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Kaiser Wilhelm II: from early years to exile

Updated Monday, 16th December 2013

The last German Emperor and the last King of Prussia, Wilhelm II led German forces during the First World War.

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Painting of Kaiser Wilhelm II by Max Koner 550 700 Creative commons image Icon Work found at / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license Max Koner's painting of Kaiser Wilheml II. Select to enlarge. 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

600 700 Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Out of copyright Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, later Kaiser Wilhelm II, with his grandmother, Queen Victoria. Select to enlarge. 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.

500 700 Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public Domain Italian poster from 1915 showing Wilhelm II biting into the world. The text reads "The glutton – too hard." Select to enlarge. 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.

A 1909 cartoon in Puck magazine shows nations engaged in a naval race game. 600 800 Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public domain 1909 cartoon in Puck shows nations engaged in naval race game. Select to enlarge. Certainly naval and military arms races escalated feelings of an impending war which would become increasingly difficult to win.

Foreign policy

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

Kaiser Wilhelm II on 10 November 1918 at the Belgian-Dutch border, on his way to exile. 800 600 Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R12318 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de], via Wikimedia Commons Kaiser Wilhelm II on 10 November 1918 at the Belgian-Dutch border, on his way to exile. Select to enlarge. 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, created to support the BBC One series Britain's Great War.





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