Kaiser Wilhelm II was the last German Emperor and King of Prussia whose turbulent reign from 1888 to 1918 saw the impulsive and erratic ruler strengthening Germany’s position as a great power. Cousin to Great Britain’s George V, Wilhelm’s tactless manner and aggressive foreign policies acted as an underlining impetus to World War I
Blood ties: The Kaiser’s relationship with English royals
Wilhelm II (Friedrich Viktor Albert) was both a first and fifth cousin to England’s George V and the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Despite the barely concealed antagonism between the German emperor and his English royal relatives, he was nicknamed ‘Willy’ by King George, who invited Wilhelm to England during social events including Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight. But the Kaiser wasn’t one of the popular members of the family. He in turn disliked his English uncle ‘Bertie’, the then King Edward VII, who he referred to as ‘the old peacock’.
Wilhelm felt undermined by the stout elder Edward who treated him not as an heir apparent but just as a nephew. Known to be a neurotic man, with a cantankerous temper suffering from megalomania, Wilhelm was prone to bragging, where everything ‘German’ had to be bigger and better. Born with a withered arm after traumatic complications of a breech birth, the disability may have contributed to his inferiority complex.
Black sheep of ‘The Royal Mob’
Influenced and moulded by the hyper-masculinity of the Prussian military culture Wilhelm wanted an empire like his two cousins, George V and Nicholas II. Embarking on a grand building spree his state-of-the-art eighty-four bedroomed palace at Potsdam was the centrepiece of his imperial world ambitions. By the time he was in his teens, Wilhelm was obsessed, like his cousin George V, with everything military. Like George, he also loved dressing up, especially in a multitude of different uniforms for even the most casual of meetings. One historian likened him to being an ‘actor’ as if everywhere he went was like appearing on stage. In his memoir ‘A King’s Story’ by the Duke of Windsor, Prince Edward as he was then describes visiting the Kaiser in 1913 at his palace and finding him behind a high desk sitting on a military saddle, complete with stirrups mounted on a wooden block. Edward recalls: 'He was impatient, haughty, equally eager to please, to frighten, or to astonish; paradoxically stubborn-minded and weak-minded, and, above all, truly humourless.'
Once Wilhelm became ‘Kaiser’ his megalomania went on hyperdrive. With the might of the Prussian army behind him he began to build up his navy, a response to the envy he felt over England’s superior fleet. He now had all the power that he had ever dreamed. As well as creating a German Navy to rival Britain, a country he had love-hate feelings for, he embarked on building lavish palaces including buying a luxury yacht and royal train. The Kaiser celebrated the wedding of his daughter Princess Victoria Louise in 1913 with a lavish ceremony inviting dukes and monarchs around the world including Tsar Nicholas and King George V. But the English royal family were already warned that their German cousin was making too many war-like noises for the British government’s liking. The opulent wedding celebration would be the end of an era and the end of Queen Victoria’s dream.
Cousins at war – Declaration of war against Germany
The catalyst to world war occurred on 28 June 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire and his wife were shot during a royal visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia by a Serbian anarchist. Behind the scenes, George V, the Kaiser and Tsar Nicholas began frantically writing telegrams to each other in the hope of stopping the war from happening. The assumption was that all three monarchs who were cousins would be able to prevent a war in Europe. But their positions made no difference.
On 4 August 1914 George V declared war on Germany at 10.45 am from Buckingham Palace. The news saw celebrations and cheering from a British public ignorant of the horrific realities that were to see 20 million dead and 21 million wounded. The war that was meant to last a few months went on for fours and was to become more terrible than anyone imagined.
The Kaiser’s grand plan for victory came to nothing. Despite his bloodthirsty rhetoric, he had never thought about how to conduct a campaign. The main power lay with the generals who outmanoeuvred him. As well as the fate of his cousin Tsar Nicholas, who was shot along with his family by the Bolsheviks, the Kaiser had his crisis as the German people were starving and revolution spread to the cities. When America entered the war, Germany was defeated.
Abdication and death
American President Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t make peace until the Kaiser abdicated. On 9 November 1918 Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson abdicated and went into exile in Holland. Shortly afterwards Germany became a republic. In early 1919 the Treaty of Versailles expressed the means to prosecute the former emperor as a war criminal, but the Netherlands which had been a neutral country during the war refused to extradite him.
George V viewed his German cousin as ‘the greatest criminal in history’. The British government, purely as an act of political formality, approached their Dutch counterpart to deliver the former Kaiser for trial. Wilhelm remained in the Netherlands untouched by prosecution until his death.
After nine million had died with no victors, the old Europe ruled by kings and emperors was replaced by democracy and republicanism, vanquishing Queen Victoria’s dynastic dream of her prodigy ruling the continent. George V was the only one of his three cousins to survive as a monarch.
The symbol for German monarchists
Despite being an early critic of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, even referring to them as ‘shirted gangsters’, Wilhelm later praised Hitler’s invasion and subjugation of the Netherlands and Paris. The admiration was not mutual. The Fuhrer viewed the former emperor as an ‘idiot’ and the cause of Germany’s defeat during World War I. Bizarrely, despite the ageing Wilhelm’s anti-English and anti-Semitic views, believing England was run by sinister freemasons and a nefarious cabal, Winston Churchill offered him asylum in 1940. He turned the offer down preferring to live out his last days in Holland where today his mausoleum in the grounds of Huis Doom in the Netherlands is a place of pilgrimage for German monarchists.
- Born: 27 January 1859 (Berlin)
- Died: 4 June 1941 (Huis Doom, Netherlands) aged 82
- Reign: 15 June 1888 – 9 November 1918