Frederick III, German Emperor - Legacy


Frederick believed a state should not act against the popular opinion of its inhabitants. He had a long history of liberalism, and had discussed his ideas and intentions with Victoria and others before his reign. Admiring Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the British parliamentary system, Frederick and his wife planned to rule as consorts and liberalize Germany through the appointment of more liberal ministers. They intended to severely limit the office of Chancellor, and reorganize Germany to include many elements of British liberalism. Many historians, including William Harbutt Dawson and Erich Eyck, consider that Frederick's early death put an end to the development of liberalism within the German empire. They believe that, given a longer reign and better health, Frederick might indeed have transformed Germany into a more liberal democratic country, and prevented its militaristic path toward war. Dr. J. McCullough claims that Frederick would have averted World War I—and by extension the resulting Weimar Republic—while other historians such as Michael Balfour go even further by postulating that, as the end of World War I directly affected the state of the world's development, the liberal German Emperor might also have prevented the outbreak of World War II. Author Michael Freund states outright that both world wars would have been averted had Frederick lived longer. However, his father lived for 90 years, and Frederick ascended to the throne as a sick man in late middle-age on the threshold of death. Unable to influence policy at the height of his power, health, and popularity following his military successes, Frederick was again unable to do so during his reign. His life inspired historian Frank Tipton to speculate: "What would have happened had his father died sooner or if he himself had lived longer?"

Other historians, including Wilhelm Mommsen and Arthur Rosenberg, oppose the idea that Frederick could have, or would have, liberalized Germany. They believe that he would not have dared to oppose both his father and Bismarck to change Germany's course; a natural soldier, he was steeped in his family's strong military tradition, and had happily reported to his father since he joined the army at the age of ten. Andreas Dorpalen notes that Frederick had complied with most of William's and Bismarck's policies early in his life, and would have been unlikely to change his behaviour. According to Arthur Rosenberg, despite his liberal tendencies Frederick still firmly believed in Bismarck and his system, with Dorpalen adding that in any case Frederick had too weak and ineffectual a character to have brought about real change, regardless of how long he reigned. James J. Sheehan states that the political climate and party system of Germany during that period were too steeped in the old ways for Frederick to overcome with liberalization. Dorpalen also observes that Frederick's liberal persona may have been exaggerated after his death, to keep the liberal movement strong in Germany, and he points out that the many mistakes made by William II helped to paint his father in a more favorable light.

Frederick's children—William in particular—held various political positions and greatly influenced Europe. Unlike his father, William had not personally experienced the horrors of war, and he enthusiastically embraced his family's military heritage, coming under Bismarck's tutelage. The Chancellor, who disapproved of Frederick's and Victoria's liberal ways, felt bound to increase the tensions between William and his parents. William grew up full of disdain for their opinions on government, and shortly after his father's death, proclaimed that he would follow the path of his grandfather, William I. He made no reference to Frederick III. William II abandoned all of his father's policies and ideas, and eventually led Germany into World War I.

Bismarck's plan of undermining Frederick and Victoria, and of using William II as a tool for retaining his own power, led to his own downfall. When Bismarck realized that William II was about to dismiss him:

All Bismarck's resources were deployed; he even asked Empress Victoria to use her influence with her son on his behalf. But the wizard had lost his magic; his spells were powerless because they were exerted on people who did not respect them, and he who had so signally disregarded Kant's command to use people as ends in themselves had too small a stock of loyalty to draw on. As Lord Salisbury told Queen Victoria: 'The very qualities which Bismarck fostered in the Emperor in order to strengthen himself when the Emperor Frederick should come to the throne have been the qualities by which he has been overthrown.' The Empress, with what must have been a mixture of pity and triumph, told him that her influence with her son could not save him for he himself had destroyed it.

Mount Frederick William in the Jervis Inlet area of the British Columbia Coast in Canada is named in his honour.

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