The Last Emperor of the Kaiserreich possessed a contradictory personality and, for a long time, he was the main leader blamed for the outbreak of the WW1. The First World War not only changed the international relations system, but also brought about the end of his reign.
In the last years, however, his decisive role in the outbreak of the WW1 has lessened. The other important actors – such as the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and the Russian Tsar Nicholas II – as well as the strained international context must not be forgotten. The period of time after the Balkan Wars brought about the unofficial exist of Romania and Italy from the Triple Alliance which caused the political and military isolation of the Central Powers.
Wilhelm II was the one who ousted Otto von Bismarck from power, in order to be the sole ruler of Imperial Germany’s foreign policy. Thus, he was able to implement the policy of colonial expansion which he thought vital for Berlin. At the same time, Wilhelm proved to be an inefficient and unexperienced military ruler during the WW1 when the German generals assumed de jure leadership of the war effort ignoring the civil government. Therefore, the Emperor lost the support of the army and was forced to abdicate in November 1918.
Wilhelm II is also known for the period of time named after him – “the Wilhelminian era” – since he was a huge promoter of the arts and sciences through his “Kaiser Wilhelm Society”.
Born on January 27th, 1859 at the Potsdam Castle, Wilhelm was the first child of the Kronprinz (Crown Prince) Frederick (the future Emperor Frederick III) and the British Princess Victoria, the first child of the English Queen Victoria I. Thus, Wilhelm was born in a famous family:he was a member of the Prussian House of Hohenzollern who ruled the Kaiserreich and, at the same time, he was the grandson of the Queen of the British Empire, Victoria. The joy of having a successor to the throne until the third generation was immediately brought to a halt when it was discovered that Wilhelm suffered from the Ebs-Duchenne paralysis. After he was born, he struggled between life and death for an hour and a half and three days after, the doctors found that his left arm was paralyzed and feared that his left foot might also be affected. From then on, Wilhelm would live with a shorter left limb than the right one and thus, many historians thought that his physical disability would be one of the causes of his behaviour as a Kaiser.
Other historians looked for other causes such as Wilhelm’s relationship with his parents and especially with his mother. She was the one who dominated the marriage. Victoria was an English Princess and thus, tried to raise Wilhelm as a British gentleman on English liberal principles, yet she was unsuccessful. The German society was looking for a firm and brave ruler and thus, it made Wilhelm unable to adopt the English lifestyle. Another strong influence on his life was the Calvinist tutor Georg Hinzpeter who made him feel a strong sense of duty. The child received another three names, besides Wilhelm:Friedrich, Victor and Albert;until the age of 3, his nickname would be Fritz.
Wilhelm was educated at Kassel and Bonn University, because his parents wanted to bring him up as more liberal and less militaristic. However, Wilhelm respected the tradition of the Royal Family of Prussia and entered the military world against his parents’ wishes. Because of his powerful personality, he managed to overcome his physical disabilities and became a respected officer and cavalryman.
His relationship with Otto von Bismarck was not strained from the beginning. The Iron Chancellor tried to bring Wilhelm closer to him, in order to annoy his parents who were disturbed by his conduct of politics and the huge influence he had. This way, Bismarck managed to maintain his political power. On the other hand, Wilhelm ended up as the victim of Bismarck’s machinations which made him hate his mother and the English people who seemed to be responsible for his father’s death and his disability. As far as Princess Victoria was concerned, she thought that her noble origins should not be affected by disabled members, therefore, she was not a real mother to Wilhelm. The future Emperor did not forget this and the relationships with his parents became even more strained. He even developed political visions divergent from the ones his family had – his father was a well-known advocate of liberalism. In this atmosphere, Bismarck and Wilhelm enjoyed an even better relationship.
On February 27th, 1881, Wilhelm married the oldest daughter of Duke Frederick VII of Schleswig – Holstein, Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig – Holstein – Sonderburg – Augustenburg. Bismarck was a firm supporter of this marriage in the hope that it would solve the conflict between the Prussian Government and Augusta’s father. However, Augusta Victoria was not Wilhelm’s first choice, but Princess Elisabeth of Hesse – Rhine who refused his marriage proposal, thus making Wilhelm reluctant to the idea of building a family. His family opposed his marriage with Augusta Victoria, because her father was not a sovereign, but Wilhelm’s firm position as well as Bismarck’s support and his ambition to forget the failure of the last marriage proposal determined the Imperial family to accept his marriage. Augusta Victoria was a person with limited intellectual interests and no imagination or talents which bored Wilhelm and encouraged his reactionary tendencies, but managed to represent a form of stability in his life because she gave birth to six boys and a girl.
