Kaiser Wilhelm II: Early Years
Kaiser Wilhelm II was born on January 27, 1859, in Potsdam, Germany and was the son of Prince Frederic Wilhelm of Prussia and Princess Victoria, the oldest daughter of Queen Victoria of England. Wilhelm II was the queen’s firstborn grandchild and was truly fond of her. His links to Britain through its royal family would play a vital role in his later political maneuvering.
Wilhelm’s childhood was moulded by two events, one medical and one political. His birth had been traumatic; during a complicated delivery, the doctor permanently damaged the future monarch’s arm. As well as its smaller size, the arm was useless for such basic tasks as cutting certain foods with a knife during meals.
The formation of the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia in 1871 was the political event that shaped Wilhelm II. After his father, Wilhelm II was now second in line to become to become emperor and King of Prussia. Aged twelve at the time, Wilhelm II was filled with nationalistic enthusiasm.
Wilhelm II was an intelligent young man who had a lifelong interest in technology and science, and was educated at the University of Bonn. However, his quick mind was mixed with an even quicker temper and a high-strung, impulsive personality. He had dysfunctional relationships with both his parents, especially his English mother. It is still debated among historians the impact of the kaiser’s complicated psychological makeup on his political choices.
Wilhelm II married Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein in 1881, and the couple went on to have seven children.
Wilhelm II: Emperor and King, 1888
In March 1888, Wilhelm II’s father became Kaiser Frederic III of Germany. Already sick with terminal throat cancer, he died after reigning for only several months. At the age of 29 on June 15, 1888, Wilhelm II succeeded his father. Within two years of his coronation, Wilhelm broke with Otto Von Bismark, the “Iron Chancellor,” who had mastered German politics since the 1860s. Wilhelm II initiated his so-called New Course, an era of personal rule during which he appointed chancellors who were upper-level civil servants instead of statesmen. Bismark bitterly foretold that Wilhelm II would lead Germany to ruin.
Wilhelm II injured his political position in several ways. He interfered in German foreign policy on the basis of his emotions, leading to inconsistency and incoherence in German relations with other countries. He also made several public errors, the worst of which was The Daily Telegraph affair of 1908. Wilhelm II gave an interview to the newspaper in which he offended the British by calling them mad as March hares, for instance. Wilhelm II had already been politically hurt in 1907 when members of his circle were accused of being homosexuals. While there is no evidence that Wilhelm II was a homosexual – in addition to his seven children with August Victoria, he was rumoured to have many illegitimate children – the scandal was utilized to weaken his influence by his political opponents. His dedication to creating a navy to rival Britain’s was the kaiser’s most important contribution to the prewar military expansion of Germany. However, by 1914 the naval buildup of stationed fleets in the North Sea resulted in serious financial problems for Wilhelm’s government.
Kaiser Wilhelm II: World War I
Wilhelm II was out of touch with the realities of international politics in 1914; he believed that his blood relationships to other European monarchs were enough to manage the crisis that came after the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Although Wilhelm II signed the order for German mobilization after pressure from his generals – Germany declared war against France and Russia during the first week of August in 1914 – Wilhelm II is reported to have said, “You will regret this, gentlemen.”
As commander in chief of the German forces, Wilhelm II kept the power to make upper-level changes in military command. Regardless, Wilhelm II was mainly a shadow monarch during World War I, useful as a public relations figure who handed out medals and toured the front lines. In effect, after 1916, Germany was a military dictatorship controlled by two generals, Eric Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg.
Kaiser Wilhelm II: Years of Exile
Late in 1918, popular unrest in Germany mixed with a naval mutiny convinced civilian political leaders that Wilhelm II had to abdicate to maintain order. Actually, on November 9, 1918, Wilhelm’s abdication was announced before he had agreed to it. He consented to leave after the leaders of the army informed him he had lost their support as well. The former emperor took a train to Netherlands (which had remained neutral during the war) on November 10, and remained in the town of Doorn for the rest of his life.
Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands refused to extradite him although the Allies wanted to punish Wilhelm II as a war criminal. His final years were darkened by the death of his first wife and his youngest son’s suicide in 1920. However, he did make a happy marriage to Hermine Reuss in 1922. His new wife actively petitioned Hitler in the early 1930s to restore the monarchy but nothing ever happened. Hitler hated the man he held responsible for the defeat of Germany in World War I, and Wilhelm II was shocked by the thuggish tactics of the Nazis. Wilhelm II commented for the first time in 1938 that he was ashamed to be German. After twenty years in exile, he died on June 4, 1941 in Netherlands at the age of 82.