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Wilhelm I, German Emperor (Groß-Deutschland)

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Wilhelm I
German Emperor; King of Prussia

Kaiser Wilhelm I. .JPG
Regent of the Kingdom of Prussia
Regent 1858 – 1861
King of Prussia
Reign 2 January 1861 – 19 May 1880
Predecessor Frederick William IV
Successor Frederick III
German Emperor
Reign 18 January 1871 – 19 May 1880
Predecessor title created
Successor Frederick III
Spouse Augusta of Saxe-Weimar
Issue Frederick III, German Emperor
Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden
House House of Hohenzollern
Father Frederick William III
Mother Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Born 22 March 1797
Berlin, Prussia
Died 19 May 1880(1880-05-19) (aged 83)
Burial Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin
Signature Wilhelm I, German Emperor (Groß-Deutschland)'s signature
German Empire
House of Hohenzollern
Wilhelm I (1861–1888)
   Frederick III
   Princess Louise
Frederick III (1880-1902)
   Wilhelm II
   Princess Charlotte
   Prince Heinrich
   Prince Sigismund
   Princess Viktoria
   Prince Waldemar
   Princess Sophie
   Princess Margaret
   Prince Waldemar
   Prince Sigismund
   Prince Heinrich
Wilhelm II (1902–1941)
   Crown Prince William
   Prince Eitel Friedrich
   Prince Adalbert
   Prince August Wilhelm
   Prince Oskar
   Prince Joachim
   Princess Victoria Louise
Grandchildren include
   Prince Wilhelm
   Prince Louis Ferdinand
   Prince Hubertus
   Prince Friedrich

Wilhelm I, also known as Wilhelm the Great[1] (William Frederick Louis, German: de) (22 March 1797 – 19 May 1880) of the House of Hohenzollern was the King of Prussia (2 January 1861 – 19 May 1880) and the first German Emperor (18 January 1871 – 19 May 1880).

Under the leadership of Wilhelm and his Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia achieved the unification of Germany and the establishment of the German Empire.

Early life and military career

The future king and emperor was born Frederick Louis of Prussia (Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig von Preußen) in Berlin. As the second son of King Frederick William III and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, William was not expected to ascend to the throne and hence received little education.

Wilhelm served in the army from 1814 onward, fought against Napoleon I of France during the Napoleonic Wars, and was reportedly a very brave soldier. He fought under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at the Battles of Waterloo and Ligny. He also became an excellent diplomat by engaging in diplomatic missions after 1815.

During the Revolutions of 1848, William successfully crushed a revolt that was aimed at his elder brother King Frederick William IV. The use of cannons made him unpopular at the time and earned him the nickname Kartätschenprinz (Prince of Grapeshot).

In 1854 the prince was raised to the rank of a field-marshal and made governor of the federal fortress of Mainz.[2] In 1857 Frederick William IV suffered a stroke and became mentally disabled for the rest of his life. In January 1858 Wilhelm became Prince Regent for his brother.


On 2 January 1861 Frederick William died and Wilhelm ascended the throne as Wilhelm I of Prussia. He inherited a conflict between Frederick William and the liberal parliament. He was considered a politically neutral person as he intervened less in politics than his brother. Wilhelm nevertheless found a conservative solution for the conflict: he appointed Otto von Bismarck to the office of Prime Minister. According to the Prussian constitution, the Prime Minister was responsible solely to the king, not to parliament. Bismarck liked to see his working relationship with Wilhelm 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 Wilhelm's assent by threatening to resign.



William I is proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France (painting by Anton von Werner)

During the Franco-Prussian War, on 18 January 1871 in Versailles Palace, Wilhelm was proclaimed German Emperor. The title "German Emperor" was carefully chosen by Bismarck after discussion until (and after) the day of the proclamation. Wilhelm 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 of his reign (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 democratic republic.

Caricature of Wilhelm I by Thomas Nast

By this ceremony, the North German Confederation (1867–1871) 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 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."

Assassination Attempts

On 11 May 1878, a plumber named Emil Max Hödel failed in an assassination on Wilhelm in Berlin. Hödel used a revolver to shoot at the German Emperor, while the 82-year-old and his daughter, Princess Louise of Prussia, paraded in their carriage. 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 was made on 2 June 1878, by the anarchist Karl Nobiling. Nobiling fired at the monarch from the window of a house in "Unter den Linden" as he drove past in an open carriage. The shot gravely wounded the 82 year old, who bled profusely as he was rushed back to the palace.

Anti-Socialist Laws

Despite the fact that Hödel had been expelled from the Social Democratic Party, his actions were used as a pretext 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. Unfortunately, the aspiring assassin mortally wounded himself before he could be interrogated. The gunshot to the head did not immediately kill him, but he finally succumbed to his injuries in September 1878.

These attempts 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, and displeasure with the laws by Kaiser Friedrich III, the laws were repealed on 21 October 1880.


In 1829, Wilhelm married Augusta of Saxe-Weimar and had two children:

Titles, styles, honours and arms

Monarchical Styles of
German Emperor Wilhelm I, King of Prussia
Coagermany au
Reference style His Imperial and Royal Majesty
Spoken style Your Imperial and Royal Majesty
Alternative style Sire

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 1871–19 May 1880: His Imperial and Royal Majesty The German Emperor, King of Prussia

Full title as German Emperor

His Imperial and Royal Majesty Wilhelm 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, Lunenburg, 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.[3][4]


From 1867 to 1918 more than 1,000 memorials to Wilhelm I were constructed, including the Kyffhäuser Monument in Thuringia.

See also



  1. Ybarra, Thomas R. Wilhelm II. (1921). The Kaiser's Memoirs: Wilhelm II, Emperor Of Germany, 1888–1918. Harper And Brothers Publisher. ISBN 0548323305
  2. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William I (Germany)
  4. Rudolf Graf v. Stillfried: Die Titel und Wappen des preußischen Königshauses. Berlin 1875.

Further reading

  • Thomas Weiberg: … wie immer Deine Dona. Verlobung und Hochzeit des letzten deutschen Kaiserpaares. Isensee-Verlag, Oldenburg 2007, ISBN 978-3-89995-406-7

External links

Wilhelm I, German Emperor (Groß-Deutschland)
Born: 22 March 1797 Died: 19 May 1880
German nobility
Preceded by:
Frederick William IV
King of Prussia
2 January 1861 – 19 May 1880
Prince Regent since 1858
Succeeded by:
Frederick III
New creation
German Emperor
18 January 1871 – 19 May 1880
Preceded by:
Christian IX of Denmark
Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg
1864 – 1876
Incorporated into the
Prussian crown

Title last held by
Frederick VII of Denmark
Duke of Schleswig and Holstein
1864 – 1880
Preceded by:
Adolphe of Luxembourg
Prince of Nassau
1866 – 1880
Preceded by:
Frederick William of Hesse
Landgrave of Hesse
Prince of Fulda

1866 – 1880
Preceded by:
Karl Fellner
Lord of Frankfurt
1866 – 1880
Preceded by:
George V of Hanover
Prince of East Friesland, Osnabrück,
Hildesheim and Verden
Count of Lingen and Tecklenburg

1866 – 1880
Political offices
Preceded by:
Francis Joseph I of Austria
President of the North German Confederation
1 July 1867 – 18 January 1871
Confederation abolished

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