Who Was Kaiser Wilhelm?

Alex Browne

2 mins

16 Nov 2018

Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen was born 27 January 1859 in Berlin, then the capital of Prussia. He was also the first grandchild of Queen Victoria making him a cousin of George V of Britain and Empress Alexandra of Russia.

Due to a difficult birth Wilhelm’s left arm was paralysed and shorter than his right. Some have argued that the stigma surrounding disability, especially in a monarch, impacted on Wilhelm’s personality.

Prussia led the way in the formation of the German Empire in 1871. Only 12 years old at the time this instilled Wilhelm with an enthusiastic Prussian patriotism. His teachers noted he was a clever child but impulsive and bad tempered.

Early life

Wilhelm with his father, in Highland dress, in 1862.

On 27 February 1881 Wilhelm was married to Augusta-Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein with whom he would have 7 children. In March 1888 Wilhelm’s father Frederick, already gravely ill, acceded to the imperial throne following the death of his father, the 90 year old Wilhelm I.

Within months Frederick too had died and on 15 June 1888 Wilhelm became became Kaiser.

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Rule

Wilhelm, retaining his childhood impulsiveness, broke with Otto von Bismark the man who was to a large degree responsible for the formation of the Empire. Thereafter he embarked upon a period of personal rule, the results of which were mixed at best.

His interference with foreign policy based on personal whims frustrated diplomats and politicians. This meddling was worsened by a number of public blunders, in the 1908 Daily Telegraph affair he made remarks about the British which were seen to be offensive in an interview with the paper.

The Nine Sovereigns at Windsor for the funeral of King Edward VII, photographed on 20 May 1910. Wilhelm is pictured in the centre, standing directly behind King George V of the United Kingdom, who is seated in the centre.

State of mind

Historians have expressed an interest in the state of mind of Kaiser Wilhelm in the build up to war. It has been suggested that, in addition to his difficult upbringing, his ambivalent record as a ruler depressed him.

He had a close friendship with Franz Ferdinand and seemed to place a high importance on his familial relations with other rulers.

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War and abdication

Kaiser Wilhelm had only a minimal role in the war and acted foremost as a symbolic head for the German people. From 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff effectively ruled Germany until the end of the war.

Following Germany’s defeat Wilhelm abdicated; the decision was announced on 28 November 1918. After that he  moved to Doorn in the Netherlands. He died on 4 June 1941 at the age of 82 and was buried in Doorn, having expressed that he should only be buried back in Germany when they had restored the monarchy.

To this day, his body thus remains in a small, humble church in Belgium – a site of pilgrimage for German monarchists.