Wilhelm was born on January 27th, 1859 in Berlin, Germany. Wilhelm suffered a traumatic "Breech Birth", which left him with a withered left arm due to Erb's palsy. It has been suggested by some historians that growing up with this disability affected Wilhelm's emotional stability. Indeed, in many photos taken in his later life, he tried to make his arm appear longer by holding gloves in it during photos and resting it on the hilt of his sword to give the impression that the limb was merely being rested on a dignified angle.
Wilhelm was the son of Crown Prince Frederick (future Frederick III) and his wife, Victoria, the royal princess of the United Kingdom. He was the first grandchild of Victoria, queen of England, and hence 6th in the line of British Succession. He was also 2nd in the Prussian line of succession, on his father's side.
Starting at the age of six, was tutored by the 39-year old teacher Georg Hinzpeter. It has been stated that this instructor never offered one word of praise for the young prince's efforts. As a teenager, he was educated at Kassal, at the Friedrichgymnasium and the University of Bonn, where he became a member of the Corps Borussia Bonn. Wilhelm possessed a quick intelligence, but unfortunately this was often overshadowed by his cantankerous temper. Wilhelm took an interest in science and technology at this age, but although he liked to pose in conversation as a man of the world, he remained convinced that he belonged to a distinct order of mankind, designated for monarchy by the grace of god. Wilhelm was accused of megalomania as early as 1892, by the Portuguese man of letters Eca de Queiroz, then in 1894 by the German pacifist Ludwig Quidde.
As a scion of the Royal house of Hohenzollern, Wilhelm was also exposed from an early age to the military society of the Prussian aristocracy. This had a major impact on him and, in maturity, he would rarely be seen out of his military uniform. The hyper-masculine military culture of Prussia in this period did much to frame Wilhelm's political ideas as well as his 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 he was raised; close emotional contact between father and son was not encouraged. Later, as he came into contact with his father's political opponents, Wilhelm took on a more ambivalent view of his father, given the perceived influence of his mother over a figure who should have been possessed of masculine independence and strength. Wilhelm also idiolised his grandfather, Wilhelm I, even attempting to foster a cult of the first German Emperor as "Wilhelm the Great".
In many ways, Wilhelm was a victim of his inheritance and the machinations of Otto von Bismarck. Both sides of his family had suffered from mental illness, and this may have explained his emotional instability. The Emperor's parents, Frederick and Victoria, where great admirers of the Prince Consort of the United Kingdom, Prince Albert, who was Victoria's father. They planned to rule as consorts, like Albert and Queen Victoria, and they planned to reform the fatal flaws in the executive branch that Bismarck has created for himself. The office of the Chancellor responsible to the Emperor would be replaced by a British-style cabinet, with ministers responsible to the Reichstag. Government policy would be based on the consensus of the cabinet. Frederick was of the opinion that the Imperial constitution was "ingeniously contrived chaos".
When Wilhelm was in his early twenties, Bismarck tried to separate him from his liberal parents 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. After Frederick's death in 1888 In an outburst in April 1889, which Empress Victoria conveyed to her mother, Queen Victoria, 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.
After his father's death, Wilhelm succeeded him as German Emperor and King of Prussia. Although in his youth he had been a great admirer of Bismarck, Wilhelm's characteristic impatience soon brought him into conflict with the "Iron Chancellor", the dominant political figure in the foundation of the Empire. The new Emperor opposed the Chancellor's careful foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to protect Germany's "place in the sun". Furthermore, Wilhelm was under the impression that he was to rule as well as reign, unlike his grandfather who had been content to let Bismarck handle the day-to-day administration of the Empire.
Split with Bismarck
Early tensions quickly poisoned Wilhelm's relationship with his Chancellor. Bismarck believed that Wilhelm was a lightweight who could be dominated, and showed scant respect for the Emperor's policies in the late 1880s.
It was during this time that Bismarck, after gaining an absolute majority in support 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, favoured making the law permanent, with one exception; the police power to expel socialists from their homes. This power had been used excessively at times against political opponents, and the National Liberal Party was unwilling to make the expulsion clause permanent. Bismarck would not give his assent to a modified bill, so the Kartell split on the issue. The Conservatives would not pass a modified bill, and threatened to veto the bill entirely, which they eventually did.
