Sanssouci Palace, Maulbeerallee, 14469 Potsdam, Germania
Frederick II (24 January 1712 – 17 August 1786) was King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, the longest reign of any Hohenzollern king. His most significant accomplishments during his reign included his military victories, his reorganization of Prussian armies, his patronage of the arts and the Enlightenment in Prussia, and his final success against great odds in the Seven Years' War. Frederick was the last Hohenzollern monarch titled King in Prussia and declared himself King of Prussia after achieving full sovereignty for all historical Prussian lands. Prussia had greatly increased its territories and became a leading military power in Europe under his rule. He became known as Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große) and was affectionately nicknamed Der Alte Fritz ("Old Fritz") by the Prussian and later by all German people.
In his youth, Frederick was more interested in music and philosophy than the art of war. Nonetheless, upon ascending to the Prussian throne, he attacked Austria and claimed Silesia during the Silesian Wars, winning military acclaim for himself and Prussia. Toward the end of his reign, Frederick physically connected most of his realm by acquiring Polish territories in the First Partition of Poland. He was an influential military theorist whose analysis emerged from his extensive personal battlefield experience and covered issues of strategy, tactics, mobility and logistics.
Considering himself "the first servant of the state," Frederick was a proponent of enlightened absolutism. He modernized the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service and pursued religious policies throughout his realm that ranged from tolerance to segregation. He reformed the judicial system and made it possible for men not of noble stock to become judges and senior bureaucrats. Frederick also encouraged immigrants of various nationalities and faiths to come to Prussia. Some critics, however, point out his oppressive measures against conquered Polish subjects during the First Partition. Frederick supported arts and philosophers he favored, as well as allowing complete freedom of the press and literature. Frederick is buried at his favorite residence, Sanssouci in Potsdam. Because he died childless, Frederick was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II, son of his brother, Augustus William.
Nearly all 19th-century German historians made Frederick into a romantic model of a glorified warrior, praising his leadership, administrative efficiency, devotion to duty and success in building up Prussia to a great power in Europe. Historian Leopold von Ranke was unstinting in his praise of Frederick's "Heroic life, inspired by great ideas, filled with feats of arms ... immortalized by the raising of the Prussian state to the rank of a power." Johann Gustav Droysen was even more extolling. Frederick remained an admired historical figure through the German Empire's defeat in the First World War, and the Nazis glorified him as a great German leader pre-figuring Hitler, but his reputation in both East and West Germany became far less favorable after the fall of the Nazi regime, largely due to his status as a favorite icon of the Nazis. However, by the 21st century, a re-evaluation of his legacy as a great general and enlightened monarch returned opinion of him to favour.
Recent major biographers of Frederick, including Alings, Blanning, Burgdorf and Hahn, are unequivocal that he was predominantly homosexual, and that his sexuality was central to his life and character. Frederick's physician Johann Georg Ritter von Zimmermann claimed that the king had suffered a minor deformity during an operation to cure gonorrhea in 1733, and convinced himself that he was impotent, but pretended to be homosexual in order to appear that he was still virile and capable of intercourse, albeit with men. This story is doubted by Wolfgang Burgdorf, who is of the opinion that "Frederick had a physical disgust of women" and therefore "was unable to sleep with them". After one particular defeat on the battlefield Frederick bluntly wrote: "Fortune has it in for me; she is a woman, and I am not that way inclined."
At age 16, Frederick seems to have embarked upon a youthful affair with a 13-year-old page of his father, Peter Karl Christoph Keith. In her biography of the king, Margaret Goldsmith says rumors of the liaison spread in the court and the "intimacy" between the two boys provoked the condemnation of even his elder and favorite sister, Wilhelmine, who was his protector in all things. Rumors finally reached King Frederick William, who cultivated in his court an ideal of ultramasculine, military life, and who enjoyed bullying his son. As a result, Keith was dismissed from his service to the King and sent away to a regiment by the Dutch border, while Frederick was sent to Wusterhausen in order to "repent of his sin". Frederick's relationship with Hans Hermann von Katte was also believed by King Frederick William to be romantic, a suspicion which apparently enraged him. After Katte's execution by Frederick's father, Frederick was forced to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, with whom he had no children. He immediately separated from his wife when Frederick William I died in 1740. In later years, Frederick would pay his wife formal visits only once a year. These were on her birthday and were some of the rare occasions when Frederick did not wear military uniform. In 1739 Frederick met the Venetian philosopher Francesco Algarotti. Both were infatuated. Frederick was to make him a count. Challenged by Algarotti that northern Europeans lacked passion, Frederick penned for him an erotic poem which imagined Algarotti in the throes of sexual congress (with a female partner referred to as Chloris).
William Hogarth's painting The Toilette features a flautist (who stands next to a painting of Zeus, as an eagle, abducting Ganymede), which may be a satirical depiction of Frederick – thereby publicly outing him as a homosexual as early as 1744. Frederick certainly spent much of his time at Sanssouci, his favourite residence in Potsdam, in a circle that was exclusively male, though a number of his entourage were happily married. The palace gardens include a Temple of Friendship (built as a memorial to Wilhelmine), which celebrate the homoerotic attachments of Greek Antiquity, and which is decorated with portraits of Orestes and Pylades, amongst others. At Sanssouci Frederick entertained his most privileged guests, especially the French philosopher Voltaire, whom he asked in 1750 to come to live with him. Their literary correspondence and friendship, which spanned almost 50 years, was marked by mutual intellectual fascination, and began as a flirtation. However, in person Frederick found Voltaire difficult to live with, and was often annoyed by Voltaire's many quarrels with his other friends. Voltaire's angry attack on Maupertuis, the President of Frederick's academy, in the form of Le Diatribe du Docteur Akakia provoked Frederick to burn the pamphlet publicly and put Voltaire under house arrest, after which Voltaire left Prussia.
In the 1750s Voltaire began writing his Mémoires. The manuscript was stolen and a pirate copy was published in Amsterdam in 1784 as The Private Life of the King of Prussia. In it, Voltaire explicitly detailed Frederick's homosexuality and the circle surrounding him. The revelations and language were strikingly similar to those detailed in a scurrilous pamphlet published in French, in London in 1752. After a temporary cooling of Frederick and Voltaire's friendship, they resumed their correspondence, and aired mutual recriminations, to end as friends once more. A further intimate friendship was with his first valet Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf who, Frederick confided to his diary, had "a very pretty face": Fredersdorf was provided with an estate, and acted as unofficial prime minister.
BACK TO HOME PAGE