In the shadow of Bismarck: Kaiser Wilhelm I, soldier on the throne
The period of the German stories The 1870s and 1880s are often referred to as the "Bismarck era" or the "Bismarck era", and one might get the impression that these two decades are just one chapter in the biography of the "Iron Chancellor". Otto von Bismarck really played a huge role in the history of Germany, not without reason one of the most famous biographers of Bismarck called his hero "the magician of power" .
In the eyes of posterity, and even contemporaries, the figure of Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm I was in the shadow of Otto von Bismarck. William I is credited with a very characteristic statement:
Not only the emperor, but the entire German society was in the shadow of the "iron chancellor". Nevertheless, the history of Germany of this period is quite bright and contains many other equally worthy names. This is primarily the head of the general staff, Helmut (Helmut) von Moltke, and the Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon. All of them were united by the fact that they revealed their talents just in the era of the reign of Wilhelm I Friedrich Ludwig Hohenzollern.
At the same time, not so many books are devoted to Kaiser Wilhelm I, much less than to his grandson Wilhelm II. Last year, the Eurasia publishing house published the work of the famous German historian Nikolai Anatolyevich Vlasov "Kaiser Wilhelm I", in which he interestingly outlined the biography of the German emperor - the author of this article borrowed a lot of factual material from this work, which, of course, deserves to get to know him.
At the same time, to this day, the opposite interpretation is widespread, in which Wilhelm I appears only as a powerless puppet in the hands of a brilliant politician, a capricious old man who only prevented Bismarck from pursuing his line. Such a picture distorts the past by no means to a lesser extent ”,
‒ writes Nikolai Vlasov.
In this material, we will try to answer the question - what role did Wilhelm I really play in the unification of Germany, as well as in the domestic and foreign policy of Prussia and the Second Reich.
First Soldier of the Kingdom of Prussia
The future emperor Wilhelm was born on March 22, 1797 at a very turbulent time for Europe. In 1789, a revolution began in France, which coincided in time with a serious crisis in international relations and aggravated it.
When the boy was four years old, the theologian Delbrück was appointed his teacher. A man of moderately conservative views, Delbrück nevertheless was a supporter of new pedagogical theories, in particular, philanthropism, fashionable in those years. At the heart of this current lay the idea that children need, firstly, to be taught taking into account their inclinations, and secondly, to teach what is really useful in life. Therefore, instead of ancient Greek and Latin, the princes studied modern languages, mathematics, history and geography .
However, the most important of all sciences for the prince, who was not supposed to inherit the throne (he was the second son of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm), by default was the military. This was typical for many royal courts in Europe, where the younger offspring devoted their lives to serving in the army. Already at the age of 9, Wilhelm began to undergo special military training.
On February 1, 1807, he was formally accepted for military service in the Prussian army, but there was no talk of any real service for the 10-year-old Wilhelm. However, much attention was paid to his military training . Speaking about Wilhelm's studies, it should be noted that he was considered a disciplined and diligent student, but not too gifted and understanding. The prince's interest in studies also left much to be desired.
Events 1813–1815 in Germany they were called the Wars of Liberation and, as historian Nikolai Vlasov notes, they became one of the most mythologized pages of history. Naturally, the participation of Prince Wilhelm in the war is also shrouded in myths. Subsequently, various military exploits were attributed to him - for example, in one of the battles, the young man allegedly launched an attack and led the soldiers of the Russian Kaluga regiment .
In reality, everything was somewhat different: most of the time, Wilhelm stayed at the headquarters of the allied armies. Nevertheless, once the prince still managed to be under bullets. On February 27, 1814, at the battle of Bar-sur-Aube, the king sent his son on an assignment to one of the generals who was in the thick of the battle. Wilhelm not only fulfilled his mission, but also took part in the attack. For participation in the campaign, Wilhelm received the Iron Cross 1st class and the Russian Order of St. George 4th degree (in Russia, the young prince gradually began to be treated as his own person in Berlin), and was promoted to major.
Contemporaries noted the calm nature and strict bearing of the young prince, his practical mind and unfailing courtesy in dealing with others. His appearance corresponded to his character - tall (188 centimeters) with regular, noble features. Wilhelm had all the qualities necessary for a Prussian officer, the only thing he was deprived of was military talent .
If he were the offspring of an ordinary noble family, Wilhelm could become an excellent commander of a battalion, regiment, division, and even an army corps. It would be a clear mistake to entrust him with the management of the army, fortunately, he himself understood this very well and never aspired to play the great military leader .
