Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig was born on 22 March 1797 in Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin. His chances of inheriting the throne one day were seemed to be quite low as he was the second son of King Friedrich Wilhelm III and Queen Louise. During his childhood, he was educated by the Prussian theologian and pedagogue Johann Gottlieb Delbrück, who had also educated Wilhelm’s older brother, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. When he was 9 years old, Prussia got decisively defeated by Napoleon. The defeat was followed by an immediate occupation. A year later he was appointed as an officer by his father, which started his military career.
Wilhelm saw his first actual military service in 1814, during the liberation wars against the Napoleonic invasion. Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign had cost him a huge chunk of his army and his armies were not strong enough to continue the invasion of German lands, which sparked the liberation wars. At the beginning of the war, he was a Captain. He accompanied the army in the run to Paris and participated in battles. At the end of the war, he was promoted to Major and rewarded with an Iron Cross. Later in 1818, he was promoted to Major General. Since he spent years in military service, he became the Royal eye within the Army. He was able to quickly provide the Army’s need for new reforms and equipment. His presence in the Army allowed the Prussian High Command to be in direct touch with the government.
On 11 June 1829, he married Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, at the instigation of his father. Even though it looked like a happy marriage from outside, the couple didn’t really get along. In particular, the political views of the couple were contrary; Augusta was inclined to liberalism and believed that a revolution could be prevented with timely reforms. Wilhelm, on the other hand, made no secret of his aversion to liberalism.
In 1840, King Friedrich Wilhelm III died. Wilhelm’s older brother was crowned as Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Since his brother had no children, Wilhelm officially became the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1847, because of the high pressure from the Liberals and an imminent threat of revolution, Wilhelm signed the patent for the appointment of a united Prussian Landtag and took his place in the First Chamber. During the 1848 Revolutions, he was forced to stay in England for a while because of the extremely negative public opinion of him. This was because of his advocacy of a violent crackdown on the Revolution.
For the next decade, Wilhelm kept a low profile and resided in Koblenz with his wife. During his time there, he had the chance to learn more about contemporary political movements. He gradually became more moderate towards Liberalism, although he was still more of a Conservative. In 1857, he took over the regency because of the illness of his brother, the King. In 1861, after the King’s dead, he was crowned as King William I of Prussia. In the same year he survived an assassination attempt. When the Prussian Chamber of Deputies rejected the granting of funds for the reorganization of the army that had already been carried out, the dispute over army reform was widening into a constitutional conflict. At first Wilhelm considered abdicating in favor of his son, but then he was persuaded by his war minister, Albrecht von Roon, to appoint the Prussian Minister Otto von Bismarck as prime minister. Wilhelm largely agreed with Bismarck in his political convictions, but was skeptical of his methods of government. Nevertheless, he supported the foreign and domestic policy of Bismarck for 26 years until his death and consistently rejected any resignation from this.
In 1864, in the German-Danish War, Wilhelm led the high command of the Prussian army. Two years later in the Austro-Prussian War, he led the the Prussian armies into victory. In the conflict over the peace conditions Bismarck managed to convince the King, together with Crown Prince Friedrich, not to annex Austria and keep the possibility of a future alliance alive. Wilhelm became the leader of the North German Confederation in 1867. And four years later, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, which was a decisive victory for the Germans, Wilhelm was proclaimed Emperor of the newly founded German Reich by the assembled German Princes and representatives of the Free Cities. Nevertheless, Wilhelm considered the title of the King of Prussia to be higher than the Emperor title.
After the proclamation of the Empire, Wilhelm left the affairs of state in favor of Bismarck. He was completely limited to representing the embodiment of state dignity and the approval of Bismarck’s decisions. In 1878, Wilhelm survived two more assassination attempt, one of which severely injured him. These attacks led to the purge of Socialists from the Reichstag through Bismarck’s efforts. Later years were more silent as he got too old to actively care for state affairs. On 9 March 1888 he died in Berlin after a short illness. He was buried at the Mausoleum at Park Charlottenburg.