Learning Lessons from the Prussian Past?
The past, famously, is a foreign country. Unfortunately, it often seems that “foreign wars” fought before 1900 are too distant to find their way into our policy analysis. And without understanding the Seven Years War, we can’t fully understand the possible benefits of strategic patience in Ukraine today.
As leading military historian Paul Lockhart recently noted, the overwhelming majority of military historians in the United States focus on topics since 1900. Even fewer, roughly 20 percent, study military history before 1815. A recent article in War on the Rocks correctly asserted that one of the primary values of historical thinking was “an ability to think outside of the parameters of the present,” rather than learning concrete lessons. But at the same time, the specific examples in that piece didn’t go further back in time than 1938 — still within living memory.
Take the subject of how wars end, a pressing question that preoccupies the United States in Ukraine. Dan Reiter’s How Wars End, the leading academic study of the subject, goes back only as far as the American Civil War. Gideon Rose’s similarly titled How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle examines an even shorter span of time, only wars since World War I. The Parley Policy Initiative’s range of examples is shorter still — 1940 to the present. Even institutions like the United State Military Academy at West Point are cutting back on required military history before 1900 for cadets. The academy cut this required content in 2018, though it can still be taken as an elective. This is a problem not just in professional military education, but also in the historical profession broadly. In the years between 2004 and 2017, roughly 80 percent of graduating historians studied topics after 1800, with the number of PhD students studying the era before 1800 dropping precipitously. Considering the specialized training in languages and paleography necessary to access this part of the human past, it is not an overstatement to say that we are losing the ability to train future generations of historians who want to specialize in topics before 1800. We can’t think outside the parameters of the present very well if everyone studies the 20th century.
Foreshortening our lens to focus on conflicts that are nearer in time can lead conflicts such as the Civil War and World War II to loom overly large. Yet both of these wars were deceptively simple in how they ended. Soviet forces took Berlin. American atom bombs hastened Japanese surrender. Union armies occupied Richmond and devastated parts of the American south. In other words, clear military defeat wrote the end of these stories for the participants. But these experiences prove less relevant in understanding conflicts where clear military defeat, or marching on the enemy capital, isn’t the most likely or even safest outcome.
To better understand the future of the Russo-Ukrainian War, we should consider reaching further back into the past and contemplate some of the parallels to the Seven Years’ War, fought between 1756 and 1763. The challenges that Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky face share many similarities with those that Prussia and Frederick II faced. Frederick the Great’s smaller German-speaking Kingdom of Prussia attempted to stave off defeat from invasion by Russia, Austria, Sweden, and France. Britain played the role of the ally that enthusiastically supported Frederick as a hero one moment and considered him a burden the next as it became distracted by a new conflict.
The comparison between 18th-century Prussia and 21st-century Ukraine demonstrates the challenges of maintaining allied funding in a hard-fought war. But it also suggests that strategic patience can still prove effective. Even when your state leader has become a military celebrity unlike anything seen in recent history, that reputation may not be enough to keep aid flowing. In this situation, the pressure to fight offensively to generate more momentum and headlines might be intense. But by remaining flexible and willing to fight defensively, Frederick II kept his state alive for six long years from 1757 to 1762, even in the face of impatient allies and long military odds. Let’s delve into this “foreign” war, relevant despite its distance from us in time.
The war in Eastern Europe dragged on and on. At least, that is how it appeared in a capital across the sea, where voters and representatives debated the merits of supporting the smaller country Russia was invading. Just as American policymakers in Washington debate the level of financial and military support for Ukraine in 2024, British policymakers in London debated the level of support they were willing to commit to Prussia in 1760 to 1762. The politicians in the capital had repeatedly ignored calls for new types of weapons for Russia’s target. Whether F-16s in today’s world or a British naval squadron in the Baltic Sea in the 1750s, both the Ukrainians and Prussians were impatient for new weapons.
Unfortunately for the Ukrainians and Prussians, their friends across the sea had become distracted by a newer conflict in the Mediterranean world: Israel’s war with Hamas in 2024, and a new fight against the Spanish the 1760s. In the distant capital, a new administration had taken office, determined to cut costs and bring the war to an end by forcing the leader of the smaller occupied county to negotiate. In 2024, House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson (or, depending on the outcome of the presidential election, Donald Trump) filled this role; in the 1760s, the new administration was the Earl of Bute’s ministry.
