German Royalty: Wilhelm I (1861/1871-1888)

Wilhelm I (1797-1888) was the seventh King of Prussia and the first German Emperor or Kaiser. He asceeded to the Prussian throne in 1861 after his older brother Frederick William IV died. He was instrumental with the assistance of of the Iron Chancelor, Count von Bismark, and other advisors in founding the German state in the modern sence--uniting a great diversity of prinipalities under the martial leadership of Prussia. William was crowned Emperor in 1871 after defeating Emperor Napoleon III in the Framco Prussian War. He and his descendents retained the crown of Prussia.


Wilhelm's father was Frederick William III (1770-1840). Wilhelm III's father was King Frederick William II (1744- ). His morher was Princess Frederica Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt (1751- ).

Wilhelm's mother was Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1776- ). Her father was Ludwig IX Landgrave Hesse-Darmstadt (1719- ). Her mother was Caroline of Zweibrücken-Birkenfeld (1721- ).


Wilhelm had ten brothers and sisters. The first child was a sster who died in child birth. Wilhelm's elder brother Friederich Wilhelm (1795-1861) married Elizabeth of Bavaria in 1823, but did not produce an heir. He acceded to the throne in 1840 as Frederick Wilhelm IV and ruled until 1858 when a regency was established. The king died in 1861 leaving his younger brother Wilhelm to inherit the throne. There were seven other brothers and sisters.


Wilhelm was born in 1797 at the palace in Berlin. He was the second son. I have no details on his childhood or the clothes he wore as a boy. As he and his older brother were very close in age, presumably they were very close. Wilhelm with all his brithers and sisters could not have been a lonely child. There lives, however, must have been traumitized by the Napoleonic Wars and the defeat of Prussian and other European royal armies by the forces of Revolutionary France and the Napoleon. As a child he had had to flee ro Memel to escape the French.


Wilhelm was not well educated. Their father had given some attention to the education Wihelm's elder brother, but little to that of Wilhelm. Thus Wilhelm grew up a man of little academic learning or culture. [Ludwig, p. 310.] He was trained to be a soldier and it was the Prussian Army that was his principal interest.

Military Career

Wilhelm followed the Hohenzollern tradition of a military career. His career began when he was only 17 years of age with the 1814 campaign against Napoleon who had returned from exile on Elba. It closed with the 1870-71 campaign against Napoleon III.

Dynastic Line

Wilhelm's elder brother, Frederick William IV, asended to the Prussian throne in 1840 on their father's death. As his brother was childless, Wilhelm became heir presumptive and assumed the customary title of Prince of Prussia. He was appointed regent in 1858. He was responsible major reforms of the army, preparing it for upcoming confrontations with Austria and France. He actively participated in European diplomacy. He was, however, exceedingly cautious until he appointed Otto von Bismarck Chancellor in 1862. His brother died in 1861 clearing the way for Wilhelm's assent to the Prussian throne.


Wilhelm fell in love with a Polish Princess--Princess Elise Radziwill. The Prussian court, however, did not believe that a mere Polish aristocrat was an acceptable match for a Prussian Hohenzollern and he was not allowed to marry her. I'm not sure to what extent Polish national origins played into the court's opposition to the mairrage. Wilhelm pledged that he would never give his affection to anyone else. [Van der Kiste, p. 1]

Wilhelm was ordered to propose to Princess Marie Louise Augusta of Saxe-Weimar and dutifully did so. Augusta accepted, but with an equal lack of enthusism. The two married in 1829, but the marriage was no love match. As King and Queen and later Kaiser and Kaiserina the two avoided each other. They had a completely opposite outlooks on life. The two could hardly spend a few minutes together in a room without arguing. The two quarled from the day of their marriage and tried to live apart as much as possible. Prince Albert when he met them determined that they were both equally responsible. Their personalities clashed.

Kaiserina Augusta

Augusta had been raised in the liberal court of Weimar. Her father was Charles Frederick, Grand Duke Saxe-Weimar (1783- ). Her mother was the Russian Romanov Gramd Duchess Marie Pavlovna (1786- ). She was devoted to literature, music, and art. Few her knew her thought that life in spartan Berlin would be felicitous. They were correct. Not only did Augusta have to deal with her distaste for her husband, but in later years after Bismarck's appointment as Premier and Chancellor, he distrusted her and her influence on her husband. [Ludwig, pp. 214-215.] Bismarck's distrust of her began during the height of the 1848 disturbances when she toyed with idea of passing over her husband, who was Crown Prince, and saving the crown for her as regent and her son Frederich. [Ludwig, pp. 82-83.] Bismarck was to later describe his conflict with Augusta as "the hardest fought battles of my lifr". [Ludwig, p. 214.] Augusta played amajor role in matching Prince Frederich with the English Princess Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Augusta's dislike and disputes with Bismarck even increase in the 1870s after she becomes Emperess. [Ludwif, pp. 458-459.]

