Wilhelm, German Crown Prince (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Victor August Ernst; May 6, 1882 – July 20, 1951)
Wilhelm was born on May 6, 1882 in the Marmorpalais of Potsdam in the Province of Brandenburg. He was the eldest son of Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor (1859–1941), and his first wife, Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858–1921), the eldest daughter of Frederick VIII, future Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a great-niece of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
Crown Prince Wilhelm’s parents: Emperor and Empress Wilhelm II and Augusta-Victoria
At the time of his birth he was third in line to the Imperial and Royal thrones of Germany and Prussia. His great-grandfather, German Emperor Wilhelm I, occupied the throne. His grandfather, Crown Prince Friedrich, was next in line followed by his own father, Wilhelm. Like his father, he was christened Friedrich Wilhelm but went by his second name. Wilhelm was also the great-grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria through his grandmother, Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal, who was his father’s mother.
His birth sparked an argument between his parents and his grandmother Crown Princess Victoria. Before Wilhelm was born, his grandmother had expected to be asked to help find a nurse, but since her son did everything he could to snub her, the future Wilhelm II asked his aunt Helena to help. His mother was hurt and his grandmother, Queen Victoria, who was the younger Wilhelm’s great-grandmother, furious. When his great-grandfather and grandfather both died in 1888, six-year-old Wilhelm became the heir apparent to the German and Prussian thrones.
He was raised in the traditional manner of a Prussian prince; schooled by tutors and on his tenth birthday in 1892 he entered the First Guard Regiment and was given the Order of the Black Eagle by his father. As he grew older Wilhelm enjoyed the life of a Prussian military officer who was devoted to military life.
One of his great loves was an American singer Geraldine Farrar but she was not of the stature for him to be allowed to marry her. As a future Emperor-King, Wilhelm needed to follow the strict protocol of marrying a princess of equal rank to his.
Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin
On July 5, 1904, Crown Prince Wilhelm met his future bride, Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (September 20, 1886 – May 6, 1954) the daughter of Grand Duke Friedrich-Franz III, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1851–1897) and his wife, Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna of Russia (1860–1922).
At this time her brother, Friedrich-Franz IV was the reigning Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and had recently married Princess Alexandra of Hanover and Cumberland. Upon their return to Schwerin Crown Prince Wilhelm arrived in the capitol of the Grand Duchy to deliver the couple a wedding present on behalf of his parents. This is where he met the Grand Duke’s 17 year old sister, Princess Cecilie. He immediately fell in love with her and much to the relief of his parents he had found someone of equal rank.
Wilhelm married Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin married in pomp and splendor on June 6, 1905. After their marriage, the couple lived at the Crown Prince’s Palace in Berlin in the winter and at the Marmorpalais in Potsdam. Their eldest son, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, was killed fighting for the German Army in France in 1940. However, during the early stages of his marriage the crown prince had a brief affair with the American opera singer Geraldine Farrar, and he later had a relationship with the dancer Mata Hari, as well as with actress Ossi Oswalda. Wilhelm and Cecilie had 6 children (4 sons and 2 daughter).
World War I
In 1914 Crown Prince Wilhelm’s life changed forever as the First World War broke out. Despite being in the military for the majority of his life he did not have much leadership experience but was given the command of the Vth Army. He oversaw the Verdun Offensive and was forever known by the French as the ‘Butcher of Verdun.” Crown Prince Wilhelm is on record as not being supportive of the war.
Wilhelm had been active in pushing German expansion, and sought a leading role on the outbreak of war. Despite being only thirty-two and having never commanded a unit larger than a regiment, the German Crown Prince was named commander of the 5th Army in August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I.
However, under the well-established Prussian/German General Staff model then in use, inexperienced nobles who were afforded commands of large army formations were always provided with (and expected to defer to the advice of) experienced chiefs of staff to assist them in their duties. As Emperor, Wilhelm’s father instructed the Crown Prince to defer to the advice of his experienced chief of staff Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf.
In October 1914 Wilhelm gave his first interview to a foreign correspondent and the first statement to the press made by a German noble since the outbreak of war. He denied promoting military solutions to diplomatic problems, and said this in English:
Undoubtedly this is the most stupid, senseless and unnecessary war of modern times. It is a war not wanted by Germany, I can assure you, but it was forced on us, and the fact that we were so effectually prepared to defend ourselves is now being used as an argument to convince the world that we desired conflict.
