Albert Edward, German Emperor Friedrich III, German Emperor Wilhelm II, King Edward VII, Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom
With yesterday being the anniversary of the death of German Emperor Friedrich III and the accession of his son, Wilhelm II, I thought i do a little character study. I find German Emperor Wilhelm II a fascinating subject to study. Historians like myself have frequently stressed the role of Wilhelm’s personality in shaping his reign. Historian Thomas Nipperdey concludes WilhelmII was :
gifted, with a quick understanding, sometimes brilliant, with a taste for the modern,—technology, industry, science—but at the same time superficial, hasty, restless, unable to relax, without any deeper level of seriousness, without any desire for hard work or drive to see things through to the end, without any sense of sobriety, for balance and boundaries, or even for reality and real problems, uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience, desperate for applause and success,—as Bismarck said early on in his life, he wanted every day to be his birthday—romantic, sentimental and theatrical, unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off, a juvenile cadet, who never took the tone of the officers’ mess out of his voice, and brashly wanted to play the part of the supreme warlord, full of panicky fear of a monotonous life without any diversions, and yet aimless, pathological in his hatred against his English mother.
Historian David Fromkin states that Wilhelm had a love–hate relationship with Britain. According to Fromkin “From the outset, the half-German side of him was at war with the half-English side. He was wildly jealous of the British, wanting to be British, wanting to be better at being British than the British were, while at the same time hating them and resenting them because he never could be fully accepted by them”.
Langer et al. (1968) emphasise the negative international consequences of Wilhelm’s erratic personality: “He believed in force, and the ‘survival of the fittest’ in domestic as well as foreign politics … William was not lacking in intelligence, but he did lack stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk. He frequently fell into depressions and hysterics … William’s personal instability was reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion. He was not so much concerned with gaining specific objectives, as had been the case with Bismarck, as with asserting his will. This trait in the ruler of the leading Continental power was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn-of-the-century”.
Relationships with foreign relatives
Because of Wilhelm’s personality issues it created difficult relationships amongst his foreign relatives. As a grandchild of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm was a first cousin of the future King George V of the United Kingdom, as well as of Queens Marie of Romania, Maud of Norway, Victoria Eugenie of Spain, and the Empress Alexandra of Russia. In 1889, Wilhelm’s younger sister, Sophia, married the future King Constantine I of the Hellenas (Greece). Wilhelm was infuriated by his sister’s conversion to Greek Orthodoxy; upon her marriage, that he attempted to ban her from entering Germany.
Wilhelm’s most contentious relationships were with his British relations. He craved the acceptance of his grandmother, Queen Victoria, and of the rest of her family. Despite the fact that his grandmother treated him with courtesy and tact, his other relatives found him arrogant and obnoxious, and they largely denied him acceptance. He had an especially bad relationship with his Uncle Bertie, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Between 1888 and 1901 Wilhelm resented his uncle, himself a mere heir to the British throne, treating Wilhelm not as Emperor of Germany, but merely as another nephew.
In turn, Wilhelm often snubbed his uncle, whom he referred to as “the old peacock” and lorded his position as emperor over him. Beginning in the 1890s, Wilhelm made visits to England for Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight and often competed against his uncle in the yacht races. Edward’s wife, the Danish-born Alexandra, first as Princess of Wales and later as Queen, also disliked Wilhelm, never forgetting the Prussian seizure of Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark in the 1860s, as well as being annoyed over Wilhelm’s treatment of his mother.
Despite his poor relations with his English relatives, when he received news that Queen Victoria was dying at Osborne House in January 1901, Wilhelm travelled to England and was at her bedside when she died, and he remained for the funeral. He also was present at the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910.
In 1913, Wilhelm hosted a lavish wedding in Berlin for his only daughter, Victoria Louise. Among the guests at the wedding were his cousins Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V, and George’s wife, Queen Mary.