Voltaire had gone to Prussia in 1750, at the invitation of king Frederick II. The two men fell out after Voltaire wrote a satire on the Prussian philosopher Pierre Maupertuis, and Voltaire had to leave Prussia in disgrace in 1752. He took his literary revenge by writing a scurrilous description of Frederick and his court, which was published after his death:
Ce Gouvernement singulier, ces mœurs encore plus étranges, ce contraste de Stoïcisme & d’Epicuréïsme, de sévérité dans la discipline militaire & de mollesse dans l’intérieur du Palais, des Pages avec lesquels on s’amusait dans son Cabinet & des soldats qu’on faisait passer trente six fois par les baguettes sous les fenêtres du Monarque qui les regardait, des discours de Morale & une licence effrénée, tout cela composait un tableau bizarre que peu de personnes connaissaient, & qui a depuis percé dans l’Europe.
[This singular government, these manners still more strange, this contrast of Stoicism and Epicureanism, of severity in military discipline and softness in the interior of the palace, of pages with whom he [Frederick] amused himself in his study and of soldiers who were made to undergo the batons thirty-six times under the windows of the monarch who watched them, of discourse on morality and unrestrained licence, all this made up a peculiar picture, which few people were aware of, and which has since spread through Europe.]
Voltaire (1784). Mémoires, pp. 84-85. London: Robinson.
This account of Prussian military discipline, with the soldier being made to run the gauntlet thirty-six times, corresponds to the account of Candide’s punishment in the Bulgarian army:
on lui demanda juridiquement ce qu’il aimait le mieux, d’être fustigé trente-six fois par tout le Régiment, ou de recevoir à la fois douze bales de plomb dans la cervelle
[they asked him judicially which he liked better, to be beaten thirty-six times by the whole regiment, or to receive twelve lead bullets simultaneously in his brain.]
Voltaire (1759). Candide, ou l’Optimise, pp. 13–14.
Note that “trente-six” is probably not meant literally: in French this number can be used with the meaning “a lot, countless, umpteen”. For example “faire trente-six choses à la fois” means “to do umpteen things at once”, and “au trente-sixième dessous” means “utterly miserable”.
A second account of Prussian military punishment in Voltaire’s Memoirs is even closer to the events in Candide:
Il y avait dans les prisons de Spandau un vieux Gentil-homme de Franche-Comté, haut de six pieds, que le feu Roi avait fait enlever pour sa belle taille. On lui avait promis une place de Chambellan, & on lui en donna une de soldat. Ce pauvre homme défecta bientôt avec un de ses camarades. Il fut saisi & ramené devant le feu Roi auquel il eut la naïveté de dire qu’il ne se repentait que de n’avoir pas tué un Tiran comme lui. On lui coupa, pour réponse, le nez & les oreilles; il passa par les baguettes trente six fois; aprés quoi il alla trainer la brouette à Spandau.
[In the prisons of Spandau there was an old gentleman from Franche-Comté, six feet tall, whom the late king [Frederick William I] had recruited for his good size. He had been promised a place as a chamberlain, but he was given that of a soldier. This poor man soon deserted with one of his comrades. He was captured and brought before the late king whereupon he had the naivety to say that he was sorry that he had not killed a tyrant like him. In reply, his nose and ears were cut off; he suffered under the batons thirty-six times; after which he was hauled by wheelbarrow to Spandau.]
Voltaire (1784), pp. 90–91.
In this passage and in Candide there is recruitment based on height; desertion and recapture; naivety; and thirty-six beatings.