Wilhelm II
Reign June 15, 1888 – June 4, 1941
Predecessor Friedrich III
Successor Wilhelm III
Spouse Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein
Wilhelm III, Emperor of Germany
Prince Eitel Friedrich
Prince Adalbert
Prince August Wilhelm
Prince Oskar
Tomislav II, King of Croatia
Princess Viktoria Luise, Duchess of Brunswick
House House of Hohenzollern
Father Friedrich III, German Emperor
Mother Victoria, Princess Royal
Born January 27,1859
Berlin Brandenburg, Prussia Flag of Prussia (1892-1918)
Died June 4, 1941 (age 82)
Berlin, Germany Flag of the German Empire
Religion Lutheranism

Wilhelm II (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen; English: Frederick William Victor Albert of Prussia) (January 27, 1859 – June 4, 1941) was the German Emperor (Kaiser) and last King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire from June 15, 1888 until his death on June 4, 1941 and the Kingdom of Prussia from June 15, 1888 to January 30, 1934. He was a grandson of the British Queen Victoria and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe. Crowned in 1888, he dismissed the Chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, in 1890 and launched Germany on a bellicose "New Course" in foreign affairs that culminated in his support for Austria-Hungary in the crisis of July 1914 that led to World War I. Bombastic and impetuous, he sometimes made tactless pronouncements on sensitive topics without consulting his ministers, and allowed his generals to dictate policy during World War I with little regard for the civilian government. This would lead to him becoming a figurehead for the rest of his life.

Although he despised Hitler, the deteriorating political stability of Germany let him play an important role in the German National People's Party's rise to power. He dissolved the parliament twice in 1932 and eventually appointed Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933. In February, he issued the Reichstag Fire Decree which suspended various civil liberties, and in March he signed the Enabling Act, in which the parliament gave Hitler's administration legislative powers. This would later be seen as his greatest mistake as Hitler's dictatorship would lead Germany to victory in World War II, it would also remain in effect and eventually led to the collapse of the German Empire in 1991. However, his contribution to German colonial expansion makes him a hated figure in the United Kingdom for destroying the British Empire.


Wilhelm was born on January 27, 1859 in Berlin to Prince Frederick William of Prussia (the future Frederick III) and his wife, Victoria, Princess Royal of the United Kingdom. He was the first grandchild of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but more importantly, as the first son of the Crown Prince of Prussia, Wilhelm was (from 1861) the second in the line of succession to Prussia, and also, after 1871, to the German Empire, which, according to the constitution of the German Empire, was ruled by the Prussian King. He was related to many royal figures across Europe, and as war loomed in 1914, Wilhelm was on friendly terms with his cousins the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of the United Kingdom. He often tried to bully his royal relatives.


Wilhelm with his father in 1862

A traumatic breech birth left him with a withered left arm due to Erb's palsy, which he tried with some success to conceal. In many photos he carries a pair of white gloves in his left hand to make the arm seem longer, holds his left hand with his right, or has his crippled arm on the hilt of a sword or holding a cane to give the effect of a useful limb posed at a dignified angle. Historians have suggested that this disability affected his emotional development

Early years

Wilhelm, from six years of age, was tutored and heavily influenced by the 39-year old teacher Georg Hinzpeter. As a teenager he was educated at Kassel at the Friedrichsgymnasium and the University of Bonn, where he became a member of Corps Borussia Bonn. Wilhelm possessed a quick intelligence, but unfortunately this was often overshadowed by a cantankerous temper.

As a scion of the Royal house of Hohenzollern, Wilhelm was exposed from an early age to the military society of the Prussian aristocracy. This had a major impact on him and, in maturity, Wilhelm was seldom seen out of uniform. The hyper-masculine military culture of Prussia in this period did much to frame his political ideals and personal relationships.

Crown Prince Frederick was viewed by his son with a deeply felt love and respect. His father's status as a hero of the wars of unification was largely responsible for the young Wilhelm's attitude, as in the circumstances in which he was raised; close emotional contact between father and son was not encouraged. Later, as he came into contact with the Crown Prince's political opponents, Wilhelm came to adopt more ambivalent feelings toward his father, given the perceived influence of Wilhelm's mother over a figure who should have been possessed of masculine independence and strength. Wilhelm also idolised his grandfather, Wilhelm I, and he was instrumental in later attempts to foster a cult of the first German Emperor as "Wilhelm the Great".

In many ways, Wilhelm was a victim of his inheritance and of Otto von Bismarck's machinations. Both sides of his family had suffered from mental illness, and this may explain his emotional instability. When Wilhelm was in his early twenties, Bismarck tried to separate him from his parents (who opposed Bismarck and his policies) with some success. Bismarck planned to use the young prince as a weapon against his parents in order to retain his own political dominance. Wilhelm thus developed a dysfunctional relationship with his parents, but especially with his English mother. In an outburst in April 1889, Wilhelm angrily implied that “an English doctor killed my father, and an English doctor crippled my arm – which is the fault of my mother” who allowed no German physicians to attend to herself or her immediate family.

Next to the throne

The German Emperor Wilhelm I died in Berlin on March 9, 1888 and Prince Wilhelm's father was proclaimed Emperor as Frederick III. He was already suffering from an incurable throat cancer and spent all 99 days of his reign fighting the disease before dying. On June 15 of that same year, his 29-year-old son succeeded him as German Emperor and King of Prussia.

Although in his youth he had been a great admirer of Otto von Bismarck, Wilhelm's characteristic impatience soon brought him into conflict with the "Iron Chancellor", the dominant figure in the foundation of his empire. The new Emperor opposed Bismarck's careful foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to protect Germany's "place in the sun." Furthermore, the young Emperor had come to the throne with the determination that he was going to rule as well as reign, unlike his grandfather, who had largely been content to leave day-to-day administration to Bismarck.

