“Love me, scum!”
The Forging of Frederick the Great 1712-1740
The story of Frederick’s youth is known as a chronicle of suffering: psychological mistreatment and eventually physical abuse by his basically well-meaning but overly sever father; the tormented boy’s desperate attempt to escape; his imprisonment at Küstrin; the threat of being sentenced to death; the execution before his eyes of his closest friend and ally in the escape; the boy’s emotional collapse, followed by repentance, soul-searching, and finally submission to the will of the father. This, in outline, is the traditional picture.
—Gerhard Ritter, Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile
The people say what they like and then I do what I like.
—Frederick the Great
The enlightened despot who modernized the Prussian bureaucracy, granted his subjects the complete freedom of the press, and engaged in several victorious wars that won Prussia new lands was, at one point, a frail child—a weakling. The King of Prussia, Frederick the Great (r. 1740-1786) also called Fritz, did become a great man, but it took a baptism in fire to bring about the character needed to achieve his particular epithet. This rite was performed throughout his childhood by his father, the King in Prussia, Frederick William I (r. 1713-1740), also known as the Soldier King. The Soldier King was an uncultured, paranoid, neurotic, mean-spirited, jealous, drinking, violent, womanizing, fat swine, and a miser. It was his personality, which he inflicted upon his son, that shaped Frederick the Great’s life and brought about the conditions within him that led to his notoriety. His was a life wrought in pain.
To understand the battle of character that emerged between these two great Prussian leaders, it is necessary to set the scene in which this particular era of the Hohenzollern dynasty was forged. The first King in Prussia was Frederick the Great’s grandfather, Frederick I (r. 1701-1713), son of the Great Elector. Unlike the Solider King but very much like his grandson, Frederick I was a man of the arts and sciences. This is important to note because of the typical Hohenzollern rivalry between father and son, where there seemed to be a vacillation between brute and savant. It was upon the death of Frederick I that his son revealed his true nature, and the theme with which he would rule his kingdom. After possibly being scared to death by his insane wife, who surprised Frederick I by wearing all white and crashing through a glass door, Frederick I’s funeral was wonderful. In tribute to his father’s vanities, “His son [the Soldier King] gave him a magnificent funeral. No cost was spared…But as soon as it was all over, the second Prussian King went home and turned his palace upside down…showing what he really thought of his prodigal Papa.” The Soldier King never approved of his father’s lackadaisical approach to money—he spent it far too readily. He saw his father as ineffective and uninspiring. The new King turned the palace into a more efficient machine. All luxuries were reduced, some outlawed. The staff in the court of the king were also cut. There were very few areas in which the Soldier King did not economize. For this monarch, the reputation and smooth, protestant running of his kingdom was paramount. He felt that, “To make Prussia great two inter-connected things were needed: economic prosperity and strength of arms.” The Soldier King presented his economic restraint in most things, but spared no expense in order to militarize.
Frederick William I’s militarization started first with his personal autocratic nature. Let it not be doubted that he was pitiless. In the style of the Sun King, “His version of L’état c’est moi was: ‘We are king and master and can do what we like’ or ‘I need render my account to no one as to the manner in which I conduct my affairs.’” It is no surprise that he believed in divine right monarchy. In history, it is common that such rulers are also micromanagers, and Frederick William I was no exception. He interfered in matters on every level of his kingdom with routine. It is a trait of which he often boasted; indeed, he saw his meddling as consecrated in nature. The Soldier King even rode around his cities, asking his subjects their thoughts on various matters and, sometimes, disciplining them with a rod himself: “’Love me’, he roared at a passer-by who, he thought, had given him an unfriendly look—whack, whack, whack.” Other accounts of that same story describe him as yelling, “You must not fear me, you must love me!” or “You are supposed to love me. Love me, scum!” Defining his interventions as a paternalism, he also barged into private homes and settled marriage squabbles. For all intents and purposes, in a proto-Totalitarian manner, Frederick William I was every Prussian’s father.
