Asexuals in History: Frederick the Great, Part III
In our previous installment on Frederick the Great, we covered the second half of his life. In this part, we will analyze whether or not his greatness necessarily meant good or ill for his nation and for the rest of the world. We will also discuss how likely it was that he was asexual. First, though, let us see what his rule meant for Prussia.
At the end of his reign, Prussia was a geographically larger and more consolidated realm. This offered several benefits, be they domestic, economic, military, or otherwise. The Hohenzollern family, as well as their domains, had been on the path of growth, so Frederick was not totally unique in what he did. The rise of Prussia, up to Frederick’s reign, had primarily been a matter of inheritance and political brokering, however. With Frederick, it was a consequence of conquest. It was in this bold leap that Frederick did what his predecessors had not done: he changed Prussia from a petty kingdom to a great power of Europe.
While Silesia was the only part that had been won for Prussia in positive conquest, it could be argued that there were still accomplishments that he made in the form of negative conquest. By that, we mean that Frederick denied territory to others, namely Austria. He contained the imperial ambitions of Maria Theresa and disallowed her the acquisition of Bavaria. This would set the stage for Prussia’s preeminence over the other German states in the following century. By keeping Austria weaker than it would have been, Frederick enabled his heirs to succeed in unifying Germany under the Hohenzollern family name and not that of the Hapsburgs.
The Seven Years’ War weakened Prussia in the short-term. Many historians agree that its drained military capacity rendered it quite unready to deal with the upcoming threat of Napoleon. The Prussian army was famously crushed at the Battle of Jena–Auerstedt in 1806 by a French force half its size, just twenty years after Frederick’s death. A generation of military talent had been slain in Prussia that was hard to replace in such a relatively small country. Had the coalitions against France and Napoleon not prevailed in the end, all of Frederick’s gains might have been undone. Some of the irony here, however, is that Napoleon owed a lot of his success to Frederick, which leads us to our next observation.
The Military Theorist
Many kings have been great conquerors. Often, however, they have not been particularly good theorists. By this, we mean that they have not understood military prowess as a science, as something that can be digested and learned by others. Being the Enlightenment ruler that he was, however, Frederick looked at matters differently and heavily developed military theory in the West as a result.
As we mentioned in Part II, Napoleon believed that, had Frederick lived in his time, France would not have prevailed in their then-recent victory at Jena-Auerstedt. He had good reason to think that; Napoleon had heavily studied the methods and ideas of Frederick during his early days as an officer. Impressed, he would go on to implement them during his own military commands. As such, much of what France accomplished during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with its spread of liberalism and the weakening of the ancient, monarchic systems, owes itself to Frederick and his martial innovations.
His contribution to military theory does not end there. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz penned his influential work, On War. This book would most heavily draw on the warfare of Frederick and Napoleon, crystallizing their ideas and successes into more formal, precise terms and concepts. While the The Art of War is considered the quintessential treatise about war and strategy in the East, it is On War, written by on officer of the Prussia that Frederick built, that has predominance in the West.
Helmuth von Moltke, the commander of Prussia’s army during Germany’s wars of unification in the Nineteenth Century, took the ideas in On War and applied them to the tactics, strategy, and institutions of Prussia’s military. These policies, which trace their heritage to Frederick, enabled Germany to win three rapid victories against Denmark, Austria, and France, led to the formation of the German Empire. The doctrines of Frederick would be passed down yet again, to the officers of Germany in both World Wars. If it is possible to summarize this, Frederick’s predilection for swift, aggressive, and concentrated attacks (often against larger foes) would see constant use by Prussia/Germany, from his own Battle of Leuthen in 1757 to Manstein’s Battle of France in 1940.
To this day, Prussian military doctrine is the nucleus of all modern military doctrine. Even the armored assault of US VII Corps during Operation Desert Storm had an echo of Frederick in it.
Baron von Steuben
An officer in the Prussian army during the Seven Years’ War, who was even personally taught by Frederick, one Baron von Steuben, would play a pivotal role not in Prussian history but in American history. It is widely believed today that Steuben was homosexual, and he came to America largely to escape the persecution he was close to facing as a result. He just so happened to come during the Revolution, when the young nation was in need of competent officers.
The Americans had formed a technically professional force, the Continental Army. It was, however, a rag-tag army at best, poorly equipped and under-trained, and it had suffered defeats against the British that surprised nobody. Steuben arrived on the scene during the seminal winter at Valley Forge, where he began reforming the Army. He taught basic drills and tactics that troops were able to teach to others. He kept strict records of supplies and performed numerous inspections that stopped supplies from being stolen. He improved the efficiency of training new recruits as they entered the service. He taught the soldiers how to do a proper bayonet charge and much more.
When the Continental Army emerged from Valley Forge, it was now a competent fighting force, able to square up with the British in the field of battle. America’s eventual victory and the security of its independence might have all been lost, if this student of Frederick’s had not made his way across the Atlantic in our hour of need.
Our modern-day system of public of education can trace its origins to the reign of Frederick. In 1763, he issued a decree requiring the education of all boys and girls in municipalities from age 5 to 13, with the cities responsible for providing the funds. He also introduced a publicly funded secondary school system for those who wished to continue their studies. This was a step that would take larger countries such as Britain and France almost a century to imitate, who then borrowed heavily from the Prussian system. Even the United States later found inspiration in the lead that Prussia took, and this is evidenced by what Americans call the first year of primary school, the German kindergarten.