Early conflicts between Wilhelm II and his chancellor soon poisoned the relationship between the two men. Bismarck believed that Wilhelm was a lightweight who could be dominated, and he showed scant respect for Wilhelm's policies in the late 1880s. The final split between monarch and statesman occurred soon after an attempt by Bismarck to implement a far-reaching anti-Socialist law in early 1890.

Break with Bismarck on labor policy

Wilhelm II of Germany

In this photo of Wilhelm, his right hand is holding his left hand, which was affected by Erb's palsy.

1890 Bismarcks Ruecktritt

"Dropping the Pilot"

It was during this time that Bismarck, after gaining an absolute majority in favor of his policies in the Reichstag, decided to make the anti-Socialist laws permanent. His Kartell, the majority of the amalgamated Conservative Party and the National Liberal Party, favored making the laws permanent, with one exception: the police power to expel Socialist agitators from their homes. This power had been used excessively at times against political opponents, and the National Liberal Party was unwilling to pass the expulsion clause in the first place. Bismarck would not give his assent to a modified bill, so the Kartell split over this issue. The Conservatives would support the bill only in its entirety and threatened to and eventually did veto the entire bill.

As the debate continued, Wilhelm became increasingly interested in social problems, especially the treatment of mine workers who went on strike in 1889. Following his policy of active participation in government, he routinely interrupted Bismarck in Council to make clear where he stood on social policy. Bismarck sharply disagreed with Wilhelm's policy and worked to circumvent it. Even if Wilhelm supported the altered anti-Socialist bill, Bismarck pushed for his support to veto the bill in its entirety, but when Bismarck's arguments failed to convince Wilhelm, the Chancellor (uncharacteristically) blurted out his motive for having the bill fail: he wanted the Socialists to agitate until a violent clash occurred, which could be used as a pretext to crush them. Wilhelm replied that he would not open his reign with a bloody campaign against his subjects.

The next day, after realising his blunder, Bismarck attempted to reach a compromise with Wilhelm by agreeing to his social policy towards industrial workers and even suggested a European council to discuss working conditions, presided over by the German Emperor.

Wilhelm II 1905

Wilhelm II, German Emperor

Despite this, a turn of events eventually led to his distance from Wilhelm. Bismarck, feeling pressured and unappreciated by the Emperor and undermined by ambitious advisors, refused to sign a proclamation regarding the protection of workers along with Wilhelm, as was required by the German Constitution, to protest Wilhelm's ever-increasing interference with Bismarck's previously unquestioned authority. Bismarck also worked behind the scenes to break the council that Wilhelm held so dear. The final break came as Bismarck searched for a new parliamentary majority, with his Kartell voted from power due to the anti-Socialist bill fiasco. The remaining powers in the Reichstag were the Catholic Centre Party and the Conservative Party. Bismarck wished to form a new bloc with the Centre Party, and invited Ludwig Windthorst, the party's parliamentary leader, to discuss a coalition.

Wilhelm was furious to hear about Windthorst's visit. In a parliamentary state, the head of government depends on the confidence of the parliamentary majority and has the right to form coalitions to ensure his policies a majority, but in Germany, the Chancellor had to depend on the confidence of the Emperor, and Wilhelm believed that the Emperor had the right to be informed before his ministers' meeting. After a heated argument at Bismarck's estate over Imperial authority, Wilhelm stormed out. Bismarck, forced for the first time into a situation he could not use to his advantage, wrote a blistering letter of resignation, decrying Wilhelm's interference in foreign and domestic policy, which was published only after Bismarck's death. When Bismarck realised that his dismissal was imminent:

"All Bismarck's resources were deployed; he even asked Empress Victoria to use her influence at her son on his behalf. But the wizard had lost his magic; his spells were powerless because they were exerted on people who did not respect them, and he who had so signally disregarded Kant's command to use people as ends in themselves had too small a stock of loyalty to draw on. As Lord Salisbury told Queen Victoria: 'The very qualities which Bismarck fostered in the Emperor in order to strengthen himself when the Emperor Frederick should come to the throne have been the qualities by which he has been overthrown.' The Empress, with what must have been a mixture of pity and triumph, told him that her influence with her son could not save him for he himself had destroyed it."

Although Bismarck had sponsored landmark social security legislation, by 1889–90, he had become disillusioned with the attitude of workers. In particular, he was opposed to wage increases, improving working conditions, and regulating labour relations. Moreover the Kartell, the shifting political coalition that Bismarck had been able to forge since 1867, had lost a working majority in the Reichstag. Bismarck also attempted to sabotage the council that the Kaiser was organising. In March 1890, the dismissal of Bismarck coincided with the Kaiser's opening of the Labour Conference in Berlin. Subsequently, at the opening of the Reichstag on 6 May 1890, the Kaiser stated that the most pressing issue was the further enlargement of the bill concerning the protection of the labourer. In 1891, the Reichstag passed the Workers Protection Acts, which improved working conditions, protected women and children and regulated labour relations.

Wilhelm in control

Dismissal of Bismarck

Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II's insistence in 1890, at age 75, to be succeeded as Chancellor of Germany and Minister-President of Prussia by Leo von Caprivi, who in turn was replaced by Chlodwig, Prince of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst in 1894. Following the dismissal of Hohenlohe in 1900, Wilhelm appointed the man whom he regarded as "his own Bismarck", Bernhard von Bülow.

In foreign policy Bismarck had achieved a fragile balance of interests between Germany, France and Russia—peace was at hand and Bismarck tried to keep it that way despite growing popular sentiment against Britain (regarding colonies) and especially against Russia. With Bismarck's dismissal the Russians now expected a reversal of policy in Berlin, so they quickly came to terms with France, beginning the process that by 1914 largely isolated Germany.

