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Frederick William IV, King of Prussia

Frederick William IV, King of Prussia (1795-1861; ruled 1840-1861). Most German historians of the nineteen th and early twentieth century negatively characterized Frederick William IV as gifted but mercurial and contradictory, an artist and aesthete rather than a hard-headed politician, a "Romantic on the throne" who was out of step with his times. This picture may be anachronistic, reflecting the point of view of the events of 1870-71. More recently, historians have attempted to reassess Frederick William IV in the context of his own times and his own circumstances, thereby questioning the "classical" vi ew.

Born in 1795, Frederick William IV was the oldest of seven surviving children of Frederick William III and Queen Luise. The young crown prince was less martially inclined than his younger brother and eventual successor, Prince William. Rather, he possessed a fertile artistic imagination, strong religious feelings, a passion (and a real talent) for architecture, an attachment to Romantic literature (especially the medieval fantasies of Fouqué), and an overabundant emotionalism. T he events of 1806-1815, especially the Liberation War after 1813, played a decisive role in his life, instilling in him a dislike of France, a hatred of "the revolution," and an intense German national feeling rooted in a Romantic vision of the glories of the medieval empire. During the long years that elapsed before his accession to the throne in 1840, Frederick William became convinced of the divinely ordained quality of kingship which he combined uneasily with a distaste for "absolutism," (See "Ab solutism) whether bureaucratic or royal. He also loathed parliaments and constitutions, and supported an alternative political vision of a "Christian state" organized on an "organic," corporative basis. This vision led him to promote the reinvigoration of German Protestantism as part of the struggle against "the revolution." As crown prince and as king, he surrounded himself with familiar faces (Bunsen, Radowitz, Alexander von Humboldt, Leopold von Gerlach), while also keeping his own counsels and p laying his advisers off against each other.

After his father's death in June 1840, Frederick William responded to pressures for change in Prussian society by embarking upon a series of experiments (the United Committees of 1842, the Evangelical General Synod of 1846, and the United Diet of 1847), to transform state and church on the basis of his organic-corporative ideals. They came to naught, however, first arousing the hopes, then confounding the expectations, and finally encouraging the bitterness of the advocates of constitutional reform.

Frederick William's behavior in March 1848 has often aroused controversy. When news of developments in Paris and Vienna reached the Prussian capital, and as popular agitation intensified in Berlin itself, the king agreed to a series of concessions, including the lifting of censorship, the reconvening of the United Diet, and the introduction of modern constitutional institutions. When the demonstrations of March 18 in front of the royal pal ace turned into violent confrontations between citizens and the military, Gunther Richter suggests that Frederick William, although shocked and disoriented, was less confused than other top officials. When General Prittwitz, commander of troops in Berlin, described the difficult military situation to him early on March 19, the king responded with his famous proclamation "To My Dear Berliners," which led to the withdrawal of troops from streets and public squares. An angry Prittwitz ordered them to w ithdraw entirely from the scenes of battle and to return to their barracks and encampments. Frederick William immediately recognized that he was in the hands of the aroused citizenry of Berlin; accordingly, he paid public homage to those who had died in the fighting, and on March 21 undertook his famous ride through the streets of Berlin, in which he wore national colors and indicated that Prussia would show the way toward greater German unity.

Although the king had reacted with some decisiv eness to the events of March 18-21, a "mixture of resignation, weakness, apathy, desperation" (Leopold von Gerlach) characterized his mood in his Potsdam retreat in the weeks that followed. Several of his advisers, most notably Adjutant General Friedrich Wilhelm von Rauch and Leopold von Gerlach (himself adjutant general after 1850), responded in late March by establishing the famous "camarilla" (see Court clique) as a reactionary counterweight to the new constitutional ministry. The camarilla was mu ch smaller than many historians suggest, and Frederick William was rarely its creature. Still, between April and November 1848 its effectiveness was considerable and its role sometimes decisive. The installation of Count Brandenburg's government in November was its most important success, leading to Wrangel's reoccupation of Berlin, the dispersal of the Prussian national assembly, and the imposition of the constitution of December 1848. Though Frederick William always detested constitutions, he fel t bound by the constitutional pledges that he had made in March 1848. He also believed that it was possible to revise the constitution itself to reflect more accurately his own political notions, as indeed it was. He also felt bound by his official oath to the revised constitution in February 1850; accordingly, as Günther Grünthal states, neither he nor the camarilla seriously considered an anti-constitutional coup.

The camarilla itself was far from all-powerful after 1848. To be s ure, the camarilla supported the king's rejection, in April 1849, of the imperial crown proffered to him by the Frankfurt national assembly; however, from the spring of 1849 until the autumn crisis of 1850, Frederick William promoted the "union policies" of Joseph Maria von Radowitz, his intimate friend and bitter rival of the camarilla.

After 1851, the constitutional revisions as well as the complex Crimean crisis preoccupied Frederick William. After the autumn of 1857, what was probably cerebral arteriosclerosis (not "madness," as generations of historians have contended) disabled him. Until his death in 1861 his brother William, the prince of Prussia, ruled as regent in his behalf. Though usually dismissed as an inconsistent fantast and a political failure, through his (and his advisers') stubborn insistence on maintaining a powerful monarchy, Frederick William IV played a key role in the process by which Prussia's conservative elites survived the revolution of 1848 and adapted co nstitutional structures to their own ends.

David Barclay


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© 1997 James Chastain.