Frederick William III

Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012

Frederick William III (1770-1840) was king of Prussia from 1797 to 1840. A weak monarch, he presided first over the near-liquidation of the Prussian state in the Napoleonic Wars and then over its reconstruction.

Born in Potsdam on Aug. 3, 1770, Frederick William III succeeded his father, Frederick William II, as king of Prussia in 1797. He began his reign by sending his father’s mistresses and favorites packing, and he let it be known that he intended to lift all existing restrictions on religion, to abolish censorship, and to improve the condition of the peasants. Soon, however, he retreated before the opposition of the conservative Prussian nobility.

During the War of the Second Coalition against France, Frederick William clung to a perilous and increasingly isolated neutrality. When at last Prussia joined the Third Coalition, it reaped only the catastrophic defeat of Jena (1806). In the subsequent Peace of Tilsit (1807) all of Prussia’s Polish and western territories—roughly half its landmass—had to be surrendered. This disaster revealed the vulnerable position of a Prussia surrounded by more populous and powerful neighbors and thus gave impetus to the centralizing reforms carried out by Frederick William’s ministers. These reforms enabled Prussia to reenter the war against Napoleon in 1813. In German history this renewal of the war is known as the War of Liberation, because of explicit representation on the part of the Prussian government that it was fighting to clear German soil of the foreign invader. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna awarded certain new lands to Prussia and restored most of its lost territories.

In spite of his numerous appeals to German patriotism and even nationalism during the war, upon its conclusion Frederick William joined the reactionary party that emerged during the Congress of Vienna. He refused to honor his promise to give Prussia a constitution and ordered the arrest of numerous liberals who had allowed themselves to be trapped into a careless revelation of their political philosophy. The later years of his reign were marked by undiminished reaction. The only positive achievements were the union of the Prussian Lutheran and Calvinist churches (1817), a reflection of the King’s growing concern with religious questions, and the establishment of a northern German customs union (1834), a step that was to facilitate the extension of Prussian political dominion over this area some 3 decades later. Frederick William III died in Berlin on June 7, 1840.

Further Reading Frederick William III’s place in German history is examined in various works, including K. S. Pinson, Modern Germany (1954; 2d ed. 1966); W. M. Simon, The Failure of the Prussian Reform Movement (1955); Hajo Holborn, A History of Modern Germany, vol. 2 (1959); and K. Epstein, The Genesis of German Conservatism (1966).

Frederick William IV


Frederick William IV (1795-1861) was king of Prussia from 1840 to 1861. Perhaps the most intelligent and artistically talented Prussian monarch, he proved to be an erratic and unreliable leader during the German Revolution of 1848. On Oct. 15, 1795, Frederick William IV was born in Berlin, the oldest son of Frederick William III. Educated by the preacher-statesman J. P. F. Ancillon, he devoted most of his energies as crown prince to the ardent study and patronage of the arts. F. K. von Savigny, F. W. J. von Schelling, K. F. Schinkel, A. W. von Schlegel, L. Tieck, L. von Ranke, A. von Humboldt, and other leaders of the romantic movement were among his closest friends.

Frederick William’s ascension to the throne on June 7, 1840, was thus greeted with the expectation that he might help to realize the liberal-national aspirations of his distinguished friends. He soon alleviated press censorship and affirmed religious freedom for the independent Protestant sects and Rhineland Catholics. Yet personally he was devoted more to the ideals of the Holy Roman Empire and divine right of kings than to liberal constitutionalism, and he disillusioned liberals by delaying the promulgation of a constitution, which had been promised by his father. He finally yielded to pressure in February 1847, but rather than a popularly elected body he called only a united Landtag (diet)—a group of delegates from the traditional provincial diets.

With the outbreak of violence in March 1848 in Berlin, the King immediately lost his nerve and capitulated to the rebels, even to the point of riding through the streets of Berlin under the revolutionary German flag. But as soon as his armies had gained control again, he betrayed his promises, dissolved the popular assembly established by the revolution, and proclaimed a new reactionary constitution in December 1848. When the revolutionary all-German Parliament in Frankfurt offered him the imperial crown, he rejected it for ideological and political reasons as ‘‘unworthy.’’ A subsequent attempt by his adviser J. von Radowitz to create a union of German princes under Prussian leadership failed when combined pressure by Austria and Russia forced Frederick William to capitulate at Olmütz (1850).

