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New Glory & Defeat Episode: Why Wilhelm I Didn't Want To Be German Emperor

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the German Empire is born. https://youtu.be/ixA86Cxn4rU

Last week the Germans defeated the French in the west at Le Mans and in the east before Belfort. This week German leaders are focused on the proclamation of the united German Empire.

The proclamation is planned to take place at the Versailles palace on January 18, the 170th anniversary of the coronation of Prussia’s first king. But Bismarck and soon-to-be German Emperor King Wilhelm I argue right up until the last minute. Wilhelm doesn’t want to be emperor, objects to the wording of his future title, and refuses to take part in the planning of the proclamation ceremony or the new imperial coat of arms. The day before the proclamation, King Wilhelm, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, Bismarck, and Minister of the Royal Household Alexander von Schleinitz meet to resolve the conflict. The Crown Prince mediates a three-hour discussion on whether the imperial title should be German Emperor, favored by Bismarck, or Emperor of Germany, favored by Wilhelm.
The Crown Prince recalls the conversation: "[Bismarck] sought to prove that the expression 'Kaiser von Deutschland [Emperor of Germany]' meant a territorial power which we did not possess over the Reich at all, whereas 'Deutscher Kaiser [German Emperor]', on the other hand, was the natural consequence of the former imperator romanis." (Meisner, 334)
The King finally accepts “German Emperor,” but he is furious. On the topic of the new imperial flag, at least, all agree on keeping the black, white, and red of the North German Confederation. This decision is a deliberate rejection of the black, red, and gold of the Holy Roman Empire and the failed revolution of 1848/49.

When the topic of Prussia’s position within the empire becomes heated, the King throws a fit and storms out of the room. The Crown Prince is so stressed he is attended to by a doctor. Bismarck is stunned by the King’s tantrum, and cannot understand why the King resists – in Bismarck’s view – a perfectly logical position.

The morning of the proclamation, Bismarck meets with Grand Duke Friedrich von Baden. As the highest-ranking prince at the ceremony, the Grand Duke will announce the proclamation. Bismarck is shocked to discover that the Grand Duke wants to proclaim Wilhelm “Emperor of Germany.” With great difficulty, Bismarck convinces the Grand Duke to say “German Emperor,” but the Chancellor cannot be completely certain what the Grand Duke will actually proclaim when the historic moment comes.

While the King, Chancellor and Crown Prince argue in Versailles, painter Anton von Werner receives a royal telegram that sends him into a tizzy.
Block 2: Anton von Werner’s journey to fame
In the Grand Duchy of Baden, German painter Anton von Werner is busily working on his painting 'Moltke vor Paris' on January 15. He takes a break to go ice skating, but is interrupted by the arrival of a messenger from the Crown Prince with an urgent telegram:
"H.R.H. the Crown Prince wishes to inform you that you will experience something worthy of your brush if you can arrive here before January 18." (Werner, 30)
Von Werner immediately boards a train for France, and completes the last leg of the journey to Versailles by stagecoach with a Bavarian Jäger perched on top to protect him from Franc-tireurs. The artist has no idea what he’s been called on to paint, but can barely contain his excitement when he arrives on January 17.
After a few hours’ sleep, the painter visits the Crown Prince at his villa early on January 18. There, he receives a special pass allowing him to visit the quote “festivities at the palace,” but when he arrives there he still doesn’t know that the brush-worthy event is the Emperor’s Proclamation. He passes through the Peace Room, which is filled with officers. Then, he enters the Hall of Mirrors and is amazed to see 600 to 800 people gathered there. He starts sketching the scene and barely notices the service that introduces the proclamation. Von Werner doesn’t sugarcoat his disappointment with the presentation in his memoirs:
"And now, in the most pompless manner and with extraordinary brevity, the great historical event that signified the achievement of the war went ahead [...]." (Werner, 33)
Now the painter finally realizes he is to paint the Emperor’s Proclamation. Years later, he recalls the scene:
"[...] I turned my most rapt attention to the picturesque appearance of [the Grand Duke]. I noted down the most necessary things in haste, saw that King Wilhelm said something and that Count Bismarck read out something longer in a wooden voice, but did not hear what it meant. I only awoke from my absorption when the Grand Duke of Baden […] called out in a loud voice: 'Long live His Majesty, Emperor Wilhelm the Victorious! Seine Majestät, Kaiser Wilhelm der Siegreiche, Er lebe hoch!'" (Werner, 33)

Von Werner’s distraction is understandable, but a clearer picture of the brief and sober proclamation is not quite as glorious as intended.

