German Monarchy: Titles & Timeline

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the rulers of the German Empire or the Second Reich as it is sometimes called. We will identify these rulers, highlight their key contributions to the German Empire, and explore other important themes and developments.

What Was the Second Reich All About?

Most of us have probably heard about the Third Reich. This is the name given to Adolf Hitler's Nazi government which was in power in Germany between 1933-1945. Hitler boasted that his Third Reich would last 1,000 years. It lasted a mere 12. But this begs the question: if this was the Third Reich, what about the First and Second Reichs?

Historians consider the First Reich to be the Holy Roman Empire, which was a conglomeration of central European states. The Holy Roman Empire is usually considered to have lasted between around 800 to 1806, but this is another lesson for another time. The Second Reich is what we really want to focus on. The Second Reich, more commonly called the German Reich or the German Empire, was the name for the German nation-state between 1871-1918. Germany is actually a fairly young nation. It became a nation-state in 1871, and until its defeat in World War I, it existed as an empire.

The German Empire is classified as a constitutional monarchy. Its head of state was the Emperor, but it also had an elected representative assembly called the Reichstag. There was also another body called the Bundesrat who advised the Emperor. Finally, there was the Chancellor who wielded tremendous power and was basically the Emperor's instrument for carrying out his will. The German people were entitled to specific rights, and there were limits on the power of government. The German Empire was generally a conservative government, but it had some surprisingly progressive (or liberal) components as well. For example, it was one of the earliest countries to provide modern welfare programs, such as health insurance and pension programs for the elderly.

Let's learn about the rulers of the German Empire. Here we go!

The Early Years: Wilhelm I

In the German Empire, the Emperor held the title Kaiser. This is the German word for emperor and is derived directly from the word ''caesar''. A brilliant politician and statesman named Otto von Bismarck was really the one responsible for the unification of Germany in 1871 (don't worry, we'll talk about Bismarck more in a bit). After Germany was unified and became a nation-state, it chose King Wilhelm I of Prussia to be its first emperor. It's a little bit confusing, but basically, Prussia was a powerful state inside of what became the German Empire, so this was a natural choice. Upon being emperor, Wilhelm I became known as ''Kaiser Wilhelm I''. He ruled the German Empire from 1871 to his death in 1888. Kaiser Wilhelm I was a conservative, but was relatively open to liberal reforms. He was a popular leader and has often been regarded favorably by historians.

Kaiser Wilhelm I.
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Frederick III and Wilhelm II

The year 1888 has been known as the ''Year of Three Emperors'' because Wilhelm I's son, Frederich III only ruled 99 days before he died. He was succeeded by his son Wilhelm II, who was Wilhelm I's grandson. Wilhelm II ruled Germany from 1888 until he was forced to abdicate the throne in 1918. Wilhelm II was also the grandson of British Queen Victoria and was related to many other European monarchs. Wilhelm II was opposed to liberal reforms and was in many respects more autocratic than his predecessors. He was brash and impetuous, characteristics which made him unpopular and hurt his reign. In 1890 he dismissed Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor of Germany over differences of opinion. Otto von Bismarck, as we said, was instrumental in establishing the German nation-state, and he had been in power since 1871. Bismarck had been a vital and guiding force in German politics until his dismissal.

Kaiser Frederich III, who ruled for only 99 days.
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