Wilhelm II (1859-1941), the German kaiser (emperor) and king of Prussia from 1888 to 1918, was one of the most recognizable public figures of World War I (1914-18). He gained a reputation as a swaggering militarist through his speeches and ill-advised newspaper interviews. While Wilhelm did not actively seek war, and tried to hold back his generals from mobilizing the German army in the summer of 1914, his verbal outbursts and his open enjoyment of the title of Supreme War Lord helped bolster the case of those who blamed him for the conflict. His role in the conduct of the war as well as his responsibility for its outbreak is still controversial.

Some historians maintain that Wilhelm was controlled by his generals, while others argue that he retained considerable political power. In late 1918, he was forced to abdicate. He spent the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands, where he died at age 82.

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Early Years

Kaiser Wilhelm II was born in Potsdam, Germany, on January 27, 1859, the son of Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia (1831-88) and Princess Victoria (1840-1901), the oldest daughter of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). The future monarch was the queen’s firstborn grandchild and was genuinely fond of her; in fact, he was holding her in his arms when she died. His ties to Britain through its royal family would play an important part in his later political maneuvering.

Did you know? Kaiser Wilhelm II was reportedly amused when he heard his cousin King George V (1865-1936) had changed the name of the British royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in 1917 as a result of anti-German sentiment in Britain during World War I.

Wilhelm’s childhood was shaped by two events, one medical and one political. His birth had been traumatic; in the course of a complicated delivery, the doctor permanently damaged Wilhelm’s left arm. In addition to its smaller size, the arm was useless for such ordinary tasks as cutting certain foods with a knife at mealtime.

The political event that shaped Wilhelm was the formation of the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia in 1871. Wilhelm was now second in line after his father to become an emperor as well as king of Prussia. Twelve years old at the time, Wilhelm was filled with nationalistic enthusiasm. His later determination to win a “place in the sun” for Germany had its roots in his childhood.

An intelligent young man who possessed a lifelong interest in science and technology, Wilhelm was educated at the University of Bonn. His quick mind, however, was combined with an even quicker temper and an impulsive, high-strung personality. He had dysfunctional relationships with both parents, particularly his English mother. Historians still debate the effects of the kaiser’s complicated psychological makeup on his political decisions.

In 1881, Wilhelm married Princess Augusta Victoria (1858-1921) of Schleswig-Holstein. The couple would go on to have seven children.

Emperor and King: 1888

Wilhelm’s father became Kaiser Frederick III of Germany in March 1888. Already ill with terminal throat cancer, he died after a reign of only several months. Wilhelm succeeded his father on June 15, 1888, at the age of 29. Within two years of his coronation, Wilhelm broke with Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), the “Iron Chancellor” who had dominated German politics since the 1860s. The kaiser embarked on his so-called New Course, a period of personal rule in which he appointed chancellors who were upper-level civil servants rather than statesmen. Bismarck bitterly predicted that Wilhelm would lead Germany to ruin.

Wilhelm damaged his political position in a number of ways. He meddled in German foreign policy on the basis of his emotions, resulting in incoherence and inconsistency in German relations with other nations. He also made a number of public blunders, the worst of which was The Daily Telegraph affair of 1908. Wilhelm gave an interview to the London-based newspaper in which he offended the British by saying such things as: “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares.” The kaiser had already been hurt politically in 1907 by the Eulenburg-Harden affair, in which members of his circle of friends were accused of being homosexuals. Although there is no evidence that Wilhelm was gay–in addition to his seven children with his first wife, he was rumored to have several illegitimate offspring–the scandal was used by his political opponents to weaken his influence.

Wilhelm’s most important contribution to Germany’s prewar military expansion was his commitment to creating a navy to rival Britain’s. His childhood visits to his British cousins had given him a love for the sea–sailing was one of his favorite recreations–and his envy of the power of the British navy convinced him that Germany must build a large fleet of its own in order to fulfill its destiny. The kaiser supported the plans of Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930), his chief admiral, who maintained that Germany could gain diplomatic power over Britain by stationing a fleet of warships in the North Sea. By 1914, however, the naval buildup had caused severe financial problems for Wilhelm’s government.

HISTORY Vault: World War I Documentaries

Stream World War I videos commercial-free in HISTORY Vault.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and World War I

Wilhelm’s behavior during the crisis that led to war in August 1914 is still controversial. There is little doubt that he had been broken psychologically by the criticism that followed the Eulenburg-Harden and Daily Telegraph scandals; he suffered an episode of depression in 1908. In addition, the kaiser was out of touch with the realities of international politics in 1914; he thought that his blood relationships to other European monarchs were sufficient to manage the crisis that followed the June 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Although Wilhelm signed the order for German mobilization following pressure from his generals–Germany declared war against Russia and France during the first week of August 1914– he is reported to have said, “You will regret this, gentlemen.”

With World War I under way, the kaiser, as commander in chief of the German armed forces, retained the power to make upper-level changes in military command. Nonetheless, he was largely a shadow monarch during the war, useful to his generals as a public-relations figure who toured the front lines and handed out medals. After 1916, Germany was, in effect, a military dictatorship dominated by two generals, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) and Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937).

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Years of Exile

In late 1918, popular unrest in Germany (which had suffered greatly during the war) combined with a naval mutiny convinced civilian political leaders that the kaiser had to abdicate to preserve order. In fact, Wilhelm’s abdication was announced on November 9, 1918, before he had actually consented to it. He agreed to leave when the leaders of the army told him he had lost their support as well. On November 10, the former emperor took a train across the border into the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the war. He eventually bought a manor house in the town of Doorn, and remained there for the remainder of his life.

Although the Allies wanted to punish Wilhelm as a war criminal, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (1880-1962) refused to extradite him. His last years were darkened by the death of his first wife and the suicide of his youngest son in 1920. He did, however, make a happy second marriage in 1922. His new wife, Hermine Reuss (1887-1947), actively petitioned German leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) in the early 1930s to restore the monarchy, but nothing ever came of her negotiations. Hitler despised the man he held responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I, and Wilhelm was shocked by the Nazis’ thuggish tactics. In 1938, Wilhelm remarked that for the first time he was ashamed to be a German. After two decades in exile, he died in the Netherlands on June 4, 1941, at the age of 82.