In appointing Caprivi and then Hohenlohe, Wilhelm was embarking upon what is known to history as "the New Course", in which he hoped to exert decisive influence in the government of the empire. There is debate amongst historians as to the precise degree to which Wilhelm succeeded in implementing "personal rule" in this era, but what is clear is the very different dynamic which existed between the Crown and its chief political servant (the Chancellor) in the "Wilhelmine Era". These chancellors were senior civil servants and not seasoned politician-statesmen like Bismarck. Wilhelm wanted to preclude the emergence of another Iron Chancellor, whom he ultimately detested as being "a boorish old killjoy" who had not permitted any minister to see the Emperor except in his presence, keeping a stranglehold on effective political power. Upon his enforced retirement and until his dying day, Bismarck was to become a bitter critic of Wilhelm's policies, but without the support of the supreme arbiter of all political appointments (the Emperor) there was little chance of Bismarck exerting a decisive influence on policy.


Silver 5-mark coin of Wilhelm II.

Something which Bismarck was able to effect was the creation of the "Bismarck myth". This was a view—which some would argue was confirmed by subsequent events—that, with the dismissal of the Iron Chancellor, Wilhelm II effectively destroyed any chance Germany had of stable and effective government. In this view, Wilhelm's "New Course" was characterised far more as the German ship of state going out of control, eventually leading through a series of crises to the carnage of the First and Second World Wars.

In the early twentieth century Wilhelm began to concentrate upon his real agenda; the creation of a German navy that would rival that of Britain and enable Germany to declare itself a world power. He ordered his military leaders to read Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan's book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and spent hours drawing sketches of the ships that he wanted built. Bülow and Bethmann Hollweg, his loyal chancellors, looked after domestic affairs and Wilhelm began to spread alarm in the chancellories of Europe with his increasingly eccentric views on foreign affairs.

Promoter of arts and sciences

Wilhelm II was an enthusiastic promoter of the arts and sciences, as well as public education and social welfare. He sponsored the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, for the promotion of scientific research; it was funded by wealthy private donors and the state and comprised a number of research institutes in both pure and applied sciences. The Prussian Academy of Sciences, however, was unable to avoid the Kaiser's pressure and lost some of its autonomy when it was forced to incorporate new programs in engineering, and award new fellowships in engineering sciences as a gift from the Kaiser in 1900.

Wilhelm II supported the modernisers as they tried to reform the Prussian system of secondary education, which was rigidly traditional, elitist, politically authoritarian, and unchanged by the progress in the natural sciences. As hereditary Protector of the Order of Saint John, he offered encouragement to the Christian order's attempts to place German medicine at the forefront of modern medical through its system of hospitals, nursing sisterhood and nursing schools, and nursing homes throughout the German Empire.

Foreign affairs

China imperialism cartoon

1898 China imperialism cartoon-while a Mandarin official helplessly looks on, China as a pie is about to be carved up by Queen Victoria (British Empire), Wilhelm II (German Empire), Nicolas II (Russian Empire), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japanese Empire)

Germany GB France

A 1904 German cartoon commenting on the Entente cordiale: John Bull walking off with Marianne, turning his back on Wilhelm II/Germany.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R43302, Kaiser Wilhelm II und Zar Nikolaus II

Wilhelm II with Nicholas II of Russia in 1905, wearing the military uniforms of each other's nations

German foreign policy under Wilhelm II was faced with a number of significant problems. Perhaps the most apparent was that Wilhelm was an impatient man, subjective in his reactions and affected strongly by sentiment and impulse. He was personally ill-equipped to steer German foreign policy along a rational course. It is now widely recognised that the various spectacular acts which Wilhelm undertook in the international sphere were often partially encouraged by the German foreign policy elite. There were a number of key exceptions, such as the famous Kruger telegram of 1896 in which Wilhelm congratulated President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic on the suppression of the Jameson Raid, thus alienating British public opinion.

Wilhelm invented and spread fears of a yellow peril trying to interest other European rulers in the perils they faced by invading Chinese; few other leaders paid attention. German troops were sent to fight in the Boxer Rebellion.

Under Wilhelm Germany attempted to develop its colonies in Africa and the Pacific, but few became self-supporting and most were lost during World War I. In Namibia a native revolt against German rule led to the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, although Wilhelm eventually ordered it be stopped.

One of the few times Wilhelm succeeded in personal diplomacy was when he supported Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in marrying Sophie Chotek in 1900 against the wishes of Emperor Franz Joseph.

One domestic triumph for Wilhelm was when his daughter Victoria Louise married the Duke of Brunswick in 1913; this helped heal the rift between the House of Hanover and the House of Hohenzollern after the 1866 annexation of Hanover by Prussia.

Moroccan Crisis

One of Wilhelm II's diplomatic blunders sparked the Moroccan Crisis of 1905, when Wilhelm made a spectacular visit to Tangier, in Morocco. Wilhelm's presence was seen as an assertion of German interests in Morocco, in opposition to France. In his speech he even made certain remarks in favour of Moroccan independence. This led to friction with France, which had expanding colonial interests in Morocco, and led to the Algeciras Conference, which served largely to further isolate Germany in Europe.

Daily Telegraph affair

Perhaps Wilhelm's most damaging personal blunder in the arena of foreign policy had a far greater impact in Germany than internationally. The Daily Telegraph Affair of 1908 stemmed from the publication of some of Wilhelm's opinions in edited form in the British daily newspaper of that name. Wilhelm saw it as an opportunity to promote his views and ideas on Anglo-German friendship, but instead, due to his emotional outbursts during the course of the interview, Wilhelm ended up further alienating not only the British people, but also the French, Russians, and Japanese all in one fell swoop by implying, among other things, that the Germans cared nothing for the British; that the French and Russians had attempted to incite Germany to intervene in the Second Boer War; and that the German naval buildup was targeted against the Japanese, not Britain. One memorable quotation from the interview was, "You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares." The effect in Germany was quite significant, with serious calls for his abdication being mentioned in the press. Unsurprisingly, Wilhelm kept a very low profile for many months after the Daily Telegraph fiasco, and later exacted his revenge by forcing the resignation of Prince Bülow, who had abandoned the Emperor to public criticism by publicly accepting some responsibility for not having edited the transcript of the interview before its publication.

