Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Life in Power

Kaiser Wilhelm II

'I am for hanging the Kaiser,' announced the Labour MP George Barnes, during an election speech at Netherton in November 1918. At the end of the First World War, Wilhelm II was the object of mass hatred. The poster art of Allied wartime propaganda portrayed him as a bestial blood-soaked creature stooped over the corpses of raped Belgian women, or strutting ape-like before burning libraries, rejoicing in the destruction of civilization. Learned treatises bristling with footnotes were published to demonstrate to a more educated public the Kaiser's prime culpability in the horrors that had engulfed Europe since 1914. 'When all is said and done,' one such study announced in 1917, 'the German Emperor...is the responsible author of the misfortunes that afflict the world'; another spoke of his 'complete and direct responsibility' for the catastrophe of 1914-18. Small wonder that so many joined in the call for the execution by hanging of this 'enemy of the human race'.

 Wilhelm II with his father at Balmoral Castle in 1863.
Even within Germany, the empire over which Wilhelm II had reigned for thirty years, a torrent of denunciation followed his fall from the throne. The last German Kaiser was diagnosed as a 'psychopath' who led his subjects down the road to run. The self-serving memoirs of prominent figures who had served under him did little to improve the picture. 'Every new publication makes the image of this weakling, coward, wrote Harry Graf Kessler in 1928. 'There is not a single trait in him that could arouse sympathy or pity; he is entirely contemptible.

Dropping the Pilot, first published in the British magazine
Punch, March 1890,  showing German Emperor
Wilhelm II  and the leaving Chancellor
Otto von Bismarck. 
Eight decades on, at the opening of a new century, the emotion and immediacy that fueled such judgments have largely died away, but our image of Wilhelm II remains overwhelmingly negative. Recent studies of the reign describe him as a 'suitable case for (psychiatric) treatment',  an 'abominable emperor' with an 'incoherent, narcissistic personality', a 'physically disjointed;, 'offensive' and 'sadistic' bully who took pleasure in the humiliation of others and felt a 'cool alienation' from his fellow human beings, a 'tedious', 'deranged', 'puffed up, vainglorious and self-overestimating fool', a 'precursor to Adolf Hitler', the 'missing link' between the genteel chauvinism of the empire and the annihilatory hatred of Auschwitz,a man who 'gazed upon the greatest evil and declared it to be the work of God'-in short, 'the Nemesis of world history'.



The mocking, denunciatory, even diabolizing tone of much historiographical comment on Wilhelm is one of the most distinctive and striking characteristics of the field. One need not approach the subject with rehabilitation in mind to feel that there is something excessive and misplaced about such language.


Yet the Kaiser was unable, despite many energetic interventions, to realize this programme in any meaningful way, or even consistently to impose his will on the executive. Nor did his appointment of 'favourites' to key offices necessarily translate into an aggrandizement of his power. This was partly because imperial 'placemen', once installed, tended to go their own way. But a more fundamental problem was the Kaiser's utter inability to devise or follow through a coherent political programme of his own. The 'kingship mechanism', proposed by Rohl as a more nuanced alternative to 'personal rule' (and borrowed from Norbert Elias's analysis of the absolutist court of Louis XIV), thus remains problematic, for it can work in a political sense only if the monarch's objectives are known to all and can be anticipated by his courtiers. But this was hardly true of Wilhelm II, whose goals changed drastically from one moment to the next. He picked up ideas, enthused over them, grew bored or discouraged, and dropped them again. He was angry with the star one week but infatuated with him the next. 

Kaiser Wilhelm and Kaiserin Augusta Victoria.

He reacted with fury to perceived slights and provocations, but panicked at the prospect of genuine confrontation or conflict. None of this means that the Kaiser was unimportant from 1895 was not unconditional in a sense that posed an existential threat to the independence of the German empire and the peace of Europe. His undertakings of July 1914 (the 'blank cheque') did not amount to a pre-emption of Austrian intentions and were not intended to facilitate the outbreak of a preventive war in which Germany could reverse the relative decline in her level of military preparedness. Indeed, we should probably take seriously the assurances Wilhelm offered to the  Reichstag on the occasion of its opening on 25 June 1888: 'In foreign policy I am determined to keep the peace with every man as far as I am able. Now that it fought for and won the right to exist as a unified and independent nation, Germany has no need either of further military glory or of conquests of any kind.

The Nine Sovereigns at Windsor for the funeral of King Edward VII. Standing,
from left to right: King Haakon VII of Norway, Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria,
King Manuel II of Portugal, Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire,
King George I of Greece and King Albert I of Belgium.
Seated, from left to right: King Alfonso XIII of Spain,
King-Emperor George V of the United Kingdom and
King Frederick VIII of Denmark.

Wilhelm's public utterances failed to project and consolidate his authority in the way he would have wished and did more to damage his reputation than anything else he did. The Kaiser's speeches were sometimes tactless and ill judged, but it would mistaken to attribute the commotion surrounding the speeches solely to the emperor's personal shortcomings. The assemblage of titles and functions blended in personal union through the figure of the Prussian-German king and emperor required that Wilhelm personify different roles to a range of diverse constituencies. That Wilhelm failed to resolve the resulting tensions, and that this failure resounded so destructively in the public life of the empire, owed as much to the fissured character of the German political culture as to the incoherence of his personality. 'Perhaps,' as Thomas Kohut has suggested, 'Germany was simply so divided that no significant community of interest could have been developed that might have formed the basis for effective political leadership.

A cartoon apparently expressing a rather sour German point of view on the British-French
"Entente Cordiale"of 1904 -- John Bull walks off with the trollop France
(in her scandalously short tricolor skirt, whose red and blue colors
are indicated by the conventions of heraldic "hatching"),
while Germany pretends not to care.

Despite his titular warlordship, the Kaiser was excluded from any active role in strategic or operative management of the German war effort. But his position at the constitutional hinge between the military and the civilian authorities-already clearly in evidence during the late pre-war years-ensured that he played an important role in some of the most crucial decisions made by the German leadership after July 1914. For many difficult months he protected Falkenhayn against a growing campaign to oust him from office. More clearly than the otherwise far-sighted Bethmann Hollweg, Wilhelm saw the threat personified in Hindenburg. The Kaiser was among the last to hold out against the pressure to adopt unlimited submarine warfare-perhaps the most fateful decision made by the German wartime command. Yet none of this should distract from the Kaiser's fundamental failure to provide genuine leadership. Wilhelm occupied a position at the heart of the German constitution-he stood at the focal point of the system. It was a position that could have been used to bestow coherence and a sense of direction in strategy. Wilhelm's failure to do either helps to explain why it took so long to resolve the question of the relationship between the eastern and western fronts, why the naval and military commands were so poorly coordinated and why it proved impossible to achieve a meaningful dialogue between diplomacy and post-war peace plans on the one hand and military strategy on the other.

Kaiser Wilhelm in exile.

Wilhelm II drastically accelerated the delegitimization of monarchy as a German political institution, and thereby, though indirectly, bestowed a heightened urgency upon the quest for a 'Fuhrer from the people' legitimated by success and mass acclaim. For the old conservative elites, the ignominious circumstances of the monarch's departure impeded any continued identification with the last occupant of the German throne. Monarchism thus never developed into an ideological formation capable of providing post-war conservatism with a coherent and stable political standpoint. Noblemen, especially of the younger generation, drifted away from the personal, flesh-and-blood monarchism of their fathers and forebears towards the diffuse idea of a popular tribune who fill the vacuum created by the  failures and flight of this longing in the diary jottings of Andreas Graf von Berbstorff, descendant of a line of distinguished servants of the Prussian throne: 'Only a dictator can help us now, one who will sweep an iron broom through this whole international parasitic scum. If only we had, like the Italians, a Mussolini.

The authority of this Kaiser was woven together from different kinds of power. Wilhelm possessed the means to launch political initiatives (though not to see them through to implementation), he controlled appointments to many pivotal offices (but was unable to steer his appointees once they were in office), and he enjoyed the privileged of a uniquely prominent position in public life (but was unable to control public depictions of his person). The unstable and in some respects mutually undermining relationship between these different species of power was a riddle that Wilhelm II never quite solved.    

This is the expect of Christopher Clark's Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Life in Power is a short, fascinating and accessible biography of one of the 20th century's most important figures.

Christopher Clark, winner of the Wolfson prize for his history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom, follows Kaiser Wilhelm's political career from his youth at the Hohenzollern court through the turbulent decades of the Wilhelmine era into global war and the collapse of Germany in 1918, to his last days. He asks: what was his true role in the events that led to the outbreak of the First World War? What was the nature and extent of his control? What were his political goals and his success in achieving them? How did he project authority and exercise influence? And how did his people really view him?

Through original research, Clark presents a fresh new interpretation of this contentious figure, focusing on how his thirty-year reign from 1888 to 1918 affected Germany, and the rest of Europe, for years to come.

Grab a copy of the book here or click on the image below. 

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