Wilhelm II, German Emperor

John Florens | Feb 4, 2024

Table of Content


Wilhelm II, whose full name was Friedrich Wilhelm Albert Viktor of Prussia († June 4, 1941 in Doorn in the Netherlands), from the House of Hohenzollern was the last German emperor and king of Prussia from 1888 to 1918. Wilhelm was a grandson of Emperor Wilhelm I and a son of Emperor Frederick III, who reigned for only 99 days, so that in the "Three Emperors' Year" of 1888, a 90-year-old and a 56-year-old ruler were succeeded by the 29-year-old Wilhelm II. Through his mother Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland, Wilhelm was the grandson of the British Queen Victoria. With his traditional view of emperorship, Wilhelm showed little understanding of the nature of constitutional monarchy. It was not until October 1918, under pressure from what appeared to be a lost World War I for Germany and its allied other Central Powers, that Wilhelm agreed to the October reforms, according to which the Reich Chancellor formally required the confidence of the Reichstag. Wilhelm's strong push to expand the Imperial Navy and the closely related so-called world policy became the hallmark of Wilhelmine politics, but at the same time a symbol of its failure.

After the November Revolution began, Reich Chancellor Max von Baden announced the abdication of Wilhelm and his son, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, on November 9, 1918. The emperor had already been staying at German headquarters in Spa, Belgium, since October 29. He went from there into exile in the nearby Netherlands, where Queen Wilhelmina granted him asylum and in 1919 refused the extradition demanded by the Entente powers as a war criminal. Settling in the House of Doorn, William II unsuccessfully sought a restoration of the monarchy in Germany. He died in 1941 at the age of 82 without ever having set foot on German soil again.

Childhood and youth

Wilhelm was born on January 27, 1859, the eldest son of Prince Frederick William of Prussia and his wife Victoria, who became the Crown Prince and Crown Princess in 1861. Wilhelm was the grandson of Britain's Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and, as a result of his great-aunt Charlotte's marriage to Nicholas I of Russia, also a third cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. Britain's King George V was his first cousin. His brother Prince Albert Wilhelm Heinrich of Prussia was a Grand Admiral of the Imperial Navy. At the time of his birth, he was third in line to the Prussian throne and sixth in line to the British throne. At his birth, it was clear that he would probably one day become Prussian king.

Birth, complications and the consequences

At the birth of the prince in Berlin's Kronprinzenpalais, high officials were present to witness the birth, as was customary for births of heirs to the throne. He was born breech and survived only thanks to the director of the maternity hospital at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, Eduard Arnold Martin, who was called in as ultima ratio, and to the courageous intervention of a midwife who beat the apparently lifeless baby with a wet towel, completely against protocol. Martin had to bring forward the birth, which had been delayed for hours, and used chloroform, a novel anesthetic for this purpose.

He turned the heir to the throne intrauterine and managed to bring the legs forward so that the buttocks and abdomen protruded. The umbilical cord pulse was almost imperceptible, so the birth process had to be accelerated. Martin still managed to turn the left arm and place it parallel to the torso, and then deliver the head with strong traction with the right arm still raised. As a result of the hours of fruitless labor and the rapid emergency delivery (a cesarean often resulted in the death of the mother at that time, which was completely out of the question in this case), the infant survived, but left arm plexus paralysis occurred. A few days later, it was noticed that the child could not move this arm. From then on, the arm was significantly retarded in its development and in adulthood it was much shorter than the right one and had only limited movement. Due to the complications during birth, Wilhelm was later diagnosed with torticollis (torticollis). It is disputed whether Martin saved the child's life or was responsible for the disability.

Although Victoria initially rewarded the "outstanding" performance of Eduard Arnold Martin with much praise and a "precious" ring, when the birth injury was noticed a little later, she developed a hatred for Martin. She wrote to her mother, "You know, dear Mama, that William's arm would not have been injured and I would not have undergone such an ordeal if I had been in the care of an enlightened English doctor! It was Martin who treated me!" Wilhelm later came to believe, "an English doctor killed my father, and an English doctor crippled my arm - and that is the fault of my mother, who did not tolerate Germans around her!" To remedy his disabilities, cures such as sewing the sick arm into a freshly slaughtered rabbit or electrifying the arm were performed. However, they were unsuccessful. The torticollis was later corrected by surgery.

As was customary among the higher nobility, his parents took a back seat as immediate educators to his Calvinist teacher Georg Ernst Hinzpeter, who had a very great influence on Wilhelm beyond his majority. His mother and Hinzpeter agreed that Wilhelm's education should be of a very strict nature to prepare him for his "profession." Frederick III was not involved in this decision, partly because he was otherwise bound during the years of imperial unification. He placed full trust in his wife and her judgment. However, the very strict upbringing had little success. Hinzpeter complained in 1874 about the lack of concentration and the "almost crystalline hard-headed egotism" that formed "the innermost core of his being.

As a seven-year-old, he experienced the victory over Austria in 1866 with the resulting domination of Germany by Prussia. At the age of ten, at the then customary cadet age, he formally joined the Prussian army as a second lieutenant in the 1st Guards Regiment on Foot. At the age of twelve, he also became a second claimant to the German imperial throne with the founding of the German Empire after the victory over France in 1871.

School and study time

At Hinzpeter's suggestion, Wilhelm was sent to the Friedrichsgymnasium in Kassel in 1874, despite Wilhelm I's rejection. Victoria and Hinzpeter pursued three goals: According to Victoria, Wilhelm was to "enjoy a modern education, he was to remain removed from the court and military life of Berlin for as long as possible, and he was to be humiliated above all as a result of free competition with gifted sons of burghers, that is, forced to realize that he had no reason to be arrogant." Wilhelm's daily routine at the Gymnasium was strictly divided by Hinzpeter. After graduating from the Friedrichsgymnasium, he began his real military service with his regiment, the 6th Company under Captain Ernst von Petersdorff, on February 9, 1877. In 1880 he was promoted to captain on March 22, the birthday of his grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I.. Already during these years, he formed an understanding of his monarchical role that ran counter to the liberal-constitutional ideas of his parents.

His following stations in life are to be seen under the aspect of an education for the monarch: He was to gain as much experience as possible, but in no field, not even in the military one, did he get the chance to gain solid professional training. To study for four semesters from October 1877 to 1879, he moved to the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, founded by his great-grandfather, where he joined the Corps Borussia Bonn in 1878. Wilhelm mastered English effortlessly.

Military service

Until 1888 he was assigned to changing regiments, the 1st Guards Regiment on Foot, then the Guards Hussars Regiment and the 1st Guards Field Artillery Regiment, was quickly promoted to Major General and finally Commander of the 2nd Guards Infantry Brigade. His military service was repeatedly interrupted by leaves of absence so that he could also familiarize himself as far as possible with civil administration. This could not be done very thoroughly, because more and more haste was required: His grandfather was at the highest age, and his father was in the meantime terminally ill.

Crown Prince

The year 1888 went down in history as the year of the three emperors. After the death of Wilhelm I on March 9, 1888, the "99-day emperor" Frederick III reigned for only three months due to his already advanced throat cancer and died in Potsdam on June 15. As a result of Frederick III's death, Wilhelm became King of Prussia and thus German Emperor and Supreme Warlord on June 15, 1888.

