King Wilhelm I of Prussia, First Ruler of a Unified Germany

Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig,  the future King of Prussia and first German Emperor, was born on 22 March 1797 in Berlin to Prince Frederick William and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Wilhelm was a second son, and was steered toward a career in the military since he wasn’t expected to inherit the Prussian throne.

Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, future King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany circa 1815

The young Wilhelm took to the army like a duck to water, and fought with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1815, William was promoted to Major in time to fight a resurgent Napoleon and commanded a battalion under Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at the Battles of Ligny and Waterloo. Napoleon’s occupation of Prussia and the prince’s experience in war left him with a life-long dislike of the French.

After the war, Wilhelm became a diplomat and was as good at that job as he had been as a soldier. Unlike a lot of younger brothers, he was fanatically loyal to his older sibling, King Frederick William IV. Frederick was conservative devoted to the maintaining class structure, and eventually the populace turned against him in the Revolutions of 1848. William successfully defeated the insurrection against his brother, but his “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.”

Although Wilhelm was himself a firm believer in tradtional monarchy, he proved to be a very different – and much better – king than his brother had been when it came time for him to wear the crown:

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 … William travelled to Königsberg and there crowned himself at the Schlosskirche … [on] the anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, 18 October … 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.

Wilhelm crowned Prussia Krönung_1861

One if the reasons Wilhelm became more open to progressive reforms than his hidebound brother was because of his wife, Princess Augusta von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, a flaming liberal whom he respected and openly acknowledged as being more intelligent and educated than himself. He was, as a soldier and a king, man enough to not feel threated by his wife’s superior intellect. He also had the wisdom and mental flexibility to learn and change his opinions when given new facts; a rare trait in the average person let alone in a monarch!

In 1867 King Wilhelm became the Bundespräsidium (de facto president) of the newly-created North German Confederation. The southern German states also agreed to ally with the North German Confederation in case of war, and the king was chosen as the constitutional Bundesfeldheer, the commander of joint German armed forces. Thus, Wilhelm was in command in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, where he led the German alliance to a victory at the Battle of Sedan and captured Emperor Napoleon III. The defeat of the hated French was so popular that the legislative bodies of the southern German states decided to make the alliance with North/Central Germany permanent.

The legislative branches (Reichstag and Bundesrat) of unified Germany named the new country Deutsches Reich (the German Empire), and since the popular war hero King Wilhelm was already in place, they decided that rather than dicker with dozens of German dukes and princes about who would become the head of state, the title of Bundespräsidium should simply become Deutscher Kaiser (German Emperor). William formally agreed to be the Emperor of Germany on 18 December 1870, with a select group Reichstag members as witnesses. The new constitution of Germany and Wilhelm’s imperial title officially took effect on 1 January 1871.

A little less than three weeks later, on 18 January, the King of Prussia became Kaiser Wilhelm as well. He was invested in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace, and 18 January 1871 was henceforth remembered as ‘Reichsgründungstag’, or the founding of the German Empire, even though it had already stated on the first of the year.

Kaiser Wilhelm crowned

Although there were a few assassination attempts on his life by radicals and nutjobs (per the usual), Kaiser Wilhelm was a popular head of state. He and his wife lived a comparatively simple lifestyle for royalty and were models of dignity and patriotism. He was, in short, as respected as he was respectable.


When Kaiser Wilhelm died on 9 March 1888, the German people went into mourning. Not only did they throng the streets of his funeral procession on 16 March, when he was interred in the Mausoleum at Park Charlottenburg, they spent the next 30 years building memorials to him and naming things after him. By 1918 more than 1000 memorials to the late Emperor were scattered across Germany. Some of the most famous “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).” There was another well-known statue of him near Stadtschloss, Berlin (1898), but it was destroyed by the communist East Germany government in 1950.

His son became Frederick III, German Emperor, but regrettably died a few months after his father. Fredrick’s eldest son by his wife Victoria, Princess Royal (eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of England) therefore became Kaiser Wilhelm II, and he was spoiled brat who was tragically the absolute opposite of his cautious and reasonable grandfather.


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