I am a fan of Menzel's famous--one might say, iconic--series of paintings about Frederick the Great. Besides their color and composition, which I am incapable of judging but which seem excellent to my untrained eye, they have a peculiar sensitivity and fragility to them that is rare in paintings of this genre. Joseph II's face is innocent and childlike, almost unbefitting an absolute monarch; Frederick himself gazes at his subjects with such tenderness that it seems somehow inappropriate to recall him as the despoiler of Silesia and the partitioner of Poland. Menzel had a painterly eye that, it seems, extended with equal sympathy to rooms and history.
Of course, to put it this way would entail a mystification of sorts, since any pleasure one takes in the Frederick paintings is in large measure "guilty." After all, these paintings were intended not simply to commemorate history, but also to create it: only in Menzel's time did Frederick truly ascend to the status of a national myth. (The fact itself seems bizarre. Early-period reforms aside, Frederick accomplished relatively little--and that only on account of the weakness of Austria and Poland--and was responsible for military setbacks that would have landed any other king in the "mediocrity" pile.) "Alte Fritz" was made the direct ideological progenitor of Wilhelmine as well as Nazi Germany, in part thanks to Menzel's illustrative help. Few painters have ever connived in anything so suspect.
On the other hand, the demystificationist position itself seems far too simple. Perhaps it is a mistake to blame Menzel for a process of national myth-making that had already taken place in many other countries without his help--and perhaps it is even more unfair to associate him with Germany's twentieth-century career. A myth would have been found or created, and subsequently remolded and reshaped, without the intervention of any particular painter. (Well, at least not in his painterly capacity.) How much did the iron-willed conqueror of Wilhelmine mythology even have to do with the gentle flute-player and philosophe of Menzel's paintings? The only truly military work of the series has an unfinished blot in place of the king, an concealed, but still fatherly, presence.
At a Berlin book market I bought a copy of Frederick's writings on his life and times, poorly edited and amalgamated together into a single narrative, with barely any ancillary material at all--a rather bizarre piece of work. Later I put the pieces together: the Fraktur font, the subject matter, the date of publication (1937). I got forty pages into the volume before I quit, and I can say only that the Nazi Frederick is much more boring, much more obsessed with wars and geopolitics, than Menzel's aesthete. It is hard, moreover, to suspect the Nazis of having fiddled overmuch with the work; what I've read of him in other places testifies amply to the cynicism and opportunism of his Enlightened guise.
I am ready, therefore, to exonerate Menzel on all counts. Not only can he not be blamed for taking part in a process much greater than himself--he ought to be credited with attempting to make the national myth that eventually emerged less rigid, more heartfelt and humane. It appears even more to his credit that in this respect he struggled not just against other myths and other ideological futures, but against what seems by all accounts to have been the reality of the man himself. In the end, it would have been better for the Germans to learn from Menzel, not from their bitter old king.