The crown prince's lack of experience was less of a problem for the affairs of government, since Otto von Bismarck had already concentrated political power firmly in his hands since 1862, first as Prussian prime minister, and from 1871 as chancellor of the Reich. Bismarck, after three victorious wars (1864, 1866, 1870

The thirty-year reign of Wilhelm II in the German Empire (from 1888 to 1918) is also known as the Wilhelmine era. A key feature was the emperor's ambition to secure the empire as a political greatness among the existing world powers. Closely linked to this aspiration was the military buildup of the empire and the push for colonial policy in Africa and the South Seas. This and Germany's involvement in international crises-for example, the events surrounding the Kruger Dispatch in 1896, the Dogger Bank incident in 1904, the Morocco crises of 1904-1906 and 1911, and the Daily Telegraph affair in 1908-led to a destabilization of foreign policy.

Wilhelm's penchant for military pageantry, expressed, for example, in numerous parades on a wide variety of occasions, also led socially to an overemphasis on the military and the military hierarchy, even into the civilian life of German society, in which the completion of military service and a person's military rank were of decisive importance for a career - not only in the administrative apparatus (militarism). In the Wilhelmine bourgeoisie, holding a rank as a reserve officer was regarded as a ticket to "better society"; likewise, lack of military rank was an obstacle to a career.

Germany's economic boom during Wilhelm's reign, combined with technological, scientific and industrial progress, fostered a generally widespread belief in technology and progress that was also supported by the emperor. Domestically, he continued and expanded Bismarck's social policy, which was considered modern and progressive for its time. He advocated the abolition of the Socialist Act and sought, sometimes unsuccessfully, to strike a balance between ethnic and political minorities.

Wilhelm wanted to influence both the domestic and foreign policies of the empire much more than his grandfather Wilhelm I. However, the emperor's "personal regiment" was often a policy controlled by frequently changing advisors, which made Wilhelm's decisions - even in the judgment of most historians - often seem contradictory and ultimately unpredictable.

This also includes the fact that, after the Sarajevo assassination, he decided to go to war over alliance commitments he had entered into, which subsequently led to the First World War. It was also based on his overestimation of Germany's military strength on land and at sea. The Morocco crises and the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare are further examples of decisions that tarnished Wilhelm II's reputation.

His term in office was also marked by political power struggles between the individual parties, which made it difficult for incumbent chancellors to remain in office in the long term. Thus, in the struggle between the so-called Bülow bloc of the National Liberal Party and the German Conservative Party and the Social Democrats, five of seven chancellors were dismissed by him with the critical participation of the Reichstag.

During the First World War from 1914 to 1918, Wilhelm's strategic and tactical incompetence became apparent. From 1916 onward, he increasingly abstained from relevant political decisions and effectively placed the leadership of the Reich in the hands of the Supreme Army Command, namely in those of Generals von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who provided the constitutional monarchy with strong features of a military dictatorship during the last years of the war. By the time Wilhelm II was persuaded to abdicate as a result of the November Revolution, which led to the end of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic, and went into exile in the Netherlands, the German Empire had already lost the "Great War." Some 10 million people had fallen on the battlefields.

Social reforms

In 1889, Wilhelm II refused to send soldiers to quell a miners' strike in the Ruhr. As justification, he stated:

Bismarck, who handed down this quotation, called Wilhelm's attitude "patriarchal absolutism, an anachronism for the time of 1888" and "sentimental". Among the working class, however, such statements by the young emperor and the February decrees of 1890 temporarily raised hopes for social change in the empire during the first years of his reign. Social policy was certainly close to Wilhelm II's heart. However, his social reforms were not followed by structural changes in the empire. On the contrary, he further expanded his political influence and refused to democratize the constitution. Prussia retained the three-class electoral system that had existed since the early 1850s and prevented representative representation in the state parliament. As before, the head of government was not elected by the Reichstag but appointed or dismissed by the emperor. At best, the majority ratios in the Reichstag were taken into account. However, it was not possible for the chancellor to enact laws or pass the budget without a majority in Parliament.

While Bismarck was still chancellor, on the 178th birthday of Frederick the Great, Emperor Wilhelm II issued a proclamation to his people proclaiming the motto "Je veux être un roi des gueux" (Engl. "I want to be a king of beggars") and calling for a ban on Sunday work, night work for women and children, women's work during the last months of pregnancy, and restrictions on work by children under fourteen. In addition, in the "Law against the Publicly Dangerous Aspirations of Social Democracy" ("Socialist Law"), which was up for renewal, he demanded the deletion of the paragraph that allowed the state police authority to deny "convicts" the "right to stay in certain districts and localities." Bismarck commented on this as "humanitarianism" and refused to go along with the emperor (who was supported in his demands by the Reichstag). The young emperor was only able to realize his demands with Leo von Caprivi, Bismarck's successor. However, Wilhelm II, for all his social ambitions, was as little a friend of social democracy as Bismarck had been. He hoped that his reforms would weaken sympathies for the Social Democracy, which had grown stronger despite the Socialist Laws, and that the repeal of the repressive Socialist Law would deprive the party, renamed from SAP to SPD in 1890, of its martyr bonus. Heinrich Mann wrote in exile in California during World War II:

Under August Bebel, however, the Social Democrats remained in fundamental opposition out of their anti-monarchist self-image. Although they saw the progress of the reforms summarized in the Labor Protection Act, they voted against it in the Reichstag. They demanded fundamental structural changes, such as a constitutional amendment, democratization, expanded suffrage, primacy of parliament in political decision-making, a restructuring of the budget, significant reductions in armaments spending, freedom for the colonies and more - unfulfillable requests for the emperor, which strengthened his antipathy toward social democracy.

The prosperity of the German workforce increased year by year, but Wilhelm II failed to make urban workers feel like recognized members of society. The SPD's share of the vote grew in many Reichstag elections and state parliaments.

These events caused Wilhelm II, who still wanted to be "a king of the poor," to mature the thesis that a reconciliation with the Social Democrats was not possible. He finally called in Königsberg "to fight for religion, custom and order, against the parties of subversion!" In 1887, while still a prince, he and his wife had already founded the Protestant Church Aid Society for Berlin, because he believed that he could solve the "social question" by supporting the churches; this was followed in 1890 by the Protestant Church Building Society, Berlin, with whose help he also exerted influence outside Berlin on new church buildings in the Reich (for example, on the Church of the Redeemer in Bad Homburg). At the same time, he manifested his idea of a new connection between "throne and altar" in continuation of a line from Constantine the Great to Otto the Great to himself.

Bismarck's Dismissal and Caprivi's Appointment

In the last period of Bismarck's reign, the German Empire had resembled a "chancellor's dictatorship" whose political goals were not those of the young emperor. Bismarck wanted Russia as a strong ally, while Wilhelm II relied only on Austria-Hungary. Bismarck wanted to continue the "Kulturkampf" against political Catholicism; the emperor was strictly against it. Bismarck wanted to tighten the Socialist Law, Wilhelm II wanted to abolish it: "I don't want to stain my first years in government with the blood of my subjects!" When the Reich Chancellor persisted, the emperor sent the head of his military cabinet, General von Hahnke, to the Reich Chancellery on the morning of March 17, 1890: the chancellor should come to the palace in the afternoon and bring his farewell letter. However, this was only delivered to the emperor by messenger in the course of the next day. Bismarck's account - which can always be read as a justification and counterattack - emphasizes the degrading nature of the measure. In the only posthumously published third volume of his memoirs, Bismarck writes that he had felt isolated or even betrayed in the cabinet even before the dismissal and that his deputy Karl Heinrich von Boetticher had negotiated with the emperor in his absence and without his approval, so that he had been forced to refer to a 38-year-old cabinet order of Wilhelm I, which prohibited Prussian ministers from speaking to the sovereign without the approval of the prime minister. With Bismarck's dismissal, the emperor cleared the way for his personal regiment.

