Wilhelm II was the last German Emperor. That he was the last German Emperor was entirely of his own making.
Wilhelm was Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild. Yes our Queen Victoria. The monarchies of Europe at the time were all seemingly related. Parlour maids stayed in the parlour. There was no marrying across party lines. The only marrying to be done was with fully vetted royals from other countries. Hence the incidence of “my cousin is also your cousin” at any Royal hoo-haa.
His mother, Princess Victoria, was the eldest child of Queen Victoria. A popular fad of the age seemed to be the one, still perhaps popular in some parts of America where newer money burns with social ambition, to name your child after yourself. Hence Wilhelm when he became Emperor at the age of 29 he was Wilhelm II. Albeit Whilhelm I was his grandfather not his father. Fortunately these days we have the Beckhams who have started an altogether different fad.
God Bless Brooklyn.
Wilhelm was born with one arm a lot shorter than the other arm. About six inches shorter. Find any photo of the guy and he’s either holding something like a sword, or wearing white gloves so you can’t really tell. The reason he had a withered arm was because of a traumatic breeched birth. A breech birth is when the baby comes out the wrong way round – bot first. These days, they normally intervene with a very quick C-section, but back in the day it was all a bit more eye watering.
Many historians have suggested that Wilhelm’s disability went a long way to explaining his emotional issues. Of which there were many.
There were red flags from an early age. In 1863 Wilhelm, presumably with his parents, went to England for the wedding of his Uncle Bertie, who later found fame as Edward VII. Bertie, or Edward, had wisely gone Dane, marrying Princess Alexandra of Denmark, making for what was possibly a loin tingling bevy of bridesmaids. Anyway, at the ceremony, Wilhelm was in the hands of another Uncle, Uncle Alfred, known amongst the family as Affie after a childhood mispronunciation of Alfred caught on. As they do.
During the ceremony, Wilhelm was cavorting about and was told to sit still. You could argue, perhaps, that a stuffy, pomped up ceremony was not exactly a four year old’s wicket, more so if you had an army of nannies outside flirting with the guardsmen, but that’s not the point. The point was that Wilhelm, who was wearing highland dress, promptly drew his sgian-dubh on Alfred and threatened to do him. Alfred, given he was eighteen and his cousin was four, simply took the sgian-dubh off him. So Wilhelm bit Alfred on the leg. It was easy to see why his cousins did not like him.
Yet that is not the whole story, for Wilhelm also had a difficult relationship with his parents. His mother obsessed over his arm and blamed herself for his handicap. She comes across, on the whole, as a mother who was holding on a bit tight. At eight, she decided Wilhelm had to learn to ride a horse convinced that as an heir to the throne it was imperative for him to be able to ride a horse. By all accounts Wilhelm was not a natural in the saddle and he’d fall off. He’d be put back on the horse. And he’d fall off. This continued, tears would flow. At some point he learnt to ride, but meal times were always a bit sticky after that. Wilhelm later wrote “The torments inflicted on me, in this pony riding, must be attributed to my mother”. Enough said.
Wilhelm I died in 1888. His son, Emperor Frederick III, took to the throne suffering from incurable throat cancer and lasted only ninety nine days. At twenty nine then, Wilhelm, became Wilhelm II.
At the time the Emperor and the Chancellor ran the country. The Emperor – strategy, the Chancellor – more an operational role. Wilhelm I had largely left the running of the country to the then Chancellor, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, aka the “Iron Chancellor”, a conservative Prussian statesman who had skillfully kept the diplomatic plates spinning so that Europe remained at peace. The historian Eric Hobsbawn described Bismarck as the “undisputed world champion in the game of multilateral diplomatic chess”. You suspect Bismarck would have cleaned up at Risk on any wet weekend mini-break in Wales. Less so, given his age, Twister.
It wasn’t long before Bismarck was out and the Kaiser, like a bull on heat, started breaking all the crockery in Europe’s kitchen as he jettisoned Bismarck’s peaceful foreign policy in favour of what his generals described as a “war of aggression”. Historians point to an interview Wilhelm II did with the Daily Telegraph in which he made many a modern day pop star appear measured and well-adjusted. In the interview he implied Germany didn’t care for the British, that the French and the Russians had tried to incite Germany to intervene in the Second Boer war and that the buildup of the German navy was targeted against the Japanese. He famously finished up by yelling “you English are mad, mad, mad as March hares” leaving the Daily Telegraph sub-editor and easy headline.
When it all kicked off in July 1914, Wilhelm II was, then, possibly not the man you would have wanted to be making the calls out of the German palace. With Russia mobilizing her army to give some cover to little Serbia as Austria-Hungry popped on the knuckle-dusters, the Kaiser got into a proper tizz thinking Russia, France and Great Britain were all gearing up to destroy Germany.
And so began World War I.
Wilhelm II died in exile, in the Netherlands, on the 4th June 1941, aged 82.