1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William I. of Germany
WILLIAM I. (1797-1888), king of Prussia and German emperor, was the second son of Frederick William III. of Prussia and Louise, a princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He was born at Berlin on the 22nd of March 1797, and received the names of Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig. He was a delicate child and had to be carefully nurtured. His constitution, however, was sound, and he became one of the most vigorous men in Germany. After the battle of Jena he spent three years at Königsberg and Memel. Meanwhile he had given evidence of sterling honesty, a strict love of order, and an almost passionate interest in everything relating to war. On the 1st of January 1807 he received an officer's patent, and on the 30th of October 1813 was appointed a captain. William accompanied his father in the campaign of 1814, and early in the following year received the iron cross for personal bravery shown at Bar-sur-Aube. He took part in the entry into Paris on the 31st of March 1814, and afterwards visited London. He joined the Prussian army in the final campaign of the Napoleonic wars, and again entered Paris. The prince was made a colonel and a member of the permanent military commission immediately after his twentieth birthday, and at the age of twenty-one became a major-general. In 1820 he received the command of a division; and during the following nine years he had not only made himself master of the military system of his own country but studied closely those of the other European states. In 1825 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general, and obtained the command of the corps of guards. On the 11th of June 1829 he married Augusta, daughter of Charles Frederick, grand duke of Saxe-Weimar. This lady, who had imbibed the Liberal tendencies of the court of Weimar and later developed a keen sympathy with Catholicism, exercised afterwards as queen and empress a considerable influence at court, in a sense generally hostile to Bismarck’s views. She died on the 7th of January 1890.
On the death of his father in 1840—the new king, Frederick William IV., being childless—Prince William, as heir presumptive to the throne, received the title of prince of Prussia. He was also made lieutenant-governor of Pomerania and appointed a general of infantry. In politics he was decidedly conservative; but at the outbreak of the revolutionary movement of 1848 he saw that some concessions to the popular demand for liberal forms of government were necessary. He urged, however, that order should be restored before the establishment of a constitutional system. At this time he was the best-hated man in Germany, the mass of the Prussian people believing him to be a vehement supporter of an absolutist and reactionary policy. He was even held responsible for the blood shed in Berlin on the 18th of March, and was nicknamed the “Cartridge Prince,” although he had been relieved nine days before of his command of the guards. So bitter was the feeling against him that the king entreated him to leave the country for some time, and accordingly he went to London, where he formed intimate personal relations with Prince Albert, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston and other English statesmen. On the 8th of June he was back at Berlin, and on the same day he took his seat as member for Wirsitz in the Prussian national assembly, and delivered a speech in which he expressed belief in constitutional principles. In 1849, when the revolutionary party in the grand-duchy of Baden became dangerous, he accepted the command of “the army of operation in Baden and the Palatinate,” and his plans were so judiciously formed and so skilfully executed that in the course of a few days the rebellion was crushed. At the beginning of the campaign an unsuccessful attempt was made on his life. In October 1849 he was appointed military governor of the Rhineland and Westphalia, and took up his residence at Coblenz. In 1854 the prince was raised to the rank of a field-marshal and made governor of the federal fortress of Mainz. When the king was attacked with a disease of the brain, Prince William assumed the regency (7th October 1858), and on his brother’s death, on the 2nd of January 1861, succeeded him as William I.
The political events of William’s regency and reign are told elsewhere (see Germany: History; Prussia: History). His personal influence upon these events is, however, of great importance and deserves separate notice. William was not a ruler of the intellectual type of Frederick the Great; but he believed intensely in the “God of battles” and in his own divine right as the vicegerent of God so conceived. He believed also in the ultimate union of Germany and in the destiny of Prussia as its instrument; and he held that whoever aspired to rule Germany must seize it for himself (Letter to von Natzmer of the 20th of May 1849, in Natzmer’s Unter den Hohenzollern). But an attitude so wholly alien to the Liberal temper of contemporary Germany was tempered by shrewd common sense, and, above all, by a capacity to choose his advisers well and listen to their advice. Thus it came about that the regent, whose reactionary views were feared, called the Liberals into office on Bismarck’s advice, though later he did not hesitate to override the constitution when the refusal of the supplies for the new armaments made this course necessary. From September 1862, when Bismarck took office as minister president, William’s personality tends to be obscured by that of his masterful servant, who remained beside him till his death. But Bismarck’s Reminiscences contain plentiful proof that his master was by no means a cipher. His prejudices, indeed, were apt to run athwart the minister’s plans; as in the Schleswig-Holstein question, when the king’s conscience in the matter of the claims of the Augustenburg prince threatened to wreck Bismarck’s combinations. But, as Bismarck put it, the annexation of the duchies gave him “a taste for conquest,” and in the campaign of 1866 the difficulty was to restrain the king, who wished to enter Vienna in triumph. Whatever may have been the feelings of the Prussians before the war, its striking success fully justified the king’s policy, and on his return to Berlin he was received with unbounded enthusiasm.
