Germany's Last Kaiser - Wilhelm II and political decision-making

in Imperial Germany

by Dr Annika Mombauer. The Open University

new perspective. Volume 4. Number 3. March 1999


Summary: Wilhelm II, who became Kaiser of Germany in 1888, had a profound impact on German and European history. He dismissed Bismarck in 1890; dismantled the alliance system which had helped to maintain peace and, most fatally of all, encouraged an aggressive foreign policy which was to make the outbreak of a major European war more likely. He was mentally unstable, a probable consequence of his traumatic birth and his mother's reactions to the disability which resulted from it. He was unfit to rule, shown by his obsession with military matters and over-reliance on military advisers. Even after defeat in 1918 he continued to dream of world power.

The history of Germany in the decades immediately preceding the First World War is closely linked to Germany's last Kaiser, Wilhelm II. Owing to the peculiarities of the Prusso-German constitution, Wilhelm II, a

person ill-equipped for leadership, yet with megalomaniac aspirations, found himself in 1888 acceding to one of the most powerful thrones of the time, a position without any effective checks on his authority. His role in the events leading to war in 1914 is crucial for understanding the origins of the First World War, while his biography has fascinated his contemporaries and continues to fascinate countless historians. His troubled childhood gives historians some insights when trying to understand his complicated personality and his sometimes inexplicable actions. This article focuses in particular on his relationship with his military advisers, whom he valued above everyone else. His patronage of the military was one reason why they were able to influence policy-making in the pre-war years and why, to this day, Prussia and militarism seem almost synonymous to us.

A traumatic birth

On 27 January 1859, the first child of the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich and his wife Victoria was born in Berlin. One of the doctors present noted that the royal baby was born 'seemingly dead' after long and painful hours of labour, endured by his then only 18-year-old mother. It was a complicated and unexpected breech-birth and for the attendant physicians, both English and German, the struggle to save the baby's life was made more difficult by the fact that royal etiquette forced them to work under the long skirts of the Princess. The young mother had been heavily sedated with chloroform, a recent medical discovery whose risks were yet unknown. It was an invention that Queen Victoria had found to be so useful herself that she had personally ensured her eldest daughter Vicky received it for her first labour.1

The lifeless baby was quickly revived with hard slaps on its back, and despite such traumatic beginnings the outcome initially appeared to be hopeful. Victoria ecstatically described to her mother that her first-born made her 'the happiest person in the world, my little boy is such a darling; he is so pretty and so fair. I think he will be just like Papa [that is, Prince Albert]'.2 The ambitious young Crown Princess clearly had high hopes for her first-born.

Only later did it become apparent to the proud mother and those close to her that all was not well with the new-born. The forceful intervention of the physicians had caused injury to the Prince's neck and had severed some nerves leading to the left arm, leaving him permanently disabled, although the full extent of the damage was not apparent at the time and would only be revealed gradually. Despite the many cruel and imaginative ways the best doctors of the time attempted to cure the unhappy child's disability - with the application of electric currents, with so-called 'animal baths' in which a freshly slaughtered hare was wrapped around the lifeless arm, by strapping the 'good' arm to the boy's body, thus forcing him to attempt to use the useless one - the child that was destined to rule the most powerful military state of the late nineteenth century was unable even to get dressed by himself or cut up his own food. His mother was barely able to conceal her disappointment in her child, and the son, aware of the rejection, developed a strained love-hate relationship with his mother. Later in his life, these ambivalent feelings towards his English-born mother turned into a similarly strained relationship with England - with disastrous consequences.

Wilhelm and Germany

Why should the birth of a baby - albeit a royal one - attract the attention of historians? There is the obvious reason that the child in question was predestined to become Prussian King and German Kaiser. The Prince, named Wilhelm, like his grandfather who was King of Prussia and would become German Emperor in 1871, was to rule Germany for 30 years, from 1888 until his abdication and flight to the Netherlands in November 1918.

