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Friedrich insisted on a bloodless “moral conquests”, unifying Germany by liberal and peaceful means, but it was Bismarck’s policy of blood and iron that prevailed. His protests against Wilhelm’s rule peaked at Danzigon June 4, 1863, where at an official reception in the city he loudly denounced Bismarck’s restrictions on freedom of the press. He thereby made Bismarck his enemy and his father extremely angry. Consequently, as mentioned in my last entry, Friedrich was excluded from positions of political power throughout his father’s reign. Retaining his military portfolio, he continued to represent Germany and its Emperor at ceremonies, weddings, and celebrations such as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Friedrich would spend a large portion of time in Britain, where Queen Victoria frequently allowed him to represent her at ceremonies and social functions.

Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia

Friedrich fought in the wars against Denmark, Austria and France. Although Friedrich had opposed military action in unifying Germany, once war had started against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870) he supported the Prussian military wholeheartedly and took positions of command. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 in which he was once more commanded the III Army, consisting of troops from the southern German states. He was praised for his leadership after defeating the French at the battles of Wissembourgand Wörth, and met with further successes at the Battle of Sedan and during the Siege of Paris.

Friedrich’s humane treatment of his country’s foes earned him their respect and the plaudits of neutral observers. After the Battle of Wörth, a London journalist witnessed the Crown Prince’s many visits to wounded Prussian soldiers and lauded his deeds, extolling the love and respect the soldiers held for Friedrich. Following his victory, Friedrich had remarked to two Paris journalists, “I do not like war gentlemen. If I should reign I would never make it.” One French journalist remarked that “the Crown Prince has left countless traits of kindness and humanity in the land that he fought against.” For his behaviour and accomplishments, The Times wrote a tribute to Friedrich in July 1871, stating that “the Prince has won as much honour for his gentleness as for his prowess in the war”.

Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia

In 1871, following Prussia’s victories, the German states were united into the German Empire, with Wilhelm as the Emperor and Friedrich as heir-apparent to the new German monarchy. Although Wilhelm thought the day when he became Emperor the saddest of his life, Friedrich was excited to be witness to a great day in German history. Bismarck, now Chancellor, disliked Friedrich and also distrusted the liberal attitudes of the Crown Prince and Princess. Often at odds with his father’s and Bismarck’s policies and actions, Friedrich sided with the country’s liberals in their opposition to the expansion of the empire’s army. In 1878, when his father was incapacitated by injury from an assassination attempt, Friedrich briefly took over his tasks but was soon relegated to the sidelines once again. His lack of influence affected him deeply, even causing him to contemplate suicide.

Anton von Werner’s depiction of Wilhelm proclamation as Emperor; Friedrich is standing behind his father, his brother-in-law, the Grand Duke of Baden leads the cheering.

Friedrich had been a heavy smoker for many years. At a ball held by Wilhelm on January 31, 1887, a guest reported the Crown Prince “was so hoarse that he could hardly say a word.” His hoarseness continued through February, and was diagnosed as a thickening of the mucous membrane over the vocal cords, caused by “a chronic laryngeal catarrh.” On February 7, Friedrich consulted a doctor, Karl Gerhardt, who scraped a wire across the membrane for 10 days in an attempt to remove thickened tissue. After the procedure proved unsuccessful, Gerhardt cauterised the left vocal cord with an electric wire on March 15, in an attempt to remove what was then thought to be a vocal fold nodules. Due to Friedrich’s highly inflamed throat, Gerhardt was unable to remove the entire growth. After several cauterisations, and with no signs of improvement, Friedrich and his wife went to the spa of Bad Ems, where he drank the mineral waters and underwent a regimen of gargles and inhaling fresh air, with no effect.

