Asexuals in History: Frederick the Great, Part I

Just what made him so great?

Disclaimer: Historical asexuality is largely speculative. To determine the sexual orientations of those who lived centuries ago is not something that can be done with ease. As such, we do not claim with absolute certainty that a historical figure was asexual, only that there is good evidence for such a conclusion.

Friedrich II, known in the anglophonic world as Frederick the Great, was King in Prussia from 1740 to 1772 and King of Prussia thereafter until his death. Some of you may already note that oddity of the change in titles, but it is a testament to the things that Frederick accomplished in his life, many of which will be explained here. He was, as you will see, an interesting figure who possessed many virtues. He also had less savory traits, particularly with hindsight. Whatever you may come to think of him, you will probably agree that he earned his title “the Great.” Let us now look at the life of this asexual man and his impact on the world.

Early Years

Birth and Family

The son of Crown Prince Frederick William and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, Frederick was born in Berlin on January 24, 1712. While most of you can recognize Berlin as the capital of Germany today, at the time, there was no official Germany. German people existed more as an idea than as an official nation. Most of them lived in the Holy Roman Empire, which (despite the mighty-sounding name) was a loose confederation of mostly independent states, such as Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, and Brandenburg. The Empire also variously included parts of France, the Low Countries, Italy, and Austria. Each region in the Empire was led by a monarch called an Elector, all of whom would elect a new Emperor when the previous one died or abdicated. Interestingly, one German area was not part of this Empire: Prussia. It was a duchy within the Polish kingdom.

Frederick was also a member of the rising Hohenzollern dynasty. Almost a century before his birth, the Hohenzollerns, who had been the Electors of Brandenburg, also acquired the Duchy of Prussia. This made for an awkward situation, being monarchs of their own within the Empire but vassals to another king within Poland. This was somewhat resolved in 1657 with the Treaty of Bromberg, in which Poland gave up Prussia and allowed the Hohenzollerns full control of it. The situation improved a little more in 1701, when Emperor Leopold I allowed Frederick I (Fredrick’s grandfather) to adopt the title “King in Prussia.”

Now the Hohenzollerns could be called Kings, but the use of “in” instead of “of” was most unusual at the time. This is because Brandenburg was still technically in the Empire, while Prussia was not, even though both were ruled by the same person. Traditionally, there were only two royal titles used in the Empire: “King of the Germans” and “King of Bohemia.” To call the Hohenzollerns “Kings in Prussia” was to remind them (and the world) that they were still only Electors in Brandenburg and in any other Imperial territory. Furthermore, it recognized that not all of historical Prussia was included in Poland’s cession.

Frederick I died the year after his grandson’s birth, making Frederick William the new King and baby Frederick the Crown Prince. Frederick William is often remembered as Soldatenkönig in Germany (the Soldier-king). This is because of his effective, organized, and militaristic reign that made the most of what was a small, divided country. A devout Calvinist, Frederick William sold all the family jewels upon taking the throne and was a very frugal spender of the nation’s finances. His high-standards came with a great temper, however, and when enraged, he was known to be physically abusive toward his servants and toward his children. This included our young Frederick.


Frederick’s father wanted him to follow in a similar mold as a Soldier-king. He woke Frederick with the sound of cannon fire every morning and, at age six, gave him command of a regiment of children. The new Crown Prince, however, had a far-different personality than that of his father, and their relationship would grow hostile.

While his father wanted to limit his studies to that of religion and matters of the state, Frederick’s Huguenot tutor secretly gave him secret access to the Greco-Roman classics and to French philosophy. Frederick soon found that he had great love for the arts, far more than for war or government, and this mismatch in priorities often provoked Frederick William to humiliate and beat his son. Frederick had more in common with his mother, Sophia, who was more similar to the sophisticated and erudite elite of Europe at the time.

Young Adulthood

Around 1729, a teenage Frederick met a man eight years his senior by the name of Hans Hermann von Katte, a Prussian aristocrat who had classes with him. Katte shared his passion for art, music, poetry, and the Enlightenment, and the Crown Prince greatly admired Katte for his values and cosmopolitan attitudes. Not surprisingly, the two quickly became best friends.

In early 1730, Frederick revealed a secret plan with Katte. He did not enjoy his life as a royal. He wanted to be free of his oppressive father and deigned to flee Prussia (and the throne) for Britain, where his maternal uncle reigned as George II. Katte initially disagreed with this idea but eventually supported Frederick’s plan to escape and chose to go with him.

On August 5, 1730, Frederick attempted to flee from his quarters in Mannheim, but one of his allies in the plot suffered from cold feet and alerted the King. Katte was away in Potsdam, but a letter showed that he had been involved in the plot too, and both Frederick and Katte were arrested. Because they were technically officers in the Prussian army who had tried to leave their service to defect to Britain, they were accused of treason by the incensed Frederick William.

