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Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Describes a Prussian State Council Meeting (January 17, 1871)

Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (1831-1888) was the son of Prussian King and German Kaiser Wilhelm I. He was the father of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He ruled Prussia and Germany for only 99 days, from March 9 to June 15, 1888; during this time he took the title Kaiser Friedrich III. Well before ascending the throne, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and all surgical and other attempts to halt the progress of the disease failed. He was known to hold less reactionary views than his father, his son, and Bismarck, due in part to the influence of his wife, Princess Victoria, the daughter of Queen Victoria of Britain. Friedrich III, however, was not as committed to a liberal course as many of his contemporaries and some historians believed. The text below, drawn from the crown prince’s diary, describes a meeting between Wilhelm I, the crown prince, and Bismarck, one day before the proclamation of the German Empire in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors on January 18, 1871. Even at this point, there was still deep disagreement about the title Wilhelm would accept as the new head of Germany. Bismarck considered the title “Emperor of Germany” inappropriate because the heads of the other German states viewed it as demeaning to them. The same was true of the title “Emperor of the Germans.” A solution was devised during the ceremony itself: Wilhelm would be referred to only as “German Emperor.” This account can be fruitfully compared with Bismarck’s recollection of the same discussions.

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Headquarters at Versailles, 17 January 1871

In the afternoon, there was a meeting of the Council, in the presence of the King, at which Count Bismarck, the Minister of the Royal Household, von Schleinitz, and I were present. When Count Bismarck encountered the Minister of the Household, von Schleinitz, in the antechamber, he told him rather brusquely that he did not really understand what sorts of matters the Federal Chancellor and the Minister of the Household needed to discuss jointly with the King. In an overheated room, we spent three hours deliberating on the title of Emperor, the designation of the Crown Prince, the status of the Royal family, the Court, and the army in relation to the Reich, etc.

With respect to the imperial title, Count Bismarck acknowledged that, even during the discussions on the constitution, the Bavarian representatives and plenipotentiaries had not wished to permit the designation “Emperor of Germany,” and that in the end he had conceded for their sake and settled on “German Emperor,” though without asking His Majesty beforehand. This designation, with which no real idea is associated, aroused both His Majesty’s displeasure and mine, and we did our utmost to replace it with “Emperor of Germany.” Yet Count Bismarck held to his viewpoint [ . . . ]. Furthermore, he attempted to prove that the term “Emperor of Germany” signified a territorial power that we did not wield over the Reich in any way, whereas “German Emperor,” on the other hand, was the natural successor to the former imperator Romanus. So, eventually, we had to submit, though I was not fond of this solution at all.

[ . . . ]

This occasion witnessed a rather embarrassing debate about the relation of Emperor to King; it occurred because the King [Wilhelm], contrary to old Prussian traditions, rates an Emperor higher than a King. The two ministers and I, along with them, opposed this view most resolutely, referring to historical documents in our archives, in which King Friedrich I, in recognizing the Russian Czar as Emperor, expressly emphasized that he should never take precedence over the Prussian King. Furthermore, another argument focused on a meeting between King Friedrich Wilhelm I and the Holy Roman Emperor, at which the King had insisted on entering a two-door pavilion at exactly the same time as the Emperor, so as to ensure that even the latter would not take precedence over him. Finally, Count Bismarck also pointed out that it was only King Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s personal and peculiar humility before Austria that had led him to introduce the principle of submission to the archducal dynasty of that imperial state. The King, however, was not at all convinced by those examples; instead, he became angry and declared that King Friedrich III, in his meetings with Czar Alexander I, had determined that the latter in fact took precedence, and that his royal father’s will was authoritative and the decisive factor in the present case. Furthermore, he argued, we would not be able to realize our claims to an advance in rank vis-à-vis the English royal family either, which, as a well known fact, was entitled to the prime position among all European ruling dynasties. When, however, during the course of the deliberations, it was decided that our family should retain its current status, the King, in turn, expressed his desire that the equality of its position in relation to the Imperial Houses be underscored. In the end, we resolved that nothing definitive should be done in this respect. [ . . . ]

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