Frederick III: Germany's Liberal Emperor

By Patricia Kollander | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the first decades following World War II, historians generally agreed that the failure of Germany's nineteenth-century liberal movement to inculcate democratic values in German politics and society contributed to Hitler's triumphs. Historians have pointed to a variety of reasons for liberalism's failure. Some have stressed its ideological deficiencies, 1 others the lack of unity in the movement, 2 and still others its willingness to ally with conservative forces--to achieve German unification and economic betterment--at the expense of furthering the movement's original commitment to political liberty. 3 A common theme that pervades these works is that liberalism had much to offer, but in the end it contributed little, if at all, to Germany's political development.

In recent years, however, a new generation of scholars has challenged this traditional framework for analysis of the liberal movement. In their work The Peculiarities of German History, Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn charge that historians have been too preoccupied with liberalism's failure to transform state and society in accordance with Anglo-American standards of political liberty and equality. As a result, they have overlooked the positive contributions made by liberalism to the course of German history. 4 Blackbourn and Eley hold that German society, in fact, underwent a "silent bourgeois revolution" during the period of unification, which not only allowed the middle class to attain many of its goals but also set the stage for further liberal political development, which endured until the end of the Weimar republic. 5 This debate has reinvigorated the study of German liberalism and invites historians to reassess previously held assumptions about individuals and events that affected the course of Germany's liberal development.

This study provides a new interpretation of Emperor Frederick III's liberalism and its contribution to the course of Germany's liberal development. When asked to comment on the death of Frederick III in 1888, Liberal British prime minister Gladstone called him "the Barbarossa of German liberalism." Many German liberals felt the same way. As crown prince, Frederick had maintained ties with prominent liberals and rejected the conservative domestic and foreign policies of

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