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 Vicky, 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.
World War I began in August 1914 with a massive German invasion of France by way of Belgium. For several years, fighting remained deadlocked as trench warfare continued across northern France. When German submarines blockaded Britain and attacked neutral shipping in 1917, 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
Vicky was a stern mother and dominating figure in Wilhelm's early life. She attempted to indoctrinate him with the values of Britain's nineteenth century Liberal Party. As as result, Wilhelm grew up with 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 became obsessed with Edward as a youth, when the two future rulers were yachting rivals.
Wilhelm favored the company of good-looking men, notably Philip of Eulenburg, a composer, writer, and diplomat. Eulenburg met Wilhelm on a hunting trip in 1886 and they were best friends for many years. Eulenburg was exposed as a homosexual in 1907 by journalist Maximilian Harden. The Harden-Eulenburg Affair was one of the first major public discussions of homosexuality in Germany, comparable to the Oscar Wilde affair in Britain. Although the Eulenburg case was used to suggest Wilhelm was a homosexual, there is no clear evidence to establish this. Wilhelm had a wife and seven legitimate children, as well as mistresses and two illegitimate children.
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 allow him to dominate both France and Russia and 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.
Europe slides into war (1912-1914)
Once the idea that war with Britain was inevitable became conventional wisdom, the Kaiser's reluctance began to look quaint, even to his own advisors. In response to the increasing militarism of the right-wing parties, many voters switched to the anti-militarist Social Democratic Party. In the Reichstag election of January 1912, the number of seats held by the Social Democrats more than doubled. For the first time, the left-of-center parties gained a majority of the seats.
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, Lichnowsky, 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. Wilhelm was anxious that 1913, his jubilee, be a year of peace.
A meeting of the German Imperial War Council on December 8, 1912 was identified by German historian Fritz Fischer as the 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. This time, Bethmann withheld and even falsified the increasingly urgent messages sent by the troublesome Lichnowsky. When Wilhelm realized that the British still intended to side with the French, he attempted to reverse course. His last minute change of heart proved to be too little, too late.
Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 and on France on August 3. On August 4, this was followed up with a declaration of war on Belgium. The Schlieffen Plan, Germany's longstanding war plan, called for a massive deployment through Belgium to outflank the French. When the news that Germany had declared war on Belgium arrived, the British cabinet was still discussing its response to the earlier declarations, deadlocked on the issue of war. The German invasion of Belgium allowed Britain to enter the war as a unified nation.
World at war
When Antwerp fell in October 1914, Wilhelm made a speech in which he stated that the city must remain German. He wanted Belgians to be evacuated from Belgium and replaced with German military colonists. His insistence on retaining the Belgian coastline was an obstacle to peace negotiations throughout the war.
Wilhelm appointed generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg to head the army in August 1916. Promising victory, their prestige grew so great they could boss the imperial government around. On Ludendorff's initiative, Germany adopted "unrestricted" submarine warfare in January 1917. In April, the United States responded with a declaration of war. In July, Ludendorff forced Bethmann to resign. Ludendorff launched a great offensive in France in March 1918. By August, the Allies had learned to counter Ludendorff's strategies and his offensive sputtered to a close. With American forces on the way, there would be no second chance. As the soldiers realized victory was no longer possible, the front collapsed. Wilhelm refused to abdicate, but fled to the Netherlands on November 9, 1918.
Life in exile
Wilhelm lived quietly as a country gentleman in Huis Doom until his death in 1941. The Willy-Nicky Correspondence (1918) by Herman Bernstein and a 1925 biography by Emil Ludwig did much to undermine his reputation. There was never a serious attempt to restore the monarchy.
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.
- 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.
- Even Falkenhayen, a moderate among military officers (at least compared to Ludendorff), saw the Kaiser as an obstacle. A few weeks after Agadir, he 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." Röhl, p. 875.
- The Social Democratic Party went from 43 seats to 110 seats (out of a total of 397).
- That is to say, the Social Democrats (110), Zentrum (91), and the Progressive People's Party (42) together constituted a majority. The Zentrum, or Center Party, is the precursor of the Christian Democratic Union, Germany's post-World War II conservative movement. The PPP is the precursor of the modern Free Democrats.
- Röhl, p. 954.
- 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.
- Röhl, p. 1052
- Röhl, p. 11
- Some monarchists supported the four-day Kapp Putsch of 1920.
- Balfour, Michael (1964), The Kaiser and His Times, Houghton Milton, p. 419.