On March 20, 1890, Wilhelm II dismissed the "iron chancellor. Bismarck never accepted this inwardly and indirectly ensured sustained criticism of Wilhelm II through frequently launched criticism of the "backers" of Wilhelmine politics and through his memoirs Gedanken und Erinnerungen (Thoughts and Memories), the third volume of which, in which Bismarck described his dismissal, was not published until 1919 because of its political explosiveness. Bismarck's resignation was thus primarily motivated by domestic politics, but in the long run it was fatal above all in terms of foreign policy. From Vienna, Emperor Franz Joseph I, mindful of the 1866 Peace of Vienna, immediately and explicitly recalled Bismarck's merits in a letter. Wilhelm II appointed General Leo von Caprivi as Bismarck's successor, who was hailed by the emperor as a "man of saving deeds" and elevated to the rank of count for his achievements. In Caprivi, Wilhelm II believed he had found a recognized personality with whom he hoped to implement his planned policy of internal reconciliation and the Labor Protection Act.

An important foreign policy event coincided (as it were, "exactly fitting") with the year of the change of chancellor. The reinsurance treaty with Russia partially contradicted the terms of the Triple Alliance pact with Italy and Austria-Hungary. The emperor was against violating the latter pact, while Bismarck had considered the reinsurance treaty absolutely necessary at the time. Now it was a question of its extension. Unnoticed by the public (it was a secret treaty) and accepted by Caprivi, the reinsurance treaty expiring in 1890 was deliberately not renewed by the German Empire. In Russia, people realistically assumed a German change of course and began to move closer to France.

Caprivi's time as chancellor was marked by resolute friendliness toward England. In terms of domestic policy, he was one of the main people responsible for the transformation of the German Reich from an agricultural economy to an industrial export economy. Reforms during this period helped Germany overtake Great Britain a short time later to become the world's No. 1 economic power. The term "Made in Germany" became synonymous with top quality at this time.

Integration policy

The turbulent replacement of the old German Confederation by the newly created German Empire without the German Austrians - the Kleindeutsche solution - brought some problems. The Rhineland, southern German and Polish opposition to Prussian domination was based on the politicizing Catholic bourgeoisie, workers and peasants. As a party of political Catholicism, the German Center Party had formed in 1870. Bismarck's attempts to hinder the Catholic parties in their work led to interventions in the lives of Catholics. Jewish integration, which had previously existed in only a few other states except Prussia, was also young, and the noticeable social advancement of the Jewish population fed envy and anti-Semitism among the population. In the eastern areas of Prussia, especially in the province of Posen, there was strong oppression of the Polish minority, which led to unrest and feelings of injustice. The emperor recognized the seriousness of these problems and counted them among his main tasks.

The integration policy succeeded best with regard to the Catholics. They had previously been disadvantaged by Bismarck's Kulturkampf and prevented from participating in political life and freely practicing their religion. Even in his princely days, Wilhelm was opposed to these practices and advocated ending the Kulturkampf. In order to improve unity between Protestants and Catholics in the empire, the empire repaid the funds withheld from the victims, but did not repeal all the resolutions and laws passed during the previous Kulturkampf.

The eastern provinces of Prussia (East Prussia, West Prussia and Silesia) were inhabited by a majority of Germans, a minority of Poles, and regionally by Kashubs and Masurians. In the province of Posen, the Poles were in the majority. Since the Bismarck era, the state tried to Germanize the Poles living here, but this failed and resulted in open protest. Wilhelm II lifted many of these repressions, which mainly regulated the language of instruction and later also that of worship, and recognized the Poles as a separate people and minority in the German Empire.

In his integration policy, Kaiser Wilhelm II was helped by parliamentarism in the empire. Elections were held in single-member constituencies with absolute majority voting. Thus, from 1871 until the last election in 1912, the Danes (one to two deputies), Alsace-Lorraine (eight to 15 deputies) and Poles (13 to 20 deputies) always had their own parliamentary groups in the Reichstag. Jews, on the other hand, did not organize themselves into their own party. However, the electoral system did not exclude political minorities. This ensured that even the anti-Prussian Guelphs and, above all, the anti-Semites from the Christian Social Party and the German Reform Party were able to organize themselves. However, the number of their deputies never exceeded the number of deputies from ethnic minority parties.

Economic policy and defense policy priorities

Caprivi pushed through another of Wilhelm's wishes denied by Bismarck, the progressive income tax, which placed a heavier burden on higher incomes: the Miquel income tax reform of 1891. By curbing protectionism in an industry-friendly and export-oriented manner, Caprivi incurred the enmity of the landowners organized in the League of Farmers ("Ostelbier," "Junker"), who were closely associated with the German Conservative Party. Growing U.S. agricultural exports after the abolition of protective tariffs caused prices to fall for them. Promoting the use of agricultural machinery partly offset the losses, but increased the agricultural protectionist demands of the already undercapitalized large landowners who were forced to invest.

In 1893, Wilhelm II dissolved the Reichstag, elected in 1890, because it had rejected the rearmament of the army, which he also wanted. In the elections that followed, the supporters of Wilhelmine policy from the Conservative and National Liberal parties won. The rearmament of the Imperial Navy, propagated by Alfred von Tirpitz in the face of Caprivi's opposition and popular among the people, as evidenced by the ubiquitous sailor suits for boys, was also subsequently promoted by Wilhelm.

In January 1894 there was a reconciliation meeting with Bismarck. When Bismarck published the secret reinsurance treaty with Russia in the press in 1896, Wilhelm wanted to have him arrested for treason and taken to the Spandau citadel.

Personal regiment of the emperor

Caprivi was dismissed on October 26, 1894. Wilhelm appointed for the first time a non-Prussian, the Bavarian prince (and his uncle, as he writes in his memoirs Ereignisse und Gestalten) Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst as Reich Chancellor and Prussian Prime Minister. Unlike his two predecessors, he was not to develop any leadership ambition.

In 1895, the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, today's Kiel Canal, was completed and the naval ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven were expanded on a large scale. In this context, the German Empire occupied and leased the Chinese port city of Tsingtao for 99 years.

Despite his friendliness to England, Wilhelm did not realize that this would cause extreme concern to the world's hegemonic power, Great Britain. The ongoing German colonialism - which Bismarck and Caprivi had still opposed - was not recognized by him as risky vis-à-vis the great powers of England and France and approved of: in 1899, the empire acquired the Caroline Islands, the Marianas, Palau and, in 1900, Western Samoa. In 1896, Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst failed to dissuade Wilhelm from the "Kruger Dispatch," a congratulatory telegram to the Boers to repel the British Jameson Raid, which was received with indignation in Britain and persistently interpreted as a departure from Caprivi's pro-English policy. In his memoirs, Wilhelm emphasized that he had been against the dispatch but had been coerced into signing it by Chancellor Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst. Since 1897, Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst had been largely coldcocked by the dismissal of important staff members; the emperor's personal regiment now intensified.

