Kaiser Wilhelm II / Kaiser William II
The first King of Prussia was Elector Friedrich of Brandenburg. He assumed the crown as Friedrich I in 1701. He was followed by Friedrich Wilhelm I in 1713. Then came Friedrich II (Frederick the Great) in 1740. He was followed by Friedrich Wilhelm II in 1786, then came Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1797. (This is the King who fought Napoleon.) Friedrich Wilhelm IV followed in 1840, then Wilhelm I in 1861. He became German Emperor in 1871. His son, Friedrich III, succeeded in 1888 and reigned for three months. His son, Wilhelm II, began his reign in 1888.
The Prince Regent's only son, Prince Frederick William of Prussia, had married in 1857 the Princess Royal of Great Britain, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. At first the alliance was not very popular, either in England or in Prussia. On 27 January 1859 the heir to Prussia's throne was born. Five weeks later the little Prince was christened, receiving the names of Friedrich Wilhelm Victor Albert - in token of his German and British descent. From an early age Prince William showed great wilfulness, a characteristic which stood out in marked contrast to his slight, appearance, and to a certain physical awkwardness, due to an unfortunate want of power in the left arm. As the years went by his wilfulness increased.
The year 1888 possessed a special and memorable significance in the history of Germany. It was the year of the Three Emperors, witnessing the passing from the scene of two figures who had long been active and familiar, who had been connected with great events and high transactions in the realm of politics and war, witnessing also the arrival upon the stage of a new figure, quite unknown, of quite incalculable import, whose probable destinies the world was in no position even vaguely and loosely to forecast, so little had his personality been revealed. William I died on March 9, 1888, at the age of ninety-one; his son and successor, Frederick III, after a reign of a hundred days of physical agony and spiritual fortitude, died on June 15th, at the age of fifty-six; and William II, twenty-nine years old, on that day ascended the most powerful throne in Europe. Frederick the Great ascended the throne when he was twenty-eight years old, while Friedrich Wilhelm I and III were even younger. Plagued with insecurities and physically fragile (he had a withered left arm), Wilhelm II perceived his father's liberalism as a weakness and resolved to rule with a firm hand.
A striking and frank appraisal of the new Emperor was given by his father, Frederick III. Writing to Bismarck in October, 1886, Frederick says, ".... considering the unripeness and inexperience of my eldest son, together with his leaning toward vanity and presumption and his overweening estimation of himself, I must frankly express my opinion that it is dangerous to bring him into touch with foreign affairs." The accession of the Emperor William II, on June 15, 1888, brought relief to Bismarck and seemed to assure the indefinite continuance of his power. The new monarch, twenty-nine years of age, was of an active mind, of a fertile imagination, self-confident, ambitious. He showed in his earliest acts that under him there would be no dallying with liberalism. In proclamations to the army and to the people he manifested his enthusiasm for the old and established Prussian institutions and Prussian life.
The world over, his name appeared daily, now as a menace, now as that of a strong-armed friend. No features are more widely known than the firmly set jaw and upturned mustaches of the Kaiser. And yet no one knew the German Emperor himself, nor could any one tell what he would do next. His own people have ceased to wonder, and accept his will as eternal law, and the other Europeans had become accustomed to believe that however mad he seems there is always method in his acts. His picturesqueness, a penchant for saying and doing the dramatic thing, his frank strenuousness, all the sides of the man which gave him an appearance of attitudinizing are seen to be natural.
To a man with this kind of a mind the dream of World Empire must have come very easily. What he wanted was the outward semblance of Empire and for this there were no waste places left. Gradually all the most unlovely features of the Teuton character began to blossom. Poisonous toadstools sprang up everywhere. Germany, that had been a sane, sober, thrifty and domestic country, became loud, vulgar, self- assertive, intolerant and altogether hateful to the world, and even to its own citizens, and the Kaiser made himself the embodiment of this spirit.
Character sketchs of Kaiser Wilhelm II figured him variously with all manner of sensational and preposterous adjuncts, as a Kubla Khan, the Switchback of the Continent, A Hair Trigger, A Toro, A Latter-Day Journalist, A supreme type of the most vigorous type of latter-day journalist, A Prussian Lord Randolph, A Second Napoleon, A General Gordon, A man whose immense vitality seems unable to exhaust itself in labors at which relations and neighbors stand aghast, A Shouting Emperor, A Summus Episcopus, An Educational Reformer, and so on throughout the whole range of tumid and vapid display. Immediately after the Armistice he was described as a criminal who ought to be tried for his life. And thirty years earlier the "Spectator," when classifying the great men of the day, put him in a class by himself as the only genius of the first rank.
He had a sort of superficial interest in everything on which the German sun shone. He would talk not unintelligently to bankers about international finance, to motor-car manufacturers about the relative merits of new fuels, to painters about art, to writers about literature. All his opinions were strong and many of them were shallow or wrong-headed. Undoubtedly he had a cult for England, a longing to be treated as an equal in the craft by English yachtsmen. English country life, with its accompaniments of hunting and shooting was his ideal, the English tailor was superior to every tailor in the Fatherland. To him, therefore, it was a tragedy when he broke with England.