In 1888 – “the year of the three Emperors” – began a new chapter in the life of the young German Prince. On March 9th, 1888, Wilhelm I died at the age of 90 and Kronprinz Frederick became the new Kaiser. He created chaos in German politics, because of his liberal views:he changed the Constitution by making the Chancellor responsible in front of the Reichstag (the German Parliament). However, his untimely death caused by esophageal cancer-on June 15th, 1888 after a reign of only 99 days-did not allow him to actually implement these new policies. On the same day, at the age of 29, Wilhelm became the new German Kaiser under the name of Wilhelm II.
Once he became Emperor, Wilhelm tried to bring to a halt the huge influence that Chancellor Bismarck enjoyed, in order to eliminate the functionaries’ input in his quest to assume total control of the administration. Wilhelm was dominated by the idea that for too long a minister eclipsed the bearer of the crown and, because of his youth and inexperience, he came to the conclusion that he was indispensable.
His good relationship with Bismarck gradually became even more strained and culminated in the Chancellor’s forced resignation of March 18th, 1890. Bismarck was against Wilhelm’s forceful involvement in the German foreign policy which bothered the equilibrium of the European status-quo. Wilhelm intervened in the domestic politics as well by implementing a far-reaching social policy. The worsening of the relationship between the Kaiser and Bismarck was also explained, because of the Chancellor’s ambition to introduce a very tough law against the Socialists and to change the conditions of the German workers. Bismarck’s abdication spelled disaster for Germany’s foreign policy, yet for domestic policy it became a period of reformation to which Bismarck was systematically opposed.
After Bismarck’s ousting, Wilhelm was able to implement a “personal dictatorship” within the limits of the German and Prussian Constitutions. The Kaiser took all the political decision directly and did not depend on a minister and ministry. However, the Emperor’s power would vary in time and in scope and power. The first Chancellor after Bismarck was Leo von Caprivi (1890-1894) who thought of his position as equivalent to a Prussian general’s one who should be obedient to his monarch.
During his four years in office, von Caprivi looked for an acceptable middle way for both the Reichstag and the ruling elites. He was entrusted with the task of remodeling Bismarck’s work which proved to be too much and thus, his efforts met with failure and he ended up following the Kaiser’s line of foreign policy. In these four years, Prussian finances were reformed and there was an attempt to reorganize the primary education on conservative and ecclesiastic basis which was met with a firm public opposition. Whereas foreign policy was concerned, the German Emperor decided not to resign the Treaty with Imperial Russia which expired in 1890 and thus, the relations between Berlin and Saint Petersburg became increasingly strained.
Therefore, Russia’s relations with France gradually improved until in 1894, Saint Petersburg and Paris signed an Alliance. This meant the decisive destruction of Bismarck’s policy implemented after the Franco – Prussian War of 1870-1871 of diplomatic, military and political isolation of the Third Republic. On the other hand, the relations between Great Britain and Germany seemed to improve, especially after a treaty was signed on July 1st, 1890. The strategic Heligoland Island (at the mouth of the Rivers Elbe and Wesser) was ceded by London to Berlin, yet it was not understood as a favour in case of a war by the German public. In exchange for the island, the Kaiserreich had to respect the East African frontiers of the British Empire which raised the dissatisfaction of the politicians with colonialist views:they hoped to create a union between Uganda, Wituland and Zanzibar.
The third Imperial Chancellor was Prince Chlodwig Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst (1894-1900) who had to accept Bernhard von Bülow as Foreign Minister – a man to whom Wilhelm II referred as “my own Bismarck”. During Prince Hohenlohe’s time as Chancellor, the Kaiser changed the foreign policy of Imperial Germany:from a European policy to Weltpolitik – global policy. One of the causes to this change of course in the Imperial foreign policy was the demographic growth (in 1910, Germany reached a population of 65 million from 41 million in 1871) which determined Berlin to search for new outlets of expansion (the German colonies were few and under developed).
After the year 1894, Wilhelm was totally and directly involved in the German foreign policy and he took important decisions without consulting his career diplomats. In 1896, the Kaiser committed his first blunder by sending the infamous “Kruger Telegram” to the South African President, Paul Kruger, in order to congratulate him on warding off a British air raid. This telegram made the English public opinion virulently anti-German.
