Kaiser Wilhelm II

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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 his ministers and an elected parliament, or Reichstag. However, the kaiser had the final say on all significant matters, including appointments.[1] His supporters boasted that he was the "mightiest ruler on earth."[2] His manic depressive personality led to chaotic policymaking.

Wilhelm's foreign policy aimed at "Napoleanic supremacy" over France and Russia. He sought to sever the alliance between France and Britain. World War I, the most serious crisis of his reign, was triggered by the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. German involvement began with a massive invasion of France by way of Belgium. By using a Balkan quarrel as his pretext, Wilhelm hoped to discourage involvement by the British, who looked down on the Balkans. This proved to be a miscalculation. The British were outraged by the invasion of neutral Belgium. They responded with a declaration of war against Germany, as well as full military support for the Belgians and French.

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.

Youth and personality

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.[3]

Wilhelm was easily entranced by conspiracy theories and was liable 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. After Edward visited Lisbon, Rome, and Paris in 1903, Wilhelm became convinced that his dreams of world power were being thwarted by Edward's efforts to "encircle" Germany.[4]

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. Wilhelm's association with Eulenberg is unlikely to reflect his sexualiy. Wilhelm had a wife and seven legitimate children, as well as mistresses and two illegitimate children.

Foreign policy

Wilhelm pursued an aggressive foreign policy known as Weltpolitik, literally "world policy." The rise of the German economy inspired Germans to seek a larger "place in the sun" in terms of international affairs. Weltpolitik 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."[1]

The kaiser's dream of leading a continental league to one up Britain's King Edward had been sabotaged long before by Bismarck. As a result of Bismarck's annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, generations of Frenchmen were inculcated with anti-German feeling. For Bismarck, this was the point. French hostility would unite Germans under his leadership. A French-German-Russian alliance against Britain was proposed at the time of the Boer War in 1900, but failed when Wilhelm demanded that the French recognize Alsace-Lorraine as German.[5] London responded to Germany's rising power and hostility by signing an "Entente" with Paris in 1904.

Mindful of the role the British had played in Napoleon's downfall, Wilhelm built up the German navy in the hope that this would intimidate Britain. In 1900, the Reichstag enacted a Naval Law that authorized a program of long-term naval expansion. When the British launched the oversized HMS Dreadnought in 1906, all earlier warships suddenly became obsolete. Germany was, at least for the moment, only one modern warship behind Britain in the "naval race," as it came to be called. Rivalry between the two nations became a focus of intense public interest and national pride. The Anglo-French Entente proved itself in 1911 when Britain intervened to support France in the Agadir Crisis. Germany did not have the resources to challenge a combined allied fleet. The episode illustrated the futility of the naval strategy. German attention soon shifted to the army.

Finally recovered from the trauma of Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Russia reentered great power politics in 1912 by backing the Balkan League in a war against Turkey. Because Wilhelm wanted war with France and Russia, but not Britain, advisers who understood this could manipulate him. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg withheld crucial telegrams to get his approval for war in 1914.

The red dashes show the deployments proposed by Schlieffen in 1905.

Schlieffen and his plan

In the early years of his reign, the kaiser had great enthusiasm for military adventures, including proposals to invade Denmark[6] and America.[7] It was the job of Schlieffen, Germany's highly respected army chief, to remind the all highest that the army needed to remain on the eastern frontier to deter the Russians.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 inspired Schlieffen to sketch a plan to invade France by deploying through Belgium. His "Memorandum for a War against France," or Schlieffen Plan as it was later called, ignored Russia altogether, an assumption justified by that country's preoccupation with the Far East at the time. The Germans would outflank the French and attack from the rear, according to the plan.

When the Japanese defeated the Russians in 1905, the kaiser expressed interest in the plan. Schlieffen had to confess that the German army was not ready for war. The French had recoilless artillery, which the Germans lacked.[8] The plan contemplated a significantly larger army than the one Schlieffen commanded.[9] Whatever its value in war, the plan could be used as a tool for obtaining weapons and more soldiers.[10]

When Schlieffen retired in 1906, Wilhelm replaced him with Moltke, the emperor's former military adjutant. "The personal favour of the emperors...coupled with his great name, elevated him to offices for which he was completely unqualified," as Britannica puts it.[11] Schlieffen himself strongly advised against the appointment.[12]

The Daily Telegraph Affair (1908)

In October 1908, the emperor gave an interview to Britain's Daily Telegraph in which he stated that, "You English, are mad, mad, mad as March hares," among other tactless comments. An international uproar followed and the kaiser was roundly condemned in the Reichstag and elsewhere. Wilhelm faulted Bülow, his chancellor since 1900, for failing to vet the advance copy of the interview that had been sent to him. The kaiser replaced Bülow with Bethmann, a Prussian bureaucrat with no foreign policy experience. That neither Moltke nor Bethmann were respected by their peers did not give Wilhelm pause. He would personally guide all decision making. Bismarck had done the same, so the German state was already set up to permit one-man rule. But Wilhelm's talents proved to be unequal to those of the Iron Chancellor.

