Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm of Prussia was born in the New Palace at Potsdam in Prussia on October 18, 1831. He was a scion of the House of Hohenzollern, rulers of Prussia, then the most powerful of the German states. Friedrich’s father, Prince Wilhelm (future German Emperor and King of Prussia), was a younger brother of King Friedrich-Wilhelm IV and, having been raised in the military traditions of the Hohenzollerns, developed into a strict disciplinarian.
Prince Friedrich’s mother was Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, the second daughter of Charles-Friedrich, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, a daughter of Paul I of Russia and Sophie-Dorothea of Württemberg.
In 1851, his mother sent Friedrich to England, ostensibly to visit the Great Exhibition but in truth, she hoped that the cradle of liberalism and home of the industrial revolution would have a positive influence on her son. Prince Albert took Friedrich under his wing during his stay but it was Albert’s daughter, Victoria, Princess Royal, only eleven at the time, who guided the German prince around the Exhibition.
Friedrich only knew a few words of English, while Victoria could converse fluently in German. He was impressed by her mix of innocence, intellectual curiosity and simplicity, and their meeting proved to be a success. A regular exchange of letters between Victoria and Friedrich followed.
Friedrich proposed to Victoria in 1855, when she was 14 years old and he was 23. The betrothal of the young couple was announced on May 19, 1857, at Buckingham Palace and the Prussian Court, and their marriage took place on January 25, 1858 in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace, London. Victoria too had received a liberal education and shared her husband’s views. Of the two, Victoria was the dominant one in the relationship.
The couple often resided at the Crown Prince’s Palace and had eight children: Wilhelm in 1859, Charlotte in 1860, Heinrich in 1862, Sigismund in 1864, Victoria in 1866, Waldemar in 1868, Sophia in 1870 and Margaret in 1872. Sigismund died at the age of 2 and Waldemar at age 11, and their eldest son, Wilhelm, suffered from a withered arm—probably due to his difficult and dangerous breech birth, although it could have also resulted from a mild case of cerebral palsy.
When his father succeeded to the Prussian throne as King Wilhelm I of Prussia on January 2, 1861, Friedrich became the Crown Prince 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, Friedrich I (beccause the Bismarckian empire was considered a new entity). The new Emperor wanted to call himself Friedrich IV, (mistakenly thinking this new empire was a continuation of the old Holy Roman Empire, which had had three emperors named Friedrich). However, on the advice of Bismarck that this would create legal problems, he opted to simply keep the same regnal name he had as the 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.”
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.
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.