Wilhelm II was German Kaiser (Emperor), as well as Prussian King, from 1888 until his abdication in November 1918.
It has been said that his erratic and at times bellicose foreign policy contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914. While he may not personally have decided that Germany should go to war, he had put in place structures and fostered a culture of militarism which led to an aggressive foreign policy in his name.
Wilhelm II was the first child of the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich and his young wife, Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s first daughter. This made him the Queen’s grandson.
Early life and health problems
He was born following a particularly difficult labour in which he nearly died. As a result of having been in breech position, he suffered an injury to his neck muscles which meant he could never use his left arm.
A weak child who was often ill, he became a victim of the sometimes harsh practices of the time, in which his parents, teachers and doctors tried to cure him of his many ailments with cruel and often unnecessary procedures.
Electroshocks failed to revive the ‘lifeless arm’, as did wrapping it in freshly killed hares and other such nightmarish treatments, for example.
None of this ever cured the child, but doubtless contributed to emotional trauma. Rejected as being ‘imperfect’ by his mother, his was a joyless childhood that turned the young Wilhelm against his mother and everything she stood for, including English liberal ideas.
He developed a fateful love-hate relationship with Britain as a result of his strained relation with his mother and English relatives. His character was irascible and at times he appeared to contemporaries to be mad; certainly he was unpredictable and often cruel.
Under his leadership, Germany was to claim its place in the sun. Germany had only become a unified country in 1871, too late for the imperial scrambles of the 19th century which helped expand other empires.
Many Germans thought that the country’s size and economic power entitled it to a fair share of the bounty that the other great powers had enjoyed for some time.
Under Wilhelm II Germany embarked on a large ship-building programme which created an Anglo-German naval rivalry. Some see in this animosity one of the causes of the First World War.
Certainly naval and military arms races escalated feelings of an impending war which would become increasingly difficult to win.
Germany’s foreign policy echoed Wilhelm’s changeable and blustering character.
After more than two decades of Wilhelmine rule, Germany found itself encircled by potentially hostile powers (Russia in the East, France and Britain in the West), and allied to Austria-Hungary and Italy.
Where Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had previously created an alliance system whose purpose it was to avoid another continental war, Wilhelm II’s policy helped to create an alliance system which tied states in opposing ententes and alliances (see the diagram at the foot of thise page).
Once war had broken out, Wilhelm II soon found himself marginalised by the military leaders who quickly took over decision-making. From 1914, he increasingly became a mere 'shadow' Kaiser. When the war ended with Germany’s capitulation, the victors demanded the Kaiser’s abdication, and from within Germany, the new parliamentary government also wanted to end the Prussian monarchy.3
Abdication and flight
Wilhelm II fled via Belgium to the Netherlands and thus narrowly escaped being tried as a war criminal by the victorious Allies. Famously, he crossed the border in a train which, in 7 carriages, contained many of his possessions.
Another 63 carriages were sent to him the following year, and the new German Republic, which he so despised, made generous financial settlements.
He was as bitter about his people whom he felt had betrayed him as they were about him.
He had, so he claimed, been betrayed by a nation of pigs (‘Schweinebande’), by Jews and Socialists, and he longed to exact a terrible revenge on those who had forced him to abdicate.
He lived the rest of his life comfortably off, and tended to by some forty servants, in a country house in Doorn in Holland, and never returned to Germany.
During the Second World War, when the German army was once again engaged in a bloody battle against its neighbours, he hoped that Adolf Hitler would finish the job that had been started in 1914.
He did not live to see how the Second World War ended in even more destruction than the first. He died in June 1941, aged 82.
Next: A diplomatic crisis among major European powers in 1914 led to the First World War. Find out what happened when with July Crisis: A chronology
This page is part of our collection about the origins of the First World War.
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The buck stops with Wilhelm II
One realises that it was necessary to express events in a very concise way; nevertheless one of Dr Mombauer’s sentences is somewhat troubling:
“While he may not personally have decided that Germany should go to war, he had put in place structures and fostered a culture of militarism which led to an aggressive foreign policy in his name.”
Who, if not the Kaiser, “decided” to go to war?