Frederick William I’s actual militarization is worthy of description, for his son was known as a great military leader. First and foremost, the Soldier King’s military enterprises should be described as strange. In a move of which Heinrich Himmler of Nazi Germany would approve, Frederick William I tried to breed a race of super-soldiers. He was fascinated by giants. He scoured the European continent for suitably large behemoths to form a new military unit that met his expectations, of which he would become extraordinarily protective. Though not successful, Frederick William I would also attempt to breed together those whom he saw as worthy genetic stock in an attempt to create both super soldiers and a stronger Prussian. There is a particular encounter in this quest for behemoths dramatized, supposedly authentically, in Nathan Ausubel’s 1931 work, Superman: The Life of Frederick the Great:
One day Baron vom Hempesch, one of [Frederick William I’s] agents, espied in a carpenter’s shop in the town of Jülich a young Hercules of great girth of body and knotted cords of muscle. His eyes glinted with the true art connoisseur’s delight over his rare find. With great dignity the Baron entered the shop and said:
“I want a stout chest with a lock on it, six feet six inches in length, and a little longer than yourself.”
On the day the chest is to have been finished the Baron nonchalantly strolls into the carpenter’s shop. He examines the chest. Ah! He might have expected that!
“Too short,” he complain angrily.
“No, it isn’t!” stoutly insists the guileless carpenter.
“It was to be longer than yourself.”
“Well, it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“I’ll get into the chest and prove it to you,” retorts the honest fellow, eager to prove his reliability.
But no sooner had he stretched his full length in the chest when the crafty Baron slams the lid over him and turns the lock. Trapped! The Baron gives a loud whistle. Three strong men enter the shop and leisurely carry the chest away.
When the chest was later opened they found that the carpenter had suffocated because of lack of air.
It is not difficult to find examples of the Soldier King’s cruelty in his pursuit to realize his macabre dreams and fanciful standards. Just as conflict would emerge between Frederick the Great and the Soldier King, Frederick William I was also at odds with his father over military matters. His interest in the Prussian military started in his teenage years, but once he became king, Frederick William I “would gain prestige, nay, territory, by means of a large army,” which conflicted with his father’s extravagant approach to “prestige…by surrounding himself with pomp by development of the arts and sciences.”
As for his boorish manner, Frederick William I was insecure with women. He turned this insecurity into a deep disrespect for women. Though it may belong nowhere else in an exploration of character, perhaps mention of Frederick William I’s physique belongs in the process of exploring his dealings with women. He was unattractive—pudgy is nice descriptor, though he was not lacking for energy. His hygiene, however, was immaculate. He washed five times a day and changed clothes just as many. For the time this was even stranger than it would be today. He spoke like a savage, in neither High German nor French, but some mixture. He drank beer instead of the more refined wine of other European courts. He despised reading and higher learning. Worse than all the others, though, he was manipulative and felt that he could have whatever he wanted. There are very few incidents of his indiscretions, but overall, he was a pious man and did not engage too often in unholy sexual relations, what he called “Harlotry…the most terrible sin.” At one point, Frederick the Great and his older sister, Princess Wilhelmina, witnessed their father being overly sexual and forceful with one of their mother’s servants, who slapped him and escaped. Actually, the Soldier King, “during the rest of his life…avoided [women’s] company whenever he could.”
Frederick the Great provided a drastic foil to the Soldier King in nearly every way. To compensate for his father’s outbursts, Frederick the Great adapted in a telling way: “The less Frederick William was able to hide his emotions from others, the more [Frederick the Great] learned to do so.” This abyss between the two of them was visible everywhere. Frederick William I demanded that his son be manly and heroic, but quickly saw that he was more persuaded by and drawn to education, culture, music, and, worst of all, books. Frederick the Great was romantic whereas his father was a brute; Frederick the Great enjoyed learning music and exploring the many different instruments and genres whereas his father would force the court musicians to play the same brief song again and again while he brooded; though he may have been a homosexual, one story, from Ausubel, tells of how Frederick the Great may have engaged in a love affair with a woman named Elizabeth Ritter against his father’s will and Frederick I had her dragged, nude, through the streets to her place of crucifixion, forcing him to watch. There is reason to doubt Ausubel’s story because of its variations in other works on the subject, but its twin can be found in the more widely reported story of Frederick the Great’s (possible) homosexual lover and his execution.
