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Part II

Wilhelm I, German Emperor

Against his convictions but out of loyalty towards his brother, Wilhelm signed the bill setting up a Prussian parliament (Vereinigter Landtag) in 1847 and took a seat in the upper chamber, the Herrenhaus.


During the Revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe, including Germany, Wilhelm successfully crushed a revolt in Berlin that was aimed at Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The use of cannons made him unpopular at the time and earned him the nickname Kartätschenprinz (Prince of Grapeshot). Indeed, he became so unpopular had to flee to England for a while, disguised as a merchant. In a year he returned and helped to put down an uprising in Baden, where he commanded the Prussian army. In October 1849, he became governor-general of Rhineland and Westfalia, with a seat at the Electoral Palace in Koblenz.

During their time at Koblenz, Wilhelm and his wife entertained liberal scholars such as the historian Maximilian Wolfgang Duncker, August von Bethmann-Hollweg and Clemens Theodor Perthes. Wilhelm’s opposition to liberal ideas gradually softened a little.

In 1857 Friedrich Wilhelm IV suffered a stroke and became mentally disabled for the rest of his life. In January 1858, Wilhelm became Prince Regent for his brother, initially only temporarily but after October it became permanent and he swore an oath of office on the Prussian constitution and promised to preserve it “solid and inviolable”. Wilhelm appointed a liberal, Karl Anton von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, as Minister President and thus initiated what became known as the “New Era” in Prussia, although there were conflicts between William and the liberal majority in the Landtag on matters of reforming the armed forces.

On January 2, 1861, Friedrich Wilhelm IV died and Wilhelm ascended the throne as Wilhelm I of Prussia. In July, a student from Leipzig attempted to assassinate William, but he was only lightly injured. Like Friedrich I of Prussia (1701-) Wilhelm travelled to Königsberg and there crowned himself at the Schlosskirche. Wilhelm chose the anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, October 18, for this event, which was the first Prussian crowning ceremony since 1701 and the only crowning of a German king in the 19th century.

Wilhelm refused to comply with his brother Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s wish, expressed in His last will, that he should abrogate the constitution. Wilhelm inherited a conflict between Friedrich Wilhelm IV and the liberal Landtag. He was considered to be politically neutral as he intervened less in politics than his brother. In 1862 the Landtag refused an increase in the military budget needed to pay for the already implemented reform of the army, which involved raising the members of the peacetime army and to keep the length of military service (raised in 1856 from two years) at three years.

Otto Von Bismarck

When his request, backed by his Minister of War Albrecht von Roon was refused, Wilhelm first considered abdicating, but his son, the Crown Prince Friedrich, advised strongly against it. Then, on the advice of Roon, Wilhelm appointed Otto von Bismarck to the office of Minister President in order to force through the proposals. According to the Prussian constitution, the Minister President was responsible solely to the king, not to the Landtag. Bismarck, a ultra-conservative Prussian Junker and loyal friend of the king, liked to see his working relationship with Wilhelm as that of a vassal to his feudal superior. Nonetheless, it was Bismarck who effectively directed the politics, domestic as well as foreign; on several occasions he gained William’s assent by threatening to resign.

The German Confederation had been created by an act of the Congress of Vienna on June 8, 1815 as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, after being alluded to in Article 6 of the 1814 Treaty of Paris. The German Confederation replaced the ancient Holy Roman Empire that had been dissolved by Emperor Franz II under the pressure of the rise of Napoleon.

Creating a unified German State was the goal of many German statesman. The Bourgeois revolutions of 1848, which tired to give the Imperial Crown to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was associated with highly educated and middle class subjects but this attempt was crushed in favor of peasants, artisans and Otto von Bismarck’s pragmatic Realpolitik.

Bismarck sought to extend Hohenzollern hegemony throughout the German states. Bismarck knew that to do so meant the unification of the German states and the exclusion of Prussia’s main German rival, Austria, from the subsequent German Empire. He envisioned a conservative Germany dominated by Prussia with Wilhelm as its Emperor. Three wars led to military successes and helped to persuade German people to do this: the Second Schleswig War against Denmark in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War against France in 1870–71.

Wilhelm is proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France flanked by his only son, Crown Prince Friedrich and son in law – Friedrich I, Grand Duke of Baden. Painting by Anton von Werner

Wilhelm was the commander-in-chief of the Prussian forces in the Second Schleswig War against Denmark in 1864 and the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. After the latter was won by Prussia, Wilhelm wanted to march on to Vienna and annex Austria, but was dissuaded from doing so by Bismarck and Crown Prince Friedrich. These actions were not part of Bismarck’s plan.

Bismarck wanted to end the war quickly, so as to allow Prussia to ally with Austria if it needed to at a later date; Crown Prince Friedrich was also appalled by the casualties and wanted a speedy end to hostilities. During a heated discussion, Bismarck threatened to resign if Wilhelm continued to Vienna. In the end Bismarck got his way. Wilhelm had to content himself with becoming the de facto ruler of the northern two-thirds of Germany. Prussia annexed several of Austria’s allies north of the Main, as well as Schleswig-Holstein. It also forced Saxe-Lauenburg into a personal union with Prussia (which became a full union in 1878).

In 1867, the North German Confederation was created as a federation (federally organised state) of the North German and Central German states under the permanent presidency of Prussia. Wilhelm assumed the Bundespräsidium, the presidium of the Confederation; the post was a hereditary office of the Prussian crown. Not expressis verbis, but in function he was the head of state. Bismarck intentionally avoided a title such as Präsident as it sounded too republican. Wilhelm also became the constitutional Bundesfeldherr, the commander of all federal armed forces. Via treaties with the South German states, he also became commander of their armies in times of war. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Wilhelm was in command of all the German forces at the crucial Battle of Sedan.

During the Franco-Prussian War, the South German states joined the North German Confederation. The country was renamed Deutsches Reich (the German Empire), and the title of Bundespräsidium was amended with the title Deutscher Kaiser (German Emperor). This was decided on by the legislative organs, the Reichstag and Bundesrat, and Wilhelm agreed to this on December 18, in the presence of a Reichstag delegation. The new constitution and the title of Emperor came into effect on January 1, 1871.

The German Emperor (German: Deutscher Kaiser) became the official title of the head of state and hereditary ruler of the German Empire. The title German Emperor was in direct contrast to both Emperor of the Germans or even Emperor of Germany (German: Kaiser von Deutschland).

Wilhelm I, German Emperor and King of Prussia

Bismarck and Wilhelm continually discussed the imperial title even up until the proclamation of Wilhelm as emperor at the Palace of Versailles during the Siege of Paris. The title “German Emperor” was carefully chosen by Otto von Bismarck, Wilhelm accepted this title grudgingly having preferred “Emperor of Germany.” However, that would have signaled a territorial sovereignty and superiority over all German monarchs and this was particularly unacceptable to the South German monarchs, as well as a claim to lands outside his reign (Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, etc.).

Even the title “Emperor of the Germans”, which initially had been proposed at the Frankfurt Parliament in 1849, was ruled out by Wilhelm as he considered himself a king who ruled by divine right and chosen “By the Grace of God”, not by the people in a popular monarchy.