Friedrich III

Friedrich III

Kaiser Wilhelm I died in March 1888, at the age of 90, and the impe-rial crown passed to his son, Friedrich III (1831–88). As crown prince, Friedrich had served with distinction as a military commander during Prussia’s Wars of Unifi cation.

While Friedrich embraced his military duty, he often proclaimed a personal distaste for war and proved far more liberal in his politics than his father. He often clashed with Bismarck in policy discussions and even denounced his repressive measures in public, and his father virtually excluded him from poli-tics as long as he lived.

Friedrich was a great admirer of Britain and its constitutional monarchy, and even married the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria in 1858. Thus, for Germany’s liberals gradually gaining strength in the Reichstag, Friedrich was their great hope. By the time he ascended to the imperial throne, however, Friedrich was 57 years old and dying of throat cancer.

During his short reign, one that lasted only 99 days, Friedrich attempted to push through a series of ill-fated liberal reforms, but few of his efforts outlived him. Soon after he took the throne, for example, he dismissed Prussia’s interior minister, Robert von Puttkamer (1828–1900), a conservative ally of Bismarck.

Liberals within Germany and abroad were delighted by this move, which they hoped was a prelude to a more sweeping series of constitutional reforms. The most important of these would be to reduce the immense infl uence of the chancellor, written into the German constitution by Bismarck, by establishing a British-style cabinet answerable to the Reichstag.

Unfortunately, weak-ened by his illness and left incapable of speech by a botched surgery, Friedrich was unable to make lasting reforms or to curb the authoritar-ian and militaristic tendencies inherent in the Kaiserreich. Friedrich’s tragic career has long fascinated scholars who speculate about how he might have changed Germany’s path had he enjoyed a longer reign.

Upon Friedrich’s death in 1888—known in Germany as the Year of the Three Emperors—his son was crowned Emperor Wilhelm II (1859–1941). Fascinated by military life but without battlefi eld experience, the young Wilhelm repudiated his father’s liberal sentiments. Deeply infl uenced by Otto von Bismarck, the new kaiser openly proclaimed his intention to return Prussia to the conservative and bellicose policies of his grandfather and namesake, Wilhelm I.