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The kings of Prussia become German emperors and Berlin becomes an imperial city

On 16 June 1871 the Prussian army, 42,000 strong, entered Berlin in triumph. Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, had been proclaimed German Emperor five months before in Versailles. The victorious Prussian generals and Chancellor Bismarck led the new emperor, accompanied by his sons and the rulers of other territories in the empire, into the city. Along the way they passed a twenty-metre-high figure of Berolina, the personification of Berlin, and a pile of captured cannon on which stood a huge statue of Victoria. They processed through the Brandenburg Gate and along Unter den Linden towards the Royal Palace. Here they were greeted by a figure of Germania, welcoming her two new children, the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. Berlin was no longer merely the Prussian capital, it had become the capital of the German Empire.

Unter den Linden was hung with painted canvases, on one of which was depicted the myth of Emperor Barbarossa. He was said to have been asleep for 700 years inside the Kyffhäuser mountain with his red beard growing down through the table he was sitting at, waiting for the time when he could awake. Ravens circling overhead indicated the site of his long slumber. He could now arise, since his empire had been founded anew by Prussia. That evening, the emperor, his generals, all the notables of Berlin, and many officers and their families attended a performance of an opera entitled Barbarossa.

When the Reichstag, the Federal Parliament of the new empire, was opened for the first time on 1 March 1871 in the White Hall in the Berlin Palace, Wilhelm I sat on the medieval “Kaiserstuhl” or imperial seat, specially brought to Berlin from Goslar because of its connection to the Salic dynasty. The Salians had ruled as Holy Roman Emperors from 1024 to 1125 and the point of using it was to link the Hohenzollern emperors to an ancient imperial dynasty that predated that of the Habsburgs.

The first monument erected in Berlin to celebrate the newly created empire was the Siegesäule or Victory Column surmounted by a golden winged Victory. Still one of Berlin’s landmarks, it is decorated with rows of gilded cannon captured from the Danes, the Austrians, and the French, all of whom the Prussian had defeated on their march to the imperial throne. A mosaic at the base of the column depicts Germania taking up arms to protect Germany against the French menace, Napoleon I; the German princes supporting their ally Prussia against Napoleon III; Germania, who is simultaneously Borussia, the embodiment of Prussia, accepting the imperial crown; and, of course, the Emperor Barbarossa with his ravens, waking from his 700-hundred-year sleep to welcome the new empire.

In 1888, Wilhelm I died and in the same year so did his son Friedrich Wilhelm, who reigned as emperor for only ninety-nine days. Friedrich Wilhelm saw himself as the successor to the Holy Roman Emperors (whose empire came to an end in 1806) and wished to take the regnal name of Friedrich IV, because the last Habsburg emperor was Friedrich III, who reigned from 1452 to 1493. Bismarck had to insist that the only possible designation for a Hohenzollern who would succeed as both king of Prussia and German emperor was Friedrich III, following on from Prussia’s most famous king Friedrich II, better known as Frederick the Great.

In the same year, Wilhelm I’s grandson Wilhelm II came to the throne. Apart from the enormous “Emperor Wilhelm Monument” in honour of his grandfather, unveiled in 1897 in the centre of Berlin, Wilhelm II’s most striking contribution to imperial Berlin was the creation of the 750-metre-long “Siegesallee” or Avenue of Victory through the wooded Tiergarten. This avenue was lined with 32 life-size marble statues of the princes of Brandenburg and Prussia from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. Each figure was raised up on a pedestal and behind each was a semi-circular marble bench adorned with marble busts of two important men from that prince’s reign. The statues were interspersed with flowerbeds and the whole ensemble was intended as a place for a pleasant stroll, while at the same time providing a lesson in Prussian history. Critics asked why no women were honoured and Berliners laughed themselves silly at this grandiose celebration of the Hohenzollern dynasty, calling it the “Puppenallee”—the Dolls’ Avenue or Puppets’ Parade. The Siegesallee no longer exists and neither does the German Empire, which lasted for less than fifty years.

Featured image: Siegessäule (Victory Column) in Berlin, Germany, public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Maurice Waite

    Ironically, the route of the ‘Alley of Victory’ now lies under the memorial to the victorious Soviet Army.

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