William I, German Emperor

Dafato Team | May 23, 2022

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Wilhelm I, whose full name was Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig of Prussia († March 9, 1888 ibid.), from the House of Hohenzollern was King of Prussia from 1861 until his death and the first German Emperor since the founding of the German Empire in 1871.

In 1858, after taking over the reigns for his ailing brother Frederick William IV, William transformed himself from the conservative Kartätschenprinz of the March Revolution to the liberal Prince Regent of the New Era. On October 18, 1861, he crowned himself King of Prussia in Königsberg Palace. From 1862 onward, he left the affairs of state largely in the hands of his prime minister and later Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. After the wars of unification and the founding of the empire, Wilhelm was proclaimed German emperor at Versailles Palace on January 18, 1871. In the following years, he gained great popularity in the young nation-state.

Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig of Prussia was the second son of the crown prince couple Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and Luise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, daughter of Duke Karl II of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. His father ascended the Prussian royal throne in the year of Wilhelm's birth. The prince was educated by Johann Friedrich Gottlieb Delbrück, who had previously been rector of the Magdeburg Pädagogium.

Until the war with France, Wilhelm spent a happy childhood at the side of his older brother Friedrich Wilhelm. The idyll broke in 1806 as a result of the devastating defeat of Prussia and the winter flight of the ruling family to East Prussia. In keeping with tradition, his father enlisted Wilhelm on his tenth birthday as an ensign in the Guards on Foot regiment. The early death of his mother Luise deeply affected the 13-year-old Wilhelm.

From March 1813, Wilhelm had received a new tutor in the form of Prussian Colonel Johann Georg Emil von Brause, who remained a lifelong friend of his even after he left the governorship in September 1817. From May 1814, with the rank of major, Wilhelm accompanied his father in the campaign in France, taking part in the battles of La Rothière Arcis-sur-Aube, Bar-sur-Aube and Paris. It was at Bar-sur-Aube that Wilhelm first came under enemy fire on February 26, 1814. For his courage, his father awarded him the Iron Cross II Class on his mother's 38th birthday.

On March 31, Wilhelm moved into Paris with his father. He also accompanied him on his visit to England and followed him to Paris after Napoleon's final defeat in July 1815. On January 1, 1816, he was given command of the Stettin Guard Landwehr Battalion; in 1818, as a major general, he was given command of a Guard infantry brigade; on May 1, 1820, he was given command of the 1st Guard Division and promoted to lieutenant general. On March 22, 1824, Wilhelm assumed command of the III Army Corps, finally commanding the Guard Corps from March 30, 1838 to May 22, 1848.

He was also called upon by the king for advice in matters of state. Repeatedly he was sent to the court of St. Petersburg in matters of state and family.

Having renounced marriage to Princess Elisa Radziwiłł in 1826 because she was not considered by the king to be an equal partner of a Prussian prince, he married Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach on June 11, 1829, the daughter of Grand Duke Karl Friedrich of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, whose sister Maria was the wife of his younger brother Karl.

The marriage ultimately came about at the instigation of his father and was not particularly happy. However, he managed to keep his love affairs hidden from both his wife and the public.

The marriage produced two children:

Two miscarriages prevented further children.

From 1835, Wilhelm and Augusta used Babelsberg Palace in Potsdam as their summer residence, while the present-day Alte Palais in Berlin served as their winter residence from 1837.

Installation as heir to the Prussian throne

After the crown prince's wife, Elisabeth Ludovika of Bavaria, had become infertile as a result of a miscarriage suffered in 1828, Frederick William III had designated his second-born son, William, as the future king's provisional successor. With the death of his father in 1840, Wilhelm was given the name and title Prince of Prussia as presumptive heir to the throne of his brother, now King Frederick William IV. Soon after, he was promoted to General of the Infantry.

March Revolution and "Carthage Prince

William of Prussia's political stance was characterized by a late-absolutist understanding of rulership. During the revolutionary unrest of 1848

The originator of the epithet was the Auscultator Maximilian Dortu, executed in 1849, who first used it publicly in a speech on May 12, 1848. Dortu was reacting to rumors that Wilhelm was responsible for the bloody military operation in Berlin on 18 May 1848.

