Franco-Prussian War, German Chancellor, German Emperor Wilhelm I, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, King of Prussia, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Otto von Bismarck, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Wilhelm I (March 22, 1797 – March 9, 1888) was King of Prussia and German Emperor. 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, whose death three years later would make him king.
The future King and Emperor was born Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig of Prussia in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin on March 22, 1797. As the second son of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia the future King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia.
His mother was Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the fourth daughter and sixth child of Duke Charles of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and his wife Princess Friederike of Hesse-Darmstadt. Her father Charles was a brother of Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom and wife of King George III. Her mother Frederike was a granddaughter of Ludwig VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt.
When Wilhelm was born his grandfather Friedrich Wilhelm II, was King of Prussia and Wilhelm was not expected to ascend to the throne. His grandfather died the year he was born, at age 53, in 1797, and his father became King Friedrich Wilhelm III.
He was educated from 1801 to 1809 by Johann Friedrich Gottlieb Delbrück [de], who was also in charge of the education of Wilhelm’s brother, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm III. At age twelve, his father appointed him an officer in the Prussian army. The year 1806 saw the defeat of Prussia by France and the end of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1829, Wilhelm married Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, the daughter of Grand Duke Charles Friedrich of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia a daughter of Emperor Paul I of Russia and Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg. Their marriage was outwardly stable, but not a very happy one.
Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia was the sister of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia who married Princess Charlotte of Prussia (1798–1860), sister of Emperor/King Wilhelm of Prussia.
Princess Charlotte of Prussia took the name Alexandra Feodorovna when she converted to Orthodoxy. Nicholas and Charlotte were third cousins, as they were both great-great-grandchildren of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.
On January 2, 1861, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV died and Wilhelm ascended the throne as King Wilhelm I of Prussia. In July, a student from Leipzig attempted to assassinate Wilhelm, but he was only lightly injured.
Like Friedrich I, King in Prussia, 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’s wish, expressed in Friedrich Wilhelm’s last will, that he should abrogate the constitution.
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. King Wilhelm assumed the Bundespräsidium, the Presidency 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. King Wilhelm 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, 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 German 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 “Emperor of Germany” but Bismarck warned him that the South German princes and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria might protest as that title indicated supremacy over all German monarchs.
Wilhelm eventually—though grudgingly—relented and on 18 January 18, he was formally proclaimed as German 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 Emperor 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 Wilhelm Barbablanca (whitebeard), a play on the name of the medieval Emperor Friedrich 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 modern-day Washington within U.S. national territory, thus ending the 12-year bloodless Pig War.
In his memoirs, Chancellor Otto von 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 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.
Emperor Wilhelm I died on March 9, 1888 in Berlin after a short illness, less than two weeks before his 91st birthday. He was buried on March 16 at the Mausoleum at Park Charlottenburg.
He was succeeded by his son Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm who was already in ill health himself (suffering from throat cancer). Emperor Friedrich III spent the 99 days of his reign fighting his illness before dying and being succeeded by his eldest son Wilhelm on June 15 as German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II.