Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Monarch Profile: Kaiser Friedrich III

The sad distinction of having the shortest reign of all the German Emperors goes to Kaiser Friedrich III and yet he is a figure that continues to fascinate many people, wondering how Germany might have developed had he remained longer on the throne of Prussia and the German Empire. He was born Friedrich Wilhelm Nikolaus Karl of the House of Hohenzollern at the New Palace in Potsdam, Prussia on October 18, 1831 to Prince Wilhelm and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar. At the time Prussia was ruled by his uncle King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. His parents had an often troubled relationship. Wilhelm had wanted to marry a Polish princess but his brother would not allow it and arranged the match with Princess Augusta. A known and opinionated liberal she clashed frequently with her very conservative Prussian husband and their children grew up rather troubled and isolated because of this.

Young Prince Friedrich was given a normal upbringing for a Prussian prince with a great deal of discipline, ‘tough love’ and a focus on the military. However, during these years liberalism was running rampant throughout Europe and even then Friedrich began to take a somewhat sympathetic view of them. It was the liberals who conjured up that thing called German nationalism and who advocated the unification of all the German peoples into a single empire under a constitutional monarchy. In most royal courts “constitution” was still a dirty word but Friedrich was at least sympathetic to the idea of a united Germany and this opened the way to his becoming at least more willing to consider the other liberal ideas they espoused. He was also influenced by his mother who insisted that he be given a more liberal education than was normal for Prussian princes. He grew up to be multi-lingual, speaking German, French and English with at least some knowledge of Latin. He was very athletic, particularly good at gymnastics and showed promise as a soldier. When he was 18 he went to study at the University of Bonn which strengthened his liberal leanings, as did his membership in the Freemason secret society, and rather alarmed the more traditional members of his family, particularly his father who was a very ‘old school’ Prussian royal.

This tension only increased with the search for a wife for Friedrich. His father, being sympathetic toward royal autocracy, favored a Russian bride while his mother looked to the most well established constitutional monarchy of Great Britain. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were anxious to maintain the German ties of the British Royal Family and the Belgian King Leopold I (who had helped arrange the very successful match of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) thought Prince Friedrich would make an ideal husband for the Princess Royal Victoria. Prince Albert was especially enthusiastic, thinking that the marriage of his daughter to the heir to the Prussian throne would be the turning point in making the most powerful German kingdom a model of liberal enlightenment and constitutional monarchy for the other states. Prince Wilhelm conceded at last and on January 25, 1858 Crown Prince Friedrich and Princess Royal Victoria were married at the St James Palace chapel in London (to the consternation of many Prussians who thought the wedding should be in their own country). Despite being an arranged marriage it was a winning match. The two were quite taken with each other from the start and would remain staunchly devoted to each other for the rest of their lives.

If Friedrich was a liberal by Prussian standards his new British bride was positively revolutionary. She did not find much satisfactory about Prussia when she arrived and determined that practically everything needed changing, quickly and drastically. Friedrich, for his part, tended to agree with her but was a little more realistic about the time it would take to effect this transformation. Prussia had struggled to the top of the German-speaking world by absolute royal rule and an incredibly strong army so becoming a moderate, liberal, constitutional monarchy was not a change that could be done quickly or easily. Between 1858 and 1872 Fritz and Vicky (as they were informally known) had eight children of whom the most famous and troublesome to the royal couple would be their firstborn the future Kaiser Wilhelm II.

On January 2, 1861 Friedrich became Crown Prince upon his father’s elevation to the status of King Wilhelm I of Prussia. Although liberal elements were on the ascendant in Prussia the King clashed with the parliament and would not bend to their will. He finally appointed Otto von Bismarck Minister-President and he was able to bring the politicians to heel. Crown Prince Friedrich was frequently at odds with both his father and Bismarck. The more he opposed them, the more they distrusted him and kept him out of state affairs which in turned hardened Friedrich against them. He often escaped Berlin to the more favorable political climate of Great Britain where his ideas were more mainstream. He went into battle for the first time during the war with Denmark in which he performed well. In the subsequent war with Austria he led one of the three main Prussian armies and again proved himself a capable soldier, ensuring victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Koeniggraetz. However, he had no love of warfare and actually sided with his enemy Bismarck against the other Prussian leaders who wanted to continue the war against Austria. Yet, not long after he commanded an army again during the 1870 war with the Second French Empire.

Once again, Crown Prince Friedrich won many laurels and several victories, becoming widely respected among the international community for his humanity toward the French and adored by his soldiers for the care he took of them. The German Empire was achieved, Wilhelm I became German Kaiser and Friedrich became an imperial crown prince. Yet, he remained at odds with his conservative father and increasingly so with his son who had been taken in by Prince Bismarck. Fritz and Vicky were as devoted to each other as ever but often felt quite isolated, which they were, but bided their time for when the Hohenzollern crown would pass to Friedrich and he could make, not only Prussia but now all of Germany, the liberal constitutional monarchy he and his wife envisioned.

However, when the time finally came Friedrich had already been stricken with the throat cancer that was soon to take his life. In 1888 Wilhelm I passed away at the age of 90 and his son became Kaiser Friedrich III but his illness was already so advanced he could not attend most of the festivities honoring the occasion. He bestowed honors on his wife, long unappreciated in his view by the conservative court of his father, and he did work as hard as he could in spite of the fact that he could not speak and all the doctors and all of their efforts proved ultimately useless. As his condition grew even worse Empress Victoria acted as his guardian, doing her best to thwart those who were already rushing to gain the good graces of Wilhelm II in expectation of his rapid elevation. After only 99 days on the throne Kaiser Friedrich III died on June 15, 1888 lamenting what would become of Germany when he was gone.

1 comment:

  1. A great loss.

    Had he lived and reigned more longer the German Empire maybe still exist today as a Democratic Constitution

    Wonder why many Liberal Monarchs doesnt last longer during their reign even their life. From Maximilian, to Rudolf, to Friedrich, to Franz-Ferdinand


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