During the remaining years of his reign the King withdrew increasingly to his artistic pursuits and left politics more and more in the hands of the ministers of the reaction. After he suffered a stroke in October 1857 and consequent mental collapse, his brother William ruled as regent until Frederick William’s death in Potsdam on Jan. 2, 1861.

Further Reading All of the major biographies of Frederick William IV are in German. The most extensive account of his reign in English is Heinrich Treitschke, Treitschke’s History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century, vols. 6 and 7, book 5: King Frederick William the Fourth, 1840-1848, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul (1919).

Francis Joseph


Francis Joseph, 1854

Francis Joseph (1830-1916) was emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. He was the last noteworthy ruler of the Hapsburg Empire. Born on Aug. 18, 1830, at Schönbrunn (Vienna), the elder son of Archduke Francis Charles, who was the second son of Emperor Francis I (Holy Roman emperor Francis II), Francis Joseph (German, Franz Josef) was not in direct line of succession. Yet, because his mentally impaired uncle Ferdinand I proved childless, Francis was immediately viewed and educated as an heir presumptive.

Proclaimed emperor after Ferdinand’s abdication on Dec. 2, 1848, Francis Joseph began his rule by subduing a series of revolutions in his realm. The most serious of these, the Hungarian revolution, he crushed with Russian help. Then, after this dearly won victory, he had to reconstruct his near-defunct empire. Begun under the aegis of a constitution (March 4, 1849), this reconstruction continued throughout the 1850s, although in 1851 constitutionalism was replaced by a system of absolutist centralism.

Foreign-policy reverses during the 1850s, however, compelled Francis Joseph to reconsider his position on constitutionalism. Thus there soon ensued a period of constitutional experiments (‘‘October Diploma’’ of 1860 and ‘‘February Patent’’ of 1861) which kept the empire’s political life in a constant state of crisis up to 1867. These crises, together with Austria’s expulsion from Italy and Germany (1866), convinced Francis Joseph of the necessity of coming to terms with his subjects. He opted for a compromise with the strongest nationality, the Magyars. The result was the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867, which brought about the dualistic reconstruction of the empire (Austria-Hungary), with both halves receiving their own constitutional governments and internal autonomy, and their common affairs being reduced to matters of foreign and military policy and some finances.

Although the new political structure was much more favorable for the evolution of political democracy and capitalism than the previous absolutist system, it still preserved the hegemony of the earlier ruling classes. Francis Joseph did not regard the compromise as an ideal solution, but he fought all attempts to alter it for fear of disrupting the unity of his empire. The weakness of this arrangement was revealed not only in the continued rivalry between the two partners but also in the growth of German-Czech national antagonism and extremism in Bohemia and in the increasingly bellicose Serbian irredentism.

Having been pushed out of Italy and Germany, the empire under Francis Joseph became increasingly active in the Balkans, which resulted in its occupation (1878) and later annexation (1908) of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This policy, however, soon placed Austria-Hungary on a direct collision course with Russia, forcing Francis Joseph to seek support in Bismarckian Germany in the form of the Dual Alliance (1879). This alliance later proved to be the first step in the direction of the political polarization of Europe, a polarization that, together with the nationality struggle in the Danubian and Balkan region, was of decisive importance in the outbreak of World War I and the dissolution of the empire.

Francis Joseph was a man of simple tastes. His political thinking was as uncomplicated and simple as his private life. He was basically a benevolent despot, unable to grasp the meaning and purpose of modern ideologies and popular political institutions. At the same time he was devoted to duty, to honor, and to the welfare of his people. Above all, he believed in the calling and destiny of his beleaguered dynasty. His death at Schönbrunn on Nov. 21, 1916, signaled the passing of an age.

Further Reading The best works about Francis Joseph are the products of Austro- German historiography. Fortunately, a number of them have also appeared in English. Of these, Josef Redlich, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria: A Biography (1929), is undoubtedly the best and most readily available account. Karl Tschuppik, The Reign of the Emperor Francis Joseph, 1848-1916 (trans. 1930), is also excellent. Valuable, but not of the same caliber, are Albert Margutti, The Emperor Francis Joseph and His Times (1921), and Eugene Bagger, Francis Joseph: Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary (1927). Chester Wells Clark, Franz Joseph and Bismarck: The Diplomacy of Austria before the War of 1866 (1934), and Charles W. Hallberg, Franz Joseph and Napoleon III, 1852-1864 (1955), are excellent monographs, but they deal only with certain limited aspects of Francis Joseph’s reign. Among the popular works on the Emperor’s family and personal life is Bertita Harding, Golden Fleece: The Story of Franz Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria (1937).