Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – the last German Kaiser, and Imperial Germany

Before 1871 there had been no German nation, and no modern, unitary state. The Reichstag was elected by universal suffrage. In Steinberg’s opinion, the Reichstag was ‘one of the most representative parliaments of its day, certainly more representative of the whole population than the Parliaments of England (no voting rights for the poorer classes) and the USA (racial discrimination with no voting rights for Afro-Americans and Indians). However, the composition of the Reichstag meant that there was neither a government, nor a “national” majority.  The Kaiserwho signed as Imperator, Rex and King (IR)was not a traditional hereditary sovereign, and his powers, not defined in a constitution, were no more than nominal. As King of Prussia, with all his privileges, he was entitled to be the German Emperor, but “there was no German crown, no German civil list; and the sovereignty was vested in…the Bundesrat”.

The Army was subordinate to traditional princes; its officers were conservative Junkers, mostly wealthy landowners. The Navy depended on the Kaiser’s will, if the Reichstag agreed with it. As Chief of the Army, the US president had greater rights than the Kaiser. Because the individual sovereigns retained certain powers over their own troops, “there was no German Army…no national oath of allegiance, no official national anthem.” By comparison, since it had not existed prior to 1871, the Navy became the only truly national institution in a fragile country where even the postal, customs and railway services were not nationalized. The really remarkable feature of the constitution of the German Empire was that it worked at all, and that the Kaiser was able to find ministers and chancellors who managed to get something done. It was only when the war broke out that the constitution slowly collapsed as the Kaiser was out of the loop.  ‘The general staff doesn’t tell me anything, nor ask me for anything…I drink tea, saw wood and go walking;”[1]

Half-British and fond of ships, as a boy Wilhelm II used to sail a British frigate model on the lake of Potsdam, and kept one of the bathtubs at his Romintern residence filled with water with the Imperial Navy floating on it. Although he liked to entertain and convey the illusion that he alone was in charge of German foreign policy and exerted German power on the world stage, the Navy was the only institution and policy over which he had full control, and developed a passion for it. After his appointment in August 1889 as Admiral of the English Royal Navy, which he was very proud of, Wilhelm claimed the right to interfere in that Navy’s affairs, liked to inspect its Fleet, and advocated its modernization in order to better police the seas. He even warned England against the risk of losing its naval supremacy and drew future ships for both England and Germany. His own desk, a gift from the English Navy, bore the inscription from his model Nelson, ‘England expects every man to do his duty.’ He hoped for an alliance with England. But his attitudes towards England were a kaleidoscope of love, hate, envy, admiration and a desire to be accepted as an equal.

He probably was the first King to understand the importance of public opinion for his leadership. He had a pathological longing for acclaim and high sensitivity about press comments, which he spent much time in reading, He “considered his family, the Hohenzollerns, and his own function as the symbols of national unity, and believed in the divine right of kings, which was rooted in Prussia’s union between Church and State, and in his responsibility to God more than before the Reichstag and his people. An unusually gifted public speaker, Wilhelm tended to hyperbole with words overtaking his acts.

Wilhelm II was reckoned to be a man of intelligence but of poor judgment, of tactless outbursts and short-lived enthusiasm, a fearful, panic-prone figure who often acted on impulse out of a sense of weakness and threat. “The tragedy of the German Empire was that the Kaiser was surrounded by and surrounded himself with many people who were just courtiers. Many of these misjudged him. ‘In order to carry one’s point, one has to do as if the idea came from himself’ – wrote Eulenburg to Bülow. This is exactly what Tirpitz did not do when he dissuaded Wilhelm II from the cruiser fleet and got his way with the battle fleet.“[2]

“The Kaiser had evidently recognized that Tirpitz was irreplaceable for the building of the fleet…But, the indispensability of Tirpitz meant for the Kaiser dependence. This was difficult to bear for an insecurecharacter… worried that one might consider Tirpitz, and not himself, the creator of the fleet.’”[3]


[1] In the Kaiser’s words at end 1914 (FUW, op.cit. p. 90)

[2] FUW, op.cit. pp. 130-131

[3] FUW, op.cit. pp. 221-228