We take a closer look at the last of the kings of Prussia, Emperor Wilhelm II. If you’re looking for a story shrouded in controversy, and allegedly, one of the primary causes of the First World War, then look no further.
Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert was the last German Emperor, also known as a Kaiser, and was the last of the kings of Prussia, where he reigned from the 15th of June, 1888, up until he was abdicated from the throne on the 9th of November, 1918.
Wilhelm strengthened Germany and transformed the nation into a superpower by creating a navy, and embracing science and, at the time, modern technology. Despite this, he was a controversial and antagonistic figure as many world leaders at the time did not agree with his policies. In fact, his foreign policy was seen by many as being a catalyst for the First World War.
Here’s a look at the extraordinary life of Emperor Wilhelm II, the last of the kings of Prussia.
Youth And Growing Up
Born in 1859 on the 27th of January, the eldest child of the Crown Prince Frederick, and Victoria, who was the eldest child of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm was born with issues with his left arm as a result of breech birth. His left arm was deformed and never grew to full size due to Erb’s Palsy. Some historians believe that his withered left arm could be one of the main reasons behind his erratic behaviour.
Despite his issues with his arm, it was his upbringing that influenced the man he grew up to become. His father was a passionate, kind, and caring individual who did not have what was needed to become a ruler. In basic terms, he was too nice of a human being to become a fascist dictator.
His mother, however, inherited a lot of her traits from Albert, her father, as well as her mother. She was emotional, hot-headed, and some would even say close-minded by today’s standards. Clearly influenced by her parents, she attempted to raise Wilhelm as if he was an English gentleman in 19th century Britain.
Due to his upbringing, he was indeed mild-mannered, polite, and empathetic, which were all completely opposite to the normal traits associated with the Prussian people. Due to his upbringing, he was a respectful young man with liberal values. He was not, naturally, a warrior nobleman. As he grew older, he actually became frustrated with himself because he knew he needed to be braver, sterner, more disciplined, and more brutal, but he struggled to find these traits within himself.
As he was educated by a Calvinist tutor, he began to find himself experiencing conflicting interests and emotions. This, along with the trauma associated with his disability resulted in erratic behaviour as he grew and matured.
In 1881, he married Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. It was clear from the off-set that they had nothing in common and he quickly became bored. Despite their doomed marriage, she grounded him and offered him stability, as well as six sons and one daughter.
Becoming Emperor And Political Difficulties
In 1888, Wilhelm’s grandfather passed away aged 90, and Frederick took the throne. He sadly was dying of cancer and didn’t have long left and by the time he was 29, Wilhelm became Kaiser.
In 1890, Wilhelm was responsible for the resignation of Otto Von Bismarck as chancellor. Bismarck, despite helping Germany economically, had caused rifts between France and Germany and the two nations were now mortal enemies.
Bismarck was unable to unite the two nations and was punished and forced from his position. Wilhelm however, fared no better at reuniting Germany with France. He instead gave typical political responses and wishy-washy answers which angered his peers.
He also allowed Bismarck’s replacements to rule against renewing an 1887 peace treaty with Russia, which is 1891, resulted in Russia becoming allies with France and facing off against Germany.
For four years after Bismarck was forced out of the job, Germany experienced political unrest.
Controversial Foreign Policies
After Wilhelm sent a telegram to South African Republic President Paul Kruger, congratulating him on defeating the Jameson Raid which was British led, Britain was out, shall we say, not in favour of Wilhelm, or Germany as a whole.
Furthermore, in 1897 and 1900, German Naval bills for extortionate amounts came to light and Britain saw this as a metaphorical flexing of the muscles, as Britain’s Navy had had control of the seas for many years. The Kaiser played this down, yet it came to light thanks to his Admiral, Alfred Von Tirpitz, that this was in fact Wilhelm’s intention as he wanted to become the dominant military superpower at sea, and his Navy showed this.
In 1904, Britain, who had not been on great terms with France, settled their dispute with France and the Kaiser offered German support for Moroccan independence from France. This was again seen as a direct message to both France and Britain. In 1906 however, Germany was forced to concede defeat and accept France predominance within Morocco.
After visiting England in 1908 and giving an interview to The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Wilhelm stated that a large percentage of the German people with anti-British. This went down like a lead balloon as you might imagine, and tensions between Britain and Germany were now at a fever pitch.
With France and Germany still at loggerheads, Britain refused to promise neutrality in a war between Germany and France, unless Germany promised to limit and reduce its naval fleet. The Kaiser and his admiral refused to accept these terms and in 1911, war nearly broke out as Germany again stepped in between Moroccan and French affairs. Germany eventually backed down and the war was, temporarily at least, avoided.
World War 1
What was initially an attempt at preventing an Austria-Hungary collapse that resulted in the largest global conflict ever by Germany?
Wilhelm, who had spurred Austria on to stand up for themselves, became spooked when he discovered that there was war impending. He was not, however, able to prevent the military operations and tactics his generals had implemented, by his order, in the event of war breaking out. Historians believe that Wilhelm genuinely never believed a war would occur.
Despite being ruler and having the final say, he refused to intervene and gave complete control to his military generals. Rather than trying to diffuse the situation, he instead went along with the grandiose military objectives his generals had set.
In July 1914, he was handed a document which stated that Russia would not cancel the mobilization of its troops, Wilhelm II declared “Ruthlessness and weakness will start the most terrifying war of the world, whose purpose is to destroy Germany. Because there can no longer be any doubts, England, France and Russia have conspired themselves together to fight an annihilation war against us”.
Thus, WW1 broke out. Wilhelm II, however, was clearly not cut out for war and for the next 4 years, he “ruled” from the sidelines and handled ceremonial duties and awards ceremonies. The power now lay in his military generals’ hands.
The war raged on for 4 years, and by autumn 1918, Germany was defeated. Despite this, he refused to step down and abdicate the throne. On the 9th of November, he was forced to abdicate and sought asylum in the Netherlands. In seeking asylum, he saved his own life and avoided capture, yet he lost the throne, which he perhaps valued more than anything. He lived the rest of his days in the rural Netherlands before he passed away in 1941.