Abdication, Friedrich Ebert, Friedrich III of Germany, German Chancellor, German Empire, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Prince Maximilian of Baden, Victoria Princess Royal, Wilhelm II of Germany, World War I
Wilhelm II (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert; January 27, 1859 – June 4, 1941) was the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from June 15, 1888 to his abdication November 9, 1918. He was the eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe, most notably King George V of the United Kingdom and Emperor Nicholas II of Russia.
Wilhelm was born at the Crown Prince’s Palace, Berlin, to Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm of Prussia (the future Friedrich III) and his wife, Victoria, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
At the time of his birth, his great-uncle Friedrich-Wilhelm IV was king of Prussia, and his grandfather and namesake Wilhelm was acting as Regent. He was the first grandchild of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but more important, as the first son of the Crown Prince of Prussia, Wilhelm was second in the line of succession to Prussia, from 1861 onwards and also, after 1871, to the newly created German Empire, which, according to the constitution of the German Empire, was ruled by the King of Prussia. At the time of his birth, he was also sixth in the line of succession to the British throne, after his maternal uncles and his mother.
Accession and Reign
Kaiser Wilhelm I died in Berlin on 9 March 1888, and Prince Wilhelm’s father ascended the throne as Friedrich III. He was already suffering from an incurable throat cancer and spent all 99 days of his reign fighting the disease before dying. On June 15 of that same year, his 29-year-old son succeeded him as German Emperor and King of Prussia.
His reign would last to November 9, 1918. Despite strengthening Germany’s position as a great power by building a blue-water navy and promoting scientific innovation, his tactless public statements and reckless foreign policy greatly antagonized the international community and ultimately plunged his country into World War I. When the German war effort collapsed after a series of crushing defeats on the Western Front in 1918, he was forced to abdicate, thereby bringing an end to the Hohenzollern dynasty’s three hundred year rule.
Wilhelm was at the Imperial Army headquarters in Spa, Belgium, when the uprisings in Berlin and other centres took him by surprise in late 1918. Mutiny among the ranks of his beloved Kaiserliche Marine, the imperial navy, profoundly shocked him. After the outbreak of the German Revolution, Wilhelm could not make up his mind whether or not to abdicate. Up to that point, he accepted that he would likely have to give up the imperial crown, but still hoped to retain the Prussian kingship.
However, this was impossible under the imperial constitution. Wilhelm thought he ruled as emperor in a personal union with Prussia. In truth, the constitution defined the empire as a confederation of states under the permanent presidency of Prussia. The imperial crown was thus tied to the Prussian crown, meaning that Wilhelm could not renounce one crown without renouncing the other.
Wilhelm’s hope of retaining at least one of his crowns was revealed as unrealistic when, in the hope of preserving the monarchy in the face of growing revolutionary unrest, Chancellor Prince Max of Baden announced Wilhelm’s abdication of both titles on 9 November 1918. Prince Max himself was forced to resign later the same day, when it became clear that only Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SPD, could effectively exert control. Later that day, one of Ebert’s secretaries of state (ministers), Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, proclaimed Germany a republic.
Wilhelm consented to the abdication only after Ludendorff’s replacement, General Wilhelm Groener, had informed him that the officers and men of the army would march back in good order under Paul von Hindenburg’s command, but would certainly not fight for Wilhelm’s throne on the home front. The monarchy’s last and strongest support had been broken, and finally even Hindenburg, himself a lifelong royalist, was obliged, with some embarrassment, to advise the Emperor to give up the crown.
On 10 November, Wilhelm crossed the border by train and went into exile in the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the war. Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles in early 1919, Article 227 expressly provided for the prosecution of Wilhelm “for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties”, but the Dutch government refused to extradite him, despite appeals from the Allies. King George V wrote that he looked on his cousin as “the greatest criminal in history”, but opposed Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s proposal to “hang the Kaiser”.
It was reported, however, that there was little zeal in Britain to prosecute. On January 1, 1920, it was stated in official circles in London that Great Britain would “welcome refusal by Holland to deliver the former kaiser for trial,” and it was hinted that this had been conveyed to the Dutch government through diplomatic channels.
Wilhelm first settled in Amerongen, where on November 28, 1918 he issued a belated statement of abdication from both the Prussian and imperial thrones, thus formally ending the Hohenzollerns’ 500-year rule over Prussia. Accepting the reality that he had lost both of his crowns for good, he gave up his rights to “the throne of Prussia and to the German Imperial throne connected therewith.”
He also released his soldiers and officials in both Prussia and the empire from their oath of loyalty to him. He purchased a country house in the municipality of Doorn, known as Huis Doorn, and moved in on May 15, 1920. This was to be his home for the remainder of his life. The Weimar Republic allowed Wilhelm to remove twenty-three railway wagons of furniture, twenty-seven containing packages of all sorts, one bearing a car and another a boat, from the New Palace at Potsdam.
Wilhelm died of a pulmonary embolus in Doorn, Netherlands, on June 4, 1941, at the age of 82, just weeks before the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union.