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Frederick the Great (1712-1786)  
 
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King of Prussia (1740-1786), general, and writer, Frederick II greatly expanded his kingdom through a series of brutal wars and cynical reversals of alliances in which he showed both military genius and diplomatic acumen. His homosexuality was an open secret during his reign, yet some historians have attempted to deny it or diminish its significance.

In spite of the carnage wrought in the bloody battles of the campaigns he led, Frederick saw himself as the archetype of the Enlightened ruler. He was, indeed, not only a protector of the arts and sciences, bringing to his court some of the best minds of the eighteenth century, but also a flute player, composer, and writer, albeit of modest talent.

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Because Frederick's military conquests made Prussia the core around which Germany would coalesce in the nineteenth century, he has often been portrayed as a national hero and as such his homosexuality has frequently been glossed over. Even some recent biographies continue to exclude any allusion to or hint of his homosexuality. German historians especially have considered it impossible for such a virile and stoic man to have been homosexual, and have regarded the king's reputation for homosexuality as a slight by the French.

Yet proof of Frederick's sexual proclivity is overwhelming. It comes not only from the writings of satirists and enemies, but from the observations and correspondence of friends and from the works of Frederick himself.

Traumatic Childhood and Young Manhood

His youth was extremely traumatic. Born in Berlin on January 24, 1712, he was the son of King Frederick William I. His father was a miserly, uncouth, and violent man, who savagely beat his wife (a daughter of George I of England) and children, and whose only passion was for a regiment of giants, men over six feet tall who were recruited at high cost.

Frederick William took his son's enthusiasm for all things French as a sign of effeminacy. (Frederick himself considered the German language as good enough only to speak to his horses and wrote mostly in French). The father imposed on his son a soldierly regimen of the strictest discipline and took sadistic pleasure in humiliating him. He went so far as to mock him publicly, for instance, by saying to his face that he himself would never have endured such a father as he was.

In reaction to the king's despotism and philistinism, Frederick and his older sister Wilhelmina, with whom he was to have a lifelong close friendship, secretly cultivated music and literature, smuggling books with the help of friends of similar inclinations. One of them, the handsome Hans von Katte, Lieutenant in the Royal Guard and son of a general at Königsberg, became particularly close to Frederick and may well have been his first lover.

In 1730, at eighteen, Frederick and Katte, along with a couple of accomplices, planned an escape to his mother's relatives in England. Caught and accused of high treason, Frederick barely escaped with his life and was imprisoned. As for Katte, Frederick William's cruelty reached a pinnacle when he had the young officer executed by sword under the very eyes of Frederick, who fainted with emotion and collapsed for two days.

For another ten years Frederick had to live under the yoke of his tyrannical father and accept his arrangements for a marriage that was probably never consummated. (Upon his father's death in 1740, Frederick immediately separated from his wife, Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick.) He nevertheless gained some measure of independence at Rheinsberg, where he was permitted to set up a little court in which he found peace and happiness.

Interest in Homosexual Culture

It is from there that he started his voluminous correspondence with Voltaire, which would last through his life in spite of a serious falling out between the men in 1753. Voltaire was later to write a book exposing Frederick's homosexuality, but it was published only in 1784, six years after its author's death.

In his correspondence with Voltaire, Frederick early on evinced a great interest in what we would today call gay culture. In an astonishingly open fashion, this interest was encouraged by Voltaire.

Allusions to the great homosexual heroes of antiquity abound. Frederick is portrayed as Caesar or Alexander and his intimate and go-between Count Keyserling as Césarion or Hephaestion.

In a letter to Voltaire dated February 2, 1739, one year before his accession to the throne, Frederick reveals a literary project of his, "so great that I myself am frightened by it . . . a tragedy with a subject taken from the Aeneid . . . the tender and constant friendship of Nisus and Euryalus." Though no trace of this tragedy has survived, Frederick went on to write a lengthy mock-heroic poem, Le Palladion (1750), in imitation of Voltaire's own La Pucelle (written in the 1730s) and, like it, rife with allusions to homosexuality: Frederick even portrays Jesus and John the Beloved Disciple as lovers.

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