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Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany: Biography & Participation in WWI

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. We will explore his life and his historical contributions, specifically related to his involvement in World War I.

Who Was Kaiser Wilhelm II?

Last week a group of friends were playing trivia, and one of the questions was about Queen Victoria's oldest grandson. Sadly no one in the group knew the correct answer. But after this lesson, you should have no excuse for getting a trivia question about Kaiser Wilhelm II wrong. In this lesson we will be learning about his life, specifically his role in World War I.

Frederick William Victor Albert was the emperor of the German Reich during World War I. The German word for 'emperor' is 'kaiser,' so it is common to refer to Frederick William as 'Kaiser Wilhelm II.' Just be sure to understand that 'Kaiser' refers to his title; it was not part of his name. Kaiser Wilhelm II's foreign policy has often been regarded as quite impetuous, as he was the chief force behind Germany's militarism and aggressive stance leading up to World War I. His reign ended in disgrace, as we will find out, and was generally regarded as a failure.

Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
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Early Life and Rise to Power

Born Frederick William Victor Albert in 1859 , Wilhelm II was the eldest grandchild of Britain's Queen Victoria. This fact is remarkable when considering Great Britain and Germany would end up fighting one another in World War I. Wilhelm II was born with a withered left arm that was approximately six inches shorter than his right. Throughout his life he tried to hide this, and in photographs he is often posed in such a way as to conceal this defect. Historians have proposed that this birth defect may have led to emotional issues, which manifested into his rash temperament. They also suggest his strained relationships with relatives played a role in his behavior.

When his grandfather Wilhelm I died in 1888, his father, Frederick II briefly assumed rule, but died within 100 days, leaving the empire to 29 year-old Wilhelm II. The German Empire had been forged in 1871 thanks largely to the political statesmanship of Otto von Bismarck, who served as German Chancellor. Whereas Wilhelm I and Bismarck had a good working relationship, young Wilhelm II grew to resent Bismarck's cautious policies. Through political maneuvering, Wilhelm II gained power and forced Bismarck's resignation after a disagreement in 1890.

As Kaiser of the German Reich, Wilhelm II worked hard to advance the arts and sciences. Although he made significant contributions in these areas, it should be noted that he was anti-Semitic. We must also remember that anti-Semitism was prevalent throughout Germany during this time, with most ethnic Germans having negative views toward Jews. Wilhelm II adopted an aggressive foreign policy approach during his reign. In particular, the Kaiser recognized the importance of naval power, and did much to build up Germany's navy in an attempt to rival Britain's. By taking these aggressive actions he alienated himself from the British.

Otto von Bismarck as depicted in a late 19th century painting.
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Involvement In World War I

Bismark had long believed the Kaiser's policies put him on a path toward war with Russia. This came to fruition in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The Kaiser had been a friend of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28th, Wilhelm II made no attempt to conceal his support for Austria-Hungary's move against Serbia. This was directly related to the treaty binding the two states. Under the Triple Alliance, established in 1882, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, had pledged to support one another militarily if any one of them should be attacked by a major power. When Russia came to Serbia's defense against Austria-Hungary, Germany was essentially duty-bound to become involved.

As World War I progressed, the Kaiser's political power declined. This was due to many complex reasons, one of which was the fact that the war was not proceeding as well as the German people had anticipated. Because the great German Kaiser could not deliver a swift victory, his power began slowly eroding. While he was technically the head of state, the real political power transferred to Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, who administered an informal military dictatorship. By the end of the war, faith in the Kaiser was at an all-time low, and his hold on power was slipping. Increasingly Germans began expressing their desire for a democratic government.

Throughout the war, Wilhelm II was frequently the subject of demonization, particularly in propaganda. Posters and flyers depicting him as a childish, power-hungry dictator intent on committing atrocities. Anti-German sentiment was strong in the U.S., with the Kaiser bearing much of the brunt.

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