Wilhelm deposed Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst on October 17, 1900, and appointed Count Bernhard von Bülow as Reich Chancellor, who neither pursued the pending domestic reforms nor was able to master the newly grouping foreign policy constellations, which were increasingly perceived in Germany as "encirclement policy." In any case, relations with France were not improved, England was now also challenged by naval policy, and Russia was not supported against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the Balkans. Wilhelm trusted Bülow, who knew how to flatter him in the long term, until the Daily Telegraph affair in 1908 and the Eulenburg trials.

Construction projects

In addition to the fleet rearmament policy with naval buildings such as the Mürwik Naval School, for which Wilhelm is known, various other construction projects took place. In 1899, the city of Schlettstadt gave Wilhelm the castle Hochkönigsburg in Alsace. Wilhelm had it restored in 1901-1908 by the Berlin architect and castle researcher Bodo Ebhardt. The construction cost over two million marks, most of which had to be paid by Alsace-Lorraine. On May 13, 1908, the inauguration took place during a large celebration with festive music and historical costumes in rainy weather, which was also attended by daughter Viktoria Luise of Prussia. Also at the instigation of Wilhelm II, the Poznan Residence Palace was built in the neo-Romanesque style between 1905 and 1913, and the Marienburg Order Castle was renovated between 1896 and 1918.

At times, Wilhelm also saw himself as an architect. The most prominent example from the Rhine province is the emperor's comments on the façade design for the government building in Koblenz. Designed by the architect Paul Kieschke (1851-1905) and realized between 1902 and 1905, the government architect received the plan back with the emperor's own amendments regarding the execution of the planned towers.

Wilhelm arranged for the construction of Cecilienhof in Potsdam in 1913 - this last palace building before the fall of the monarchy in Germany as a residence for the family of his eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, who had married Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1905, after whom the palace was named.

Two other buildings from the Wilhelmine era that characterize the center of Berlin are the Royal Library, built in 1901-1914, and the New Royal Stables on Schlossplatz in Berlin, built in 1897-1900. One of the buildings that most characterizes the Cologne cityscape, the Hohenzollern Bridge, dates from the Wilhelmine period. It was built from 1907 to 1911 by Franz von Schwechten (architect of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) in the direct line of sight of Cologne Cathedral in the neo-Romanesque style with decorative bridge towers and portals.

Foreign policy problems under Bülow

With the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904 and the conclusion of the Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain on April 8, 1904, the European power structure changed fundamentally. With the Anglo-French colonial settlement, the free trade policy had apparently failed. In the Wilhelmstrasse, the decision was taken on how to react to the Franco-British rapprochement without losing political room for maneuver and becoming isolated in foreign policy terms. After Russia's heavy defeats in the summer of 1904 and the sharp tensions between London and St. Petersburg following the Doggerbank incident (21.

In November 1904, Wilhelm submitted a defensive alliance to Tsar Nicholas II. France was not to be informed of the alliance until after the treaty was concluded. The Russian government, however, opposed such an alliance. In the First Moroccan Crisis (1904-1906), the focus soon returned to the tensions between France and Germany. In terms of peace policy, Wilhelm II took an initiative in July 1905: In the spirit of a rapprochement with Russia, which was in danger of losing its war against Japan, he concluded the Treaty of Friendship of Björkö with Nicholas II. France was to be included.

The Treaty of Björkö, however, was declared invalid by Russia as early as 1907 because it was incompatible with the Franco-Russian rapprochement that had taken place in the meantime. This rapprochement had occurred after Wilhelm II had visited Tangier in March 1905 during the First Morocco Crisis (more details here). The result, moreover, was a deterioration of relations with Japan, which had hitherto regarded Prussia-Germany as a scientific and military teacher.

In 1908, Wilhelm's helplessness was highlighted by the Daily Telegraph affair: he complained about his own government in an interview with the newspaper - it was not England-friendly enough. Bismarck had been a master at flanking his policies with media. With Wilhelm II, on the other hand, the interview and pithy speeches were to replace politics. The emperor had given a particularly glaring example with the Hun speech already delivered in Bremerhaven on July 27, 1900. With the interview in the Daily Telegraph, he now stabbed imperial politics in the back by declaring in it that he was a good "protector of England" because he always kept the other European powers from provoking England. This was seen as a nuisance in England: It would not allow itself to be protected by anyone and felt the interview to be presumptuous. Wilhelm buckled in the face of the German press storm and promised to keep a low profile in the future, both in foreign and domestic policy.

Increasing criticism of the emperor and dismissal of Bülow

In the meantime, public opinion had already begun to take a fundamentally critical view of the emperor long before the Daily Telegraph affair. As early as 1902, he had interfered in Bavarian domestic politics with the Swinemünde Dispatch, moreover without consulting the Reich Chancellor beforehand, thus causing a scandal. In 1906, the journalist Maximilian Harden, a foreign policy hardliner who had already called for a preventive war against France in 1905, attacked the alleged "camarilla" around the emperor in his magazine Die Zukunft.

The Liebenberg Circle, a circle of friends around Wilhelm and Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg that had existed for two decades and had allegedly persuaded the emperor to adopt his "personal regiment," was portrayed as a "homoerotic round table of political wimps" that wanted to dissuade the emperor from Bismarck's "manly" course and persuade him to adopt a lasting peace policy toward France and Great Britain and was therefore even discussing the return of the annexed Reichsland Alsace-Lorraine. Harden pulled out all the stops of sensational journalism by exposing and denouncing Eulenburg's homosexuality (then a criminal offense under § 175). Through manipulation, he managed to get Eulenburg to commit perjury and eventually arrested. Three sensational trials against Eulenburg followed, which, despite acquittals, damaged the emperor's reputation and also involved Reich Chancellor Bülow. The Harden-Eulenburg affair, which smoldered from 1906 to 1909, grew into one of the biggest scandals of the Empire and also attracted international attention.

In 1909, the so-called Bülow Bloc, in which the government-supporting left-wing liberal parties as well as the National Liberals and the German Conservative Party had united, broke apart. This was triggered by Bülow's attempt to reform Prussian electoral law, whereupon the conservatives who dominated the Prussian state parliament refused to follow him. The Social Democrats and the Center Party, which supported the principles of this attempt, nevertheless refused to cooperate with Bülow. They accused him of unprincipledness, since only a short time before he had pushed through new repressive measures against the Polish minority in cooperation with the conservatives. The Germanization policy was restricted at the instigation of Kaiser Wilhelm. However, the fact that Bülow now facilitated the expropriation of Polish property in order to secure the loyalty of the Conservative Party was initially ignored by the Kaiser so as not to endanger the stable parliamentary majority. But he dismissed Bülow and on July 7, 1909, appointed Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg as Reich Chancellor.

Foreign policy problems under Bethmann Hollweg

After the year of crisis, Wilhelm now left foreign policy to the new chancellor, who, however, did not achieve his goals of rapprochement with England and distancing himself from Austria-Hungary's anti-Russian Balkan policy. The anti-French policy was intensified in 1911 in the second Moroccan crisis by German interventionism in the "Panther Leap to Agadir." The army and fleet were further strengthened. Striking interventions by Wilhelm failed to materialize. The Kaiser was a militarist, but not a bellicose one; despite his bellicose speeches, he basically did not want an offensive or preventive war. But he also did little to make this clear.

