Kaiser Wilhelm II was the monarchical ruler of Germany, occupying the throne from June 1888 until his abdication at the end of World War I.
Many historians consider Wilhelm the individual most responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914. While opinions vary, there is a consensus that Wilhelm II’s brash leadership and imperialistic and nationalist agenda was a critical factor in the road to war.
Wilhelm was born in Berlin in 1859, the first son of Frederick, heir to the Prussian throne, and Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of England.
The future Kaiser’s entry into the world was by a troublesome breech birth, delivered feet rather than head first. This left him with a congenital shoulder condition and a withered left arm that was slightly shorter than the right. These caused the young prince some physical discomfort, though he was more troubled by the embarrassment they brought.
Wilhelm’s early years were spent under the ferocious discipline of a military tutor, who applied strict punishments for his minor errors but no praise or encouragement for his successes.
As a teenager, Wilhelm showed a quick mind and an aptitude for history and the sciences. He was also stubborn, arrogant, moody and prone to frightening outbursts and tantrums. Like other Prussian scions, the young prince was given training as a cavalry officer.
As a youth, Wilhelm showed a great deal of admiration for the British and their empire. He paid several visits to England and to his grandmother, Queen Victoria. He was especially captivated by the size and firepower of England’s Royal Navy, telling the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) that he hoped one day to “have a fleet of my own”.
In his teenage years, Wilhelm’s relationship with his English mother deteriorated. So too did his affection for England and its people, who he grew to distrust. He began to blame his mother for his own problematic birth, cursing her choice of a “clumsy” English obstetrician.
His relationship with his grandmother, Queen Victoria, also soured. The young prince later described her as an “old hag”. Victoria, in turn, told one of her ministers that Wilhelm was a “hot-headed, conceited and wrong-headed young man”.
The young Kaiser
In 1888, 29-year-old Wilhelm became the Kaiser of Germany following the death of his father, who had ruled for barely three months. His ascension to the throne marked a new direction in Hohenzollern rule.
Wilhelm’s grandfather, Wilhelm I (1861-88) had been, for the most part, a symbolic monarch. He left political decisions to his advisors, particularly his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.
Wilhelm’s own parents had been liberal-minded progressives, who favoured a British-style system of government with the monarch advised by a cabinet of ministers.
A new approach
Unlike his forebears, however, Wilhelm was unwilling to countenance limits on his involvement in government and policy. He viewed himself not only as head of state but also head of the government.
Wilhelm’s determination to intrude into policy formation brought the young monarch into dispute with the ageing Bismarck. After two years of tension and conflict, Bismarck, who despite his age was still considered one of Europe’s most proficient statesmen, was retired.
Bismarck’s successors as chancellor (Caprivi, Schillingsfürst and von Bülow) were chosen by the Kaiser and adopted policies that aligned with his own, particularly in the area of foreign relations and military expansion.
Germany’s ‘place in the sun’
Wilhelm II’s main interest was in expanding the power, prestige and size of the German Empire. This was necessary, he believed, so that the German people could enjoy their “place in the sun”.
The Kaiser envisioned a German-speaking empire that rivalled the size and commercial power of the British. He also wanted to play a personal role in its construction and its management.
The more assertive foreign policy under Wilhelm II became known as Weltpolitik (‘world politics’). It differed significantly to Bismarck’s Realpolitik, a more pragmatic approach that acknowledged the complex realities of European relations.
Wilhelm’s strong-willed and impatient personality was desperately unsuited to matters of diplomacy and foreign policy. Several of his outspoken comments and misjudgments fuelled European tensions in the decade prior to World War I.
The Kaiser was notoriously racist and prone to inflammatory remarks and stereotyping. His remarks about “cross-eyed” Chinese after the Boxer Rebellion, for example, raised eyebrows around the world.
Wilhelm was also prone to expressing opinions or interposing himself at inappropriate times. In 1905, a poorly-timed state visit to Morocco heightened suspicions in France that the Kaiser had imperialist ambitions there. This helped hasten the signing of an Anglo-French alliance.
The 1908 ‘interview’
In 1908, a London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, published what it claimed was an interview with Wilhelm II. It was, in fact, a series of notes by a British officer, though the words were certainly the Kaiser’s and he approved their publication in the press.
Wilhelm’s remarks during the interview were full of gaffes and undisciplined rants. They included strong criticisms of the English government and other European leaders, even of the English themselves:
“You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares! What has come over you that you are so completely given over to suspicions quite unworthy of a great nation? … I am a friend of England, but you make things difficult for me.”
The publication of these comments caused an outcry both in Britain and Germany. They only added to the public perception of Wilhelm as an out-of-control, power-seeking megalomaniac who was desperate for confrontation and war.
A historian’s view:
“Kaiser Wilhelm II was a bafflingly complex person. The caricature of the sabre-rattling warrior, he broke down when war actually began. Endowed with a high intelligence and an excellent memory, he was capable of the most crashing stupidities. Fascinated by the latest technology, thoroughly at home in a fast-moving modern world, Wilhelm clung to medieval notions of divine right. Enormously energetic and ambitious, he proved utterly unable to work hard. The contradictions were so numerous and startling that before Wilhelm had spent two years on the throne, people wondered if he were quite sane.”
Isabel V. Hull
1. Wilhelm II was a member of the Prussian Hohenzollern royal family. He ruled as the Kaiser (emperor) of Germany from 1888 to the end of World War I.
2. Born with a slight physical deformity, Wilhelm endured a difficult childhood. He was intelligent but prone to anxiety, stubbornness and bad temper.
3. An admirer of Britain, British naval strength and its empire, Wilhelm envied these things and desired imperial and military expansion for Germany.
4. Wilhelm’s ascension to the throne in 1888 led to the displacement of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and a radical shift in foreign policy dubbed Weltpolitik.
5. As Kaiser, Wilhelm was prone to poor diplomacy and decision-making, leading to a number of controversies such as the 1905 Moroccan crisis and his poorly considered 1908 press ‘interview’.