As the debate continued, Wilhelm became increasingly interested in social problems, especially the treatment of mine workers who went on strike in 1989. Following his policy of active involvement in the government, he routinely interrupted Bismarck in council to make clear where he stood on social policy. Even though Wilhelm supported the altered anti-socialist bill, Bismarck pushed him to support the veto of the bill in its entirety, but when Bismarck's arguments failed to persuade the Kaiser, he became excited and agitated until uncharacteristically he blurted out his motive for having the bill fail: he wanted the socialists to agitate until a violent clash occurred that could be used as a pretext to crush them. Wilhelm replied that he was unwilling to open his reign with a bloody campaign on 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.
Despite this, a turn of events led to Bismarck's increased distance from the emperor. Bismarck, feeling pressured and unappreciated by Wilhelm and undermined by ambitious advisers, refused to sign a proclamations regarding the protection of the 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 Continental labor council that Wilhelm held so dear. The final break came when Bismarck attempted to secure another majority in the Reichstag, as his Kartell had been voted out after the anti-socialist fiasco. The remaining powers in the Reichstag where the Conservative Party and the Catholic Centre Party. Bismarck desired to form a new bloc with the Centre Party, and invited Ludwig Windthorst, the party's parliamentary leader, to discuss an alliance. This would be Bismarck's last political maneuver. Wilhelm was furious to learn of Winthorst's visit. In a parliamentary state, the head of government depends on the confidence of the parliamentary majority, and certainly has the right to form coalitions to ensure his policies a majority, but in Germany, the Chancellor depended on the confidence of the Emperor alone, and Wilhelm believed that as emperor he had a right to be informed before his minister's meeting. After a heated argument in Bismarck's estate over Imperial authority, Wilhelm stormed out, both parting ways permanently. 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 would only be made public after Bismarck's death. When Bismarck realised his dismissal was imminent, he utilised all the resources at his disposal, even going so far as to ask Wilhelm's mother, Victoria, to use her influence over her son on his behalf. However, "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 met his downfall]". With what must have been a mixture of pity and triumph, Victoria told him that her influence over her son could not save him as he himself had destroyed it.
After Bismarck's forced resignation, Wilhelm was forced to find another Chancellor in the name of national stability. Leo von Caprivi took the post immediately after Bismarck's resignation, only to be replaced by Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfurst in 1894. Apparently, Wilhelm had had enough of "Iron Chancellors". The replacements he supported where senior civil servants, but not seasoned politicians. Thus, more and more of German power winded up in the Kaisers hands for the first time in history.
In 1900, Wilhelm appointed yet another Chancellor, Bernhard von Bulow. Bulow was a tougher chancellor then the previous ones, but Wilhelm was no aiming for complete control of German domestic policy. Ensuring that Bulow would roughly follow Wilhelm's general plan, he began to focus more on foreign policy.
Foreign policy under Wilhelm suffered several serious problems. Wilhelm's impatient and impulsiveness quickly alienated members of the Triple Entente. However, he continued Germany's alliance with the Central Powers. In particular, relations with Britain almost collapsed. Wilhelm's reaction to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, particularly a speech he gave to the German troops leaving to suppress the Chinese revolt, would be used as propaganda against him years later.
This attitude towards foreign affairs came to a disastrous climax when the Emperor visited Morocco in 1905. The visit was seen by the international community as confirmation of Germany's interest in Morocco. Furthermore, Wilhelm confirmed that he was in support of Moroccan independence, something which alienated the French, who were at the time expanding their colonial interests in Morocco. This eventually led to the Algeciras Conference, which solidified the alliance between Britain and France, further isolating Germany from Europe.
The Kaiser's public approval hit an all time low in 1908, when Wilhelm agreed to an interview in the Daily Telegraph, a British Newspaper. Wilhelm intended to use the opportunity to promote an Anglo-German friendship. However, the interview backfired on him. Wilhelm was, again, unable to control his temper during the interview, and made several remarks, including the infamous "You British are mad, mad, mad as March hares". The British people, already alienated by Wilhelm, grew furious at the German Emperor. Public calls for his resignation where made. Wilhelm responded to the crisis by firing Bulow, claiming that he had failed to protect his reputation from the public.
The Daily Telegraph affair deeply wounded Wilhelm's previously unimpaired self-confidence, so much that he soon suffered a bout of depression, from which some say he never recovered. Indeed, photographs of Wilhelm in later times show him with gray hair and a more "frazzled" appearance. He withdrew from foreign policy, having lost much of the authority he had gained deposing Bismarck.
