Each person is a prisoner of their own social background, willingly or unwillingly. People are not all good or all evil – they are a mixture of various traits, moods, and behaviors. Still, the effect of publicity is like a magnifying glass. The higher one’s social status is, the more responsibility falls on their shoulders. Mostly, empowered individuals are free in their motivations, but they realize that their deeds and goals affect a lot of people. In addition, their behavior is always in the spotlight, which means that they have no chance for mistakes or flaws. The reaction will be strict and demanding in such cases. Nowadays, people believe that they have a possibility to express their opinions on some global questions. On the other hand, there was no such an option at the end of the 18th century, for example. Several people were responsible for making decisions that were significant for whole Western civilization, and now they are judged by the outcomes of these actions. Frederick William III, the King of Prussia, was one of them.
A background for one’s behavioral strategies and general outlook is usually established in early childhood. Frederick William III has a controversial reputation of a weak ruler who has led Prussia to disaster, and still, of a strong-minded and moral person. There is no doubt that the King has played a part in the process of Prussian revival, as he compensated the disastrous period of 1805-1806 by the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 (Rickard, 2016). Turning back to the roots, it is necessary to admit that Frederick William III’s childhood and family background has played a significant role in his personal development. The King’s father, Frederick William II of Prussia, was indolent and preferred pleasures to politics. As a result, Prussia was weakened both externally and internally. Frederick William III lived far away from his father’s immoral and frivolous court, being raised by wise tutors and soldiers. At the age of 22, young Frederick William took part in military conflicts himself, as he was a commander in the army during the War of the First Coalition (Rickard, 2016). The man has become a king in 1797. He was a soldier and a religious person but not a politician. According to Geary et al. (2017), Frederick William III “was notable for private morality rather than political skill,” which means that he was a careful and modest but ineffectual ruler. Still, he tried to fix the faults of the previous ruler and to make Prussia great and prosperous again.
The Napoleonic Wars were a hard time for the whole Europe. Frederick William III inherited an almost bankrupt Prussia in 1797 (Rickard, 2016), but this country was greatly expanded by that time. At the beginning of his reign, the King was successful in his attempts to stay out of the Wars and to be neutral in his choices. According to Rickard (2016), in the period between 1803 and 1806 Frederick William III was standing on a crossroad between Russia and France, and both forces were dangerous enough. Then, he finally decided to enter the war on Russian’s side by joining the Third Coalition, and the outcomes of such a decision were deplorable. While declaring war against France, the Prussian king aimed to save the country’s authority and image. As a result, the Prussians moved into Saxony August 7, 1806, without any military aid from their allies and stopped there (Rickard, 2016). The French attacked and won a remarkable victory despite the numerical superiority of the Prussians. The lack of cooperation and common goal is the main cause of such a failure. Geary et al. (2017) believe that these events were the price Frederick William III had paid for the policy of his ancestors. Although the King tried to regain his kingdom with the help of the Russians, Alexander I concluded peace with France in July 1807, which ruined Frederick William III’s expectations (Geary et al., 2017). Due to the treaty signed by Prussia, the country lost a half of its territory, agreed to reduce the size of its army, and allowed a military occupation (Geary et al., 2017). Although the one may blame Frederic William III for the lack of political foresight and flexibility, it is important to remember that the King was an honorable man, not a schemer.
Over the next few years, the King tried to organize some dramatic reforms that could improve the internal political situation. According to Rickard (2016), the key steps included the Emancipation Edict of October 9, 1807, that granted citizenship for the non-noble classes, and the abolition of serfdom on November 11, 1810. Also, Frederic William III tried to improve his army, which had some positive outcomes. The external situation in Europe helped the King to strengthen his positions, as the Congress of Vienna has led to the restoration of the old boundaries. Although the Congress aimed to establish a long-term peace plan after the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia did not regain all of its lost territories. Still, Prussia was treated as the leading German state (Rickard, 2016). According to Koch (2014), “it was at time that the demand was first voiced for Prussia to assume the leadership of Germany” (p. 207). On the other hand, Frederic William III was forced to balance the needs of his country and the interests of other powerful states, Austria, in particular. The ideas of liberalism were popular in Germany, and the demand for Prussian leadership originated from the representatives of south-western middle classes. Therefore, Frederic William III’s promise of a constitution and a representative assembly answered the constitutional desires of many Germans, but it also contradicted the framework of the other great powers. As the King preferred Austria’s support rather than opposition, the demands for constitution appeared to be “premature and unrealistic” (Koch, 2014, p. 207). After the end of the wars, Frederick William III lost much of his interest in reforms because of the external circumstances. He remained popular in Prussia, as he supported the ideas based on morality and honor.
Another Frederick William III’s attempt to enhance Prussia was weak as well. In 1817, the King promoted the idea of the Prussian Union of churches, as he wanted to unite both Lutheran and Reformed denominations into one independent religious organization. According to Clark (1996), on 27 September 1817, King Frederic William III of Prussia declared that the two Protestant confessions should form a single united Protestant church, and such a decision was “one of the most controversial policies pursued by Frederic William III after 1815” (p. 985). The King himself was a Reformed Christian, whereas his wife was a Lutheran. Obviously, he wanted to establish a common ground for the representatives of Protestant Churches, as Frederic William III was interested in such a cooperation. Still, most people in Prussia were not ready to change their way of life. People refused to abandon their liturgical traditions although they respected their King’s will. The ideas of “One belief, One love, and One hope” (Clark, 1996, p. 985) appeared to be plausible and spiritual, but not successful. Although his motivation was pious and noble, Frederic William III faced his constant enemy – the lack of diplomatic skills and political authority.
Frederick William III is usually blamed for some external and internal political failures, but his goals were actually honorable. He aimed to unite the country and to make it as strong as possible. Still, there were the external powers that should be taken into account while making judgments. The duties of the King are complicated and, sometimes, controversial, as this man must meet expectations of both his people and other rulers. Frederick William III deserves admiration for his loyalty to his own religious and moral beliefs. Although the shortcomings are inevitable, they do not determine one’s personality.
- Clark, C. (1996). Confessional policy and the limits of state action: Frederick William III and the Prussian Church Union 1817-40. The Historical Journal, 39 (4), 985-1004. doi:10.1017/S0018246X00024730
Geary, P.J., Leyser, K.J., Bayley, C.C., Strauss, G., Turner, H.A., Sheehan, J.J.,
- Berentsen, W.H. (2017). Germany. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Germany/Further-rise-of-Prussia-and-the-Hohenzollerns
- Koch, H.W. (2014). A History of Prussia. Routledge.
- Rickard, J. (2016). Frederick William III of Prussia, 1770-1840, r.1797-1840. Historyofwar.org. Retrieved from http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_frederick_william_III_prussia.html