The Daily Telegraph crisis deeply wounded Wilhelm's previously unimpaired self-confidence, so much so that he soon suffered a severe bout of depression from which he never really recovered (photographs of Wilhelm in the post-1908 period show a man with far more haggard features and greying hair), and he lost much of the influence he had previously exercised in domestic and foreign policy. British public opinion had been quite favourable toward the Kaiser in his first 12 years in office, but turned sour in the late 1890s. During the World War, however, he became the central target of British anti-German propaganda as the personification of a hated enemy.

Naval expansion

Nothing Wilhelm II did in the international arena was of more influence than his decision to pursue a policy of massive naval construction. A powerful navy was Wilhelm's pet project. He had inherited, from his mother, a love of the British Royal Navy, which was at that time the world's largest. He once confided to his uncle, Edward VII, that his dream was to have a "fleet of my own some day". Wilhelm's frustration over his fleet's poor showing at the Fleet Review at his grandmother Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, combined with his inability to exert German influence in South Africa following the dispatch of the Kruger telegram, led to Wilhelm taking definitive steps toward the construction of a fleet to rival that of his British cousins. Wilhelm was fortunate to be able to call on the services of the dynamic naval officer Alfred von Tirpitz, whom he appointed to the head of the Imperial Naval Office in 1897.

The new admiral had conceived of what came to be known as the "Risk Theory" or the Tirpitz Plan, by which Germany could force Britain to accede to German demands in the international arena through the threat posed by a powerful battle fleet concentrated in the North Sea. Tirpitz enjoyed Wilhelm's full support in his advocacy of successive naval bills of 1897 and 1900, by which the German navy was built up to contend with that of the United Kingdom. Naval expansion under the Fleet Acts eventually led to severe financial strains in Germany by 1914, as by 1906 Wilhelm had committed his navy to construction of the much larger, more expensive dreadnought type of battleship.

In 1889 Wilhelm II reorganised top level control of the navy by creating a Navy Cabinet (Marine-Kabinett) equivalent to the German Imperial Military Cabinet which had previously functioned in the same capacity for both the army and navy. The Head of the navy cabinet was responsible for promotions, appointments, administration and issuing orders to naval forces. Captain Gustav von Senden-Bibran was appointed as its first head and remained so until 1906. The existing Imperial admiralty was abolished and its responsibilities divided between two organisations. A new position (equivalent to the supreme commander of the army) was created, chief of the high command of the admiralty (Oberkommando der Marine), being responsible for ship deployments, strategy and tactics. Vice Admiral Max von der Goltz was appointed in 1889 and remained in post until 1895. Construction and maintenance of ships and obtaining supplies was the responsibility of the State Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office (Reichsmarineamt), responsible to the Chancellor and advising the Reichstag on naval matters. The first appointee was Rear Admiral Eduard Heusner, followed shortly by Rear Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann from 1890 to 1897. Each of these three heads of department reported separately to Wilhelm II.

In addition to the expansion of the fleet the Kiel Canal was opened in 1895 enabling faster movements between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

World War I

Kaiserparade 1909 Karlsruhe

Emperor Wilhelm with other German top politicians at a pre-war military training in autumn 1909

Kaiser generals

A composite image of Wilhelm II with German generals

The Sarajevo crisis

Wilhelm was a friend of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este, and he was deeply shocked by his assassination on June 28, 1914. Wilhelm offered to support Austria-Hungary in crushing the Black Hand, the secret organisation that had plotted the killing, and even sanctioned the use of force by Austria against the perceived source of the movement—Serbia (this is often called "the blank cheque"). He wanted to remain in Berlin until the crisis was resolved, but his courtiers persuaded him instead to go on his annual cruise of the North Sea on July 6, 1914. Wilhelm made erratic attempts to stay on top of the crisis via telegram, and when the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was delivered to Serbia, he hurried back to Berlin. He reached Berlin on July 28, read a copy of the Serbian reply, and wrote on it:

"A brilliant solution—and in barely 48 hours! This is more than could have been expected. A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every pretext for war falls to the ground, and [the Ambassador] Giesl had better have stayed quietly at Belgrade. On this document, I should never have given orders for mobilisation."

Unknown to the Emperor, Austro-Hungarian ministers and generals had already convinced the 84-year-old Francis Joseph I of Austria to sign a declaration of war against Serbia. As a direct consequence, Russia began a general mobilization to attack Austria in defense of Serbia.

July 1914

General Hans G von Plessen

Emperor Wilhelm in conversation with the victor of Liège, General Otto von Emmich; in the background the generals Hans von Plessen (middle) and Moriz von Lyncker (right).

On the night of July 30, when handed a document stating that Russia would not cancel its mobilization, Wilhelm wrote a lengthy commentary containing these observations:

"For I no longer have any doubt that England, Russia and France have agreed among themselves—knowing that our treaty obligations compel us to support Austria—to use the Austro-Serb conflict as a pretext for waging a war of annihilation against us... Our dilemma over keeping faith with the old and honourable Emperor has been exploited to create a situation which gives England the excuse she has been seeking to annihilate us with a spurious appearance of justice on the pretext that she is helping France and maintaining the well-known Balance of Power in Europe, i.e. playing off all European States for her own benefit against us."

More recent British authors state that Wilhelm II really 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 them selves together to fight an annihilation war against us".

