Frederick William III

views updated Jun 08 2018


FREDERICK WILLIAM III (1770–1840; r. 1797–1840), king of Prussia.

Frederick William III presided over his kingdom during dynamic times: the shocking wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15), the crushing loss to the French in 1806, the time of reform that this debacle necessitated, the Wars of Liberation and final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the reactionary era of Restoration after 1815, and the age of early industrialization that spanned the decades he ruled. Frederick William III suffered from melancholia, preferred to withdraw from politics into family life, and usually dreaded having to make decisions, but his sense of duty compelled him to struggle against his nature and shape Prussian and German history in significant ways. He was definitely not the nonentity that traditional historical scholarship has depicted.

During his first decade on the throne, Frederick William III became increasingly involved in the delicate game of negotiating deals with France that allowed Prussia to make territorial gains at the expense of smaller German states as the Holy Roman Empire entered its death throes. By 1806 most of Germany north of the Main River had either fallen to Prussia or under Prussian influence. Having unwisely remained neutral while Napoleon defeated the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz in 1805, however, Prussia's king faced Napoleon alone in 1806. After the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, the French emperor occupied Berlin and Frederick William fled to East Prussia, not to return until 1809.

Prior to 1806 the Prussian monarch considered many ambitious reforms, including peasant emancipation. Educated by tutors who introduced him to enlightened principles, Frederick William appreciated the need to stay abreast of the zeitgeist, but he also possessed a pragmatic nature that made him wary of "phrase-makers," which, together with his reserved nature, produced inaction, especially in these early years. Conservative noblemen also opposed his reform ideas. Thus Prussia entered its disastrous war with Napoleon largely unreformed from the Old Regime that characterized central and eastern Europe. Defeat, however, advanced a new set of advisers who counseled radical change to gird Prussia for survival in the modern world of revolutionary France. The king approved most of their recommendations: a start to peasant emancipation, opening the officer corps to middle-class talent, abolition of guild privileges, establishment of autonomous city governments, and the promise of a constitution. After Napoleon's defeat in Russia in 1812, Frederick William joined Russia and Austria in the campaigns that led to victory at the Battle of Nations outside Leipzig in 1813, the march on Paris in 1814, and the terminating victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.

The coming of peace saw central Europe transformed from the long-standing Holy Roman Empire of hundreds of German states to a German Confederation of thirty-nine states dominated from Vienna and Berlin. The Confederation, it was clear, would facilitate military cooperation against the threat of French aggression, but the question of political reforms within the Confederation remained uncertain. Austria stood steadfastly against parliaments, but by 1819 four German states had introduced constitutions. Frederick William now had to decide whether to fulfill his promise of liberal parliamentary institutions. The radical student demonstration at Wartburg in 1817, coupled with the assassination of conservative poet August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue in 1819, convinced the Prussian king that parliamentary reforms, however justified in principle, were imprudent in practice. "No representative constitution will help in the least," he would later write, against "the crazy drive to topple everything which exists." The "most complete proof of this" was supplied by parliamentary countries in the west, where "things were really the worst." Thus, "even if one could come to say heartfelt things about adopting the same institutions for here, that which really happens in the world fully suffices to bring one back away from this" (Brose, p. 94). Limited parliamentary reforms waited for the reign of his son, Frederick William IV (r. 1840–1861), who fulfilled the promise in 1848–1849.

That Prussia was Germany's most rapidly industrializing state by 1840 also owed a lot to its king of forty-three years. The kingdom's free enterprise legislation of 1811, the rejection of conservative advice to rescind these laws in 1824, the opening of the Customs Union in 1834—also over conservative objections—and the decision to move forward with stalled railroad construction in 1838—also against conservative counsels—were tough decisions Frederick William III made somewhat more easily than during his first insecure decades as king. Although it was not his intention—he wanted no German crown—both the Customs Union and the railroads contributed to eventual German unification in 1871.

See alsoCongress of Vienna; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Germany; Napoleonic Empire; Prussia; Restoration.


Brose, Eric Dorn. The Politics of Technological Change in Prussia: Out of the Shadow of Antiquity 1809–1848. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Stamm-Kuhlmann, Thomas. König in Preussens grosser Zeit: Friedrich Wilhelm III: Der Melancholiker auf dem Thron. Berlin, 1992.

Eric Dorn Brose

Frederick William III

views updated May 29 2018

Frederick William III

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 III

views updated May 23 2018

Frederick William III (1770–1840) King of Prussia (1797–1840), son and successor of Frederick William II. He declared war on France (1806), suffered a disastrous defeat at Jena and was forced to sign the Treaty of Tilsit (1807). In Prussia, some progressive reforms were made, but a constitution, although promised, was never produced, and the king became increasingly reactionary. The reorganized Prussian army re-entered the Napoleonic Wars in 1813 and played a major part in Napoleon I's eventual defeat.

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