Following recent excellent work on Otto von Bismarck and his reputation, it is helpful to be reminded that he was not the sole figure to focus authority and aspiration in Germany as it developed as a state and major power.
In an effective, well-grounded and thoughtful study, Frank Lorenz Müller, a senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews, uses the life of Frederick III (1831-88), who, for 99 days in 1888, was King of Prussia and German Emperor, in order to probe the political culture of imperial Germany, and thus to throw light on the continuing and developing role of monarchy in newly dynamic states. His work is also therefore relevant for contemporary empires, from Britain and Brazil to Japan and China.
Moreover, Frederick is important because hopes and ideas focused on him served as a critique of the policies followed under his father, William I (who reigned from 1861 to 1888), and his successor, William II (who reigned from 1888 to 1918). Consequently, his influence outlived his reign, although he is now generally forgotten. More particularly, Frederick has been seen as a liberal crown prince whose accession and longevity could have been a turning point that would have spared both Germany and the world much calamity.
Müller's perceptive study, however, depicts a more complex figure and context. The emphasis is on Frederick as a ruler within the parameters of Hohenzollern continuity. Thus his liberalism is related not so much to the British predilections of his wife (Victoria) and father-in-law (Prince Albert), a relationship that was a source of unpopularity for many, but rather to a strong tradition of constitutional German national liberalism. At the same time, as Müller demonstrates, the potent Romantic nationalism of the period also greatly influenced Frederick, as did a sense of dynastic mission and Prussian purpose.
Frederick was a dynamic figure who called on overlapping constituencies and, in doing so, strengthened both state and dynasty. Müller argues that, through the press, popular publications, pictures, speeches, scholarship, museums, architecture and Frederick William's behaviour on the public stage, the persona of "Our Fritz" was integrated into a reciprocal relationship with Germany's wider society. At the same time, Müller indicates tensions in the latter, tensions reflected in Frederick William's differing images. Images indeed are the key theme, as Müller argues that Frederick William, while publicly adored, was personally isolated (barring his wife) and was not noted for his political talent.
In terms of image, dynastic continuities encouraged an emphasis on kingly virtues and the "manly beauties of a Nordic legend", while a focus on contemporary developments led, instead, to a stress on the virtues and meritocracy of bürgerlich perfection. Müller sees his protagonist as able to combine these different strands and suggests that by doing so he provided an indication that his reign would have been based on popular support. At the same time, Muller also shows how Frederick William manoeuvred within the currents of German politics, as in 1879-81 when he took a public stance against the rising tide of political anti-Semitism. In turn, he had to cope with persistent gossip about his marriage and family life, not least allegations of subservience to his unpopular wife. Indeed, that gossip probably contributed to his persistent depression.
This is an important work, particularly notable for its discussion of political myths, and especially as a political resource. It is to be hoped that comparable work can be produced for several other contemporary rulers.
Our Fritz: Emperor Frederick III and the Political Culture of Imperial Germany
By Frank Lorenz Müller
Harvard University Press
Published October 2011