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On January 18, 1871 the Prussian army occupied the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace and King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor. The title “German Emperor” was carefully chosen by Bismarck after heated discussions even up to and after the day of the proclamation. Wilhelm I grudgingly accepted this title grudgingly but he would have preferred “Emperor of Germany” which, however, was unacceptable to the federated monarchs, and would also have signaled a claim to lands outside his realm (Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg etc.) and also superiority over the other monarchs within the Empire. The title “Emperor of the Germans”, as proposed in 1848, was ruled out as he considered himself chosen “by the grace of God”, not by the people as in a republic. Wilhelm I also viewed his Kingship of Prussia as much more important than the title of German Emperor. He complained to his son, Crown Prince Friedrich about having to exchange “the radiant Prussian crown for this filth-crown.”

With this ceremony, the North German Confederation united with the South German Confederation and was transformed into the German Empire (“Kaiserreich”, 1871–1918). This Empire was a federal state; the emperor was head of state and president (primus inter pares – first among equals) of the federated monarchs (the kings of Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, the grand dukes , Mecklenburg, Hesse, Baden, as well as other principalities, duchies and the senates of the free cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen).

Bismarck describes Wilhelm I as an old-fashioned, courteous, infallibly polite gentleman and a genuine Prussian officer, whose good common sense was occasionally undermined by “female influences”. This was a reference to Wilhelm’s wife, (Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach 1811-1890. the second daughter of Carl-Friedrich, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and Maria Pavlovna of Russia, a daughter of Emperor Paul I of Russia and Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg) who had been educated by, among others Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and was intellectually superior to her husband. She was also at times very outspoken in her opposition to official policies as she was a liberal. Wilhelm however, had long been strongly opposed to liberal ideas. Despite possessing considerable power as Kaiser, Wilhelm I left the task of governing mostly to his chancellor and limited himself to representation, embodying the dignity of the state and approving Bismarck’s policies.

Here we have, in the relationship between Kaiser and Chancellor, the seeds of a limited Constitutional Monarchy. Yes, the German Empire did have a Constitution but it gave the monarch considerable power. Wilhelm I was content to allow Bismark to rule in his name. When Wilhelm won the Imperial Crown he was 74 years old an advanced age for the 19th century. He would continue to rule until 1888 when he died at the age of 91. With the precedent of allowing the Chancellor to wield the power, and the Crown Prince Friedrich being Liberal, things looked promising for the Empire to evolve into a similar system to that of Great Britain.

Sadly, it was not meant to be. In 1888 when Kaiser Wilhelm I was nearing the end of his life, his son the Crown Prince, was also near the end of his as he was dying from throat cancer. When Kaider Wilhelm I died in March of 1888 the new Emperor, Friedrich III, ruled for only 99 days and kept Bismark on and was not able to implement any of his liberal policies. The premature demise of Friedrich III is considered a potential turning point in German history; and whether or not he would have made the Empire more liberal if he had lived longer is still discussed.

Friedrich III was succeeded by his very conservative and bombastic son, as Kaiser Wilhelm II, and he would lead the German Empire to its downfall.

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