I am reading Candide as part of my A Level. In the story Candide is chased from his home and finds "Two men dressed in blue". We later learn that they are trying to recruit him in the Bulgarian army.

There is a footnote that says "These two men are wearing the uniforms of Prussian recruiting officers".

So does this mean that Prussian soldiers are helping the Bulgarians?

I do know that Voltaire is representing the Prussians as Bulgarians in his book, so maybe this means that they are Bulgarian officers wearing uniforms like the Prussians to make his representation clear?

  • 2
    In the book's world, blue is the color of Bulgarian recruiting officers's uniform. In the real world, when Voltaire wrote, there was no such thing as a Bulgarian army. The fact that they were the same color as Prussian recruiting officer's uniforms is one of Voltaire's hints that "Bulgarian" in the book means "Prussian" in real life.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 12:06

1 Answer 1


Candide, ou l’Optimisme is a satire, a work of literature in which people, ideas, countries, religions and so on are ridiculed. The targets of satire are usually presented in disguise or under a transformation, so the reader has to be on the lookout for clues as to their intended identity.

Since you’re studying Candide, I’m sure you’ve already covered the way that Voltaire in chapter 1 uses Pangloss to satirize Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, using clues like “il n’y a point d’effect sans cause” (representing Leibniz’s “principle of sufficient reason”) and “dans ce meilleur des Mondes possibles” (representing Leibniz’s “principle of the best”).

So what are the clues as to the satirical identity of the “Bulgarians”? Why do people think they might stand for Prussians?

  1. There was no Bulgarian army in the mid-18th century when Candide is set (as pointed out by Peter Shor in comments). Bulgaria had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1396, and did not gain independence until 1878.

  2. Throughout the 18th century, the Prussian infantry uniform included a blue jacket:

    Füsilliere, Offizier. Kompagnie-Feldscheer.

    Richard Knötel. ‘Infanterie-Regiment “Prinz Heinrich von Preussen” 1757’. Uniformenkunde volume 1.

  3. 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.

  4. In the account of Frederick’s court quoted above, Voltaire mentions “des Pages avec lesquels on s’amusait dans son Cabinet”, alluding to the king’s homosexuality. The French word “bougre”, an abusive term corresponding to English “bugger”, derives etymologically from Latin “Bulgarus” meaning “Bulgarian”.

  5. Voltaire wrote Candide in 1757–1759, during the Seven Years’ War, in which Prussia was one of the main combatants. Thus the horrors of war between the “Bulgarians” and the “Abares” described in chapter 3, correspond to the horrors of war between Prussia and its enemies.

  • Sorry for late reply. This is very helpful in my studies thank you. I already knew some points (such as the Voltaire serving in the Prussian court), but there are definitely some points here that are very useful (and the links). Thank you. It is also now clear that they are in-fact Prussian soldiers, namely from point 1 where there is no Bulgarian army.
    – Xantium
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 14:32

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