At the age of 27, Wilhelm assumed the position of commander of the III Army Corps, which was considered the highest in the peacetime Prussian army. It is worth noting that the Prussian army was formed according to the territorial principle, the whole kingdom was divided into 8 corps districts, in which the corresponding corps were stationed.
The prince took his position very seriously and sought to contribute to the development of the Prussian army. In 1837 he was appointed commander of the Guards Corps. Almost simultaneously with this, he becomes the head of the commission for the development of the military regulations of the Prussian army. The following year he was appointed Inspector General of the VII and VIII Army Corps, and a year later the V and VI Corps.
Thus, Wilhelm becomes the first soldier of the kingdom, the highest-ranking military figure in the Hohenzollern dynasty.
Wilhelm on the way to the royal title
Frederick William IV
Having celebrated his 60th birthday, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia believed that all the most important things in his life were already behind him and only sunset, old age and slow fading were waiting for him. However, fate decreed otherwise.
In July 1857, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the elder brother of Prince Wilhelm, had his first stroke (in other words, a stroke). Frederick William IV was out of action for two weeks. In October, a new, even more severe stroke followed - the king was unconscious for several days and his possible death was already discussed at court .
As a result, Frederick William IV still came to his senses, but it was clear that he would no longer be able to fulfill his duties. In such a situation, a regent should have been appointed, and according to the law, only Prince Wilhelm could become one .
Considering that there were serious political differences between the brothers, the king and his supporters in every possible way delayed the moment of making a decision. In Berlin, the political struggle began to boil, the whole court was shrouded in a network of intrigues. Ultimately, the head of the government, Otto von Manteuffel, after much deliberation, decided to support Wilhelm's claim to the regency. On October 7, 1858, Friedrich Wilhelm IV signed a decree with a weakening hand appointing his younger brother as regent.
After the appointment, Wilhelm first of all dissolved the cabinet of Manteuffel, who had been in power for 8 years, and dismissed him himself. New figures were appointed to all positions in the Cabinet of Ministers. Wilhelm purposefully appointed people who enjoyed his personal trust to ministerial posts, he also took into account the popularity of candidates in society . Simultaneously with the appointment of a new cabinet, elections were held for the lower house of the Prussian parliament, which ended in a convincing victory for the moderate liberals.
Wilhelm was a supporter of moderate reforms. The regent believed that the cause of reform should be approached carefully and thoughtfully, improving the existing system, and not rebuilding it. “Slowly and deliberately” was the unofficial motto of the first years of his reign .
In only one aspect did he demand radical change, and that was the question of military reform. He began to take measures to strengthen the army immediately after he took power into his own hands. In particular, on his orders, the entire Prussian infantry was armed with Dreyse rifles. At the same time, a significant part of military experts opposed the Dreyse system, because all the other European armies refused to introduce breech-loading needle rifles, so the regent's decision was quite bold. However, the 1866 campaign of the year showed how serious the advantage was for the Prussian infantry thanks to the new arms .
In addition, Wilhelm was going to increase the size of the peacetime army, which had not changed since the Napoleonic Wars, despite the fact that the population of Prussia had grown. The events of 1848–1850 convinced him of the need for reforms, and active work in this direction began almost immediately after the revolution.
Albrecht von Roon
Wilhelm's closest assistant in this area gradually became Albrecht von Roon. The prince met this officer during the Baden campaign of 1849. Over the next decade, Roon held various staff and command positions in the formations stationed in the western provinces of Prussia, and thanks to this he was in constant close contact with Wilhelm. Some historians call him the closest and perhaps even the only real friend of the regent .
In the summer of 1858, Roon, on behalf of Wilhelm, prepared a memorandum on military reform, which was taken as the basis for further plans. Roon's idea was simple and obvious: it was necessary to do away with the chimerical structure of the Prussian army and make it uniform. To do this, it is necessary to sharply expand the conscription contingent and the number of linear connections, as well as increase the period of stay in the reserve .
In addition to the military reform, the regent prepared a number of internal political transformations. It was about the introduction of civil marriage, the liberalization of economic legislation, the abolition of tax privileges of the nobility, the reform of local government .
Edwin von Manteuffel
At the same time, it is erroneous to assume that the regent in these years was under the influence of the liberal environment. An example of the opposite is the figure of Edwin von Manteuffel, the cousin of the former head of government. Having made a successful career under Frederick William IV, he was able to enlist the trust of his younger brother. Manteuffel quickly became one of the main associates of the regent, actively supporting the appointment of Albrecht von Roon as Minister of War.
However, there were issues that Wilhelm could not solve in any way - firstly, this is the question of the unification of Germany, which was desired by the German nationalists, and secondly, this is the adoption of a military reform, which they still could not agree on in parliament. The Landtag refused to approve the expenses necessary for this. The reform was eventually carried out on a whim, which finally brought the situation to a standstill.
