Three Kaisers, Three Visions

130 years ago, the German Empire was ruled by three emperors (kaisers) in quick succession. The old emperor, William I, died at age 91. His son Frederick (III) was already suffering from laryngeal cancer and died after only 99 days as emperor. He was succeeded by his son William (II), the best-known German emperor who would continue to rule until monarchy was abolished in Germany at the end of World War I. The three men stand for three distinctly different visions for their country. Let’s look at each of them in turn – William I, Frederick III, and William II.

William I: The Prussia That Was

When the German Empire was proclaimed in 1871 and William became its first emperor, he was already 73 – a man from another era. He had been born in 1797, in the age of Napoleon, and had personally served as a young officer in the Prussian army that helped defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. When his childless brother Frederick William IV became king of Prussia in 1840, that made him heir to the throne. As a crown prince, he acquired a reputation to be a conservative hardliner – when the citizens of Berlin took to the streets during the failed 1848 liberal revolution in Germany, he crushed the protests with artillery. Dubbed the “Prince of Grapeshot” thereafter, William had to flee to England when it seemed for a short while like the revolution might succeed. He returned after the defeat of the revolutionaries and became king himself in 1861.
William made the most important decision of his entire reign at the very beginning: Faced with a government crisis, he considered abdicating in favor of his son Frederick. However, he steadied himself and named Otto von Bismarck his new prime minister to deal with the crisis. William and Bismarck had similar convictions – both were dedicated Prussian conservatives, but aware of the need to adapt to an increasingly liberal and modern world. Bismarck swiftly solved the crisis and then set out with an ambitious program to expand Prussia’s power – by unifying Germany under her leadership. Such ambition was far from the cautious William. However, he always did what was expected from him. It yielded him the title of German Emperor, ruling over the potentially most powerful European state in 1871.

Kaiserproklamation Werner

William I (on the platform, center of the men in dark uniform) is proclaimed German Emperor. Left of him his son Frederick. The imposing figure in white in the center is Otto von Bismarck for whom the painting was commissioned. Painting by Anton von Werner, 1885.

Bismarck kept running politics in the empire as well – now as Chancellor of the Empire. William did not make routine policy decisions. He acquiesced to Bismarck’s leading role, but wistfully remarked that it was “not easy to be emperor under this chancellor”. William remained a Prussian king at heart. The new nationalist spirit was alien to him. Bismarck, personally inclined towards Prussia as well, harnessed German nationalism for his political purposes – from the Wars of Unification to the division of the German liberal movement in pro-Bismarck “national liberals” and anti-Bismarck “progressive liberals” focused on personal and economic liberties. The axiom of Bismarck’s foreign policy was that Germany as the country in the very center of Europe must prevent a coalition forming against her. Bismarck therefore set up an intricate web of treaties with all other great powers except for France. William was mostly limited to representative functions and, like other monarchs of this kind (think of the present-day British monarchy) was immensely popular, even among the political opponents of the conservative rule. He remained the living embodiment of the old Prussia – modest, disciplined, more concerned on what he actually was than what he appeared to be.


Emperor William I in his later years. Photography from 1884.

Frederick III: The Germany That Might Have Been

Frederick followed a different path. Born in 1831, his non-Prussian mother (she had received parts of her education by Goethe, the greatest of all German poets) made sure he was surrounded by liberal teachers. She encouraged him to visit England, the home of modern liberalism, where he met his future wife Victoria – Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. Despite their political disagreements, Frederick was loyal to his father. His dedication to constitutionalism and politics guided by law were however in strong opposition to Bismarck’s power politics, especially when Bismarck began to manufacture the wars that should unite Germany under Prussia’s wings.
When Bismarck had maneuvered Prussia into the war against Austria for the supremacy in Germany in 1866, Frederick opposed it. Nevertheless, following Prussian tradition, he took personal command of the 2nd Army. When the other Prussian army met the Austrians at Königgrätz, Friedrich marched his troops to the battle just in time to turn an Austrian success into a resounding Prussian victory. The generals now wanted to exploit the favorable situation and march on Vienna. Now Frederick formed an unlikely alliance with Bismarck to convince the military leadership to end the war with their political goals achieved – instead of risking a French intervention on Austria’s behalf. The underdog Prussia was now the leading power within Germany and the smaller German states like Bavaria and Saxony were bound to Prussia by treaties.

1866 Frederick.jpg

Frederick III leads the Second Prussian Army from Silesia to Bohemia. Image from the Vassal module of 1866: The Struggle for Supremacy in Germany.

Bismarck repeated the pattern in 1870 by provoking France into declaring war on Prussia – and now the smaller German states had to answer Prussia’s call. Once more, Frederick took command of an army. His force consisted of Prussians as well as soldiers from Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, which makes his victory at Wissembourg the first battle of a pan-German army. At the end of the war, Frederick was crown prince of the new German Empire and a popular war hero not only in Prussia, but also with the Southern Germans he had led.
Now Frederick expected to accede to the throne soon – after all, his father was 73. Frederick’s disagreements with Bismarck continued, however, and he stayed aloof of the politics of the day while remaining an icon of English-style liberalism. He watched as the Bismarck-led empire grew more and more conservative: The state intervened in the economy, the Socialist Workers’ Party was banned, and finally Bismarck even acquired colonies in Africa in order to poison the Anglo-German relationship and prevent a closer alignment between the two countries when Frederick would take power.


Frederick III in the uniform of a field marshal, painting by Minna Pfüller, around 1888.

