Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia (1831-1888) reigned as Emperor Frederick III of Germany for only ninety-nine days in 1888. His premature death from cancer of the larynx serves as one of the great ‘what if?’ moments in history. Had he lived, the pacifist constitutional monarch Emperor Frederick could have prevented the catastrophic First World War that was declared by his son Kaiser Wilhelm II and led to the fall of the Hohenzollern dynasty.
Prince Frederick was the oldest son of the future Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar. Like all Prussian Princes, Frederick underwent a strict military education. Encouraged by his uncle Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia, he broke with tradition and became the first Hohenzollern Prince to attend university in Bonn where he studied history, politics and law.
In 1851 Fritz, as the prince was known in royal circles, accompanied his mother and father on a visit to London to view the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace built in Hyde Park. He met Vicky, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in the Chinese drawing room at Buckingham Palace and love appeared to blossom. In 1855 Prince Fritz paid a private visit to Balmoral Castle and won the hand of his Princess Royal. He said of the love match, ‘it is not politics. It is not ambition. It was my heart’.
When Prince Fritz visited Emperor Napoleon III in Paris, the Empress Eugenie gave a complimentary account of him: ‘the Prince is a tall, handsome man, almost a head taller than the Emperor. He is slim and fair, with a light yellow moustache – chivalrously polite and not without a resemblance to Hamlet’.
Fritz married Victoria in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in 1858. Theirs was the first royal wedding that Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was played. They would have eight children; the eldest, Wilhelm, being born with a withered arm following a breach birth that gave rise to a life-long hatred of his mother. The prince suffered from depression all his life and his princess found the German royal court in Berlin hostile to her and the perceived Anglophile influence on her husband.
Fritz and Victoria became Crown Prince and Princess in 1861 on the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm I. The Kaiser’s queen Augusta proved to be a malign influence who seemed to take pleasure in isolating Vicky and taking too strong an interest in her children’s education. The death of Vicky’s beloved father Prince Albert meant an increasing amount of time spent with Queen Victoria that alienated the German court even more.
It soon became obvious that Kaiser Wilhelm and his chancellor Otto von Bismarck intended to marginalise the Crown Prince and Princess and starve the heir of political influence. The Crown Prince visits Henry Poole in 1865 and ordered a wardrobe suitable for Queen Victoria’s country houses Osborne and Balmoral including a grey velvet beaver pea coat lined with silk, a brown silk velvet knickerbocker dress jacket, vest and knickerbockers and a blue Elysian pea coat lined and quilted in silk.
The Crown Prince fought in the Second Schleswig War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and was much lauded by The Times newspaper who said of him ‘the Prince has won as much honour for his gentleness as for his prowess in war’. He was quoted as saying ‘I do not like war, gentlemen. If I should reign, I would never make it’. His words did not please his pugnacious father who, after the unification of 1871, was declared Emperor of Germany. The Crown Prince’s declared pacifism also antagonised his son Wilhelm who increasingly fell under the influence of the Emperor and Chancellor Bismarck. The Prince was sufficiently distressed by being caught in a familial pincer movement between his father and son to contemplate suicide.
Emperor Wilhelm I would live until his 90th birthday in 1888 by which time his heir had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him. With young Wilhelm waiting in the wings, Emperor Frederick III was declared and crowned. Ignoring the advice of the German Imperial surgeon to remove his larynx, Emperor Frederick underwent a tracheotomy suggested by his English doctor Sir Morell Mackenzie. The operation was botched and the Emperor was left speechless for the rest of his short life. On his deathbed, the Emperor Frederick said ‘I cannot die. What would happen to Germany?’
What transpired was the disastrous reign of his son Kaiser Wilhelm II, the declaration of the First World War, defeat and the fall of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Kaiser Wilhelm persecuted his mother, believing her to be a British spy, until the day she died in 1901. The Dowager Empress took her revenge on her deathbed by commanding British diplomat Sir Frederick Ponsonby to spirit away her correspondence from under the noses of her son’s agents. The letters, including over 3777 from Queen Victoria alone, are now kept in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle.