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 II, German Emperor and King of Prussia
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.
Friedrich III, German Emperor and King of Prussia (Father)
Princess Victoria, Princess Royal of the United Kingdom (Mother)
In 1863, Wilhelm was taken to England to be present at the wedding of his Uncle Bertie (later King Edward VII), and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Wilhelm attended the ceremony in a Highland costume, complete with a small toy dirk. During the ceremony, the four-year-old became restless. His eighteen-year-old uncle, Prince Alfred, charged with keeping an eye on him, told him to be quiet, but Wilhelm drew his dirk and threatened Alfred. When Alfred attempted to subdue him by force, Wilhelm bit him on the leg.
Wilhelm and his first wife, Princess Augusta-Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, were married on February 27, 1881. Princess Augusta-Victoria was the eldest daughter of Friedrich VIII, future Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a great-niece of Queen Victoria. She grew up at Dolzig until the death of her grandfather, Christian-August II, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, in 1869. The family then moved to Primkenau to a country estate her father inherited.
Princess Augusta-Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein
Wilhelm and Princess Augusta-Victoria had seven children.
Wilhelm’ s father, Emperor Wilhelm I, died in Berlin on March 9 1888, and Prince Wilhelm’s father ascended the throne as Emperor Friedrich III. Friedrich was already suffering from an incurable throat cancer and spent all 99 days of his reign fighting the disease before dying, which occurred on June 15, of that same year. His 29-year-old son succeeded him as Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia.
Wilhelm II took control of foreign and military policy with a bellicose “New Course” to cement Germany’s status as a respected world power. However, he frequently undermined this goal by making tactless, bombastic and alarming public statements without seeking his ministers’ advice.
Additionally, his regime did much to alienate itself from the other Great Powers by initiating a massive naval build-up, and challenging French control of Morocco. His turbulent reign ultimately culminated in Germany’s absolute guarantee of military support to Austria-Hungary during the crisis of July 1914, one of the key developments leading to the outbreak of World War I.
A lax wartime leader, he left virtually all decision-making regarding military strategy and organisation of the war effort to the Great General Staff. This broad delegation of authority gave rise to a de facto military dictatorship whose belligerent foreign policy led to the United States’ entry into the war on 6 April 1917. Thereafter Wilhelm’s roll was regulated to that of a figurehead. After losing the support of the German military and his subjects in November 1918, Wilhelm abdicated and fled to exile in the Netherlands.
Empress Augusta-Victoria known affectionately as “Dona”, was a constant companion to Wilhelm, and her death on April 11, 1921 was a devastating blow. It also came less than a year after their son Prince Joachim committed suicide.
The following January, Wilhelm received a birthday greeting from a son of the late Prince Johann-George of Schönaich-Carolath. The 63-year-old Wilhelm invited the boy and his mother, Princess Hermine of Reuss-Greiz, to Doorn. Wilhelm found Hermine very attractive, and greatly enjoyed her company. The couple were wed in Doors on November 9, 1922 , despite the objections of Wilhelm’s monarchist supporters and his children. Hermine’s daughter, Princess Henriette, married the late Prince Joachim’s son, Prince Charles-Franz-Josef, in 1940, but divorced in 1946. Hermine remained a constant companion to the ageing former emperor until his death.
Wilhelm’s biographer Lamar Cecil identified Wilhelm’s “curious but well-developed anti-Semitism”, noting that in 1888 a friend of Wilhelm “declared that the young Emperor’s dislike of his Hebrew subjects, one rooted in a perception that they possessed an overweening influence in Germany, was so strong that it could not be overcome”. Cecil concludes: Wilhelm never changed, and throughout his life he believed that Jews were perversely responsible, largely through their prominence in the Berlin press and in leftist political movements, for encouraging opposition to his rule.
On November 10, 1918, Wilhelm II 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”.
Wilhelm first settled in Amerongen, where on November 28, he issued a belated official statement of abdication from both the Prussian and imperial thrones, thus formally ending the Hohenzollerns’ 400-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. German soldiers had been guarding his house. Hitler, however, was angered that the former monarch had an honor guard of German troops and nearly fired the general who ordered them when he found out. Despite his personal animosity toward Wilhelm, Hitler wanted to bring his body back to Berlin for a state funeral, as he regarded Wilhelm a symbol of Germany and Germans during World War I. Hitler felt that such a funeral would demonstrate to the Germans the direct descent of the Third Reich from the old German Empire, thereby giving his regime a sense of continuity.
However, Wilhelm’s wished to return to Germany only after the restoration of the monarchy. The Nazi occupational authorities granted him a small military funeral, with a few hundred people present. The mourners included August von Mackensen, fully dressed in his old imperial Life Hussars uniform, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and Reichskommissar for the Netherlands Arthur Seyss-Inquart, along with a few other military advisers. However, Wilhelm’s request that the swastika and other Nazi regalia be not displayed at his funeral was ignored, and they are featured in the photographs of the event taken by a Dutch photographer.
Wilhelm was buried in a mausoleum in the grounds of Huis Doorn, which has since become a place of pilgrimage for German monarchists. Small but enthusiastic and faithful numbers of them gather there every year on the anniversary of his death to pay their homage to the last German Emperor.