“I am the Supreme War Lord. I don’t decide, I command! In war, I will be my own Chief of Staff!” trumpeted boastful Kaiser Wilhelm II. The reality was far different, however.
On the winter afternoon of Jan. 27, 1859---amidst the firing of a 101-gun salute---Prussian Field Marshal Friedrich Graf (Count) von Wrangel threw open a window of the old Royal Palace on the Unter den Linden in Berlin and shouted to the expectant crowd assembled below, “Children, it is a Prince, and a stout recruit, too!”
Thus was born the future and last German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the man whom many historians continue to blame for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, although this harsh judgment has been more modified in recent decades. Notes author Robert G.L. Waite in his work Kaiser and Fuhrer, “Wilhelm had always been thrilled by the idea of warfare as a romantic abstraction and an exciting game. He loved to dress up and play soldier in any one of his 250 uniforms…Wilhelm was especially excited by war in far-off places. He urged the Tsar to fight the Japanese in Manchuria. He felt personally involved in the Boer War in South Africa and drew up plans for vicarious victories…The stark reality of battle was a totally different matter, and Wilhelm was heartsick at the deaths and suffering.”
The world today remembers him for the constant saber-rattling for the three decades of his reign, yet he declared himself to be the “Peace Kaiser” who’d maintained that state for the first quarter century of his rule, much to the chaffed chagrin of his Prussian officer corps that agreed with this self-assessment and wanted him to be more like Mars, the God of War. A play actor at heart, in reality, Wilhelm II wanted Napoleon’s victories without Bonaparte’s battles, yet was still buried in military uniform in exile at Doorn, Holland on June 5, 1941, where his remains rest today.
In school, the young Prince’s favorite subject was always history, and he was not much interested in any games that did not feature war in some form. In both pursuits, he was acutely aware that, as Bonaparte had asserted, “Prussia was a state hatched from a cannonball,” and that his mighty House of Hohenzollern had helped defeat Napoleonic France in the end, particularly at the Battle of Waterloo, where his grandfather---later Kaiser Wilhelm I---had seen action in 1815. His own father---Crown Prince Frederick (later Kaiser Frederick III)---had taken part in the glorious Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, was present at the creation of the German Reich or empire, and had been awarded a coveted Field Marshal’s baton for his valorous military service in a trio of Prussian wars that had helped unite Germany.
Wilhelm himself, in 1900, would receive his own unearned baton from the hands of the lesser German monarchs and his own sycophantic courtiers in Berlin; he was also an honorary British Field Marshal as well, since his mother was the former Princess Royal of Great Britain, the eldest child of the United Kingdom’s revered Queen Victoria, his grandmother. In fact, she died in his arms in 1901.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant at age 10 in the uniform of the 1st Foot Guards, Prince Wilhelm was also awarded the Order of the Black Eagle, and on May 2, 1869 he attended his first military parade. The following year, his father and grandfather went off to the last of Reich Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck’s fabled “wars of unification” that concluded with the German capture of Paris and the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles of the French “Sun King,” Louis XIV.
These were heady events for the young Prince, and he always believed that, if need be, he, too, would one day lead his troops on horseback down the broad boulevards of the French capital. It was not to be, however, although he did see the “City of Light” as a young student incognito, though.
The young officer reveled in the camaraderie of Army life and was then and later much influenced by the fellow officers he met during this period. A later Chief of his General Staff as Emperor--- Field Marshal Count Alfred von Waldersee---habitually had to bail out the Prince from his recurring indiscretions with prostitutes across Europe during this same time of male maturation.
He was no mental lightweight, however, and some thought that he might’ve become a successful journalist had he not been born and destined to reign as monarch over the Second German Reich. Indeed, he found time to read a 14-volume naval history that was the genesis of his creation of a German surface fleet that he felt would command greater respect from what he saw as a haughty British lion across the adjacent North Sea, as well as being an instrument to advance his far-reaching plans for an overseas German colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific.
Promoted to Captain at age 21, he was married to his first wife, the future Kaiserin Augusta Viktoria (nicknamed Dona) on Feb. 27, 1881, a marital union that lasted 40 years until her death. She bore him six sons (five soldiers and a sailor) and a daughter, whose memoirs are one of the best source books on the Wilhelminian Reich.
