1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Frederick William IV. of Prussia
FREDERICK WILLIAM IV. (1795–1861), king of Prussia, eldest son of Frederick William III., was born on the 15th of October 1795. From his first tutor, Johann Delbrück, he imbibed a love of culture and art, and possibly also the dash of Liberalism which formed an element of his complex habit of mind. But after a time Delbrück, suspected of inspiring his charge with a dislike of the Prussian military caste and even of belonging to a political secret society, was dismissed, his place being taken by the pastor and historian Friedrich Ancillon, while a military governor was also appointed. By Ancillon he was grounded in religion, in history and political science, his natural taste for the antique and the picturesque making it easy for his tutor to impress upon him his own hatred of the Revolution and its principles. This hatred was confirmed by the sufferings of his country and family in the terrible years after 1806, and his first experience of active soldiering was in the campaigns that ended in the occupation of Paris by the Allies in 1814. In action his reckless bravery had earned him rebuke, and in Paris he was remarked for the exact performance of his military duties, though he found time to whet his appetite for art in the matchless collections gathered by Napoleon as the spoil of all Europe. On his return to Berlin he studied art under the sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch and the painter and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), proving himself in the end a good draughtsman, a born architect and an excellent landscape gardener. At the same time he was being tutored in law by Savigny and in finance by a series of distinguished masters. In 1823 he married the princess Elizabeth of Bavaria, who adopted the Lutheran creed. The union, though childless, was very happy. A long tour in Italy in 1828 was the beginning of his intimacy with Bunsen and did much to develop his knowledge of art and love of antiquity.
On his accession to the throne in 1840 much was expected of a prince so variously gifted and of so amiable a temper, and his first acts did not belie popular hopes. He reversed the unfortunate ecclesiastical policy of his father, allowing a wide liberty of dissent, and releasing the imprisoned archbishop of Cologne; he modified the strictness of the press censorship; above all he undertook, in the presence of the deputations of the provincial diets assembled to greet him on his accession, to carry out the long-deferred project of creating a central constitution, which he admitted to be required alike by the royal promises, the needs of the country and the temper of the times. The story of the evolution of the Prussian parliament belongs to the history of Prussia. Here it must suffice to notice Frederick William’s personal share in the question, which was determined by his general attitude of mind. He was an idealist; but his idealism was of a type the exact reverse of that which the Revolution in arms had sought to impose upon Europe. The idea of the sovereignty of the people was to him utterly abhorrent, and even any delegation of sovereign power on his own part would have seemed a betrayal of a God-given trust. “I will never,” he declared, “allow to come between Almighty God and this country a blotted parchment, to rule us with paragraphs, and to replace the ancient, sacred bond of loyalty.” His vision of the ideal state was that of a patriarchial monarchy, surrounded and advised by the traditional estates of the realm—nobles, peasants, burghers—and cemented by the bonds of evangelical religion; but in which there should be no question of the sovereign power being vested in any other hands than those of the king by divine right. In Prussia, with its traditional loyalty and its old-world caste divisions, he believed that such a conception could be realized, and he took up an attitude half-way between those who would have rejected the proposal for a central diet altogether as a dangerous “thin end of the wedge,” and those who would have approximated it more to the modern conception of a parliament. With a charter, or a representative system based on population, he would have nothing to do. The united diet which was opened on the 3rd of February 1847 was no more than a congregation of the diets instituted by Frederick William III. in the eight provinces of Prussia. Unrepresentative though it was—for the industrial working-classes had no share in it—it at once gave voice to the demand for a constitutional system.
This demand gained overwhelmingly in force with the revolutionary outbreaks of 1848. To Frederick William these came as a complete surprise, and, rudely awakened from his medieval dreamings, he even allowed himself to be carried away for a while by the popular tide. The loyalty of the Prussian army remained inviolate; but the king was too tender-hearted to use military force against his “beloved Berliners,” and when the victory of the populace was thus assured his impressionable temper yielded to the general enthusiasm. He paraded the streets of Berlin wrapped in a scarf of the German black and gold, symbol of his intention to be the leader of the united Germany; and he even wrote to the indignant tsar in praise of “the glorious German revolution.” The change of sentiment was, however, apparent rather than real. The shadow of venerable institutions, past or passing, still darkened his counsels. The united Germany which he was prepared to champion was not the democratic state which the theorists of the Frankfort national parliament were evolving on paper with interminable debate, but the old Holy Roman Empire, the heritage of the house of Habsburg, of which he was prepared to constitute himself the guardian so long as its lawful possessors should not have mastered the forces of disorder by which they were held captive. Finally, when Austria had been excluded from the new empire, he replied to the parliamentary deputation that came to offer him the imperial crown that he might have accepted it had it been freely offered to him by the German princes, but that he would never stoop “to pick up a crown out of the gutter.”
