World Coins

Prussian King Wilhelm I revered as wise kaiser

The Research Desk column from Feb. 8, 2016, issue of Coin World:

Few world leaders successfully bore the honorific “the Great” during their lives or after.

In 1888, an effort was made to declare Prussian King Wilhelm I as Wilhelm der Grosse. An 1897 medal by H. Dürrich marked the centenary of his birth, naming him Kaiser Wilhelm the Great.

Struck in 45-millimeter bronze, it bears his uniformed bust with ornate lettering KAISER WILHELM DER GROSSE. On the reverse is GOTT DER ALLMÄCHTIGE SAH DEINE OHNMACHT UND GAB DIR, O DEUTSCHES VOLK, KAISER WILHELM DEN GROSSEN, “God the Almighty Saw Thy Helplessness and Gave Thee, O German People, Kaiser Wilhelm the Great.” Mayer & Wilhelm, Stuttgart, struck it.

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Prussia grew from the domains of the Margraves of Brandenburg into a hard-driving military state. Its “Greats” included such Hohenzollern rulers as Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (born 1620, died 1688) and King Friedrich II (ruled 1712 to 1786) universally remembered as Friedrich the Great.

His successors were less than great: Friedrich Wilhelm II let his military machinery decay just at the French Revolution offered unparalleled challenges. Outright disasters followed under Friedrich Wilhelm III (died 1840), with repeated defeats and loss of territory to Napoleon. 

Friedrich Wilhelm IV (ruled 1840 to 1861) was elected German Kaiser by the 1849 Frankfurt Parliament, but rejected “a crown from the gutter.” He was declared mentally incompetent and his brother, Wilhelm, Prince of Prussia, became regent in 1858 to 1861, king 1861 to 1888. 

Wilhelm I realized and accepted his own limitations.

He teamed up with Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck and military leaders Albrecht von Roon and Helmut von Moltke. Prussia then defeated in succession Denmark, Austria and the South German states and finally imperial France. Each victory drew the German states closer to Prussia, and on Jan. 18, 1871, Bismarck engineered the proclamation of his master as Wilhelm I German Emperor and King of Prussia in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Not Emperor of Germany, but German emperor over a federal union of 25 states under the primacy of Prussia. Wilhelm lived until 1888, increasingly revered as “the Wise Kaiser.” Upon his death much effort was expended on remembering him as Wilhelm the Great, but only medals such as this recall this effort.

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