On January 2, 1861, Friedrich Wilhelm IV died and Wilhelm officially became king. Wilhelm I was already 63 years old - a very respectable age by the standards of that time. On October 18, his solemn coronation took place. It took place not in Berlin, but in Königsberg. It was there, in the old capital of the Duchy of Prussia, that the first king, Frederick I, was crowned in 1701.
The choice of the city became a deeply symbolic act - Wilhelm not only emphasized dynastic succession, but also made it clear that he would continue the old Prussian tradition .
At the same time, the political crisis in the country was growing. Due to the fact that the Prussian policy did not achieve any results in the issue of German unification, disappointment in the nationalist camp was growing rapidly.
As Nikolai Vlasov notes, the attempt on the life of Wilhelm I, which took place on July 14, 1861 in Baden-Baden, where the king was on vacation, was a more than tangible sign of this disappointment of the nationalists.
Wilhelm I is an effective manager
Kaiser Wilhelm and Bismarck
By appointing a liberal ministry, William I had no intention of giving up his royal prerogatives. One of them was the leadership of the armed forces; the army was traditionally considered the personal domain of the king. The liberal majority of the parliament, however, did not agree with this point of view .
The "military conflict" between the crown and parliament turned into a "constitutional" one, into the question of who owns power in the state. In 1862, the internal political crisis reached its peak. Wilhelm I parted with his former liberal sympathies, which were already not very deep, and increasingly thought about appointing a man with an “iron hand” as the head of government . And one of the main candidates for this post was Otto von Bismarck.
A significant role in this appointment was played by Wilhelm's old friend, War Minister Albrecht von Roon - it was he who agitated the monarch to appoint the experienced and energetic diplomat Bismarck as head of government.
Bismarck himself during these months launched an active activity aimed at leading the government. In letters and reports, he convinced his Berlin addressees that he was the person who could cope with the crisis . On September 22, the king summoned Bismarck to his place in Babelsberg. In the ensuing conversation, the diplomat demonstrated his readiness to defend the interests of the crown and his confidence in success, and eventually convinced the monarch to appoint him head of the Prussian government.
‒ writes historian Nikolai Vlasov.
He notes that there are at least two reasons for this.
On the one hand, Bismarck was a truly large-scale figure, and the significance of his personality in German history is enormous.
On the other hand, after his resignation, the "Iron Chancellor" was extremely successful in creating a miraculous monument for himself - a legend about a wise, infallible politician who single-handedly saved Prussia from the crisis and put it at the head of Germany. Bismarck laid the foundation for this legend in his memoirs .
Based on Bismarck's memoirs, it follows that Wilhelm I was a good person in his own way, but mostly dangled under the feet of the "Iron Chancellor" and prevented him from working productively.
It cannot be said that the characterization that Bismarck gave his king has nothing to do with reality at all. An outstanding politician quite accurately noticed some of the character traits of Wilhelm I: his officer mentality, fear of responsibility in critical situations. However, in general, the picture is rather one-sided. If the Prussian king really had such a weak character, Bismarck would not have lasted a year in his post .
Wilhelm I until his death was the main and in fact the only support of Bismarck. In the Prussian, and then the German system, the head of government was appointed by the monarch and depended only on him. The loss of confidence on the part of the crown bearer was enough to dismiss an arbitrarily popular and influential politician - the "Iron Chancellor" himself managed to see this in his declining years .
At the same time, at first, the parliament and public opinion were sharply opposed to Bismarck; in court circles, the “mad Junker” had influential opponents. Should Wilhelm I hesitate, Bismarck would have collapsed. And all this is against the backdrop of an acute political crisis, a confrontation between the king and the Landtag, which has come to a standstill .
The favorable international situation allowed the head of the Prussian government to soon achieve the unification of Germany. First, at the end of 1863, the Schleswig-Holstein question escalated - one of the "frozen conflicts" of the then Europe. The North German duchies belonged on the basis of a personal union to the Danish monarch, but were not part of Denmark. Holstein and the southern part of Schleswig were predominantly populated by Germans, northern Schleswig by Danes. The conflict escalated due to the desire of Denmark to integrate at least Schleswig into its composition.
When the Danes refused to make any concessions, the two great German powers, Austria and Prussia, agreed to "peace enforcement" of their northern neighbors. The official goal of Berlin and Vienna was to restore the status quo. As a result, on August 1, a preliminary peace treaty was signed, according to which the Danish king renounced all rights to Schleswig and Holstein.
