Frederick William IV

views updated May 11 2018


FREDERICK WILLIAM IV (in German, Friedrich Wilhelm IV; 1795–1861; ruled 1840–1861), king of Prussia.

One of the most mercurial and controversial monarchs in nineteenth-century Europe, Frederick William IV was also one of the more consequential. Long a target of liberal and radical historians, he was often pilloried during his own lifetime as a hazy, dreamy "Romantic on the throne" who was utterly disconnected from the major currents of his age. In fact, though, he devoted his entire adult life to a consistent and intensely ideological struggle against the "revolution," by which he meant secular values and "French-modern" forms of constitutionalism, parliamentarism, republicanism, and centralized, bureaucratic "absolutism." He focused his efforts on a monarchical project that he conceived as a "Christian-German" alternative to secular modernity. Central to this project was an organicist vision of a society organized on the basis of historically defined estates, each suffused with its unique group energies, values, and functions. A group-based, estatist (ständisch) form of representation would serve as an alternative to individualist, "mechanical" parliamentarism; and all the estates of the realm would be united in harmony with a monarch who ruled quite literally by the grace of God. To carry out his anti-"revolutionary" program, Frederick William used a number of modern methods of political mobilization and propaganda. An avid supporter of railway building, he was the most widely traveled monarch in German history until that time; and, employing his considerable rhetorical gifts, he was the first to deliver public speeches to his civilian subjects on such notable occasions as his Berlin enthronement in October 1840 or the dedication of Cologne cathedral in 1842.

Born in 1795 to the future Frederick William III and the future Queen Louise, the crown prince spent an idyllic childhood, quickly demonstrating exceptional intelligence and a remarkable aptitude for art and especially architecture. The idyll was disrupted by the catastrophe of 1806–1807, when Napoleon shattered Prussia's once-vaunted armies and imposed a humiliating peace settlement at Tilsit. Frederick William served in the liberation war against France (1813–1815), and thereafter on a royal commission that in 1823 introduced provincial estates (Provinziallandtage) as a partial concession to demands for political representation. He also collaborated closely with Prussia's leading architects, especially Karl Friedrich Schinkel, on many projects in the vicinity of his beloved Potsdam, which he hoped to transform into an Italian-style garden paradise. These justly praised activities continued until the late 1850s. Finally, Frederick William became the focal point of the "Crown Prince's Circle," an informal gathering of so-called High Conservatives who criticized Metternichean absolutism. Among them were many of Frederick William's chief advisors, including Joseph Maria von Radowitz and the brothers Leopold and Ernst Ludwig von Gerlach.

The positive expectations that attended Frederick William's accession to the throne in 1840, especially from the diffuse ranks of German liberals hoping for change after the paralysis of the 1830s, were quickly dashed. Seeking to satisfy his father's long-delayed constitutional promises without actually resorting to a constitution, Frederick William attempted between 1842 and 1847 to introduce his estatist ideas in both politics and ecclesiastical affairs. These culminated in the United Diet of 1847, which, far from implementing the king's ideas, turned into a quasi-parliamentary forum for the discussion of political reform. By this time the economic and social crisis of the "hungry forties" had reached the boiling point, contributing to the eruption of 18–19 March 1848. Frederick William's response to the barricade battles—his lachrymose appeal "To My Dear Berliners" and the withdrawal of Prussian troops from the city—has often been criticized, but in fact he was more decisive than most others in Berlin, including his brother and heir, the later William I.

The king spent the postrevolution months in Potsdam with an informal "camarilla" (or cabal) of High Conservative advisers whose influence has been exaggerated but who did contribute to the counterrevolution in November and the compromise constitution of December 1848 (later amended and accepted by the king in February 1850). Frederick William had always embraced a vision of German national unity—he was quite modern in this respect too—but in April 1849 he rejected the imperial crown proffered by the Frankfurt National Assembly. Thereafter he supported the Prussian Union plans of his friend Radowitz, a conservative alternative to the Frankfurt ideas, but they ended with failure in November 1850.

During the decade of reaction after 1850 Frederick William reluctantly accommodated himself to Prussia's new constitution and learned how to use it to advance his own agenda, sometimes over the opposition of his High Conservative allies in the Kreuzzeitung party. After 1853–54 he supported a policy of neutrality in the Crimean conflict. Incapacitated by strokes after 1857, he died in 1861; his brother William had become regent in 1858.

See alsoConservatism; Germany; Prussia; Revolutions of 1848; Romanticism.


Barclay, David E. Frederick William IV and the Prussian Monarchy, 1840–1861. Oxford, U.K., 1995.

Blasius, Dirk. Friedrich Wilhelm IV., 1795–1861: Psychopathologie und Geschichte. Göttingen, Germany, 1992.

Büsch, Otto, ed. Friedrich Wilhelm IV. in seiner Zeit: Beiträge eines Colloquiums. Berlin, 1987.

Bußmann, Walter. Zwischen Preußen und Deutschland: Friedrich Wilhelm IV.; Eine Biographie. Berlin, 1990.

Kroll, Frank-Lothar. Friedrich Wilhelm IV. und das Staatsdenken der deutschen Romantik. Berlin, 1990.

Sperber, Jonathan, ed. The Short Oxford History of Germany: Germany, 1800–1870. Oxford, U.K., 2004.

David E. Barclay

Frederick William IV

views updated May 11 2018

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). □

Frederick William IV

views updated May 09 2018

Frederick William IV (1795–1861) King of Prussia (1840–61), son and successor of Frederick William III. He granted a constitution in response to the Revolutions of 1848, but later amended it to eliminate popular influence. He refused the crown of Germany (1849) because it was offered by the Frankfurt Parliament, a democratic assembly. From 1858, the future Emperor William I ruled as regent.

William I

views updated May 23 2018

William I (1797–1888) King of Prussia (1861–88) and Emperor of Germany (1871–88). From 1858, He served as regent for his brother, Frederick William IV. His suppression of revolution in 1848–49 earned him a reputation as a reactionary, but as King he displayed sensible pragmatism and followed the advice of his minister, Otto von Bismarck. He supported the unification of Germany, but accepted his proclamation as Emperor reluctantly, fearing a reduction in Prussia's status.

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