Wilhelm II of Prussia and Germany, Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Hohenzollern (January 27, 1859 – June 5, 1941) was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and the last King (König) of Prussia from 1888 – 1918.
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, 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. (Franklin D. Roosevelt similarly and successfully concealed the fact that he was wheelchair-bound, while Eamon de Valera when President of Ireland concealed his own almost total blindness by ‘pretending’ to see!)
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 approach certainly marred German policy under his leadership, most notably in his dismissal of his cautious chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, while he had a strikingly poor relationship with his mother. (See also the entry on the German pacifist Ludwig Quidde, who already in 1894 accused Wilhelm of being a megalomaniac.)
Wilhelm was educated at Kassel Gymnasium 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.
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-Schillingsfurst in 1894. He was followed by Prince Bernhard von Bülow 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.
The Kaiser’s abdication was announced by Max von Baden on November 9, 1918. Wilhelm went into exile in the Netherlands. The Dutch Queen Wilhelmina refused to extradite Wilhelm as a war criminal. He 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 but this did not come about.
Kaiser Wilhelm II died 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, Netherlands.