June 7th in German History: King Frederick Wilhelm III Dies

Friedrich Wilhelm III., König von Preußen (unbekannter Maler).jpg
Frederick Wilhelm III.

If Prussian kings feature at all in history classes, only Frederick the Great and maybe his father Frederick Wilhelm I receive mention. This is understandable, as those are the two most important Prussian monarchs. However, the omissions of the many other Prussian kings can lead to the conclusion that they were relatively unimportant. This, of course, is simply untrue. All absolutist monarchs are historically influential simply by virtue of the power they held. Further, King Frederick Wilhelm III was important in his own right. He led Prussia through the Napoleonic Wars and although his reign was something of a mediocrity, his impact on history shows that one does not have to be exceptionally capable to be historically important.

Frederick Wilhelm III was born in 1770 and was the son of Frederick Wilhelm II. He was shy and reserved as a child, and neglected by his father, resulting in an inferiority complex. His instruction by tutors made him pious, which would influence his policies as king. Like most monarchs at the time he served in the military and even fought against France during the early phases of the revolution. In 1793 he married Louise, who became a popular queen, enhancing the image of the monarchy. Upon assuming the throne in 1797, he initiated several reforms and cut expenses of the court which his father had made disreputable. However, he was too distrustful to delegate authority, which reduced the effectiveness of his reign. Frederick initially stayed neutral in the Napoleonic Wars, but the queen convinced him to declare war on France in 1806. France quickly destroyed the Prussian Army and at the Treaty of Tilsit forced Prussia to give up territory and pay for French troops to occupy parts of Prussia. Following this defeat Frederick seemed to give up hope of defeating France, but several ministers set about reforming the Prussian Army and in 1813 Frederick Wilhelm declared war on France after Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. This time, Prussia, along with Britain, Russia, and Austria, defeated France and Prussia regained most of the territory it had lost and annexed new lands as well. Following the war, Frederick revoked promises to issue a constitution and implemented reactionary policies in line with most other European monarchs. Following the war, his only main initiative was the unification of the Prussian churches into the Prussian Union of Churches. He restructured religion so as to create common doctrines, liturgy, and church architecture. This attempt met with resistance, especially from old Lutherans, and many left Prussia as a result. For the most part though, the latter twenty years of Frederick Wilhelm III’s reign were uneventful, and he died on June 7th, 1840.

Frederick Wilhelm II is an interesting case of an uninspiring man leading a nation through one of the most eventful periods in history. His decision to stay out of the fight against Napoleon until 1806, while maybe the result of cowardice, certainly benefited Prussia and when he entered the war, having been convinced by the queen to do so, Prussia suffered one of its greatest disasters. His term as a peacetime king led to few great events, and it would be up to his successors to make Prussia the leader of Germany and superior in Europe.

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