While in many respects he was a thoroughly modern man, he was as pronounced a reactionary, a man of the past, in other essentials. With one foot he stood in the eighteenth century, in the century of Louis XV and absolutism ; and with the other he touched the twentieth century, the century of electricity and of an untrammeled press. In his political creed he was his grandfather's son, not his father's. He was an autocrat by belief, by training, by temperament, and not a constitutional monarch. He wished to rule as well as to govern. He believed neither in a free people nor a free press. He profoundly believed in the divine right of kings and in the providential character of his own mission. He believed that a monarch can do no wrong, and that he, with all the other rulers by inheritance and divine right, was fashioned of a different and better clay than his subjects.
His love of uniform was frequently emphasised. By one account he possessed exactly 295 different uniforms, thirty of which were in constant use. His predilections were formerly, for the brilliant dress of the Cuirassiers - the White Cuirassiers, in which he appeared before Pope Leo XIII. Later he prefered the relatively unornate tenue of the first regiment of Grenadiers of the Guard. Fourteen valets, military or civil, plus two head valets, were said to be specially charged with the care of the wardrobe, and the Grand Marshal of the Court personally supervises the work. Three particular branches of service were put in motion every time the Kaiser wants a costume - the garments department, that of the accessories, and that of the decorations.
William made it a rule to always wear the uniform of the principal regiment garrisoned in the place visited ; the attendant unable to draw from among the baggage the military dress desired would quickly find himself dropped from the salary list. When, in addition, it is stated that a cavalry uniform, for instance, consists of fourteen distinct parts, the reader may gain an idea of the work involved by these sudden journeys, for one uniform would of course not do ; there must be three or four in reserve, and also civilian and hunting dress.
The Emperor had a strong dislike of the press. It was mainly owing to his own influence that that very modest measure of comparative liberty which the German press enjoyed under his grandfather and his father was curtailed, until even the semblance of it had almost disappeared. The principal reason for the Emperor's antipathy to the press was his personal experience, especially during the first five years of his reign, when public opinion was considerably prejudiced against him. It so happens that the Kaiser was inordinately vain, and extremely susceptible to criticism, and impatient of it. Probably no man, however well balanced, could pass through the fire of adulation, such as was the Kaiser's daily fare, and come out unscathed.
Twenty-one months after Wilhelm assumed the throne, to the amazement of the world and to the satisfaction of numerous enemies, Bismarck was dismissed from the position he had held for twenty-eight years, which he had rendered memorable, as well as most profitable to the House of Hohenzollern. His dismissal was a famous incident in the history of the nineteenth century. Bismarck had declared that Germany was "satiated" with glory and power and had reached the limit of territorial ambition. He particularly opposed the program of colonial expansion which was now being broached. In so doing he aroused the ire of the Emperor, whose dream of world empire now obsessed him. Too proud to share the imperial power, William II resolved to dismiss the aged pilot of the ship of state. The ostensible cause of the rupture was the effort of Bismarck to revive special legislation against the Socialists in 1890. William had been seeking to placate them, and he deposed the iron chancellor as a further sop to that body of radicals.
Upon Kaiser Wilhelm II acension to power, he at once threw down the gauntlet to England, declaring pompously that "Germany must be supreme on sea as well as land." England was even then so unsuspicious of her great rival that Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, was persuaded by the Kaiser to give him the island of Heligoland, "the Gibraltar of the North," which commands the entire eastern coast of Britain, in exchange for two parcels of land in Africa.
His frequent addresses were often marked by a frenzy that was maniacal, as when he constantly referred to the fact that his throne was "founded upon bloodshed" and was "maintained by the bayonets of his faithful army." On another occasion he declared he owed his "awful responsibility to the Creator alone, and that no man, no minister, no parliament, can relieve the people of their allegiance to him." Addressing the soldiers at Potsdam, he urged them to remember that "they were his, body and soul, and if he ordered them to shoot their own parents they must do it without a murmur." When his troops were departing for China to subdue the Boxers he bade them "remember you are Huns ; spare not, slay the enemy without pity."
Then was heard the cry that Germany must have a "place in the sun." Unfortunately for her, all the best places in the sun were already occupied by older nations. The Prussians decided to oust some of those nations from their colonial possessions. The most extreme among these colonial Chauvinists were the "Pan-Germans." They declared it Germany's duty to reconquer as soon as possible all countries, or parts of countries, that have been at any time affiliated with the ancient German Empire since the days of Charlemagne. This affiliation included, of course, the whole of France, Italy, Russia, Hungary, Holland, and Belgium.
On 09 November 1918 Chancellor Max announced the abdication of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and the appointment of Friedrich Ebert (vice-president of the Social Democratic party) as Imperial Chancellor pending the creation of a "conititutional German national assembly." Berlin came under the control of a Workmen's ind Soldiers' Council, which ordered a general strike. After a hasty consultation it was decided that, with the growing spirit of rebellion that prevailed even among the troops connected with the general staff, the Kaiser must be got into a place of safety at all hazards. A motor car was brought to the door. The car then drove off and took him safely to Count Bentick's house in Holland. He committed the one crime that can never be forgiven by Germans: he abandoned his people in their extremity and fled the country.
Kaiser Wilhelm II died in Doorn on 5. June 1941 with the German occupiers on guard at the gates of his estate. He is buried in Huis Doorn, Doorn, Netherlands. His wish that no swastikas be displayed at his funeral was not heeded.
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