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Political Testament of Frederick II ("the Great") (1752)

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[After this, Frederick again sketches the present weaknesses of Prussia and once more surveys “the changes that might occur in Europe” a chapter that is largely repetitive, but contains the admission that his conscience “was not easy about his behavior toward Maria Theresa.” He ends this chapter with the following passage:]

You will perhaps ask how I advise you to act in the event of all these changes that I foresee? I am not rash enough to give you advice about distant and uncertain events. These things are too vague for me to be able to prescribe to you exact rules on what course you should follow. I content myself with repeating what I have already said to you in more detail. Keep a prudent control over your finances, so as to have money when you need it; make no alliances except with those who have exactly the same interests as yours; never make treaties binding you to act in contingencies which are remote, but wait for the case to arise before deciding on your line and acting accordingly; take good care not to place your trust in the number and good faith of your allies; count only on yourself; then you will never deceive yourself, and look on your allies and your treaties only as second strings. A large number of treaties harms more than it helps; conclude few of them, always to the point and of such nature that you have all the advantage from them and involve yourself in the least risks.

The policy of small princes is a tissue of cheatings; that of great princes consists of much prudence, of dissimulation, and of love of glory. It is a great mistake for a statesman to cheat always; he is soon seen through and despised. Keen-sighted spirits reckon on a consistent conduct; that is why one must, as much as one can, change one’s game, disguise it and turn oneself into a Proteus, appearing now lively, now slow, now warlike, and now pacific. This is the way to confuse one’s enemies and to make them circumspect in the designs they entertain against you. It is not only good to vary one’s conduct: it must, above all, be framed to fit the situation of the moment, the time, the place, and the persons with whom one is dealing. Never threaten your enemies: a barking dog does not bite. Put pleasantness into your negotiations: soften down haughty or offensive expressions; never carry small disputes too far; count your own pride for nothing and the interest of the State for everything; be discreet in your business, and dissimulate your designs. If the glory of the State obliges you to draw the sword, see that the thunder and the lightning fall on your enemies simultaneously.

You must not break treaties except for important reasons. You may do so if you fear that your allies are making a separate peace, and if you have the means and the time to forestall them, if lack of money prevents you from continuing the war, or, finally, if important advantages demand it of you. Coups of this kind can be made once, or at most, twice in a lifetime, but they are not expedients to which one may resort every day.

Source of English translation: C.A. Macartney, ed., The Habsburg and Hohenzollern Dynasties in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, in Documentary History of Western Civilization. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper & Row, 1970, pp. 332-46. Introduction, editorial notes, chronology, translations by the editor; and compilation copyright © 1970 by C.A. Macartney. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source of original French text: G.B. Volz, ed., Politische Correspondenz. Ergänzungsband: Die politischen Testamente Friedrichs des Grossen [Political Correspondence. Supplementary Volume: The Political Testaments of Frederick the Great]. Berlin: Reimar Hobbing, 1920, pp. 37-67. [The document appears here in the original French.]

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