William I, German Emperor
William I, also known as Wilhelm I (full name: William Frederick Louis, German: Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig, 22 March 1797 – 9 March 1888), of the House of Hohenzollern was the King of Prussia (2 January 1861 – 9 March 1888) and the first German Emperor (18 January 1871 – 9 March 1888), as well as the first Head of State of a united Germany. Under the leadership of William 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 Otto von Bismarck as Minister President, however, William held strong reservations about some of Bismarck's more reactionary policies, including his anti-Catholicism and tough handling of subordinates. Contrary to the aggressive, domineering Bismarck, William was described as polite, gentlemanly, and while a staunch conservative, more open to certain classical liberal ideas than his grandson Wilhelm II.
Early life and military career
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The future king and emperor was born William Frederick Louis of Prussia (Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig von Preußen) in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin on 22 March 1797. As the second son of King Frederick William III and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, William was not expected to ascend to the throne. He was educated from 1801 to 1809 by Johann Friedrich Gottlieb Delbrück, who was also in charge of the education of William's brother, the Crownprince Frederick William. At age 10, his father appointed him an officer in the Prussian army.
William served in the army from 1814 onward. Like his father he fought against Napoleon I of France during the part of the Napoleonic Wars known in Germany as the Befreiungskriege (otherwise known as the War of the Sixth Coalition), and was reportedly a very brave soldier. He was made a Captain (Hauptmann) and won the Iron Cross for his actions at Bar-sur-Aube. The war and the fight against France left a lifelong impression on him, in particular causing a long-standing antipathy against the French.
He also became an excellent diplomat by engaging in diplomatic missions after 1815.
In 1816, William became the commander of the Stettiner Gardelandwehrbataillon and in 1818 was promoted to Generalmajor. The next year, William was appointed inspector of the VII. and VIII. Army Corps. This made him a spokesman of the Prussian Army within the House of Hohenzollern. He argued in favour of a strong, well-trained and well-equipped army. In 1820, William became commander of the 1. Gardedivision and in 1825 was promoted to commanding general of the III. Army Corps.
In 1829, William married Princess Augusta von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach after Princess Elisa Radziwill, his cousin whom he had been attracted to, was deemed an inappropriate match by his father. William had been forced to abandon the relationship with Elisa in 1826. Augusta was the daughter of Grand Duke Karl Friedrich von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach. 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, William 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, in 1847 William signed the bill setting up a Prussian parliament (Vereinigter Landtag) and took a seat in the upper chamber, the Herrenhaus.
During the Revolutions of 1848, William successfully crushed a revolt in Berlin that was aimed at his elder brother, King Frederick William IV. The use of cannon made him unpopular at the time and earned him the nickname Kartätschenprinz (Prince of Grapeshot). Indeed, he had to flee to England for a while, disguised as a merchant. 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 Kurfürstliches Schloss in Koblenz.
During their time at Koblenz, William and his wife entertained liberal scholars like the historian Maximilian Wolfgang Duncker or August von Bethmann-Hollweg and Clemens Theodor Perthes. William's opposition to liberal ideas gradually softened.
In 1854, the prince was raised to the rank of a field-marshal and made governor of the federal fortress of Mainz. In 1857 Frederick William IV suffered a stroke and became mentally disabled for the rest of his life. In January 1858, William became Prince Regent for his brother, initially only temporarily but after October on a permanent basis. Against the advice of his brother, William swore an oath of office on the Prussian constitution and promised to preserve it "solid and inviolable". William 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 2 January 1861 Frederick William died and William ascended the throne as William I of Prussia. In July a student from Leipzig tried to assassinate William, but he was only lightly injured. Like Frederick I of Prussia, William travelled to Königsberg and there crowned himself at the Schlosskirche. William chose the anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, 18 October, for this event, which was the first Prussian crowning ceremony since 1701 and the only crowning of a German king in the 19th century. William refused to comply with his brother's wish, expressed in Frederick William's last will, that he should abrogate the constitution.
William inherited a conflict between Frederick William and the liberal Landtag. He was considered a politically neutral person as he intervened less in politics than his brother. In 1862 the Landtag refused an increase in the military budget that was required to pay for the already implemented reform of the army. This involved raising the peace time army from 150,000 to 200,000 men and boost the annual number of new recruits from 40,000 to 63,000. However, the truly controversial part was the plan to keep the length of military service (raised in 1856 from two years) at three years. When his request, backed by his Minister of War Albrecht von Roon was refused, William first considered resigning, but his son, the Crown Prince, advised strongly against it. Then, on the advice of Roon, William 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 conservative Prussian Junker and loyal friend of the king, liked to see his working relationship with William 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.