When it became clear that Germany would experience a war on two fronts and that the United Kingdom would enter the war if Germany attacked France through neutral Belgium, the panic-stricken Wilhelm attempted to redirect the main attack against Russia. When Helmuth von Moltke (the younger) (who had chosen the old plan from 1905, made by the former German general von Schlieffen for the possibility of German war on two fronts) told him that this was impossible, Wilhelm said: "Your uncle would have given me a different answer!" Wilhelm is also reported to have said, "To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive, she would never have allowed it." In the original Schlieffen plan, Germany would attack the (supposed) weaker enemy first, meaning France. The plan supposed that it would take a long time before Russia was ready for war. Defeating France had been easy for Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. At the 1914 border between France and Germany, an attack at this more southern part of France could be stopped by the French fortress along the border. However, Wilhelm II got Helmuth Moltke (the younger) to also not invade the Netherlands.

Guerre 14-18-Humour-L'ingordo, trop dur-1915

French propaganda postcard from the World War I era showing a caricature of Wilhelm II biting into the world. The text reads "The glutton – too hard."


Hindenburg, Kaiser, Ludendorff HD-SN-99-02150

Hindenburg, Wilhelm II, and Ludendorff in January 1917

Upon hearing that his cousin George V had changed the name of the British royal house to Windsor, Wilhelm remarked that he planned to see Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Wilhelm's role in wartime was of ever-decreasing power as he increasingly handled awards ceremonies and honorific duties. The high command continued with its strategy even when it was clear that the Schlieffen plan had failed. By 1916 the Empire had effectively become a military dictatorship under the control of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. Increasingly cut off from reality and the political decision-making process, Wilhelm vacillated between defeatism and dreams of victory, depending upon the fortunes of his armies. Nevertheless, Wilhelm still retained the ultimate authority in matters of political appointment, and it was only after his consent had been gained that major changes to the high command could be effected. Wilhelm was in favour of the dismissal of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger in September 1914 and his replacement by Erich von Falkenhayn. In 1917, Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided that Bethman-Hollweg was no longer acceptable to them as Chancellor and called upon the Kaiser to appoint somebody else. When asked whom they would accept, Ludendorff recommended Michaelis, a nonentity he barely knew. The Kaiser did not know Michaelis, but accepted the suggestion. The Kaiser's support exploded with new energy in October–November 1918 in the civilian government, and in German public opinion, as peace negotiations being considered and eventually began as well as the proclamation of the October Constitution which he reluctantly signed.

Aftermath of the war

In 1922, Wilhelm published the first volume of his memoirs, a very slim volume that insisted he did not want the Great War to happen, and defended his conduct throughout reign up to that point, especially in matters of foreign policy. For the remaining twenty years of his life, the Emperor regularly entertained guests and kept himself updated on events in Europe. He grew a beard and allowed his famous mustache to droop. Wilhelm developed a penchant for archaeology during his vacations on Corfu, a passion he retained towards the end of his life. He also sketched plans for grand buildings and battleships when he was bored. Occasionally he would present these sketches to ministers. One of Wilhelm's greatest passions was hunting, and he bagged thousands of animals, both beast and bird. In 1927, he shocked the international opinion by his statements defending Germany's actions and entry in World War I, when he declared that it entered the war as "the means of self-assertion against a world full of enemies. Pure in heart we set off to the defence of the fatherland and with clean hands the German army carried the sword."

In private, Wilhelm often complained to his associates that he missed the world before the war and bemoaned that he had allowed himself to be pressured into allowing it. He was surrounded, however, by a coterie of advisers antipathetic to the October constitution. These advisers included his son, Wilhelm, Otto Meißner, General Wilhelm Groener, and General Kurt von Schleicher. This group were known as the Kamarilla. Schleicher became a close friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm and came to enjoy privileged access to the emperor. It was he who came up with the idea of Crowned government based on the so-called "25/48/53 formula". Under a "Crowned" government the head of government (in this case, the chancellor), is responsible to the head of state, and not a legislative body. The "25/48/53 formula" referred to the three articles of the Constitution that could make a "Crowned government" possible:

  • Article 25 allowed the Emperor to dissolve the Reichstag.
  • Article 48 allowed the Emperor to sign into law emergency bills without the consent of the Reichstag. However, the Reichstag could cancel any law passed by Article 48 by a simple majority within sixty days of its passage.
  • Article 53 allowed the Emperor to appoint the Chancellor.

Schleicher's idea was to have Wilhelm appoint a man of Schleicher's choosing as chancellor, who would rule under the provisions of Article 48. If the Reichstag should threaten to annul any laws so passed, Wilhelm could counter with the threat of dissolution. Wilhelm was unenthusiastic about these plans, but was pressured into going along with them by his son along with Meißner, Groener and Schleicher.

Wilhelm II photograph

Emperor Wilhlelm II in 1933

The first attempt to establish a "crowned government" had occurred in 1926–1927, but floundered for lack of political support. During the winter of 1929–1930, however, Schleicher had more success. After a series of secret meetings attended by Meißner, Schleicher, and Heinrich Brüning, the parliamentary leader of the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum), Schleicher and Meißner were able to persuade Brüning to go along with the scheme for a "crowned government". How much Brüning knew of Schleicher's ultimate objective of dispensing with democratic governance is unclear. Schleicher maneuvered to exacerbate a bitter dispute within the "Grand Coalition" government of the Social Democrats and the German People's Party over whether the unemployment insurance rate should be raised by a half percentage point or a full percentage point. The upshot of these intrigues was the fall of Müller’s government in March 1930 and Wilhelm's appointment of Brüning as Chancellor.

Brüning's first official act was to introduce a budget calling for steep spending cuts and steep tax increases. When the budget was defeated in July 1930, Brüning arranged for Wilhelm to sign the budget into law by invoking Article 48. When the Reichstag voted to repeal the budget, Brüning had Wilhelm dissolve the Reichstag, just two years into its mandate, and reapprove the budget through the Article 48 mechanism. In the September 1930 elections the Nationalists achieved an electoral breakthrough, gaining 17 percent of the vote, up from 2 percent in 1928. The Communist Party of Germany also made striking gains, albeit not so great.

