Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Wilhelm, the son of Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia and Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria, was born in Berlin in 1859. He received a strict military and academic education at the Kassel Gymnasium and the University of Bonn.

In 1888 Wilhelm II became the 9th King of Prussia and the 3rd Emperor of Germany. Two years later he quarrelled and dismissed the German Chancellor, Otto Bismark. For the next few years Wilhelm, who loathed parliamentary democracy, acted as an autocratic monarch. A strong opponent of socialism, Wilhelm was a passionate supporter of German militarism and imperialism. Despite the fact he was Queen Victoria's grandson, Wilhelm pursued an anti-British foreign policy. He also gave support to South Africa during the Boer War but later unsuccessfully attempted Anglo-German reconciliation.

In 1908 Wilhelm suffered a nervous breakdown and played a less dominant role in German government for the next few years. However he continued to support German imperialism and backed Alfred von Tirpitz when he suggested building a navy to match the British Navy.

Like his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, he encouraged Austro-Hungarian aggression after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Although he favoured a limited war Wilhelm was unhappy when the conflict developed into a world war.

Wilhelm was Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces during the First World War. However, the real power was now in the hands of the military, and the decision to replace Erich von Falkenhayn by Paul von Hindenburg, as Army Chief of Staff in August 1916, was taken against his wishes. His son, Prince Wilhelm, was a field commander on the Western Front throughout the war.

William was forced to abdicate on 9th November, 1918. He fled the country with the rest of his family and lived in Holland for the rest of his life. Wilhelm, who wrote two volumes of autobiography, Memoirs 1878-1918 (1922) and My Early Life (1926) died in 1941.

Italian cartoon (1915)
Italian cartoon (1915)

Primary Sources

(1) Kaiser Wilhelm II gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph that was published on 28th October 1908.

Germany is a young and growing empire. She has a world-wide commerce which is rapidly expanding and to which the legitimate ambition of patriotic Germans refuses to assign any bounds. Germany must have a powerful fleet to protect that commerce and her manifold interests in even the most distant seas. She expects those interests to go on growing, and she must be able to champion them manfully in any quarter of the globe. Her horizons stretch far away. She must be prepared for any eventualities in the Far East. Who can foresee what may take place in the Pacific in the days to come, days not so distant as some believe, but days at any rate, for which all European powers with Far Eastern interests ought steadily to prepare?

Look at the accomplished rise of Japan; think of the possible national awakening of China; and then judge of the vast problems of the Pacific. Only those powers that have great navies will be listened to with respect when the future of the Pacific comes to be solved; and if for that reason only, Germany must have a powerful fleet. It may even be that England herself will be glad that Germany has a fleet when they speak together on the same side in the great debates of the future.

(2) Sir Edward Grey, Britain's foreign secretary, wrote an article in response to the comments made by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the Daily Telegraph (November, 1908)

The German Emperor is ageing me; he is like a battleship with steam up and screws going, but with no rudder, and he will run into something some day and cause a catastrophe. He has the strongest army in the world and the Germans don't like being laughed at and are looking for somebody on whom to vent their temper and use their strength. After a big war a nation doesn't want another for a generation or more. Now it is 38 years since Germany had her last war, and she is very strong and very restless, like a person whose boots are too small for him. I don't think there will be war at present, but it will be difficult to keep the peace of Europe for another five years.

(3) The Austrian ambassador summarised the the thoughts of Kaiser Wilhelm II after a meeting with him on 5th July 1914.

First His Majesty assured me that he had expected severe measures on our part in regard to Serbia, but he must confess that as a result of the analysis given by our august Sovereign he must not lose sight of possible serious European complications.

When I laid great emphasis on the seriousness of the situation, His Majesty authorized me to convey to our august Sovereign that even in that case we may reckon on full support from Germany. He did not in the least doubt that Herr von

Bethmann Hollweg would entirely agree with his own view. This was especially true in respect of any measure we might take against Serbia. In His Majesty's view there should be no delay in undertaking these measures. Russia's bearing would in any case be hostile, but for this he had been prepared for years. And even if matters went to the length of war between Austria-Hungary and Russia, we could remain assured that Germany in her customary loyalty as an ally would stand at our side. Russia, by the way, was, as things stand today, not at all ready for war and would certainly think twice before resorting to arms. But she would certainly incite the other powers of the Triple Entente against us and fan the flames in the Balkans.

(4) Gottlieb von Jagow, letter to Prince Lichnowsky (18th July, 1914)

We must see to localizing the conflict between Austria and Serbia. Whether this is possible will depend in the first place on Russia and in the second place on the moderating influence of the other members of the Entente. The more boldness

Austria displays, the more strongly we support her, the more likely is Russia to keep quiet. There is certain to be some blustering in St. Petersburg, but at bottom Russia is not now ready to strike. France and England will not want war now. In a few years according to all expert opinion Russia will be ready to strike. Then she will crush us with the numbers of her soldiers, then she will have built her Baltic fleet and strategic railways. Our group meanwhile will be growing steadily weaker. Russia knows this well and therefore absolutely wants peace for several years more. If localization is not attainable and if Russia attacks Austria, then we cannot sacrifice Austria. We should then find ourselves in a not exactly proud isolation. I have no wish for a preventive war, but if the fight offers itself, we dare not flinch. I still hope and believe that the conflict can be localized. England's attitude in this matter will be of great importance.

(5) Kaiser Wilhelm II , speech, Berlin (4th August, 1914)

I recognise parties no more; I recognise only Germans!

(6) Kaiser Wilhelm II issued orders to U-boat commanders on 1st February, 1917.

We will frighten the British flag off the face of the waters and starve the British people until they, who have refused peace, will kneel and plead for it.

(7) Kaiser Wilhelm II, letter to the Chancellor of Prussia (4th April, 1917)

Never has the German people shown itself so firm as during this war. The knowledge that the Fatherland is acting in bitter self-defence has exercised a wonderfully reconciling power, and in spite of all sacrifices of blood on the battlefield and severe privations at home the resolve has remained unshakable to stake the utmost for a victorious issue. National and social spirit have understood each other and become united and given us enduring strength. Everyone has felt that what has been built up in the course of long years amid many internal struggles was worthy of defence.

The maintenance of the fighting force as a true people's army, and the promotion of the social progress of the people in all its classes, have been my object from the beginning of my reign. Anxious as I am, while strictly preserving the unity of people and Monarchy, to serve the interests of the whole, I am resolved, so soon as the war situation permits, to set to work on the building up of our internal political, economic, and social life.

Millions of our fellow-countrymen are still in the field, and still the decision of the conflict of opinions, which is inevitable in a far-reaching change of the Constitution must, in the highest interests of the Fatherland, be postponed until the time of the return of our warriors comes, and they themselves can in counsel and action cooperate in the progress of the new era. But in order that after the successful ending of the war, which, I confidently hope, is no longer far off, whatever is necessary and appropriate in this respect may be done at once, I desire the preparations to be carried out without delay.

The reform of the Prussian Diet and the liberation of the whole of our internal political life from this question is particularly near my heart. At the very beginning of the war preparations for the alteration of the franchise for the Prussian Lower House were undertaken at my suggestion. I now charge you to lay before me the definite proposals of the Ministry, in order that on the return of our warriors this work, which is fundamental for the internal construction of Prussia, may be carried out rapidly by means of legislation.

After the gigantic accomplishments of the whole people in this terrible war, there is, in my opinion, no room left in Prussia for the class franchise. The Bill will further have to provide for the immediate and secret election of deputies.