During his reign William 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, William wanted to march on to Vienna and annex Austria but Bismarck and Crownprince Frederick talked him out of it. Bismarck wanted to end the war, so as to allow Prussia to ally with Austria if it needed to at a later date; Frederick was also appalled by the casualties and wanted a speedy end to hostilities. During a heated discussion Bismarck threatened to resign if William continued to Vienna; Bismarck got his way.
In 1867, the North German Confederation was created and William became its president. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, William was in command of all the German forces at the crucial Battle of Sedan.
During the Franco-Prussian War, on 18 January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace, William was proclaimed German Emperor. The title "German Emperor" was carefully chosen by Bismarck after discussion until (and after) the day of the proclamation. William accepted this title grudgingly as he would have preferred "Emperor of Germany" which, however, was unacceptable to the federated monarchs, and would also have signalled a claim to lands outside his realm (Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg etc.). The title "Emperor of the Germans", as proposed in 1848, was ruled out as he considered himself chosen "by the grace of God", not by the people as in a republic. William's brother Frederick William IV had been elected Emperor of the Germans by the Frankfurt National Assembly on 28 March 1849, but then refused the crown already on 3 April 1849, purportedly saying that he would not accept "a crown from the gutter".
William also viewed his Kingship of Prussia as much more important than the title of German Emperor. He complained to his son, Crown Prince Frederick, about having to exchange "the radiant Prussian crown for this filth-crown".
By this ceremony, the North German Confederation was transformed into the German Empire ("Kaiserreich", 1871–1918). This Empire was a federal state; the emperor was head of state and president (primus inter pares – first among equals) of the federated monarchs (the kings of Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, the grand dukes of Baden, Mecklenburg, Hesse, as well as other principalities, duchies and the senates of the free cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen).
In 1872 he arbitrated a boundary dispute between Great Britain 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 William 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 William'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. William, however, had long been strongly opposed to liberal ideas. Despite possessing considerable power as Kaiser, William left the task of governing mostly to his chancellor and limited himself to representation, embodying the dignity of the state and approving Bismarck's policies.
Assassination attempts and Anti-Socialist laws
On 11 May 1878, a plumber named Emil Max Hödel failed in an assassination attempt on William in Berlin. Hödel used a revolver to shoot at the Emperor, while the 81-year-old and his daughter, Princess Louise of Prussia, paraded in their carriage Unter den Linden. When the bullet missed, Hödel ran across the street and fired another round which also missed. In the commotion one of the individuals who tried to apprehend Hödel suffered severe internal injuries and died two days later.
The State convicted Hödel after a photographer who took the radical’s picture days before the assassination attempt testified that after he took the picture Hödel said it would sell thousands once a certain piece of information [was] hashed through the world. Hödel was beheaded on 16 August 1878.
A second attempt to assassinate William I was made on 2 June 1878 by Dr. Karl Nobiling. As the Emperor drove past in an open carriage, the assassin fired two shots from a shotgun at him from the window of a house off the Unter den Linden. William was severely wounded and was rushed back to the palace and Nobiling shot himself in an attempt to commit suicide. While William survived this attack, the assassin died from his self-inflicted wound three months later.
Despite the fact that Hödel had been expelled from the Social Democratic Party, his actions were used as a pretext by Bismarck to ban the party through the "Anti-Socialist Law" in October 1878. To do this, Bismarck partnered with Ludwig Bamberger, a Liberal, who had written on the subject of Socialism, "If I don’t want any chickens, then I must smash the eggs." No one in the Social-Democratic Party even knew of Karl Nobiling, but that is not to say that he was not politically motivated. These attempts on William's life thus became the pretext for the institution of the Anti-Socialist Law, which was introduced by Bismarck’s government with the support of a majority in the Reichstag on 18 October 1878, for the purpose of fighting the socialist and working-class movement. The laws deprived the Social Democratic Party of Germany of its legal status; they prohibited all organizations, workers’ mass organizations and the socialist and workers’ press, decreed confiscation of socialist literature, and subjected Social-Democrats to reprisals. The laws were extended every 2–3 years. Despite this policy of reprisals the Social Democratic Party increased its influence among the masses. Under pressure of the mass working-class movement the laws were repealed on 1 October 1890.
Later years and death
In August 1878, Russian Tsar Alexander II, William's nephew, wrote a letter (known as Ohrfeigenbrief) to him complaining about the treatment Russian interests had received at the Congress of Berlin. In response, William, his son the crownprince and his wife Augusta travelled to Russia (against the advice of Bismarck) to mend fences in face-to-face talks. However, by once again threatening to resign, Bismarck overcame the opposition of William to a closer alliance with Austria. In October, William agreed to the Zweibund between Germany and Austria-Hungary which was directed against Russia.
Another assassination attempt failed on 18 September 1883 when William unveiled the Niederwalddenkmal in Rüdesheim. A group of anarchists had prepared an attack using dynamite which failed due to the wet weather.
