Thursday, February 22, 2024

Frederick III and William II

My friend Christina Croft (author of The Innocence of Kaiser Wilhelm II) has written an excellent rebuttal to the frequently regurgitated myth (common in discussions of 19th-century royal history) that "if only Kaiser Friedrich III (1831-1888) had lived longer, World War I would have been prevented." I think many years ago I used to believe this myself, as it is the impression one can get from some superficial reading, until I learned better. Writers in English on royal history have tended to be myopically pro-"Fritz" and anti-Wilhelm, determined to paint the former as a dovish liberal and the latter as a hawkish reactionary, when the truth was more complex. Of course, no counterfactual proposition (and I think about counterfactual history a lot) can ever be either proved or disproved, but there are substantial reasons _not_ to believe in this particular one. None of this is to deny that Frederick III's death at 56 from throat cancer after a reign of only 90 days was a personal tragedy for his family, especially his wife Victoria, but it is unrealistic and unhelpful to blame the events of 26 years later on it or on his son. With Christina's permission I reproduce her comments here.

"This is a complete myth for so many reasons and it stems from the usual thing of making Fritz into a hero and Wilhelm into a villain. Neither man was a saint and neither was a villain - they were both just doing what they thought was right. Here are just a few reasons why Fritz would not have prevented war:

Firstly, it suggests that kings/emperors were responsible for the war - they were not. The politicians and the press brought about the war.

Secondly, the King of Prussia might have been an autocrat but the German Emperor was not and so it would be impossible for a German Emperor to cause (or prevent) a war single-handedly.

Thirdly - there is a misconception that Fritz was far more liberal than Wilhelm was. This is not the case - Wilhelm was praised by socialists across Europe (including the extremely radical George Bernard Shaw and the Germano-phobic French socialists) because of his genuine concern for workers and their rights. Fritz, on the other hand, had no direct contact with workers as Wilhelm did and he was out of touch with them. A contemporary German diarist wrote of Fritz: "He intended to rule with and for the bourgeoisie, and is thrown into perplexity by the more rapid emergence of the workers."

Fourthly, Fritz fought in 3 wars. Wilhelm (who is wrongly labelled a warmonger) maintained peace for 25 years. [Added by TRH: in 1913 on the 25th anniversary of his accession, the New York Times, not exactly a bastion of monarchism, effusively praised Kaiser Wilhelm II for his then-seemingly-successful efforts to preserve the peace in Europe.]

Fifthly - People say Fritz would have maintained good relations with Britain. In fact, when Queen Victoria asked him to treat the defeated states in the Austro-Prussian War more leniently, Fritz basically said it was not Britain's business and he would always put Prussia first. Wilhelm, on the other hand, repeatedly tried to form an alliance with Britain.

Sixthly, Fritz was so Russophobic that he was asked not to go to the coronation of Tsar Alexander III for fear that he would make trouble. Wilhelm wanted to befriend the Tsar.

Seventhly, Fritz was an authoritarian. When the German states were reluctant to join the unification, he said they must be FORCED to join and he deceived Ludwig II of Bavaria about it (in fact the Bavarians hated him for it).

Eighthly, apart from anything else, Fritz would have been 83 in 1914.

I could go on..."


1 comment:

sulawcirc said...

Interesting to contemplate, "what if?"