Family Life

Political and cultural differences separated Wilhelm and Augusta. Wilhelm was conservative, continuing to persue royal autocracy, although having to go through a facade of constitutional goverment. He had no interest in art and music. Augusta was more liberally minded. The animosity which developed between Wihelm and Augusta rather complicated their responsibilities to produce an heir.


Wilhelm and Augusta had two children. At Friederich's birth, as a result of their growing dislike of each other were living almost separate lives. The growing animosity between Wilhelm and Augusta meant that their's was not to be a large family.

Friederich III (1831-88)

The first child was Friederich Wilhelm who was born in 1831. The family referred to him as Fritz. The rift between his parents meant that Friederich did not lead a happy childhood. He was a lonely boy. Wilhelm had no interest in fatherhood. His single interest was that the boy should grow up to be a good soldier. His mother took more interested and perhaps, as a result, he took more after her than his distant father.

Louise (1838- )

Louise was born in 1838, fully 9 years after their marriage. Augusta declared that she had fulfilled her marital duties and true to her word, there was not to be any more children. Princess Louise in 1856 married Grand Duke Frederick I Zähringen of Baden, Grand Duke of Baden. They had three children. The eldest begame Grand Duke Frederick II of Baden (1857- ). Their daughter, Victoria of Baden, (1862- ) became Queen of Sweden. The youngest son was Ludwig (1865- ).

Relationship with Victoria and Albert

Prince Albert was a German and he hoped to play a positive role in guiding the ineviatablt German unification along democration, constitutional lines. It was obvious that Prussia would play a major role in German unification. Prussia at the time was considered by the British to be an important potential ally against France which was still seen as the greatest danger to Britain. Victoria and Albert visited the Prussian royal family in 1845. The were guests of honor at Achen. A year later Augusta was hosted at Windsor. Amiable personal relations developed. Albert began to envision a democratic German state allied to Britain. King Leopold of Belgium, Albert's Uncle, may well have been the primary inspiration. Augusta for her part saw liberal Britain as a progressive influence on conservative Prussia. Wilhelm with his military background was not amenablr to such views. But increasingly the idea congeled with Prince Albert and Victoria that Vicky and Frederich would be the ideal soveigns for a a new democratic, unified German state. [Der Kriste, p. 2]

Revolution in Europe (1848)

The old royal regimes were returned to power with the defeat of Napoleon (1814-15) by the Congress of Vienna orcestrated by Austria's Chancellor Fürst Metternich,. This meant that in much of Europe except Britain that monarchs continued to rule as as absolute rulers, except for Britain, unfettered by constitutions and important elected bodies. Germany was undergoing wide-spread social and economic change in the first half of the 19th century. In industrial revolution was in process. There was a growing and increasingly well educated middle class that desired a role in governmental affairs. The population was rapidly expanding, especially urban populations. The new urban working class, however, lived in abject poverty. Laborers might work 15 hours a day and there wives and children might also have to work, but wages rarely rose above the subsiatence level. Workers uprising in Silesia during 1844 demanding higher wages were told "to eat grass" and supresses by the Prussian army. Crop failures in 1847 led to famine conditions in many areas of Germany. Unemployment increased and there were foot riots by starving workers which were put down by the military. Demands for reform took on increasingly revolutionary tones and not just in Germany. Revolution first appaered in France in February 1848 when King Louis Philippe was overthrown and the Second Republic was proclaimed. The news spread by telegraph electrified Germany which was alreasy seathing with disatisgaction. The ruling houses in the smaller German states (Württemberg, Hessen-Darmstadt, Nassau, Saxony, Bavaria, and others) offered concessions to popular forces to prevent the spearad of revolution. The outcome of the movement in Germany would be decided in Austria and Prussia--the two domonate German states. In Austria, Chancellor Metternich was forced to resign March 13. In Prussia, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV originally decided against granting a constitution, saying that he would "not allow a sheet of paper to come between him and his people." The King on March 17 decided that the best way to control the movement was to lead it. He acceeded to most of the demonstrators' demands, including free parliamentary elections, a constitution, and freedom of the press. He also promised that Prussia would lead the way to a united Germany. The Berlin crowds were delighted, but the celebrations turned into a disaster. Shots were fired into the air in celebration. Rioting begun and 254 civilians were killed before the troops were recalled. The Army wanted to use the Army to supress the demonstrators. Many officers felt their honor had been sullied by retreating before rioters. The King on March 21 paraded through Berlin with some ministers, generals and members of his family, all wearing the black, red and golden colors of the demonstrators. Prussia now had a constitution. The Kings' brother Prince Wilhelm wasamong those who wanted to use the Army. He had gone into hiding on Pfauen Island and then visited England while Augusta remained in Berlin. When Wilhelm returned to Berlin, a still obsure conservative politican is at the railway station. [Ludwig, pp. 86-87.]

