Hohenzollern Dynasty

Hohenzollern Dynasty
   The ruling house of Brandenburg- Prussia from 1415 to 1918 and of imperial Germany from 1871 to 1918. Originating in southwestern of Germany and traceable back to the eleventh century, the family took its name from the German word Zöller , meaning watchtower or castle, and in particular from the Castle of Hohenzollern, the ancestral seat, today in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Around 1200, the family split into the Swabian and the Franconian line. From the latter all the branches surviving into modern times derived.
   In 1415, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund made Frederick VI of Hohenzollern elector of Brandenburg. He and his successors had the right to participate in the elections of the German kings. Brandenburg, becoming the center of Hohenzollern power, was one of the most important principalities in the Holy Roman Empire. In 1525, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights Albert of Brandenburg secularized the order’s domains as the Duchy of Prussia. Joachim II, who reigned from 1535 to 1571, converted to Lutheranism. In 1614, the acquisition of Cleve, Mark, Ravensburg, and the Duchy of Prussia marked the Hohenzollern rise as a leading German power. With the help of France and England, the dynasty rose further after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Frederick William, the Great Elector obtained Pomerania, the secularized bishoprics of Cammin, Minden, and Halberstadt. His reign brought centralization and absolutism to the still scattered Hohenzollern lands. In 1701, Frederick III of Brandenburg secured from the Roman Emperor the title “King in Prussia.” The change to “King of Prussia” was not formally recognized until 1772. The Prussian royal title was a new symbol of the unity of the family holdings. The Prussian kings retained their title of electors until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
   Frederick William I, on the Prussian throne from 1713 to 1740, was the real architect of Hohenzollern greatness through his administrative, fiscal, and military reforms. His son Frederick II, called “The Great,” seized Silesia and acquired West Prussia in 1772. By 1800, Germany included nearly 2,000 separate entitles, among which were several dozen territories ruled by the Hohenzollerns. They were subject to the Roman emperor in the western part of their domains and had been subject to the Kingdom of Poland in the east. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars resulted in the end of the old empire and the creation of a German Confederation. The Congress of Vienna settlement of 1814–1815 resulted in a substantial extension of Hohenzollern territory in the west, and the period between 1815 and 1866 was marked by the struggle of Hohenzollern-Prussia against Habsburg-Austria for domination of Germany. The question of whether there should be a unified Germany was one of the most contentious issues over this entire half century.
   Frederick William IV, whose reign began in 1840, was a draftsman interested in both architecture and landscape gardening and a patron of several great German artists. Frederick William was a staunch Romanticist, and his devotion to this movement was largely responsible for his developing into a conservative at an early age. Upon his accession, he toned down the reactionary policies enacted by his father, promising to enact a constitution. In March 1848, Frederick William was overwhelmed by the revolutionary movement that shook Germany and much of the rest of Europe. He offered concessions, promising to promulgate a constitution and agreed that Prussia and other German states should merge into a single nation. When the revolution collapsed, conservative forces regrouped and gained the support of the king. The king nonetheless remained dedicated to German unification, leading the Frankfurt Parliament to offer him the crown of Germany on April 3, 1849, which he refused, saying that he would not accept a crown from the gutter. In 1857, Frederick William suffered a stroke that left him mentally disabled. His brother William took over as regent and became King William I upon his brother’s death on January 2, 1861. The new monarch was often in conflict with the liberal Prussian Diet. A crisis arose in 1862, when the Diet refused to authorize funding for a reorganization of the army. The king’s government was unable to convince legislators to sanction the budget, and the king was unwilling to give in, so the deadlock continued. William resolved that Otto von Bismarck was the only politician capable of handling the crisis, and in September 1862 appointed Bismarck minister- president of Prussia. It was thereafter Bismarck who effectively directed politics, interior as well as foreign. On several occasions he gained William’s assent by threatening to resign. Under Bismarck’s direction, Prussia’s army triumphed over its rivals Austria and France in 1866 and 1870–1871, respectively. On January 18, 1871, William was proclaimed emperor of a unified Germany. He accepted the title “German Emperor” grudgingly; he would have preferred “Emperor of Germany,” which, however, was unacceptable to the federated monarchs. In his memoirs, Bismarck describes William as an old-fashioned, courteous, polite gentleman, whose common sense was occasionally undermined by female influences.
   In 1829, William had married Augusta of Saxony-Weimar and had two children, Frederick and Princess Louise of Prussia. Upon his death on March 9, 1888, William I was succeeded by Frederick III. In 1858, Frederick had married Princess Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. By the time he became Emperor in 1888, Frederick had incurable cancer of the larynx, which had been misdiagnosed. He ruled for only 99 days before his death on June 15, 1888 and was succeeded by his eldest son William II. A traumatic breech birth left William with a withered left arm, which he tried with some success to conceal. Additionally, he may have experienced some brain trauma. Historians are divided on whether such a mental incapacity may have contributed to his frequently aggressive, tactless, and bullying approach to problems and people, which was evident in both his personal and political life. On several occasions, he publicly offended foreign statesmen and countries. His personality certainly damaged German policy, most notably in his dismissal of Bismarck in 1890. The emperor was accused of megalomania as early as 1894 by German pacifist Ludwig Quidde, and his reign was noted for his push to increase German military power. He also sought to expand German colonial holdings, and under the Tirpitz Plan the German navy was built up to challenge that of Great Britain. Despite these policies it is misleading to say that he was eager to unleash World War I, although he did little to prevent it. During the war, he was commander-in-chief but soon lost all control of German policy.
   After Germany’s defeat, William could not make up his mind to abdicate. He was still confident that even if he were forced to renounce the German throne, he would still retain the Prussian kingship. Thus his abdication both as emperor and king of Prussia was announced for him by Chancellor Prince Max von Baden on November 9, 1918. The next day William fled into exile in the Netherlands where he died on June 4, 1941.
   The Hohenzollern Swabian line remained Catholic at the Reformation. Charles of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen became prince of Romania in 1866 and king as Carol I in 1881. Ferdinand succeeded his uncle in Romania in 1914, where his descendants ruled until 1947. There are currently no reigning Hohenzollerns left.
   See also <>; <>.
    Eulenberg, Herbert. The Hohenzollerns. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1929;
    Koch, Hannsjoachim Wolfgang. A History of Prussia. London, New York: Longman, 1978;
    Röhl, John C. G. Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser ’ s Early Life, 1859–1888. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998;
    Röhl, John C. G. Wilhelm II: The Kaiser ’ s Personal Monarchy, 1888–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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