Named to the Hussars in 1882, Prince Wilhelm became a battalion commander in the 1st Foot Guards the following year, and in 1885 was being touted by his circle of toadying subordinates as a second Frederick the Great. The Iron Chancellor’s son, Prince Herbert von Bismarck, called him “Cold as a dog’s nose…heartless, superficial and vain,” a characterization shared by his own mother, and a reputation that seemed to be borne out over succeeding decades as he disposed of both friends and ministers one by one.
Unfortunately for history’s sake, his paternal grandfather forbade him to take a desired tour of British India, China, Australia, and the United States; had he been allowed to do so, he might have hesitated still more before becoming engaged in the First World War. On Jan. 27, 1888 instead, the aged Kaiser promoted his grandson to the rank of Major General, and, according to one of his more recent biographers, Giles Macdonough, “By 1898, William possessed three Austro-Hungarian regiments, three Russian, one British and one Portuguese; he was also an Admiral in the British, Swedish, and Danish Navies.
“Two whole rooms housed his uniforms. There were 300 German regimental uniforms alone, and that did not include colonelcies and Field Marshals’ kits from other countries, which he wore to receive guests on state visits,” as noted in The Last Kaiser, a superb work.
At the deaths of both his father and grandfather in 1888, Wilhelm became Kaiser at the age of 29, when his military household totaled 20 officers, which doubled by the final year of his reign, 1918.
States Macdonough, “The key positions were those of military and naval cabinet chiefs (the naval office was created only in 1889.) All of these reported to the Emperor alone, including his Chief of the General Staff.” Most of these officers were of the age-group of his father’s generation, and one---Army Gen. Hans von Plessen---had served all during 1864-1918 under all three Kaisers, from Wilhelm to William.
By 1890, however, former Wilhelm fan von Waldersee sourly noted that “His Majesty no longer has the slightest desire to work,” preferring constant travel, speechmaking, ribbon-cutting, reviews of parades and hunting instead. During 1886-1914, the Kaiser had five Imperial yachts in all, a train that shunted back and forth across Continental Europe, and a fleet of expensive Daimler and Benz touring cars.
Meanwhile, his Imperial Army consisted of 18 corps and a 30,000-man personal Guard (of which not a single member could be found in 1918 to protect him from Red revolutionaries as the Great War was lost.) Constantly afraid of the Red revolution that did, in fact, erupt, the Kaiser talked of having loopholes drilled in to the walls of his Berlin Palace to shoot down Socialists and others inimical to his rule. When it came in 1918, he was more than ready to personally lead the Army back from the defeat on the Western Front, only to be told by all his responsible ministers and generals that the Army would no longer follow him.
No one ever accused Wilhelm II of personal cowardice, though, and the unkindest cut of all came when the sailors of his own creation---the Imperial High Seas Battle Fleet---mutinied in their home ports and refused to make suicidal final sorties against the Royal Navy at war’s end.
His diplomacy has been roundly criticized by most historians, yet his two trips to Istanbul helped bring Turkey into the war as a German ally and then maintain her in the Central Powers alliance until the very end. If Wilhelm II is deserving of blame, he also must be given at least some of the credit for Germany’s successful war effort up until the crucial crisis year of 1918, and the Second Reich’s great domestic growth as well.
The man who thought that the best briefing was the shortest, believed that the Great War would inevitably come in 1916, not earlier as it did; he hoped instead to put it off until 1920, when he felt that his fleet would be built up enough to serve as a valid deterrent to that of his English cousins. At the Imperial War Council of Dec. 8, 1912---an event that some historians cite as “proof” that the Kaiser “plotted” the outbreak of the war---he was told by his military advisors that at all costs he must delay it until the summer of 1914, when the Kiel Canal would be finished, giving the Reich an internal opening by water to the North Sea.
Meanwhile, his generals and courtiers were becoming more and more aware that their Sovereign was not a man of decisiveness and resolve, no matter what the bellicose tenor of his public utterances. “When the situation gets critical,” said one (as noted in The Last Kaiser), “His Majesty can’t see it through.”
When war finally came, despite his protestations of ultimate victory, Wilhelm privately believed that it would be the ruination of his own reign and dynastic House as well. Thereafter, he shunted back and forth to his and the High Command’s various headquarters on both the Eastern and Western Fronts in his ornate cream-and-gold Imperial train attending briefings, inspecting troops, and handing out batches of Iron Crosses.
