Founding the German Empire
The rise of the German Empire is one of the most striking events of the nineteenth century; and its founder, William VII. of Prussia, stands forth strong, simple, capable, "a man among men, a king among kings, and a true father to his people," the first emperor of a united Germany.
Born at Berlin in 1797, twenty-fourth in direct descent from that young Conrad von Hohenzollern, whom Barbarossa, 600 years before, had singled out for a position of trust,—young Prince William and his elder brother grew up amid the gloom of the overshadowing power of Napoleon. At the ages of eleven and nine, already dressed in Prussian uniforms, the little princes watched the Prussian army marching to do battle with Napoleon. The news of their disastrous defeat at Jena, must have been for ever impressed on their childish minds.
"Ah, my children," their mother the queen had cried amid her tears, "you cannot understand the great calamity that has befallen us. Do not content yourselves with shedding tears, but some day strive to be great generals. Conquer France and retrieve the glory of your ancestors. Prove worthy descendants of Frederick the Great."
Napoleon entered Berlin, and the king, Frederick William III. of Prussia, fled with his queen and the young princes.
"We have lived too long under the laurels of Frederick the Great," the queen cried in despair, as she lay dying soon after, broken-hearted at her country's troubles. She did not live to see that famous day, when her two sons fought their first battle against Napoleon on French territory, and entered Paris in triumph with the Tsar Alexander of Russia and the Emperor of Austria. While Napoleon was escorted to his exile at Elba, and the Austrian Emperor took his daughter and the little King of Rome to Vienna, the young princes were shown Paris by Baron Humboldt, after which they visited England.
Events followed quickly. The Congress of Vienna reinstated the German princes in their little independent states. The battle of Waterloo followed. Then came the marriage of Charlotte of Prussia to Nicholas, afterwards Tsar of Russia, when Prince William had to hold the diadem over his sister's head, for three whole hours during the marriage ceremony. His own marriage followed, then the death of his father and accession of his brother, as King Frederick William IV. of Prussia.
It was not till the year 1861, that William became King of Prussia on the death of his brother without heirs. He was now sixty-four. He had been in the Prussian army over fifty years. His eldest son, the Crown Prince, had married the Princess Royal, daughter of Victoria Queen of England; and their son, the present Emperor of Germany, lay in his cradle.
The new king set to work at once on schemes of reform. Prussia had lost her place among the nations of Europe; she had been humiliated because her sword was rusty in its scabbard, she had been slighted because her army had degenerated. The strength of the army must be increased. In future the Prussian army must be the Prussian nation in arms.
"If you wish for peace, be ready for war," was the motto of the great soldier Moltke, who was William's right hand.
At the head of the ministry, he placed Otto von Bismarck, destined to become one of the greatest statesmen of modern times—the man, who did more for Prussia and the union of Germany, than the king himself.
"The German problem," he asserted in a famous speech, "cannot be solved by parliamentary decrees, but by blood and iron."
"Blood and iron" were soon to play their part in the coming struggle for unity. In 1863, the crown of Denmark passed to Christian IX., father of Queen Alexandra of England. For numbers of years the neighbouring states of Schleswig and Holstein had been subject to Denmark. They were mostly peopled by Germans, and William of Prussia now declared they should be independent. Denmark refused, and war broke out. Austria joined Prussia, and together the two giant nations attacked poor little Denmark. The Danes fought like heroes, but they were crushed by overwhelming numbers.
The war over, Austria and Prussia quarrelled over their prey. The King of Prussia and Bismarck coveted Holstein: they pictured their great war-ships riding at anchor in the splendid harbour of Kiel. The quarrel grew. William was personally attached to the Emperor of Austria, and greatly disliked the idea of war. But the iron will of his minister Bismarck overcame all scruples, and the "two giant brothers, Austria and Prussia, began to feel for their swords and shake their gauntleted fists at each other."
The German states took different sides. Saxony, Bavaria, Wurtemburg, Baden, Hesse, and Hanover fought for Austria. The northern states fought for Prussia. The armies met in Bohemia, on Austrian territory. The king, Moltke, and Bismarck were all there when the great battle of Sadowa or Königgrätz was fought.
"It was one of the saddest moments of my life, when I crossed the boundary of your country as an enemy," said William afterwards to the Austrians. "I have not come to make war upon peaceable citizens, but to defend the honour of Prussia."
The campaign of 1866 has special interest, as being the first war carried on under modern conditions. The organisation of the Prussian army, and their use of the needle-gun as opposed to the old muzzle-loader, awoke the world to a revolution in military science.
Sadowa was fought and won by the Prussians on July 3, 1866.
"Your Majesty has not only won the battle, but the campaign," said Moltke truly.
But the old warrior-king was searching the battlefield for his son, the Crown Prince, whose final charge with the Prussian Guards had driven the Austrians from the field. Father and son met at last, and with the tears running down his furrowed cheeks, the king took from his breast his own Order of Merit, and gave it to the Crown Prince.
The Seven Weeks' War was over. The results were momentous. Peace was made, by which Austria accepted her utter exile from Germany, and Prussia annexed Hanover, part of Bavaria, Schleswig, and Holstein.
And to-day, right across the Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein, runs the famous deep-cut canal, sixty-one miles long, connecting the mouth of the Elbe with the bay of Kiel. It was opened by the present German Emperor in 1895. It saves 600 dangerous miles of sailing round the stormy north of Denmark's coast, and to-day in the famous harbour of Kiel, is building Germany's navy.