When the war began, the military resolve of his small nation, fighting a defensive war against Russia, had made headlines, making the leader of the country a hero in the English-speaking world. His face had become well known, his fashion was copied by leaders and men across the Western world, and military support and financial aid had poured in to assist him. This was equally true of Zelensky in 2022–23 and Frederick II of Prussia in 1757–58. Frederick the Great had become a hero in the English-speaking world, and much like French President Emmanuel Macron’s copying of Zelensky’s wardrobe, Frederick II “cosplays” became a feature of English (and Irish) country life. Now, however, that support had dried up. A new administration in the distant imperial capital, less friendly and more financially austere, weighed the costs of continued support. Whereas the leader resisting Russia once had been a hero, now to some, he looked more and more like a burden.
We don’t know how the story ends in 2024, but events in 1762 took a dramatic turn: The financial pressure from his former allies mounted, and Frederick authorized his diplomats to negotiate and even surrender territory in order to secure peace. Just as this decision was taken, news reached him: The Russian autocrat had died! The new Russian leader, representing a party that looked outward at European culture rather than inward toward Russia, immediately began negotiations to end Russia’s occupation of captured territory. It seemed like a miracle. The deceased Russian leader was Elizabeth Petrovna; the new leader with radical ideas was her nephew, Peter III. The miracle was the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg: The death of Elizabeth Petrovna saved Prussia from certain destruction at the last moment in the conflict.
Thus, it seems as if in 1761–62, Frederick of Prussia faced many of the same burdens and challenges that Volodymyr Zelensky faces today. As a result of foreign aid, good fortune, and tenacity, Frederick was able to survive a war that, simply measured by the military and economic resources of his state, he shouldn’t have won. Today, many in the West hope that Zelensky will accomplish the same.
Frederick and Zelensky
In Prussian and German history, Frederick the Great is a well-known figure, once thought of, like George Washington, as a founding father of the nation. Frederick himself was a bundle of contradictions and a firmly 18th-century man; visions of a gruff Prussian militarist evaporate in contact with the real Frederick, who spoke French better than he did German and who was more at home writing poetry or playing flute sonatas than charging through gunfire. Despite this, he was an able (if sometimes overrated) military commander, who faced a dangerous situation in the Seven Years’ War. Much of his territory had been occupied by Russian (and Austrian) forces. Frederick’s small nation, Prussia, did not have the manpower, finances, or military resources to win a long war of endurance against the larger states arranged against him. Despite this, thanks to his generals, his soldiers’ will to fight, and to some extent his own talents, he won astounding victories in the opening two years of the conflict, stopping enemy invaders in their tracks and even driving their forces back in counteroffensives.
In winning victories over the French, Austrians, and Russians, Frederick became a hero to the British people and the government led by the Duke of Newcastle and directed by William Pitt the Elder. Historian Dennis Showalter argues that Frederick became the first modern military celebrity, mirroring Zelensky’s reputation in the opening months of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Despite some initial successes, however, the decisive victory that Frederick sought remained just out of reach. His forces were excellent and highly motivated in the beginning of the war, but the repeated waves of conscription needed to replace casualties diluted the troops’ cohesion and efficiency. Usually able to hold territory on the defensive, his forces struggled to evict enemy troops from Prussian real estate as the war dragged on. The Russians occupied the capital of royal Prussia, Königsberg, for so long that they started to get comfortable ruling the place, as they do today in its current form, Kaliningrad.
Ally as Burden
By 1761, however, the British people had tired of Frederick’s celebrity status. The new king, George III, was much less interested in maintaining the Prussian alliance than his father had been. George III’s new favorite in government, John Stuart, the Earl of Bute, exercised more and more anti-Prussian influence in the British cabinet, and eventually replaced Newcastle as prime minister in 1762. As early as 1761, however, the British had resisted Prussian requests for more money and struck an article from their alliance agreement, allowing Britain to make a separate peace with France, Austria, and Russia. Frederick was concerned, but looking down the barrel of military defeat, the lack of British support was only one of his many problems. In early January 1762, he authorized his diplomats to begin negotiating what would have been a harsh surrender for Prussia.
Just after this, however, the regime change in Britain was matched by a regime change in Russia. The old Russian Tsarina, Elizabeth Petrovna, finally succumbed to the bouts of ill health that had plagued her since the mid-1750s. Her nephew, Peter III, one of the oddest and most maligned characters in Russian history, replaced her on the Russian throne. He was an ardent admirer of Russia’s enemy, Frederick, and was obsessed with his heritage as a prince of the small northern German duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. He negotiated a peace with Frederick, even offering to militarily support Russia’s former enemy if Frederick would back his minor territorial claims in the German-Danish borderlands. Frederick was only too happy to agree. Relieved from the pressure of facing both Russia and Austria, his forces were able to claw back a victory against the Austrians in the pivotal campaign season of 1762.