The Act of Proclamation begins at noon and only takes an hour. The Hall of Mirrors had been used as a military hospital, but none of the attendees seem bothered by the bloodstains on the floors. First, the court preacher leads a short service, followed by an address by King Wilhelm. The King speaks from a carpeted wooden dais in front of the regimental flags of the 3rd Army, and flanked by the Crown Prince and the Grand Duke of Baden. Wilhelm doesn’t know it, but several German nurses who work at the military hospital in Versailles are hiding behind the regimental flags just steps away. Bavarian Sarah Hahn’s account of events is breathless:
"He is coming closer. Who? The king, the emperor-to-be [...]. Now he stands under his flags. Silent silence. For the first time in my life, I hear him speak, the celebrated one, the beloved of his people. Zum ersten mal in meinem Leben höre ich ihn reden, den Gefeierten, den Geliebten seines Volkes." (Bühl-Gramer, 96)
Bismarck then reads the declaration that von Werner barely hears, and the Grand Duke finally proclaims the Emperor. The sources are contradictory about the exact wording, except that he probably refers to “Emperor Wilhelm” to get around the problem of the imperial title. All present then shout Hurrah!, and the Emperor steps down from the dais, accepts somewhat disorganized congratulations – and completely ignores Bismarck. Von Werner, who has no clue of the rift between the two men, is irritated:
"It seemed to me an intended defiliercour of the officers present failed, and I then saw the emperor descend the steps of the esplanade, past Bismarck, whom he did not seem to notice." (Werner, 34)

The Crown Prince, on the other hand, is moved:
"I let my eyes wander […] up to the ceiling, where Louis XIV's self-glorifying [artworks], depicted the division of Germany in huge allegories and boastful inscriptions. I asked myself more than once whether it was really true that we were in Versailles to witness the restoration of the German Empire - so dreamlike did the whole thing seem to me. so traumartig wollte mir das Ganze erscheinen." (Meisner, 342)
The newly-minted emperor is less enthusiastic, as he writes his wife Augusta later that day:
"I have just returned from the palace after having performed the act of Emperor! I cannot tell you how morose I was during these last days, partly because of the lofty responsibility I now have to assume, partly and above all over the pain of seeing the Prussian title pushed aside!" (Deuerlein, 303)
Even Bismarck is annoyed, as he tells his wife Johanna: "This birth of the Emperor was a difficult one, and kings have their strange desires in such times, like women before they give away to the world what they cannot keep. As an accoucheur, I had several times the urgent need to be a bomb and to burst that the whole building would have gone to ruin. Necessary business attacks me little, but the unnecessary ones embitter me." (N.N., 78)
As the ceremony ends, so does the hidden nurses’ proximity to power. Sarah Hahn and her colleagues rush to get out of the way unseen and return to the task of treating the wounded whose suffering has made the empire possible. News of the proclamation reaches front line troops like Reserve officer Ferdinand Viebig of the Lower Rhine Fusilier Regiment No. 39 days later:
"Hurrahs were shouted, and certainly not only on command, but I cannot recall the jubilant enthusiasm that the regimental history reports." (Merkelbach, 139)
On the French side, no one is interested in Wilhelm’s proclamation. That very day, writer Edmond de Goncourt notes in his diary that in Paris, weekly bread rations have been reduced to 400 grams per person. The French high command is still trying to break the siege and save its honor, so it launches another doomed offensive at the Second Battle of Buzenval on January 19. French forces are able to briefly push some German units out of their trenches and take the local high ground, but as night falls they cannot hold their gains and pull back. About 600 Germans and 4000 Frenchmen are lost for the prestige of France, including painter Henri Regnault and arctic explorer Gustave Lambert.

This week, King Wilhelm I of Prussia is proclaimed Emperor of a united German Empire at Versailles. The new empire also narrowly avoids an embarrassing constitutional crisis, when the Bavarian parliament gives its belated approval for the Reich Constitution with a bare 2-vote majority. Germany has been unified by this war, which will finally end next week. After the failure at Buzenval, the French ask for a ceasefire.

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