15 February 1763). Unlike Frederick, no miraculous political event came to Hitler’s rescue, and in Hitler we see Carlyle’s ‘great man of history’ theory carried to its ultimate ghastly conclusion. Stephen

 
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