Frederick II of Prussia – Enlightenment, Naturalism, and Homosexuality

The Enlightenment era was a surprisingly tolerant time for accepting homosexual relationships.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on June 4th, 2019

Frederick II of Prussia was a great politician and philosopher and influenced the enlightenment era as much as his good friend Voltaire.  As honorable as his military achievements in the Shlesian Wars and the Seven Years War were, as colorful was his private life. 

Born in 1712 in Prussian Berlin to a militaristic society, he suffered from his cruel and demanding father, who could not understand Frederick’s interest in the beautiful arts. He hated Frederick’s passion for playing the flute and all things considering the fine arts. Frederick’s first considerable relationship with another man – if also physically is not clear – was to Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte, with whom he planned to escape the strict education of his father and flee to France. But both lovers were discovered and thrown into prison. King Friedrich Wilhelm I even intervened to change Kattes life-long imprisonment sentence, so Katte was beheaded in 1730, right under the eyes of Frederick II. 

Despite this traumatic eventsin his youth, Frederick never ceased to be close to men after becoming king of Prussia. He lived his sexuality half-openly, writing in letters he wasn’t interested in the female body and that he envied his brother who could be open about his own homosexuality. 

In the middle of the eighteenth century, he wrote the poem Le Palladion, describing homosexual adventures of his gay main character Darget. 

The 18th century was an era of change for world history. The philosophical movements Enlightenment and Romanticism overthrew traditional principles in society, politics and economy. Continuing the trend to accept forms of effeminacy and male/male relationships which the last century had set, homosexuality became somewhat presentable in certain sections of the community, mostly royal ones. 

But there were also critical voices who saw homosexual behavior of the ruling and upper classes as decadent. One of these critics who despised the gaynessat the French court had been Frederick’s friend Voltaire itself. Nevertheless, he wasn’t opposed to homosexuality in general. In his Dictionnaire Philosophique, he included an article about the Love of Socrates, complete with a list of homosexual persons throughout the history.  

In other parts of the world, opinions about same-sex love were not predominantly hostile. Peter the Great of Russia only criminalized homosexual acts in his military, whereas it was legal among civilians. 

In Les Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Naturalism philosopher described his revulsion when a man in women’s clothes tried to seduce him. But in the same paragraph, he included a plaidoyerfor a friend who liked this form of affection. This is considered the first demand for tolerance for another sexuality differing from one’s own, in history of literature. 

But of course, there were also raids on well-known places where homosexual people were known to socialize. In 1726, the molly house of Margaret Clap was assaulted by the London police. Gay men who frequented this meeting place for homosexuals were all hanged at Tyburn. In a village in the Netherlands, 22 young men were killed and burned because they admitted being attracted to men. In 1750, two Parisians were burned after being discovered together. 

Obviously,there was a gap between lower and upper classes in terms of accepting gay lifestyle and relationships. 

But why did this era show so much acceptance for homosexuality in the royal and educated classes as never before since the days of Greek and Roman society, and why didn’t it last? 

Well, this century was a time of overthrowing old ideas and trying out new ones. Different philosophical schools disputed what it meant to be a human being and a citizen of the state. Why some debates showed surprisingly high levels of modern acceptance for alternative lifestyles, these treatises didn’t reach the working and peasant classes, which made up to 95% of the entire population at that time.

Illiteracy and lack of mass education for the poor an unprivileged prevented a widespread changing of the tides. 

Who knows how the world might look if things had been different, if the people could actually have read and understood the books about new forms of society which the philosophers had written?

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