Kaiser Wilhelm II was de facto head of Germany during World War One. When World War One broke out in August 1914 Wilhelm was emperor with great power. When the war ended it ended for Wilhelm with a self-imposed exile in the Netherlands and little if any influence in Weimar Germany.
Wilhelm was born in 1859. He was born with a withered left arm and some historians believe that it was this physical handicap that helped to shape his personality as an adult. Wilhelm constantly saw himself as having to prove himself – whether it was mastering the art of horse riding or by his constant habit of wearing a military uniform when in public as a statement of his manliness.
Wilhelm was related to the British Royal Family as his mother, ‘Vicky’, was the Princess Royal of Great Britain, the eldest child of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. She was highly intelligent and read journals not normally associated with royalty such as the “Journal of Mining and Mineralogy”. She also read “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx. However, her intellectual capacity was hindered by her habit of making an instant decision over those she liked and those she disliked. Once she took a disliking to someone, that person was held at arm’s length for life. Wilhelm was also related to the Romanovs as his father, Fritz, had a Romanov grandmother. Fritz was also intellectual but did not have it in his personality to assert himself.
When Fritz ascended the throne in 1888, he was seriously ill with cancer. He ruled for only 98 days. Wilhelm succeeded aged 29. As he grew up, Wilhelm had been heavily influenced in his approach to issues by his grandfather, Wilhelm I, who cultivated a belief in Wilhelm that all things had to be approached with Prussian values and virtues. Wilhelm I was highly militaristic and the main interest in his life was the army – though the music-hall was not that far behind. He did not approve of the Englishness of his daughter-in-law and he was delighted when it became clear that the young Wilhelm was more influenced by him than his parents.
“The two may not have been quite as inseparable as the Kaiser afterwards liked to make out, but the bond was close and led the young man to emulate the ideals which he believed the old one to embody.” (Michael Balfour)
What were these Prussian values and virtues? In bygone years Prussia had acted as a buffer state against the “hordes from the east” and military service became part of everyday life. Hence why over the years Prussia became associated with “courage, toughness, self-sacrifice, and discipline without thinking closely about the ends which these qualities serve.” (Balfour)
Bismarck attempted to ‘Prussianise’ German society after the unification. Whether he succeeded is open to argument but he had made it clear what ‘good’ German values were – as they were the Prussian values he so supported. Wilhelm was brought up with these beliefs. But as the future head of Germany he shaped these values so that he not only embodied them but took them further. Wilhelm believed that he had to epitomise to perfection the values of courage, toughness and discipline if he was to be respected as head of state in Germany. This was further complicated by his disability. In Wilhelm’s mind he had to really emphasise all these characteristics and more so if his people were to respect him. Hence his passion for military uniforms as in his mind they associated him in the eyes of his people with an all-conquering army. It was also a belief shared by his relatives in Britain and Russia. He also played the part of the courageous, disciplined strongman – he was always an early riser, he had a passion for outdoor activities and he did master horse riding. It is generally accepted that as a young man Wilhelm was physically robust – just the image he wanted to portray to his people.
He also developed a great respect for Great Britain. When he attended the funeral of Edward VII he stayed at Windsor Castle – a place where he had stayed as a child. He wrote: “I am proud to call this place my second home and to be a member of this royal house.”
However, the overt militaristic values that had been inculcated into him by his grandfather were not found in Britain at this time. So he was the product of two cultures. He had spent time in Britain as a child and young man and there is little doubt that he took to the life of a landed gentleman with some ease – as his lifestyle after his abdication in 1918 clearly shows. However, as German Emperor he felt that the country expected the Prussian-version of Wilhelm to be prominent and as emperor he lived up to it. Above all else his grandfather had driven into Wilhelm a sense of duty to his country.
The Germany that Wilhelm inherited was a quickly changing entity. Ruthless and swift industrialisation had left a very large mass of working class that his grandfather, for example, would not have had to deal with. Wilhelm was emperor at a time when trade unions were making their mark on German society. For a man so imbued with a sense of duty to his country, Wilhelm could not understand a group of people who in his mind put themselves before the country. If he had experienced two cultures in his upbringing, he was head of state of a country that was also experiencing the growth of different cultures – and some he simply could not understand.
The 1871 German Constitution had left Wilhelm with much power. While the driving force of day-to-day politics in Germany was in the hands of the Chancellor, the constitution gave the Kaiser many powers. Any decrees relating to the military only needed his signature and not the Chancellor’s. So if a bill passed the Reichstag that was military in nature, it became law if Wilhelm signed it even if the Chancellor of the day disapproved of it. Wilhelm had the constitutional power to sack his chancellor and he was not obligated by the constitution to consult his ministers - though he did as was seen in the First Moroccan Crisis and the Agadir Crisis. The image of a man who solely made decisions simply because he was emperor was one played on by the British during World War One – but it was not true. During the war, British propaganda made much play on something Wilhelm once said:
“There is only one person who is the Master in this empire and I am not going to tolerate any other. I am the balance of power in Europe since the German constitution leaves decisions about foreign policy to me.”
Wilhelm may have said this but it was not always at the expense of ignoring his ministers. In 1908 he gave an interview to the “Daily Telegraph”. But before he went ahead with it he consulted his chancellor with regards to what answers he should give. When in 1914 the Austrian government asked what Germany’s stance would be if Austria attacked Serbia, Wilhelm replied that he would have to consult with his chancellor first before any formal decision and comment were made.
The historian Michael Balfour believes that Wilhelm would have done better if he stood by his own beliefs and decisions and that he listened to his ministers too much. As a result of this, Balfour believes that Germany pushed Russia, Britain and France together as a more cohesive entity because those three countries saw German ministers as too warlike and sort strength through binding alliances. Wilhelm’s instinct was to broker a deal with Russia and Britain using his family connections – but his ministers won over him. Once Wilhelm convinced himself that he was fully knowledgeable about the affairs of Europe, he openly spoke about how problems could be solved. This was interpreted elsewhere in Europe as a warlike emperor at the head of a warlike cabinet that aided the government of a warlike nation.
The one aspect of policy that Wilhelm remained constant on was the naval building programme. Wilhelm’s logic was simple: if Germany wanted to be taken seriously as a great power, as Britain was, she needed a large and modern navy just like Britain had. What he failed to understand, or simply just ignored, was the obvious anger this programme would create in Britain. He also took his eye off the bigger picture. Britain had the world’s largest and most powerful navy and was also allied with Russia and France that had two of the largest armies in the world. He either forgot that they had an alliance together, which is highly unlikely, or simply did not worry about it such was his desire for his country to be taken as a great power.
To what extent Wilhelm played a part in the start of World War One will always be open to argument and counter-argument and neither he nor Germany can be seen as the sole nation responsible for the cause of the war. Wilhelm, like everyone else, must have thought that if war occurred it would be in the same mode as the Franco-Prussian War. The Germany he was emperor of in 1914 was not the same in 1918 and it was no surprise that he went into a self-imposed exile to the Netherlands after the war.