|“||The soldier and the army, not Parliamentary majorities and decisions, have welded the German Empire together. I put my trust in the army.||„|
|~ Wilhelm II|
Wilhelm II or William II (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert; 27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941) was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia. He reigned from 15 June 1888 until his abdication on 9 November 1918 shortly before Germany's defeat in World War I.
The eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm's first cousins included King George V of the United Kingdom and many princesses who, along with Wilhelm's sister Sophia, became European consorts. For most of his life before becoming emperor, he was second in line to succeed his grandfather Wilhelm I on the German and Prussian thrones after his father, Crown Prince Frederick. His grandfather and father both died in 1888, the Year of Three Emperors, making Wilhelm emperor and king. He dismissed the country's longtime chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in 1890.
Wilhelm launched Germany on a bellicose "New Course" to cement its status as a respected world power. However, due to his impetuous personality, he frequently undermined this aim by making tactless, alarming public statements without consulting his ministers beforehand. He also did much to alienate other Great Powers from Germany by initiating a massive build-up of the German Navy, challenging French control over Morocco, and backing the Austrian annexation of Bosnia in 1908. His turbulent reign culminated in his guarantee of military support to Austria-Hungary during the crisis of July 1914, which resulted in the outbreak of World War I.
A lax wartime leader, he left virtually all decision-making regarding military strategy and organisation of the war effort in the hands of the German General Staff. This broad delegation of authority gave rise to a de facto military dictatorship whose authorization of unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram led to the United States' entry into the conflict in April 1917. Losing the support of the German army, Wilhelm abdicated and fled to exile in the Netherlands, where he died in 1941.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was born in Potsdam, Germany, on January 27, 1859, the son of Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia (1831-88) and Princess Victoria (1840-1901), the oldest daughter of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). The future monarch was the queen’s firstborn grandchild and was genuinely fond of her; in fact, he was holding her in his arms when she died. His ties to Britain through its royal family would play an important part in his later political maneuvering.
Wilhelm’s childhood was shaped by two events, one medical and one political. His birth had been traumatic; in the course of a complicated delivery, the doctor permanently damaged Wilhelm’s left arm. In addition to its smaller size, the arm was useless for such ordinary tasks as cutting certain foods with a knife at mealtime.
The political event that shaped Wilhelm was the formation of the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia in 1871. Wilhelm was now second in line after his father to become an emperor as well as king of Prussia. Twelve years old at the time, Wilhelm was filled with nationalistic enthusiasm. His later determination to win a “place in the sun” for Germany had its roots in his childhood.
An intelligent young man who possessed a lifelong interest in science and technology, Wilhelm was educated at the University of Bonn. His quick mind, however, was combined with an even quicker temper and an impulsive, high-strung personality. He had dysfunctional relationships with both parents, particularly his English mother. Historians still debate the effects of the kaiser’s complicated psychological makeup on his political decisions.
In 1881, Wilhelm married Princess Augusta Victoria (1858-1921) of Schleswig-Holstein. The couple would go on to have seven children.
Wilhelm’s father became Kaiser Frederick III of Germany in March 1888. Already ill with terminal throat cancer, he died after a reign of only several months. Wilhelm succeeded his father on June 15, 1888, at the age of 29. Within two years of his coronation, Wilhelm broke with Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), the “Iron Chancellor” who had dominated German politics since the 1860s. The kaiser embarked on his so-called New Course, a period of personal rule in which he appointed chancellors who were upper-level civil servants rather than statesmen. Bismarck bitterly predicted that Wilhelm would lead Germany to ruin.
Wilhelm damaged his political position in a number of ways. He meddled in German foreign policy on the basis of his emotions, resulting in incoherence and inconsistency in German relations with other nations. He also made a number of public blunders, the worst of which was The Daily Telegraph affair of 1908. Wilhelm gave an interview to the London-based newspaper in which he offended the British by saying such things as: “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares.” The kaiser had already been hurt politically in 1907 by the Eulenburg-Harden affair, in which members of his circle of friends were accused of being homosexuals. Although there is no evidence that Wilhelm was gay–in addition to his seven children with his first wife, he was rumored to have several illegitimate offspring–the scandal was used by his political opponents to weaken his influence.Wilhelm’s most important contribution to Germany’s prewar military expansion was his commitment to creating a navy to rival Britain’s. His childhood visits to his British cousins had given him a love for the sea–sailing was one of his favorite recreations–and his envy of the power of the British navy convinced him that Germany must build a large fleet of its own in order to fulfill its destiny. The kaiser supported the plans of Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930), his chief admiral, who maintained that Germany could gain diplomatic power over Britain by stationing a fleet of warships in the North Sea. By 1914, however, the naval buildup had caused severe financial problems for Wilhelm’s government.
Wilhelm’s behavior during the crisis that led to war in August 1914 is still controversial. There is little doubt that he had been broken psychologically by the criticism that followed the Eulenburg-Harden and Daily Telegraph scandals; he suffered an episode of depression in 1908. In addition, the kaiser was out of touch with the realities of international politics in 1914; he thought that his blood relationships to other European monarchs were sufficient to manage the crisis that followed the June 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Although Wilhelm signed the order for German mobilization following pressure from his generals–Germany declared war against Russia and France during the first week of August 1914– he is reported to have said, “You will regret this, gentlemen.”
With World War I under way, the kaiser, as commander in chief of the German armed forces, retained the power to make upper-level changes in military command. Nonetheless, he was largely a shadow monarch during the war, useful to his generals as a public-relations figure who toured the front lines and handed out medals. After 1916, Germany was, in effect, a military dictatorship dominated by two generals, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) and Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937).
In late 1918, popular unrest in Germany (which had suffered greatly during the war) combined with a naval mutiny convinced civilian political leaders that the kaiser had to abdicate to preserve order. In fact, Wilhelm’s abdication was announced on November 9, 1918, before he had actually consented to it. He agreed to leave when the leaders of the army told him he had lost their support as well. On November 10, the former emperor took a train across the border into the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the war. He eventually bought a manor house in the town of Doorn, and remained there for the remainder of his life.
Although the Allies wanted to punish Wilhelm as a war criminal, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (1880-1962) refused to extradite him. His last years were darkened by the death of his first wife and the suicide of his youngest son in 1920. He did, however, make a happy second marriage in 1922. His new wife, Hermine Reuss (1887-1947), actively petitioned German leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) in the early 1930s to restore the monarchy, but nothing ever came of her negotiations. Hitler greatly despised the man he held responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I, and Wilhelm was shocked by the Nazi Party’s thuggish tactics. In 1938, after hearing about the Kristallnacht pogrom, Wilhelm remarked that for the first time he was ashamed to be a German. After two decades in exile, he died in the Netherlands on June 4, 1941, at the age of 82 of a pulmonary embolus, just weeks before the Axis Powers' Invasion of the Soviet Union.