Wilhelm I (Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig; March 22, 1797 – March 9, 1888) was King of Prussia from January 2, 1861 and German Emperor from January 18, 1871 until his death in 1888. A member of the House of Hohenzollern, he was the first head of state of a united Germany. He was de facto head of state of Prussia from 1858, when he became regent for his brother Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and he became king when his brother died three years later.
In 1826 Wilhelm was forced to abandon a relationship with Polish noblewoman Elisa Radziwill, his cousin whom he had been attracted to, when it was deemed an inappropriate match by his father. It is alleged that Elisa had an illegitimate daughter by Wilhelm who was brought up by Joseph and Caroline Kroll, owners of the Kroll Opera House in Berlin, and was given the name Agnes Kroll.
She married a Carl Friedrich Ludwig Dettman (known as “Louis”) and emigrated to Sydney, Australia, in 1849. They had a family of three sons and two daughters. Agnes died in 1904.
In 1829, Wilhelm married Princess Augusta, the daughter of Grand Duke Carl Friedrich of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and Maria Pavlovna, the sister of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. Their marriage was outwardly stable, but not a very happy one.
In 1840 his older brother became King of Prussia. Since he had no children, Wilhelm was first in line to succeed him to the throne and thus was given the title Prinz von Preußen. 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.
Under the leadership of Wilhelm and his minister president Otto von Bismarck, Prussia achieved the unification of Germany and the establishment of the German Empire. Despite his long support of Bismarck as Minister President, Wilhelm held strong reservations about some of Bismarck’s more reactionary policies, including his anti-Catholicism and tough handling of subordinates.
In contrast to the domineering Bismarck, Wilhelm was described as polite, gentlemanly and, while staunchly conservative, more open to certain classical liberal ideas than his grandson Wilhelm II, during whose reign he was known as Wilhelm the Great.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the South German states joined the North German Confederation, which was reorganized as the German Empire (Deutsches Reich). The title of Bundespräsidium was amended with the title of German Emperor (Deutscher Kaiser).
This was decided on by the legislative organs, the Reichstag and Bundesrat, and William agreed to this on December 8 in the presence of a Reichstag delegation. The new constitution and the title of Emperor came into effect on January 1, 1871.
Wilhelm, however, hesitated to accept the constitutional title, as he feared that it would overshadow his own title as King of Prussia. He also wanted it to be Kaiser von Deutschland (“Emperor of Germany”), but Bismarck warned him that the South German princes and the Emperor of Austria might protest.
Wilhelm eventually—though grudgingly—relented and on January 18, he was formally proclaimed as emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. The date was chosen as the coronation date of the first Prussian king in 1701. In the national memory, January 18 became the day of the foundation of the Empire (Reichsgründungstag), although it did not have a constitutional significance.
To many intellectuals, the coronation of Wilhelm was associated with the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. Felix Dahn wrote a poem, “Macte senex Imperator” (Hail thee, old emperor) in which he nicknamed William Barbablanca (whitebeard), a play on the name of the medieval emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa (redbeard).
According to the King asleep in mountain legend, Barbarossa slept under the Kyffhäuser mountain until Germany had need of him. Wilhelm I was thus portrayed as a second coming of Barbarossa. The Kyffhäuser Monument portrays both emperors.
In 1872 he arbitrated a boundary dispute between the United Kingdom and the United States, deciding in favor of the U.S. and placing the San Juan Islands of Washington State within U.S. national territory, thus ending the 12-year bloodless Pig War.
In his memoirs, Bismarck describes Wilhelm 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, 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 German Emperor, Wilhelm left the task of governing mostly to his chancellor, limiting himself to representing the state and approving Bismarck’s every policy. In private he once remarked on his relationship with Bismarck: It is difficult to be emperor under such a chancellor.