Overall, Wilhelm II's part in German foreign policy is controversial. While John C. G. Röhl emphasizes in him an effective authority that intervened independently in the politics of the empire, the majority of historians, such as Wolfgang J. Mommsen, see the civilian imperial leadership at the center of responsibility. It is indisputable that the emperor did not act as a coordinator between foreign, army and fleet policy. As a result, the Imperial Chancellor, the army leadership, and the navy leadership each pursued different goals that were incompatible with each other. Above all, the buildup of the fleet created a foreign policy problem.

World War I

Wilhelm II played an ambivalent role in the July crisis of 1914. On the one hand, he tried to save the peace by a feverish correspondence with the Russian tsar ("Dear Nicky!" - "Dear Willy!"), which did not achieve anything in view of the now objective war determination of all major continental powers. On the other hand, he urged to strike. In fact, the Kaiser ultimately increased the danger of war, because after the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, he authorized Bethmann Hollweg to give Austria-Hungary blanket power of attorney for its aggressive policy against Serbia.

Although Germany's strength had increased more and more, Wilhelm, with his fears of "socialism," "yellow peril," "Slavic flood," and his idea of the "inevitable opposition of Slavs and Germanic peoples," thought the time had come for the final reckoning. In doing so, he underestimated the pro-Serbian pan-Slavism with which Russian policy since 1905 had been determined to quell the unrest in its own empire. The German ambassador in Vienna, Heinrich von Tschirschky, urged Wilhelm to take action against Serbia: he should "declare emphatically that action against Serbia is expected in Berlin and that it would not be understood in Germany if we let the given opportunity pass without striking a blow."

In fact, after the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia, foreign policy was left to the German general staff by the emperor and chancellor: In the judgment of the general staff, mobilization in the Russian Empire did not permit the German Empire to wait any longer before declaring war on Russia and France, since otherwise the German Schlieffen plan of first quickly defeating France, then Russia, in a two-front war threatened to become unfeasible. Wilhelm subsequently did not interfere in military objectives, but left these to the Supreme Army Command (OHL) rather than to the Reich Cabinet in accordance with the constitution.

In the course of the First World War 1914-1918, the emperor's importance diminished. Especially with the Third Supreme Army Command under Hindenburg and the dominating Ludendorff, he was increasingly excluded from political-military decisions in 1916-1918. However, in 1917, the Army Command thrust upon him the decision, controversial even in the Reich, to resume "unrestricted" submarine warfare, which had been suspended after the "Lusitania Incident" in 1915. He went along with the military opinion - against the advice of his Imperial Chancellor - which was to lead to the declaration of war by the USA in April 1917. The latter later made the Kaiser's abdication a condition for the opening of peace negotiations. On July 13, 1917, Bethmann Hollweg resigned. Now Ludendorff had a de facto dictatorial position. Wilhelm II had no influence on further changes of Reich chancellor, first from Bethmann Hollweg to the inexperienced Georg Michaelis and, in the same year, to the aged Bavarian center politician Georg von Hertling; the 1918 reform of the Reich constitution in the direction of a parliamentary monarchy was attempted without him. The "silent dictatorship of the OHL" was also due to the weakness of Kaiser Wilhelm, who acted more and more helplessly in the last two years of the war, which strengthened the position of the OHL.

On May 13, 1917, Wilhelm II presented his Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs with a war target program that included punishing all opponents, even the United States, in the form of reparations. In addition to extensive colonial expansion-Malta, Cyprus, Egypt, Mesopotamia were to fall to the Ottoman Empire; Madeira, Cape Verde, the Azores, and the Congo to Germany-he expected Poland, Courland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Livonia, and Estonia to be annexed to his empire. He also demanded unrealistic war reparations from all war opponents.

However, Wilhelm II tended to stand in the background during this period in particular; he rarely had a decisive say, so that his program was not taken very seriously in Kreuznach and was only taken into account at all in political planning as far as the colonial sphere was concerned. During a trip to the Balkans, the emperor was enthusiastic about the rich territories of Romania. The conquered country had "pleased him extraordinarily", "with good administration, the country would become a source of greatest wealth".

In 1918, he authorized a plan to divide Russia into four independent "tsardoms" after ceding Poland, the Baltic, and the Caucasus, namely Central Russia, Siberia, Ukraine, and a Southeastern League as an anti-Bolshevik territory between Ukraine and the Caspian Sea. This form of domination would have resulted in a "bridge to Central Asia to threaten the British position in India." The plan for a "Southeastern League" competed with Ottoman intentions in this regard. Chancellor Hertling, who referred to Livonia and Estonia "in a certain distance as states friendly to us," was rebuffed by Wilhelm: "Nonsense! The Baltic is one, and I will be its master and tolerate no opposition, I have conquered it and no jurist can take it from me!"

Wilhelm increasingly saw his Protestant emperorship, especially in contrast to the House of "Habsburg-Parma," as his mission:

The center politician Matthias Erzberger, who served these interests, was "a rogue traitor who must be rendered harmless."

After the failed spring offensive in the west in 1918, the successes of the Western Allies on the Western Front, and the impending collapse of the allied Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Supreme Army Command demanded on September 28, 1918, that a request for an armistice be made to the wartime enemies and at the same time that the government of the German Reich be placed on a broader footing.

In several diplomatic notes, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson indirectly made the granting of the armistice conditional on the abdication of the emperor. The U.S. refused to enter into peace negotiations beforehand. Since, as a result of Wilson's 14-point program, it was considered the most moderate of the coming victorious powers, his demand resonated with Germany.

On September 30, the emperor issued a decree on parliamentarization. Hertling was succeeded as Reich Chancellor by Prince Max of Baden on October 3. On October 16, 1918, the Progressive People's Party recommended that Wilhelm II voluntarily abdicate. Imperial Chancellor Prince Max of Baden had been pursuing this since October 28; the following day, on the advice of Friedrich von Berg in particular, Wilhelm traveled from Berlin to Spa (Belgium). He resided there at La Fraineuse and attempted shuttle diplomacy between himself and the OHL (whose headquarters was at the Hotel Britannique). Given the mood of the people and the opinion of the cabinet, Wilhelm still thought the army most likely to be loyal. These hopes were dashed in the course of the Kiel sailor uprising and the November Revolution. In order to take the lead from more radical demands of the revolutionaries, the majority Social Democrats also demanded the resignation of the emperor and crown prince starting on November 7. The following day, the Center Party also spoke out in favor of abdication. In the course of the November Revolution, Kurt Eisner simultaneously proclaimed the Free State of Bavaria in Munich on November 7, 1918, and declared Ludwig III deposed as Bavarian king. Thus, the first German federal prince had been ousted by the revolution.

The monarch, who was politically paralyzed at this point, was now confronted with three options. General Wilhelm Groener, supported in part by the results of a survey of 39 generals and regimental commanders, argued that the army was no longer in the hands of the commanders; military action against the revolution, while desirable, was impossible for the time being, especially with the emperor at the helm. Groener's analysis, which implicitly suggested that the emperor must disappear, was de facto covered by Hindenburg-a constant source of embarrassment after the war-and found two energetic advocates in Paul von Hintze and Werner Freiherr von Grünau, who also brought up the "Holland solution." Another group around General Friedrich Graf von der Schulenburg, Chief of Staff of the German Crown Prince Army Group, on the other hand, considered a "march on Berlin," i.e., the military crushing of the revolution, to be feasible. Initially, Wilhelm also leaned toward this position. The third option was only hinted at by the emperor's military entourage: The monarch should "go forward," that is, to the front, to seek death there. Such a gesture, it was speculated, especially by younger general staff officers, would bring about a complete change of opinion in favor of the dynasty or the monarchy as an institution. Preparations for such an undertaking had already been made by Groener and Major Joachim von Stülpnagel, the head of the OHL's Operations Department.

