Here he is, William I, by the grace of God, King of Prussia, and by right of conquest Emperor of Germany. How patriotically inspired the artist is by his subject, and what a masterly work! Here is King William, on his great battle horse, with his haughty and even slightly provocative face, his grey and bristly moustache, his forehead wrinkled and yellowed under the constant pressure of the helmet! Pious and a fighter, he looks like a crowned Montluc. He is of the calibre of those ancient knights who went on crusade. He does not love us, King William, not even in the way that his grandfather Frederick II loved us; and that is a pity because we would give him in sympathy what we cannot refuse him in admiration. He believes himself to be the personification of the German fatherland; but it is rather the German fatherland that he seeks to embody in himself, with such faith in the mission he has set himself, that the men of today must regard him as a forefather, awakened from his secular slumber.
Ah, I would give much to see King William without his helmet, for he is known to be full of humanity and kindness. He is pious and exemplary in his life; but I would like to see him make the sign of the cross on something other than his sword. This striking statue before my eyes forbids me any hope. The man it represents has emerged fully armed from the artist's brain. Like Barbarossa, here he rises from his enchanted cave! And the horse with its foot raised on the annex of Belgium, does it not resemble the garrison of Luxembourg making a stopover towards Brussels? And why not to Antwerp? Does not the German fatherland also need ports, as it needs fortresses?
King William is a man from another century. He has high virtues and tenacious prejudices. Freedom does not bother him, as long as it does not touch his divine right, his royal prerogatives. But then he becomes intractable. It is his faith, rather than his will, that he opposes to the law; and any convention that does not have a celestial function, is for him a temporary and perishable thing. "Ah! miserable carcass," said Montluc, quivering under the intoxication of battles; "miserable carcass which trembles, if you knew what dangers I am going to expose you to! "
And Montluc dashed off, followed by his men-at-arms. And the butchery was rough; and the ravaged plains sweated with blood.
What does it matter to men of strong faith what their alleged mission costs humanity! They go, carried along by the steed of the Apocalypse; and the ground trembles long after they have passed.
God forbid that I should play politics here! I have neither the will nor the right to do so. But the powerful work of the artist is troubling my mind in spite of myself; and as King William will perhaps make a greater mark on the history of the Exhibition of 1867 than many people would wish, let me sketch his life in quick strokes.
William I came to the throne on 2 January 1861. He succeeded his elder brother, Frederick William IV, who, suffering from an incurable disease, had already relinquished the regency of the Kingdom of Prussia to him, since 23 October 1857, with the title of Prince Regent. As much as William had become a domineering king, he had also been a submissive and devoted subject.
Born on 22 March 1797, he had made his first stand against us in 1813 and 1815. His Germanic prejudices were probably born of his first impressions. Until 1840, his life does not belong to history, but only to the Gotha almanac. He had two children from his marriage, one of them a daughter. His son, Prince Frederick Charles, born in 1831, who became the hope and glory of Germany, married the eldest daughter of the Queen of England in 1857.
From 1840 onwards, King William sat in the diets and became involved in politics. He soon became the leader of the feudal party, as it were the volunteer of the Holy Alliance. At the same time as politics, he was occupied with military organisation when the storm of 1848 broke. He took refuge for a time in England, until the storm had calmed down a little. Some time later we find him as governor of Coblentz. In 1849, he commanded the famous Baden expedition, where the Prussian soldiers made the first test of the needle gun against the insurgents, which no one was moved by, not even the Badeners, who were killed by the numbers.
The Crimean War broke out. Prince Wilhelm did not want Prussia to be involved in the events of that time. It did not matter to him whether it was for or against Russia; but, the truth obliges us to say that he leaned towards England and France. What drove him to action was above all the feeling that Prussia, as a military power, had not participated in any war since 1815. As governor of Mainz, and having nothing better to do, he joined the Prussian Masonic lodges, of which he became president. It was there that he acquired that mystical and warlike character which distinguishes him.
His four-year regency had prepared him for the throne. The king would be able to achieve what the regent had dreamed or prepared.
It is not ambition that lies at the bottom of this royal heart, it is the feeling, impersonal as it were, and therefore blind, of a mission to be fulfilled.
Listen to him himself, with the good faith that comes from exalted beliefs: "The events of 1866," he writes, "were so visibly providential that even an unbeliever must become a believer. I had to resign myself reluctantly to the war, which would have remained a duel, had not the greater part of Germany been struck blind and made it a fratricidal war.
"Many have deeply atoned for this blindness. I must admit myself that circumstances were more powerful than I was, more powerful than my heart and my character desired. But when Providence interferes so powerfully in affairs and speaks so loudly, all other considerations must fall silent. May my task of bringing the bloody harvest to maturity be, like the work done by the sword, blessed by God!
The whole man is there! This exaltation, which in good faith takes Providence as its accomplice, must end up winning over the spirits, even if in the opposite direction, as King William experienced in June 1861, in Baden, where an exalted young man, Becker, made an attempt on his royal person, perhaps in resentment of the 1849 expedition, and in the name of a contrary faith.
After Duppel and Sadowa, King William is for some the Anabaptist emperor predicted by the Illuminati, and Holland is not well reassured behind its dikes.
All the feudal pomp was lavished on his coronation in Koenigsberg on 18 October 1861.
The statue of King William is not meant to be seen from the ground: it requires a high place. It is destined for the Cologne bridge. From there, it will seem to dominate the course of the Rhine, the German Rhine, as they say.
Roll on, free and beautiful, between your wide banks,
Rhine, Nile of the West, cup of nations!
On 22 March last, the statue of King William appeared, his helmet girded with a laurel crown. No one knew whether it was a desecration or a tribute. It was a patriotic act: the Prussian exhibitors were celebrating their king's birthday. The intention was touching; the effect was ridiculous. Two days later, the laurel wreath disappeared, the demonstration was done!
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée