Wilhelm II, Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht, 27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941) was the last German Kaiser (Emperor) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 15 June 1888 until his abdication on 9 November 1918 shortly before Germany’s defeat in World War I.
- Full name – Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert.
- Reign – 15 June 1888 – 9 November 1918.
- Predecessor – Frederick III.
- Successor – Monarchy Abolished.
- Born – 27 January 1859 – Kronprinzenpalais, Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia.
- Death – 4 June 1941 – Age 82 – Huis Doorn, Doorn, German-occupied Netherlands.
- Burial – 9 June 1941 – Huis Doorn, Doorn.
- Spouse –
- Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg – Married 1881 – Death 1921.
- Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz – Married 1922.
- Children –
- Wilhelm, German Crown Prince.
- Prince Eitel Friedrich.
- Prince Adalbert.
- Prince August Wilhelm.
- Prince Oskar.
- Prince Joachim.
- Viktoria Luise, Duchess of Brunswick.
- House – Hohenzollern.
- Father – Frederick III, German Emperor.
- Mother – Victoria, Princess Royal.
- Religion – Lutheranism – Prussian United.
He was a grandson of the British Queen Victoria and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe. Crowned in 1888, he dismissed Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890 and launched Germany on a bellicose New Course in foreign affairs that culminated in his support for Austria-Hungary in the crisis of July 1914 that led to World War I. Bombastic and impetuous, he sometimes made tactless pronouncements on sensitive topics without consulting his ministers, culminating in a disastrous Daily Telegraph interview that cost him most of his power in 1908. His generals dictated policy during World War I with little regard for the civilian government. An ineffective war leader, he lost the support of the army, abdicated in November 1918, and fled to exile in the Netherlands.
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Wilhelm was born on 27 January 1859 at the Crown Prince’s Palace, Berlin, to Victoria, Princess Royal, the wife of Prince Frederick William of Prussia (the future Frederick III). His mother was the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria. At the time of his birth, his great-uncle Frederick William IV was king of Prussia, and his grandfather and namesake Wilhelm was acting as regent. He was the first grandchild of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but more importantly, the first son of the crown prince of Prussia. From 1861, Wilhelm was second in the line of succession to Prussia, and also, after 1871, to the newly created German Empire, which, according to the constitution of the German Empire, was ruled by the Prussian king. At the time of his birth, he was also sixth in the line of succession to the British throne, after his maternal uncles and his mother.
A traumatic breech birth resulted in Erb’s palsy, which left him with a withered left arm about six inches (15 centimeters) shorter than his right. He tried with some success to conceal this; many photographs show him holding a pair of white gloves in his left hand to make the arm seem longer. In others, he holds his left hand with his right, has his crippled arm on the hilt of a sword, or holds a cane to give the illusion of a useful limb posed at a dignified angle. Historians have suggested that this disability affected his emotional development.
In 1863, Wilhelm was taken to England to be present at the wedding of his Uncle Bertie later King Edward VII, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Wilhelm attended the ceremony in a Highland costume, complete with a small toy dirk. During the ceremony, the four-year-old became restless. His eighteen-year-old uncle Prince Alfred, charged with keeping an eye on him, told him to be quiet, but Wilhelm drew his dirk and threatened Alfred. When Alfred attempted to subdue him by force, Wilhelm bit him on the leg. His grandmother, Queen Victoria, missed seeing the fracas; to her, Wilhelm remained a clever, dear, good little child, the great favorite of my beloved Vicky.
His mother, Vicky, was obsessed with his damaged arm, blaming herself for the child’s handicap and insisted that he become a good rider. The thought that he, as heir to the throne, should not be able to ride was intolerable to her. Riding lessons began when Wilhelm was eight and were a matter of endurance for Wilhelm. Over and over, the weeping prince was set on his horse and compelled to go through the paces. He fell off time after time but despite his tears was set on its back again. After weeks of this, he finally got it right and was able to maintain his balance.
Wilhelm, from six years of age, was tutored and heavily influenced by the 39-year-old teacher Georg Hinzpeter. Hinzpeter, he later wrote, was really a good fellow. Whether he was the right tutor for me, I dare not decide. The torments inflicted on me, in this pony riding, must be attributed to my mother.
As a teenager, he was educated at Kassel at the Friedrichsgymnasium. In January 1877, Wilhelm finished high school and on his eighteenth birthday received as a present from his grandmother, Queen Victoria, the Order of the Garter. After Kassel, he spent four terms at the University of Bonn, studying law and politics. He became a member of the exclusive Corps Borussia Bonn. Wilhelm possessed a quick intelligence, but this was often overshadowed by a cantankerous temper.
As a scion of the royal house of Hohenzollern, Wilhelm was exposed from an early age to the military society of the Prussian aristocracy. This had a major impact on him and, in maturity, Wilhelm was seldom seen out of uniform. The hyper-masculine military culture of Prussia in this period did much to frame his political ideals and personal relationships.
Crown Prince Frederick was viewed by his son with a deeply-felt love and respect. His father’s status as a hero of the wars of unification was largely responsible for the young Wilhelm’s attitude, as were the circumstances in which he was raised; close emotional contact between father and son was not encouraged. Later, as he came into contact with the Crown Prince’s political opponents, Wilhelm came to adopt more ambivalent feelings toward his father, perceiving the influence of Wilhelm’s mother over a figure who should have been possessed of masculine independence and strength. Wilhelm also idolized his grandfather, Wilhelm I, and he was instrumental in later attempts to foster a cult of the first German Emperor as Wilhelm the Great. However, he had a distant relationship with his mother.
Wilhelm resisted attempts by his parents, especially his mother, to educate him in a spirit of British liberalism. Instead, he agreed with his tutors’ support of the autocratic rule and gradually became thoroughly Prussianized under their influence. He thus became alienated from his parents, suspecting them of putting Britain’s interests first. The German Emperor, Wilhelm I, watched as his grandson, guided principally by the Crown Princess Victoria, grew to manhood. When Wilhelm was nearing twenty-one the Emperor decided it was time his grandson should begin the military phase of his preparation for the throne. He was assigned as a lieutenant to the First Regiment of Foot Guards, stationed at Potsdam. “In the Guards,” Wilhelm said, “I really found my family, my friends, my interests – everything of which I had up to that time had to do without.” As a boy and a student, his manner had been polite and agreeable; as an officer, he began to strut and speak brusquely in the tone he deemed appropriate for a Prussian officer.
In many ways, Wilhelm was a victim of his inheritance and of Otto von Bismarck’s machinations. When Wilhelm was in his early twenties, Bismarck tried to separate him from his parents who opposed Bismarck and his policies with some success. Bismarck planned to use the young prince as a weapon against his parents in order to retain his own political dominance. Wilhelm thus developed a dysfunctional relationship with his parents, but especially with his English mother. In an outburst in April 1889, Wilhelm angrily implied that “an English doctor killed my father, and an English doctor crippled my arm which is the fault of my mother”, who allowed no German physicians to attend to herself or her immediate family.
As a young man, Wilhelm fell in love with one of his maternal first cousins, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt. She turned him down, and would, in time, marry into the Russian imperial family. In 1880, Wilhelm became engaged to Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, known as Dona. The couple married on 27 February 1881, and remained married for forty years, until her death in 1921. In a period of ten years, between 1882 and 1892, Augusta Victoria would bear Wilhelm seven children, six sons, and a daughter. Beginning in 1884, Bismarck began advocating that Kaiser Wilhelm send his grandson on diplomatic missions, a privilege denied to the Crown Prince. That year, Prince Wilhelm was sent to the court of Tsar Alexander III of Russia in St. Petersburg to attend the coming of age ceremony of the sixteen-year-old Tsarevich Nicholas. Wilhelm’s behavior did little to ingratiate himself to the tsar. Two years later, Kaiser Wilhelm I took Prince Wilhelm on a trip to meet with Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. In 1886, also, thanks to Herbert von Bismarck, the son of the Chancellor, Prince Wilhelm began to be trained twice a week at the Foreign Ministry. One privilege was denied to Prince Wilhelm: to represent Germany at his maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria’s, Golden Jubilee Celebrations in London in 1887.
Kaiser Wilhelm I died in Berlin on 9 March 1888, and Prince Wilhelm’s father ascended the throne as Frederick III. He was already suffering from incurable throat cancer and spent all 99 days of his reign fighting the disease before dying. On 15 June of that same year, his 29-year-old son succeeded him as German Emperor and King of Prussia.
Although in his youth he had been a great admirer of Otto von Bismarck, Wilhelm’s characteristic impatience soon brought him into conflict with the Iron Chancellor, the dominant figure in the foundation of his empire. The new Emperor opposed Bismarck’s careful foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to protect Germany’s place in the sun. Furthermore, the young Emperor had come to the throne determined to rule as well as reign, unlike his grandfather. While the letter of the imperial constitution vested executive power in the emperor, Wilhelm I had been content to leave day-to-day administration to Bismarck. Early conflicts between Wilhelm II and his chancellor soon poisoned the relationship between the two men. Bismarck believed that Wilhelm was a lightweight who could be dominated, and he showed scant respect for Wilhelm’s policies in the late 1880s. The final split between monarch and statesman occurred soon after an attempt by Bismarck to implement a far-reaching anti-Socialist law in early 1890.
Break with Bismarck
The impetuous young Kaiser rejected Bismarck’s peaceful foreign policy and instead plotted with senior generals to work in favor of a war of aggression. Bismarck told an aide, “That young man wants war with Russia, and would like to draw his sword straight away if he could. I shall not be a party to it.” Bismarck, after gaining an absolute majority in favor of his policies in the Reichstag, decided to make the anti-Socialist laws permanent. His Kartell, the majority of the amalgamated Conservative Party and the National Liberal Party, favored making the laws permanent, with one exception: the police power to expel Socialist agitators from their homes. The Kartell split over this issue and nothing was passed.
As the debate continued, Wilhelm became more and more interested in social problems, especially the treatment of mine workers who went on strike in 1889. He routinely interrupted Bismarck in Council to make clear where he stood on social policy; Bismarck, in turn, sharply disagreed with Wilhelm’s policy and worked to circumvent it. Bismarck, feeling pressured and unappreciated by the young Emperor and undermined by his ambitious advisors, refused to sign a proclamation regarding the protection of workers along with Wilhelm, as was required by the German Constitution.
The final break came as Bismarck searched for a new parliamentary majority, with his Kartell voted from power due to the anti-Socialist bill fiasco. The remaining powers in the Reichstag were the Catholic Centre Party and the Conservative Party. Bismarck wished to form a new bloc with the Centre Party, and invited Ludwig Windthorst, the party’s parliamentary leader, to discuss a coalition; Wilhelm was furious to hear about Windthorst’s visit. In a parliamentary state, the head of government depends on the confidence of the parliamentary majority and has the right to form coalitions to ensure his policies a majority, but in Germany, the Chancellor had to depend on the confidence of the Emperor, and Wilhelm believed that the Emperor had the right to be informed before his ministers’ meeting. After a heated argument at Bismarck’s estate over Imperial authority, Wilhelm stormed out. Bismarck, forced for the first time into a situation he could not use to his advantage, wrote a blistering letter of resignation, decrying Wilhelm’s interference in foreign and domestic policy, which was published only after Bismarck’s death.
Bismarck had sponsored landmark social security legislation, but by 1889–90, he had become disillusioned with the attitude of workers. In particular, he was opposed to wage increases, improving working conditions, and regulating labor relations. Moreover, the Kartell, the shifting political coalition that Bismarck had been able to forge since 1867, had lost a working majority in the Reichstag. At the opening of the Reichstag on 6 May 1890, the Kaiser stated that the most pressing issue was the further enlargement of the bill concerning the protection of the laborer. In 1891, the Reichstag passed the Workers Protection Acts, which improved working conditions, protected women and children and regulated labor relations.
Complete Control of the Reich
Dismissal of Bismarck
Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II’s insistence in 1890, at the age of 75, to be succeeded as Chancellor of Germany and Minister-President of Prussia by Leo von Caprivi, who in turn was replaced by Chlodwig, Prince of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, in 1894. Following the dismissal of Hohenlohe in 1900, Wilhelm appointed the man whom he regarded as his own Bismarck, Bernhard von Bülow.
In foreign policy, Bismarck had achieved a fragile balance of interests between Germany, France, and Russia. Peace was at hand and Bismarck tried to keep it that way despite growing popular sentiment against Britain regarding colonies and especially against Russia. With Bismarck’s dismissal, the Russians now expected a reversal of policy in Berlin, so they quickly came to terms with France, beginning the process that by 1914 largely isolated Germany.
In appointing Caprivi and then Hohenlohe, Wilhelm was embarking upon what is known to history as the New Course, in which he hoped to exert decisive influence in the government of the empire. These chancellors were senior civil servants and not seasoned politician-statesmen like Bismarck. Wilhelm wanted to preclude the emergence of another Iron Chancellor, whom he ultimately detested as being a boorish old killjoy who had not permitted any minister to see the Emperor except in his presence, keeping a stranglehold on effective political power. Upon his enforced retirement and until his dying day, Bismarck became a bitter critic of Wilhelm’s policies, but without the support of the supreme arbiter of all political appointments being the Emperor, there was little chance of Bismarck exerting a decisive influence on policy.
Bismarck did manage to create the Bismarck myth, the view which some would argue was confirmed by subsequent events that Wilhelm II’s dismissal of the Iron Chancellor effectively destroyed any chance Germany had of stable and effective government. In this view, Wilhelm’s New Course was characterized far more as the German ship of state going out of control, eventually leading through a series of crises to the carnage of the First and Second World Wars.
In the early twentieth century, Wilhelm began to concentrate upon his real agenda; the creation of a German navy that would rival that of Britain and enable Germany to declare itself a world power. He ordered his military leaders to read Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and spent hours drawing sketches of the ships that he wanted to be built. Bülow and Bethmann Hollweg, his loyal chancellors, looked after domestic affairs, while Wilhelm began to spread alarm in the chancelleries of Europe with his increasingly eccentric views on foreign affairs.
German foreign policy under Wilhelm II was faced with a number of significant problems. Perhaps the most apparent was that Wilhelm was an impatient man, subjective in his reactions and affected strongly by sentiment and impulse. He was personally ill-equipped to steer German foreign policy along a rational course. It is now widely recognized that the various spectacular acts which Wilhelm undertook in the international sphere were often partially encouraged by the German foreign policy elite. There were a number of notorious examples, such as the Kruger telegram of 1896 in which Wilhelm congratulated President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic on the suppression of the British Jameson Raid, thus alienating British public opinion.
British public opinion had been quite favorable toward the Kaiser in his first twelve years on the throne, but it turned sour in the late 1890s. During the First World War, he became the central target of British anti-German propaganda and the personification of a hated enemy.
Wilhelm invented and spread fears of a yellow peril trying to interest other European rulers in the perils they faced by invading China; few other leaders paid attention. Wilhelm used the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War to try to incite fear in the west of the yellow peril that they faced by a resurgent Japan, which Wilhelm claimed would ally with China to overrun the west. Under Wilhelm, Germany invested in strengthening its colonies in Africa and the Pacific, but few became profitable and all were lost during the First World War. In southwest Africa which is now Namibia, a native revolt against German rule led to the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, although Wilhelm eventually ordered it to be stopped.
One of the few times when Wilhelm succeeded in personal diplomacy was when in 1900 he supported the marriage of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria to Countess Sophie Chotek, against the wishes of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.
A domestic triumph for Wilhelm was when his daughter Victoria Louise married the Duke of Brunswick in 1913; this helped heal the rift between the House of Hanover and the House of Hohenzollern that had followed the annexation of Hanover by Prussia in 1866.
Political Visits to the Ottoman Empire
In his first visit to Constantinople in 1889, Wilhelm secured the sale of German-made rifles to the Ottoman Army. Later on, he had his second political visit to the Ottoman Empire as a guest of Sultan Abdülhamid II. The Kaiser started his journey to the Ottoman Eyalets with Istanbul on 16 October 1898; then he went by yacht to Haifa on 25 October. After visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Kaiser went back to Jaffa to embark to Beirut, where he took the train passing Aley and Zahlé to reach Damascus on 7 November.
While visiting the Mausoleum of Saladin the following day, the Kaiser made a speech:
In the face of all the courtesies extended to us here, I feel that I must thank you, in my name as well as that of the Empress, for them, for the hearty reception given us in all the towns and cities we have touched, and particularly for the splendid welcome extended to us by this city of Damascus. Deeply moved by this imposing spectacle, and likewise by the consciousness of standing on the spot where held sway one of the most chivalrous rulers of all times, the great Sultan Saladin, a knight sans peur et sans reproche, who often taught his adversaries the right conception of knighthood, I seize with joy the opportunity to render thanks, above all to the Sultan Abdul Hamid for his hospitality. May the Sultan rest assured, and also the three hundred million Mohammedans scattered over the globe and revering in him their caliph, that the German Emperor will be and remain at all times their friend.
— Kaiser Wilhelm II
On 10 November, Wilhelm went to visit Baalbek before heading to Beirut to board his ship back home on 12 November. In his second visit, Wilhelm secured a promise for German companies to construct the Berlin-Baghdad railway, and had the German Fountain constructed in Constantinople to commemorate his journey.
His third visit was on October 15, 1917, as the guest of Sultan Mehmed V.
Hun Speech of 1900
The Boxer Rebellion, an anti-western uprising in China, was put down in 1900 by an international force of British, French, Russian, Italian, American, Japanese, and German troops. The Germans, however, forfeited any prestige that they might have gained for their participation by arriving only after the British and Japanese forces had taken Peking, the site of the fiercest fighting. Moreover, the poor impression left by the German troops’ late arrival was made worse by the Kaiser’s ill-conceived farewell address, in which he commanded them, in the spirit of the Huns, to be merciless in battle. Wilhelm delivered this speech in Bremerhaven on 27 July 1900, addressing German troops who were departing to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China. The speech was infused with Wilhelm’s fiery and chauvinistic rhetoric and clearly expressed his vision of German imperial power. There were two versions of the speech. The Foreign Office issued an edited version, making sure to omit one particularly incendiary paragraph that they regarded as diplomatically embarrassing.
The edited version was this:
Great overseas tasks have fallen to the new German Empire, tasks far greater than many of my countrymen expected. The German Empire has, by its very character, the obligation to assist its citizens if they are being set upon in foreign lands. The tasks that the old Roman Empire of the German nation was unable to accomplish, the new German Empire is in a position to fulfill. The means that make this possible is our army.
It has been built up during thirty years of faithful, peaceful labor, following the principles of my blessed grandfather. You, too, have received your training in accordance with these principles, and by putting them to the test before the enemy, you should see whether they have proved their worth in you. Your comrades in the navy have already passed this test; they have shown that the principles of your training are sound, and I am also proud of the praise that your comrades have earned over there from foreign leaders. It is up to you to emulate them.
A great task awaits you: you are to revenge the grievous injustice that has been done. The Chinese have overturned the law of nations; they have mocked the sacredness of the envoy, the duties of hospitality in a way unheard of in world history. It is all the more outrageous that this crime has been committed by a nation that takes pride in its ancient culture. Show the old Prussian virtue. Present yourselves as Christians in the cheerful endurance of suffering. May honor and glory follow your banners and arms. Give the whole world an example of manliness and discipline.
You know full well that you are to fight against a cunning, brave, well-armed, and cruel enemy. When you encounter him, know this: no quarter will be given. Prisoners will not be taken. Exercise your arms such that for a thousand years no Chinese will dare to look cross-eyed at a German. Maintain discipline. May God’s blessing be with you, the prayers of an entire nation and my good wishes go with you, each and every one. Open the way to civilization once and for all! Now you may depart! Farewell, comrades!
The official version omitted the following passage from which the speech derives its name:
Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.
The term Hun later became the favored epithet of Allied anti-German war propaganda during the First World War.
One of Wilhelm’s diplomatic blunders sparked the Moroccan Crisis of 1905, when he made a spectacular visit to Tangier, in Morocco on March 31, 1905. He conferred with representatives of Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco. The Kaiser proceeded to tour the city on the back of a white horse. The Kaiser declared he had come to support the sovereignty of the Sultan. The statement amounted to a provocative challenge to French influence in Morocco. The Sultan subsequently rejected a set of French-proposed governmental reforms and issued invitations to major world powers to a conference which would advise him on necessary reforms.
The Kaiser’s presence was seen as an assertion of German interests in Morocco, in opposition to those of France. In his speech, he even made remarks in favor of Moroccan independence, and this led to friction with France, which had expanding colonial interests in Morocco, and to the Algeciras Conference, which served largely to further isolate Germany in Europe.
In the years 1906-09, a succession of homosexual revelations, trials, and suicides involving ministers, courtiers, and Wilhelm’s closest friend and advisor, Prince Philipp zu Eulenberg, evolved into the most tumultuous cause célèbre of its era. Fuelled by the journalist Maximilian Harden, who, like some in the upper echelons of the military and Foreign Office, resented Eulenberg’s approval of the Anglo-French Entente, and also his encouragement of Wilhelm to personally rule, it led to Wilhelm suffering a nervous breakdown and the removal of Eulenberg and others of his circle from the court. Historians have linked the Harden-Eulenberg affair to a fundamental shift in German policy that heightened military aggression and ultimately contributed to the First World War.
Daily Telegraph Affair
Wilhelm’s most damaging personal blunder cost him much of his prestige and power and had a far greater impact in Germany than overseas. The Daily Telegraph Affair of 1908 involved the publication in Germany of an interview with a British daily newspaper that included wild statements and diplomatically damaging remarks.
Wilhelm had seen the interview as an opportunity to promote his views and ideas on Anglo-German friendship, but due to his emotional outbursts during the course of the interview, he ended up further alienating not only the British, but also the French, Russians, and Japanese. He implied, among other things, that the Germans cared nothing for the British; that the French and Russians had attempted to incite Germany to intervene in the Second Boer War; and that the German naval buildup was targeted against the Japanese, not Britain. One memorable quotation from the interview was, “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares.”
The effect in Germany was quite significant, with serious calls for his abdication. Wilhelm kept a very low profile for many months after the Daily Telegraph fiasco but later exacted his revenge by forcing the resignation of the chancellor, Prince Bülow, who had abandoned the Emperor to public scorn by not having the transcript edited before its German publication. The Daily Telegraph crisis deeply wounded Wilhelm’s previously unimpaired self-confidence, and he soon suffered a severe bout of depression from which he never fully recovered. He lost much of the influence he had previously exercised in domestic and foreign policy.
Nothing Wilhelm did in the international arena was of more influence than his decision to pursue a policy of massive naval construction. A powerful navy was Wilhelm’s pet project. He had inherited from his mother a love of the British Royal Navy, which was at that time the world’s largest. He once confided to his uncle, the Prince of Wales, that his dream was to have a fleet of my own someday. Wilhelm’s frustration over his fleet’s poor showing at the Fleet Review at his grandmother Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, combined with his inability to exert German influence in South Africa following the dispatch of the Kruger telegram, led to Wilhelm taking definitive steps toward the construction of a fleet to rival that of his British cousins. Wilhelm was fortunate to be able to call on the services of the dynamic naval officer Alfred von Tirpitz, whom he appointed to the head of the Imperial Naval Office in 1897.
The new admiral had conceived of what came to be known as the Risk Theory or the Tirpitz Plan, by which Germany could force Britain to accede to German demands in the international arena through the threat posed by a powerful battlefleet concentrated in the North Sea. Tirpitz enjoyed Wilhelm’s full support in his advocacy of successive naval bills of 1897 and 1900, by which the German navy was built up to contend with that of the British Empire. Naval expansion under the Fleet Acts eventually led to severe financial strains in Germany by 1914, as by 1906 Wilhelm had committed his navy to construction of the much larger, more expensive dreadnought type of battleship.
In 1889, Wilhelm reorganized top-level control of the navy by creating a Naval Cabinet (Marine-Kabinett) equivalent to the German Imperial Military Cabinet which had previously functioned in the same capacity for both the army and navy. The Head of the Naval Cabinet was responsible for promotions, appointments, administration, and issuing orders to naval forces. Captain Gustav von Senden-Bibran was appointed as the first head and remained so until 1906. The existing Imperial admiralty was abolished, and its responsibilities divided between two organizations. A new position was created, equivalent to the supreme commander of the army: the Chief of the High Command of the Admiralty, or Oberkommando der Marine, was responsible for ship deployments, strategy, and tactics. Vice-Admiral Max von der Goltz was appointed in 1889 and remained in post until 1895. Construction and maintenance of ships and obtaining supplies was the responsibility of the State Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office (Reichsmarineamt), responsible to the Imperial Chancellor and advising the Reichstag on naval matters. The first appointee was Rear Admiral Karl Eduard Heusner, followed shortly by Rear Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann from 1890 to 1897. Each of these three heads of department reported separately to Wilhelm.
