The Kaiser's role in the cataclism of World War I has been the subject of considerable historical study. His role has often overstated, but modern scholarship has revealed that he did play a central role. The Kaiser, unlike Hitler a generatiion later, did not want a war. "Saber rattling" is one thing, a war with the other major
European powers is something very different indeed! He cannot be blamed by himself for the war.
Chancelor Bismarck played a key role in uniting Germany. And his diplomacy was based on maintaining an alliance not only with Austria-Hungary, but with Russia as well. As long as Germany and Russia were at peace, a general Euopean War was impossible. Wilhelm II became kaiser (1888) and within only a few years, he had no only dismissed Bismarck, but allowed the alliance wiuth Russia to lapse. This mean that only family relationships connected Russia and Germany. The Kaiser had family connectins with both Britain and Russia. The relationship with Russia was particularly important as Germany and Russia committed to two opposing alliance systems. Perhaps the most important personal relationship at the turn of the 20th century was that between Tsar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm. There were no real terrotorial or philosphical disputes that divided their two countries. There was no reason to believe that the two countries would wage a war that would destrouy both empires. In fact the two shared a common interest in maintaining the European system largely conducted by monarchy.
The impetuous Kaiser can certainly can be faulted for not doing enough to to control the actions of his allie Austria-Hungary and prevent the outbreak of war. In the end he
accepted war, convinced Germany could repeat the rapid defeat of France achieved by his grandfather and father in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Wilhelm signed the order for the German mobilizatiion on
August 1, 1914, but therafter receded more and more into the background as the war raged on. Realizing his own
incapacity as a military leader, he left the responsibility for military decisions increasingly to the German generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. His peace offer of 1916, his opposition to the peace offer of the Reichtag in 1917, and his visits to various battle fronts were his only significant activities.
Our modern view of Kaiser Wilhelm is largely based on a comparison with Hitler. It is of course a meaningless exercise. Virtually any national leader, except Stalin, would look good if the basis for comparison was Hilter. We know now that Wilhelm was a virulent anti-semite, although a murderous one like Hitler. We also know that Imperial Germany's war aims in World War I were not disimilar to that of the NAZIs although without the extreme murdeous racial policies. The Treaty of Brest-Listosk with the Bolsevicks in 1918 showed just what would have been in store for Europe if Germany had won World War I. Germany which complined of vengefulln treatment by the Allies who prepared to persue just such a peace if they had won.
The Kaiser until the War both reigned and ruled. He did not have absolute authority, but he was an authcratic ruler with great authority. He was not a figurehead as had become the case in Britain. Once the War began, the Kaiser began to lose authority. Especially after Ludendorf and Hindenburg were given command on the Werstern Front, he no longer had control of the conduct of the War. While there was a chance of victory, he probably would have been deppsed had her tried to make peace. Once the War was clearly loss, the military would have allowed a negotiated peace, byt the allies were not interested.
The Kaiser was concerned about involving America in the War. This was the major reason that he withdrew from unrestricted submarine warfare. He finally gave in durin 1917 only after extreme pressure from the military. The entry of America into the War in 1917 and the failiure of unrestricted submarine warfare and the German offensive of 1918 meant that German defeat was inevitable.
The Generals used the troops freed from the eastern front with the defeat of Russia were used for one final offensive in 1918. When it failed, the Allies with reinforcements from America slowly pushed the German back. The German lines began to collapse by October. The Generals informed the Kaiser that the Allies would soon break through. The Kaiser, however, refused to capitulate--urging the Army to continue fighting.
Riots broke out in German cities. Even the Kaiser's beloved Kriegsmarina when ordered out into a suisidal controntration with the British fleet mutinied. He was finally forced on October 8, 1918, to "offer peace to the enemy". He then authorized the formation of a constitutional ministry. He left Berlin on October 30 when the population became threatening, seeking refuge with the Army.
The Socialists who were powerfull in the Reichstag on November 3 demanded his abdication. Some deputies suggested he abdicate in favor of one of his sons, but not the Crown Prince who as hated by the Socialists. The Kaiser hesitated even after General Paul von Hindenburg informed him that the Army would not support him. Finally on November 28, only 2 weeks after the Armistace on November 11, Wilhelm abdicated and shortly after fled to the Netherlands.
I herewith renounce for all time claims to the throne of Prussia and to the German Imperial throne connected therewith. At the same time I release all officials of the German Empire and of Prussia, as well as all officers, noncommissioned officers and men of the navy and of the Prussian army, as well as the troops of the federated states of Germany, from the oath of fidelity which they tendered to me as their Emperor, King and Commander-in-Chief. I expect of them that until the re-establishment of order in the German Empire they shall render assistance to those in actual power in Germany, in protecting the German people from the threatening dangers of anarchy, famine, and foreign rule.
Proclaimed under our own hand and with the imperial seal attached.
Amerongen, 28 November, 1918
William fully intended to remain in Germany after abdication. His last Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, however, convinced the former Kaiser that the best action he could take was to seek refuge in a non-beligerant friendly country. He was thus forced to flee his country and sought refuge in neighboring Holland. The Netherlands had maintained its neutrality during the War. Unlike Belgium, the Germans did not invade the Netherlands in World War I.
John C.G. Röhl, translated by Jeremy Gaines and Rebecca Wallach. Young Wilhelm : the Kaiser's early life, 1859-1888.
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