Myths and Counter-Myths


‘Fritz and Vicky’, on their honeymoon, Windsor, 1858

by Frank Lorenz Müller

It was only after her husband, the German Emperor Frederick III, had finally died on 15 June 1888 that his widow, Empress Victoria, allowed herself to buckle under the weight of almost unbearable grief. Throughout the many months of Frederick’s illness, and even during his final weeks and days, when the emperor’s suffering had become truly heart-rending, Victoria had maintained an attitude of demonstrative optimism. Her unrelenting cheerfulness had riled her many detractors. “I cannot bear the permanent smile on her face any longer,” a particularly vitriolic courtier had written to a confidant the previous autumn. “This woman has smiled every bit of sanity out of her house.” With the death of her husband, all of Victoria’s smiles stopped altogether. “Oh God, why was I not allowed to go with him – why, oh why this separation?,” she wrote to her mother, Queen Victoria, and insisted that “more cruel suffering was never laid on human soul than on mine at this moment.”

What added to the pain of losing a beloved husband was a deep sense of political frustration, the disappointment of a grand plan having come to nought. “We had a mission, we felt it and we knew it,” the Dowager Empress wrote to the Queen:

“we were Papa’s and your children! We were faithful to what we believed and knew to be right. We loved Germany – we wished to see her strong and great, not only with the sword, but in all that was righteous, in culture, in progress and in liberty.”

All the experience gathered for this great task – “bitterly, hardly bought!!!” – was now in vain, was “now all wasted.”

Much of the political-cultural story of Emperor Frederick III is encapsulated in this small vignette of Victoria’s reaction to her husband’s illness and death: the loving closeness between “Fritz” and “Vicky”. The prominent role played by his English wife, which gave rise to much derision and resentment, and the importance of the context of the British royal family. The centrepiece, though, of the potent political myth that surrounded “Our Fritz” as the second Hohenzollern emperor was affectionately known, was that failed mission.

But it was not just contemporaries – like the emperor’s grieving widow, the leaders of Germany’s left-liberal party or the reactionary General Waldersee – who expected that Frederick’s reign would have set the German Reich on a different, more liberal course. As the reign of Frederick’s son, Emperor William II, appeared increasingly calamitous, especially when viewed through the lens of first one, then two World Wars, the notion that Frederick was a tragically missed opportunity became more and more alluring. Liberal German historians like Emil Ludwig, Hajo Holborn and Veit Valentin, all born when Germany was still a monarchy, portrayed Frederick as committed to constitutional liberalism and humane values, as the man who would have given the Reich a different future. Under Frederick’s leadership, Germany would have become a “like England, a virtual republic,” Ludwig mused in 1931.

This notion was not just an attractive reverie plucked from thin air; it seemed supported by much that was known about the prince who was born in 1831 to be Prussia’s heir presumptive. As the son of a Saxon mother who had grown up in Goethe’s Weimar, the loving husband of a headstrong English princess with decidedly liberal views and the devoted son-in-law of the unforgettable Prince Albert, Frederick was surrounded by a cast of formidable characters all keen to shape him in a liberal mould. Unlike other members of Prussia’s royal family, he was known to seek and enjoy the company of leading liberals. What was more, Frederick’s relationship with Bismarck was notoriously fraught. The Crown Prince publicly attacked the Prussian statesman in 1863, and their subsequent antagonism was never fully resolved. In the end, there was a deep rift between Fritz and Vicky on the one hand and their son, the later Kaiser William II, on the other. Nothing could illustrate their estrangement more dramatically or more publicly than William’s decision to have Potsdam’s New Palace sealed off by troops within minutes of his father’s death. In order to foil an alleged plan to smuggle German state papers to Britain, the new emperor threw a ring of Hussars around the body of his late father, his mother and their household.

By the time the imperial standard above the New Palace was being lowered to half-mast, all the ingredients were thus in place for a fierce battle over the public memory of “Our Fritz”, the darling of the German nation, the late-lamented “Noble Sufferer.” Those who had hoped and prepared for the realisation of Fritz’s and Vicky’s liberal mission now strained every political sinew to turn Frederick into a champion of liberalism and his legacy into a valuable political resource. Actively supported by the Empress Frederick, as Vicky now called herself, the leaders of Germany’s left-liberal Freisinn Party used obituaries and anniversaries, biographies and public meetings to hammer home their message: they were the keepers of Emperor Frederick’s sacred flame, and this light would continue to shine and show the country the way towards reform, liberty and a truly popular form of monarchy.

