David Wallace-Wells in Washington Monthly:
In 1712, a first child was born to the militarist prince Frederick William of Prussia. A year shy of the throne himself, Frederick had high hopes for his son, the future Frederick II. But the child was “small, sickly … delicate, backward, and puny,” writes the journalist Stephen S. Hall in Size Matters, his engaging new nonfiction picaresque. The pitiful size of the crown prince was an embarrassment to the new king, but it was also, Hall suggests, a private incitement.
Between his ascension in 1713 and his death in 1740, Frederick more than doubled the ranks of the Prussian army—from a considerable 38,000 men to an intimidating 83,000—but the figure that concerned him most was not the size of his army but the height of his soldiers. Modestly built himself, Frederick had fallen in love with tall men. “He collected them like stamps,” writes Hall, establishing an elite regiment of outsized grenadiers that became known as the Potsdam Giants. No member of the unit stood less than six feet tall, and many were closer to seven; the drill leader is said to have topped seven feet. “The tallest men ever assembled until the birth of professional basketball,” noted one medical historian. During royal parades, the Giants would escort the king by holding hands above his carriage.