Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert von Preußen, 27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941) was king of Prussia and German emperor from June 1888 to November 1918. He was the eldest child of Emperor Frederick III and Victoria, the eldest child of Britain's Queen Victoria.
Wilhelm was a constitutional monarch and shared power with an elected parliament, or Reichstag. However, the Kaiser had the final say on all significant matters, including appointments. His supporters boasted that he was the "mightiest ruler on earth." His views were particularly influential in foreign affairs and on matters of war and peace.
In August 1914, Wilhelm ordered the German army to invade France, triggering World War I. The Allied Powers of France, Russia, and Britain opposed this aggression. For several years, fighting remained deadlocked as trench warfare continued across northern France. In early 1917, effective control of German policy passed to General Ludendorff, an advocate of total war, including unrestricted submarine warfare. When German submarines blockaded Britain and attacked neutral shipping, the United States declared war on Germany. In November 1918, the war ended in a catastrophic defeat for Germany. By that time, over 4.2 million Germans had been killed. Wilhelm fled to the Netherlands and lived in exile until 1941.
Personality and policies
Victoria was a dominating figure in the Kaiser's early life. She attempted to indoctrinate him with the values of Britain's nineteenth century Liberal Party. As as result, Wilhelm had conflicted feelings regarding Britain. He respected British values, but felt the need to use militarism to compensate for his mother's un-Germanic influence. He was also a manic depressive, which resulted in inconsistent and erratic decision making. His withered left arm, a congenital defect, led to an inferiority complex. Wilhelm was easily entranced by conspiracy theories and was libel to blame foreign policy setbacks on the machinations of his uncle, King Edward VII of Britain.
Wilhelm pursued an aggressive foreign policy known as Weltpolitik, literally "world policy." This strategy is to be distinguished from Bismarck's Realpolitik, which emphasized the "balance of power" concept. Wilhelm hoped to persuade Britain to withdraw from European affairs. If he could accomplish this, he imagined that Germany's economic and military power would dominate both France and Russia, allowing him to emerge with a "Napoleanic supremacy." Mindful of the role the British played in Napolean's downfall, he built up the German navy hoping that this would intimidate Britain. The British countered with a naval buildup of their own and by forming a "Triple Entente" (1907) with France and Russia. Thus the German buildup had an effect opposite to what was intended.
A place in the sun (1905-1912)
The collapse of the Russian army in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 allowed Germany to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. In the years that followed, Wilhelm repeatedly pushed Europe to the brink of war. The Bosnian crisis of 1908-1909 was followed by the Agadir crisis of 1911 and by the Balkan crisis of 1912-1913. As a constitutional monarch, Wilhelm did not take the initiative on any of these occasions. Instead, he responded to proposals put to him by his advisers.
German public opinion was generally opposed to war until 1911, when Britain's intervention in the Agadir crisis triggered a wave of Anglophobia. Many Germans argued that it was hugely unfair that Britain, with its vast colonial empire, was thwarting Germany's far more modest ambitions, or "place in the sun."
The Haldane Mission of February 1912 proposed that Portuguese and Belgian colonies be partitioned between Britain and Germany. The Germans would get the central African empire they had demanded at the time of Agadir. This time around, Wilhelm wasn't interested. His focus was European supremacy. He denounced Haldane's proposal as a British trick designed to divide the German fleet. "We have enough colonies!" he wrote. "If I want some I shall buy them or get them without England!" It was just as well. Haldane's proposal was no better received in London than it was in Berlin.
Role in launching World War I
The idea that war with Britain was inevitable became conventional wisdom, and the Kaiser's reluctance began to look quaint, even to his own advisors. In response to the increasing militarism of the conservative parties, many voters switched to the anti-militarist Social Democratic Party. In the Reichstag election in January 1912, the party went from 43 seats to 110 (out of a total of 397). This election also gave the left-of-center parties a majority in the parliament.