The Great Exhibition (1851)

Prince Albert had an abidng interest in science and was convinced that modern technology would improve te output of British agriculture as well as further industrial development. The Great Exhibition which he promoted and managed was a huge success and was the turning point in his relatinship with the British public. Royalty from all over the continent. Many were afraid to come having just survived the caotic disorders of 1848. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria hosted the future Prussian royal couple at Buckingham Palace in 1851 for the Graet Exhibition. Augusta was inpressed with popularity of the British monarch wen the Prussian royal family visited Victoria and Albert for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It afforded Albert te opportunity for Albert to develop a personal relationsip with the Prussian royal family. Albert saw that Prince William (future Wilhelm I) seemed phycically weak, so he did his best to develop a relatonship with his son Frederic (Fritz--future Frederich III). Albert noted that Frederich had inherited some of his mother's liberal leanings. The difference betwwen the two families became apparent. Fritz who knew nothing about Britain became alarmed when the Duchess of Kent (Victoria's mother) became inadvertedly separated from Victoria and the children. The children were quite amuesed that Fritz should fear vor her saftey. A policeman who had no idea who she was found her a good seat. He was also suprised when the quuen was delighted with a trick hankerchief that turned into a boquet--he thought it disrepectful. He was infact so bewildred by all of this that he was able to take refuge wit Princess Royal Vicky with whom he could speak in German.

Prince Albert

Britain's German-born Prince Albert understanably took a great interest in German affairs. Although a possessor of a keen intelect with a profound understanding of continental and German affairs, the Prince failed to recognize the defects of the German royal family, especially Prince Wilhelm. (Wilhelm became king in 1861, the year Albert died.) He did see that Prussia was going to unify Germany and he strove to develop a relationship with the Prussian royals. Hosting Prince Wilhelm and his family for the Great Exibition was the first major step. Albert was incouraged when Augusta offered to be the godmother for Prince Leopold who was born in 1853. Historians now believe that Augusta had no real affection toward the family, but saw it as a useful diplomatic step. Wilhem was out of favor with his brother the king, so Albert did not blame him for Prussia's failure to join Britain in Crimean War. Albert wanted to improve relations with Prussia and decided to invite Wilhelm's son Fritz (Frederich III) to visit Balmoral in 1855. It was there that he met the Princess Royal Victoria. The idea of a love match between Fritz and hiscbeloved Vicky had taken root in Albert's mind. He saw it as a magificent dynastic match to cement Britain's relationship with Prussia and perhaps the future Germany. Albert was apauled, however, at William's first actions upon assuming the crown--especially his initial attitude toward the constitutional government. He was nothing like the man that Albert had once hoped him to be.

Regency (1858)

King Friederich Wilhelm at the emd of his life began to loose his mental faculties. Prince Wilhelm was appointed regeant in 1858. Wilhelm had been raised a soldier and his principal interest was the Prussian Army. As Prince of Prussia he had worked to reform the Army and worked with General Albrecht Theodore Emil von Roon to modernize the Army. Upon becoming regent, Wilhelm and Roon worked to enlarge the Army and phase out the old Landwehr composed of married men. Parliament balked

Wilhelm Becomes King (1861)

Wilhelm was crowned King of Prussia in 1861. He was immediately confronted with crisis that could have resulted in his abdigation. Parliament refused to vote for the military reforms and expansion that he thought essential. Roon who he had appointed Minister of War urged hom to act outside the Constitution and implement the reforms without Parliament's approval. Roon preciptated a crisis by declaring in the Parliament that at important moments the Crown must not be dependant on changing majorities and partisan speeches. [Ludwig, p. 195.] Chancellor Bernstorff resigned. King Wilhelm supported Army Commander General Helmuth von Moltle continued to insist on the reforms, but hesitated to act outside of Parliament. In the ensuing crisis it was Roon who sent for Bismarck.

