Frederick the Great on public responsibility

In light of the latest scandal involving a public official – the high-dollar call-girl assignations of New York’s Governor Spitzer – and only the most recent of a long, dreary list of infractions by high-ranking political figures, perhaps it is time that we, the public at large who bear the responsibility for having put these officials into power, should look at how a no-nonsense Prussian king dealt with those who abused the trust placed in them.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) was a believer in benevolent despotism – a firm holding of political power, but an enlightened treatment of virtually all other areas of life. The ruler who created the basis of a modern German state was a shrewd and practical politician and ruthless builder of empire, but he also had a strong sense of duty not only for himself but also for the Prussian elite; they were expected to set the example and adhere to it. We, too, must expect our public servants to set the best standards of conduct and follow them as a symbol of the trust given to them.

Frederick inherited from his father, the “Soldier King”, the finest army in Europe. Drilled relentlessly to machine-like precision, subject to the most severe of discipline, the Prussian infantry could march efficiently, stand its ground relentlessly and load and fire fifty percent faster than any other army in Europe. The leadership of this army was vested in the aristocratic officer corps of descendants from the Teutonic Knights who had, half a millennium earlier, first occupied the land of the Slavic people known as Prussians. Military service was hereditary to this class of nobles and remained an almost feudal duty towards the monarch. We, too, though not for sake of the autocracy of the Prussian example, should expect a similar devotion to duty from those who we place in power.

Unfortunately for Frederick’s kingdom, a small but increasing number of the Prussian aristocracy was demurring its military service in the interest of pursuing more personal interests. More and more, the nobility who were the leadership of the Prussian military were opting out of army service to pursue what a contemporary elected official, who also avoided service, referred to as “other interests.” We, too, see more and more that many of those we put in power and repose trust in are more and more inclined to pursue their own interests rather than those imposed by the office they hold.

Frederick decided that this sort of conduct was unacceptable, a breach not only of tradition but also of public trust and duty. His answer was blunt and unmistakable: Do your duty or lose your station. If you do not want to do your duty, then you are not needed and you do not need the von in front to your family name. We, too, as the voting public, need to inform our public servants that their position is not a sinecure, that if they do not want to perform their appointed duties then we do not need them and they can revert to a less exalted status forthwith.

While that got the attention of the errant aristocrats and – as Dr. Samuel Johnson might have observed – wonderfully focused their minds, Frederick had another problem with many of his officers in that they liked to duel in spite of his royal order forbidding such conduct. Affairs of honor – real and imaginary – were quite literally bleeding away a number of officers because of violation of the law. We, too, need to remind our public servants that they are not exceptions to the law; we expect them to be as observant of the law as is the most apprehensive and powerless amongst us. Like Caesar’s wife, they must be above reproach.

Again, the no-nonsense Frederick found a way to get the absolute attention of these scofflaws. As the story goes, he got wind of an early morning duel between two officers and appeared on the scene to make his objection quite clear. In the early light of dawn, the king arrived on the scene – accompanied by a minister and an executioner – as the two officers prepared to settle their quarrel. One of the seconds approached and asked Frederick what his two companions were going to do. The king replied most seriously, “the minister will attend the loser, the headsman will attend the winner!”

We, too, need to make it very, very clear to our public officials that the rules are there for everyone. There will be a reckoning, and there will be terminal consequences for failure to follow the law and one’s duty.

Most sincerely,

T. J. Flapsaddle