On May 17, Gerhardt and other doctors, including Ernst von Bergmann, diagnosed the growth as laryngeal cancer. Bergmann recommended consulting a leading British cancer specialist, Morell Mackenzie; he also recommended a thyrotomy to gain better access to the inside of the larynx, followed by the complete removal of the larynx – a total laryngectomy – if the situation proved serious. While Victoria was informed of the need for an immediate operation, Friedrich was not told. Despite the tentative diagnosis of cancer, the doctors hoped the growth would prove to be a benign epithelioma.

Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia

Dr. Mackenzie arrived in Berlin on May 20, but after examining Friedrich recommended a biopsy of the growth to determine whether or not it was malignant. He conducted the biopsy the following morning, after which he sent tissue samples to the distinguished pathologist Rudolf Virchow for microscopic examination. When Virchow was unable to detect any cancerous cells despite several separate analyses, Mackenzie declared his opposition to a laryngectomy being performed, as he felt it would be invariably fatal, and said he would assume charge of the case. He gave his assurance that Friedrich would fully recover “in a few months.” While Gerhardt and Physician-General August Wegner concurred with Mackenzie, Bergmann and his colleague Adalbert Tobold held to their original diagnosis of cancer. In addition to Mackenzie’s opinion, Bismarck strongly opposed any major operation on Friedrich’s throat, and pressed the Emperor to veto it.

On June 9, Mackenzie again biopsied the growth and sent the samples to Virchow, who reported the following day that he was again unable to detect any signs of cancer. On June 13, 1887, the Crown Prince left Potsdam for London to attend his mother-in-law’s Golden Jubilee and to consult Mackenzie. He never saw his father alive again. He was accompanied by Victoria and their three younger daughters, along with Gerhardt; on June 29, Mackenzie reported that he had successfully operated at his Harley Street clinic, and had removed “nearly the entire growth.” Friedrich spent July with his family at Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight. However, when Frederick visited Mackenzie’s office on August 2, for a follow-up examination, the growth had reappeared, necessitating its cauterisation the same day, and again on 8 August – an ominous indication that it was indeed malignant.

Felix Semon, a distinguished German throat specialist with a practice in England, and who had been closely following Frederick’s case, submitted a report to the German Foreign Secretary in which he strongly criticised Mackenzie’s cauterisations, and gave his opinion that the growth, if not malignant, was suspect, and should continue to be biopsied and examined. On August 9, Friedrich travelled to Braemar in the Scottish Highlands with Dr. Mark Hovell, a senior surgeon at the Throat Hospital in London. Although a further examination by Mackenzie on August 20, revealed no sign of a recurrent growth, Frederick said he had the “constant feeling” of something “not right inside”; nonetheless, he requested Queen Victoria to knight Mackenzie, who duly received a knighthood in September.

Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia

Despite the operations on his throat and having taken the sea air at Cowes, Friedrich remained hoarse and was advised by Mackenzie to spend the coming winter on the Italian Riviera. In August, following reports that his father was gravely ill, he considered returning to Germany, but was dissuaded by his wife, and went to Toblach in South Tyrol with his family, where Victoria had rented a house. He arrived in Toblach on 7 September 7, exhausted and hoarse. Concerned by Friedrich ‘s lack of visible improvement after a brief meeting with Friedrich in Munich, Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg, consulted the distinguished laryngologist Max Joseph Oertel, who urged a drastic and thorough operation on Friedrich’s throat, and said he suspected a benign tumour which could soon become malignant.

By this time, Mackenzie’s treatment of Friedrich was generating strong criticism. After a fortnight in Toblach, Mackenzie arrived to reexamine Friedrich, who had continued to suffer from colds and hoarseness; in public, however, the doctor remained largely unconcerned, and attributed the hoarseness to a “momentary chill.” However, he recommended that Friedrich should leave Toblach for Venice, to be followed by Victoria. The weather soon turned cold, and Friedrich’s throat caused him pain, for which he received cocaine injections.