In addition to the expansion of the fleet, the Kiel Canal was opened in 1895, enabling faster movements between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.
World War I
Historians typically argue that Wilhelm was largely confined to ceremonial duties during the war. There were innumerable parades to review and honors to award. The man who in peace had believed himself omnipotent became in war a shadow Kaiser, out of sight, neglected, and relegated to the sidelines.
The Sarajevo Crisis
Wilhelm was a friend of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and he was deeply shocked by his assassination on 28 June 1914. Wilhelm offered to support Austria-Hungary in crushing the Black Hand, the secret organisation that had plotted the killing and even sanctioned the use of force by Austria against the perceived source of the movement Serbia. This is often called the blank cheque. He wanted to remain in Berlin until the crisis was resolved, but his courtiers persuaded him instead to go on his annual cruise of the North Sea on 6 July 1914. Wilhelm made erratic attempts to stay on top of the crisis via telegram, and when the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was delivered to Serbia, he hurried back to Berlin. He reached Berlin on 28 July, read a copy of the Serbian reply, and wrote on it:
A brilliant solution and in barely 48 hours! This is more than could have been expected. A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every pretext for war falls to the ground, and [the Ambassador] Giesl had better have stayed quietly at Belgrade. On this document, I should never have given orders for mobilization.
Unknown to the Emperor, Austro-Hungarian ministers and generals had already convinced the 83-year-old Franz Joseph I of Austria to sign a declaration of war against Serbia. As a direct consequence, Russia began a general mobilization to attack Austria in defense of Serbia.
On the night of 30 July, when handed a document stating that Russia would not cancel its mobilization, Wilhelm wrote a lengthy commentary containing these observations:
… For I no longer have any doubt that England, Russia, and France have agreed among themselves—knowing that our treaty obligations compel us to support Austria—to use the Austro-Serb conflict as a pretext for waging a war of annihilation against us … Our dilemma over keeping faith with the old and honourable Emperor has been exploited to create a situation which gives England the excuse she has been seeking to annihilate us with a spurious appearance of justice on the pretext that she is helping France and maintaining the well-known Balance of Power in Europe, i.e., playing off all European States for her own benefit against us.
There have been other accounts on what Wilhelm II really declared, “Ruthlessness and weakness will start the most terrifying war of the world, whose purpose is to destroy Germany. Because there can no longer be any doubts, England, France and Russia have conspired themselves together to fight an annihilation war against us”.
When it became clear that Germany would experience a war on two fronts and that Britain would enter the war if Germany attacked France through neutral Belgium, the panic-stricken Wilhelm attempted to redirect the main attack against Russia. When Helmuth von Moltke the younger who had chosen the old plan from 1905, made by General von Schlieffen for the possibility of German war on two fronts told him that this was impossible, Wilhelm said: “Your uncle would have given me a different answer!” Wilhelm is also reported to have said, “To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive, she would never have allowed it.” In the original Schlieffen plan, Germany would attack the supposed weaker enemy first, meaning France. The plan supposed that it would take a long time before Russia was ready for war. Defeating France had been easy for Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. At the 1914 border between France and Germany, an attack at this more southern part of France could be stopped by the French fortress along the border. However, Wilhelm II stopped any invasion of the Netherlands.
No Longer in Control
Wilhelm’s role in wartime was one of ever-decreasing power as he increasingly handled awards ceremonies and honorific duties. The high command continued with its strategy even when it was clear that the Schlieffen plan had failed. By 1916, the Empire had effectively become a military dictatorship under the control of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. Increasingly cut off from reality and the political decision-making process, Wilhelm vacillated between defeatism and dreams of victory, depending upon the fortunes of his armies. Nevertheless, Wilhelm still retained the ultimate authority in matters of political appointment, and it was only after his consent had been gained that major changes to the high command could be effected. Wilhelm was in favor of the dismissal of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger in September 1914 and his replacement by Erich von Falkenhayn. In 1917, Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided that Bethman-Hollweg was no longer acceptable to them as Chancellor and called upon the Kaiser to appoint somebody else. When asked whom they would accept, Ludendorff recommended Georg Michaelis, a nonentity whom he barely knew. Despite this, he accepted the suggestion. Upon hearing in July 1917 that his cousin George V had changed the name of the British royal house to Windsor, Wilhelm remarked that he planned to see Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The Kaiser’s support collapsed completely in October–November 1918 in the army, in the civilian government, and in German public opinion, as President Woodrow Wilson made clear that the Kaiser could no longer be a party to peace negotiations. That year also saw Wilhelm sickened during the worldwide 1918 flu pandemic, though he survived.
