– Wilhelm II
Frederick William Victor Albert (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert) was born in Berlin on 27 January 1859 and was the eldest child and son of Frederick III, German Emperor, and Victoria, Princess Royal. Wilhelm was the first grandchild of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and was third in line to the Prussian throne. He was also the first of many grandchildren to bear the names of both Albert and Victoria.
When Wilhelm was born he was lying in the breech position and the delivery left him with neurological damage to his left arm which was six inches shorter than the right one. although the doctors reassured his parents the arm would sort itself out over time, it never did and Wilhelm remained self-conscious of it throughout his life. There is also speculation Wilhelm was left with a mental instability after the birth as he was said to have been starved of oxygen for over eight minutes which is borne out by his emotional outbursts.
Wilhelm did not have a good relationship with his parents and the rift with his mother was evident from an early age as he came under the influence of his pro-Prussian grandfather who abhorred Vicky and Frederick’s liberal stance. As Wilhelm grew older, he began to blame his mother for being too domineering over his father thus emasculating him. While Wilhelm had initially regarded his father as a war hero, he would eventually come to despise him for his liberal views which Wilhelm regarded as weak.
As per the Hohenzollern tradition, Wilhelm was exposed to the military from a young age, however he did spend four terms studying law and politics at the University of Bonn. Rejecting his parents liberalism, Wilhelm would not be swayed from his belief in autocratic rule and would become thoroughly Prussian in his outlook much to his mother’s disappointment. After his grandfather ascended the throne, Wilhelm was assigned as a lieutenant to the First Regiment of Foot Guards at Potsdam and he professed to have finally found his true family.
Wilhelm’s alienation from his parents was exploited by Otto von Bismarck for his own political ends but the focus of the young prince’s rage seemed firmly on his English mother who he blamed for everything that went wrong in his life. On 27 February 1881, Wilhelm married Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, known as Dona, and they would eventually have seven children. Crown Princess Victoria was initially happy with her son’s choice of bride, hoping Dona would be a calming influence, but she was bitterly disappointed when Dona made it clear she would be supporting her husband in all matters.
When his grandfather died on 9 March 1888, he was succeeded by his son, Frederick, who was suffering from an incurable throat cancer and would reign for just 99 days. On 15 June, Wilhelm succeeded his father as German Emperor and King of Prussia but he would be last Hohenzollern to hold those titles. Although Bismarck had been carefully grooming Wilhelm from a young age, his manipulations would soon backfire as Wilhelm grew impatient with the older man’s policies and resented his position of power. Bismarck’s belief he would have full control over the young Emperor’s actions was quickly dispelled when Wilhelm began to plot against Bismarck’s foreign and social policies. The relationship between the two became so volatile, Bismarck was forced to resign in 1890.
Without Bismarck’s interference, Wilhelm was free to impose his own rule and his chancellors were appointed to his bidding. Wilhelm was determined to make Germany a world power and he began by building a navy to rival its British counterpart. Leaving his chancellors to take care of the day job, Wilhelm would spend hours designing ships and would become increasingly erratic with his ideas. One of Wilhelm’s greatest problems was his lack of patience and he yearned for Germany to have global significance like his British relatives with whom he had developed a frosty relationship.
After the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901, Wilhelm had attended his grandmother’s funeral but he was not liked by his British relatives who found him arrogant. Edward VII never forgot how contemptuous Wilhelm had behaved towards him while he was still the Prince of Wales and Queen Alexandra never forgave him for mistreating his mother.
First World War
Wilhelm was deeply shocked when his close friend, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on 28 June 1914 and an investigation was started into claims Serbia was behind it. Although the Serbians denied it, the Austrians were not satisfied with the response and maintained the Archduke’s death had to be avenged. However, Austria needed the backing of Germany if it was to take any action against Serbia and Wilhelm assured them his country was well prepared for war. Wilhelm soon grew tired of the procrastinations and ordered his ambassadors to urge the Austrians to declare war quickly, however Austria refused to act until the Germans guaranteed their full support. However, there were risks involved since it was a foregone conclusion Russia would come to Serbia’s defence but the Germans gambled with the notion Russia would not come to Serbia’s aid due to the antipathy felt by other European nations.
While Austria was still deliberating, Russia warned Germany it would not tolerate an aggressive move towards Serbia and the French declared their intent to ally with Russia. The Germans thought the Russians were bluffing and diplomats were confident Russia’s military response would be much smaller than they were letting on. When Austria did finally make a move on Serbia, Wilhelm suddenly got cold feet and sent a message to the Austrians not to start a war but they declared war on Serbia on 28 July. The following day, the Austrians opened fire on Belgrade thus starting the First World War. As expected, the Russians mobilised their forces to help Serbia, even though Wilhelm had directly appealed to Tsar Nicholas II to support Austria.
Meanwhile, German ministers were discussing the possibility of attacking France but they decided to wait until Russia had openly engaged in warfare so the blame could be placed squarely on them in the interests of preserving British neutrality. However, the British placed their forces on alert and duly warned Germany an attack on France would lead to a declaration of war between Britain and Germany. Wilhelm was nervous about a British retaliation but his attempts at persuading his ministers to limit the attack to Russia came too late. The Germans sent France an ultimatum to abandon the alliance with Russian but the French responded by mobilising their on troops. On 1 August, German troops invaded Luxembourg while declaring war on Russia, France and Belgium. On 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany.
As the war continued, Wilhelm’s role declined as the German high command took ever increasing control under al Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. As the war progressed and it became clear Germany was on the losing side, Wilhelm’s popularity declined alarmingly and he was shocked when revolution broke out in 1918. On 9 November 1918, Wilhelm was forced to abdicate as German Emperor and King of Prussia, ending 400 years of Hohenzollern rule, and Germany was declared a republic. The following day, Wilhelm was forced into exile in the Netherlands who refused to extradite him when the Allies pressed for him to be prosecuted.
On 15 May 1920, Wilhelm purchased a house in the municipality of Doorn, named Huis Doorn, and he would remain here with his second wife, Hermine Reuss of Greiz, until his death. The shock of the abdication and the suicide of her son, Joachim, had undermined Dona’s health and she had died on 11 April 1921. Wilhelm took the opportunity to begin writing his memoirs while spending the rest of his time studying archaeology and hunting. As Hitler rose to power, Wilhelm had hopes the monarchy would be restored, however the Nazi party had nothing but contempt for him. As the Nazis began their campaign of terror on Kristallnacht in November 1938, a horrified Wilhelm condemned their actions and maintained he was ashamed to be a German. Wilhelm also berated his fourth son, August Wilhelm, for agreeing with the Nazi policies and idolising Hitler.
Despite this, Wilhelm sent a message to Hitler ensuring him of the loyalty of the Hohenzollerns and congratulating him on his success in the early stages of the Second World War. Wilhelm began to blame the Jews and the Freemasons for causing both world wars and declared England was completely under their influence. Wilhelm died of a pulmonary embolus on 4 June 1941, at the age of 82, and was buried in a mausoleum in the grounds of Huis Doorn. Hitler had tried to have the Emperor’s remains returned to Berlin for a state funeral so he could underline how the Third Reich was the direct descendant of the the old German Empire.