With full control of policymaking apparently established, 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.[1]

Agadir and the origin of WWI (1911)

In earlier diplomatic incidents, the kaiser and his government had asserted Germany's rights while public opinion had remained cautious. This dynamic reversed in the Agadir crisis of 1911. The crisis began on July 1 when Germany sent the gunboat SMS Panther to the port of Agadir in Morocco. This was a challenge to France, which considered Morocco to be part of its sphere of influence.

On July 21, Prime Minister Lloyd George announced that Britain was prepared to go to war to avoid French humiliation in Morocco. In Germany, this intervention triggered a wave of Anglophobia.[13]

Unlike Wilhelm's desire to be a modern Napoleon, colonies were a war aim that the average German could relate to. Many 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." Germany had devoted a great deal of resources to its "naval race" with Britain. The Naval League was a source of propaganda and a focus of German patriotic sentiment. Lloyd George showed that a naval buildup would not deter Britain from interfering in Germany's colonial ambitions. In 1912, France and Britain signed a deal dividing up naval responsibilities. Faced with a combined allied fleet, German attention shifted to the army, ending the naval race.

The French emerged from the crisis with a confidence that frightened the Germans. The French army adopted doctrine that emphasized offensive action and a plan to recover Alsace Lorraine called Plan XVII.

Agadir was the first diplomatic crisis since the Great Eastern Crisis of 1878 that engaged European public opinion. France and Germany faced each other with pre-war fury. Bernhardi's warmongering opus Germany and the Next War (1911) became a bestseller. The German Army League, founded in January 1912, soon eclipsed the Naval League. The kaiser's own views were largely unchanged by the episode. But his reluctance to fight the British began to look quaint, even to his own advisors and family.[14]

In November 1911, Crown Prince Wilhelm told his father that, "I am convinced that the political situation at home, so fragmented and muddled with its internal party interests, would improve at a stroke if all the country’s sons had to take up arms for their land."[15] German historian Fritz Fischer, author of the most influential theory concerning the origin of the First World War, argues that the elite's anxiety with the domestic political situation was the driving force toward war.

The Haldane mission (1912)

In February 1912, British Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane arrived in Berlin and 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. Wilhelm wasn't interested. His focus was European supremacy. He denounced Haldane's proposal as a British trick designed to divide the German fleet.[16] "We have enough colonies!" he wrote. "If I want some I shall buy them or get them without England!"[16] If Germany received colonies only by Britain's leave, there was no point. The kaiser's rejection was just as well. Haldane's proposal was no better received in London than it was in Berlin.

Opposition in the Reichstag (1912-1913)

In the Reichstag election of January 1912, voters turned against the militarism of the right-wing parties. The number of seats held by the Social Democratic Party more than doubled from 43 to 110 (out of a total of 397). For the first time, the three left-of-center parties, namely the Social Democrats (110), Center Party (91), and the Progressive People's Party (42), together secured a working majority. The 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.

The Social Democrats demanded reform of the "three-tier" method of voting used in the Prussian state elections. Prussia was by far the largest of the German states at this time. In peacetime, Germany's main army answered to Prussia, and to Wilhelm as Prussian king. Three-tiered voting meant that the Prussian government was dominated by the junkers, conservative landowners who lived east of Elbe. Agricultural was the least efficient sector of the German economy at this time, so a voting system based on agricultural wealth was anachronistic.

In June 1913, a dramatic expansion of the army was approved with the support of deputies of the Center, the National Liberals, and the Radicals.[17]

In December 1913, lawmakers revolted and voted no confidence in Bethmann, an episode called the Zabern Affair.[18] However, Bethmann's position, along with army expansion, were confirmed when the Reichstag meekly passed the annual budget on December 9. Only the Social Democrats and the Polish Party voted against.

Decision for war (1912-1914)

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 both Bethmann and Moltke, as well as by Kiderlen, the foreign secretary.[19] These advisers 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.[1] Wilhelm was anxious that 1913, his jubilee, be a year of peace.[20]

Fischer identifies a meeting of the German Imperial War Council on December 8, 1912 as the moment when the imperial government resolved upon war.[1] The meeting was attended by the kaiser and four advisors.[3] In April 1913, Moltke discontinued work on a longstanding plan for an offensive against Russia. The move was intended to rule out "half measures" and left the Schlieffen Plan as Germany's only war plan.[21] In June, the Reichstag passed a bill to expand the army from 544,000 soldiers to 870,000 soldiers. It was the largest expansion since 1871.[17]

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.[22] 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.[1]

World War I (1914-1918)

Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914 and on France on August 3. On August 4, this was followed up with a declaration of war on Belgium. German plans called for a massive deployment through Belgium to outflank French fortifications in Lorraine. Army enlargement meant that the Germans finally had enough soldiers to implement the plan Schlieffen had proposed in 1904. Moltke gave the army only a few weeks to conquer France. After that, it would be moved east to face Russia.