The homosexual question of Frederick the Great is one of the most historically interesting topics surrounding his youth. The Elizabeth Ritter story, to some historians, seems unlikely in terms of telling Frederick the Great’s sexuality. Ritter was a virgin, as declared by the Soldier King’s inspectors. The young prince’s relationship with her was most likely friendly in nature. Though there are other reasons to suspect that Frederick the Great was at least not sexually interested in women—his rare visits to his wife later in life, and accounts of close friends, such as Voltaire—there is also more direct evidence that leads to the answer of homosexuality rather than just a doubt of heterosexuality.
The answer to the question is also one that emerges in the fray of suspense and intrigue, and its revelation is not clear at first. To begin: Frederick the Great was beaten by his father routinely. In fact, there was such regularity with the rough treatment he received in his youth that any in-depth analysis of it confounds the point that it did happen. Like any reasonable creature is wont to do, Frederick plotted escape in 1730. Enter Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte, one of Frederick the Great’s closest friends. As confidant, Fritz told Katte of his plan to run away to England, where King George II, Fritz’s uncle, might let him find sanctuary. Though the King of England replied in the negative, Fritz was determined. Katte tried to dissuade Fritz, but eventually took part in the planning, the fund-raising, and the final flight. The Soldier King’s spies extended everywhere, though. Naturally, the Soldier King became incurably furious. When his daughter, Princess Wilhelmina, tried to comfort him, the Soldier King called her a bitch, and punched her several times in the face as he foamed at the mouth. Fritz and his friend were apprehended and sent back to the king and put into prison while Frederick William I fumed.
In an appearance before the king, Katte confessed to his aid in the plan, but assured the Soldier King that he only had Fritz’s welfare in mind. All other discovered conspirators who had not escaped capture were imprisoned by the king as well. After he confessed his guilt, the trial of Frederick the Great ended like this, with an inquisitor asking of Fritz:
“179. What does he deserve and what punishment does he expect?”
“I submit myself to the mercy and will of the King.”
“183. Does he deserve to be King?”
“I cannot be my own judge.”
“184. Does he wish to be given his life, yes or no?”
“I submit myself to the mercy of the King and to his will.”
Post-trial, Frederick William I disposed of nearly everyone that had anything to do with his traitorous son. Librarians who provided him books, conspirators, friends, and general members of his court were all dismissed, exiled, or imprisoned. Paranoid, the Soldier King even thought that he might have been the target of assassination, as if his son’s escape was some byzantine plot. Katte’s father, a general, said to Frederick William that he wished mercy for his son. The Soldier King responded, “Your son is a scoundrel and so is mine. What can we fathers do about it?” The scene concluded with the Soldier King ordering Fritz to be held to a window of his prison, eyes focused outside. Fritz watched Katte marched by guards to a pile of sand in a courtyard. Before blowing his friend a kiss, Fritz is reported to have cried to him, in French, “My dear Katte, I ask you a thousand pardons. In the name of God, pardon, pardon!” Then, Katte’s head was cut off. The execution forced Frederick the Great’s “taciturnity and reserve to [grow] even more pronounced.” But, to the Soldier King, Fritz had finally been humbled, completely at his will, and powerless.
From Voltaire comes most of the suggestions that Fritz was gay. There are strong reasons to believe him, he was Fritz’s best friend later in life. However, there are also strong reasons to doubt him, as the two had a falling out. But evidence for his homosexuality can be found in Frederick the Great’s poetry and letters to possible male lovers. After 1740, “there is little evidence of Frederick giving in to sexual temptation.” However, rumors of his queer sexuality never died during his reign. If true, the murder of Katte is even more tragic, and explains Fritz’s retirement from the sexual scene. There are, though, other explanations. Fritz may have been castrated, may have had some kind of venereal disease that physically deformed his penis, and a number of other theories abound. Certainly, the issue should be analyzed skeptically—there is no definite evidence in any direction, and shadows and controversies surrounding every assertion one way or the other. Unfortunately, the topic is also one that is absent from much of the literature.