Abdication and Exile
Wilhelm was at the Imperial Army headquarters in Spa, Belgium when the uprisings in Berlin and other centers took him by surprise in late 1918. Mutiny among the ranks of his beloved Kaiserliche Marine, the imperial navy, profoundly shocked him. After the outbreak of the German Revolution, Wilhelm could not make up his mind whether or not to abdicate. Up to that point, he accepted that he would likely have to give up the imperial crown, but still hoped to retain the Prussian kingship. However, this was impossible under the imperial constitution. While Wilhelm thought he ruled as emperor in a personal union with Prussia, the constitution actually tied the imperial crown to the Prussian crown, meaning that Wilhelm could not renounce one crown without renouncing the other.
Wilhelm’s hope of retaining at least one of his crowns was revealed as unrealistic when, in the hope of preserving the monarchy in the face of growing revolutionary unrest, Chancellor Prince Max of Baden announced Wilhelm’s abdication of both titles on 9 November 1918. Prince Max himself was forced to resign later the same day when it became clear that only Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SPD, could effectively exert control. Later that day, one of Ebert’s secretaries of state (ministers), Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, proclaimed Germany a republic.
Wilhelm consented to the abdication only after Ludendorff’s replacement, General Wilhelm Groener, had informed him that the officers and men of the army would march back in good order under Paul von Hindenburg’s command, but would certainly not fight for Wilhelm’s throne on the home front. The monarchy’s last and strongest support had been broken, and finally, even Hindenburg, himself a lifelong royalist, was obliged, with some embarrassment, to advise the Emperor to give up the crown.
The fact that the High Command might one day abandon the Kaiser had been foreseen in December 1897, when Wilhelm had visited Otto von Bismarck for the last time. Bismarck had again warned the Kaiser about the increasing influence of militarists, especially of the admirals who were pushing for the construction of a battle fleet.
Bismarck’s last warning had been:
Your Majesty, so long as you have this present officer corps, you can do as you please. But when this is no longer the case, it will be very different for you.
Subsequently, Bismarck had predicted accurately:
Jena came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this.
On 10 November, Wilhelm crossed the border by train and went into exile in the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the war. Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles in early 1919, Article 227 expressly provided for the prosecution of Wilhelm for a supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties, but the Dutch government refused to extradite him, despite appeals from the Allies. King George V wrote that he looked on his cousin as the greatest criminal in history, but opposed Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s proposal to hang the Kaiser. President Woodrow Wilson of the United States opposed extradition, arguing that prosecuting Wilhelm would destabilize international order and lose the peace.
Wilhelm first settled in Amerongen, where on 28 November he issued a belated statement of abdication from both the Prussian and imperial thrones, thus formally ending the Hohenzollerns’ 500-year rule over Prussia. Accepting the reality that he had lost both of his crowns for good, he gave up his rights to the throne of Prussia and to the German Imperial throne connected therewith. He also released his soldiers and officials in both Prussia and the empire from their oath of loyalty to him. He purchased a country house in the municipality of Doorn, known as Huis Doorn, and moved in on 15 May 1920. This was to be his home for the remainder of his life. The Weimar Republic allowed Wilhelm to remove twenty-three railway wagons of furniture, twenty-seven containing packages of all sorts, one bearing a car and another a boat, from the New Palace at Potsdam.
Life in Exile
In 1922, Wilhelm published the first volume of his memoirs, a very slim volume that insisted he was not guilty of initiating the Great War and defended his conduct throughout his reign, especially in matters of foreign policy. For the remaining twenty years of his life, he entertained guests often of some standing and kept himself updated on events in Europe. He grew a beard and allowed his famous mustache to droop. He also learned the Dutch language. Wilhelm developed a penchant for archaeology while residing at the Corfu Achilleion, excavating at the site of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu, a passion he retained in his exile. He had bought the former Greek residence of Empress Elisabeth after her murder in 1898. He also sketched plans for grand buildings and battleships when he was bored. In exile, one of Wilhelm’s greatest passions was hunting, and he bagged thousands of animals, both beast and bird. Much of his time was spent chopping wood and thousands of trees were chopped down during his stay at Doorn.
Views on Nazism
In the early 1930s, Wilhelm apparently hoped that the successes of the German Nazi Party would stimulate interest in a restoration of the monarchy, with his eldest grandson as the fourth Kaiser. His second wife, Hermine, actively petitioned the Nazi government on her husband’s behalf. However, Adolf Hitler, himself a veteran of the First World War, like other leading Nazis, felt nothing but contempt for the man they blamed for Germany’s greatest defeat, and the petitions were ignored. Though he played host to Hermann Göring at Doorn on at least one occasion, Wilhelm grew to distrust Hitler. Hearing of the murder of the wife of former Chancellor Schleicher, he said: “We have ceased to live under the rule of law and everyone must be prepared for the possibility that the Nazis will push their way in and put them up against the wall!”
Wilhelm was also appalled at the Kristallnacht of 9–10 November 1938, saying “I have just made my views clear to Auwi [Wilhelm’s fourth son] in the presence of his brothers. He had the nerve to say that he agreed with the Jewish pogroms and understood why they had come about. When I told him that any decent man would describe these actions as gangsterisms, he appeared totally indifferent. He is completely lost to our family”. He also stated, “For the first time, I am ashamed to be a German.”
