WILLIAM II (in German, Wilhelm II, 1859–1941, ruled 1888–1918), German kaiser and king of Prussia.
William II, the last king of Prussia and German emperor, possessed a royal lineage that might well have been the envy of many another European sovereign. He was the eldest grandson of both the first German emperor, William I (r. 1871–1888), and Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901), and was a descendant of Russian tsars as well. From the moment of his birth in 1859 he was destined for a great future but also beset by handicap, for as a result of his protracted delivery his left arm was paralyzed for life. Although the child learned to accept this misfortune and became remarkably adept at sports, his mother, Victoria, was mortified that her son was less than physically perfect. She made her disappointment evident, and thus began the pronounced estrangement between mother and son that endured until her death when William was forty-two.
William's education from the time that he was seven until he reached eighteen and was ready for a university was in the hands of the stern, unappeasable and relentless Georg Hinzpeter. No wonder that in 1877, when William finally escaped his grasp, he found great pleasure in his new life at the University of Bonn, where, however, he was an indifferent student. After two years he had had enough and took up a military career that was infinitely more to his liking. In the army, he would declare, he found not only his true vocation but also the warm family atmosphere that his mother had deliberately withheld. William's fellow officers greeted him cordially, but very few could detect any real military talent in their future ruler. Government officials, who periodically attempted to introduce William to diplomatic or domestic affairs, similarly found him unimpressive.
By the time William was in his mid-twenties he was an object of some concern. Willful, conceited, lazy, and unjustifiably self-impressed, he was to his father, the genuinely heroic Crown Prince, a bogus "compleat lieutenant" and to Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), the imperial chancellor, a loquacious nullity. The thought of such a stripling on the throne was disquieting, but William II would follow old William I, born in 1797, and the Crown Prince, born in 1831. Young William's succession, it seemed, would be postponed for at least a decade or two, during which time he might somehow manage to become more mature. That optimistic hope fell to pieces in the fall of 1887, when the Crown Prince was diagnosed as suffering from a fatal carcinoma of the larynx. Whether he would live to succeed his ninety-year-old father seemed in doubt. William I died in March 1888, and ninety-nine days later the Crown Prince, who had succeeded him as Emperor Frederick III, expired from his malady. William II, at twenty-nine, was now the German kaiser and king of Prussia.
As ruler, the new kaiser was persuaded that he was endowed by God Almighty with powers and responsibilities and that his authority, thoroughly upheld by both the Prussian and imperial constitutions, was to be personally exercised however he wished. William was avidly supported in this estimation by his entourage, men frequently military by profession, almost entirely sycophantic in behavior, and whose principal qualification for appointment to the entourage was their unquestioning allegiance to the young ruler. This inflation of William II's ego was also served by his wife, the Empress Augusta Victoria (1858–1921), a lackluster, prosaic woman who lived entirely in her consort's shadow. The first casualty of William's personalized monarchy was Bismarck, a man of titanic self-assurance and Caesarian mien, who was sent packing early in 1890. The new chancellor, General Leo von Caprivi (1831–1899), found that the emperor and his entourage could not effectively be resisted, an experience
that his successor in 1894, Prince Chlodwig von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst (1819–1901), also found to be true. Hohenlohe would last until 1900, when he yielded to Bernhard von Bülow (1849–1929), who was known as "the eel" for his oleaginous manner and suave handling of his imperial master. Although insistent on making full use of his prerogative, William was so inconstant and dilatory, so prone to sudden changes of opinion and to new enthusiasms, he in fact was not the supreme autocrat he believed himself to be. The so-called persönliches Regiment (personal regime) was actually exercised by his aristocratic minions in the military and civil bureaucracy.
The work that William's dutiful servants had to perform was complicated because of the kaiser's incessant, bombastic intrusions. The last kaiser believed himself to be a genius, especially at warfare and diplomacy, two areas he preferred to domestic affairs. Resolutely moral, anti-Catholic, and Francophobe, he wrote France off as racially inferior and eternally inimical to the German Empire. Toward Great Britain, the land of his disliked mother's birth, William was ambivalent. He envied its wealth but loathed what he considered its moral laxity and lust for power. The Slavs, like the French, were a lesser breed, but the Russian tsars, being like himself—autocrats of limitless power—could be useful allies. Since the Italians were beneath notice as Latins and degenerates and the minuscule kings from the house of Savoy little more than hairy dwarfs, only Austria-Hungary was a truly suitable ally for imperial Germany. William greatly admired Emperor Francis Joseph I (r. 1848–1916), and one of the very few consistent strands in his life was his devotion to the Habsburg sovereign. In diplomacy, William fostered the alliance of 1879 with Austria-Hungary, hoped in vain to rope Russia in as an ally, and alienated the British by his offensive behavior and by the construction beginning in 1898 of a vast battle-ship-based navy. By 1914, Germany had no allies other than Austria-Hungary, and that was perhaps more a liability than an asset.
Within Germany, William aspired to make himself popular, and to achieve this aim he began his reign trying to pose as the friend of the working class. This did not capture the multitudes and William eventually grew resentful of the ever increasing rise of the doctrinarily Marxist Social Democratic party, which following the elections of 1912 became the largest faction in the imperial legislature. Meanwhile, William had alienated the second most numerous party, the Catholic Center, by his resolute prejudice against Catholicism, nor did he have many admirers among the middle parties representing the interests of business and commerce. As a result, William's governments staggered through a series of parliamentary crises and the regime was increasingly discredited. William's own stature sank in popularity as a result of these difficulties and also because of a variety of scandals, some of them surrounding accusations of homosexuality involving a number of his closest associates in the entourage. The reign of the last kaiser was not only full of unresolved crises, it was also messy and unedifying.
