File:WILHELM.GIFWilhelm II, King of Prussia and German Kaiser, born 27 January 1859 in Berlin, died 5 June 1941 at Doorn in The Netherlands.
Married Augusta Viktoria (1858-1921), Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein, in 1881; 7 children (6 sons; one daughter); married (second) the widow, Hermine, Princess of Reuss, (1886-1947), in 1922.
The eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm symbolized his era and the nouveaux riche aspects of the German empire. The kaiser suffered from a birth defect that left his left arm withered and useless. He overcame this handicap, but the effort to do so left its mark, and despite efforts of his parents to give him a liberal education, the prince became imbued with religious mysticism, militarism, anti-semitism, the glorification of power politics. Some have claimed that his personality displayed elements of a narcissistic personality disorder. Bombastic, vain, insensitive, and possessed with grandiose notions of divine right rule, his personality traits paralleled those of the new Germany: strong, but off balance; vain, but insecure; intelligent, but narrow; self-centered yet longing for acceptance.
Under the guise of training him for his future royal duties, Bismarck sought to mold Wilhelm into a conservative foil against his father's so-called liberalism. The scheme succeeded all too well but backfired when Friedrich died within four months of becoming emperor and Wilhelm proved uncontrollable. Soon after coming to the throne in 1888, Wilhelm distanced himself from his mother and dismissed Bismarck. Setting his own course, albeit a rather directionless one, he abandoned the Iron Chancellor's policy of keeping Russia and Austria-Hungary separated by allying with both. He allowed Germany's ties to Russia to lapse, a vacuum that France quickly filled. Bound now to the fate of Austria-Hungary, the real "sick man" of Europe, Wilhelm sought to break what he called Germany's encirclement. His efforts alternately amused or scared Europe. His penchant for uniforms and vainglorious pronouncements might have merely provoked derision and laughter had he headed some inconsequential nation, but Germany's army and economy dominated the Continent, and wish as they might, Europe's statesmen could not ignore him.
His inferiority complex and a love-hate relationship with England and his uncle (Edward VII) made him easy prey for the blandishments of Admiral Tirpitz and the Navy League. When Germany, the sole European nation with the industrial capability to rival England's naval dominance, began to construct a large, modern fleet, England's reaction was predictable. England viewed the German fleet as a mortal threat to her vital interests and she patched up her colonial differences with first France, then Russia, initiating military discussions with the French in 1906.
Historians still debate Germany's and Wilhelm's complicity in bringing about the war. A stronger indictment emerges from Wilhelm's hesitancy to halt the apparatus of war as it lurched towards the brink, propelled by mobilization plans and timetables. Wilhelm's last-minute anguish to General v. Moltke over the inflexibility of the Schlieffen Plan belied the fact that the Kaiser had known (and approved) the plan's contents for years. The outbreak of war did occasion one of Wilhelm's best speeches, his "Burgfrieden" (Peace of the Castle) speech in which he rallied all Germans to sublimate internal politics to the prosecution of the war. In that effort he proved a failure. As the war progressed, the professionals increasingly took charge, and Wilhelm retreated to the background. His zeal and spirit seemed to wane with Germany's military progress and, browbeaten into a number of disastrous cabinet appointments by Ludendorff, his popularity plummeted. The final blow came when his ministers and the public understood Wilson's October armistice note to mean that the Kaiser's very presence prevented peace. At the end, his generals told him his troops would march home to restore order, but not in his name. It was best, they said, that he abdicate, but while he temporized, the Majority Socialists declared a republic on the morning of 9 November 1918. After 300 years, the Hohenzollern dynasty was finished.
The Kaiser fled to The Netherlands on 10 November 1918. He purchased an estate at Doorn where he maintained a tiny household. Following the death of the Kaiserine in 1921, he married a widow, Princess v. Schoenaich (Hermine of Reuss) a year later. The same year he published his memoirs, absolving himself of any war guilt. Over the next two decades, he received visitors and kept abreast of events in Europe. After a brief interest in the Nazis, spurred by Hitler's manipulation of the restoration issue, the imperial couple turned against the brown shirts. Death came in 1941, and he was buried on the grounds of his estate.
Return to W-Index
Return to Alphabetical Index of WWI Biographies