Frederick III: Germany's Liberal Emperor

By Patricia Kollander | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Frederick's Conversion to Liberalism, 1831-1861

Prince Frederick William of Prussia, the only son of Prince William and Princess Augusta of Prussia, was born on 18 October 1831. Prince William was the second son of King Frederick William III of Prussia. Upon the accession of William's brother Frederick William IV in 1840, William became the heir to the throne since his brother's marriage was childless.

The marriage between Frederick's parents was not happy, for they had nothing in common. Princess Augusta was raised in Weimar, a state distinguished by its intellectual atmosphere and cultural life. Though regarded as a high-strung, humorless woman, Augusta was also considered highly intelligent and corresponded with the greatest thinkers of her day, including Goethe. 1 William, on the other hand, received an entirely military education and was an enthusiastic soldier as well as a rigid disciplinarian. He was noted for his modesty and steady character but shared neither his wife's intelligence nor her interest in the artistic and intellectual life of the period. 2

The clash between William's and Augusta's personalities and tastes was exacerbated by the fact that they espoused opposing political views. Princess Augusta's homeland was the first state in Germany to grant its subjects a constitution, and the princess regarded herself as a liberal. The liberal vision of the ideal social order was based on progress, faith in the future, and timely reform. 3 Liberals wished to transform the autocratic and oppressive order that was re-established throughout Europe after the defeat of the French Revolution and Napoleon. 4 They agreed that the restoration of governments based on the personal rule of the monarch and on the suppression of individual liberties was detrimental to the human condition. If men could be entrusted to govern themselves with a minimum of interference from outside authority, liberals argued, they would pursue their own best interests, and the sum of these individual efforts would benefit the welfare of all. Hence, the role of government in liberal society was to adopt constitutions, bills of rights, and laws that would preserve and protect individual liberties.

Liberals supported self-government through popular representation. Only a tiny minority of radical liberals, however, advocated complete democracy and

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