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Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II led the German Empire into a bloody global conflict that ultimately ended the Kaiserreich. Was he a militaristic madman hellbent on destruction? Well, certainly in part, but the Kaiser was a complicated character. Let's see if he really fitted the bloodthirsty picture the Western Entente painted of him.

Western Entente

Countries that allied against the German Empire in World War I. Important members were Britain, France, Russia, the United States, Italy and Japan.

Kaiser Wilhelm II Facts

Let's now examine each stage of the Kaiser's life.

Early Life

Kaiser Wilhelm II was born in Potsdam, Germany in 1859. He was the grandson of British monarch Queen Victoria, whose daughter Princess Victoria had married Friedrich III. He would go on to have an ambivalent relationship with Britain, but more on that later!

Wilhelm's early life was shaped by two key events. The first of which was the difficult birth that left him with a withered arm, making everyday tasks more challenging to perform. In addition, the formation of the Kaiserreich or German Empire in 1871, under the stewardship of his grandfather Wilhelm I and the chancellor Otto von Bismarck, caught the imagination of the twelve-year-old Wilhelm. It is noted that whilst he had a brilliant mind, he was highly strung, with a fierce temper and had a disconnected relationship with his parents.

The Kaiser

The death of his father, shortly after that of his grandfather, flung Wilhelm II into the limelight in 1888 or "The Year of the Three Kings". He quickly sought to militarise his nation and engaged in a Naval Arms Race with Britain, who were the dominant power in the world at the time. Perhaps he engaged in this out of the idolisation of his grandmother's powerful land. Regardless, it ultimately left the government out of pocket by the time World War I started in 1914.

Wilhelm II The Kaiser (left) and Paul von Hindenburg StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Kaiser (left) and Paul von H

Another erratic and shortsighted decision was the removal of political juggernaut Otto von Bismarck, who had been the architect of many of the successes of Wilhelm I's reign. Wilhelm II seemed more interested in surrounding himself with people he liked or who flattered him, ignoring advice to stop his dangerous warmongering. By 1908 much of his rhetoric was becoming questionable. He became more withdrawn from this point onwards and lost respect due to The Daily Telegraph Affair.

The Daily Telegraph Affair was a public cooling of Wilhelm's relationship with Britain. In a 1908 interview with a friend Stuart Wortley in England, Wilhelm made several claims that infuriated the British, including that he had been the architect of their success in the Boer War and another that we will see later. This was leaked to The Daily Telegraph and proved a damaging moment for Wilhelm.

Germans rushed to claim their respect for Britain through letters to repair the damage, and the British people did the same. Unfortunately, the interview not only upset the British but also highlighted the weaknesses of the Kaiserreich constitution. The Kaiser was not supposed to get involved in political matters, and Wilhelm was left embarrassed and suffered from depression from 1908 onwards, finding mental stability hard to come by.

The Eulenberg Trial

Another damaging event that shaped the latter part of the Kaiser's reign was the Eulenberg Trial. Prince Eulenberg, a close friend of Wilhelm II, was accused of organising and leading a clandestine homosexual ring within the Imperial government. In the 1906 publication of Die Zukunft (The Future), Maximilian Harden exposed this crime (as homosexuality was illegal).

There had been suspicions flying that Wilhelm II was a closet homosexual, and this scandal only served to increase these. Harden was put on trial between 1906 and 1909 and seriously damaged the Hohenzollern family's reputation, causing many members to fall ill from stress. He was finally fined in a case against Helmut von Moltke. Norman Domeier notes that the politicisation of sexuality may have been used by opponents of the Kaiser to increase the "masculine" rhetoric that was seemingly under threat from within.1 It certainly damaged his aura of authority.

Wilhelm II Quotes

Let's examine some of the quotations that characterised the changing psyche and unstable nature of Wilhelm II's dysfunctional rule. Starting from the warmongering aggression and ending with his political marginalisation on the eve of World War I. We can also see from the cartoon what kind of reputation this gave him around the world.

I am not a man who believes that we Germans bled and conquered thirty years ago (to be) pushed aside when great international decisions are made. If that were to happen, the place of Germany as a world power would be gone forever. I am not prepared to let that happen.”