The King threatened to take away his son’s place in the succession of the throne. He even threatened to have Frederick executed, but the Empire stated that a prince could only be tried by the Imperial Diet, so that matter was put to rest. Katte, meanwhile, was found guilty in a court martial and sentenced to life in prison. For Frederick William, this was not enough. He changed the sentence to execution, and he ordered his son to witness the death of his cherished friend. Frederick fainted in dread, seconds before the executioner decapitated Katte.

The execution of Katte, as Frederick watches.

For the next three days, Frederick was consumed by grief and despair. Then, he managed to recover himself, and he never spoke of his friend Katte again.

By November of that year, Frederick was pardoned and released from imprisonment. For a while, his father kept a tight watch on him, forcing him to study only for his future reign as King and having him heavily monitored. After about a year, he allowed Frederick to visit Berlin to attend his sister’s wedding. Frederick’s strict schooling finally ended in 1732.

Frederick’s own marriage soon became a matter. His father arranged for him to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a woman that Frederick apparently could not stand. He hated the idea of marriage to her so much that he even considered suicide, but he ultimately went through with it. On June 12, 1733, they were married, but it would remain a loveless union, and Frederick rarely ever saw her.

Relations between Frederick and his father began to improve. Frederick was allowed to resume his duties in the army and given the rank of colonel. This brought him into service during the War of the Polish Succession. It also gave him some distance from home, in which he was able to enjoy concerts and theatre in the towns where he was stationed.

After the war ended in 1738, Frederick secretly wrote an anti-Machiavellian book and published it anonymously, at a time when Machiavelli was an inspiration to most European rulers. His friend, the French philosopher Voltaire, distributed it and helped it gain popularity. Despite all of his father’s attempts to change him, Frederick was still an intellectual romantic at heart.

Early Reign

Frederick William died in 1740. By the end, his relationship with his son had improved, even if they never really liked each other. He came to tolerate his son’s interests and hobbies more, while Frederick came to appreciate some of his father’s strengths. Frederick later said of him:

What a terrible man he was. But he was just, intelligent, and skilled in the management of affairs… it was through his efforts, through his tireless labor, that I have been able to accomplish everything that I have done since.

Frederick William’s death meant that the throne passed to Frederick. At the age of twenty-eight now, he was a young king known for his pro-Enlightenment stances. Philosophers eagerly anticipated what his reign might mean, but Prussia also had tough realities to face.

The Things Inherited

Above shows the political map of Europe at the time of Frederick’s ascension as King. If you spot the violet patches labeled “Brandenburg” and “Prussia,” that is Frederick’s realm. If you look West, you can see a few isolated patches of the same color. Those are also possessions that Frederick inherited. When compared to the other European powers, we see that Prussia is small, divided, and quite vulnerable. The Hohenzollerns had been a rising family, but we can see that compared with the French, the Austrians, the Russians, and many others, they were a meager attempt at a country.

Still, Frederick did have some luck in his inheritance. The Prussian finances were in an excellent state, thanks to the years of austerity under his father. Furthermore, the Prussian military was still a very capable one. To make up for a lack of size and population, Prussians were recruited into military service at a higher rate than other military powers, and they were quite possibly the best drilled and trained in all of Europe. 80,000 high-quality soldiers could help to make up for some of those aforementioned disadvantages.

This is the situation in 1740. It is the moment that separates great kings from failure kings. Frederick is presented with both challenges and opportunities, and he would tested sooner than most other kings. So just how would this young king fare?

War of the Austrian Succession

In the first year of his reign, Frederick found himself in a major war. It was sparked by the death of the Holy Roman Emperor and the doubt about the ability of a female (the twenty-three-year-old Maria Theresa) to inherit the throne.

Prussia and Austria had not enjoyed particularly friendly relations in the past, though they had been official allies in the recent War of the Polish Succession. In fact, his involvement in that war, minor as it was, showed to Frederick the weaknesses of the Austrian military. Given that, he feared that Silesia, a province of the Austrian Empire that bordered Brandenburg, would be seized by other European rulers who were looking to exploit the vulnerable situation of Austria at this moment. In particular, he feared that Augustus III, King of Poland and the Elector of Saxony, would do just that, in order to unite his own lands. Being one of the richest provinces in the Austrian Empire, Silesia was a very tempting prize on its own.

