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Wilhelm II of Germany

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Wilhelm IIGerman Emperor and King of Prussia
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Wilhelm II
German Emperor and King of Prussia
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Kaiser Wilhelm II
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Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Augusta Viktoria

Wilhelm II of Prussia and Germany, Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert von Hohenzollern (January 27, 1859June 4, 1941) was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and the last King (Knig) of Prussia, ruling from 1888 to 1918. During World War I, he was known amongst his English speaking enemies as Kaiser Bill.

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Family background and early life

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Prince Wilhelm

He was born in Berlin to Crown Prince Friedrich and his wife, Britain's Princess Royal, Victoria. His mother was the aunt of Empress Alexandra (the wife of Tsar Nicholas II), and the sister of King Edward VII. Queen Victoria was his grandmother. A traumatic breech birth damaged him physically, leading to a withered left arm due to Erb's Palsy, which he tried with some success to conceal. (In the photograph opposite, for example, one hand is holding the withered one, concealing it. In many other photos he carries a pair of white gloves in his left hand to make the arm seem longer.)

Recent analyses of records of his birth in the former Imperial Archives have also suggested that he may have experienced some brain trauma, possibly leading to some brain damage. Historians are divided on whether such a mental incapacity may have contributed to his frequently aggressive, tactless, headstrong, and occasionally bullying approach to problems and people, which was evident in both his personal and political lives. Such an approach certainly marred German policy under his leadership, most notably in his dismissal of his cautious chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. He also had a strikingly poor relationship with his mother, and was accused of megalomania as early as 1894, by German pacifist Ludwig Quidde.

Wilhelm was educated at Kassel at the Friedrichsgymnasium and the University of Bonn. On the death of Wilhelm I on March 9 1888, his father was crowned Emperor as Friedrich III but he was dying of throat cancer, and in June that same year Wilhelm II succeeded him as Emperor.

Reign

His rule was noted for his militaristic push to assert German power. He sought to expand German colonial holdings, "a place in the sun". Under the Tirpitz Plan, through the Naval Bills of 1897 and 1900, the German navy was built up to contend with that of the United Kingdom. His personality and policies oscillated between antagonizing and amusing Britain, France, and Russia. He dismissed Otto von Bismarck in 1890 and abandoned the Chancellor's careful policies, replacing him with Leo Graf von Caprivi, who in turn was replaced by Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfrst in 1894. He was followed by Prince Bernhard von Blow in 1900 and Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg in 1909. All of these Chancellors were senior civil servants and not politicians like Bismarck. Wilhelm wanted to preclude the emergence of another Bismarck.

Despite his attitude it is difficult to say that he sought World War I, although he did little to halt it. He had allied with Austria-Hungary and encouraged their hard-line in the Balkans, and although he lost his nerve at the last minute it was too late, and he soon recovered to push his generals for great achievements. During the war he was Commander in Chief but he soon lost all control of German policy and his popularity plunged.

Abdication and life after 1918

After the explosion of the German Revolution, Wilhelm could not make up his mind to abdicate. Up to that point, he was confident that even if he were obliged to vacate the German throne, he would still retain the Prussian kingship. The unreality of this claim showed up when, for the sake of political unity, Wilhelm's abdication both as Kaiser of the German Empire and King of Prussia was abruptly announced by Chancellor Prince Max von Baden on November 9, 1918.

The very next day, Wilhelm went into exile in the Netherlands. The Dutch Queen Wilhelmina refused to extradite Wilhelm as a war criminal, despite numerous appeals from the Allies. (The Netherlands had remained neutral throughout the Great War.)

Wilhelm had married Augusta Viktoria, Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein, in 1881. They had seven children. Following her death, while living in exile, in 1922 he married Hermine von Schoenaich, the widowed Princess Reuss. During the 1930s, he had apparently harboured hopes that the Nazis would revive the monarchy (so long as the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, was willing to entertain such an illusion), but when this did not come about, his opinion of Hitler became very low.

After the German conquest of the Netherlands in 1940, Wilhelm retired completely from public life. Kaiser Wilhelm II died of pneumonia in Doorn on June 5, 1941 with the German occupiers on guard at the gates of his estate. He is buried in Huis Doorn, Doorn, in the Netherlands. Hitler granted him a small military funeral but allowed only a few lower-grade officers to attend; Wilhelm's wish that no swastikas be displayed during the service was not heeded.

Issue

Trivia

  • Wilhelm developed a penchant for archaeology during his vacations on Corfu during the first decade of the 20th Century, a passion he harbored even into his exile in Doorn. He also had a habit of sketching plans for grand buildings and battleships when he was bored, although experts in construction in both fields saw his ideas as grandiose and unworkable. One of Wilhelm's greatest passions was hunting, and he bagged thousands of animals, both beast and bird. While in exile, he also developed as hobby the cutting down of trees (the actual work was of course done by servants). It is said that during his years in Doorn he largely deforested his estate.
  • It is said that in the final years of his life, Wilhelm, despite his great dislike of Hitler, expressed some reserved admiration that the Fhrer managed to bring most of Europe under the German yoke; something the Kaiser's generals had failed to do some twenty years earlier. It is doubtful (and probably unlikely), however, that Wilhelm would have approved of the Nazi genocide, had he lived long enough to know about it.

Literature

  • Ludwig, Emil. Wilhelm Hohenzollern: The Last of the Kaisers. New York: Ames Press, 1970.
  • Macdonogh, Giles. The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.
  • Rhl, John C.G. The Kaiser's Personal Monarchy, 1888-1900. Cambridge University Press, August 2004.

External links


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