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11-08-2015, 17:52

Wilhelm II (1859-1941)

Wilhelm II was the emperor (or kaiser) of Germany from 1888 to 1918. An intelligent and ambitious monarch, he was also lazy, inconsistent, and, in the view of many, mentally unbalanced. According to the German constitution, this contradictory individual had the final decision-making power in all areas of national affairs. During World War I, however, the course of the conflict and the rising power of Germany's military leaders steadily diminished his role. But as a figurehead and the symbol of the German nation, Wilhelm did immense harm to his country. Presented as the embodiment of German militarism and brutality, he became the most popular and effective target for the enemy's propaganda campaign. The future German monarch was bom in Potsdam, the grandson of the reigning Prussian king, on January 27, 1859. His father was a Prussian prince, ruling briefly in 1888 as Emperor Frederick III; his mother was a daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Wilhelm's complex and mercurial personality may have stemmed from his reaction to a birth defect that left him with a crippled arm. He also had numerous youthful conflicts with his parents. His most notable employment before becoming emperor was a period of service as a Prussian army officer. Between 1888, when he took the throne, and the start of World War I, Wilhelm tried to play an active role in both foreign and domestic affairs. His spotty education and distaste for prolonged effort meant that decisions over most issues rested with his ministers. But he lent a tone of bluster and belligerence to Germany's reputation abroad. Moreover, he played a decisive role in the creation of the German navy, and he seized upon military matters as his area of interest and expertise. As 1914 approached, Wilhelm spoke openly and repeatedly about the inevitability of war among the Great Powers. In early July, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he urged Austria to take harsh action against Serbia and offered unqualified German support. Thus, Wilhelm pointed Europe toward a Balkan war and, potentially, hostilities among the Great Powers. But the flighty German monarch's role in the crisis then diminished. On the eve of hostihties, for example, he welcomed both Serbia's conciliatory response to the Austrian ultimatum and hints that Britain would remain neutral in case of a European war. In the end, his political and military officials had no difficulty in getting him to sign the declaration of war. In the wartime years, Wilhelm played a limited role. He had the prerogative of appointing and removing the top military leaders: in early September 1914, for example, he replaced the mentally exhausted army commander Helmuth von Moltke with an imperial favorite, Erich von Falkenhayn. He also made his views felt in naval affairs. There, he forbade the use of the High Seas Fleet in any action against the British navy that threatened the loss of Germany's battleships. He was initially effective in barring a wide use of the submarine that would bring the United States into the war. When it came to the conduct of the land war, however, he was reduced to the role of bystander. Even in 1914, he complained to his companions at the imperial court that the high command no longer consulted him. Moreover, the strain of the war quickly fell on Wilhelm's unstable personality. He had fits of depression, alternating with unrealistic surges of optimism. Meanwhile, his main activity was restless traveling from one military headquarters to another. In 1916 Wilhelm's wartime role shrank further. Even naval leaders neglected to consult him, and he was not involved in the decisions leading to the Battle of Jutland, in which his prized battleships were put at risk. As Falkenhayn's disastrous losses at Verdun combined with the entry of Rumania into the war. Prime Minister Bethmann Hollweg persuaded the emperor to bring in the eastern generals, Ludendorff and his nominal superior von Hindenburg, to direct the war effort. They quickly went to work with little regard for Germany's monarch. By the close of 1916, pressure from the military leaders made the empert)r drop his earlier opposition to unlimited use of the submarine. In the summer of 1917, the military leaders, led by Ludendorff, pushed Wilhelm to dismiss Bethmann Hollweg from the position of prime minister. They threatened resignation if their voices were not heard. Given Wilhelm's inability to hold them back, the military chieftains now stood as the country's real rulers. By the final stages of the war, Wilhelm was less an actor than an observer who was downright dangerous to the interests of his country. A brutally effective Allied propaganda campaign used him as a symbol for Germany's misdeeds. In the United States, for example, "Kaiser Bill" became the chief villain on the enemy side. By his stubbornness, Wilhelm impeded the armistice negotiations that President Woodrow Wilson directed in the fall of 1 9 1 8. His refusal to abdicate, for example, meant that Germany's enemies insisted on continuing the fighting. In the end, revolution swept Germany in the first weeks of November. Without waiting for the emperor's consent, Prince Max of Baden, the prime minister, announced Wilhelm's departure from the throne on November 9. Germany's former ruler went into exile in Holland the following day. He lived there quietly for more than two decades, dying at his home at Doom on June 4, 1941, while the country in which he had found refuge was under occupation by Adolf Hitler's Nazi armies.