Otto von Bismarck (1862)

Wilhelm was not in favor of appointing Bismarck. He was close to abdication in favor of Prince Frederich. He told Bismarck that he did not wish to reign if his plans were to be blocked by Parlaiment. When Bismarck tells him that he will support the reorganization, Wilhelm decided against abdigation and appoints Bismarck. [Ludwig, pp. 198-199.] Their relationship is at first tentative. Bismarck was able to get the Wilhelm the expanded army as well as the military reforms that he so desperately wanted. The Prussian Government under the guidance of Bismark began to pursue domesic and international policies designed to make Prussia the dominate force in the German Confederation which had been dominated by Austria. The policies executed by Bismark were brilliantly conceived and included the supression of the Prussian democratic movement, expansion of the military, and an aggresive attitude toward Austria. Here Bismarck's diplomacy combined with von Roon's reformed and enlarged Army and von Moltke militar genious led to a series of stunning victories. The first outward manifesttion of the policy was war with Denmark and the seizure of Danish possesions, Schleswig-Holstein (1864), with Austria's assistance. The alliance with Austria gprovided needed diplomatic cover for the actions against Denmark. Then the struggle with Austria over sumpremecy among German states was quickly settled. War soon followed with Austria and the Prussian victory (1866) established the Hohenzollern's as Germany's premier royal family. Several German States were adsorbed by Prussia.

German Royal Palaces

The Prussian kings and later German emperors of the house of Hohenzollern during the 18th and 19th centuries launched an important building camapign to enhance existing landscape of sandy hills, pine forests, rivers and lakes around Berlin into an suitable cultural enviroment to match the family's imperial ambitions. The Hohenzollerns built palaces in different styles as well as avariety of parks of various kinds. Much of this building took place at Potsdam, a Berlin suburb. The focus of the Hohenzollern building was the royal city palace and summer residence in Potsdam. The royal city palace and winter residence were located in Berlin. The summer palace ws located in Potsdam. Both palaces were heavily damaged during the Allied World War II bombing of Berlin. After the War the ruins were torn down.

Franco Prussian War (1870-71)

The last obstacle to the creation of the German state was France ruled by the Emperor Napoleon III. The Prussian victory over Austria had fundamentally changed continental power relationships. Confronted with the emergence of a united German state with all that portended for the ballence of power in Europe and beset by other difficultieds, Napoleon III decided to pursue a bellicose policy with Prussia. A diplomatic dispute arrising out of Bismark's attempt to secure the vacant Spanish throne for a Hohenzollern, provided a mutually agreeable cause belli. The French Government declare war on Prussia in 1870. The efficently organized Prussian Army aided with forces of other German states desimated the army of the French Second Empire which collapsed on September 4, 1870 at the Battle of Sedan. King Wilhelm acted as the real commander of the Prussian Army. The French forces were defeated almost everywhere. Paris was invested by the German forces. Continued resistance by a new French Republic proved futile and Paris fell in 1871. The peace which followed resulted in hugh indemnities and French cessesion of Alsace Loraine, virtually ensuring a future war between the two countries.

Founding of the German Empire (1871)

Under the auspices of Prussia, its largest state, Germany was united into a federal system in 1871. The resulting combination consisted of 22 states and the 3 former city-states or urban republics of Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck. Kaiser Wilhelm served as the first emperor of the unified Germany which was referred to as the Second Reich. Although outwardly Imperial Germany was the most poweful country in Europe, the imperial ediface had some basic weaknesses. Bismark's brilliance had succeeded had enabled a Prussian landed military caste to unify Germany and attempt to impose its martial values and ethos on the new state. From the beginning, however, the Prussians who maintained their hold on political power were threatened from economic both above and below. Imperial Germany also had major foreign policy concerns. The German Empire was situated between the Russian collosus and a France through the seizure of Alsace-Loraine that was an implaccable enemy. This structure lasted only until 1918 when Germany lost extensive portions of territories to France, Poland, Belgium, Denmark and Czechoslovakia. Hitler and NAZI rule beginning in the 1933 marked the Third Reich.

Figure 2.--Queen Victoria's first child Vicky mairred German Crown Prince Frederick. Their first son was William who is pictured here with his Aunt Beatrice. This is the same Kaiser Wilhelm II who led Germany to war in 1914. I think the drawing is by Victoria about 1883.