By 1887, William was still emperor. Frederick, always a heavy smoker, began experiencing throat problems that turned out to be laryngeal cancer. The condition was treated lately and indecisively. Finally, in February 1888, a tracheotomy restored his breathing, but took his ability to speak. One month later, on March 9, 1888, William I passed away, and Frederick became emperor, ill and mute, so he had to give his accession speech in written form. As the most significant action of his short reign, he dismissed the Prussian Minister of the Interior Robert von Puttkamer for his interference in the 1885 elections. After only 99 days as emperor, Frederick died on June 15, 1888.
The ”99 days” have given rise to various speculations what a longer reign might have meant for Germany and the world. Frederick had been the hope of the German liberals that the country would orient itself towards an English-style constitutional monarchy with a strong role of parliament, laissez-faire economics, and personal freedoms. It is, however, unlikely, that Frederick would have put such far-reaching reforms in place – from his writings it is clear that he did not intend to give up power to a parliament and intended to be an active monarch, very unlike British Queen Victoria for most of her reign. Surely, however, Frederick’s Germany would have looked very different from that of his son’s.

William II: The Germany That Became

Wilhelm II. black and white

William II as emperor, photography from 1902.

William II was the first modern German ruler. He travelled extensively and had a strong media presence. Like his father, he was surrounded by liberal teachers in his youth, but unlike him, he resented them – unable to fulfil the high expectations placed in him, born with a paralyzed left arm that his parents tried to cure with various wild methods, including sowing the arm into a dead rabbit, his childhood was a very unhappy one. So he turned against his parents’ convictions and joined the conservative ranks of his grandfather William I and Bismarck, while still being a young man of the new age. During his adolescence and early adulthood, he made a plethora of new experiences, but never dug deeper into one field – which would be characteristic of his reign as well.
William was still young at his accession, 29 years only. He set out to influence the politics of the empire more strongly than his sick father or even his grandfather who deferred to Bismarck. Shortly after taking the throne, he dismissed Bismarck to establish a “personal regime”. Such a regime, of course, must depend on the monarch’s personality, and William was equally imaginative, impulsive, and insecure. His interests were wide, but shallow, ranging from architecture over science, music, and the military to poetry. Likewise, his political initiatives were varied and incoherent. Especially in foreign policy, William made constant shifts and entertained his administration officials with one grand new scheme after another: At one time he wanted to foster German immigration to Brazil and found a “New Germany” there, at another he planned to colonize Mesopotamia or gave orders to prepare invasion plans for Cuba and Puerto Rico. Usually belligerent against the United Kingdom, he suddenly played with the idea to give all German colonies in East Africa to the British in order to remove any possible root of an Anglo-German conflict. For all those grand schemes William also cooked up the respective alliance plans: With Russia and France against Japan and Britain, with Russia, Britain and France against the United States, with China and the United States against France and Britain… It was a nightmare for the public servants in the Foreign Office who tried to sideline William as much as possible and usually just let his newest idea rest unattended until it was forgotten and the emperor came up with a new one.[1] William did not direct foreign policy as much as he wished, but his mercurial behavior, his bragging and his rash public statements – “Mercy shall not be given. Prisoners shall not be taken” or “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares” – inspired mistrust and fear of Germany, especially in his mother’s home Britain, which gave up her traditional policy of “splendid isolation” and joined formal alliances with France and Russia.


William II in a grandiose pose. Painting by Max Koner, before 1900.

The three countries would take up arms against Germany in World War I. As the war went on, William was more and more sidelined. From 1916 on, General Erich Ludendorff was de facto military dictator of Germany and the emperor was excluded from all political decisions. In the end, William was forced to abdicate under the impression of military defeat and domestic revolution. He hastily fled to the Netherlands. This desertion made a bad impression even on the German monarchists who expected their emperor to take a stand and do his duty. William stayed in the Netherlands, hoping for a monarchist restauration, maybe after the example of fascist Italy which remained a kingdom although Mussolini ran the country. When the Nazis took power in Germany, they did not indulge in such notions. William died a private citizen in the Netherlands in 1941.

The Emperors in Board Games

Pax Britannica

William II always resented the British-dominated world order. Box cover of Pax Britannica, ©Victory Games.

Imperial Germany remains a severely undergamed topic. Indeed, there are only two categories of games that touch upon it: Wargames of the Wars of Unification and World War I, and games about imperialism. The former are numerous – ranging from individual battles to whole wars (like 1866: The Struggle for Supremacy in Germany (John B. Firer, Compass Games)). Among the latter, Pax Britannica (Greg Costikyan, Victory Games) is a revered classic that gives a nice insight into the logic of imperialism with its conflicting claims and the tensions that produced (even without William II’s brash statements).

Who’s your favorite German emperor and why? Let me know in the comments!

Games Referenced

1866: The Struggle for Supremacy in Germany (John B. Firer, Compass Games)
Pax Britannica (Greg Costikyan, Victory Games)

Further Reading

An excellent history of Prussia, including when it was a part of the German Empire, is Clark, Christopher: Iron Kingdom. The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600—1947, Allen Lane, London 2006.
For the events of the Year of Three Emperors, see Nichols, J. Alden: The Year of the Three Kaisers. Bismarck and the German Succession, 1887—88, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL 1987.


1. It was also a nightmare for whoever had to sit next to William at official banquets – the emperor was infamous for rambling his neighbors’ ears off with the newest scheme of his.

4 thoughts on “Three Kaisers, Three Visions

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Jamyl, muito obrigado! Parece que não existe uma tradução Portuguesa de Iron Kingdom, mas acho que você gostaria um outro livro de Christopher Clark também: “Os Sonâmbulos” (sobre o início do primeira guerra mundial, e também um perfil interessante do Imperador Guilherme II).


  1. Pingback: One Year Blogging & Many People Met – Dude! Take Your Turn!

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