The reign of the German Emperor Frederick III was so brief – only three
months from March to June 1888 – that he is often overlooked and seen as having played no major part in world events. Had he lived, the history of Germany would certainly have been very different but even though he was not able to implement the numerous changes he and his wife (Queen Victoria’s daughter, Vicky) had planned throughout his twenty-seven years as Crown Prince, his role in the Unification of Germany has often been underestimated.
‘Fritz’ was a sensitive and thoughtful man who views often contradicted those of the Chancellor, Bismarck. Consequently, Bismarck did his utmost to denigrate the Crown Prince and more especially his English wife about whom Bismarck created and publicised various scurrilous and totally unfounded rumours. Perhaps his greatest insult to Fritz, however, was the way in which he completely played down the Crown Prince’s role in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent unification of Germany. Despite his hatred of war, Fritz was an extremely competent commander whose ability in the field led to many Prussian victories.
“I know how harrowing and dreadful war is to him,” Vicky wrote to her mother, “how he hates it and how little ambition he has to become a military hero. On the other hand, I know that he is considered our best leader – and that it was not thought necessary to give him the best officers on his staff.... – ...so great was the confidence on the part of Moltke and the King in Fritz’s genius. He is always quiet and self-possessed and determined; having no personal ambitions, he thinks only of what is best not of what makes most effect...”
Even the French observed and commented on his humanity and the kindness with which he treated ‘the enemy’, and a French journalist recorded him saying, “I do not like war, gentlemen. If I should reign, I would never make it.”
His father, the King of Prussia, was very reluctant to accept the role of Emperor and even threatened to abdicate rather than allow it, but Fritz firmly believed in his father-in-law Prince Albert’s dream of a unified Germany as the surest hope for peace in Europe and eventually succeeded in persuading his father to accept it. For this and for his victories against the French, Bismarck gave him no credit and even excluded him from the War
Cabinet and did not publicise or even allow to be made known the role that the Crown Prince had played. For the next seventeen years, Fritz was continuously excluded from any decision-making as Bismarck basically controlled the King. Throughout this time, however, he and Vicky not only continued to make plans for many reforms but also raised their family. Fritz was a devoted and loving father and he and Vicky remained in love with each other to the end of his life. It is significant that his first act as Emperor was to take the star of the Order of the Black Eagle from his jacket to give it to his wife as a sign of his gratitude and his deep respect and honour of her. Theirs was one of the great love stories of history.
It is a tragic and in some ways unsurprising thing that a year before he came to the throne, Fritz was diagnosed with throat cancer and by the time his father died, Fritz himself was already dying. Following a series of botched operations and lots of in-fighting and subterfuge between medics, he was left unable to speak and could only communicate by writing notes. Intriguers at court began to flatter and support his son Wilhelm as though, as Vicky wrote, he were already dead. So great was the intrigue around them that Vicky felt obliged to smuggle Fritz’ war diary away to England, as she was certain that it would be destroyed the moment he died, as would all his other papers which recorded the role he had played in unification and his opposition to many of Bismarck’s policies.
Personally, I believe without a doubt that physical illness is almost always rooted in thoughts/emotions. For a man who had been silenced repeatedly, it is small wonder that those years of frustration eventually manifested as such a terrible affliction of his throat that rendered him speechless. The greatest tragedy, however, is that his plans never achieved fruition for, if they had done so, perhaps the whole history of 20th century Europe would have been very different....