-1900

“Despite not having the fleet we should have, we have conquered for ourselves a place in the sun. It is now my task to see to it that this place in the sun shall remain our undisputed possession.”

-1901 (referring to the Naval Arms Race)

“You English are like mad bulls… you see red everywhere! What on earth has come over you, to heap on us such suspicion as is unworthy of a great nation. I regard this as a personal insult… You make it uncommonly difficult for a man to remain friendly to England.”

-1908 (from The Daily Telegraph Interview)

"It is my duty to increase (German) heritage, for which one day I shall be called upon to give an account. Whoever tries to interfere with my task, I shall crush."

-1913

"You will regret this, gentleman."

-1914 (to his military commanders on the eve of World War I when they agree to follow the Schlieffen Plan)

It seemed that every fibre of the Kaiser's body was itching for a conflict to further German interests, but when it became a reality, he wished to shy away from it and deflect responsibility. Now we will see how prominent a role the Emperor actually played during the conflict.

The Kaiser and World War I

On the eve of World War I, Wilhelm II was no longer the force in German politics that he had anticipated or his rhetoric warranted. The damage done by the Eulenberg Trial and The Daily Telegraph Affair sent his fragile ego back into his shell, and he began to suffer depression from 1908 onwards. He was not the despot that the Allies depicted him as and calls of "Hang the Kaiser" in 1918 deflected a lot of the responsibility away from the other men involved. However, he was not a "Schattenkaiser" or "Shadow Kaiser" either, and he remained influential through his position.2

At the start of the war, we have already seen from his quote that the Kaiser displayed reluctance at the execution of the Schlieffen Plan (see Kaiserreich). The wartime period can be divided into two distinct parts. Between 1914 and 1916, Wilhelm II worked with Erich von Falkenhayn, who was the Chief of General Staff. They had a close relationship, and Falkenhayn emphasised victory in France over spreading troops to the east.

The Kaiser made some important decisions that impacted the conflict, such as the people he appointed to his war cabinet and delaying illegal U-boat campaigns. When it was clear that victory in France was not a reality and the attack of Verdun failed, Falkenhayn was dismissed in favour of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. These two men wanted military control and did not see eye to eye with the Kaiser. As a result, they shunted him into the background for the final years of the war.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany Abdicates

World War I brought the death of almost 2 million Germans, and a soldier's death in battle may have preserved the legacy of a Kaiserreich. In contrast, the Kaiser's escape to the Netherlands, where he was granted asylum, left a political vacuum and unrest. Such was his lack of control by this point that his requests for abdication were accepted on November 9th 1918, without his knowledge. Finally, after an autumn of chaos, the Weimar Constitution was created by Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert in January of the following year, after Chancellor Max von Baden had negotiated a German surrender.

Abdicate

The voluntary surrendering of a crown by a monarch.

Exile

The years of the German Empire were over. The Kaiser lived out his remaining years in Doorn. He initially supported Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party when he thought that they may reintroduce the monarchy but became increasingly horrified by their violent tactics. He finally died in 1941, during World War II.

Wilhelm II House of exile in Doorn with bust of Wilhelm II StudySmarterFig. 2 - House of exile in Doorn with bust of Wilhelm II

Descendants of Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II married again in 1922, but he had seven children with his first wife. They reacted to his exile and fall from power in a variety of ways.

Monarchy

A form of government with a head of state who rules until they die or abdicate.

Wilhelm II Children

Here is a table showing Kaiser Wilhelm II's children.

Child (eldest to youngest)Notes
WilhelmAfter the exile, he returned to Germany to collaborate with the Nazis with the expectation that they would restore the monarchy. He halted his support when this didn't happen.
Eitel FriedrichA member of the Veterans Association, he was a monarchist too but opposed the Nazis.
AdalbertA naval officer, he was mentally crushed by the naval mutiny at Kiel which was one of the early signs of the end for the German Empire.
August WilhelmBecame a member of the Nazi party and was used as a star vehicle, a relic of the previous German Reich. He was a member of the SA brownshirts but fell into obscurity in 1942 after upsetting prominent Nazi Joseph Goebbels.
OskarOpposed the Nazis. He was in the Royal Prussian Grenadiers in World War I. He was called up for duty in World War II but did not end up fighting.
JoachimA Cavalry Captain in World War I, he committed suicide in 1920. He could not handle the abdication and failed marriage of his father.
VictoriaThe only daughter and youngest of the Kaiser's children, she married the Duke of Brunswick and wrote an autobiography titled "The Kaiser's Daughter" in 1977.