In November 1912, Wilhelm approved a proposal to support Austria-Hungary against Serbia even if this led to war with both France and Russia. This proposal was presented to the Kaiser jointly by Bethmann Hollweg, the chancellor; Moltke, the army chief of staff; and Kiderlen, the foreign secretary. These advisors had misled the Kaiser into believing that the British might support an Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia. In December, the German ambassador to Britain informed the Kaiser that Britain would likely side with France in the event of such a war. The Kaiser responded by ordering a "postponement of the great fight" until the summer of 1914 so that additional preparations could be made.
A meeting of the German Imperial War Council on December 8, 1912 was identified by German historian Fritz Fischer as the decisive moment when the imperial government resolved upon war. The meeting consisted of the Kaiser and four advisors. In June 1913, the Reichstag approved a dramatic expansion of the army. In December, the Reichstag took a brief, futile stand against the onrush of militarism in an episode called the Zabern Affair. However, army expansion was confirmed when the annual budget was passed on December 9.
The murder of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered a final diplomatic crisis in July 1914. When he realized that the British intended to side with the French after all, Wilhelm attempted to reverse course. His last minute change of heart proved to be too little, too late.
Wilhelm appointed generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg to head the army in August 1916. Promising victory, their prestige soon became so great that they could boss the government around. Ludendorff persuaded the government to adopt "unrestricted" submarine warfare in January 1917. In April 1917, the United States responded with a declaration of war. In July 1917, Ludendorff forced Bethmann to resign. When Ludendorff's great offensive in France was turned back in 1918, the soldiers lost hope and the front collapsed. Wilhelm refused to abdicate, but fled to the Netherlands on November 9, 1918. He lived quietly as a country gentleman in Huis Doom until his death in 1941.
The Kaiser's non-political passions were Greek archaeology and chopping wood. He excavated the Temple of Artemis in Corfu. He chopped down thousands of trees during his stay in Doom.
Wilhelm was appalled when the Nazis murdered former Chancellor Schleicher and his wife in 1934. After Kristallnacht, a Nazi anti-Jewish pogrom conducted in November 1938, Wilhelm stated: "For the first time, I am ashamed to be a German."
- Röhl, John C. G., Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900–1941, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. xxviii.
- Röhl, p. xxvii.
- Ludendorff, Erich, Der totale Krieg, München, Ludendorffs Verlag, g.m.b.h., 1935.
- Lewis-Stempel, John, "Lunatic in charge of an asylum: When Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany", Sunday Express, Apr 20, 2014
- Röhl, p. 874. "The British decision of July 1911 to protect France by threatening Germany with war and mobilizing the Royal Navy had strengthened to an alarming degree the aversion felt in broad sections of the public in Germany and among the ruling elite towards Great Britain. The fatalistic belief gained ground that sooner or later war with the naval Power and its Entente partner France was inevitable."
- Röhl, p. 842.
- Röhl, p. 875. A few weeks after Agadir, Falkenhayen wrote, "Outwardly, our political situation has improved...but internally nothing has changed, in so far as H.M. is as determined as before to avoid a war."
- This refers to the combined total of the Social Democrats, Zentrum, and Progressives. The Zentrum, or Center Party, is the precursor of Germany's post-World War II conservative movement.
- The German army was expanded from 544,000 soldiers to 870,000. It was the largest expansion since 1871.
- There was public outrage in response to abuses by a military officer in the Alsacian town of Zabern. On December 4, 1913, the Reichstag voted no confidence in Bethmann by a margin of 293 to 54. Under the German constitution, the emperor had exclusive authority over appointments. But if the budget had been rejected, Bethmann might have been forced out of office. In the end, only the Social Democrats (110 seats) and the Polish Party (18 seats) voted against the budget. Germany had failed to take advantage of its best chance to achieve parliamentary democracy and head off war.
- Balfour, Michael (1964), The Kaiser and His Times, Houghton Milton, p. 419.