The actual commander during the Berlin March Revolution had been Lieutenant General Karl von Prittwitz, like the Prince of Prussia a conservative monarchist. Wilhelm of Prussia possessed a large number of military and civilian positions during the Berlin barricade fights on the 18th.

Frederick William IV's indecisive maneuvering between military and diplomatic solutions had contributed significantly to the escalation of the situation. In the public perception, however, Wilhelm of Prussia was seen as the gray eminence acting behind the dithering king. After a heated argument with the king, Wilhelm fled to the Spandau Citadel on March 19 and went into exile in London in the following days. At the same time, a proposal circulated in government circles that Wilhelm should be excluded from the succession to the throne in favor of his son, the future Emperor Frederick III.

Wilhelm's going abroad was sometimes interpreted by critics as a headless "flight" or even as a "banishment" pronounced by the king. Much more likely, however, is a more or less calculated political maneuver. For example, Wilhelm emphasized that his step served Prussia and the monarchy: a task for which - in his view - "no sacrifice could be great enough". Before that, however, he had expressed his contempt for his weak-willed brother, the King of Prussia.

Escape to London

Disguised as a merchant, the prince fled Berlin with the help of August Oelrichs (1801-1868), a major on the staff of the Guards Corps, and traveled to London under the assumed name Wilhelm Oelrichs on March 23 and 24 with the assistance of William O'Swald. On his departure, Augusta is said to have instructed the major in writing "what views" he was to "put forward to the prince." In London, Wilhelm consorted with Prince Consort Albert, Robert Peel, John Russell, Henry John Palmerston, and other statesmen and clarified his political views. He took a lively interest in German unification efforts. Meanwhile, the Berliners sang mocking songs at him:

With 300 dead demonstrators, the Berlin barricade fight was one of the most costly riots of the March Revolution. King Frederick William IV later denied any responsibility and instead spread the abstruse rumor of an alleged foreign conspiracy in the manifesto To My Dear Berliners.

Return to Berlin

Meanwhile, Princess Augusta stayed in Potsdam with her two children. Wilhelm returned to Berlin at the beginning of June 1849. Earlier, on May 30, the prince had publicly declared his support for the constitutional form of government for Prussia in writing in Brussels, thus responding to the demonstration of 10,000 Berliners against his planned return. He accepted election as a deputy to the Prussian National Assembly, but then resigned his seat after stating his constitutional principles in a short speech. He then returned to Potsdam. At his suggestion, in September the king appointed some ministers of the new counter-revolutionary ministry, under the former Berlin governor, General Ernst von Pfuel.

Commander-in-chief against the Palatine and Baden revolutionary movements

On June 8, 1849, the Reichsverweser Johann von Österreich appointed Wilhelm commander-in-chief of the "Operations Army in Baden and the Palatinate," which consisted of the Prussian Hirschfeld and Groeben Corps and the Neckar Corps of the German Confederation. Its task was to put down the revolutions in the Palatinate and Baden. After Wilhelm escaped an initial assassination attempt at Ingelheim on June 12, the operational army subdued the insurgents in a few weeks. Since the campaign, Wilhelm's personal circle included Hirschfeld's then chief of staff and later army reformer Albrecht von Roon. The capture of Rastatt Fortress, the last bastion of the revolutionaries, also marked the final defeat of the March Revolution in Germany. The victory celebration took place with the joint entry of the Grand Duke Leopold of Baden and Wilhelm on August 19 in Karlsruhe.

Coblenz years

On October 12, at the head of troops who had fought in Baden, he entered Berlin and was appointed Governor General of the Rhine Province and the Province of Westphalia. He took up residence in Koblenz, the capital of the Rhine Province. In 1854 he became at the same time colonel general of infantry with the rank of field marshal and governor of the fortress of Mainz.