The baby who had suffered such a traumatic start grew up to be a troubled, hyperactive and difficult child and later a disturbed, cruel and sometimes even dangerous man. For some commentators the reasons for this lie not only in the horrific 'cures' for his physical disability, his harsh upbringing with an exaggerated emphasis on discipline and Prussian-style militarism, and the strained relationship with his mother, but also to some extent in the traumatic events surrounding the birth itself. Specifically, side-effects from the use of chloroform, together with prolonged oxygen starvation in the child, have led to speculations about possible brain damage, although it is impossible to prove such a thesis beyond doubt. Many contemporaries of the later Kaiser certainly worried about the monarch's mental state, his rages and mood swings. Even his best friend, Philipp Eulenburg, had to admit that the Kaiser's nerves were strained - at best - and in 1903 he predicted 'a total collapse'. Such a complete breakdown, however, never occurred.3

Wilhelm's fate and that of Germany were inextricably linked. The Kaiser has come to epitomise his long reign which has, quite aptly, become known as the Wilhelmine era. One of the first significant actions of the new Kaiser, who acceded to the throne at the age of 29, was the dismissal of the long-serving and powerful Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890. Under Wilhelm's rule, Germany developed into one of the main powers in Europe and, abandoning the 'Iron Chancellor's' complicated but effective system of alliances, attempted even to become the most powerful nation by striving for a position of hegemony in Europe and ultimately worldwide. His rule ended with Germany's collapse at the end of the worst war the world had ever seen. It was a war that the Kaiser had often advocated and that his bellicose foreign policy had directly led to. Yet, when it came to it, he had shied away from the ultimate decision to go to war, and he could not have foreseen the extent of the carnage that he and his fellow officers were responsible for by unleashing war in 1914.

Already in his lifetime, Wilhelm's contemporaries regarded him as an enigma. Commentators attributed to him immense powers and possibilities of decision-making and of ruling the country. However, they also commented on the Kaiser's insistence on being personally involved in decisions on every level, his embarrassing diplomatic faux pas, his irate marginal notes and ill-considered orders to his subordinates. In many ways, Wilhelm II was a terrible liability to the political rulers of the time.

The importance of the Kaiser in government

Some historians have dismissed the Kaiser's importance, precisely because his leadership was so unpredictable and often ineffectual. It is the point of view of the so-called 'Bielefeld School' (centred on Hans-Ulrich Wehler at the German University of Bielefeld) that the 'personal regime' of Wilhelm II never really existed, but rather that it was precisely the lack of a powerful and capable figurehead that led to the 'polycratic chaos' of Wilhelmine decision-making.4 Yet, John Röhl, the main proponent of the view that Wilhelm was decisive in shaping the 30 years of his reign, despite and even because of his shortcomings, points out that so many of the Kaiser's contemporaries felt that his importance was profound, a fact that cannot be ignored. One example of such a contemporary point of view is that of Walther Rathenau, the influential industrialist and acquaintance of the Kaiser, who summed up Wilhelm's importance after his flight to the Netherlands in 1919: 'He wanted power and influence, above all he wanted to see and feel his own influence at work. He made his mark indelibly upon an epoch of German history, just as it has left its mark on him'.5

Wilhelm himself would certainly have agreed with those historians who have come to rate his importance and influence highly. In May 1891, for example, he declared: 'There is only one man in charge of the Reich, and I will not tolerate any other.'6 The Kaiser considered his position to be that of the all-highest and ultimate decision-maker. His megalomaniac aspirations are expressed forcefully in his following statement.

I have long ago made my programme of how I want to be German Kaiser, how I conceive of the German Kaiser: deep into the most distant jungles of other parts of the world, everyone should know the voice of the German Kaiser. Nothing should occur on this earth without having first heard him. His word must have its weight placed on every scale … Also domestically the word of the Kaiser should be everything.7


The Kaiser was happiest when he was surrounded by his military and naval entourage whom he valued above everyone else - in fact, he had only contempt for civilians. If Prussia conjures up military imagery to this day, this is at least partly due to Wilhelm II, under whose reign an exaggerated cult of the military was practised. There had been a strong military element to the Prince's upbringing, and he had fancied himself as a second Frederick the Great, his famous ancestor. His surprisingly bellicose nature and aggressive behaviour no doubt stemmed at least in part from the insecurities that his troubled childhood and disability had created in him. He could not wait to accede to the throne when his father died after only 99 days as Kaiser, and even his own mother was frightened of what he might do once he had become the highest decision-maker in Germany. When he became Kaiser he was at the same time supreme commander of the Army and Navy, by right of his Oberste Kommandogewalt (supreme power of command) over Prussia's and Germany's armed forces. It was his prerogative to decide all important appointments in the military as well as civilian sphere - from the Chief of Staff to the Imperial Chancellor, all office holders were dependent on the Kaiser's patronage. He surrounded himself with all the pomp of the Prussian military, its decorative and ritualistic practices and traditional male-dominated culture. His military entourage gave him both a sense of importance and of belonging. It was with the help of his military friends and advisers that Wilhelm ultimately conducted policy and that some of his most damaging influence on policy-making could be felt.