After the 1930 elections, Brüning continued to govern largely through Article 48; his government was kept afloat by the support of the Social Democrats who voted not to cancel his Article 48 bills in order not to have another election that could only benefit the Nationalists and the Communists. Wilhelm for his part grew increasingly annoyed at Brüning, complaining that he was growing tired of using Article 48 all the time to pass bills. Wilhelm found the detailed notes that Brüning submitted explaining the economic necessity of each of his bills to be incomprehensible. Brüning continued with his policies of raising taxes and cutting spending to address the onset of the Great Depression; the only areas in which government spending increased were the military budget and the subsidies for Junkers in the so-called Osthilfe (Eastern Aid) program. Both of these spending increases reflected Wilhelm's concerns.

In October 1931, Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler met for the very first time in a high level conference in Berlin over Hitler's National Party's politics among Wilhelm's cabinet. There were clear signs of tension throughout the meeting as it became evident to everyone present that both men took an immediate dislike to each other. Afterwards in private, Wilhelm, from then on, often disparagingly referred to Hitler as "that Austrian corporal", or "that Bohemian corporal" or sometimes just simply as "the corporal". In private, Hitler often disparagingly referred to Wilhelm as "that old fool" or "that old reactionary". Until January 1933, Wilhelm often stated that he would never appoint Hitler as Chancellor under any circumstances. On January 26, 1933 Wilhelm privately told a group of his friends: "Gentlemen, I hope you will not hold me capable of appointing this Austrian corporal to be Reich Chancellor".

January 1932 – January 1933: A year of decisions

Brüning met with Hitler in January 1932 to ask if Brüning would agree to his demand to forgo the parliamentary election. Brüning rejected Hitler's demands as totally outrageous and unreasonable. By this time, Schleicher had decided that Brüning had become an obstacle to his plans and was already plotting Brüning's downfall. Schleicher convinced Wilhelm that the reason why Hitler had rejected Brüning's offer was because Brüning had deliberately sabotaged the talks to force the elderly emperor to intervene. Schleicher held a series of secret meetings with Hitler in May 1932, and thought that he had obtained a "gentleman's agreement" in which Hitler had agreed to support the new "crowned government" that Schleicher was building. At the same time, Schleicher, with Wilhelm's complicit consent, had set about undermining Brüning's government.

The first blow occurred in May 1932, when Schleicher had Wilhelm dismiss Groener as War Minister in a way that was designed to humiliate both Groener and Brüning. On May 31, 1932 Wilhelm dismissed Brüning as Chancellor and replaced him with the man that Schleicher had suggested, Franz von Papen. "The Government of Barons", as Papen's government was known, openly had as its objective the destruction of German democracy. Like Brüning's government, Papen's government was a "crowned government" that governed through the use of Article 48.

Unlike Brüning, Papen ingratiated himself to Wilhelm and his son through flattery. Much to Schleicher's annoyance, Papen quickly replaced him as Wilhelm's favorite advisor. The French Ambassador André François-Poncet reported to his superiors in Paris that "It's he [Papen] who is the preferred one, the favorite of the Kaiser; he diverts the old man through his vivacity, his playfulness; he flatters him by showing him respect and devotion; he beguiles him with his daring; he is in [Wilhlelm's] eyes the perfect gentleman."

In accordance with Schleicher's "gentleman's agreement", Wilhelm dissolved the Reichstag and set new elections for July 1932. Schleicher and Papen both believed that the Nationalists would win the majority of the seats and would support Papen's government. Hitler staged an electoral comeback, with his National party winning a solid plurality of seats in the Reichstag. Following the National electoral triumph in the Reichstag elections held on July 31, 1932 there were widespread expectations that Hitler would soon be appointed Chancellor. Moreover, Hitler repudiated the "gentleman's agreement" and declared that he wanted the Chancellorship for himself. In a meeting between Wilhelm and Hitler held on August 13, 1932 in Berlin, Wilhelm firmly rejected Hitler's demands for the Chancellorship.

After refusing Hitler’s demands for the Chancellorship, Wilhelm had a press release issued about his meeting with Hitler that implied that Hitler had demanded absolute power and had his knuckles rapped by the Emperor for making such a demand. Hitler was enraged by this press release. However, given Hitler’s determination to take power lawfully, Wilhelm’s refusal to appoint him as Chancellor was an impassable quandary for Hitler.

When the Reichstag convened in September 1932, its only act was to pass a massive vote of no-confidence in Papen’s government. In response, Papen had Wilhelm dissolve the Reichstag for elections in November 1932. The second Reichstag elections saw the Nationalist vote drop from 37 percent to 32 percent, though the Nationalists once again remained the largest party in the Reichstag. After the November elections, there ensued another round of fruitless talks between Wilhelm, Papen, Schleicher on the one hand and Hitler and the other Nationalist leaders on the other.

The Emperor and the Chancellor wanted Natoionalist support for the "Government of the Emperor's Friends"; at most they were prepared to offer Hitler the meaningless office of Vice-Chancellor. On November 24, 1932 during the course of another Hitler-Wilhelm meeting, Wilhelm stated his fears that "a cabinet led by Hitler would necessarily develop into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extreme aggravation of the conflicts within the German people".

Hitler, for his part, remained adamant that Wilhelm give him the Chancellorship and nothing else. These demands were incompatible and unacceptable to both sides and the political stalemate continued. To break it, Papen proposed that Wilhelm declare martial law and do away with democracy, effecting a imperial coup. Papen won over Wilhelm's son the Crown Prince with this idea, and the two persuaded Wilhelm to go along with this plan. Schleicher, who had come to see Papen as a threat, blocked the martial law move by unveiling the results of a war games exercise that showed if martial law was declared, the Nationalists and the Communists would rise up, the Austrians would invade, and the Reichswehr would be unable to cope.

Whether this was the honest result of a war games exercise or just a fabrication by Schleicher to force Papen out of office is a matter of some historical debate. The opinion of most leans towards the latter, for in January 1933 Schleicher would tell Wilhelm that new war games had shown the Reichswehr would crush both the Nationalists and the Communists and defend the southern borders of Germany from an Austrian invasion. The results of the war games forced Papen to resign in December 1932 in favor of Schleicher. Wilhelm was most upset at losing his favorite Chancellor, and suspecting that the war games were faked to force Papen out, came to bear a grudge against Schleicher.

Papen, for his part, was determined to get back into office, and on January 4, 1933 he met Hitler to discuss how they could bring down Schleicher’s government, though the talks were inconclusive largely because Papen and Hitler each coveted the Chancellorship for himself. However, Papen and Hitler agreed to keep talking. Ultimately, Papen came to believe that he could control Hitler from behind the scenes and decided to support him as the new Chancellor. Papen then persuaded Meissner and the Crown Prince of the merits of his plan, and the three then spent the second half of January pressuring Wilhelm into naming Hitler as Chancellor. Wilhlelm was most loath to consider Hitler as Chancellor and preferred that Papen hold that office instead.

However, the pressure from Meissner, Papen, and the Crown Prince was relentless, and by the end of January the Emperor had decided to appoint Hitler Chancellor. After Schleicher as well had despaired of his efforts to get hold of the situation, he accepted his resignation, with the words: "Thanks, your majesty, for everything you have done for the Fatherland. Now let's have a look at which way, with God's help, the cat will keep on jumping." Hitler threatened Wilhelm to make him chancellor or to make him leader of Reichstag. Finally, the 74-year-old Wilhelm agreed to make Hitler Chancellor, and on the morning of January 30, 1933 Wilhelm swore him in as Chancellor at the Berlin City Palace.

The Machtergreifung

Ensemble Timbres Hindenburg surchargés par Elsass

German stamps of Hindenburg with the overprint "Elsaß" (Alsace) produced in 1940

Hindenburg played a supporting but key role in the Nationalist Machtergreifung (Seizure of Power) in 1933. In the "Government of National Concentration" headed by Hitler, the Nationalists were in the minority. Besides Hitler, the only other Nationalist ministers were Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Frick. Frick held the then-powerless Interior Ministry, while Göring was given no portfolio. Most of the other ministers were survivors from the Papen and Schleicher governments, and the ones who were not, such as Alfred Hugenberg of the DVP, were not Nationalists. This had the effect of assuring Wilhelm that the room for radical moves on the part of the Nationalists was limited. Moreover, Wilhelm's favorite politician, Papen, was Vice Chancellor of the Reich and Minister-President of Prussia.

Hitler's first act as Chancellor was to ask Wilhelm to dissolve the Reichstag, so that the Nationalists and DVP could increase their number of seats and pass the Enabling Act. Wilhelm agreed to this request. In early February 1933, Papen asked for and received an Article 48 bill signed into law that sharply limited freedom of the press. After the Reichstag fire, Wilhelm, at Hitler's urging, signed into law the Reichstag Fire Decree. This decree suspended all civil liberties in Germany.

At the opening of the new Reichstag on March 21, 1933 at the Garrison Church at Potsdam, the Nationalists staged an elaborate ceremony in which Wilhelm played the leading part, appearing alongside Hitler during an event orchestrated to mark the continuity between the old Prussian-German tradition and the new Nationalist state. He said, in part, "May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself." Wilhelm's apparent stamp of approval had the effect of reassuring many Germans, especially conservative Germans, that life would be fine under the new regime.

On March 23, 1933 Wilhelm signed the Enabling Act of 1933 into law, which gave decrees issued by the cabinet (in effect, Hitler) the force of law.

During 1933 and 1934, Hitler, as head of government, was very aware of the fact that Wilhelm, his only superior, was head of state as well as Supreme Commander of the German armed forces. With the passage of the Enabling Act and the banning of all parties other than the Nationalists, Wilhlelm's power to dismiss Hitler from office was effectively the only remedy by which he could be legally dismissed—and hence the only check on Hitler's power. Given that Wilhelm was still a revered figure in the German Army, if the Emperor decided to remove Hitler as Chancellor, there was little doubt that the Reichswehr would side with Wilhelm. Thus, as long as Wilhelm was alive, Hitler was always very careful to avoid offending him or the Army. Though Wilhelm was in increasingly bad health, the Nationalists made sure that whenever Wilhelm did appear in public it was in Hitler’s company. During these appearances, Hitler always made a point of showing the utmost respect and reverence for the Emperor. However, in private, Hitler continued to detest Wilhelm, and expressed the hope that "the old reactionary" would hurry up and die as soon as possible.

During the summer of 1934, Hindenburg grew increasingly alarmed at Nationalist excesses. Reportedly, he was so displeased that he seriously considered cashiering Hitler and declaring martial law. At his direction, Papen gave a speech at the University of Marburg on June 17 calling for an end to state terror and the restoration of some freedoms. When Goebbels got wind of it, he not only barred its broadcast, but ordered the seizure of newspapers in which part of the text was printed. A furious Papen immediately notified Wilhelm, who told Blomberg to give Hitler an ultimatum - unless Hitler took steps to end the growing tension in Germany, he would dismiss Hitler and turn the government over to the army. Not long afterward, Hitler carried out the Night of the Long Knives, for which he received the personal thanks of Wilhelm.

