William II (1859–1941)

views updated

William II (1859–1941)

William II (1859–1941), last of the Hohenzollern rulers. William II was emperor of Germany and king of Prussia from 1888 until his forced abdication in 1918.

In the crucial years before World War I, William II was the most powerful and most controversial figure in Europe. His domineering personality and the comparatively vague political structure of the post-Bismarck state combined to make his reign over the most advanced country in Europe both authoritarian and archaic.

William was born on Jan. 27, 1859. He was the son of Frederick III and Princess Victoria of England. William's views of his prerogatives were strongly influenced by his Prussian military education, amidst the subservience and flattery of his fellow cadets. After completing his studies at the University of Bonn, William entered the army and in 1881 married Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein.

William was an intelligent, dashing, impulsive young man who loved military display and believed in the divine nature of kingship; his strong personality overcame the serious handicap (for a horseman) of a withered left arm. His father found William immature, but Chancellor Otto von Bismarck considered him a more acceptable successor to his grandfather (and to Frederick the Great) than his liberal father. Conservative circles in Germany breathed a sigh of relief when the death of William I in 1888 was quickly followed by that of Frederick III. William II ascended the throne that year.

Differences between the young kaiser and the aging Bismarck soon were public knowledge. Serious questions of policy separated them, such as whether to renew the anti-Socialist legislation on the books since 1878, and in foreign affairs, whether to keep the alliance with Russia as well as with Austria, as Bismarck insisted. But basically the split was a personal one, the question being which man was to rule Germany. William forced Bismarck to resign in 1890, and thereafter he steered his own course.

It seemed to mark the beginning of a new era. William was the representative of a new generation that had grown up since German unification, and he was at home in the world of technology and of neo-romantic German nationalism. Indeed, William gave the impression of dynamism. He was always in the public eye and caught, for a time, the imagination of his country. But he cared little for the day-to-day problems of government, and his "policies" were often shallow, short-lived, and contradictory. Thus the "Labor Emperor" of the early years of the reign soon became the implacable enemy of the Social Democratic working-class movement. In foreign policy his inconsistencies were even more glaring. England and Russia, in particular, were alternately wooed and rebuffed; both ultimately ended up as foes. Sometimes the Kaiser's sounder instincts were overridden by his advisers, as in the Morocco crisis of 1905, which William, who was essentially peaceful in intent, had not wished to provoke. But mainly his mistakes were his own.

Foreign opinion concerning the Kaiser was much more hostile than German opinion, and his often bellicose and pompous utterances did much to tarnish Germany's image abroad. Nevertheless, World War I and postwar depictions of him as the incarnation of all that was evil in Germany were grossly unfair. So little was he the martial leader of a militaristic nation that his authority in fact faded during World War I, and the military assumed increasing control. Belatedly, William tried to rally a war-weary nation with promises of democratic reforms, but at the end of the war the German Republic was proclaimed without serious opposition. William abdicated in November 1918.

After his abdication William lived in quiet retirement in Doorn, Holland, not actively involved with the movement for a restoration of the monarchy. He died in Doorn on June 4, 1941.


About this article

William II (1859–1941)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article