My favourite German

…historical figure

Summary: In praise of Kaiser Friedrich III (b 1831, d 1888)

In my second blogpost I said I’d one day blog about the greatest emperor Germany never had. Well…he reigned for 99 days in 1888. “Long-live the dying emperor” was one phrase I picked out in one of several history books I have around that cover the time period that Friedrich lived in.

Make no bones about it, this man was a titan amongst a class of weak and feeble-minded royals. When I look at the generation of monarchs that followed his generation – in particular Wilhelm II (Germany), George V (UK), Nicholas II (Russia) I see a picture of intellectual feebleness and, for two of the three individuals at least (Wilhelm & Nicholas), were hopelessly out of their depth for the roles they inherited. George in many regards was fortunate that the UK political system had evolved significantly enough to ensure that blame for bad stuff happening landed at the feet of ministers rather than himself. For those of you interested, have a watch of this Channel 4 documentary.

Friedrich’s marriage was essentially an arranged marriage, even though it was also both a love match and a meeting of minds. His bride? Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter – known as “Vicky”. Vicky was Prince Albert’s pride and joy – bright, intelligent, hard-working…everything that her younger brother, Edward was not. Germany was a mix of small states, kingdoms, duchies, principalities and free cities. Both Victoria and Albert dreamed of a unified liberal Germany. In Friedrich (who at a young age was already showing liberal tendencies), they saw the perfect leader of a united liberal journey. In their daughter, they saw the perfect companion to help him achieve that journey.

And it so nearly worked.

But Otto von Bismarck had other ideas. (I’m currently reading a new biography about him). Bismarck too wanted a united Germany, but not one that was liberal and certainly not one that was being influenced by the English. Hence Anglophile liberal Friedrich with the Princess Royal as his wife were inevitably going to be politically opposed.

Friedrich’s father, Wilhelm I also ended up living far longer than many expected – staying on until the age of 90. By this time, Friedrich had developed throat cancer and at the time of his ascension to the throne, was only a few months away from his own death. By the end of 1888, Wilhelm II was on the throne while still in his late 20s.

The contrasts between Friedrich III and his son Wilhelm II are striking – and I’m sure there has been many a comparative study done (in Germany at least) between the two. You could say that Friedrich showed extraordinary pacifism (as far as his politics were concerned) given that he was a leading Prussian and then German field commander of his day – yet extraordinarily competent in the same role. His son Wilhelm was the opposite – showing extraordinary bloodthirstiness as a ‘war lord’ (certainly in a number of his speeches in the run up to the First World War) but extraordinary incompetence in the same role. Once the First World War broke out, Wilhelm as a major ‘actor’ in the conflict seems to all but disappear from the stage as the generals (in particular Hindenburg and Ludendorff) took control of the German war effort.

Wilhelm had no experience ‘in the field’. His father, Friedrich, did. It was during the wars against Denmark, then Austria and finally France that Friedrich was awarded the Pour le Merite (for gallantry) and – during the last of the three, promoted to field marshal as a result of his exploits as a field commander. You could say that this is the equivalent of Prince Charles taking to the field during the first Persian Gulf War (1991) and winning battle honours. Mind you, the latter has a few medals anyway.

Here was also someone who took a very public stand against rising anti-semitism during the latter part of the 19th Century. This was in complete contrast to the views that his son was to develop later on in life. (John Röhl is regarded in history circles as one of the most authoritative historians of Wilhelmine Germany).

One of the things that stimulates my imagination about this era are the myriad of counterfactuals around it – all of the “What ifs?” One of them ponders what would have happened in Europe if a combination the following happened:

  • Prince Albert surviving the illness that killed him, going onto live for say another 30 years (to 1891)
  • Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany dying shortly after the unification of Germany / the Franco-Prussian War, giving Friedrich a much longer reign to implement his liberal reforms
  • Alexander II surviving (unscathed) the bombing that killed him in 1881

This I think could have led to an interesting combination of two reform-minded monarchs alongside with the reforming Prince Albert (the man behind the Great Exhibition of 1851). What would have become of both Germany and Russia if the Reichstag and the Duma respectively had gained significantly more powers during the latter part of the 1800s? What would it have meant for Wilhelm and Nicholas if they had found themselves as politically impotent as Edward VIII found himself in 1936?

One thing that I would love to see a UK television production company take on is a biopic of Friedrich III. There is an absolute wealth of content to deal with and a brilliant story to tell. It combines love, war, heroism, hope, political change, family feuds and tragedy all on an international scale. Anyone going to ask the powers that be to run with this?


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