In Koblenz, Augusta and Wilhelm of Prussia resided together in the Electoral Palace from 1850 to 1858. Princess Augusta in particular felt at home in this city; here she finally had the opportunity to shape a court life as she had been accustomed to from her childhood at the Weimar court. Her son Friedrich studied law in nearby Bonn, making him the first Prussian heir to the throne to receive an academic education. Augusta's influence was also instrumental in this.

At the Koblenz court, especially at the instigation of Princess Augusta, liberal people such as the historian Maximilian Duncker, the law professors Moritz August von Bethmann-Hollweg and Clemens Theodor Perthes, and Alexander von Schleinitz frequented the court. Wilhelm also adopted a more moderate political stance under the impact of the 1848 revolt, which met with displeasure from his ruling brother. Princess Augusta's tolerant attitude toward Catholicism, which was particularly evident during the Koblenz period, was critically observed - an attitude that was considered inappropriate in a Prussian Protestant princess at a time when religious denomination was still of great importance.

New era

The sentiment formerly unfavorable to the prince had turned so much to the contrary as a result of his reticence toward the extreme positions of political and ecclesiastical reaction and of junkery that, especially since the entanglements with Austria and since the Crimean War, he was regarded as the chief representative of Prussia's position of power, and all the hopes of the patriotic and liberal party turned to him when, during the king's illness, he became his deputy on October 23, 1857, and from October 7, 1858, Prince Regent at the head of the government. After taking the oath to the constitution on October 26 in accordance with Article 58 of the Prussian Constitution, he appointed the liberal ministry of Karl Anton Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen ("New Era") on November 5 and set forth his governmental principles and goals in a decree to it on November 8.

Although he emphasized that there could be no question of a break with the past, he declared himself resolutely against all hypocrisy and hypocrisy; he also spoke out against Prussia surrendering to foreign influences in foreign policy; rather, it must seek to make conquests in Germany through wise legislation, the elevation of all moral elements and the seizure of moments of unification. These statements were applauded by the people and by the newly elected, predominantly liberal House of Representatives, since the influence of ecclesiastical reaction and the Russian policy of Frederick William IV in particular had aroused displeasure, and were almost alone heeded; far too little, on the other hand, were the words of the Prince, in which he spoke of the necessary army reform and the funds required for it, since Prussia's army must be powerful and respected if Prussia was to fulfill its task.

The prince saw this as his main task, and the course of events in 1859, when the mobilization encountered great difficulties and revealed significant deficiencies in the army system, could only strengthen him in this. The majority of the Chamber of Deputies, however, was not prepared, trusting in the prince's constitutional and German-national sentiments and policies, to definitively approve the additional costs of the sweeping army reorganization introduced in 1860.


Wilhelm was admitted to Freemasonry as Prince of Prussia on May 22, 1840, at a joint event of all Prussian grand lodges (Grand National Lodge, Grand National Mother Lodge, Royal York zur Freundschaft). The admission was presided over by the then sub-architect of the order, Wilhelm Ludwig Viktor Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck, on behalf of the Grand National Lodge. Wilhelm's father agreed to this on condition that he also assumed the protectorate over the three Grand Lodges, which Frederick the Great had founded in 1774.

On October 22, 1840, Prince Wilhelm was admitted to the Order's chapter "Indissolubilis", also by Count Henckel von Donnersmarck, since the incumbent Master of the Order was ill.

On December 26, 1841, Prince Wilhelm was appointed Sub-Architect of the Order, the third highest office within the Grand National Lodge. However, he resigned the office on July 15, 1842, in order not to jeopardize his neutrality as Protector vis-à-vis the other two Grand Lodges.

Coronation in Königsberg

After the death of his brother Frederick William IV on January 2, 1861, William ascended the Prussian throne. With the coronation, which he organized himself at his own expense, Wilhelm thought he had found a compromise between the hereditary homage, which was not provided for in the constitution but which he wanted, and the oath of allegiance in parliament prescribed there. In the appeal to my people of January 8, 1861, he reaffirmed his loyalty to the oath to the constitution, which he had already taken in 1858 as Prince Regent. On October 18, 1861, the magnificent coronation assembly took place in Königsberg in the Castle Church.