“There’s a man alone, without family, without children, without God … He builds legions, but he doesn’t build a nation. A nation is created by families, a religion, traditions: it is made up out of the hearts of mothers, the wisdom of fathers, the joy and the exuberance of children … For a few months, I was inclined to believe in National Socialism. I thought of it as a necessary fever. And I was gratified to see that there were, associated with it for a time, some of the wisest and most outstanding Germans. But these, one by one, he has got rid of or even killed … He has left nothing but a bunch of shirted gangsters! This man could bring home victories to our people each year, without bringing them either glory or danger. But of our Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians, of artists and soldiers, he has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics.”
― Wilhelm on Hitler, December 1938.
In the wake of the German victory over Poland in September 1939, Wilhelm’s adjutant, General von Dommes, wrote on his behalf to Hitler, stating that the House of Hohenzollern remained loyal and noted that nine Prussian Princes being one son and eight grandchildren were stationed at the front, concluding because of the special circumstances that require residence in a neutral foreign country, His Majesty must personally decline to make the aforementioned comment. The Emperor has therefore charged me with making a communication. Wilhelm greatly admired the success which Hitler was able to achieve in the opening months of the Second World War, and personally sent a congratulatory telegram when the Netherlands surrendered in May 1940: “My Fuhrer, I congratulate you and hope that under your marvelous leadership the German monarchy will be restored completely.” Hitler was reportedly exasperated and bemused, and remarked to Linge, his valet, “What an idiot!” In another telegram to Hitler upon the fall of Paris a month later, Wilhelm stated: “Congratulations, you have won using my troops.” In a letter to his daughter Victoria Louise, Duchess of Brunswick, he wrote triumphantly, “Thus is the pernicious Entente Cordiale of Uncle Edward VII brought to naught.” Nevertheless, after the German conquest of the Netherlands in 1940, the aging Wilhelm retired completely from public life. In May 1940, when Hitler invaded the Netherlands, Wilhelm declined an offer from Churchill of asylum in Britain, preferring to die at Huis Doorn.
Wilhelm died of a pulmonary embolus in Doorn, Netherlands, on 4 June 1941, at the age of 82, just weeks before the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. German soldiers had been guarding his house. Hitler, however, was reported to be angry that the former monarch had an honor guard of German troops and nearly fired the general who ordered them when he found out. Despite his personal animosity toward Wilhelm, Hitler wanted to bring his body back to Berlin for a state funeral, as Wilhelm was a symbol of Germany and Germans during the previous World War. Hitler felt that such a funeral would demonstrate to the Germans the direct descent of the Third Reich from the old German Empire. However, Wilhelm’s wishes never to return to Germany until the restoration of the monarchy were respected, and the Nazi occupation authorities granted him a small military funeral, with a few hundred people present. The mourners included August von Mackensen, fully dressed in his old imperial Life Hussars uniform, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and Reichskommissar for the Netherlands Arthur Seyss-Inquart, along with a few other military advisers. However, Wilhelm’s request that the swastika and other Nazi regalia be not displayed at his funeral was ignored, and they are featured in the photographs of the event taken by a Dutch photographer.
Wilhelm was buried in a mausoleum in the grounds of Huis Doorn, which has since become a place of pilgrimage for German monarchists. A few of these gather there every year on the anniversary of his death to pay their homage to the last German Emperor.
First Marriage and Children
Wilhelm and his first wife, Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, were married on 27 February 1881. They had seven children. Empress Augusta, known affectionately as Dona, was a constant companion to Wilhelm, and her death on 11 April 1921 was a devastating blow. It also came less than a year after their son Joachim committed suicide.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s Children:
- Crown Prince Wilhelm.
- Prince Eitel Friedrich.
- Prince Adalbert.
- Prince August Wilhelm.
- Prince Oskar.
- Prince Joachim.
- Princess Victoria Louise.
With second wife, Hermine, and her daughter, Princess Henriette
The following January, Wilhelm received a birthday greeting from a son of the late Prince Johann George Ludwig Ferdinand August Wilhelm of Schönaich-Carolath. The 63-year-old Wilhelm invited the boy and his mother, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, to Doorn. Wilhelm found Hermine very attractive, and greatly enjoyed her company. The couple were wed on 9 November 1922, despite the objections of Wilhelm’s monarchist supporters and his children. Hermine’s daughter, Princess Henriette, married the late Prince Joachim’s son, Karl Franz Josef, in 1940, but divorced in 1946. Hermine remained a constant companion to the aging former emperor until his death.
Emperor Wilhelm II was a Lutheran member of the Evangelical State Church of Prussia’s older Provinces. It was a United Protestant denomination, bringing together Reformed and Lutheran believers.
Attitude Toward Islam
Wilhelm II was on friendly terms with the Muslim world. He described himself as a friend to 300 million Mohammedans. Following his trip to Constantinople, in which he visited three times and this is an unbeaten record for any European monarch, in 1898, Wilhelm II wrote to Nicholas II that, If I had come there without any religion at all, I certainly would have turned Mohammedan! Written in response to the political competition between the Christian sects to build bigger and grander churches and monuments which made the sects appear idolatrous and turned Muslims away from the Christian message.