Finally, William's regime was dreary. The kaiser's court, though splendid and run like clockwork, was a bore. The throne was adamantly opposed to any innovations in the arts and patronized only those who praised the sovereign and delivered traditional works of second- or third-rate quality. There was no place in William's artistic galaxy for Richard Georg Strauss (1864–1949) or Max Liebermann (1847–1935) or Gerhart Hauptmann (1862–1946).
Germany's antediluvian political system was paradoxically coexistent with one of the most remarkable economic upsurges any nation in Europe enjoyed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Industry prospered and commerce spread around the world. William II is not entitled to any credit on this score, for he was snobbish toward the middle class although he envied their wealth. An occasional entrepreneur, notably the Krupps of Essen or Albert Ballin (1857–1918), the Hamburg shipping magnate, might fraternize with the kaiser, but none was ever part of the inner circle, and William remained as ignorant of economics as he was of almost everything else.
In 1913, William celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ascension to the Prussian and imperial throne. The occasion was appropriately pompous but also rather contrived, for the sovereign being honored was neither popular nor notably respected. Throughout his reign there were suspicions that he was mentally unbalanced, and many who knew him well believed this to be the case, citing as evidence William's irrepressible loquacity, incessant traveling, astounding tactlessness, and nervous prostration at moments of crisis. William in fact may have been the victim of porphyria, a genetic disorder that has mental as well as physical symptoms. The kaiser's Germany was rich, it was powerfully armed, but it had few friends, a number of notable enemies, and a marked lack of internal political stability. Just a year after the observance of the anniversary, Germany found itself at war, blockaded at sea and outnumbered on land. The fate of Germany, in that ominous moment in its history, rested on a man utterly unequal to the challenge, an emperor who, for all his splendor, was a vacuous, blundering epigone who reduced his splendid inheritance to inglorious ruin.
Röhl, John C. G., ed. Philipp Eulenburgs Politische Korrespondenz. 3 vols. Boppard am Rhein, 1976–1983.
Cecil, Lamar. Wilhelm II: Prince and Emperor, 1859–1900. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989.
——. Wilhelm II: Emperor and Exile, 1900–1941. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996.
Hull, Isabel V. The Entourage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1888–1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.
Röhl, John C. G. Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859–1888. Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Rebecca Wallach. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.
——. The Kaiser's Personal Monarchy, 1888–1900. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.
Röhl, John C. G., and Nicolaus Sombart, eds. Kaiser Wilhelm II. New Interpretations: The Corfu Papers. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.
The last of the Hohenzollern rulers, William II (1859-1941) 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 neoromantic 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 warweary 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.
Most studies of William II have been in a popular vein. Two good recent biographies are Virginia Cowles, The Kaiser (1963), and Michael Balfour, The Kaiser and His Time (1964). William's autobiographical My Early Life (trans. 1926) ends at 1888. □
David Richard Bates
Barlow, F. , William Rufus (1983).
William II (ca. 1058-1100) called William Rufus, "the Red," was king of England from 1087 to 1100. He attempted to wrest Normandy from his brother, and he quarreled about his rights over the Church with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury.
William II was the second surviving son of William I and Matilda of Flanders. On the death of William I his lands were divided; his elder son Robert became Duke of Normandy, while William Rufus received England. He was crowned on Sept. 26, 1087. He had almost at once to face a rebellion in favor of Robert, led by their uncle Odo, Earl of Kent and Bishop of Bayeux. The rebels were defeated largely with the help of English levies, to whom William promised, among other things, less taxation and milder forest laws, but he did not keep his promise. In 1091 he attacked Normandy with some success; by the treaty of Rouen, Robert let him hold what he had won in return for help in restoring order and regaining the county of Maine. These promises too were only partially fulfilled.
Archbishop Lanfranc died in 1089. William, who seems to have been openly irreligious, kept the see vacant and exploited the leaderless Church through his able and unpopular minister Ranulf Flambard. But in 1093, thinking he was dying, he appointed as archbishop Anselm, Abbot of Bec, a leading theologian, who made every effort to decline the office. The King recovered, shook off his superstitious fears, and soon quarreled with the archbishop. The first dispute arose over the recognition of one of two rival popes; more trouble arose over the poor quality of the archbishop's knights; in addition William would not allow Anselm to visit the Pope to obtain his pallium. A council at Rockingham (February 1095) failed to make a decision about the arch-bishop's rights. The King wished for his deposition but was outmaneuvered by a papal legate to England.
In 1096 Duke Robert decided to go on crusade. To finance his expedition he offered to pledge the duchy to William for 100,000 marks. William raised the money in England and so got control of Normandy, where he restored order and attacked Maine and the French Vexin. He was considering a similar bargain with the Duke of Aquitaine, but on Aug. 2, 1100, while hunting in the New Forest with his brother Henry, he was killed by an arrow shot by Walter Tirel. His body was brought by a forester to Winchester and buried without ceremony in the Cathedral, while his brother seized his treasure and his throne.
William was an able ruler and in his disputes with Anselm was only claiming rights which his father had exercised. His reputation suffered because he was a homosexual and an irreligious man in an age when prejudices were strong and nearly all history was written by churchmen.
Useful information about William Rufus is provided in the biography of his brother by Charles Wendell David, Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy (1920). A good account of the England of William's time is in A. Lane Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216 (1951; 2d ed. 1955), and of Normandy in Charles Homer Haskins, Norman Institutions (1918).
Barlow, Frank, William Rufus, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. □