Wilhelm I

You might know about the last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, but what about the first Kaiser of the German Empire? How did a collection of German states become a mighty empire in 1871? How did the House of Hohenzollern gradually rise in power, from the Electors of Brandenburg to the Emperors of Germany? Let's look at Kaiser Wilhelm I!

Wilhelm I Wilhelm I

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Table of contents

    House of Hohenzollern

    Wilhelm I was a member of the House of Hohenzollern, which had been a key family in the region from the 15th century onwards. It is important to remember that until 1871, there was no resemblance to modern Germany, and the country was a collection of disparate states. The family rose to prominence as Electors of Brandenburg, a province east of Berlin and became the ruling seat of Prussia before Wilhelm I gained the title of Kaiser of Germany. Let's look at the two men who preceded him, his father and brother.

    King of PrussiaDescription

    Wilhelm I Friedrich Wilhelm III StudySmarterFig. 1 - Friedrich Wilhelm III

    The father of Wilhelm I, Friedrich Wilhelm III was the King of Prussia between 1797 and 1840. His period of rule was largely unsuccessful.In 1807, the Prussians were beaten by Napoleon's France, leading to a growing dependence on Russia and Austria. Austrian leader Klemens von Metternich played a key part in the governance of the German states with a repressive set of laws to stamp out nationalism and descent.Friedrich Wilhelm III had little choice but to acquiesce, and until his death in 1840, Prussia was largely subjugated by those who surrounded her geographically. Whilst this King may have had good intentions, he suffered from indecisiveness and, ultimately, an inability to lead in a volatile European climate.

    Wilhelm I Friedrich Wilhelm IV StudySmarterFig. 2 - Friedrich Wilhelm IV

    Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the eldest son of Friedrich Wilhelm III, continued the conservative policies of his father, which led to growing descent within the Prussian kingdom.The 1848 Revolution against monarchies that spread across European nations also hit Prussia. In the aftermath, Friedrich Wilhelm IV attempted to satiate the clamouring protestors by creating a German Federation where Prussia would play an important role in governance.However, Austria intervened, and at the Punctation of Olmütz (November 1850), they retained their role as the dominant force within the German Confederation that was borne out of the Holy Roman Empire. Crucially, Austria had the backing of Russia, meaning that Prussia was silenced. However, the Prussian resentment in Friedrich Wilhelm's state remained, and in 1861 after his death, his brother Wilhelm I became King of Prussia.

    Kaiser Wilhelm I

    Now that we have some idea of the growing influence and importance of Prussia through the centuries, we can examine Kaiser Wilhelm I. A reluctant ruler, how did he wield power over such a powerful empire after the unification of German states in 1871?

    King of Prussia

    Wilhelm I was born in Berlin in 1797. He spent his early years in the army fighting against Napolean's France, being humiliated in defeat. Differing distinctively from some of the great Prussian rulers, Wilhelm was not a natural leader and only became King of Prussia (1861-1888) when his brother Friedrich Wilhelm died in 1861.

    Prussia, at the time, was a hotbed for revolution. There had already been a failed attempt to unify the German states in 1848, and the conservative Wilhelm had been instrumental in crushing dissent in Berlin and other German states such as Baden. He was a marked man, described as the Prince of Grapeshot and lay low in Britain for a short while afterwards.

    Did you know? The nickname 'Prince of Grapeshot' was used because Wilhelm I used cannons for "crowd control". A grapeshot is a type of ammunition consisting of a bag of small lead balls. Napoleon also used a "whiff of grapeshot" against protestors, and the Decembrists in Russia were crushed in the same way.

    In the years leading up to 1871, Wilhelm began to realise that the only effective way to maintain control was to unify the German states. This was due to his newly installed Prime Minister and close confidante, Otto von Bismarck.

    Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck

    Otto von Bismarck is the figure largely credited with the unification of the German states. He dovetailed well with the flustered Wilhelm I, who was certainly not a natural leader. Bismarck had also been a conservative but realised the only way for Prussia to retain and increase her power was through the creation of an empire and German unification.

    Wilhelm I Otto von Bismarck StudySmarterFig. 3 - Otto von Bismarck

    His methods were very different from the 1848 Revolution and led to him being referred to as the "Iron Chancellor".

    The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.1

    - Otto von Bismarck, September 1862.

    Below is an overview of Bismarck's strategies for unification.

    • Bismarck knew that the revolution had failed in 1848 because there had been no military action. His personality meant that he was often pulling the strings despite not being the King.
    • He sought to assert Prussian authority by embarking on three wars in the space of ten years.
    • First, there was the Second Schleswig War, where Prussia and Austria gained some Danish territory in 1864.
    • Next, Bismarck's masterstroke: The Austro-Prussian War in 1866 lasted a mere seven weeks. Prussia made light work of the Austrian forces, and Wilhelm wished to take Vienna (the capital). Bismarck refused and threatened to resign. His rationale was that he wanted a united German empire to be dominated by Prussia, not Austria. Wilhelm finally agreed that they would not attack Austria should Austria agree to play no part in a united Germany. As a result, there was now a North German Confederation.
    • Finally, Prussia won the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 by taking advantage of the fear of the Southern German states, which were closer to the French border. Bismarck and Wilhelm bought the states' loyalty in return for their participation in a united Kaiserreich. They won and reclaimed Alsace-Lorraine.
    • Wilhelm became Kaiser in Versailles near Paris to humiliate the French further and left the German empire or Kaiserreich as the dominant country in mainland Europe.