Emperor Frederick III, H. v. Angeli

In doing so, the representatives of the erstwhile “Crown-Prince-Party” were merely continuing with a political strategy that they had pursued since the beginning of the decade. Then as now, their attempts to realise their dreams for a different politics in Germany by identifying them with this much-loved monarchical figure were easily defeated. Between 1881 and 1887, it had been Otto von Bismarck who destroyed the left-liberals’ plans. He had won the support of the bulk of Germany’s moderate liberals, damaged the left-liberals’ electoral prospects and convinced the Crown Prince, who seemed bound to succeed his ancient father at any moment, that a political future without the Iron Chancellor was unthinkable.

Undeterred by the new emperor’s fatal disease and his early death, the left-liberals re-engaged with their campaign upon Frederick’s accession in 1888, but found that this time, their efforts were snuffed out by the political culture of the Wilhelmine Reich. Within a few short years, the politically dangerous figure of a liberal “People’s Emperor”, which the Freisinn Party chose to emblazon on their standard, was simply smothered in patriotic treacle. All over Germany, alongside the many monuments to Emperor William I and Bismarck, scores of Frederick III statues sprang from the ground. Carefully vetted – and, if necessary, altered – by Emperor William II, they all told the same patriotic story of a great general, of a faithful paladin serving his venerable father, of a noble scion of the great Hohenzollern dynasty. Fulsome speeches delivered by his son, dozens of patriotic biographies and kitschy poems, and the way in which he was commemorated in the dynasty’s official “Hohenzollern-Museum”: everything worked together to make the memory of “Our Fritz” elevating, patriotic and politically harmless for the status quo. By the time the German parliament considered a motion to finance a national monument in his honour, the issue had become so uncontroversial that only the implacably anti-monarchical Socialists bothered to oppose it. Every other party, from the ultra-conservatives and anti-Semites, to the Catholics and left-liberals, supported the proposal and granted Emperor William II full discretion as to the design of the sculpture.

That the heroic version of “Our Fritz” emerged as the predominant memory was clearly a political defeat for those who had sought to change Germany in the name of Emperor Frederick. It should be noted, though, that this outcome was not simply caused by the strength of Germany’s political and cultural conservatism. Nor was it a complete distortion of the image Frederick himself had wanted to project. After all, the magnificent uniform of the Pasewalk Cuirassier Regiment, with its shimmering breastplate and orange sash in which Emperor William II chose to have his father depicted for the national monument, had also been Frederick’s own preferred choice of attire when he posed for the celebrated portraitist Heinrich von Angeli in 1874.

It should be not forgotten that, for all of Vicky’s insistence that Fritz and she had been Victoria and Albert’s children, her husband’s parentage also was and remained undeniably Prusso-German. His liberalism, though genuine, bore the hallmarks of its context. It was constitutional but not parliamentary, and he firmly believed that the monarch should play a central and dominant role in the running of the state and, above all, the army. As a romantic nationalist, he set great store by the dignity of Germany’s imperial crown and as emperor, he confided to his diary in 1885, he would brook no equal. Moreover, the exceedingly popular public persona “Our Fritz” which the Crown Prince carefully constructed over a number of decades with the help of the German media did not just have a homely, gentle and middle-class dimension. “Our Fritz” the family man, the folksy prince with the common touch, the kisser of babies and supply teacher in the local school was only one side of a beautiful coin. This was regularly complemented with a heroic image which drew on the Crown Prince’s tall figure and manly beauty, on his record as a victorious general in the wars of 1866 and 1870-71 and on his descent from a long line of Prussian royal heroes.

“Our Fritz” continued the glorious path of the “Old Fritz”, of Frederick the Great. Even in his final suffering, Emperor Frederick was seen to reprise a dynastic pattern: that of his sainted grandmother, the beautiful Queen Louise, who died, so patriotic legend would have it, of sorrow for her French-occupied fatherland.

“Our Fritz” thus remained contested. One legend made him the anglophile champion of liberty, reform and progress: the darling of the liberal left and for the reactionary right an object of fearful derision. Another tale turned him into a royal Prussian hero. Another Fritz, another Louise; to be remembered as the general, William II wrote in his memoirs, “who helped to forge Germany’s Imperial crown; as the amiable and popular Crown Prince, and . . . as the man of sorrows, who bore with noble fortitude sufferings that carried him off before his time.” It is easy for the man Frederick to get lost amongst these myths. They contained more than a few grains of truth but also distorted the outlines of a fundamentally decent but weak man who was caught between different traditions and dominated by the strong personalities that surrounded him. In Emperor Frederick some of the most powerful forces of the political culture of his age imprinted themselves at a most prominent, visible and important position. His tragic life richly repays a careful analysis.

About the Author:

Frank Lorenz Müller is Senior Lecturer in the School of History at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of Our Fritz: Emperor Frederick III and the Political Culture of Imperial Germany.