Wilhelm placed the crown on his own head, took the scepter and the imperial sword from the altar and raised them aloft with outstretched arms. This moment, the climax of the coronation, was depicted by Adolph Menzel in his painting "Coronation of Wilhelm I" (a statue later depicted the king in the same manner on Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz in Königsberg). An anointing had not taken place. After that he crowned his wife as queen. At the end of the celebrations, Wilhelm said in the throne room of the Königsberg Palace: "By the grace of God, Prussia's kings have worn the crown for 160 years. Now that the throne has been surrounded by contemporary institutions, I am the first king to ascend it. But remembering that the crown comes only from God, I have manifested by the coronation in the hallowed place that I have humbly received it from His hands."

Politics as king

The new elections on December 6, 1861, were very clearly won by the newly founded liberal German Progressive Party (right away with 104 deputies in the Chamber). The constitutional conflict began with the resignation of the New Era Ministry (March 17, 1862), which the king dropped because it could not obtain the appropriation of funds in the Chamber of Deputies for the army reorganization that had actually already been carried out. The king tenaciously held on to the army reform, partly because he saw the fundamental constitutional issue of the relationship between the king and parliament affected. Since he felt that his powers as a sovereign ruler were being challenged, he even considered abdication at times. The corresponding document had already been signed when Otto von Bismarck - on the initiative of the Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon - dissuaded the king from taking this step. Bismarck agreed to govern as prime minister even without an approved budget (gap theory) and to implement the army reform.

Bismarck's appointment as Prussian prime minister on September 23, 1862, and the support of his ministry against the Chamber of Deputies caused the king to lose his earlier popularity, as was especially evident at the 50th anniversary celebrations commemorating the wars of liberation in 1863 and the unification of various provinces with Prussia in 1865. While at the same time domestic reforms faltered completely, and in many cases a harsh police regime came to rule, the king allowed himself to be determined by Bismarck to pursue a decisive policy on the German question. Successes in German policy were intended to distract from the authoritarian regime at home and, over time, to draw political opponents into his own camp.

In 1866, the patriotic enthusiasm triggered by the victorious German War provided a favorable opportunity to end the constitutional conflict. Through the Indemnity Bill of 1866, the Prussian Diet retrospectively approved the state budgets since 1862, and Wilhelm steered more strongly in liberal directions again. The hated ministers of the conflict period were dismissed and made way for supporters of a liberal reform. With the founding of the North German Confederation on July 1, 1867, Wilhelm became the holder of the federal presidency.

Unification Wars

The first opportunity for success in German policy came with the German-Danish War of 1864, in which Prussia and Austria jointly acted as protectors of German interests in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, which were linked to Denmark. As calculated by Bismarck, the victory over Denmark led to conflict with Austria over the further treatment of Schleswig-Holstein, with which Prussia was then still competing for leadership in the German Confederation. The king received the victory telegram from the battle of Düppel on his way back from an inspection of troops on the Tempelhof field. He immediately turned back to announce the message of victory to the soldiers. He then drove to the theater of war, where on April 21, 1864, at a parade on a paddock between Gravenstein and Atzbüll, he personally thanked the "Düppelstürmer".

Although Wilhelm had initially been reluctant to follow Bismarck's policy of seeking a belligerent decision against Austria, he himself assumed supreme command of the army in the German War of 1866 and, thanks to the superior strategic planning of Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke, won the war-deciding victory at the Battle of Königgrätz. In the peace negotiations, he again followed Bismarck's advice and, albeit reluctantly, renounced the annexation of Saxony so as not to thwart Bismarck's German unification plans. The peace treaty with Austria was also relatively moderate, which would later make possible the Austro-German alliance in the Dual Alliance. At the same time, the Kingdom of Italy, which had been allied with Prussia in 1866, succeeded in taking a decisive step toward unifying Italy as a result of the Austrian defeat.