Wilhelm's last initiative, already overtaken by events, was his decision, taken late on the morning of November 9, to abdicate as emperor but not as Prussian king. In the meantime, the revolution had taken hold of Berlin. While a document of abdication was being worked on in Spa, news arrived that Max von Baden had announced Wilhelm's abdication as emperor and king. According to historian Lothar Machtan, this high-handedness on the part of Prince Max was due to a "backstairs policy" on the part of Groener, who had informed him by telephone that morning that Wilhelm's abdication of both thrones was imminent and that he could "quietly announce" it. The widespread view that Prince Max had attempted by this last-minute maneuver to channel revolutionary pressure and to save the monarchy as such, which had in fact already ceased to exist, was implausible, since the revolution had already reached Berlin. In the morning of the same day, Max von Baden asked Friedrich Ebert, the chairman of the MSPD, to assume the office of Reich Chancellor. Shortly thereafter, Philipp Scheidemann (SPD) and Karl Liebknecht (Spartacus League) proclaimed the Republic.

As rumors circulated that the crews around the headquarters were no longer reliable, the emperor transferred to the court train on the evening of November 9 and left early the next morning after reports of "marching insurgents." Near the Dutch town of Eijsden (south of Maastricht), he asked the Netherlands for political asylum. Through the mediation of the Dutch government (Cabinet Beerenbrouck I under Prime Minister Charles Ruijs de Beerenbrouck), Wilhelm II and his entourage found lodging with Count Godard von Bentinck at Amerongen Castle.

Formal abdication

Officially, Wilhelm II abdicated on November 28, 1918, 19 days after the proclamation of the republic, according to his own statement in the hope of stabilizing the situation in the empire. The Irish-Canadian international law expert William Schabas suspects that the formal abdication was the condition of the Dutch government for the entry permit of the ex-emperor, who moved to the Netherlands on the same day.

The text of the abdication certificate read:

On December 1, his son renounced the succession.

On March 27, 1920, the Prussian Ministry of the Interior issued a decree requiring the removal of all symbols of the monarchy - including images of the emperor - from public spaces.


An Allied request to extradite the former regent to the victorious powers was rejected by the Dutch government on January 22, 1920. Wilhelm II lived in Amerongen Castle (Netherlands) until 1920, then in exile at Doorn House near Utrecht. On April 11, 1921, his wife, Empress Auguste Viktoria, died. Shortly before her death, Auguste Viktoria expressed her wish for the emperor to remarry after her demise. On November 5, 1922, he married the widowed Princess Hermine of Schönaich-Carolath, née Princess Reuss of the elder line (1887-1947), who henceforth had the title of "Empress," while officially she was only a "Princess of Prussia."

The Kaiser's departure without a fight, widely perceived in the conservative milieu as a "desertion," was still the subject of debate into the 1940s, with bitter disputes at times over the interpretation of the event and the question of responsibility. Recent research attributes the conspicuous structural weakness of the explicitly monarchist-restorative current of the German right, which became unmistakably apparent as early as the first half of the 1920s, to a considerable extent to the devastating impression of the "Kaiserflucht." Here lay the decisive marker of a "movement of detachment from the emperor that can be traced even to the innermost core of the Prussian nobility" and must be regarded as the basis of the surprisingly rapid and lasting "dissolution of monarchism" in Germany - compared, for example, with the longevity of French legitimism.

Attitude towards the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime

Wilhelm gathered scholars around him for cultural-historical studies ("Doorner Arbeitskreis"), wrote his memoirs and other books, and held himself out for the restoration of the monarchy. Among other things, he saw the 1923 Hitler putsch as confirming his thesis that only a monarch could guarantee peace and order. Nevertheless, hopes for a short-term and transitionless restoration of the monarchy were soon regarded, even in Wilhelm's closest circle, as - in the words of Magnus von Levetzow in 1927 - an expression of "utter brain-disillusionment." This lasting disillusionment was fostered not least by the fact that authoritative monarchists in Germany after 1925 openly pronounced that neither Wilhelm nor any of his sons could seriously be considered as pretenders to the throne. The crown prince, who had been considered virtually "impossible" since 1919 because of the flight and rumors about his lifestyle, took the view in agreement with his father as early as May 1924 that first of all "a dictator would have to pull the cart out of the mud".

Although the Hohenzollerns were generously compensated by republican Germany, Wilhelm made no secret of his hatred for the "Saurepublik". The former emperor never gave up his desire to return to the throne. During the final phase of the Weimar Republic, Wilhelm (encouraged by his wife, who traveled around the Reich, and two visits by Hermann Göring in 1931 and 1932) entertained hopes of a restoration of the monarchy by the National Socialists. This did not seem entirely unrealistic at the time, insofar as the Italian fascists, who in many respects served as a model for the National Socialists, kept the King of Italy in office even during Mussolini's dictatorship. Hopes of reinstating the emperor proved illusory after the NSDAP seized power in early 1933: When Hitler, two days after the Day of Potsdam, solemnly promised to reinstate the emperor in his speech to the Reichstag on March 23, 1933, the Nazis were not able to do so. March 1933, Hitler solemnly promised not to touch the institutions of the Weimar Reich Constitution. According to his aide Sigurd von Ilsemann, this hit the ex-emperor like a "leaf shot": like a defendant listening to his sentence, he had sat there with his eyes wide open and could only say: "So!" Subsequently, Wilhelm developed an increasingly distanced attitude toward political developments in Germany.

"Everything is being done away with by the people, after all: the princes, the nobility, the officers, the estates, etc.; but this will be avenged, they will curse the only flag they have left, the one with the swastika, once again, and the Germans themselves will burn it one day," he judged on September 7, 1933.


As crown prince, Wilhelm sought proximity to the anti-Semitic movement of court preacher Adolf Stoecker and complained on several occasions that what he saw as a Jewish-dominated press had too much influence. As emperor, he moved away from Stoecker and separated from him in 1890. During his thirty years in power, Wilhelm had refrained from anti-Jewish initiatives or statements and had maintained friendly contacts with several prominent Jews. These "Kaiserjuden," as Chaim Weizmann later called them, included Albert Ballin, James Simon, Emil and Walther Rathenau, Max Warburg, Eduard Arnhold and Carl Fürstenberg. According to Wolfgang Benz, however, this does not prove that the Kaiser was not an anti-Semite: one should not overlook "the fact that the Kaiser declared several times that he did not regard Ballin as a Jew." The emperor was so enthusiastic about Houston Stewart Chamberlain's anti-Semitic work The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century that he obliged all higher schools in Germany to purchase at least one copy of it.