Wilhelm then moved on to his next project, building up the German fleet. Wilhelm had always been a great admirer of the British Royal Navy, at the time the largest and most powerful in the world. Wilhelm was quite frustrated at his fleet's poor showing at his Grandmother's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, combined with his inability to exert German influence in South Africa, and was determined to create a navy that would rival his British cousin's. Wilhelm was fortunate to be able to call on the services of dynamic naval officer Alfred von Tirpitz, whom he had appointed head of the naval office in 1907. One of the ideas the admiral had informed the emperor of, the "Tirpitz Plan", convinced Wilhelm that a strong German naval presence in the Black Sea would be enough to force Britain to avoid war with Germany, at the time considered a growing threat. This new fleet would enter service shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.
At the beginning of the Sarajevo Crisis, Wilhelm was determined to support Austria-Hungary against Serbia. Franz Ferdinand had been a personal friend of his, dating back to when Wilhelm supported his marriage to Sophie Chotek, which was opposed by the Austrian emperor. Wilhelm wanted revenge on Serbia for what he saw as a unprovoked attack on his ally. Efforts where made by his Chancellor to keep Wilhelm out of Berlin during the crisis, mostly so that the Emperor's famous impulsiveness and impatience wouldn't disturb negotiations with Serbia. Meanwhile, Wilhelm went on a cruise in the North Sea. He made numerous attempts to stay on top of the situation via telegram. Upon hearing of the Austria-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, Wilhelm rushed back to Berlin. He was in favour of war against Serbia, though he believed that Russia, France and Britain would use the situation to attack Germany. He joined Austria in its war.
When it became clear that Britain would join the war if Germany invaded France through Belgium, Wilhelm panickedly attempted to redirect his troops against Russia. However, his advisers told him that this was not possible. If Wilhelm had succeeded in this aim, the outcome of the war might have been much different.
The role of wartime leader proved too much for Wilhelm. He was already suffering from much stress, not to mention he lacked almost any military ability. As the war progress, his influence receded and more and more he began to rely on his Generals. This continued to the extent that by 1916 Germany was effectively a military dictatorship, under the command of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Increasingly cut of from reality, Wilhelm rapidly vacillated between defeatism and dreams of victory. He remained useful as a figurehead, touring arms production facilities, giving medals and making inspirational speeches. However, he still retained ultimate power in terms of political appointment, and it was only by his consent that several changes to the German high command could be made.
Wilhelm attempted to negotiate peace with the allies, mediated by the United States, in 1916, declaring that the Germans had already achieved victory. These negotiations ultimately failed. Upon hearing that his cousin George V had changed the name of the British Royal House to Windsor, the Kaiser remarked that he was eager to see the play "The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha", a jibe aimed at the British royals.
Upon hearing that Tsar Nicholas II had been deposed in Russia, Wilhelm arranged for exiled Russian Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to travel back to Russia. It was hoped at the time that Lenin would destabilize Russia further. The plan appeared to work when Lenin used the arms given to the Bolsheviks to fight the renegade Russian General Lavr Kornilov in a rebellion against Alexander Kerensky. However, this ultimately allowed Kornilov to capture Petrograd. Russia was temporarily removed from the war as the Tsar-General attempted to consolidate his new regime. As a result, large numbers of German troops were transferred to the Western front.
This move turned disastrous. Kornilov took much less time fighting the Russian Civil War then expected. Believing that Russia was committed to finishing the war, Kornilov turned his attention to the now scarcely occupied German border. His forces quickly captured several German cities in disastrous routes, and were in a position to besiege Berlin itself by early November, 1918.
During the final attack on Berlin, Wilhelm refused to flee, unlike many other German officials. Wilhelm was determined to martyr himself, should the proud German people fall. On November 11th, Wilhelm was finally captured by Russian troops. On the orders of Kornilov, he was shot and his carcass hanged in Berlin to destroy already fractured German morale.
Kaiser Wilhelm II's life saw many changes:
- The Central Powers where removed as a power in Europe.
- Almost all of Germany's remaining allies, with the exception of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, where destroyed.
- The German Empire was removed from power, and a puppet regime set up by Kornilov's Great Russia.