Crowned Emperor (1871-88)

The Prussian victory caused a groundswell of popular support for the Hohenzollerns. Wilhelm personslly was more concerned with his Prussian crown than a possible imperial German crown. Bismarck was at first unsure on the issue. Crown Prince Frederich was strongly in favor of an imperial crown. [Ludwig, p. 387.] Protracted negotiations followed with the other German states which drove Bismarck to distraction coverning the petty instincts of the German princes and their governments. [Ludwig, pp. 388-389.] Bavaria was a particularly difficult challenge. Particularly important is how the nomination was made, it was important that it come from the most important of the remaining German princes, the King of Bavaria--Ludwig II. [Ludwig, pp. 388.] (The Mad KLing Ludwig of fairybook castle fame.) Finally it was agreed. While Wilhelm was in Versailles pursuing oprations gainst the French forces in Paris, the North German Parliament together with the major German princes pressed him to accept the imprial crown of Germany. Wilhelm on January 18, 1871 was proclaimed Wilhelm I (William I), Emperor (Kaiser) of Germany. In the same year he opened a new German parliament, the Reichstag. The Reichstag, however, had more limited power than he parliaments of Egland and France. Two attemoted were made on his life in 1878, the second of which resulted in serious wounds. The attempts were attributed to Socialist influence. The growing strength of the Socialists in the Reichstag was of great concern to Wilhelm and Bismark.

Three Generations

The German Empire in the 1880s had a royal family with three generations living together. It was arguably the most powerful state in the world. The sucession was assured. Few realized then that the Empire woukd not survive the second generation and the baby born to the future Wilhelm II would never inherit the throne.

Friederich III

Wilhelm's first son, Friederich (later Friederich III), was born in 1831 at Potsdam before it was apparent that his father would become king, let along lead the unification of a German state. He was a learned man with liberal leanings. He mairred the British Princess Royal Victoria. Unfortunately, he did not survive 1 year as Emperor.

Wilhelm II

The new Prince spent his first few years at the Marmorpalais in Potsdam, the residence of his father. An English Governess was entrusted with his early education, to the displeasure of many Prussian barrons--suspicions of the influence of his English mother. The future Crown Prince at 5 years of age in 1887, had the chance to use the English language. His parents took him to London to celebrate his great grandmother Victoria's 50 years reign in England. Wilhelm was of very different temperment than his liberal-leaning father.

Friedrich Wilhelm

Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Bismarck learned on May 6, 1882, that the 23-year old Prince Wilhelm (later Kaiser Wilhelm II) was a father. Prince Wilhelm reportedly called through the window at the Marmorpalais in Potsdam when he saw hisfather "He is here, Papa, he is here, a son." Three living generations of the German royal family, the Hohenzollerns, seemed to have secured a happy future. The Kaiser, who was 85 years old, was overcome with emotion: "That God in his wisdom and mercy has bestowed such a blessing on an old man!" The parents of the new Prince, Prince Wilhelm and his wife Auguste Victoria Schleswig-Holstein, christened the baby Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Ernst. He was never to inherit the throne.

Tsar Alexander II

Tsar Alexander II was Wilhelm I 's nephew. Wilhelm had basically simple interests. Family was very important to him. Thus the family relations with the Rusian royal family was almost a guarentee of friendly relations with Russia and very useful in Bismarck's foreign policy. This ws very important because aftr the Polish partitions, Russia and Prussia/Germany shared a long frontier. According to at least one historian, however, Tsar Alexander was not as easy man with which to associate. [Ludwig, p. 167.]


Wilhelm I died in 1888. The year was to be known as the year of the three emperors because his son Frederich was also sick and dying and only nominally ruled for 3 months. As a result it would be Wilhelm's grandson that would inherit the throne in 1888 as Wilhelm II. Before dying, Wilhelm summonds Chancellor Bismarck to his bed and, knowing that his son is dying, begs him to pledge to assist his grandson. Bismarck does so and Wilhelm replies by pressing Bismarck's hand. Then the old Kaiser begin to ramble he dreams that Prince Wilhelm is there and then proferically says to Bismarck, "Thou must always keep in touch with the Russian emperor; there is no need of a quarrel in that quarter." [Ludwig, p. 553.] The next day he was gone.


The Kaiser had seven children and many more grand children. They were extensively photographed as children abd priovide a rich source on German boys' dress. Keeping track of this large extended family, however is quite difficult. HBC is thus providing a geneology to make it easier to identify and keep track of the various individuals involved.


Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little Brown, Boston, 1927), 661p.

Van der Kriste, John. Kaiser Wilhelm II: Germany's Last Emperor (Bodmin: Sutton, 1999), 244p.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: June 6, 1998
Last updated: September 25, 2002