When the news that Germany had declared war on Belgium arrived in London, 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.

The long-planned French offensive in Lorraine proved to be an enormous suicide mission. From August 7 to September 13, French soldiers flung themselves at well-prepared German fortifications, faithfully following Plan XVII. Losses were staggering, but only a few villages were acquired. The German anxieties that had led to war were shown to be without foundation.

Meanwhile, German infantry advanced through Belgium and northeastern France until September 6–12, when they reached the Marne river north of Paris. At this point the Germans ran out of supplies and both sides began digging trenches. It was the beginning of four years of trench warfare.

When Antwerp fell in October 1914, Wilhelm made a speech in which he stated that the city must remain German.[23] He wanted Belgians to be evacuated from Belgium and replaced with German military colonists.[23] Wilhelm insisted on retaining control of the Belgian coastline in the hope that a German naval base could eventually be built there. This position was an obstacle to peace negotiations throughout the war.[23]

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 1918, 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. On November 7, sailors in Kiel rejected an order to take the fleet on a final suicide mission. It was a signal for revolution across Germany. On November 9, the divisional commanders were summoned to Spa and asked about the attitudes of soldiers. They answered that few were willing fight on, either for the emperor or for Germany. Wilhelm refused to abdicate, but fled to the Netherlands later that day.[24]

Life in exile (1918-1941)

Wilhelm took 59 railway wagons of possessions with him when he fled to Huis Doorn in The Netherlands in 1918.[25]

Wilhelm's correspondence with Tsar Nicholas was published in 1918 as the Willy-Nicky Correspondence. (The two rulers had corresponded in English.) Monarchists were disillusioned by the revelation that the kaiser had brushed aside the tsar's peace proposals. Some supporters of the four-day Kapp Putsch of 1920 were monarchists. This was closest Germany ever came to a serious attempt to restore the monarchy.

Guests at Doorn often heard the former kaiser threaten vengeance against a wide variety of opponents.[26] When Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger was murdered in 1921, Wilhelm celebrated with champagne.[27] Erzberger had forced Bethmann's resignation as chancellor in 1917, thus ending the kaiser's political role.

A 1925 biography by Emil Ludwig did much to undermine Wilhelm's reputation.

Under an agreement reached with the German government in October 1926, one third of the sixty royal castles went to the Hohenzollerns. "No other exiled monarch in modern history was treated as generously," as biographer John Röhl put it.[28]

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."[29]

William died in Doorn in 1941 while The Netherlands was under German occupation. In 1945, the Dutch government confiscated the Doorn mansion. The mansion has been a museum since 1956. It gets 45,000 visitors a year.[25]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Röhl, John C. G., Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900–1941, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. xxviii.
  2. Röhl, p. xxvii.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Lewis-Stempel, John, "Lunatic in charge of an asylum: When Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany", Sunday Express, Apr 20, 2014
  4. Röhl, pp. 245-246.
  5. Röhl, p. 46.
  6. Röhl, pp. 386-392.
  7. "How Kaiser Bill planned to invade United States" Telegraph, 09 May 2002
  8. Röhl, p. 416.
  9. "There was a Schlieffen Plan" by Gerhard P. Gross in The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I, (2014), pp. 100-101.
  10. Gross, pp. 103-104. Schlieffen's memorandum is, "A program for further expansion of the army and its mobilization," according to the archive's official description.
  11. "Moltke, Helmuth (Johannes Ludwig) von." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013.
  12. Röhl, p. 660.
  13. 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."
  14. Future War Minister Falkenhayen, a moderate among military officers, 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.
  15. Röhl, p. 876.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Röhl, p. 842.
  17. 17.0 17.1 "On Monday the Reichstag passed the new German Army Bill", Spectator, July 5, 1913.
  18. 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.
  19. Moltke understood the war would be long and bloody, but he misled the civilian leadership: "As Kurt Riezler, the chancellor's private secretary, recorded retrospectively in 1915 (p.212): 'Bethmann can blame the coming of the war . on the answer that Moltke gave him.. He did say yes! We would succeed.'" ("Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War")
  20. Röhl, p. 954.
  21. Helmuth Von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War, p. 103.
  22. Röhl, p. 1052
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Röhl, p. 11
  24. Röhl, pp. 1184-1186.
  25. 25.0 25.1 "Berlin refuses kaiser a final resting place" The Telegraph, 15 Oct 2000.
  26. Röhl, p. 1221.
  27. Röhl, p. 1222.
  28. Röhl, p. 1191-1192.
  29. Balfour, Michael (1964), The Kaiser and His Times, Houghton Milton, p. 419.