The Failed Crowning of Wilhelm I

LeMO Bestand - Objekt - Kaiser Wilhelm I. in der Uniform eines Feldmarschalls des 1. Garderegiments zu Fuß, 1879

How culturally significant was the crowning ceremony of King Wilhelm I in Prussia and the other German states? This question has been asked by historians for decades and was recently repeated on Quora by Mike Wilson. Wilhelm I, whose full name was Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig von Preußen, from the House of Hohenzollern, was crowned twice, first as King of Prussia in 1861, and then again in 1871, when he became the first German Emperor at its founding. The second was more culturally significant, because it marks the end of German particularism (“Vielstaaterei”) and the beginning of a united German state. In the years leading up to his coronation, the big argument was whether this new Germany should include Austrohungary and the Habsburgers – the so-called “Greater German Solution”. In the end Otto von Bismark as Reichschancellor managed to achieve his vision of a Germany under Prussian supremacy, the “Smaller German Solution” (“Kleindeutsche Lösung”). The Kaiserreich, that he considered his own crowning achievement, only lasted for 47 years and ended in 1918 with the German capitulation and the proclamation of the German Republic. Wilhelm I’s son, the Emperor Wilhelm II, was forced into exile in Holland, where he died in 1941.

During the Weimar Republic and afterwards, the history of the empire was controversially discussed against the background of the respective times. Immediately after the World War, the main focus was on the question of war guilt. While the vast majority continued to see the imperial house in a positive light, a volatile minority blamed the emperor at least partly for the disastrous outcome of the war for Germany. During the Third Reich, the period of the Kaiserreich was assessed in more traditional national conservative terms. Some historians, however, spoke even then of the „unfinished Reich,“ which had only been completed by Adolf Hitler.

After the Second World War and up to the present day, the Kaiserreich has been largely described as the continuation of Bismark’s policy, which had remained unfinished culturally and constitutionally by Hitler. In the 1960s, there was a fierce dispute among West German and foreign historians about the political strategy of the Kaiserreich and the question of guilt for World War I, the so-called „Fischer Controversy”. The Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer was one of the first German historians to evaluate the files of the Foreign Office and the Reich Chancellery, which had been kept under lock and key by the Allies until then, and who, with the permission of the GDR government, also inspected the Potsdam Central Archive. He made the claim that Germany’s wartime goals had been from the very beginning to achieve hegemony in Europe and thus a rise to world power status.

The Reich government under the liberal Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Fritz claimed, had early planned a separate peace in the East and a rapid victory in the West that would result in the annexation of large parts of France and the Benelux countries and the takeover of their colonies in Central Africa. In this way, according to Fischer, Bethman Hollweg intended to continue and complete the prewar strategy of the Wilhelmine Empire.

All this, he said, emerged from the secret „Septemberprogramm“ of 1914 discovered by Fischer in the Potsdam archives, which had in fact been written by a high state official, Kurt Riezler, and published in September 1914, at the height of the First Battle of the Marne, when German combat units were poised to enter Paris and victory for the Kaiserreich looked likely. The counterattack by the French and British under Joseph Joffre and Sir John French marked the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and the turning point of the First World War.

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