Whenever questions of importance were discussed, Wilhelm turned to his military advisers. It was his opinion that the civilian decision-makers were ultimately dispensable, or that in any case they would lack courage to implement tough decisions. In the case of the infamous war council meeting of 8 December 1912, for example, the Kaiser did not invite any civilians to the ad hoc meeting that he convened at his castle during the diplomatic crisis brought about by the Balkan Wars. The exclusion of civilian decision-makers from this important meeting does not prove the relative unimportance of that event, as some historians would argue, but rather the contrary: it is precisely because the Kaiser attached such importance to the meeting that only those advisers whom he considered important were invited. 'Mere' civilians, even the Imperial Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, were simply to be informed of the outcome of the meeting and confronted with the decisions made.

Wilhelm and the origins of the Great War

The meeting of December 1912 is an illuminating example of the way decision-making was conducted in Imperial Germany, and will serve here to illustrate the Kaiser's influence and importance. The meeting was conducted against the international background of the Balkan Wars, which broke out between the Balkan League and Turkey on 8 October 1912. Initially, the Kaiser had displayed a surprisingly peaceful attitude, having decided to stay out of the conflict. By December, however, the crisis threatened to escalate, and a European war appeared increasingly likely. The news from London of Britain's resolve not to stay neutral in a possible conflict on the Continent, but to come to France's aid in case of hostilities between Germany and France, was met by the Kaiser with absolute - if characteristic - outrage. Any doubts one might have harboured regarding Britain's alleged friendly attitude, he raged, were now dispersed and it was time to act. The military and naval advisers that he invited to his castle in Berlin agreed. Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the General Staff, explained that he considered a war unavoidable and advocated it 'the sooner the better', arguing that the current diplomatic situation was as favourable as it had ever been. From a military point of view, the position was clear-cut: Germany would in time lose the slight advantage she currently possessed over her future enemies, and war would soon cease to be a feasible option for Germany's decision-makers. The Chief of Staff's often quoted words 'war now or never' are to be taken quite literally.

In the event, the State Secretary of the Navy, Admiral von Tirpitz, objected to these immediate plans, requesting that hostilities be postponed for approximately 18 months until the Navy was more fully prepared for such a conflict. The more bellicose participants of the meeting agreed only very reluctantly to such a delay.

This is not the place to discuss fully the differing interpretations of this meeting or to outline the historiographical debates surrounding its importance.8 In the context of this article, it is sufficient to say that the war council can serve as an impressive example of how civilian input was excluded from military and political decision-making in Imperial Germany at the highest level. The responsible politicians were merely informed about the war council (a term used by the disgruntled Chancellor upon hearing that such an important meeting had occurred without his knowledge). The Kaiser felt completely within his rights to call such a meeting and to consider its decisions binding. While the delay that Tirpitz advocated was accepted only reluctantly by him and Moltke, the decision was made to begin preparing public opinion for a war against Russia. The Chancellor was given the Kaiser's order to arrange via the press that the public be informed of Germany's interests at stake in an Austro-Serbian conflict. Although historians disagree about the ultimate importance of this meeting, it is not true to say that there were no immediate results. That, in the words of Admiral von Müller who was also present at the meeting, 'the outcome was pretty much zero', refers to his wish of immediate military action, which had indeed been postponed. The mood of regret among Germany's top military decision-makers speaks for itself.

Wilhelm's responsibility

What, then, was the Kaiser's role in all this? It was he, ultimately, who had to sanction a decision to go to war, he who finally signed the relevant mobilisation orders, as he did in early August 1914. His tactless blunders on the international diplomatic stage did much to prepare the ground for hostilities among the major European powers of the day, as did his expressed desire to achieve a position of world power for Germany. It is an unfortunate coincidence that the most powerful position in Germany was to be occupied by a megalomaniac monarch who was ultimately so ill-suited to occupying such an influential office. In the events leading to the outbreak of war, the role of the Kaiser must therefore be seen as a crucial factor.

It is futile, of course, to speculate how German history might have followed a different path, given different circumstances. The Kaiser's birth, his upbringing and his resulting unstable character, his fraught relationship with his mother which was echoed in his subsequent love-hate relationship with England, the country which epitomised everything his mother stood for, cannot ultimately account for all the events that combined to produce the atrocities of the First World War. They are, however, important factors in explaining some of the Kaiser's actions, although not, of course, in excusing them. A more stable ruler, less bent on revenge and less driven by the desire to prove himself might have been able to find more peaceful ways out of international crises, or might never have provoked them in the first place. Moreover, a more capable monarch might not have given such free rein to the military leaders in Germany, men who were bent on war as time was running out. Soon, they feared, military conflict would cease to be an option for the continuation of politics by other means.