    German Emperor

    Once Wilhelm I became Kaiser (1871-1888), he sought to cement the new German empire. He chose Bismarck as his Chancellor, and as his deputy, he continued to make many of the big decisions. Together they halted campaigns of expansion in Europe and focused on modernising industry and the military.

    Wilhelm I Wilhelm I StudySmarterFig. 4 - Kaiser Wilhelm I

    The Kaiserreich also introduced pensions and national healthcare and became something of a peacekeeper by brokering a deal to split Africa between European powers in 1884.

    Scramble for Africa

    The Scramble for Africa was a name coined to describe the mass colonisation of Africa by European powers in the nineteenth century. There were many disputes as to how the continent would be split between the conquerors.

    However, it was not all rosy as progress was accompanied by crackdowns against Catholics and political opponents, including Social Democrats. Needless to say, the Kaiserreich had made some enemies too.

    Assassination Attempts

    Prussian King Wilhelm I and Junker (nobleman) Otto von Bismarck had little in common with the working man. Their rule over the Kaiserreich brought anger among anarchists and led to two attempts on the Kaiser's life within a matter of weeks.

    1. 11 May 1878: The Kaiser was travelling on Unter den Linden road in Berlin in his carriage. Young anarchist Max Hödel fired two bullets at around 3:30 pm. They missed the Kaiser and his daughter. Authorities captured Hödel, and he was beheaded.
    2. 2 June 1878: On the same street, Karl Nobiling fired at Wilhelm I as he was riding past again. This time the shots hit the Kaiser, but his helmet saved his life. Nobiling shot himself in the head before anyone could understand his motive.

    Wilhelm I Modern day Unter den Linden StudySmarterFig. 5 - Modern day Unter den Linden at night

    These two attempts justified Bismarck and Wilhelm's subsequent campaigns against the left-wing Social Democrats, which became an outlawed party. Now they would need to ally with the Catholic Central Party, which they had previously been waging Kulturkampf on.


    A term to describe the cracking down of the Kaiserreich on the Catholic church in the early part of the 1870s. They stopped relations with the Pope, closed Jesuit schools, and changed marriage laws. However, Wilhelm I and Bismarck changed their course of action when they realised the popularity of the Catholic Central Party.

    1888: Year of the Three Kaisers

    In 1888, Wilhelm I died, having been largely successful. He managed to create and modernise a German Empire and prosperous years seemed to be on the horizon. His ability to compromise and work with the brilliant Bismarck was his greatest weapon. His son Friedrich III lasted a matter of months before dying too. It was down to his grandson to determine the destiny of the Kaiserreich. Wilhelm II became the Emperor, and things were about to radically change.

    Wilhelm I - Key takeaways

    • Wilhelm I belonged to the House of Hohenzollern, a royal house of Brandenburg and Prussia that rose to prominence in the 15th century.
    • His father and brother (kings Friedrich Wilhelm III and Friedrich Wilhelm IV) oversaw many years of Prussian subjugation at the hands of European powers, most notably Austria and France.
    • Despite their regional weakness, there was a desire for reform in Prussia, demonstrated by the failed 1848 Revolution.
    • With military might and the help of Otto von Bismarck, he became the Kaiser of a unified Germany in 1871.
    • Bismarck wielded his political influence, and Wilhelm I had a successful reign, rapidly improving the industry and welfare system of the country.
    • There was some opposition to his rule and two attempted assassinations. Wilhelm I finally died in 1888.


    1. Otto von Bismarck, 'Blood and Iron Speech', to the Prussian House of Representatives Budget Committee, (30 September 1862).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Wilhelm I

    Who is Wilhelm 1?

    Wilhelm I was the King of Prussia and the first Kaiser of the Kaiserreich or German Empire from 1871.

    What year did Kaiser Wilhelm I die?

    Wilhelm I died in 1888.

    When did William 1 reign?

    Wilhelm I was King of Prussia from 1861 and then Kaiser of the German Empire from 1871 until 1888.

    Who were the German Emperors?

    The German Emperors were Wilhelm I, Friedrich III, and Wilhelm II.

    Who succeeded Wilhelm 1?

    In 1888 or the "Year of three Kaisers" Wilhelm I was succeeded by his son, Friedrich III, and months later by Friedrich's son, Wilhelm II.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who controlled Prussia whilst Friedrich Wilhelm III was King?

    Which of the following did NOT happen under Wilhelm I during his time as Emperor of Germany?

    Who was Max Hödel to Wilhelm I?


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