This is the final part of my feature on Germany’s Kaiser. Today I will look at his abdication and then look more on the personal side of the Kaiser along with his life in exile and his legacy.
As World War I raged on the Kaiser lost most of his political power and influence. By 1916 Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff were the virtual military dictators of the German Empire. Toward the end of the war it was evident how much power the Kaiser had lost and how much power Hindenburg and Ludendorff wielded. Throughout the spring and summer of 1918 the German staff could no longer deny that the war was lost and that peace should be sought after.
Georg von Hertling was the Chancellor of the German Empire and seen as a puppet of Hindenburg and Ludendorff and when it was realized he could no longer control the splintering empire on the verge of collapse he was forced to resign. The Kaiser, whose responsibility it was to appoint the Chancellor had no say in selecting von Hertling’s replacement. Prince Maximilian of Baden, heir to the Grand Duchy of Baden. Prince Max was seen as a liberal and by amending the constitution to where it would favor a Parliamentary system instead of the authoritarian system constructed by Bismark. Prince Max also included the Social Democrats, Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann in the formation of the government. These were steps that were thought would make it easier for the allies to sue for peace. It was well known that US President Wilson would not deal with a Germany with the Kaiser at its head.
By November the German Empire was on the verge of collapse. There were socialist uprisings as well as rumblings in the military of mutiny. There were calls for the Kaiser to abdicate but that he refused to do so. In 1918 the German Staff had moved its headquarters to Spa, Belgium and it was there that Wilhelm spent his last days as emperor. All attempts to save the monarchy were lost but Wilhelm was not convinced. On November 9, 1918 Prince Max was in Berlin and the only thing he could do to stave off complete collapse and revolution was to announce the abdication of the Kaiser himself. When word reached Wilhelm that his abdication had been announced in Berlin he was outraged and never forgave Prince Max. Prince Max knew that he himself also had to go as it was seen that only Friedrich Ebert could restore order so the very same day the Kaiser’s abdication was announced Prince Max turned over the Chancellorship to Ebert.
Wilhelm was still not convinced all was lost. Ever the Prussian militarist Wilhelm had a delusional idea that he would lead the German Army, who was ever loyal to him, back into Berlin to crush any rebellion and restore his power. It took General Wilhelm Groener, Ludendorff’s replacement, to convince the emperor that the Army would not support him. It was only then that he agreed to seek exile and leave. The night of July 10th the Kaiser left Spa by train to seek asylum in the Netherlands. He was granted asylum by Queen Wilhelmina () and eventually settled in Doorn where he stayed for the rest of his life. His cousin, George V of the United Kingdom, called him the worst criminal in history. Many nations called for his extradition and wanted the Kaiser hung for war crimes. Eventually even president Wilson agreed that to extradite the Kaiser would destabilize the tentative peace.
Bismark mention in how he saw the Kaiser: 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.
Reading one of the leading biographers of the Kaiser, John C. G. Röhl, found he blamed many others for his downfall and he had a streak of antisemitism in him as well.
Kaiserin August Victoria of Germany
He had married for the first time in 1881, HSH Princess Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (1858-1921). There have not been many kind words written about her. She was devoted to her husband in an almost hero-worshiping fashion and was seen as rather plain and unintelligent. Her devout Christian conservative views also created more negative images of her. She bore the Kaiser 6 sons and one daughter to whom he was devoted to. His eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, was a womanizing playboy and this did not sit well with the emperor. The two strong willed men had many conflicts. One son, Prince Joachim, who was divorced shortly after the war never recovered from his loss of position and life as a royal and committed suicide in 1920. A year later his wife, Empress Augusta Victoria, died at the age of 62.
The Kaiser remarried in 1922. On his birthday in January of that same year Wilhelm received a birthday card from a son of the late Prince Johann George of Schönaich-Carolath. Wilhelm invited the boy and his mother, born Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, to Doorn. While meeting the former kaiser Wilhelm found Hermine very attractive and the two got on well. They were wed November 9, 1922 in spite of very vocal objections his children, who were about the same age as their new stepmother, and also from Wilhelm’s monarchist supporters who were eager for the restoration of the monarchy. Hermine, who was called the empress within the corridors of Huis Doorn was similarly devoted to her husband as was his first wife.
The Kaiser passed away on June 4, 1941. He saw the first few years of World War II. He eventually distance himself from Hitler and would not allow himself to be used for Nazi Propaganda and would not allow himself to be buried in Germany unless the monarchy was restored. To this day his remains lie in a mausoleum on the grounds of Huis Doorn.
Although I didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about the last Kaiser yet I do find him fascinating. He was a complex character that was steering the ship when the German Empire ran aground. Historians say that World War I changed a way of life for the aristocracy that had existed in Europe for centuries. There are also some historians who say that the 20th century didn’t actually begin until the end of the First World War. As a monarchist it presents an opportunity to understand why the monarchy ended. I am of the belief that if the kaiser had been more open to change and willing to go the way of constitutionalism that the other monarchies had gone, there is a strong chance that Germany would still be a monarchy today.