November 6th, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1730, Prussia’s greatest king watched his boyhood lover put to death at his father’s order.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Most of those ways were explored at some point by a Hohenzollern.
The 18-year-old prince Frederick had a thoroughly frosty relationship with the old man. Surly Frederick William I — “the soldier king” — didn’t have much use for his sensitive, music-loving son. An “effeminate fool,” dad thought the boy, and did not scruple to beat him publicly as he forcibly molded the unwilling heir into a military man.
Now, blue bloods have often had rocky relationships with their sires, but running away is not the usual option for a prince of the realm.
But Frederick contrived to hit the bricks, and 26-year-old officer Hans Hermann von Katte had the bad luck to be his best friend (and presumed homosexual lover). When Frederick turned to him for help, they started plotting flight.
Both were apprehended and imprisoned, and Frederick was himself in some danger of being executed by command of his own father. Dad softened up enough to keep his son’s head attached to his shoulders.
Von Katte wasn’t so lucky: sentenced only to imprisonment, the verdict was upgraded by the vindictive monarch — and as part of Frederick William’s ongoing project to break his son, he made the kid watch his friend’s beheading from close enough proximity to beg (and receive) von Katte’s forgiveness.
Here’s a melodramatic interpretation from a short film called Der Tod des Hans Hermann von Katte:
Frederick spent the next decade under the father’s thumb, chafing but bending himself to the austere demands of Prussian statecraft.
Well did he absorb them, for upon succeeding in 1740, he far surpassed his father in the martial pursuits, and for the half-century span of his reign was Europe’s acknowledged battlefield master. Known to posterity as Frederich the Great — and more familiarly as der alte Fritz, “old Fritz” — his augmentation of the empire vaulted Prussia into Europe’s great powers club and set the stage for German unification.
Frederick scarcely ever spoke again of von Katte, but neither did he lose his native intelligence, and he kept up a long-running correspondence with Voltaire.
It gives an achingly tragic cast to the boy who suffered the horrible loss of his intimate this day — who dutifully delivered to his country genius as a commander and statesman, at the uncomplaining sacrifice of the life he yearned to lead.
UC-Berkeley professor Margaret Anderson’s wonderful “Rise and Fall of the Second Reich” course podcast situates Frederick in the arc of Prussia’s development out of the Middle Ages —
— and treats his adroit foreign policy and active mind in the age of the Enlightenment.
Also on this date
- 1863: James Murphy, after a reunion
- 1964: Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo
- 1918: Roman Malinovsky, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy
- 1944: Boy Ecury, Aruban Dutch Resistance hero
- 1600: Ishida Mitsunari, Konishi Yukinaga and Ankokuji Ekei for the Tokugawa Shogunate
- 1793: Philippe Egalite, hoisted on his own petard
- 2003: Four for the oil of Chad
- 1914: Carl Hans Lody
Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Homosexuals,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Power,Prussia,Scandal,Soldiers,Treason