Life of the Week: Kaiser Wilhelm II
Wilhelm II ruled Germany and Prussia for 30 years. Here, we explore his life...
Born: 27 January 1859 in the Crown Prince’s Palace, Berlin, Prussia
Died: 4 June 1941 in Doorn, Netherlands
Remembered for: Being the last German kaiser and king of Prussia, and one of the most prominent figures of the First World War.
Family: Wilhelm’s father was Frederick III, who was briefly the kaiser of Germany and king of Prussia (Wilhelm’s grandfather, Wilhelm I, ruled between January 1871–March 1888). His mother was Victoria, the eldest daughter of British Queen Victoria.
In 1881 Wilhelm married his second cousin, Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, with whom he had seven children. Augusta died in 1921, and the following year Wilhelm married Hermine Reuss of Greiz.
His life: Wilhelm was born in 1859. It was a difficult birth, during which Wilhelm sustained nerve damage that left one of his arms permanently paralysed – a condition that he attempted to conceal throughout his life.
‘Treatments’ to which Wilhelm was subjected during his childhood included electrotherapy and having a dead hare wrapped around his arm. It was thought that these may ‘cure’ him of his condition.
In 1874 he began his schooling at the Kassel Gymnasium, and in 1877 he went on to attend the University of Bonn for four terms, where he studied politics and law.
To mark his 18th birthday, Wilhelm was invested with the Order of the Garter by his grandmother, Queen Victoria, of whom he was extremely fond.
On 15 June 1888 Wilhelm’s father died of cancer of the larynx, having ruled for just 99 days. At 29 years old, Wilhelm became emperor of Germany.
During his rule, Wilhelm was determined to expand Germany’s power. He set out to improve the country’s economy and create a naval force that could rival that of the British Royal Navy, which was one of the leading naval fleets in the world.
Members of Europe’s royal families, c1894 - Back row, right to left: Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), Wilhelm II, Duke Alfred of Coburg, Prince Arthur (Duke of Connaught). Front row, left to right: - Queen Victoria, and Empress Frederick (previously Princess Victoria). Photo by J Russell & Sons. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In 1890 Wilhelm forced the chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to resign and he took control of Germany’s foreign and domestic policies.
Throughout his reign, Wilhelm encouraged the development of the arts and sciences, and was determined to improve Germany’s social welfare and the standards of its schools. In 1911 he established the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which became a prominent centre for scientific research.
In 1896 Wilhelm antagonised Britain when he congratulated Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic, on his success in defeating the British troops that had attempted to raid a South African territory.
Tensions were further heightened in 1908 when Wilhelm, in an interview in The Daily Telegraph, suggested that a proportion of the German population was ‘anti-English’. Around this time his relationship with his extended family deteriorated. He reputedly resented his uncle, King Edward VII, and his relationship with his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, also became strained.
After a Serbian rebel assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on 28 June 1914, Wilhelm encouraged Austria-Hungary to retaliate against Serbia. But, as countries across Europe became embroiled in the First World War, German military generals excluded Wilhelm from key decisions and he became merely a figurehead for the German army.
More like this
After the US joined the war in 1917, the Allied Powers (including Britain) began to make significant gains. After years of continuous fighting, by 1918 Germany was experiencing serious shortages of troops and ammunition.
In 1918 rumours spread that Germany was planning to surrender to the Allies, and questions began to circulate about Wilhelm’s position in power.
On 9 November 1918, the German chancellor Prince Max von Baden preempted Wilhelm’s abdication and proclaimed publicly that Wilhelm had surrendered his powers. Wilhelm subsequently consented and officially abdicated his throne, fleeing to the Netherlands.
After the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, officially ending the war, the Allies attempted to force the Dutch government to extradite Wilhelm, to be tried as a war criminal. The Dutch government refused, instead allowing him to remain in exile in the Netherlands.
While in exile, Wilhelm wrote two memoirs: Memoirs, 1878–1918 (1922) and My Early Life (1926).
With the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the early 1930s, rumours spread that Wilhelm might be invited back to Germany to retake his throne, but these proved unfounded. He lived out the remainder of his life in the Dutch countryside.
On 4 June 1941 Wilhelm died of a pulmonary embolism in Doorn, aged 82.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99