Ironically, the man who had proclaimed himself the “All-Highest” and the “Supreme War Lord” left the actual daily running of the war to the professional soldiers, deferring to their stolid judgment and intervening only on the occasions when they and his political statesmen could not resolve a particularly thorny issue, such as the start and stoppage of unrestricted U-boat submarine warfare against Allied and neutral maritime shipping. The Kaiser felt that in the end it would bring the United States into the war, and he turned out to be right.
A few days after the war began, Wilhelm visited the grave site of his father, who had died 25 years earlier of throat cancer. His Majesty had an ambivalence to the war from the very start. In March 1918, during the famed “Kaiser’s Battle” that was supposed to be a last-ditch attempt by the Reich to win the war on the Western Front, the Emperor had occasion to visit and talk with a group of British POW Tommies, one of whom later recalled that he “Had kindly features; he was benevolent, nothing like all the caricatures we had seen in the newspapers.
“He said, ‘There is no need for you to be ashamed of being prisoners.’ He congratulated us on the tremendous fight we had put up, but said, ‘My victorious troops are advancing everywhere and you will soon be home with your families once more.’”
On Aug. 8, 1918, he was informed bluntly by the High Command that the war was irretrievably lost and that---although there were no enemy troops yet on German soil---it was now time that peace talks begin. His Majesty agreed to this, fired Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff (whom he despised anyway) on Oct. 26th, and refused to give up his throne under pressure, asserting, “A successor to Frederick the Great does not abdicate!”
As the debate over this pressing question continued---on Nov. 4, 1918---Allied bombs fell near his train, prompting Wilhelm to call for its arming with machineguns. Recalling the example of his cousin Tsar Nicholas II’s murder by Red Army soldiers but a few months earlier, the Emperor mused aloud, “I have no desire to be strung up by some eager fellows!” and noted, too, that the Kaiserin was herself under armed Red Guard in Berlin. Might not she, too, be murdered, as had Tsarina Alexandra and all the other members of her family as well?
Later foes of the Kaiser would charge Wilhelm of having “run away” to neutral Holland at the moment of maximum crisis, but who could blame him? Too, like Napoleon in 1814 and again in 1815, he was anxious to avoid a bloody civil war at home, which as an amateur historian he knew full well had occurred in France in 1871 after the fall of Napoleon III when “Willy” was but a boy.
Thus, he took perhaps the most controversial decision of his life and abdicated, but only after this had been officially and prematurely announced for him by the Social Democratic Party in the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin; in any event, a Red-White civil war ensued anyway, one that was brutally suppressed in the end by the forces of the right and the new German republic in an uneasy and fragile alliance that would collapse at last in 1933 with the advent of the Nazi Party.
After the war, the former Emperor blamed the Jews, Social Democrats, Communists, and the home front in general for the loss of the war, while castigating Great Britain for starting it and German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in particular for causing him to abdicate in 1918 and thus for costing him and his dynasty their hereditary throne.
He published two volumes of memoirs as well: My Early Life (still in print in English) which concentrated only on his pre-Imperial years, and Events and Personalities, both in 1926. His wife the Kaiserin had died in 1921 at Doorn and he remarried, to the aspiring Empress-to-be Princess Hermine of Reuss, who was also a faithful follower of the Nazis until 1937, when she finally realized that they were not going to restore either Wilhelm II or any of his relatives to his former throne.
In the immediate aftermath of the lost war, virtually everyone blamed the Kaiser for both the start and the loss of the war, as well as for his flight to Holland. There was an Allied attempt to extradite him to stand trial as a war criminal (ala the later trials at Nuremberg and of Saddam Hussein in our own day), but the Dutch government
steadfastly refused to turn him over. There was even a quasi-comical American attempt to kidnap him that was foiled.
As for the Kaiser, he held archaeological symposiums, received visitors, carried on a vast correspondence and continued chopping down trees for exercise---a trait that he had acquired to pass away his spare time at General Headquarters during the war; by 1929, at the end of his first decade of exile, he had destroyed 11,000 trees, selling the cuttings for both firewood and “former Kaiser souvenirs.”
Recent books continue to castigate him as a complete failure, but would he have been if he had died in 1914 and there had been no war? This is doubtful, and he would thus have left behind a Germany that was a respected---and feared---world-class Imperial power.
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