The Kaiser was de jure and de facto commander-in-chief of the army and navy and appointed only his preferred candidates to senior posts in these services. Wilhelm II selected the Reich Chancellor, at his absolute discretion; also, ministers in the government were chosen with the Emperor’s endorsement.
His overarching power at the centre of the German government’s executive in 1914, both in law and in fact, seems to make it manifest that Wilhelm II, at the hub of a web of appointees who were effectively dependent on the Kaiser for their respective positions, was the man who “personally” decided to go to war with Russia and France.
Wilhelm II’s decision to promulgate the two declarations of war on Russia and France - a prerequisite to hostilities in international law - was constitutionally his choice alone, as he claimed, untruthfully: in the midst of peace Germany had been attacked ("Mitten im Frieden überfällt uns der Feind!”); a defensive war thus. Therefore, having cynically conjured up a fictitious invasion by Russia and France, surely it was he who “decided that Germany should go to war”; his authorisation of these two declarations was ipso facto the All-Highest’s personal decision to do just that?
Being the willing and committed Autocrat that he was makes this conclusion logically inescapable. There is no suggestion here of criminal responsibility, as this may not be appropriate due to the state of international law during the first two decades of the 20th century.
It is as simple as this. In the circumstances, Wilhelm II had sole constitutional authority to declare war at his own outright discretion; therefore surely he must take “personal” responsibility for doing so?
On various occasions, the Kaiser gave the world to understand that he never wanted the war, but one is not aware of any attempt on his part to assign to others legal responsibility for actually issuing the two declarations?
Apologists for the last German Emperor may claim that the situation, both at home and internationally, at the beginning of August 1914 left him with little alternative but to authorise the declarations of war. The Kaiser was thus forced into an “alternativlos” war. This is not my view: there were feasible options to going to war – there often are - and one may ask what would have happened if Wilhelm II had pulled back from the brink at the last moment? The Great Powers in Europe were legally at peace with each other until the Kaiser declared war. He was surely the only person who could have prevented a full scale European war even at that late stage. Under pressure, the Tsar (yet another psychologically weak Autocrat) had just ditheringly ordered Russian mobilisation, but not declared war on any country, nor had Russia fired on, or invaded, any sovereign nation. Wilhelm II simply did not have what it took mentally, to do the right thing; he did not find within himself the strength to resist the pressures upon him and pull back from the brink. Unless one can prove mental incompetence in a medical sense, it would be wrong to absolve him of responsibility for his weakness and its consequences.
Therefore, the July Crisis can be said to have ended where it really began, with the German Kaiser: he truly started the countdown to Great Power hostilities with his “Blank Cheque” on the 5th and 6th July and he could have stopped the process that would result a Europe-wide and later a Global conflict, if he had behaved prudently and not declared war on Russia and France.
There were those who maintained that everyone knew mobilisation meant war; but this was not correct in International Law. Mobilisation, in Russia’s case, probably meant that this country was preparing to attack and doubtless thrash Austria-Hungary, as a result of the latter’s reckless, desperate even, war on Serbia. Wilhelm II had a choice at that point: he could have refused to play the game and bounced his catastrophic “Blank Cheque”, albeit with a loss of prestige and let Austria-Hungary start to go under, thus potentially alienating his only reliable key ally. There is usually a price to pay if one gets things badly wrong and that price at the beginning of August 1914, was going back on his commitment and deserting a close treaty partner; it would not have been a pleasant prospect admittedly, but better than an almost certain full scale European War and possibly a World War. Concurrently, Germany could then at last have started to engage with the other powers in genuine diplomatic moves to ensure that the resolution of a third Balkan war would have been as acceptable as possible to all parties.
All history is interpretation, so to intone that Wilhelm's problems were due to his disabilities is surely very non-OU: or perhaps we ought to state the obvious - he was a man and all the leaders that took us into the First World War suffered from this same affliction. As for Germany's encirclement this strikes me as saying that a fried egg is encircled by the frying pan it is cooked in: 'encirclement' was or was not a problem depending on your good or dreadful relationships with you neighbours - Bismark had forged relations with Russia that Wilhelm undid.