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William I

William I, 1797–1888, emperor of Germany (1871–88) and king of Prussia (1861–88), second son of the future King Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg. Essentially conservative, William fled to England during the revolutionary uprisings of 1848 in Prussia, and upon his return (1849) he commanded the troops that crushed the republican insurrection in Baden. When his brother King Frederick William IV was declared insane, William became (1858) regent, and on Frederick William's death William became king of Prussia. William immediately set about reorganizing and strengthening the army, and when he met the opposition of the legislature, he appointed Otto von Bismarck his prime minister in 1862. From then until the emperor's death, Bismarck guided the destiny of Prussia and Germany. Opposition to the king's and Bismarck's military program was suppressed, and in 1864 Prussia began its career of military conquest in the war with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein. This led to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, from which Prussia emerged the leading German power. William I commanded in person in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, received the surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan, and was proclaimed (Jan. 18, 1871) emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (see Germany). Although William often disagreed with Bismarck's policies, he ultimately was always persuaded by his chancellor. William did not favor the Kulturkampf (Bismarck's struggle against the Roman Catholic Church) but gave it his tacit consent. As a symbol of reborn German unity he was popular, but his militarism and belief in his divine right to rule drew upon him the hatred of the radical elements. Two attempts on William's life (1878) enabled Bismarck to pass severe legislation against the socialists. William's reign was crucial in European history, for it saw Germany's rise to power on the continent. His son Frederick III succeeded him.

See P. Wiegler, William the First (1927, tr. 1929); T. Aronson, The Kaisers (1971).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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