Whatever may be thought of the manner of this refusal, or of its immediate motives, it was in itself wise, for the German empire would have lost immeasurably had it been the cause rather than the result of the inevitable struggle with Austria, and Bismarck was probably right when he said that, to weld the heterogeneous elements of Germany into a united whole, what was needed was, not speeches and resolutions, but a policy of “blood and iron.” In any case Frederick William, uneasy enough as a constitutional king, would have been impossible as a constitutional emperor. As it was, his refusal to play this part gave the deathblow to the parliament and to all hope of the immediate creation of a united Germany. For Frederick William the position of leader of Germany now meant the employment of the military force of Prussia to crush the scattered elements of revolution that survived the collapse of the national movement. His establishment of the northern confederacy was a reversion to the traditional policy of Prussia in opposition to Austria, which, after the emperor Nicholas had crushed the insurrection in Hungary, was once more free to assert her claims to dominance in Germany. But Prussia was not ripe for a struggle with Austria, even had Frederick William found it in his conscience to turn his arms against his ancient ally, and the result was the humiliating convention of Olmütz (November 29th, 1850), by which Prussia agreed to surrender her separatist plans and to restore the old constitution of the confederation. Yet Frederick William had so far profited by the lessons of 1848 that he consented to establish (1850) a national parliament, though with a restricted franchise and limited powers. The House of Lords (Herrenhaus) justified the king’s insistence in calling it into being by its support of Bismarck against the more popular House during the next reign.
In religious matters Frederick William was also largely swayed by his love for the ancient and picturesque. In concert with his friend Bunsen he laboured to bring about a rapprochement between the Lutheran and Anglican churches, the first-fruits of which was the establishment of the Jerusalem bishopric under the joint patronage of Great Britain and Prussia; but the only result of his efforts was to precipitate the secession of J. H. Newman and his followers to the Church of Rome. In general it may be said that Frederick William, in spite of his talents and his wide knowledge, lived in a dream-land of his own, out of touch with actuality. The style of his letters reveals a mind enthusiastic and ill-balanced. In the summer of 1857 he had a stroke of paralysis, and a second in October. From this time, with the exception of brief intervals, his mind was completely clouded, and the duties of government were undertaken by his brother William (afterwards emperor), who on the 7th of October 1858 was formally recognized as regent. Frederick William died on the 2nd of January 1861.
Selections from the correspondence (Briefwechsel) of Frederick William IV. and Bunsen were edited by Ranke (Leipzig, 1873); his proclamations, speeches, &c., from the 6th of March 1848 to the 31st of May 1851 have been published (Berlin, 1851); also his correspondence with Bettina von Arnim, Bettina von Arnim und Friedrich Wilhelm IV., ungedruckte Briefe und Aktenstücke, ed. L. Geiger (Frankfort-on-Main, 1902). See L. von Ranke, Friedrich Wilhelm IV., König von Preussen (works 51, 52 also in Allgem. deutsche Biog. vol. vii.), especially for the king’s education and the inner history of the debates leading up to the united diet of 1847; H. von Petersdorff, König Friedrich Wilhelm IV. (Stuttgart, 1900); F. Rachfahl, Deutschland, König Friedrich Wilhelm IV. und die Berliner Märzrevolution (Halle, 1901); H. von Poschinger (ed.), Unter Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Denkwürdigkeiten des Ministers Otto Frhr. von Manteuffel, 1848–1858 (3 vols., Berlin, 1900–1901); and Preussens auswärtige Politik, 1850–1858 (3 vols., ib., 1902), documents selected from those left by Manteuffel; E. Friedberg, Die Grundlagen der preussischen Kirchenpolitik unter Friedrich Wilhelm IV. (Leipzig, 1882).