In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870

Proclamation in Versailles

By the Imperial Proclamation, which took place in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles on January 18, 1871, the 170th anniversary of the royal coronation of Frederick III of Brandenburg, Wilhelm assumed for himself and his successors to the Crown of Prussia the title of German Emperor and promised to be "at all times Mehrer of the German Empire, not in warlike conquests, but in the goods and gifts of peace in the field of national welfare, freedom and morality." The proclamation had been preceded by a bitter dispute over the title between Bismarck and King Wilhelm. Wilhelm feared that the German imperial crown would overshadow the Prussian royal crown. On the eve of the proclamation, he opined:

Wilhelm had little motivation to become emperor; he respected the title of Prussian king more. Whether he should be called "German Emperor" or "Emperor of Germany" remained undecided. The Grand Duke of Baden, Frederick I, his son-in-law, solved the problem, which was still unresolved on the morning of the proclamation, by simply raising a cheer for "Kaiser Wilhelm" and bypassing the thorny title issue. In the end, the title chosen by Bismarck in deference to the German princes remained "German Emperor." The emperor was so embittered that he did not even shake Bismarck's hand. On June 16, 1871, he made his brilliant entry into Berlin.

Politics as emperor

However, Wilhelm ultimately accepted that the policy of the new German Empire was determined by Bismarck. This is shown by sayings attributed to him such as "Bismarck is more important" or:

In agreement with Bismarck, he sought to secure external peace through alliances with neighboring powers (except France). To this end, he brought about the Dreikaiserbund between the German Empire, Russia and Austria-Hungary in the so-called Dreikaisertreffen in Berlin in September 1872, which brought the latter two powers closer together and isolated France politically. Visits by the emperor to St. Petersburg and Vienna in 1873 and to Milan in 1875 served to further support this foreign policy rapprochement.

Another - above all honorable - foreign policy task fell to the emperor in 1871, when he was asked to mediate between the U.S. and Great Britain in the so-called Pig Conflict. With his decision of October 21, 1872, in favor of the U.S., he ended the border conflict between the U.S. state of Washington and Canadian British Columbia, which had already been going on for 13 years. In 1878, Wilhelm established the General Staff Foundation.

Late years and death

One of his private pleasures was hunting, which he organized, among other things, annually in the Göhrde State Forest from 1871 in Königs Wusterhausen Palace, south of Berlin. In December 1883, for example, the Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach and Duke Ernst I of Saxony-Altenburg were guests at a court hunt in Königs Wusterhausen. As a frequent spa guest, he stayed in Bad Ems, Baden-Baden and Bad Gastein, among other places.

Wilhelm, who enjoyed great popularity in his old age and for many embodied the old Prussia, died after a short illness in the year of the Three Emperors on March 9, 1888 in the Old Palace on Unter den Linden and was buried on March 16 in the mausoleum in Charlottenburg Palace Park.

Out of German sympathy for Kaiser Wilhelm, the line "We want our old Kaiser Wilhelm back" was sung to the tune of the Fehrbelliner Reitermarsch composed by Richard Henrion in 1875.

His saying "I have no time to be tired" became synonymous with fulfilling one's duty to the last moment and later became a common saying. These are said to have been the last coherent words uttered by Wilhelm I on the day of his death.

In 1891 Michel Lock created a sculpture group with Wilhelm I sitting in an armchair and dying.

On June 12, 1849, Wilhelm escaped a first assassination attempt near Ingelheim.

On July 14, 1861, the student Oskar Becker made an attempt on Wilhelm's life in Baden-Baden, but only wounded him slightly in the neck.

On May 11, 1878, the unemployed journeyman plumber Max Hödel, who was staying in Berlin, fired several shots at the emperor with a revolver as he drove through the street Unter den Linden in an open carriage with his daughter, the Grand Duchess of Baden, but not one of them hit him. Because among the membership cards of several political parties that he had with him when he was arrested was one of the Social Democrats, Bismarck took this as an opportunity on May 24 to move a "law to ward off Social Democratic excesses" in the Reichstag. However, this bill did not find a majority in the Reichstag. Crown Prince Frederick, who had taken the place of the severely injured emperor after the Nobiling assassination on June 2, 1878, confirmed the death sentence against Hödel in August.

