Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany


Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany
(1859–1941)
   King of Prussia and German emperor from 1888–1918, Wilhelm was born in Berlin on January 27, 1859. He was the first son of Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia and his English wife Princess Victoria, a daughter of Queen Victoria. After a troubled birth that left him with a paralyzed left arm, and following a difficult childhood, in which his parents attempted to make up for his physical deficiencies with a harsh upbringing, he came to the throne at the age of 29 on June 15, 1888, following his father’s premature death from cancer.
   As a young prince, he had begun to reject his parents’ liberalism. His reign began with a conflict with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, as the young kaiser was determined to establish his own “personal rule.” Wilhelm soon dismissed the aged chancellor who had been reluctant to yield his powers. Following Under Wilhelm’s rule, Germany’s relations with its European neighbors, previously stabilized by Bismarck’s alliance policy, steadily declined, and Europe divided into rival alliances. Despite the monarch’s attempts to come to alliance agreements with some of his neighbors, Germany found itself increasingly isolated and unable to win over either Russia or Britain. During several international crises, European relations steadily worsened, and the kaiser’s foreign policy made it appear as if Germany were spoiling for a fight. Under his auspices, for example, Germany began to build a powerful navy designed to challenge British naval supremacy, the so-called Tirpitz Plan. With the pursuit of Weltpolitik and European hegemony, moreover, Wilhelm II and his entourage helped cultivate suspicion of Germany among her neighbors. On several occasions, most notably during the infamous “war council” of December 1912, he demanded war, although in July 1914, when war was almost unavoidable, he advocated mediation between Serbia and Austria-Hungary.
   Wilhelm II appears to have suffered from a number of personality defects that may well have been caused by the difficult circumstances of his birth and upbringing. He was prone to bellicose outbursts and frequently cruel to friends and subordinates. Although many contemporaries attributed him with great intelligence and a quick wit, he was often bored by the business of ruling Germany, preferring to spend his time traveling and indulging in his favorite past-time of hunting. His companions were frequently subjected to his monologues and practical jokes, and his friendship with a number of homosexuals also led to speculation about his own sexuality, although frequent and ill-disguised affairs with women have cast doubt on the theory. He was also prone to anti-Semitic outbursts, and he saw himself in a leading role when it came to defending Europe against the “yellow peril,” such as during the Boxer Insurrection of 1900. During the war that he had so often wished for and then shied away from, Wilhelm II’s powers were restricted. It has been argued that he was only a “shadow Emperor” from 1914–1818. In particular, he had to compete for public recognition with Hindenburg and Ludendorff whose military successes had come to overshadow the Hohenzollern kaiser’s majesty. In November 1918, when the war was lost for Germany, Wilhelm resisted both the call to resign, a move that might have saved the Prussian monarchy, and calls to seek a heroic death on the battlefield. Instead, he sought exile in the neutral Netherlands, taking with him a large part of his possessions. After his inglorious flight from Germany, Wilhelm II lived in Doorn in the Netherlands for 23 years, hoping for a restoration of the German monarchy, but he never returned to Germany.
   Historians have long debated the importance of Wilhelm II’s personal rule— whether he was really in a position to determine his own policies, particularly foreign policy, or manipulated by cunning statesmen around him. His role in the events that led to the outbreak of war has also been the subject of historiographical controversy, not least because the victorious Allies of 1918 demanded the Emperor’s extradition as a war criminal, considering him “the criminal mainly responsible for the war.” In recent years, German historians have begun to accept some of the views of those such as John C. G. Röhl who argue for Wilhelm II’s pivotal role in German decision making and in the events that led to the outbreak of the World War I, although a consensus has not yet been reached.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Cecil, Lamar. Wilhelm II. 2 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996;
    Clark, Chris. Kaiser Wilhelm II. New York: Longman, 2000;
    Mombauer, Annika, and Wilhelm Deist, eds. The Kaiser. New Research on Wilhelm II ’ s Role in Imperial Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004;
    Röhl, John. Young Wilhelm. The Kaiser ’ s Early Life, 1859-1888. New York: Cambridge University Press 1998;
    Röhl, John. Wilhelm II. The Kaiser ’ s Personal Monarchy, 1888-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004;
    Röhl, John. The Kaiser and His Court. Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
   ANNIKA MOMBAUER

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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