After the early death of the father, the mother moved with the children to Lübeck, where Wattenbach visited the Katharineum. Here he completed his lifelong friendships with classmates Emanuel Geibel and the brothers Curtius, which is why it is included in the group Jung- Lübeck. Wattenbach studied philology in Bonn, Göttingen and Berlin. In 1843 he began his work for the Monumenta Historica Germaniae (MGH ). 1852 proved Wilhelm Wattenbach that the privilege Maius of 1358/59 - it made the rulers of Austria to archdukes and put them electors equal - was a fake. In 1855 he was archivist at the University of Breslau, in 1862 became a professor of history at Heidelberg, eleven years later a professor in Berlin. After the death of Georg Waitz ' he led from 1886 to 1888 Appointed Ernst Dümmlers provisionally the business of the President of the MGH. Of outstanding importance for the study of the beginnings of German humanism were his studies on Peter Luder in Heidelberg.
- Germany's historical sources in the Middle Ages to the middle of the XIII century (1858 ), his major work, A Guide to the Sources of the History of the German Middle Ages, in several editions ( Volume 1, Volume 2 )
- Peter Luder, the first humanist teachers in Heidelberg (Karlsruhe 1869).
- The font being in the Middle Ages. Leipzig 1871, 3rd ed ibid. 1896, reprint ( declared as 4th ed ) Graz 1958 ( full-text).
- Contributions to the History of the Christian Church in Bohemia and Moravia. Vienna in 1849 (full text).
- History of the Roman papacy. Berlin 1876 ( full text ).