Three weeks later on Sunday, June 2, 1878, another assassin fired two shotgun blasts at Wilhelm from a window of the house at Unter den Linden No. 18 at almost the same spot, even before the excitement over the previous assassination had died down, as he drove alone into the Tiergarten. The emperor was hit in the head and arms by thirty shotgun pellets and was so badly wounded that two days later he appointed the crown prince Friedrich Wilhelm as his deputy. He survived only by the pickelhaube protecting his head. The perpetrator, Karl Eduard Nobiling, a young farmer with a doctorate, was caught after he had seriously injured himself in a suicide attempt.

Bismarck used the outrage over these assassinations to push through the Socialist Act in the Reichstag by spreading the word that the Social Democrats were ultimately responsible for both assassinations. The probability that Nobiling was mentally disturbed was considered by many to be high. According to his own statements, he was only interested in becoming known.

Wilhelm I recovered only slowly and, after a lengthy stay in Baden and Wiesbaden, returned to Berlin on December 5, where he resumed government. In July, on the occasion of his "happy salvation," the Kaiser Wilhelm donation was collected throughout the Reich from the gifts of nearly 12 million donors. The proceeds of over 1.7 million marks formed the capital stock of a voluntary old-age pension and endowment insurance scheme for the "poorly off classes." Contrary to expectations, the shock of the assassination strengthened the Kaiser's weakening health. Wilhelm later called Nobiling "his best doctor.

At the dedication of the Niederwald Monument on September 28, 1883 in Rüdesheim, anarchists around August Reinsdorf prepared an assassination attempt on Wilhelm I with dynamite. However, due to the damp weather, the detonator failed.

Between 1867 and 1918, more than 1,000 Kaiser Wilhelm monuments were erected in German-speaking countries, primarily or secondarily dedicated to the memory of the emperor. Among the best known and largest are the Kyffhäuser Monument (1896), the Kaiser Wilhelm Monument at Porta Westfalica (1896) and the Kaiser Wilhelm Monument at the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz (1897). However, many of these monuments are not solely about the person of Wilhelm I, but often also about glorifying him in his role as the "founder of the empire" and the first German emperor. In the case of the official Kaiser Wilhelm National Monument in Berlin (1897), Wilhelm I is ultimately representative of the monarchical nation state in the sense of Wilhelminism.

Carl Koldewey, the leader of the First German North Polar Expedition, named an island in Hinlopen Strait (Spitsbergen) Wilhelm Island in 1868.

In 1869, the Prussian naval port on the North Sea was given the name Wilhelmshaven, and the swing bridge over the port was called Kaiser-Wilhelm-Brücke. The Kiel Canal, opened in 1895, was called the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal until 1948. The Sporn Tunnel near Cochem on the Moselle line has been called the Kaiser Wilhelm Tunnel since it opened in 1877. In the same year, Kaiser Wilhelm University, founded in Strasbourg in 1872, was named after him.

Various ships received his name: Kombischiff König Wilhelm I (1871), Salonschiff auf dem Bodensee Kaiser Wilhelm (1871), Raddampfer Kaiser Wilhelm (1887), Passagierschiff Kaiser Wilhelm der Große (1897), Panzerschiff SMS Kaiser Wilhelm der Große (1898).

From March 21 to 23, 1897, the so-called Centenary Celebration (Hundertjahrfeier) for the one hundredth birthday took place. On the occasion of this anniversary, among other things, the Centenary Medal was awarded, the "German Centenary Sports Festival" was held and the foundation stone for the Berlin-Grünau Sports Monument was laid. The Spandau district of Potsdamer Vorstadt was also renamed Wilhelmstadt to mark the occasion.

The attempt by his grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II to award his grandfather the title "the Great" met with as little popular response as it did in historiography.


  1. William I, German Emperor
  2. Wilhelm I. (Deutsches Reich)

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