The question of the further fate of the duchies was on the agenda. The Gastein Convention of 1865 did not resolve the Austro-Prussian contradictions. Already in winter, both capitals began to prepare for a possible war. The decision to prepare for a war with Austria was approved by Wilhelm with great doubt, even on May 25, when the armies of both sides were mobilized and the conflict seemed inevitable, the monarch told his associates that the main thing for him was the issue of maintaining peace .
The fact is that the war between the Germans (and the idea of the Austrians as a separate nation was formed only in the 2th century) was perceived as fratricidal, civil and was extremely unpopular in society [XNUMX].
During this short war, Helmuth (Helmuth) von Moltke fully showed himself, who first became acting chief of the general staff in 1857, and a year later was approved in this position. This happened thanks to Wilhelm I. Moltke literally showered the king with memorandums urging him to begin mobilization and start deploying troops. Together, Bismarck and Moltke convinced the Kaiser of the need to mobilize and start a war.
On June 2, Wilhelm I issued an order according to which all his orders, as commander in chief, were to be transmitted to the troops through the chief of the general staff. Moltke was thus appointed chief military adviser to the king. In practice, this meant that he actually became the commander-in-chief at the front (read more about Moltke's career in the material "The main object of operations should not be the territory, but the army of the enemy ": the military legacy of Helmuth von Moltke Sr.).
Bismarck, Roon and Moltke
When, in 1866, after the victorious conclusion of the war with Austria, the troops returning home solemnly entered Berlin, three people galloped behind the king: Bismarck, Moltke and Roon. These three have played a key role in the success of the past decade. All of them were henchmen of Wilhelm...
At the same time, the king had the wisdom not to interfere with his assistants, not to make himself a great commander, politician and diplomat. And this, of course, was his dignity ”,
‒ writes Nikolai Vlasov. And it's hard to disagree with that.
Soldier on the throne
(as a conclusion)
You can call him the second king-soldier of Prussia: in body and soul he was a real soldier, an experienced career officer. Thanks to him, a military reform was carried out in Prussia, without which, perhaps, Bismarck's wars would have gone much less successfully and not so smoothly.
To the same extent, the personal merit of the king is the appointment of the unprepossessing, but outstanding and capable Chief of the General Staff, Moltke.
Finally, the subordination of the command of the troops to the General Staff is an exclusively Prussian recipe for success, which was introduced under Wilhelm I, and for a long time it was advanced in military affairs.
And in addition to his generally more than outstanding military competence, Wilhelm I also possessed strong common sense, great political life experience - when he became king, he was 64 years old - and a strong monarchical sense of his own dignity. He was anything but a ghost king ",
‒ writes the German historian Sebastian Haffner. The characterization that he gives to the Kaiser is the most consistent with historical reality.
Wilhelm I, who became the first German emperor, was already a very old man in 1871 - he was 74 years old. He came to the Prussian throne only in connection with the childlessness of his older brother. In his younger years, he was never prepared to be at the head of the country; like all junior princes in the Hohenzollern dynasty, he was brought up for a military career .
Wilhelm I was an adherent of the old monarchical traditions, and paid special attention to the army, considering it his personal domain.
Helmut Seyer writes about him.
Wilhelm I was not a puppet in the hands of Bismarck (as is sometimes represented), but he was sincerely attached to him and was horrified at the thought of having to part with him. This further allowed the “iron chancellor” to blackmail the emperor more than once with his resignation .
This is how Wilhelm reacted to Bismarck's request for resignation in 1869.
Historian Nikolai Vlasov rightly notes that Wilhelm I was a soldier on the throne, a man originally destined for a military career, but who eventually became one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe.
In conclusion, it should be noted that Kaiser Wilhelm I Friedrich Ludwig Hohenzollern played a huge role in German history, and the era of his reign, without exaggeration, became one of the brightest in the history of Germany.
. Vlasov N. A. Kaiser Wilhelm I. ‒ St. Petersburg: Eurasia, 2022.
. Vlasov N. A. Otto von Bismarck. The path to the heights of power. ‒ St. Petersburg: "Eurasia", 2019.
. Haffner Sebastian. Prussia without legends / Preußen ohne Legende, Hamburg, 1979.
. Seier G. Wilhelm I - German Emperor / Schindling A., Ziegler W. Kaisers. Rostov-on-Don, 1997.
. Vlasov N. A. Germany of Bismarck. Empire in the center of Europe. ‒ St. Petersburg: Nauka, 2018.
. Schmidt R. Otto von Bismarck. Realpolitik und Revolution. Stuttgart, 2004.
- Victor Biryukov (Lugansk)
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