You may have known a little about some of the people we have covered before in this podcast. However, I bet you don’t know much about the man in this episode. He has a great mustache that turns up at the ends. He did more than just about anyone else to shape the whole of the twentieth century. Yet, how many people know about Kaiser Wilhelm II?
Wilhelm was born in Berlin, Germany at the Crown Prince’s Palace on January 27, 1859. His father was Prince Frederick William. Frederick William later became Emperor Frederick III. Wilhelm’s mother was Princess Victoria. If her name reminds you of Queen Victoria of England it should; they were mother and daughter. So Wilhelm was heir to the German throne and grandson of the Queen of England.
Wilhelm was really smart but he had a violent temper. Wilhelm’s left arm was deformed. For the rest of his life, he would always try to hide his left arm from the public. He wanted to appear as a physically powerful German ruler.
In 1888, Wilhelm became the Kaiser, or emperor, of Germany when his father died of throat cancer. Wilhelm was twenty-nine years old. Kaiser comes from the same root word as Caesar, like the Caesars back in Rome. But Kaisers in Germany did not have absolute power. Wilhelm could appoint the Chancellor of Germany, but the chancellor had to work with the parliament who controlled the money. The Kaiser was also officially commander of the army and navy, but the real control of the army was in the hands of the generals.
Kaiser of Germany
Wilhelm was smart, but did not always act nice and he was not a very good. After two years as Kaiser, he fired Otto von Bismarck who was the chancellor and was a popular leader. Wilhelm also was not very good at dealing with foreign nations in diplomatic ways. By the early 1900s, he made lots of enemies. On both sides of Germany he made people mad. France to the west and Russia to the east had formed an alliance against Germany.
Wilhelm made the British mad with an interview in the Daily Telegraph (a British newspaper). The whole interview was just weird. One of the things he said was that the Germans didn’t like the British.
World War I
It looked like there would be war in Europe no matter what anyone did. By 1914, Wilhelm II decided that the sooner the war began, the better chance Germany had to win. Germany was allies with the Austro-Hungary Empire.
Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian. Since Wilhelm wanted war anyway he told Austria to make demands that Serbia was sure to refuse. Then, when Serbia refused (as everyone knew they would) there would be war.
Wilhelm promised Austria that he would support them with a “blank check”, which meant that he would support them no matter what, even in the war. Wilhelm was sure that the war would be over quickly and that he would win easily. Boy was he wrong.
Of course Serbia refused Austria’s demands like everyone knew they would. So, Austria declared war on Serbia. But, Germany had more to worry about than just Serbia. Serbia’s ally Russia was getting ready for war. Since Wilhelm was on Austria’s side, Germany declared war on Russia.
But remember that France was Russia’s ally? So of course, France declared war on Germany. Soon all of Europe had chosen sides and World War I had begun.
Things Go Bad for Germany
Wilhelm thought he knew exactly how the war would go but he was wrong. Germany was able to do pretty well against Russia at first because Russia was not ready for war. That kind of went as Germany planned but Germany thought that it would beat France quickly. They were wrong.
Now Germany was fighting a war on two fronts. Russia was on the east side and France was on the west side. There was no way that Germany could win that kind of war. The war went on for years but Wilhelm was losing control over the army. After a while, the German army generals had all the real power and Wilhelm was just a pretend ruler.
End of World War I
In 1918 everyone could pretty well tell that Germany was going to lose. Germany’s army was exhausted and running out of supplies. There were food and fuel shortages all over Germany. On December 9, 1918 Wilhelm gave up his throne. He left Germany and went to the Netherlands.
Wilhelm lived the rest of his life in the Netherlands. He died at the age of 82 in 1941.
Interesting Facts about Kaiser Wilhelm II
- Wilhelm married Augusta Victoria in 1881. They had seven children including six sons and one daughter.
- He attended the coming of age ceremony of his second cousin Nicholas of Russia in Saint Petersburg. He would later be at war with him during World War I when Nicholas was Tsar of Russia.
- Wilhelm was envious of the British navy and spent much of his early years as Kaiser trying to build up the German navy.
- The Allies won World War I and they tried to get the Netherlands to give up Wilhelm so they could try him for war crimes, but the Netherlands would not release him.
- When World War I began Wilhelm told some departing German soldiers that “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” Boy, was he ever wrong.
So now, when you think of Germany and World War I you can think about a man who may not have been a great leader but he sure had a great mustache.