1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William II. of Germany

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WILLIAM II. [Friedrich Wilhelm Victor Albert] (1859-       ), king of Prussia and German emperor, was born on the 27th of January 1859 at Berlin, being the eldest child of Prince Frederick of Prussia, afterwards crown prince and second German emperor, and of Victoria, princess royal of Great Britain and Ireland. On his tenth birthday he was appointed second lieutenant in the First Regiment of the Guards. From September 1874 to January 1877 he attended the gymnasium at Cassel; he studied for two years at Bonn, and was then for some time chiefly occupied with his military duties. In 1885 he was appointed colonel of the Hussars of the Guard. He was much influenced by the military atmosphere in which his life was spent, and was more in sympathy with the strongly monarchical feelings of the emperor William and Bismarck than with the more liberal views of his own parents, but until the illness of his father in 1887 he took no part in political life. The death of his grandfather was quickly followed by that of his father, and on the 15th of June he became ninth king of Prussia and third German emperor. The chief events of his reign up to 1910 are narrated under Germany: History, but here it is necessary to dwell rather on the personality of the emperor himself. His first act was an address to the army and navy, while that to his people followed after three days. Throughout his reign, indeed, he repeatedly stated that the army was the true basis of his throne: “The soldier and the army, not parliamentary majorities, have welded together the German Empire. My confidence is placed on the army.”

From the first he showed his intention to be his own chancellor, and it was this which brought about the quarrel with Bismarck, who could not endure to be less than all-powerful. The dismissal and disgrace of the great statesman first revealed the resolution of the new ruler; but, as regards foreign affairs, the apprehensions felt at his accession were not fulfilled. While he maintained and confirmed the alliance with Austria and Italy, in obedience to the last injunctions of his grandfather, he repeatedly attempted to establish more cordial relations with Russia. His overtures, indeed, were scarcely received with corresponding cordiality. The intimacy of Russia with France increased, and more than a year passed before the Russian emperor appeared on a short visit to Berlin. In 1890 the emperor again went to Russia, and the last meeting between him and Alexander III. took place at Kiel in the autumn of 1891, but was marked by considerable coolness. By his visit to Copenhagen, as in his treatment of the duke of Cumberland and in his frequent overtures to France, the emperor showed the strong desire, by the exercise of his own great personal charm and ability, to heal the wounds left by the events of a generation before. In the autumn of 1888 he visited not only the courts of the confederate princes, but those of Austria and Italy. While at Rome he went to the Vatican and had a private conversation with Pope Leo XIII., and this visit was repeated in 1895 and again in 1903. In 1889 the marriage of his sister, the Princess Sophie, to the duke of Sparta, took him to Athens; and thence he sailed to Constantinople. It was the first time that one of the great rulers of Christendom had been the guest of the sultan. A more active interest was now taken by Germany in the affairs of the Levant, and the emperor showed that he would not be content to follow the secure and ascertained roads along which Bismarck had so long guided the country. It was not enough that Berlin had become the centre of the European system. The emperor was the apostle of a new Germany, which claimed that her voice should be heard in all political affairs, in whatever quarter of the globe they might rise. Once again, in 1898, he went to Constantinople. It was the time when the Armenian massacres had made the name of Abd-ul Hamid notorious, and the very striking friendliness shown towards him scarcely seemed consistent with the frequent claims made by the emperor to be the leader of Christendom; but any scruples were doubtless outweighed by the great impulse he was able to give to German influence in the East. From Constantinople he passed on to Palestine. He was present at the consecration of the German Protestant church of the Redeemer. By the favour of the sultan he was able to present to the German Catholics a plot of ground, the Dormition de la Sainte Vierge, very near to the Holy Places.

The motive of his frequent travels, which gained for him the nickname of Der Reise-Kaiser, was not solely political, but a keen interest in men and things. His love of the sea was shown in an annual voyage to Norway, and in repeated visits to the Cowes regatta. He was a keen yachtsman and fond of all sorts of sport, and, though deprived of the use of his left arm through an accident when he was a child, he became an excellent shot and rider.

At the time of his accession there was a strong manifestation of anti-British feeling in Berlin, and there seemed reason to suppose that the party from which it proceeded had the patronage of the emperor. Any temporary misunderstanding was removed, however, by his visit to England in 1889. For the next six years he was every year the guest of Queen Victoria, and during the period that Caprivi held office the political relations between Germany and Great Britain were very close. While the emperor's visits were largely prompted by personal reasons, they had an important political effect; and in 1890, when he was entertained at the Mansion House in London and visited Lord Salisbury at Hatfield, the basis for an entente cordiale seemed to be under discussion. But after 1895 the growth of the colonial spirit in Germany and the strong commercial rivalry with Great Britain, which was creating in Germany a feeling that a navy must be built adequate to protect German interests, made the situation as regards England more difficult. And an unexpected incident occurred at the end of that year, which brought to a head all the latent feelings of suspicion and jealousy in both countries. On the occasion of the Jameson Raid he despatched to the president of the Transvaal a telegram, in which he congratulated him that “without appealing to the help of friendly powers,” he had succeeded in restoring peace and preserving the independence of his country. It was very difficult to regard this merely as an impulsive act of generous sympathy with a weak state unjustly attacked, and though warmly approved in Germany, it caused a long alienation from Great Britain. The emperor did not again visit England till the beginning of 1901, when he attended the deathbed and funeral of Queen Victoria. On this occasion he placed himself in strong opposition to the feelings of the large majority of his countrymen by conferring on Lord Roberts the Order of the Black Eagle, the most highly prized of Prussian decorations. He had already refused to receive the ex-president of the Transvaal on his visit to Europe. Meanwhile, with the other great branch of the English-speaking people in the United States, it was the emperor's policy to cultivate more cordial relations. In 1902, on the occasion of the launching of a yacht built for him in America, he sent his brother Prince Henry to the United States as his representative. The occasion was rendered of international importance by his official attitude and by his gifts to the American people, which included a statue of Frederick the Great. The emperor also initiated in 1906 the exchange of professors between German and American universities.