Popular opinion can be fickle in allied democracies. On October 10, 1761, before the British break with Prussia was finalized, the newspaper Public Ledger or Daily Register of Commerce addressed an advertisement from the previous day, in which a ship named King of Prussia was being offered for sale. The author humorously noted the symbolism of the advertisement in the face of public opinion which had turned against the Prussian alliance:
Pray, Mr. H- why must we sell the King of Prussia? Is he not our friend? And should not men of honour keep and preserve their friends? Will not that prince make a shining figure in future history? Have we not engaged to support him; and will it not hereafter be to our glory that we did support him against the world of enemies that endeavoured his destruction? You propose indeed, at the end of your advertisement, the selling of him by private contract. This was a very good second thought of yours, Mr. H-, for it would be an eternal shame to sell him publicly.
The implication, that Britain was selling out on Frederick, matches well with recent columns regarding Western support for Ukraine. Just as Britain was focused primarily on confronting France during the Seven Years’ War, in the United States many clamor that China, not Russia or Eastern Europe, must be the first priority of American defense policy. This compounds fading public warmth for Zelensky and Ukraine.
As a result of a seemingly limited window of opportunity, there was much Western expectation of Zelensky and the Ukrainian military quickly finishing the war with a triumphant 2023 offensive that would push Russian forces out of Ukrainian territory. A few voices tried to moderate expectations. British voices were also frustrated at the seeming lack of a quick victory in the 18th century. In early July 1759, the Universal Chronicle reported, “The King of Prussia has at length got out of the state of inaction that he seems to have been in for some time past.”
Frederick ultimately learned to be adaptable in the face of superior enemy firepower. His forces were mauled in frontal attacks, and he became more defensive in his tactics, even though his most famous victories had been achieved on the tactical offense. Frederick sought to preserve enough Prussian striking power to finally bring the war to a conclusion. Although he would have been defeated if Elizabeth not died, his change in tactics allowed the Prussian army and state to survive a long war until the opportunity for victory, or at least survival, finally presented itself. The lesson for Ukraine is clear: Whatever gives Ukraine the best chance for survival in a long war, not foreign impatience, should dictate the pace of operations.
Western media seems to love speculating regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health; at this point, he has been diagnosed with many different aliments. The same concerns and hopes regarding the health of the Russian ruler marked the period of the Seven Years’ War. Empress Elizabeth Petrovna suffered a stroke during the summer of 1757. This caused her field commander who was invading Prussia to retreat. Not wanting to aggressively prosecute a campaign if the heir to the throne was pro-Prussian, Russian forces abandoned the fruits of their victory at Gross-Jägersdorf and withdrew. In 2024, there is no pro-Ukrainian heir waiting in the wings. However, a change in leadership, or even a serious health scare for Putin, could cause significant disruptions in the Russian war effort. This could be wishful thinking: German leaders interpreted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death during World War II in the same (incorrect) way. Outlasting Putin might not be enough to end Russian imperialist aims, but it would change the dynamics of the situation. Here, we are reminded that historical parallels can be helpful, but that the past is not always a perfect guide.
It may be comforting to reach for conflicts from the recent past to inform our historical thinking. After all, they are closest to us in time — the least “foreign.” As this article has demonstrated, conflicts before 1900 remain relevant in professional military education and officer training. Despite this foreignness, military history pre-1900 retains its ability to guide thinking on current strategic events and problems. In the most recent episode of The Russia Contingency, Michael Kofman reminded listeners that even in 2024, standing on the defensive is an important tactical multiplier. An officer of the Prussian army who grew up in the 18th century would have agreed. He said it in forceful terms: “Defense is the stronger form of waging war.” The military history of the Napoleonic Wars, or even earlier, remains pressing in the 21st century, as military officers develop their “ability to think outside of the parameters of the present.” As this process continues, let us hope that they continue to look at conflicts before World War II.
Alexander S. Burns is an assistant professor of history at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, studying George Washington’s army and its connections to European militaries. His edited volume, The Changing Face of Old Regime Warfare: Essays in Honour of Christopher Duffy, was published in 2022. You can follow him @KKriegeBlog.