In the events immediately preceding the Franco-German War of 1870-71 again it was Bismarck and not the king that gave the determining impulse. In the matter of the Hohenzollern candidature King William’s attitude was strictly “correct.” He was justified in refusing to discuss further with Benedetti the question of “guarantees,” a matter which touched his honour; and if the refusal, courteously framed, was read in Paris as an insult, this was due to Bismarck’s “editing” of the Ems telegram (see Bismarck). The result of the outcry in France and of the French declaration of war was that all Germany rallied round the king of Prussia, and when, on the 31st of July, he quitted Berlin to join his army, he knew that he had the support of a united nation. He crossed the French frontier on the 11th of August, and personally commanded at the battles of Gravelotte and Sedan. It was during the siege of Paris, at his headquarters in Versailles, that he was proclaimed German emperor on the 18th of January 1871. On the 3rd of March 1871 he signed the preliminaries of peace which had been accepted by the French Assembly; and on the 21st of March he opened the first imperial parliament of Germany. On the 16th of June he triumphantly entered Berlin at the head of his troops.
After that period the emperor left the destinies of Germany almost entirely in the hands of Bismarck, who held the office of imperial chancellor. In his personal history the most notable events were two attempts upon his life in 1878—one by a working lad called Hödel, another by an educated man, Karl Nobiling. On the first occasion the emperor escaped without injury, but on the second he was seriously wounded. These attacks grew out of the Socialist agitation; and a new Reichstag, elected for the purpose, passed a severe anti-Socialist law, which was afterwards from time to time renewed. Until within a few days of his death the emperor’s health was remarkably robust; he died at Berlin on the 9th of March 1888.
The reign of William I. marked an era of vast importance in the history of Germany. In his time Prussia became the first power in Germany and Germany the first power in Europe, though these momentous changes were due in a less degree to him than to Bismarck and Moltke; but to him belongs the credit of having recognized the genius of these men, and of having trusted them absolutely. Personally William maintained the best traditions of the Hohenzollerns, not only by the splendour of the achievements with which his name will always be intimately associated, but by the simplicity, manliness and uprightness of his daily life. By his marriage with Augusta of Saxe-Weimar William I. had two children: the crown prince Frederick William (b. 1831), who succeeded him as Frederick III. (q.v.), and the princess Louise (b. 1838), married in 1856 to the grand-duke of Baden.
William I.’s military writings were published in 2 vols. at Berlin in 1897. Of his letters and speeches several collections have appeared: Politische Korrespondenz Kaiser Wilhelms I. (1890); Kaiser Wilhelms des Grossen Briefe, Reden und Schriften (2 vols., 1905), and his correspondence with Bismarck (ed. Penzler, Leipzig, 1900). A large number of biographies have appeared in German, of which may be mentioned L. Schneider’s Aus dem Leben Kaiser Wilhelms (3 vols., Berlin, 1888; Fr. translation, 1888); v. Bernhardi, Die ersten Regierungsjahre K. Wilhelms, Tagebuchblätter (Leipzig, 1895); Oncken, Das Zeitalter Kaiser Wilhelms (2 vols., Berlin, 1890–1892); F. Delbrück, Die Jugend des Königs Friedrich Wilhelm IV. von Preussen und des Kaisers u. Königs Wilhelm I., Tagebuchblätter (Berlin, 1907); Blume, Kaiser Wilhelm und . . . Roon als Bildner des preussisch-deutschen Heeres (Berlin, 1906); E. Marcks, Kaiser Wilhelm I. (Leipzig, 1897; 5th ed. 1905). In English have appeared William of Germany, by Archibald Forbes (1888), a translation of Edouard Simon’s The Emperor William and his Reign (2 vols., 1886). See also Sybel’s Founding of the German Empire (Eng. trans., New York, 1890–1891).