Frederick III (German: Friedrich III., Deutscher Kaiser und König von Preußen; 18 October 1831 – 15 June 1888) was German Emperor and King of Prussia for 99 days in 1888, the Year of the Three Emperors. Friedrich Wilhelm Nikolaus Karl, known informally as Fritz, was the only son of Emperor William I and was raised in his family’s tradition of military service. Although celebrated as a young man for his leadership and successes during the Second Schleswig, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, he nevertheless professed a hatred of warfare and was praised by friends and enemies alike for his humane conduct. Following the unification of Germany in 1871 his father, then King of Prussia, became the German Emperor. On William’s death at the age of 90 on 9 March 1888, the throne passed to Frederick, who had by then been Crown Prince for 27 years. Frederick was suffering from cancer of the larynx when he died on 15 June 1888, aged 56, following unsuccessful medical treatments for his condition.
Frederick married Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. The couple were well matched; their shared liberal ideology led them to seek greater representation for commoners in the government. Frederick, in spite of his conservative militaristic family background, had developed liberal tendencies as a result of his ties with Britain and his studies at the University of Bonn. As the Crown Prince, he often opposed the conservative Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, particularly in speaking out against Bismarck’s policy of uniting Germany through force, and in urging that the power of the Chancellorship be curbed. Liberals in both Germany and Britain hoped that as emperor, Frederick III would move to liberalize the German Empire.
Frederick and Victoria were great admirers of the Prince Consort of the United Kingdom, Victoria’s father. They planned to rule as consorts, like Albert and Queen Victoria, and to reform the fatal flaws in the executive branch that Bismarck had created for himself. The office of Chancellor, responsible to the Emperor, would be replaced with a British-style cabinet, with ministers responsible to the Reichstag. Government policy would be based on the consensus of the cabinet. Frederick “described the Imperial Constitution as ingeniously contrived chaos.”
“The Crown Prince and Princess shared the outlook of the Progressive Party, and Bismarck was haunted by the fear that should the old Emperor die–and he was now in his seventies–they would call on one of the Progressive leaders to become Chancellor. He sought to guard against such a turn by keeping the Crown Prince from a position of any influence and by using foul means as well as fair to make him unpopular.”
However, his illness prevented him from effectively establishing policies and measures to achieve this, and such moves as he was able to make were later abandoned by his son and successor, Wilhelm II.
The timing of Frederick’s death and the length of his reign are important topics among historians. The premature demise of Frederick III is considered a potential turning point in German history; and whether or not he would have made the Empire more liberal if he had lived longer is still discussed.
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