Continuities from Wilhelm to Hitler

After the war, the victorious allies were in no doubt that Wilhelm II was personally responsible for the coming of war in 1914, and they included him on their list of war criminals wanted in connection with the atrocities of the war and the suffering that it had brought to millions of soldiers and civilians. Wilhelm, having fled Germany in November 1918, had been given refuge in the Netherlands and was able to stay there despite the allies' request of extradition. He, like his military advisers, never accepted responsibility for the war, and like them never accepted that the German army had been defeated. It was easier to believe that the German soldier had been 'stabbed in the back'. Dreams of world power, of Weltmachtpolitik, were merely postponed by many of Germany's leading military men in 1918, and the ex-Kaiser was among those who, after 1933, pinned high hopes on Adolf Hitler to give a new lease of life to Wilhelm's dream of German hegemony in Europe.


1 The gruesome details of this birth were recorded by one of the physicians present. Cf. John C.G. Röhl, Young Wilhelm. The Kaiser's early life, 1859-1888, Cambridge 1998. For a briefer, English account of the events of 27 January 1859, see Röhl, 'Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Suitable Case for Treatment?' in The Kaiser and his Court, Cambridge 1994.

2 Quoted in Thomas A. Kohut, Wilhelm II and the Germans. A Study in Leadership, Oxford 1991, p.32.

3Röhl, The Kaiser and his Court, pp.23/24.

4 H.-U. Wehler, The German Empire, 1871-1918, Leamington Spa 1985.

5 Quoted in Deist, 'Kaiser Wilhelm II in the context of his military and naval entourage', in John Röhl and Nicholas Sombart (eds), Kaiser Wilhelm II. New Interpretations, Cambridge 1982, p. 188.

6 Quoted in ibid, p.171.

7 Conversation with Eulenburg, quoted in Robert G.L. Waite, 'Leadership Pathologies: The Kaiser and the Führer and the Decisions for War in 1914 and 1939', Betty Glad (ed), Psychological Dimensions of War, London, New Delhi 1990, p. 150.

8 On the extensive literature on the war council see, for example, the detailed bibliography in Röhl, The Kaiser and his Court, pp.255f.

Words and concepts to note

Megalomanic: having an irrational passion for unlimited power.

Epitomise: typify, embody.

Hegemony: dominant influence of one state over others.

Bellicose: war-like.

Faux pas: blunder, literally 'false step(s)'.

Enigma: puzzle.

Polycratic: deriving not from one but from many sources of power, and therefore incoherent.

Ad hoc: improvised.

Questions to consider

w What were the probable influences of Wilhelm's birth and upbringing on his personality?

w What powers did Wilhelm have as Kaiser and which important decisions did he make during his first few years as Kaiser?

w What was the significance of the war council meeting of 8 December 1912?

w What responsibility should be assigned to Wilhelm for the outbreak of war in 1914?

Further Reading: David Cannadine, 'Kaiser Wilhelm II and the British Monarchy' in T.C.W. Blanning and D. Cannadine (eds), History and Biography. Essays in Honour of Derek Beales, Cambridge, 1996; Isabel Hull, The Entourage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1888-1918, Cambridge, 1982; Thomas A. Kohut, Wilhelm II and the Germans. A Study in Leadership, Oxford, 1991; John Röhl and Nicholas Sombart (eds), Kaiser Wilhelm II. New Interpretations, Cambridge, 1982; John Röhl, The Kaiser and his Court, London, 1995; Lamar Cecil, Wilhelm II. Vol I: Prince and Emperor, 1859-1900, Chapel Hill/London 1989, Vol II:Emperor and Exile, 1900-1941, Chapel Hill/London 1996; John C.G. Röhl, Young Wilhelm. The Kaiser's early life, 1859-1888, Cambridge 1998, the first volume of the latest and most comprehensive biography of the Kaiser.

Germany's Last Kaiser - Wilhelm II and political decision-making in Imperial Germany by Annika Mombauer. © new perspective 1999

Dr Annika Mombauer, who completed research on Helmuth von Moltke and the German General Staff 1906-16 at the University of Sussex, is a lecturer at the Open University.

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