Who has not thought at one time or another that the world would be a much better place if only I ran it? In the case of Frederick the Great of Prussia, he did and it was not.
This son of a half-mad king, this most brilliant, civilized, and witty of men who courted the cream of Europe’s intellectuals, waded through rivers of blood for most of his life as he sought to make Prussia great.
Frederick’s early years were overshadowed by the erratic, often violent behaviour of his father King Fredrick William. It was the age-old story of the intelligent but unsophisticated father at odds with his sensitive, precocious son: in this instance, a son more French than German, more poet than presumptive heir and more homosexual than not.
Years of conflict climaxed in 1730 when the prince attempted to flee to England with the help of his friend, his very close friend, Hans von Katt. They were caught and brought to trial. Frederick barely escaped with his life but Katt was found guilty of treason.
The verdict must have been easy to reach as both their fathers suspected Katt and Frederick of being lovers. Katt was beheaded in the presence of the prince, who fainted dead away just before the executioner’s sword fell. Father and son soon reconciled, with many tears being shed by both parties, and Fredrick, though much against his will, was married off to Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick.
In 1740, Frederick ascended to the throne of Prussia and, in short order, sent his wife away and began the first of many wars of expansion that were to mark his reign by seizing the province of Silesia from neighbouring Austria. At his death, 46 years later, Prussia had doubled in size and Queen Elizabeth Christine had spoken to her husband a mere handful of times.
His court of Sanssouci, that gem of Baroque art, was almost exclusively male, and thoroughly homosexual in tone. He was reputed to have started every day by having a comely young soldier sent into his chambers for a quick bout of, as his biographer Nancy Mitford puts it, “allez-oup.”
He had a lifelong epistolary affair with Voltaire (they signed their letters “coquette” and “maîtresse” when they weren’t having one of their many quarrels), while another great French philosopher and writer, Denis Diderot, in a poem comparing Frederick to Julius Caesar, wrote: “I see but one point in common, namely that they were both buggers. But there wasn’t a Roman lady who was worthwhile with whom Caesar did not sleep, whereas His Prussian Majesty never touched a woman, not even his own wife.”
The same Diderot, writing about the King’s flute playing, says: “The only one thing that this admirable flute player was missing was a mouthpiece that should have been a little cleaner.”
Frederick was in many ways the very embodiment of the age of Enlightenment. He outlawed censorship of the press and of books, encouraged religious freedom, and rarely if ever interfered with the administration of justice. Yet the death penalty against sodomy remained on the statute books.