One of the more enlightened aspects of Frederick’s rule was his tolerance of religion. While he favored Protestants, he never cared to persecute Catholics, Jews, or other religious minorities. While he had some strange or unsavory thoughts about these groups, he treated them no differently than other subjects and appreciated their ability to contribute to the welfare of his kingdom. In fact, Frederick had little reason to govern intolerantly toward religions. With the heavy toll that wars took on his country, immigrants provided wealth and population that were lost during those conflicts.
He was not perfect in his treatment of religions. Prussia sometimes confiscated property from the Catholic church in Poland. One might suspect that this was a function of anti-Catholic sentiment. It may have been a result of a different motive entirely, which brings us to another section.
Racism against Poles
While there was much that Frederick did to be a pluralistic king in a more prejudiced era, he failed to lead the way in his attitudes toward Poland. He despised Poles as uncultured simpletons, even in his youth. In fact, his love of the Enlightenment may have actually provoked this sentiment, leading him to see the Poles as too stupid to produce the kind of philosophy, art, and science that other nations such as France had engendered. He is known to have referred to them as “slovenly Polish trash” and “vile apes.”
His sentiments worsened over the years, particularly with how Poland allowed the Russians to move their armies freely through Polish territory, in order to attack Frederick. When he partitioned Poland along with Austria and Russia, he may have been motivated by feelings of revenge. As Polish territory came under his control, he implemented policies to Germanize the area, which he viewed as a mission of civilizing a lesser people. Not only were German settlements made in Polish territory, but plunder and economic exploitation occurred. Polish schools were shut down, and burdensome taxes were levied.
Frederick was never open about his hatred for the Poles. His policies in Poland were never portrayed as ethnically motivated but merely imperialist, as a means of consolidating his rule and power. Nevertheless, he hoped to get rid of the Poles entirely, by mixing them with Germans, reducing the the prevalence of their language, and otherwise diminishing their culture.
A Symbol of the Nazis
It should come as no surprise that Frederick would serve as a kind of role model for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Much of this is simply due to his status as a brave warrior who empowered Prussia (and consequently Germany). Nevertheless, Frederick’s ideas toward the Poles and the policies that resulted presented a normalized context for Hitler’s racial ideology, of the Pole as inferior to the German. Hitler also desired to do away with the Poles, but he opted for something far more extreme: mass murder. Over 200,000 non-Jewish Poles were killed in concentrations camps during the Holocaust, and at least 1.5 million more died as a result of violence, starvation, slavery, and lowered standards of living at the hands of the Third Reich. About 200,000 Polish children were also abducted from Polish families, whom the Nazis deemed fit for Germanization.
Generalplan Ost details what the Nazis intended for the peoples of Eastern Europe. In these documents, the Nazis describe their intent to destroy Poland entirely. This they would do through conquest, murder, forced sterilization, the illegalization of medical treatment for Poles, the deportation of most Poles to Siberia, and enslavement of those who remained to provide services to the new German population in Polish territory. By the 1970s, the Nazis hoped to have accomplished the complete annihilation of the Polish nation. Their erasure, however, was spared by the defeat of the Germans in World War II, but had it occurred, there would have been an echo of Frederick in that as well.
An Asexual King?
As previously stated, it cannot be determined for a fact what the sexual orientation of Frederick, or anyone who lived so long ago, was. In spite of that, we assert that there was good evidence to believe that Frederick was asexual. The central fact was that he was never known to have had any romances or affairs with any person, beyond mere rumor. Frederick notably despised his marriage to Elisabeth Christine, which he had only done under the tyranny of his father. When Frederick William I died, giving him the throne, Frederick abandoned all façades and separated himself from his wife. He rarely saw her after that. For the rest of their lives, years might pass before they would visit each other.
Frederick appears to have had no interest in women at all. After losing a battle, he once remarked:
Fortune has it in for me; she is a woman, and I am not that way inclined.
His court was rather military in its nature and, unusually, rarely ever featured any women. Frederick appeared to have disliked the behavior of statesmen when tempted by the opposite sex, as scandals in France made clear, so their absence from state affairs may have been intentional. He also appeared to have no personal friendships with any women other than his older sister Wilhelmine.
Many have taken this to mean that Frederick was likely homosexual. They point to some of his most intimate friendships with men, such as with Katte, as examples of same-sex romances in which he partook. We believe that these common interpretations suffer from bias against asexuality. This is not to say that asexuality is willfully excluded from consideration. Rather, we believe that many historians have been too ignorant and incurious about the phenomenon to consider the possibility. As such, homosexuality becomes an easy and a lacking attempt to provide answers by historians.
One thing worth noting is that, for asexuals, friendships can be quite intimate, since they often do not partake in romances at all. This makes a close friendship a higher priority in the life of an asexual, something that will mirror the intensity of a romance in some cases. We believe this to be the case for Frederick, that he was simply a person who enjoyed his friendships above what was average, in the absence of romance. All claims of his homosexuality are based on scant evidence, particularly when compared to other historical figures who have better evidence, such as the aforementioned Baron von Steuben.
Frederick the Great is a complex figure. He embodied and may have even created the stereotype of German prudishness, industriousness, and aggression. He was an exceedingly competent person, who overcame adversities that would have been too much for many of his contemporaries. He was forward-thinking for his time and set many positive forces in motion for the world, while also being a domino for some more negative outcomes. While it may be hard to regard him as an ideal role model of history, he was a mostly decent king, who could have been significantly crueler than he was. Given the torment to which his father subjected him, both physical and psychological, he emerged a remarkably gentle person, which was simply not true of other kings in his day.
As such, we believe that we can look back at a man like Frederick with a certain fondness and respect, while also acknowledging his mistakes for what they were. Whatever else we might say, there is no denying that he was Great.