Despite the assassination attempts and William's unpopular role in the 1848 uprising, he and his wife were very popular, especially in their later years. Many people considered them the personification of "the old Prussia" and liked their austere and simple lifestyle. William died on 9 March 1888 in Berlin after a short illness. He was buried on 16 March at the Mausoleum at Park Charlottenburg.
To honour him a large number of memorials/statues were erected all over the country over the following years. The best-known among them are the Kyffhäuser monument (1890–96) in Thuringia, the monument at Porta Westfalica (1896) and the mounted statue of William at the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz (1897). The statue next to the Stadtschloss, Berlin (1898) was melted down by the communist rulers of East-Berlin in 1950.
From 1867 to 1918 more than 1,000 memorials to William I were constructed.
William and Augusta of Saxe-Weimar had two children:
Titles, styles, honours and arms
Titles and styles
- 22 March 1797 – 2 January 1861: His Royal Highness Prince William of Prussia
- 2 January 1861 – 18 January 1871: His Majesty The King of Prussia
- 18 January 1871 – 9 March 1888: His Imperial and Royal Majesty The German Emperor, King of Prussia
Full title as German Emperor
His Imperial and Royal Majesty William the First, by the Grace of God, German Emperor and King of Prussia; Margrave of Brandenburg, Burgrave of Nuremberg, Count of Hohenzollern; Sovereign and Supreme Duke of Silesia and of the County of Glatz; Grand Duke of the Lower Rhine and of Posen; Duke of Saxony, of Westphalia, of Angria, of Pomerania, Lüneburg, Holstein and Schleswig, of Magdeburg, of Bremen, of Guelders, Cleves, Jülich and Berg, Duke of the Wends and the Kassubes, of Crossen, Lauenburg and Mecklenburg; Landgrave of Hesse and Thuringia; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia; Prince of Orange; Prince of Rügen, of East Friesland, of Paderborn and Pyrmont, of Halberstadt, Münster, Minden, Osnabrück, Hildesheim, of Verden, Cammin, Fulda, Nassau and Moers; Princely Count of Henneberg; Count of Mark, of Ravensberg, of Hohenstein, Tecklenburg and Lingen, of Mansfeld, Sigmaringen and Veringen; Lord of Frankfurt.
- German monarchs family tree. He was related to every other monarch of Germany.
- Fulbrook, Mary (2004). A Concise History of Germany, 2nd edition, 2004, Cambridge University Press, p. 128. ISBN 978-0-521-54071-1.
- Ybarra, Thomas R. Wilhelm II. (1921). The Kaiser's Memoirs: Wilhelm II, Emperor Of Germany, 1888–1918. Harper And Brothers Publisher. ISBN 0-548-32330-5
- "Biografie Wilhelm I (German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- Feldhahn, Ulrich (2011). Die preußischen Könige und Kaiser (German). Kunstverlag Josef Fink, Lindenberg. pp. 24–26. ISBN 978-3-89870-615-5.
- 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William I (Germany)
- Oster, Uwe A. "Friedrich III. - Der 99-Tage-Kaiser". Damals (in German) 45 (3/2013): 60–65. ISSN 0011-5908.
- Munroe Smith (1898). Bismarck and German Unity: A Historical Outline. Macmillan. pp. 80–81.
- Mike Vouri (2013). The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay. pp. 248–50.
- "Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany (1859-1941)". Web.archive.org. Retrieved 2013-11-05.
- Rudolf Graf v. Stillfried: Die Titel und Wappen des preußischen Königshauses. Berlin 1875.
- Röhl John C. G. Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 (1998) online
- Steinberg, Jonathan. Bismarck: A Life (2011)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wilhelm I of Germany.|
- Archontology.org – William I
- Webpage of the House of Hohenzollern (German)
- Works by or about William I, German Emperor in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Texts on Wikisource:
William I, German EmperorBorn: 22 March 1797 Died: 9 March 1888
Frederick William IV
|King of Prussia
2 January 1861 – 9 March 1888
Prince Regent since 1858
18 January 1871 – 9 March 1888
Christian IX of Denmark
|Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg
|Incorporated into the
Title last held byFrederick VII of Denmark
|Duke of Schleswig and Holstein
Adolphe of Luxembourg
as Duke of Nassau
|Prince of Nassau
Frederick William of Hesse
as Elector of Hesse
|Landgrave of Hesse
Prince of Fulda
as Elder Mayor of Frankfurt
|Lord of Frankfurt
George V of Hanover
as King of Hanover
|Prince of East Friesland, Osnabrück,
Hildesheim and Verden
Count of Lingen and Tecklenburg
Francis Joseph I of Austria
as President of the German Confederation
|President of the North German Confederation
1 July 1867 – 18 January 1871