Frederick decided that being the first to act would put Prussia in an advantageous position, so he officially rejected Maria Theresa’s claim to the throne, cited a two-hundred-year-old treaty that arguably said Silesia belonged to his family now, and launched a surprise invasion that engulfed the province in December of 1740. He hoped to avoid a long war and that he could pull off some diplomatic maneuvering with the help of Britain and Russia, such that Austria would to agree to this seizure. This, however, did not happen, and instead Frederick had instigated the War of the Austrian Succession.

By the next year, the Austrians had organized an army to retake Silesia. The Prussians cut them off in their march, and on April 10, they fought at the Battle of Mollwitz. It was here that Frederick tremendously embarrassed himself. As this was his first proper battle, the young king had little wisdom in the art of war. This caused him to make a miscalculation: right as the Prussian army has overcome the Austrians, Frederick misread the situation and fled the battlefield. The only reason the Prussian victory was secured was because one of his generals maintained control of the army (a well-trained one at that) and managed to finish up without the King. Realizing his foolish and cowardly act for what it was, Frederick later admitted, “Mollwitz was my school.”

So far, it looks as if Frederick is not that great of a king. He has made both diplomatic and military errors, and he has been lucky that it has not ended in disaster for him. Yet, Mollwitz truly was his school, and this King in Prussia would learn well from it, even innovating his army a bit. Specifically, he noted the lack of quality of the Prussian cavalry, as the infantry had been better-developed under his father’s reign. Frederick realized that a sub-standard cavalry was not going to help his nation, so he developed new cavalry tactics and began training his riders while in Silesia.

As 1741 continued, Frederick’s fortunes improved. France liked the opportunity created by Prussia and joined the war against the Austrians, as did Bavaria and Saxony. By the end of the year, Austria made a secret truce with Prussia, giving them the last of the fortresses in the province. Frederick hope this would lead to peace.

Maria Theresa, however, eventually divulged this truce to Frederick’s allies, forcing him to resume the war. A combined offensive into Bohemia allowed Frederick to show the merits of his retrained cavalry, giving him a key victory at the Battle of Chotusitz. In spite of that, the overall operation with his allies in Bohemia had been sloppy, and Frederick wanted to get out of the war. With several of the Austrian possessions now in danger, Maria Theresa realized that ending the war with Frederick was necessary to preserve her realm, so she made peace with her rival to the north, acknowledging his control of Silesia, which he happily accepted.

The War of the Austrian Succession continued. As Prussia left the war, Britain entered, on the side of the Austrians. France and Bavaria did not hold up well against this change in the scale. By 1744, they had been driven out of Germany. Fearing that Silesia would be attacked by the Austrians once his allies were defeated, Frederick reentered the war that summer and invaded Bohemia, while the main Austrian force was trying to reclaim the Netherlands.

Austria was caught completely by surprise, and the region was captured with rapid speed. The Austrians did not engage directly, however, and instead harassed his supply lines. Despite his successful blitz, he was forced to retreat his forces back to Silesia for the winter.

In 1745, Frederick’s fortunes changed again. His ally, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII died, and Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis, was elected the new Emperor. Consequently, Saxony switched to the Austrian side, and an Austro-Saxon force invaded Silesia. Rather than panic, Frederick is reported to have said, “If you want to catch a mouse, leave the trap open.” He allowed their combined force to cross the mountains into Silesia. At Hohenfriedburg, with a slightly smaller force, he launched an aggressive surprise-attack on his foes. Once again making use of his polished cavalry, he scattered the Saxon contingent of the force before the Austrians could react and deploy, and then he routed the Austrian forces as well. It was a crushing victory for Frederick and Prussia.

Frederick began to reposition his forces for other campaigns. This decreased the size of the army under his command to about 22,000. The Austro-Saxons decided to exploit Frederick’s lower numbers and launched a surprised attack with a force almost twice the size of Prussia’s in the Battle of Soor. Caught off guard, the Prussians organized into battle with full haste and outmaneuvered their opponents, turning a seeming defeat into another powerful victory.

Another Prussian victory in Kesseldorf forced the Austrians to make peace by December. Frederick’s annexation of Silesia was again acknowledged, and in return Frederick supported Francis’s election to Emperor. The overall war finally concluded in 1748, and Prussia’s borders had consequently grown significantly.

Frederick also inherited East Frisia in 1744 (near Hanover), following the extinction of the family that ruled it.

This relatively small power in Europe had impressed the wider continent with its string of victories. Although Frederick made some errors in judgment at the beginning, he speedily learned and adapted, developing both himself and his troops. Much of the European community was already calling him “Frederick the Great” by this time. Moreover, the boy who had resented his royal destiny and the path set by his father had shown that he was more than capable performing the role. He might still have been a romantic at heart, but by now he was very much a Soldier-king in his own right.

Join us next week for the second part of the life of Frederick by following The Asexual Experience.

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