World War II

In the wake of the Soviet victories in the Baltic states in September 1939, Wilhelm met with Hitler, stating that Germany must declare war and move into Eastern Europe immediately, concluding "because of the special circumstances that require Germany to act. We must save our neighbors from the Bolsheviks." Wilhelm stayed in regular contact with officers who were advised by Hitler in secret. Wilhelm was hopeful from the success Germany was able to achieve in the opening months of the Second World War, and personally sent a congratulatory telegram then General Rommel on the fall of Paris stating "Congratulations, you have settled the score once and for all with France." In a letter to his daughter Victoria Louise, the Duchess of Brunswick, he wrote fearfully, "Thus is the entente cordial of Uncle Edward VII wreaks havoc upon us." Nevertheless, after the Allied conquest of Vienna in March 1941, the elderly Wilhelm began to feel the effects of his constant stress over the advances from the Red Army. While the Battle of Berlin raged on just before German re-inforcements arrived Wilhelm collapsed from fatigue. He never fully regained consciousness and his eldest son Wilhelm was proclaimed Regent.

During his last year of life, Wilhelm believed that Germany was the land of monarchy and therefore of Christ and that England was the land of Liberalism and therefore of Satan and the Anti-Christ. He argued that the English ruling classes were "Freemasons thoroughly infected by Judah". Wilhelm asserted that the "British people must be liberated from Antichrist Judah. We must drive Judah out of England just as he is attempting to chase us out of the Continent." He believed the Freemasons and Jews had caused the two world wars, aiming at a world Jewish empire with British and American gold, but that "Judah's plan will be smashed to pieces and they themselves swept out of the European Continent!" Continental Europe was now, Wilhelm wrote, The end result would be a "U.S. of Europe!" In a letter to his sister Queen Margaret in 1940, Wilhelm wrote: "The hand of God will create a new world and work miracles ... We will become the U.S. of Europe under German leadership, a united European Continent." He added: "The liberals [will] be thrust out of their nefarious positions in all countries, whom they have driven to hostility for centuries." Also in 1940 came what would have been his mother's 100th birthday, of which he ironically wrote to a friend "Today the 100th birthday of my mother! No notice is taken! No 'Memorial Service' or... committee to remember her marvelous work for the... welfare of our German people... Nobody of the new generation knows anything about her." This sympathy for his mother is in sharp contrast to the intense animosity he expressed for her during most of her life.


Ferdinand 20funeral

Wilhelm II's funeral procession, Berlin

Wilhelm II died of a pulmonary embolus in Potsdam, Germany on June 3, 1941 at the age of 82, just days into the German counter-offensive into Eastern Germany and Poland. Despite his personal animosity toward Wilhelm, Hitler brought Wilhelm's body to Berlin for his state funeral, as Wilhelm was a symbol of Germany and Germans during World War I. His son Wilhelm III gave his first speech as Emperor as part of his eulogy. His death was not made knowledgeable to the Army for fear of a huge morale drop that could have endangered the upcoming offensives.

Marriage and issue


Wilhelm and his wife Augusta Viktoria

Wilhelm and his first wife, Princess Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein, were married on February 27, 1881. They had seven children:

  1. HI Emperor Wilhelm III (1882–1951). On June 6, 1905 he married Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (September 20, 1886 – May 6, 1954) in Berlin. Cecilie was the daughter of Frederick Francis III, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1851–1897) and Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna of Russia (1860–1922). They had six children. Their eldest son Prince Wilhelm of Prussia (1906–1940) was killed in World War II.
  2. HRH Prince Eitel Friedrich (1883–1942). On February 27, 1906 he married Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Oldenburg (February 2, 1879 Oldenburg, Germany – March 29, 1964 Westerstede, Germany) in Berlin, Germany. They were divorced October 20, 1926 and had no children.
  3. HRH Prince Adalbert (1884–1948). On August 3, 1914, he married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen (August 16, 1891 – April 25, 1971) in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. They had three children.
  4. HRH Prince August Wilhelm (1887–1949). On October 22, 1908, he married Princess Alexandra Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (April 21, 1887 Germany – April 15, 1957 France). They had one child.
  5. HRH Prince Oskar (1888–1958). On July 31, 1914, he married Countess Ina Marie von Bassewitz (January 27, 1888 – September 17, 1973). It was a morganatic marriage, so Ina-Marie was created Countess von Ruppin. In 1920, she and her children were granted the title Prince/ss of Prussia with the style Royal Highness. They had four children. His eldest son Prince Oskar Wilhelm Karl Hans Kuno of Prussia was killed in 1939 in World War II.
  6. HRM King Tomislav II (1890–1973). On March 11, 1916 he married Princess Marie-Auguste of Anhalt (June 10, 1898 – May 22, 1983). They had one son. Tomislav was his regnal name when he became King of Croatia in 1945, his birth name was Prince Joachim.
  7. HRH Princess Viktoria Luise (1892–1980). In 1913, she married Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick (1887–1953). They had five children.

Empress Augusta, known affectionately as "Dona", was a constant companion to Wilhelm, and her death on April 11, 1921 was a devastating blow.


Tellgmann - Kaiserin Hermine von Preussen, 1934

Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz was treated as a second wife after Augusta Viktoria died.

The following January, Wilhelm received a birthday greeting from a son of the late Prince Johann George Ludwig Ferdinand August Wilhelm of Schönaich-Carolath. The 63-year-old Wilhelm invited the boy and his mother, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, to Berlin. Wilhelm found Hermine very attractive, and greatly enjoyed her company. The couple wanted to marry, but the objections of the government and his children prevented it. Instead, they remained as close to a married couple as they could for the rest of his life. Hermine's daughter, Princess Henriette, married Prince Joachim's son, Karl Franz Josef, in 1940, but divorced him in 1946. Hermine remained a constant companion to the aging Emperor until his death.

Titles and styles

Monarchical Styles of
German Emperor Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Coagermany au
Reference style His Imperial and Royal Majesty
Spoken style Your Imperial and Royal Majesty
Alternative style Sire
[[Category:People (Central Victory
Wilhelm II, German Emperor
Born: January 27 1859 Died: June 4 1941
Royal titles
Preceded by:
Friedrich III
German Emperor
1888 – 1941
Succeeded by:
Wilhelm III
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