Upon arriving in Venice, Friedrich again caught cold; privately, Mackenzie was growing seriously concerned, having observed a continued tendency for Friedrich’s throat and larynx to swell. He forbade Friedrich from speaking at any length, noting that if the Crown Prince insisted on speaking and contracted further colds, he could give him no more than three months to live. At the beginning of October, Victoria noted that “Fritz’s throat is giving no cause for fresh anxiety & he really does take a little more care and speaks a little less.” At the end of October, Friedrich’s condition abruptly worsened, with Victoria writing to her mother on November 2, that Friedrich ‘s throat was again inflamed, but not due to any cold, and that he was “very hoarse again” and easily became depressed about his health.

General Alfred von Waldersee observed that Friedrich’s health had grave implications as if Emperor Wilhelm died soon and his son succeeded, “a new Kaiser who is not allowed to speak is a virtual impossibility, quite apart from the fact that we desperately need a highly energetic one.” Crown Prince’s son, Prince Wilhelm reported to King Albert of Saxony that his father was frequently short-tempered and melancholic, though his voice appeared to have slightly improved, and that Friedrich’s throat was being treated by “blowing in a powder twice a day to soothe the larynx.”

On November 3, Friedrich and his entourage departed for San Remo. At San Remo two days later, on November 5, Friedrich entirely lost his voice and experienced severe pain throughout his throat. Upon examination, Dr. Hovell discovered a new growth under the left vocal cord; when the news reached Wilhelm and the German government, it caused great consternation. The following day, Mackenzie issued a bulletin stating that while there was no immediate danger to the Crown Prince, his illness had “unfortunately taken an unfavourable turn,” and that he had requested advice from other specialists, including the Austrian professor of laryngology Leopold Schrötter and Dr. Hermann Krause of Berlin.

Crown Princess of Prussia

On 9 November, Schrötter and Krause diagnosed the new growth as malignant, and said it was unlikely Frederick could live another year. All the doctors in attendance, including Mackenzie, now concluded that Friedrich disease was indeed laryngeal cancer, as new lesions had appeared on the right side of the larynx, and that an immediate and total laryngectomy was required to save his life; Moritz Schmidt, one of the doctors, subsequently said that the earlier growths found in May had also been cancerous. Friedrich was devastated by the news, bursting into tears upon being informed by Mackenzie and crying, “To think I should have such a horrid disgusting illness … I had so hoped to have been of use to my country. Why is Heaven so cruel to me? What have I done to be thus stricken and condemned?”

The news was greeted with shock in Berlin and generated further hatred against Victoria, now seen as a domineering “foreigner” who was manipulating her husband. Some politicians suggested that Friedrich be made to relinquish his position in the line of succession in favour of his son Wilhelm, but Bismarck firmly stated that Friedrich would succeed his ailing father “whether he is ill or not, [and] whether the K[aiser] is then unable permanently to perform his duties,” would then be determined per the relevant provisions of the Prussian Constitution. Despite the renewed diagnosis of cancer, Friedrich’s condition appeared to improve after November5, and he became more optimistic; through January 1888 there remained some hope that the diagnosis was incorrect. Both Friedrich and Victoria retained their faith in Mackenzie, who reexamined Frederick’s throat several times in December and gave a good prognosis, again doubting whether the growths had been cancerous.

The diagnosis of laryngeal cancer was conclusively confirmed on March 6, the anatomist Professor Wilhelm Waldeyer, who had come to San Remo, examined Friedrich’s sputum under a microscope and confirmed the presence of “so-called cancroid bodies…from a cancerous new growth” that was in the larynx. He further said that there were no signs of any growths in the lungs. Though it finally settled the question, Waldeyer’s diagnosis threw all of Mackenzie’s treatment of Frederick into doubt. The diagnosis and treatment of Friedrich’s fatal illness caused some medical controversy well into the next century.

