1888—The Year of Three German Emperors

From left to right: Wilhelm I, Friedrich III, and Wilhelm II

The year 1888 is known to this day in Germany as the Year of Three Emperors. It saw the end of the reign of Wilhelm I, the first Kaiser of a united Germanya and the brief reign of his son, Friedrich III, who was already terminally ill with throat cancer, and, upon his death. Friedrich reigned for only three months and upon his death, his son, Wilhelm II succeeded to the throne. He would be the last Hohenzollern to rule Prussia and preside over Germany, abdicating in 1918 following the Axis power’s disastrous defeat during World War I.

Wilhelm I, born in 1797,was known for being a careful ruler who steered Germany towards reunification. Under his Minister President Otto von Bismarck, Prussia achieved the unification of Germany and the establishment of the German Empire. With this, Wilhelm guaranteed the supremacy of the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty over other German petty states.  Before succeeding as King of Prussia, in 1861, he served as his brother’s regent from 1858.  At the start of his reign, Wilhelm was hailed for his eagerness to the promulgate the 1848 Constitution, which seemed to herald a New Era. His insistence, however, on reorganizing the army to increase efficiency and political reliability clash (1862) with the Chamber of Deputies. Rejecting the compromise suggested by Otto von Bismarck, whom he appointed as Prime Minister, William strengthened both his ascendancy over the army and his opposition to parliamentary control. He commanded the army with the advice of his other chief advisor, Helmuth K.B. von Molke.

Wilhelm, however, preferred to work behind the scene, preferring his able men to do work for him. While always in favor of German unification, Wilhelm, nevertheless, resisted his proclamation as German Kaiser at Versailles on Jan. 18, 1871, calling it an attenuation of Prussian power. A staunch conservative, he favored slow internal development, finding it a means to solidify the royal authorities. His foreign views leaned heavily on forging ties with Russia. He was, nevertheless, conscientious and modest, a stark contrast to his grandson and namesake, Wilhelm II. For this, he was well-loved by the German people.

When Wilhelm died on March 9, 1888, his son, Friedrich III succeeded him as German Kaiser and King of Prussia, but he was terminally ill with throat cancer that his reign lasted for only 99 days. Born in 1831, he married Victoria, Princess Royal and eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of Britain. When he was crown prince, he served in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and was a patron of the arts. Friedrich was considered a liberal and his death on June 15, 1888, disappointed many who had looked forward to his rule. His eldest child and son, Wilhelm II (born January 27, 1859), would be Prussia’s last king.

Wilhelm was identified as a conservative ruler but unlike his grandfather, he was a failure in judging character. Intelligent and good-intentioned, the Kaiser was, nevertheless, ill-prepared to succeed his father and his youth and inexperience led him to frequent clashes with Bismarck, who opposed extending the social-welfare measures initially desired by Wilhelm to counter August Bebei’s Social Democrats.

With Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890, Wilhelm gradually extended his own authority. Volatile, unpredictable, and never applying himself methodically, he was unable to coordinate government policy. In the foreign affairs, Wilhelm aimed at boosting German prestige abroad, his powerful, nationalistic speeches hinted the need to go to war to guarantee German supremacy, an act with alarmed all Europe. He also backed colonial expansion and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s construction of a large battle fleet. Unlike his predecessors, Wilhelm dumped Russia and even worsened German relations with Britain after encouraging the Boers.

In July 1914, Wilhelm wavered between peace and war. It would prove tragic for him to endure the heavy responsibility for the outbreak of World War I. As he focused his efforts on the war, he risked himself losing contact with the German people and identified the monarchy with the war’s outcome. His support to extensive, annexationist plans and unrestricted submarine warfare led to Germany’s defeat, after the United States entered the scene. He also opposed peace proposals and domestic reform, leading him to lose his authority to the party in the Reichstag and to the dictatorship (1916-18) of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. After the armistice of November 1918, Wilhelm fled to the Netherlands, where he abdicated on Nov. 28, 1918. He died while in exile on June 4, 1941.