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After the Holy Roman Empire was abolished on August 6, 1806, the first attempt at creating a unified German Empire came in the wake of the Revolutions of 1848. In 1849 the liberal Frankfurt Parliament offered the title and position of “Emperor of the Germans” (German: Kaiser der Deutschen) to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia.

However, the King declined to accept the title and the office of Emperor with the belief it was “not the Parliament’s to give.” Friedrich Wilhelm IV believed that only the German Princes had the right to make such an offer, in accordance with the traditions of the Holy Roman Empire.

This new German Empire forged by Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia and Chancellor of the North German Confederation, would be a federal monarchy; the emperor would be the head of state and president of the federated monarchs (the kings of Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, the grand dukes of Baden, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Hesse, among others, as well as the principalities, duchies and of the free cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen).

King Wilhelm I of Prussia, who was to be the Emperor of this new state, also had difficulty accepting the Imperial title. One of the issues at hand was what would be the official title of this new Emperor?

The title “Emperor of the Germans,” which we have seen had been proposed by the Frankfurt Parliament in 1849, was ruled out by Wilhelm for the similar reasons his brother Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia refused the title.

Wilhelm considered himself a king who ruled by divine right and was chosen “By the Grace of God,” and not by the people in a popular monarchy. But more in general, Wilhelm was unhappy about a title that looked artificial (like he viewed Napoléon’s title), having been created by a constitution. He was also afraid that the position of Emperor would overshadow the Prussian crown.

Despite Wilhelm’s hesitation at becoming Emperor he did prefer the title “Emperor of Germany” (German: Kaiser von Deutschland). However, that title would have signaled a territorial sovereignty over the other German kings and princes which was unacceptable to the South German monarchs, such as Ludwig II of Bavaria. Many south German sovereigns did not desire to be dominated by the Prussian Hohenzollerns.

A compromise was needed. The title German Emperor was carefully chosen by Otto von Bismarck, after intense discussion which continued up until the proclamation of King Wilhelm I of Prussia as Emperor at the Palace of Versailles during the Siege of Paris.

Since the title “Emperor of Germany” suggested sovereignty over the other German states, the title German Emperor was a title that meant to signified the Emperor was a first among equal and fellow sovereigns.

Proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles

Wilhelm accepted this title begrudgingly and on January 18, 1871 Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles (France) towards the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The title German Emperor became the official title of the head of state and hereditary ruler of the German Empire.

The title had been initially introduced earlier within the January 1st 1871 constitution and lasted until the official abdication of Wilhelm II on November 28, 1918.

Under the imperial constitution, the empire was a federation of states under the permanent presidency of the king of Prussia. Thus, the imperial crown was directly tied to the Prussian crown.