— Crown Prince Wilhelm, Wiegand
From August 1915 onwards, Wilhelm was given the additional role as commander of the Army Group German Crown Prince. In 1916 his troops began the Verdun Offensive, a year long effort to destroy the French armies that would end in failure. Wilhelm relinquished command of the 5th Army in November of that year, but remained commander of the Army Group German Crown Prince for the rest of the war.
When Germany lost the war the Crown Prince went into exile on the island of Wieringen, in the Netherlands and was not popular in Germany. His father, Wilhelm II, also sought asylum in the Netherlands settling on an estate in Doorn.
After the outbreak of the German Revolution in 1918, both Emperor Wilhelm II and the Crown Prince signed the document of abdication. On November 13, the former Crown Prince fled Germany, crossed into the Netherlands at Oudvroenhoven and was later interned on the island of Wieringen (now part of the mainland), near Den Helder.
In the autumn of 1921, Gustav Stresemann visited Wilhelm, and the former Crown Prince voiced an interest in returning to Germany, even as a private citizen. After Stresemann became chancellor in August 1923, Wilhelm was allowed to return after giving assurances that he would not engage in politics. He chose November 9 1923 for this, which infuriated his father, who had not been informed about the plans of his son and who felt the historic date to be inappropriate.
The dapper Crown Prince
However, at one point he did have political aspirations and desired to run for Reichspräsident against Paul von Hindenburg in 1932. This ambition was curtailed when his father threatened to disinherit him if he chose this path. The former Kaiser was never supportive of the democratic process and the thought of a Hohenzollern prince running for an election was an anathema to him. From 1919 until 1934 a great aspirtation for the former Crown prince was a restoration of the monarchy.
In June 1926, a referendum on expropriating the former ruling Princes of Germany without compensation failed and as a consequence, the financial situation of the Hohenzollern family improved considerably. A settlement between the state and the family made Cecilienhof property of the state but granted a right of residence to Wilhelm and Cecilie. This was limited in duration to three generations. The family also kept the ownership of Monbijou Palace in Berlin, Oels Castle in Silesia, and Rheinsberg Palace until 1945.
The Crown Prince supported the rise of Hitler for a short time as did many German princes as Hitler used the promise of a restoration of the monarchy as a means to court their support. With the death of his friend, the former Chancellor, Kurt von Schleicher, in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 enabled him to see Hitlers true colors. When Wilhelm realised that Hitler had no intention of restoring the monarchy, their relationship cooled. From that period on Crown Prince Wilhelm ceased his political activities and his pursuit for the Restoration of the monarchy. In the 1930s Wilhelm lived the life of a playboy enjoying fast cars and fast women, his relationship with his wife had long been over in everything but name.
On June 4, 1941 his father died at the age of 82, Wilhelm succeeded him as head of the House of Hohenzollern, the former German imperial dynasty. If the monarchy had survived he would have become German Emperor and King of Prussia as Wilhelm III. He was approached by those in the military and the diplomatic service who wanted to replace Hitler, but Wilhelm turned them down. After the ill-fated assassination attempt on July 20, 1944, Hitler nevertheless had Wilhelm placed under supervision by the Gestapo and had his home at Cecilienhof watched.
Three Generations, The Crown Prince Wilhelm, The Emperor and Prince Wilhelm of Prussia
During the war he kept a low profile. His eldest son, Prince Wilhelm, died in battle during the war. In January 1945, Wilhelm left Potsdam for Oberstdorf for a treatment of his gall bladder and liver problems. His wife Cecilie fled in early February 1945 as the Red Army drew closer to Berlin, but they had been living apart for a long time. At the end of the war, Wilhelm’s home, Cecilienhof, was seized by the Soviets. The palace was subsequently used by the Allied Powers as the venue for the Potsdam Conference.
At the end of the war, Wilhelm was captured by French Moroccan troops in Baad, Austria and was interned as a (World War I) war criminal. Transferred to Hechingen, Germany, he lived for a short time in Hohenzollern Castle under house arrest.
The Crown Prince on his deathbed
He lived alone in a small five-room house at Fürstenstraße 16 in Hechingen and fell into a depression. The world he grew up in was gone. Prussia, the sate that brought the Hohenzollerns to prominence, was formally dissolved on February 25, 1947 the Allied Control Council. From the end of the war to the end of his life Wilhelm lived as a private citizen with a small group of friends. On July 20, 1951 the chain smoking former heir to the glorious German Empire suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 69. He was succeeded by his second son, Prince Louis-Ferdinand, as head of the Imperial house and claimer to the vacant thrones of Germany and Prussia.