Last German Emperor and King of Prussia
Wilhelm II was the third and final Kaiser of Germany, losing his throne as a consequence of defeat in World War One
An Unhappy Youth Turned Emperor of Germany
Wilhelm Hohenzollen was born on the 27th May 1859; he was the eldest son of the future German Kaiser and King of Prussia Frederick III and his English mother Victoria. Wilhelm was thus the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland, the nephew of Edward VII, and the cousin of George V. The young Prince Wilhelm was unfortunately born with a withered hand, and he was always self – conscious of this physical disfigurement. Wilhelm’s discomfort with his withered arm made him a difficult person to predict or to understand, and frequently prone to bouts of bad temper. Wilhelm was also careful to hide his disfigurement in photographs as well as during public appearances, which usually saw him dressed in military or naval uniforms.
He was brought up and educated to fulfil the role of the King of Prussia, as Germany did not become a unified country until Prussia’s stunning victory in the Franco – Prussian War of-1870 - 1871. After German unification the country was ably government by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the mastermind of that unification in the first place. Wilhelm’s father became King of Prussia and German Kaiser in 1888 but he was already terminally ill by that stage, meaning that Wilhelm did not have to wait long to inherit those positions.
The unification of Germany under the auspices of Prussian military power meant that the young Wilhelm was destined to rule over one of the most powerful and wealthiest nation states in the world, yet ultimately lead that country to disastrous military defeat in 1918. Wilhelm’s decision to dismiss the long – serving Bismarck was in retrospect a serious error of political judgement made worse by subsequent defence, foreign, and naval policies. Despite his dynastic and personal links to the United Kingdom Wilhelm pursued policies that drove the British and the Russians into forming an alliance with France that proved to be the key to Germany’s defeat in World War One.
Militarism, Naval Arms Race, War, and Foreign Exile
After the dismissal of Bismarck Wilhelm decided to build up a German navy from scratch, grab colonies in Africa and Asia, and form alliances with Austria – Hungary and Italy, a combination of policies that inadvertently contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914. Bismarck had always attempted and succeeded in maintaining friendly relations with Great Britain and Russia to keep France isolated. Wilhelm had always been an admirer of the British Royal Navy so was determined to create a German navy that was capable of challenging British naval supremacy under the guidance of Admiral Tirpitz. The Anglo – German naval arms race proved to be highly expensive for both countries, and as it pushed Great Britain towards an alliance with France and Russia it tipped the balance against Germany in World War One damaging to the latter’s chance of victory.
In June 1914 the decision of Wilhelm’s government to back Austria – Hungary unconditionally ended up been a very unwise one. German military plans involving the rapid invasion of France via neutral Belgium were carried out yet failed to win the war quickly. Having to fight a war upon two fronts combined with the highly effective Royal Navy blockade meant that Germany was severely weakened. The expensively assembled German navy could not break British naval supremacy at Jutland in 1916 whilst the bloody battles at Verdun and the Somme continued the stalemate on the Eastern Front. Wilhelm lost authority to the German military commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff whose failed Spring Offensive led to the Americans, British / Empire, and French forces advancing towards Germany. In November 1918 Wilhelm fled into exile in the Netherlands, where he remained until his death in 1941.
Clarke C, (2006) Iron Kingdom – The Rise and Fall of Prussia 1600 - 1947, Penguin, London
Hobsbawm E, (1994) Age of Extremes, the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London
Palmowski J, (2008) Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary World History, Oxford
Roberts J.M, (1996) A History of Europe, Penguin, London