Wilhelm's ambivalent attitude changed after his deposition to staunch anti-Semitism, which became the main explanatory model for his fall: Wilhelm believed he had lost his throne through a Jewish conspiracy. Already during the November Revolution, he stressed, "I don't even think of leaving the throne because of a few hundred Jews, the few thousand workers!" John C. G. Röhl writes in his biography that Wilhelm had lived since 1918 in a world of imagination that "seems extremely alienating in its nightmarish reverie and ideological radicalism": Against the "November criminals," against Jews, Freemasons and democrats, he repeatedly expressed fantasies of violence and conspiracy theories. In August 1919, for example, Wilhelm wrote to Field Marshal August von Mackensen that the Germans were "incited and seduced by the tribe of Judah, which they hated and which enjoyed hospitality with you. That was the thanks! No German ever forgets, and do not rest until these parasites are exterminated and wiped out from German soil!" He called Rathenau a 'mean, deceitful, scurrilous traitor' who had belonged to the 'inner ring' of the two hundred Jews who ruled the world, and who had been justly murdered. In a letter to an American friend Poultney Bigelow on August 15, 1927 said:

That same year, he also wrote to Bigelow:

On the other hand, he declared in 1938 that any decent person would have to describe the November pogroms as "pure gangsterism. On November 13, he wrote to the British Queen Dowager Maria von Teck that he was "completely horrified by the events at home! Pure Bolshevism!" Publicly, however, he did not criticize the anti-Semitic violence. Foreign newspapers reported that Wilhelm had declared that he was "ashamed to be a German for the first time in his life." Historian Stephan Malinowski calls the interview in which this statement is said to have been made a forgery and points to several denials by the ex-emperor. During World War II, he again spread conspiracy theories about the "Antichrist Judah" from whom England and Europe had to be liberated. In 1940, he claimed that Jews and Freemasons had launched a war of extermination against Germany in 1914 and 1939 to establish a "Jewish world empire" backed by British and American gold - "then God intervened and smashed the plan!" Wilhelm's anti-Semitism was not directly effective because the National Socialists did not depend on it. He was more significant in that he gave respectability in conservative monarchical circles to anti-Semitic masterminds such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, with whom he maintained open contact.

During the Second World War

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who had avoided any direct contact with Wilhelm throughout his exile, told him in April 1940, in view of an imminent German attack on the Netherlands, that he no longer had to consider himself an internee and could therefore leave when and where he wanted. The Dutch government repeatedly advised him to go to a place that was not directly in the combat zone. Even the British royal family under the reign of King George VI offered Wilhelm asylum. However, the emperor gratefully declined all offers, stating that because of his advanced age he wanted to remain in Doorn and meet his fate there. During the occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940, Hitler had the estate sealed off by the Secret Field Police. The emperor was still only allowed to leave it for short excursions and in company.

Wilhelm sent Adolf Hitler a congratulatory telegram on June 17, 1940, congratulating him on the German victory over France shortly before:

Death and burial

Wilhelm II died at 12:30 p.m. on June 4, 1941, at Doorn House after suffering a pulmonary embolism. Mourning ceremonies in the Reich were banned. The Nazi rulers allowed only a small number of people (the immediate family circle, some former officers, including Field Marshal August von Mackensen) to travel to the occupied Netherlands to attend the funeral. The Kaiser had ordered his burial in the inner circle and forbidden funeral orations, wreaths and flags (to avoid swastika flags). The funeral service was attended by delegations of the old army and the new Wehrmacht, and the burial ended at the Emperor's request with the chorale and prayer song of the Great Taps, "I pray to the power of love," played by the Wehrmacht band.

Wilhelm was initially buried in a chapel near the Doorner Torhaus, with three hands of Potsdam soil from the area of the Temple of Antiquity, Auguste Victoria's burial place, scattered on his coffin. He himself had decreed that a "reburial of his bones in German soil" was to be carried out only after the reestablishment of the monarchy in Germany. Later, his coffin was transferred to the mausoleum built posthumously according to his drawings in the park of Haus Doorn. His epitaph, chosen by himself, reads:

Wilhelm II did not receive any special attention from his parents, which led to lasting resentment, especially against his mother, who, according to her family letters, was also very critical of him politically. Painful were the family's attempts to counteract his disability. His atrophied left arm led to impaired balance and posture, as well as frequent pain in his left ear. But the future King of Prussia was to be a "whole man" and not a cripple. So the child was subjected to various painful therapies. The often necessary horseback riding was difficult for him for the rest of his life.

The disability probably lowered his self-esteem and increased his egocentricity, easy sickliness, and volatility. Wearing uniforms and resting his left hand on his gun were helpful habits in this regard. Whether one can speak of a serious mental illness or of a predisposition to mental illness is debatable. A melancholy trait is sometimes attested to him. There was also contemporary talk of neurasthenia or "manic-depressive insanity," although most psychiatric attributions came after the emperor's abdication. The psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin even saw Wilhelm's state of mind - in a remote diagnosis based on publicly accessible sources - as a "typical case of periodic disorder," although the manic-depressive disposition insinuated here was disputed by others.

U.S. historian Robert K. Massie describes him at the time he took office:

According to historical publicist Volker Ullrich, the emperor was regarded as "insecure and arrogant, intelligent and impulsive, infatuated with modern technology and at the same time in love with pomp and theatricality. Persistent difficulties were hated by Wilhelm II. This probably also favored his proverbial love of travel. Above all, however, he was quick to abandon proven friends and party supporters, so that courtiers of a more diplomatic character increasingly made up his company and determined his choice of personnel (probably also the choice of Bülow). Officers among whom he felt at ease did little to broaden his judgment, for in doubt they had the political prejudices of their caste-like closed professional group, and their style of swaggering also rubbed off on him.

From his personality, narcissistic traits hindered his empathy and judgment of others, such as Nicholas II of Russia. He saw himself as straightforward and open, but his tactlessnesses were well known. They caught the eye of his fellows especially when he came to power and when Bismarck was dismissed, and were eagerly spread by the latter in his thoughts and reminiscences. His career had not allowed him to acquire a knowledge of the world and of human nature that balanced out these disadvantages.

Despite the differences in character from his old Prussian, simple and personally loyal grandfather Wilhelm I, Wilhelm II always tried to follow his pattern of government. One can interpret his initial relationship with Caprivi in such a way that he hoped to have found "his own Bismarck" here. He appointed the nephew of the famous Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke ("I want a Moltke, too") as military commander-in-chief, but he was then unable to step out of Alfred von Schlieffen's shadow. However, his grandfather's restraint in direct political interventions by no means became a lasting characteristic of his grandson. Wilhelm II repeatedly intervened directly in politics through personnel decisions and orders for draft legislation.

He did not at all follow the public restraint of the old emperor. With an eagerness for self-promotion, Wilhelm II often ostentatiously thrust himself into the public eye, his not inconsiderable gift for oratory earning him a lively response, but also leading him to politically questionable formulations. This overzealousness also favored his relationship with the mass media. He can be considered the first media monarch of the 20th century.

His penchant for uniforms and medals contributed to the cliché image of Wilhelminism named after him. His moustache became fashionable and testified, among other things, to the loyalty of his subjects to the emperor. The "Kaiser Wilhelm beard," advertised by the emperor's court barber François Haby as an "it-is-achieved" beard, underscored the distinctively masculine message of his uniforms. Theodor Fontane took up the advertising slogan in the title of his working draft Erreicht, and Heinrich Mann also borrowed from the generally popular advertising language in his novel Der Untertan (1914), as evidenced, for example, by the very familiar terms "Kaiserbinde" or "Deutsche Barttracht." In this way, he linked the plot of his novel to reality and at the same time gave it a leitmotif ironic motto. This connects various plot levels, for example, it alludes - on the political level - to the unification of the empire that has finally been achieved. Even if the beard may seem unfashionable and silly, it was undoubtedly modern in its literal symbolism. But Wilhelm's beard costume only stood out from the old-fashioned one of his emperor ancestors in an overly dynamic modernist way. Wilhelm II's operetta-like overall appearance was - when viewed closely - excessively provocative and out of step with the times. It illustrated his ill-conceived, militantly exaggerated, neo-absolutist regiment focused on his person.

