HIM Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (1859-1941) was the quixotic, vain tyrant whose love-hate relationship with his English royal relatives was largely responsible for Germany’s entry into World War One and the fall of the Emperor’s dynasty. The eldest son of Prince Frederick of Prussia and Princess Victoria of Great Britain, ‘Willy’ as he was known was born with a withered arm. As he later declared, ‘an English doctor killed my father and an English doctor crippled my arm – which is the fault of my mother’.
In 1863 Prince Wilhelm accompanied his parents to England to attend the wedding of the Prince of Wales (Uncle Bertie) to Princess Alexandra. Though the little boy in full highland dress pleased his grandmother Queen Victoria (‘such a dear, good boy’), he bit the kilted Prince Alfred on the leg during the service beginning a lifetime as the thorn in the side of Willy’s Uncle Bertie. His mother Crown Princess Victoria’s disinclination to admit her son’s deformity led her to put the young prince through rigorous horse riding lessons during which the little boy wept, fell, wept again and was forcibly remounted until he could stay in the saddle. He quite rightly blamed his mother for this humiliation.
Prince Wilhelm idolised his grandfather the absolute monarch Kaiser Wilhelm I and, in retaliation against his Anglophile liberal parents, fell under the thrall of Iron Chancellor Bismarck. Any love for Crown Princess Victoria was extinguished when Prince Wilhelm was sent to a draconian military school Gymnasium in Kassel. His letters home betrayed dreams about ‘covering his mother’s un-gloved hands with kisses’. How the straight laced Crown Princess reacted is unrecorded.
As Crown Princess Victoria’s biographer Hannah Pakula writes in An Uncommon Woman (1996), ‘it is at this point in his life that one begins to see the future Kaiser’s separation from painful reality. Although there is no indication that Willy had yet begin to suffer from the grandiosity or breakdowns that punctuated his years on the throne, it is clear that he already had emotional problems. Sometimes these manifested themselves sexually’.
In 1877 on his 18th birthday, Prince Wilhelm’s grandmother Queen Victoria awarded him the Order of the Garter. He had developed an obsession for military uniform and would henceforth flatter the Queen and wheedle for further orders and decorations: what Queen Victoria called ‘fishing for uniforms’. Enrolling with the First Regiment of Foot Guards, Prince Wilhelm said he had ‘really found my family, my friends, my interests – everything of which I had up to that time had to do without’. Kaiser Wilhelm I and Bismarck were moulding Prince Wilhelm into the proud, pugnacious Aryan emperor-to-be who would oppose his parents’ constitutional monarchical sympathies.
With Bismarck’s encouragement, Kaiser Wilhelm I sent his grandson on diplomatic visits to the Emperors Alexander III of Russia and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria; an honour denied Crown Prince Frederick. It was Prince Wilhelm who attended Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Prince Wilhelm had fallen in unrequited love with Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt who would marry a Russian Grand Duke and be murdered during the Revolution. Instead he married Princess Augusta ‘Donna’ of Schleswig-Holstein who idolised her husband and bore him six sons and a daughter.
Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888 and Prince Wilhelm’s father was crowned Emperor Frederick III. The new Kaiser already had terminal throat cancer and died ninety-nine days after his accession. The bereft Dowager Empress Victoria was brushed aside as was Bismarck who was forced to fall on his sword in 1890 only to be replaced by puppet chancellors. Bismarck had astutely said of his protégé ‘he wishes every day was his birthday’. Rejecting Bismarck’s appeasement foreign policy, Kaiser Wilhelm II set about furthering Germany’s colonial ambitions and building a fleet to rival his British grandmother Queen Victoria’s.
The Kaiser’s megalomania was kept in check as long as Queen Victoria lived. On one visit to his Imperial grandmother, Kaiser Wilhelm pointed to Windsor Castle and said ‘from this tower the world is ruled’. The Kaiser’s reign was not without merit. He promoted the arts and sciences, broadened the public education of his people and established social welfare absent in the reign of his grandfather. His dynasty was besmirched however by an orgy scandal involving his elder sister Princess Charlotte and a homosexual ring in the highest court circles surrounding Prince Philipp zu Eulenberg. When the latter scandal erupted, Kaiser Wilhelm suffered a nervous breakdown.
Queen Victoria died in her grandson’s arms in 1901 and she was succeeded by Uncle Bertie who acceded as King Edward VII. Kaiser Wilhelm had long loathed ‘the old peacock’ and any vestiges of respect for Great Britain was subsumed by his hatred and isolation from the new regime. The Kaiser continued to visit England and did so in 1902 for Uncle Bertie’s coronation. It was on this occasion that the Kaiser visited Henry Poole & Co. In an attempt to fit-in, the Kaiser forsook his military uniforms and wore classically tailored Savile Row suits. His account was paid for by the Kaiser’s old friend the Earl of Lonsdale.
Increasingly the Kaiser’s pronouncements on world politics became erratic and aggressive. He believed the Jews were waging a war against his reign, cautioned the world about the threat of the ‘Yellow Peril’ in China and told the Daily Telegraph in 1908 ‘the English are mad, mad, mad as March hares’. He would later call the Jews ‘a nuisance that humanity must get rid of some way or other. I believe the best thing would be gas’: a chilling foreshadow of the rise of Nazism.
At the onset of World War One, the Kaiser said ‘I no longer have any doubt that England, Russia and France have agreed amongst themselves to use the Austro-Serb conflict as a pretext for waging a war of annihilation against us’. Ironically, the Kaiser’s influence was diminished during the Great War largely due to the military powers he had personally promoted. Germany was ruled by a military dictatorship who in the dying days of the war forced the Kaiser to abdicate and go into exile in the Netherlands. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles made provision for prosecuting the Kaiser as a war criminal and his cousin King George V called him ‘the greatest criminal in history’. But the Netherlands would not extradite him and the ex-Kaiser escaped the hanging that Lloyd George called for in the House of Commons.
Very little is made of the Kaiser’s sense of humour but he deployed it most effectively against his British family. When King George V changed the royal family name from its Germanic root to Windsor, the Kaiser quipped ‘and I am going to see a production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’. The ex-Kaiser published his memoirs in 1922 and a decade later had hopes for restoration with the rise of Adolf Hitler. But Hitler blamed the Kaiser for the empire’s defeat and would not entertain his ambitions. The ex-Kaiser died of a pulmonary embolism in 1941 and was buried with full military honours; his coffin flanked by swastikas.
As an interesting footnote to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s relationship with the crowned heads of Europe, every royal family member male and female mentioned in this brief life held an account with Henry Poole & Co.