German Royalty: Wilhelm II's Reign

Figure 1.--.

Wilhelm was a constitutional monarch, but the system his granfdather and Count Bismarck established meant that he was an authiritative ruler with enormous power and influence. He was not a dictato, but the Kaiser dominated the government of the most powerful nation in Europe. Unlike his English relatives, the German Emperor was not a figurehead. The authority of the Reichstag was limited. Wilhelm was generally considered to be an able and energetic, but bombastic ans seld-absorbed leader. His grandfather and Bismarck had suceeded in convincing him thast he was a individual of enormous abililities. He came to the throne with no appreciation of his real abilities and more important his limitations. Wilhelm II was probably the most powerful world figure at turn-of-the-20th century Europe. His policies, especially his foreign policies, however, proved disastrous for Germany. As a result, when World War I begun Germany found itself figting an alliance of the most powerful nations in Europe with human and material resources surpassing that of Germany. And if that was not bad enough, Wilhelm persued policies which alienated the United States and eventually drove it into the Allied camp.

Bismarck and Wilhelm

Central to the unification of Germany and the success of the new German Empire was the relationship between the Old Kaiser (Wilhelm I), and his Chancellor, Count Otto von Bismarck. While building the new German Empire, another less dramatic struggle unfolded was the struggle over the loyalty of the Crown Prince. His parents (Victoria abd Crown Prince Frederich) were liberals who wished to take Germany down a liberal,femocratic path similar to Britain with less emphasis on the military. The Old Kaiser and Bismarck wanted a more conservative path with a major emphasis on the military. At the time it was expected that Wilhelm's son Frederich would follow his father and have a long reign. If this had occurred the history of the 20th century would have been very different. One might have thought that Prince Wilhelm's parents could have successfully conveyed their liberal values. Prince Wilhelm was, however, from an early age a difficult child. And his parents were very critical. This appears to have alienated Wilhelm. His grandfather and Bismarck were much less critical and essentially courted the young prince, convincing him that he was an individual of remarkable ability. Thus as a teenager Wilhelm was frawn to the conservative policies of his grandfather and Bismarck. And when Frederich died within a few moths of becoming Kaiser, it was Prince Silhelm that rose to the throne. The problem for Bismarck and Germany was that the Old Kaiser and Bismarck had not conveyed to the young Wilhelm his limitations. As a result, Wilhelm took the throne believing that Bismarck was an old man whose caution was holding Germany back. He seems to have had no appreciation of Bismarcks accomplishments and the value of his insights. Wilhelm's first major action as Kaiser was dismissing in 1890 of the aged chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck, who with Wilhelm's grandfather had been largely responsible for the creation of a united German Empire. Thereafter William II participated significantly, often decisively, in the formulation of foreign and domestic policies. His administration of internal affairs was marked by the rapid transformation of Germany from an agricultural to a major industrial state and by the accompanying development of serious problems in capital-labor relations. Wilhelm was only partially successful in his attempts to curb the growth of Germany's Social Democratic Party, which ultimately became the most important political party in the Empire.

Domestic Policies

Disastrous Foreign Policy

Foreign affairs greatly interested Wilhelm. There are few examples in history of a great leader pursuing such a contradictory foreign policy ultimately leading to disaster. He had many advantages to build on. Thanks to his grandmother Queen Victoria, he had family ties with both the British and Russian royal family. His foreign policies, however, were contradictory and confused, but in the end disastrous. Bismark had sought to maintaining friendly relations with Russia. Wilhelm saw no need to do so, allowing the French to negotiate an alliance with Russia. Until Wilhelm became Kaiser, most Britons saw France as their mortal enemy. Wilhelm came under the influence of Admiral Tripitz and the Naval League and launched upon a naval building program. Germany's industrial might gave it the ability to challengge the British. The threat pushed the British into a new relatiionship with France. Thus Wilhelm's policies enabled the French to form alliances with the other major European countries. Germany was left with an alliance with declining Austria-Hungary. The Kaiser's bombastic personality stood out starkly in increasingly polarized Europe. The term "saber rattler" sums up his politics as well as his personality rather sucintly. Historian Barbara Tuchman put it well when she referred to the Kaiser as "possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe". [Tuchman]

Russian Treaty

The very day that Wilhelm demanded Bismarck's resignation, Count Paul Shuvaloff, an emisarry from the Tsar arrives with an effort to renew the Russian treaty which expires in June 1890. The Russians suggest to renew it for 6 instead of 3 years. Apparently aware of the fact that Bismarck was about to be repalced, Tsar Alexander III had decided to secure his relations with Germany after Bismarck. Bismarck had been attempting to obtain this for several years. Bismarck is forced to tell Shuvaloff that he is resigning and that the treaty will have to be discussed with his successor. [Ludwig, p. 588.] Incredibly the new German Chancellor Caprivi and Wilhelm are bothered by the complications of the Treaty and decide not to renew it. French diplomats immediately begin to work on the Tsar and in 1894 an alliance was negotiated in 1894. Bismarck's central strategy of keeping France isolated was undone.

Aggressive Image

Above all, the Kaiser wanted "a place in the sun" for the German people. The problem was the only places left were in the shade. There was very little room left for new colonization in the early 20th Century. Never the less the Kaiser continued his grandfather's policy of building an enormous German military machine. This program in addition to often beligerant posturing helped to build Germany's image as a militarily aggressive nation. Under the Tirpitz Plan, built a naval fleet to rival that of Great Britain, suceeding in shifting England's attention from France, its traditional rival, to Germany.

Naval Arms Race

Wilhelm II played a key role in changing attitudes in Britain from viewing France as their major strategic threat to seeing Germany as a threat. HBC believes that Wilhelm's early childhood eperiences, including the sailor suits he wore are a major cause leading to the rivary which developed between the two countries. Briton seeme cntent with the power situation as it stood in 1870. Germany was dominate on the Continent. But the Low countries were independent and neutral and Germany had virtually no navy. Wilhelm the second was to change all of this and in the process help to change Britain from a potntial ally to a mortal enemy..


An analysis of the immediate civilian and military entourage of Kaiser shows advisers composed largely of the inflexible Prussian officer corps and the royal bureaucracy. Many historians believe that his choices of advisers, his predelection toward the military, and his personal desire to achieve the military glories of his predecesor combined to produce the ultimately fatal decisions that led ultimately to World War I. While it would be incorrect to place the blame for the War on the Kaiser. Many other forces in Europe led down the road to war. The Kaiser's intemperence and military outlook was certainly a key element.

World War I

Germany asa result of the Kaiser's disatrous foreign policy when World War I begun found itself figting an alliance of the most powerful nations in Europe. The Allies (France, Russia, and Britain) had human and material resources surpassing that of Germany. And if that was not bad enough, Wilhelm persued policies which alienated the United States and eventually drove it into the Allied camp. 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.


Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little, Brown, and Company, 1927).

Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August.


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Created: July 2, 2001
Last updated: 2:57 AM 1/6/2007