Empress Frederick: The Last Hope for a Liberal Germany?

Article excerpt

Historians have long regarded Victoria (1840-1901), the British-born princess who took the name Empress Frederick after the death of her husband, Emperor Frederick III of Germany (1831-88), as a tragic figure. Her parents, Queen Victoria of Britain and her consort, Prince Albert, supported German unification under Prussia. Both hoped that young Victoria's marriage to the heir to the Prussian throne would bring progressive political ideas to conservative and militaristic Prussia and subsequently to all of Germany. But this was not to be. Although Victoria converted her husband into a supporter of liberalism, he died after a pathetically brief 99-day reign.

Works by popular biographer Hannah Pakula and historian John Roehl have praised Victoria's political judgement. Other biographers agree that if Frederick had lived longer, Germany could have adopted a more liberal course, which could have enabled Germany and the world to avoid the tragedies of the twentieth century.(1) Such historians may have been misled by the fictitious portrait of Frederick that Victoria created after his death.(2) This portrait created a liberal legend of Frederick III and criticized his political adversary Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), who dominated German politics from 1862 to 1890. Bismarck strove above all to enhance the power of Prussia and Germany in Europe, and he was hostile to the liberal movement. Many historians have used Victoria's criticism of Bismarck--as filtered through the legend of her husband--to support the contention that Bismarck was responsible in no small measure for the Germany's downfall.

Based on the unpublished correspondence between Frederick and Victoria, this paper calls the accuracy of these views into question.(3) It shows that the success of Victoria's campaign to convert her husband to liberalism was in actuality more limited than she herself believed. Victoria hoped to revise German politics along more liberal and progressive guidelines used in Britain, but while Frederick adopted moderately liberal views after his marriage, he shied away from embracing the far more radical political philosophy of his wife. Her views on domestic and foreign policy were unrealistic, and the course of action she advocated on several occasions was downright dangerous. Indeed, in the long run it may have been better for Germany that most of her views never became translated into actual policy.

During the mid-nineteenth century, there was no sovereign state of Germany, but rather a Germanic Confederation, a loose association of 34 German states and four cities. The two largest states, Austria and Prussia, were rivals for leadership in the confederation. Many German middle-class liberals wished to liberalize the rigid Prussian political institutions and unify Germany under Prussian leadership. This, they believed, would bring progress, prosperity, and security to the German people. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert supported German unification under Protestant Prussia because if liberals succeeded in their goal, Britain would gain a Protestant ally on the European continent. Although Albert was born and raised in the German principality of Saxe-Coburg, he came to admire British political institutions. He wished to see features of the British political system such as free elections, free expression, free trade, and a ministry responsible to parliament adopted by Prussia. This seemed to be little more than a dream, however, for an ultra-conservative government that was hostile to unification and liberalization of any kind dominated Prussia. The leaders of most of the other German states also opposed unification, as they assumed that this would diminish their sovereign powers.

Empress Frederick was born Princess Victoria of Britain on 21 November 1840. She was the eldest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and her father's favorite. Discussion began regarding her marriage began when Victoria was a small child. …