Arrogant, extremely vain, and always seeking praise, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany enjoyed a life of frivolity. His former chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once remarked that the Kaiser would have liked every day to be his birthday.
Wilhelm II, King George V of Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were all cousins. George and Wilhelm were both grandsons of Queen Victoria, and Nicholas’s wife, the Empress Alexandra, was Victoria’s granddaughter. They met, as a threesome, only twice. Winston Churchill described Wilhelm as a ‘very ordinary, vain but on the whole a well-meaning man’. Queen Victoria’s judgement was somewhat harsher, calling her grandson ‘such a hot-headed, conceited and wrong-headed young man’.
Much to Wilhelm’s delight, however, Victoria made him an honorary admiral of the Royal Navy. Gushing with thanks, Wilhelm promised he would always take an interest in Britain’s fleet as if it was his own.
Born on 27 January 1859 with a paralyzed left arm, considerably shorter than the right, Wilhelm needed help with eating and dressing throughout his life, and went to great lengths to hide his disability. He had, for example, a specially made fork to help him with his food. He owned over 30 castles throughout Germany and would visit them all occasionally, indulging in socialising and hunting – he was capable of killing a thousand or more animals in the course of a week-end’s hunt.
A lover of all things military and a collector of uniforms (he owned 600, many he designed himself), Wilhelm’s knowledge of military matters was little more than that of an over-enthusiastic schoolchild. His knowledge of political matters was equally shallow, having neither the enthusiasm or attention-span to read lengthy or detailed reports.
Wilhelm’s power, he firmly believed, was God-given. Any criticism of him or his policies was, in effect, an act of blasphemy. Germany, he said, ‘must follow me wherever I go.’
The Kaiser’s War
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a member of a Serbian terrorist group, had given Austria-Hungary the opportunity to assert its authority over Serbia. But first it sought reassurance from its powerful ally, Germany. Wilhelm II gave Austria-Hungary the assurance it needed then promptly went off on a cruise around Norway. By the time he returned from holiday, the whole of Europe was teetering on the edge of war.
During the First World War, Wilhelm’s role became increasingly insignificant as his ministers and generals bypassed him totally. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (pictured) and General Erich Ludendorff, especially, became de facto rulers of the country.
From the early autumn of 1918, it became increasingly apparent that Germany was never going to win the war. Ludendorff wanted to accept US president, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points – Wilson’s blueprint for a post-war peace that would avoid overly-punitive terms on a vanquished Germany. But Wilson was demanding democracy. On 3 October, again, on Ludendorff’s urging, Wilhelm appointed the liberal Prince Maximilian of Baden Chancellor of Germany. But the Wilhelm’s nod towards parliamentary democracy was not enough for the US president – he demanded the Kaiser’s abdication.
In November 1918, Hindenburg and Wilhelm Groener (Ludendorff’s replacement) went to see Wilhelm, who had bolted to army headquarters in the Belgium town of Spa. Hindenburg, the monarchist, bowed his head in shame and left Groener to do the talking.
Wilhelm remained defiant until the news came through – in Berlin, Prince Max had proclaimed a socialist republic – the new Germany had no room for a monarch. Thus, on 10 November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. The 500-year rule of the Hohenzollern dynasty had come to an end. Wilhelm fled to the Netherlands and into exile, never again to step on German soil.
The following day at 5 am, Paris time, the Western Front armistice was signed and came into effect six hours later at 11 am. War was over.
Following the war and his forced abdication, the ex-kaiser lived in exile in the Dutch town of Doorn. Cousin King George V described him as ‘the greatest criminal in history’. The Dutch queen, Queen Wilhelmina, declined ever to meet the fallen kaiser but when the Paris Peace Conference requested Wilhelm’s extradition to face trial for war crimes, she refused to hand him over. (Pictured, Wilhelm in exile, 1933).
In 1940, with Hitler’s armies bearing down on the Netherlands, the Dutch royal family fled to Britain. Wilhelm however did not, even refusing Winston Churchill’s offer of asylum. In fact, Wilhelm rather admired what Hitler was doing and supported the ‘elimination of the British and the Jews’ from Europe, adding, ‘The Jews [are] being thrust out of their nefarious positions in all countries’. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Wilhelm sent Hitler a telegram in which he wrote, ‘Congratulations, you have won using my troops’. Hitler was unimpressed.
Wilhelm was content to continue living in the Netherlands, under German occupation, believing that the Nazis would restore the monarchy and the kaiser to his throne. Of course they did not, and the 82-year-old embittered private citizen, once a kaiser, died the following year on 4 June 1941. Hitler, despite his animosity towards Wilhelm, wanted to give the old kaiser a state funeral in Berlin but was unable to override Wilhelm’s wishes that his body should not be returned to Germany until the monarchy was restored. However, another of Wilhelm’s stipulations, that there should be no Nazi regalia at his funeral, was ignored and his funeral was adorned with swastikas.
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