In 1897, a special law concerning the German Navy sent the British opinion in overdrive again, because it clearly showed – although Wilhelm II systematically refuted it – that Germany contested the UK’s naval supremacy. However, in the same year, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz became Minister of the Imperial Navy and this demonstrated even more the Emperor’s intentions – he placed Germany’s bid for naval dominance against the UK. Also, the German industrialists believed that naval expansion would raise their profits as well as it could re-launch the German economy. Moreover, the Army was reformed as well when the 1875 defensive plans devised by Moltke Sr. were changed by Schlieffen with offensive ones.
In 1900, Bernhard von Bülow became Chancellor, yet he did not manage to make the Reichstag adopt the very necessary reforms the ever expanding German industry needed. The Kaiser hoped in vain that Bülow would bring the Reichstag round to accept his and the elites’ decisions.
During the next years, Wilhelm would have to deal with even more foreign policy problems. 1906 saw the appearance of the First Moroccan Crisis which stemmed from the fact that Germany supported the independence of Morocco which was at the time a French possession. The German decision became an evident blunder when in 1904 France and the UK signed a Treaty which became the Entente in 1907 when the British Empire entered an alliance with Imperial Russia. Behind this crisis was Berlin’s ambition to demonstrate to the French that the British were not good allies, yet, at the Algeciras Conference, Germany had to accept the French predominance in Morocco. In just five years, the Germans created another Moroccan Crisis on the same grounds as the first one, yet the end result was very disappointing and it seemed almost impossible for Berlin to avoid the outbreak of a European war.
Another tense moment appeared between these two Moroccan Crises-the “Daily Telegraph Affair”. In 1908, Wilhelm II visited the UK and declared in an interview for Daily Telegraph that the majority of the German population had strong anti-British feelings. Yet, the text of the speech should have been corrected by Chancellor von Bülow, but he did not manage to do it and thus, was unable to protect the Kaiser in front of the Reichstag. For this grave error, von Bülow paid with his position and was replaced by Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. This crisis convinced Wilhelm II that it was high time he stepped aside momentarily from the limelight.
The new Chancellor had to face the grave crisis created by Wilhelm II’s interview for the Daily Telegraph. Hollweg was in the very complicated position of keeping the UK neutral in an eventual Franco – German war, position which London conditioned by the limitation of the German fleet. However, Berlin refused to do so.
1914 was a decisive year for the German Empire and its main ally – Austria Hungary. Wilhelm II unsuccessfully tried to eliminate the possibility of war by using his family connections with the Tsar Nicholas II and the English King Edward V (they were cousins), however, the mobilization of the Russian army made him declare war. At the same time, he supported the firm position of Austria Hungary against Serbia, yet the war became inevitable once he declared general mobilization. Although he was the commander of the army, Wilhelm II left his generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg the full command of the army while encouraging them to fulfil grandiose and unreasonable war objectives. Thus, an armistice was impossible.
In the autumn of 1918, Wilhelm II realized that Germany had lost the war and even if he refused to abdicate in the beginning, he would do so on November 9th, 1918. He fled to Holland (where he received asylum), in order to escape the legal responsibility in Germany. His wife died in 1921 and he married Hermine Reuss-Greiz in 1923. The couple did not have any children. Wilhelm II led a quiet life on his domain in Doorn, Holland, where he passed away on June 4th, 1941.
It has been said many a time that Wilhelm was the one who took all the decisions. The German Constitution of 1871 offered him two crucial powers:the first one was the possibility to name and dismiss the Chancellor – the chief of the civil government. When deciding for or against a certain person to be the new Chancellor, the Emperor had to take into account the majority of the Reichstag. But since many of the Parliament members were loyal to the Kaiser, they would accept whichever person the Kaiser chose. The second power was the leadership of the Germany Army and Navy which were not responsible in front of the civil government, but only in front of the Kaiser. Thus, historians and especially the British ones concluded that the Emperor was the only one capable of deciding war or peace.
For many years, Wilhelm II did not enjoy a positive image and has been considered the main culprit for the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict which brought about the end of some monarchical regimes. However, many historians did not take into account the international context or the extremely uncompromising attitude of Austria – Hungary which decisively contributed to the outbreak of WW1.