Wilhelm II

Last Emperor of Germany

"The most brilliant failure in history" - George V

Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Hohenzollern was the last Emperor (Kaiser) of Germany as well as the last King of Prussia. He gave the name to an era: The 30 years of his rule, from 1888 to 1918, are called the Wilhelminian age. Born on January 27, 1859, he died on June 4, 1941. His father was the Emperor Fredrick III, his mother Victoria the sister of King Edward VII. Queen Victoria of England thus was his grandmother.

Unfortunately, there were some complications at his birth, and as a result the infant almost died and retained a withered left arm and injuries to his neck. The idea of a "cripple" on the throne did not go together with the idea of the divine right of kings, and so his mother strove to overcome his handicap by putting him through harsh physical exercise as a child. He did become a fairly good rider and marksman, but Wilhelm looked back on his childhood as a "time without joy". The only pleasant memories were those of visiting his grandmother on the Isle of Wight. His mother wrote about him in 1871 (2):

He is not possessed of brilliant abilities, nor of any strength of character or talents,
but he is a dear boy and I hope and trust will grow up a useful man ...
there is little of his Papa or the family of Prussia about him.

While his English mother had tried to make him a liberal English ruler, later on Wilhelm joined the Prussian army and became estranged from his parents. He just loved the military, especially the uniforms and the war games. Lots of books have been written trying to trace the reasons for his erratic personality, bombastic, superficial, vain and insensitive. The fact remains that Wilhelm was to become one of the last autocratic rulers of Europe, with a dangerous amount of power in his hands and some unsettling flaws in his character.

Anyway, in 1877 he started studying law and political science in Bonn, and in 1881 he married Auguste Viktoria von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, a rather unremarkable woman he had 7 children with. In March 1888 his grandfather, Emperor Wilhelm I (the Great), died at the age of 90, and his father Frederick III ascended to the throne already dying of cancer. In June 1888 Wilhelm II became Emperor at the age of 29. Therefore 1888 became known as the "Year of the Three Emperors". Only two years before, in 1886, Frederick III had written to his chancellor (2):

Considering the unripeness and inexperience of my eldest son, together with his leaning toward vanity and 
presumption, and his overweening estimate of himself, I must frankly express my opinion that it is dangerous as 
yet to bring him into touch with foreign affairs.

The impetuous young Emperor promptly made the old experienced "iron chancellor" Otto von Bismarck resign in 1890. There is one very famous contemporary caricature called "Der Lotse verlässt das Schiff" (the pilot is leaving the ship). People were aware of the difficult times ahead ... and the metaphor is particularly apt because Wilhelm's great love was the navy, the consequences of which will become important later on. Bismarck expressed his apprehensions (3):

The Emperor is like a balloon. If one did not hold him fast on a string, he would go no one knows whither.

In the following years Wilhelm dismantled Bismarck's delicate balance of powers bit by bit until Germany's only ally left was Austria-Hungary, ridden with internal conflicts. The Kruger telegram from 1896 was a diplomatic blunder and started the deterioration of Germany's relations to England. The naval bills of 1897 and 1900 led to an arms race at sea. Wilhelm's idea was to win England's respect with his shiny new fleet and ultimately coax her into an alliance, but all he achieved was that they felt threatened. Germany as a nation was late in the race for overseas colonies and the Emperor wanted "a place in the sun" as well. His motto was "Full steam ahead!", and he had little regard for the finer points of diplomacy. In 1900 he made a speech to soldiers leaving for China to quell the Boxer Rebellion. It became known as the 'Hun speech' (7):

... When you come upon the enemy, smite him! Pardon will not be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever 
falls into your hands is forfeit. Once, a thousand years ago, the Huns under their King Attila made a name for 
themselves, one still potent in legend and tradition. May you in this way make the name German remembered in 
China for a thousand years so that no Chinaman will ever again dare to even squint at a German!

In the age of imperialism, this speech was not perceived as harsh as today (especially since everybody had grown used to the Emperor's inconsiderate babble), but nevertheless it would become first-class propaganda fodder during World War I and help shape the image of the Germans as barbaric Huns. The Morocco crises of 1905 and 1911 and the Daily Telegraph Affair of 1908 were again testament to the Emperor's lack of diplomatic talent. In response to Wilhelm's infamous interview in the Daily Telegraph Sir Edward Grey wrote (6):

The German Emperor is ageing me; he is like a battleship with steam up and screws going, but with no rudder, 
and he will run into something some day and cause a catastrophe. He has the strongest army in the world and the 
Germans don't like being laughed at and are looking for somebody on whom to vent their temper and use their 
strength. After a big war a nation doesn't want another for a generation or more. Now it is 38 years since 
Germany had her last war, and she is very strong and very restless, like a person whose boots are too small for 
him. I don't think there will be war at present, but it will be difficult to keep the peace of Europe for 
another five years.

Six years later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot and World War I erupted. In spite of his constant and careless "saber rattling" in the years before, Wilhelm did not cause it, nor did he want it. His "blank cheque" for the Austrians did however play a major role in starting a disastrous chain of events. Things soon had a dynamic of their own, and nobody could stop the war machine once unleashed. The Emperor opposed his general staff on the decision to mobilize with his famous saying:

Gentlemen, you will regret this!

In the course of the war, he had less and less influence. The allies wanted him to step down as a condition for a cease fire agreement, but he refused and arguably missed a chance to end the war early. Eventually he was deposed, which caused the blame for the defeat to fall on the new democratic government. This had long-term political consequences for the rise of the Nazis. Wilhelm went into exile to Doorn in the Netherlands. He (or rather his second wife) courted the Nazis in the hope of getting his throne back, but Hitler was of course not exactly interested. Wilhelm II died in 1941.

Emperor Wilhelm II ruled Germany in a time of enormous economic and scientific progress. He lent his name to an era of industrialization and imperialism. The young Empire was looking for its place in the world. There were strong forces at work behind the scenes which more often played the Emperor than he played them ... unfortunately he was not farsighted enough to try and defuse the powder keg that was Europe.

On a side note: The emperor was the most filmed man at the beginning of the 20th century. They even superimposed three black&white sequences of one of his parades (shot with different color filters) to make one of the first color movies! There is a documentary on him called "Majestät brauchen Sonne". It can be found on Google Video and gives a good impression of the time.

Sources:
(0) - a tv documentary I saw on arte recently
(1) - http://ragz-international.com/kaiser_wilhelm_ii.htm
(2) - http://www.military.com/ContentFiles/ME_excerpt.htm
(3) - http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1996-11/greatwar.html
(4) - http://members.fortunecity.se/mikaelxii/ww1/Germany/Kaiser.html
(5) - http://www.geocities.com/jesusib/Kaiser.html
(6) - http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWkaiser.htm
(7) - http://www.h-net.org/~german/gtext/kaiserreich/china.html

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