A highlight of this style was the pompous Victory Avenue in the Great Tiergarten, which was mocked in the usual manner by the Berlin population as "Puppet Avenue", with 32 statues of the Brandenburg margraves and electors, the Prussian kings and a further 64 secondary figures. For the statue of the Ascanian Albrecht the Bear, Wilhelm himself made costume sketches. In the so-called "Rinnsteinrede" (gutter speech) for the opening of the magnificent boulevard on December 18, 1901, Wilhelm decreed the style of the fine arts from above ("no gutter art!").

He also developed his own interests in archaeology, which dominated his visits to Corfu. In addition, as was not uncommon in noble circles, he enthusiastically pursued hunting. His trophy count pleased him (he killed about 46,000 animals). In exile he liked to cut and chop trees. While hunting, Wilhelm had also met his later close friend Philipp Graf zu Eulenburg, who was one of his most important advisors, especially in the years 1890 to 1898.

Like his brother Heinrich, Wilhelm loved sailing. He sailed off the coast of southern England in prestigious regattas with his yachts Meteor I-V and was a regular at Kiel Week, which he attended for the first time in 1894. Automobiles gave him pleasure. He enjoyed driving the latest cars and was a protector of the Imperial Automobile Club.

A leisure activity of Wilhelm II, the drawing and painting of naval pictures, is also linked to his fondness for the navy. His mother, the Empress Frederick, was a talented dilettante. As a prince, Wilhelm II had lessons with the marine painter Carl Saltzmann and with the court painter Paul Bülow. He also designed numerous monuments and personally corrected architectural designs for imperial buildings.

Disengagement when things went differently than he wanted remained his trait. In 1918, in the face of the November Revolution, he escaped to a neutral foreign country. His autobiography, written in Holland, gives telling testimony of his childhood, but its justifications or avoidance of topics testifies to his weaknesses in judgment.

Wilhelm was initially quite popular. The less appreciated features of an imperial unification "from above" with the preservation of old power structures found a welcome balance in the emperor's veneration. The widely monarchist-minded press took this up, and the terms "workers' emperor" and "peace emperor" were coined for him. The latter designation goes back, among other things, to Emanuel Nobel's proposal in 1912 to award Emperor Wilhelm II the Nobel Peace Prize endowed by Alfred Nobel; at that time, the German Empire had kept peace for 24 years under his emperorship.

But on the other hand, he was also perceived as threatening (cf. Ludwig Quidde's widely received 1894 study Caligula on "Caesar Madness," which was perceived as a critique of Wilhelm II) or ridiculed: "The first was the aged emperor, the second was the wise emperor, the third is the traveling emperor." There was criticism in the term "talking emperor." About his many different uniforms - Count Philipp zu Eulenburg spoke of "All days masked ball!"  - jokes were made: the Simplicissimus published the joke: "Serenissimus, a pipe has burst in the bathroom. - Bring the admiral's uniform."

More dangerous than the criticism of the democrats, socialists, Catholics, even the minorities represented in the empire (the Poles, the Danes since 1864, the Guelph-minded Hanoverians since 1866, the Alsace-Lorraineers since 1871) he was met by the skepticism of the bourgeoisie dominating public opinion. He was not respected by many writers; the ironic Thomas Mann had still dealt most mildly with a disabled and somewhat simple-minded dynast in his novel Königliche Hoheit. Direct criticism was forbidden by the paragraph on "lèse majesté" in the penal code, but the jokes about him became more and more biting. Just compare the much more positive image of the old Emperor Franz Joseph in Austria-Hungary.

His own uncle, the British King Edward VII, once described him as "the most brilliant failure in history."

The Harden-Eulenburg affair preoccupied the sociopolitical debate in Germany in 1907-1909. Wilhelm's closest friend Philipp Prince zu Eulenburg and his Liebenberg circle were compromised by it. The emperor, concerned about his image, dropped Eulenburg and distanced himself from his Liebenberg friends.

After his long-delayed decision not to fall at the head of his troops in 1918, but to go into exile, he was also accused of cowardice. Among many, opinion shifted toward contempt. Nevertheless, through the years of the Weimar Republic, the monarchist wing remained strong. But Wilhelm's hopes for a return as monarch were dashed after Hindenburg's presidential election in 1925 and again after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Hindenburg took his oath to the republic seriously, Hitler his "Führer" dictatorship. Volker Ullrich judged on the basis of Röhl's now complete study of Wilhelm II in 2008:

However, historian Christopher Clark comes to a different conclusion in his work Wilhelm II: The Reign of the Last German Emperor. Clark argues for reconsidering what he sees as the outdated theory of the German Sonderweg and for not seeing the German Empire and its last emperor as precursors of the National Socialist dictatorship.

Wilhelm married Princess Auguste Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (1858-1921) in 1881. They had seven children. After the death of his first wife, in 1922 he married the widowed Princess Hermine von Schönaich-Carolath, née Princess Reuß ä.  L. (1887-1947), who was dubbed "Empress" by him, but officially was only a "Princess of Prussia". Wilhelm's descendants were:


After Wilhelm II were named:


Historical works

Works of cultural history


  1. Wilhelm II, German Emperor
  2. Wilhelm II. (Deutsches Reich)
  3. ^ Röhl 1998, pp. 1–2.
  4. ^ Röhl 1998, pp. 7–8.
  5. ^ Röhl 1998, p. 9.
  6. ^ Röhl 1998, pp. 9–10.
  7. ^ a b c Röhl 1998, p. 10.
  8. Martin Kohlrausch: Der Mann mit dem Adlerhelm und Wilhelm II. – Medienstar um 1900. In: Gerhard Paul: Bilder, die Geschichte schrieben. 1900 bis heute. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2011, ISBN 978-3-89331-949-7, S. 20.
  9. John Röhl: Wilhelm II. Die Jugend des Kaisers. 1. Auflage. Band 1. C.H Beck, München 1993, ISBN 3-406-37668-1, S. 25–29.
  10. a b Hans Rall: Wilhelm II: Eine Biographie. 1. Auflage. Styria Graz, Wien/Köln 1995, ISBN 3-222-12182-6, S. 23.
  11. In oudere Nederlandstalige publicaties werd de Duitse keizer soms Willem II genoemd. Zie bijvoorbeeld deze passage uit een Surinaamse almanak uit 1904 of deze passage uit het oorlogsdagboek In Oorlogstijd (1915-1916) van Stijn Streuvels. Destijds was de Duitse naam Wilhelm gebruikelijker in Nederland, wellicht om verwarring met de Nederlandse koning Willem II te vermijden.
  12. Alexandra was een dochter van de Britse prinses Alice, een tante van Wilhelm, en daarmee eveneens een kleinkind van koningin Victoria
  13. BBC: Wilhelm II (1859 - 1941)
  14. Carter 2010, passim.
  15. a b McLean 2001, pp. 478–502.
  16. Putnam 2001, p. 33.
  17. Clay 2007, p. 14.

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