Wilhelm II Kaiser Wilhelm II (centre) and his family StudySmarterFig. 3 - Kaiser Wilhelm II (centre) and his family

Wilhelm II - Key takeaways

  • Wilhelm II was born in 1859. He had a deformed arm and grew up with natural fervour after the Unification of the Kaiserreich in 1871.
  • After coming into power, he quickly split with influential Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He spent his early years preparing the German Empire for military expansion and participating in a Naval Arms Race with Britain.
  • The Eulenberg Trial and The Daily Telegraph Affair embarrassed the Kaiser, contributing to his depression and making him less of a figurehead and influence.
  • During World War I, he had an influence but only because of his position. By the end of the war, he was in the background and fled to the Netherlands.
  • He had seven children who reacted to the new Germany in many different ways.

References

  1. Norman Domeier, "The Homosexual Scare and the Masculinization of German Politics before World War I", Central European History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (December 2014), 737-759.
  2. Holger Afflerbach, "Wilhelm II as Supreme Warlord in the First World War", War in History, Vol. 5, No. 4 (November 1998), 427-449.

Frequently Asked Questions about Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II was the third and final Kaiser of the Kaiserreich or German Empire.

Wilhelm II was 29 when he succeeded Friedrich III and became Kaiser.

Wilhelm II's aggressive rhetoric and participation in the Naval Arms Race were contributing factors to the outbreak of World War I.

Wilhelm II had seven children.

Wilhelm II deferred power to his Chancellor Max von Baden who was quickly replaced by Social Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert.

Final Wilhelm II Quiz

Question

Who was Wilhelm II?

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Answer

The grandson of former Kaiser Wilhelm I.

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What was Wilhelm II's first mistake as Kaiser?

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Answer

Firing Bismarck and ignoring his foreign policy advice.

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What was the Daily Telegraph Affair?


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Answer

The Daily Telegraph Affair of 1908 was an interview Wilhelm II gave to the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph in which he angered British citizens and politicians by referring to them as 'mad bulls'.

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What quality did Wilhelm lack that had a part in leading to WWI?


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Diplomacy.

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Who was in the Western Entente?

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Britain, France, Russia, the United States, Italy and Japan.

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The German invasion of which country escalated WW1.

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Answer

Belgium.

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Why was Wilhelm II not tried for his crimes after the war?


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Answer

The allies could not come to an agreement on what should be done with him and the Queen of the Netherlands refused to extradite Wilhelm for trial.

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Why did Wilhelm II finally abdicate?


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He had lost the trust of the military, who abdicated without him.

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Where was Wilhelm II born?

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Potsdam.

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Which of the Kaiser's body parts was deformed from birth?

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Answer

Arm.

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What was the relationship between Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II?

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Answer

Grandfather and grandson.

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What was the effect of the Naval Arms Race with Britain?

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It was very expensive, leaving the German Empire short of money at the start of World War I.

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Who did Kaiser Wilhelm II offend during The Daily Telegraph Affair in 1908?

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The British.

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What was the focus of the Eulenberg Trial?

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Answer

Alleged homosexuality within the Imperial government.

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What did the Kaiser say to his military commanders on the eve of World War I?

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Answer

You will regret this, gentlemen.

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What does abdicate mean?

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Answer

Voluntary surrender of a crown.

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Who did the Kaiser have a good relationship with?

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Erich von Falkenhayn.

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What does "Schattenkeiser" mean?

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Shadow kaiser.

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Where did the Kaiser escape to after World War I?

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The Netherlands.

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What issues did the Kaiser have with the Nazi party?

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Their violent tactics of intimidation and unwillingness to restore the monarchy.

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Which of the Kaiser's children committed suicide?

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Joachim.

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Which of the Kaiser's children wrote an autobiography?

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Victoria.

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Which of the Kaiser's children was a member of the Nazi SA?

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Answer

August Wilhelm.

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