This experience in Frederick the Great’s life is vital to his shaping as a person. And once more, Frederick the Great was different from his father, but not in all ways. Though not explored herein, Fritz was also a musical student who could compose his own symphonies; a voracious reader; a fan of speaking French, where his father abhorred the language; an interested pupil in philosophy and sciences, so much so that he would even be called a philosopher-king; a poet of some skill; and perhaps most like his father, Frederick the Great proved to be a great military leader, despite some shortcomings. His childhood and adolescent experiences “served to awaken positive strengths as well as an ability to withstand negative forces.” Though the term ‘Hohenzollern Miracle’ refers to the lucky death of the Empress of Russia during the Seven Years War in 1762, which prompted Russia to pull out of the war in Prussia’s favor, perhaps the miracle is that dynamic between father and son over the years in the dynasty. That each child contradicted his father, and survived, and forged a greater strength from it is truly miraculous. It was from Fritz’s childhood that a strong will was developed, an arrogance gained, and an intelligence fostered. The wrath of his father-master produced in Frederick II a destiny to dominate.
Asprey, Robert B. Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma. (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1986).
Ausubel, Nathan. Superman; the Life of Frederick the Great. (New York: I. Washburn, 1931).
Brunschwig, Henri. Enlightenment and Romanticism in Eighteenth-century Prussia. Translated by Frank Jellinek. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).
Ergang, Robert Reinhold. The Potsdam Fuhrer, Frederick William I, Father of Prussian Militarism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941).
Gaxotte, Pierre, and R. A. Bell. Frederick the Great. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942).
Gooch, G. P. Frederick the Great, the Ruler, the Writer, the Man. (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1947).
Hubatsch, Walther. Frederick the Great of Prussia: Absolutism and Administration. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975).
MacDonogh, Giles. Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
Mitford, Nancy. Frederick the Great. (London: Hamilton, 1970).
Reiners, Ludwig. Frederick the Great, a Biography. Translated by Lawrence P. R. Wilson. (New York: Putnam, 1960).
Ritter, Gerhard. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile. Translated by Peter Paret. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).
Schieder, Theodor. Frederick the Great. Translated by Sabina Berkeley and H. M. Scott. (London: Longman, 2000).
Simon, Edith. The Making of Frederick the Great. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).
Wilhelmine. The Misfortunate Margravine: The Early Memoirs of Wilhelmina, Margravine of Bayreuth, Sister of Frederick the Great. (London: Macmillan, 1970).
Ausubel, Nathan. Superman; the Life of Frederick the Great. (New York: I. Washburn, 1931), 20.
 Simon, Edith. The Making of Frederick the Great. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963), 11.
 Ibid, 12.
 Ibid, 13.
 Ergang, Robert Reinhold. The Potsdam Fuhrer, Frederick William I, Father of Prussian Militarism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), 44.
 Mitford, Nancy. Frederick the Great. (London: Hamilton, 1970), 18.
Edith Simon, The Making of Frederick the Great, 46.
Nathan Ausubel, Superman, 61-62.
 Robert Reinhold Ergang, The Potsdam Fuhrer, 41.
 Ibid, 35.
 Robert Reinhold Ergang, The Potsdam Fuhrer, 37.
 Ritter, Gerhard. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile. Translated by Peter Paret. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 25.
Robert Reinhold Ergang, The Potsdam Fuhrer, 31.
 Nathan Ausubel, Superman, 166-167.
 Gaxotte, Pierre, and R. A. Bell. Frederick the Great. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), 51.
 Ibid, 58.
 Ibid, 61.
 Ibid, 68.
 Ibid, 73.
 Gerhard Ritter. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile, 30.
 MacDonogh, Giles. Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 195.
 Schieder, Theodor. Frederick the Great. Translated by Sabina Berkeley and H. M. Scott. (London: Longman, 2000), 31.