1888 the Year of the Three Emperors
Wilhelm I, German Emperor and King of Prussia
Friedrich III, German Emperor and King of Prussia
Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia

Three days after Friedrich was confirmed to be suffering from cancer, his father Emperor Wilhelm I died aged 90 at 8:22 a.m. on March 9, 1888, upon which Friedrich became German Emperor and King of Prussia. His son, Wilhelm, now Crown Prince, telegraphed the news to his father in Italy. Later the same day, Friedrich wrote in his diary that he had received the telegram upon returning from a walk, “…and so I have ascended the throne of my forefathers and of the German Kaiser! God help me fulfill my duties conscientiously and for the weal of my Fatherland, in both the narrower and the wider sense.”

Germany’s progressive elements hoped that Wilhelm’s death, and thus Friedrich’s succession, would usher the country into a new era governed along liberal lines. Logically, Friedrich should have taken as his regnal name either Friedrich I (if the Bismarckian empire was considered a new entity) or Friedrich IV (if the new empire was considered a continuation of the old Holy Roman Empire, which had had three emperors named Friedrich); he himself preferred the Friedrich IV. However, on the advice of Bismarck that this would create legal problems, he opted to simply keep the same regnal name he had as king of Prussia, Friedrich III.

The new Emperor reached Berlin at 11 p.m. on the night of March 11; those who saw him were horrified by his “pitiful” appearance. The question now was how much longer the mortally ill emperor could be expected to live, and what, if anything, he could hope to achieve. In spite of his illness, Friedrich did his best to fulfill his obligations as Emperor. Immediately after the announcement of his accession, he took the ribbon and star of his Order of the Black Eagle from his jacket and pinned it on the dress of his wife; he was determined to honor her position as Empress. Too ill to march in his father’s funeral procession, he was represented by Wilhelm, the new Crown Prince, while he watched, weeping, from his rooms in the Charlottenburg Palace.

As the German Emperor, he officially received Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom (his mother-in-law) and King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, and attended the wedding of his son Prince Heinrich to his niece Princess Irene. However, Friedrich III reigned for only 99 days, and was unable to bring about much lasting change. The majority of the German ruling elite viewed Friedrich III’s reign as merely a brief interim period before the accession of his son Wilhelm to the throne.

An edict he penned before he ascended to the throne that would limit the powers of the chancellor and monarch under the constitution was never put into effect,although he did force Robert von Puttkamer to resign as Prussian Minister of the Interior on June 8, when evidence indicated that Puttkamer had interfered in the Reichstag elections. Dr. Mackenzie wrote that the Emperor had “an almost overwhelming sense of the duties of his position.” In a letter to Lord Napier, Empress Victoria wrote “The Emperor is able to attend to his business, and do a great deal, but not being able to speak is, of course, most trying.” Friedrich III had the fervour but not the time to accomplish his desires, lamenting in May 1888, “I cannot die … What would happen to Germany?”

From April 1888, Friedrich III became so weak he was unable to walk, and was largely confined to his bed; his continual coughing brought up large quantities of pus. In early June, the cancer spread to and perforated his esophagus, preventing him from eating. He suffered from bouts of vomiting and ran high fevers, but remained alert enough to write a last diary entry on June 11: “What’s happening to me? I must get well again; I have so much to do!”

Friedrich III died in Potsdam at 11:30 a.m. on June 15, 1888, and was succeeded by his 29-year-old son as Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia. Under Emperor Wilhelm II, his parents and maternal grandparents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s hopes of a liberal Germany were not fulfilled. He believed in the autocracy and Conservative principles of his paternal grandfather, Emperor Wilhelm I.

Empress Friedrich and her mother Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom holding a portrait of Emperor Friedrich III.

Frederick is buried in a mausoleum attached to the Friedenskirche in Potsdam. After his death, William Ewart Gladstone described him as the “Barbarossa of German liberalism.” His wife, Empress Victoria, now calling herself the Empress Friedrich, went on to continue spreading her husband’s thoughts and ideals throughout Germany, but no longer had power within the government.

The early death of Emperor Friedrich III is a tragedy in German history. For if he lived and was able to enact his Liberal policies the history of Germany would have been much different.