The Hohenzollern dynasty was the ruling house of Brandenburg-Prussia and of imperial Germany. 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 Baden-Württemberg.
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, who were heirs to the Imperial throne. In 1525 Albert of Brandenburg, grand master of the Teutonic Knights, secularized the order’s domains as the Duchy of Prussia.
In 1614 the acquisition of Cleve, Mark, Ravensburg, and the Duchy of Prussia marked the Hohenzollern rise as a leading German power. Frederick William, the Great Elector, defeated the Swedes and obtained Pomerania, the secularized bishoprics of Cammin, Minden, and Halberstadt.
His reign brought centralization and absolutism to the still-scattered Hohenzollern possessions. In 1701 Frederick III of Brandenburg secured from the Holy Roman Emperor the title “King in Prussia.”
The change to King of Prussia was not formally recognized until 1772. The Prussian kings retained their title of elector until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Prussian royal title was a new symbol of the unity of the family holdings.
Frederick William I, through his administrative, fiscal, and military reforms, was the real architect of Hohenzollern greatness. His son Frederick II, called Frederick the Great of Prussia, seized Silesia from Austria, defended his acquisitions during the Seven Years’ War, and acquired West Prussia in 1772 as a result of the first partitions of Poland. Frederick William II, Frederick William III, and Frederick William IV were, however, mediocre rulers.
The Congress of Vienna settlement in 1814–15 resulted in a substantial extension of Hohenzollern territory, and the period 1815–66 was marked by the conflict for domination of Germany.
Frederick William IV, who reigned from 1840, was a draftsman interested in both architecture and landscape gardening. He married Elizabeth of Bavaria in 1823, but the couple had no children. In March 1848 Prussia faced a revolution, which overwhelmed Frederick William. The monarch ultimately succumbed to the movement.
He offered concessions, promising to promulgate a constitution. The victory of the liberals, however, was short-lived; it perished by the end of the year 1848. The conservatives regrouped and retook control of Berlin.
The king did remain 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, becoming King William I upon his brother’s death on January 2, 1861.
A crisis arose in 1862, when the Diet refused to authorize funding for a reorganization of the army. William resolved that Otto von Bismarck was the only politician capable of handling the crisis and appointed him ministerpresident.
Bismarck saw his relationship with William as that of a vassal to his feudal superior. Nonetheless, it was Bismarck who effectively directed politics, internal as well as foreign. Under Bismarck’s direction, Prussia’s army triumphed over its rivals Austria and France in 1866 and 1870, respectively.
In the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, on January 18, 1871, William was proclaimed the emperor of a unified Germany. In 1829 William 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 married Princess Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The couple had eight children. By the time he became emperor in 1888, he had incurable cancer of the larynx. Frederick ruled for only 99 days before his death on June 15, 1888, being succeeded by his eldest son, Wilhelm (William) II.
A traumatic breech birth left Wilhelm 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. Such an approach certainly marred German policy under his leadership.
In 1881 Wilhelm married Augusta Victoria, duchess of Schleswig-Holstein. They had seven children. Wilhelm’s reign was noted for his militaristic push to assert German power. He sought to expand German colonial holdings.
Under the Tirpitz Plan, the German navy was built up to contend with that of the United Kingdom. Despite Wilhelm’s attitude it is difficult to say that he was eager to unleash World War I.
During the war, he was commander in chief, but he soon lost all control of German policy, and his popularity plunged. After the explosion of the German Revolution, Wilhelm could not make up his mind about abdicating.
The unreality of this refusal showed up when William’s abdication both as emperor and king of Prussia was announced by Chancellor Prince Max von Baden on November 9, 1918. The very next day, Wilhelm 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. In 1914 Ferdinand succeeded his uncle in Romania, where his descendants ruled until 1947.