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Final Discussions before the Proclamation of the German Empire (January 17-18, 1871)

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The discussion turned to the hierarchical ranking of emperors and kings, of archdukes, grand dukes, and Prussian princes. My argument that emperors, in principle, are granted no precedence over kings found no credence, even though I was able to support my claim – Friedrich Wilhelm I, upon meeting Emperor Karl VI, who was after all the feudal lord of the Brandenburg Elector, claimed and asserted his equality as Prussian King by constructing a pavilion that the two monarchs entered simultaneously from opposite sides in order to meet in the middle.

The approval that the Crown Prince expressed for my explanations just aggravated the old gentleman even more, prompting him to beat his fists on the table and shout: “And even if it was the case in the past, I now command how it should be henceforth. Archdukes and grand dukes have always taken precedence over the Prussian princes, and so must it continue.” With this, he got up, walked over to the window, and turned his back to those sitting at the table. The discussion of the title question reached no clear conclusion; still one could feel justified in scheduling the ceremony of the imperial proclamation, but the King had ordered that there would be no mention of the German Emperor, but rather the Emperor of Germany.

The following morning, before the ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors [at Versailles], this state of affairs prompted me to call on the Grand Duke of Baden, who would probably be the first among the attending rulers to speak after the proclamation, and to ask him what he intended to call the new emperor. The Grand Duke answered: “Emperor of Germany according to His Majesty’s command.” Among the arguments I then presented to the Grand Duke as to why the final cheer for the Emperor could not be formulated in this way, the most effective one involved my referencing the fact that the future text of the imperial constitution was already anticipated by the resolution of the Reichstag in Berlin. The emphasis on the Reichstag resolution, which fit exactly into his constitutional horizon, prompted him to go to the King once more. I have no knowledge of the two men’s conversation and felt anxiety while reading the proclamation. The Grand Duke avoided the issue by giving a cheer to neither the German Emperor nor the Emperor of Germany, but rather to Emperor Wilhelm. His Majesty took this entire course of events so badly that when he stepped down from the higher rostrum reserved for the monarchs, he ignored me – although I was standing alone in the empty space before it – and walked by me to shake hands with the generals behind me. He persisted in this attitude for several days until our relationship fell back into the old pattern again.

Source: Otto von Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen [Thoughts and Reminiscences], ed. Horst Kohl, 3 vols. Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, 1898, vol. 2 (Ch. 23: Versailles), pp. 119-22.

Original German text reprinted in Otto von Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen [Thoughts and Reminiscences]. With an essay by Lothar Gall. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998, pp. 360-62.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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