As regards home policy, the most important work to which the emperor turned his attention was the increase of the German naval forces. From the moment of his accession he constantly showed the keenest interest in naval affairs, and the numerous changes made, in the organization were due to his personal initiative. It was in January 1895, at an evening reception to members of the Reichstag, that he publicly put himself at the head of the movement for making Germany a sea power. In all the subsequent discussions on the naval bills his influence was decisively used to overcome the resistance of the Reichstag. “Our future,” he declared, “is on the water,” and in speeches in all parts of the country he combated the indifference of the inland Germans to the sea. “I will not rest,” he telegraphed to his brother, “till I have brought my navy to the same height at which my army stands.” The development of German armaments during the next few years (see Navy) showed that this was no idle boast. But, while it was inevitable that the inference should be drawn that the increase of the German navy was directed towards eventual hostilities with Great Britain, the emperor himself insisted that the real object was the preservation of peace consistently with the maintenance of Germany's “place in the sun.” In March 1905, in a speech at Bremen, he declared the aim of the Hohenzollerns to be “a world-wide dominion founded upon conquests not gained by the sword, but by the mutual confidence of nations that press towards the same goal.” “Every German warship launched,” he said, “is one guarantee more for peace on earth.” In the same spirit he protested later, in an “interview” published in the Daily Telegraph of the 28th of October 1908, that he had always been actuated by the friendliest feelings towards England, but that “Germany must be prepared for any eventualities in the East,” and that, in view of the growing naval power of Japan, England should welcome the existence of a German fleet “when they speak together on the same side in the great debates of the future” For to the emperor, who had published a cartoon, drawn by himself, representing the European powers in league against the Yellow Peril, the Anglo-Japanese alliance seemed a betrayal of the white race, an unnatural league which could not last. The justification of his naval policy so far as European affairs were concerned was revealed in the effective intervention of Germany in regard to France and Morocco in 1905, and in 1909 in the defiance of British policy when Austria, backed by Germany, tore up the treaty of Berlin in regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In numerous rhetorical speeches the emperor had impressed the world with his personal conviction of autocratic sovereignty, and his monarchical activity was certain, sooner or later, to bring him into conflict with the constitutional limitations of his position as king of Prussia and German emperor. His imperial style, constitutionally but the honorary title of the primus inter pares in a free confederation of sovereign princes, was invested by him with something of the glamour of that of the Holy Roman emperors, with their shadowy claim to world-dominion. In speech after speech he proclaimed the world-mission of Germany, of which he himself was the divinely appointed instrument; Germans are “the salt of the earth[1];” they must not “weary in the work of civilization,” and Germanism, like the spirit of imperial Rome, must expand and impose itself.[2] This new imperialism, too, had a religious basis, for “the whole of human life hinges simply and solely on our attitude towards our Lord and Saviour.”[3] The emperor's progresses in the East were conceived in the spirit of the new crusade, at once Christian and German; and a solemn service, to which none but the emperor and his train were admitted, was held on the summit of the Mount of Olives. In the same spirit, too, the emperor dispensed the marks of his approval and disapproval beyond the borders of his own jurisdiction, sometimes with results which were open to criticism. The “Kruger telegram” has been mentioned; scarcely less characteristic was the message despatched by him on the 9th of April 1906. after the Algeciras conference, to Count Goluchowski, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, congratulating him on having proved “a brilliant second on the duelling-ground.” Goluchowski's retirement was mainly due to this compliment. In 1905 he bestowed the order Pour le Mérite not only on the Japanese general Nogi, but also on the Russian general Stössel, the defender of Port Arthur, who was afterwards condemned by a Russian court-martial for dereliction of duty. In 1902 his telegram to the regent of Bavaria condemning the refusal of the clerical majority in the diet to vote £5000 for art purposes, and offering himself to supply the money, was regarded as an unwarrantable interference in the internal affairs of Bavaria and roused strong resentment among the clericals all over Germany.

Owing to the political conditions in Germany it was generally left for the Socialists to attack these excursions on the part of the emperor into fields which lay beyond his strict prerogative. But, apart from the traditional lines of political cleavage, such as the inherited hatred of the Liberal South for the Hohenzollern “corporal's cane,” other centres of dissatisfaction were coming into being. The emperor was isolated in his efforts to impose the old, strenuous, Prussian ideals of “self-denial, discipline, religion, avoidance of foreign contagion.” With the growth of wealth Germany was becoming materialized and to some extent Americanized, partly through the actual reflux of emigrants grown rich in the United States. In this new society, far removed from the days, denounced by the historian Gervinus, when the Germans were content to “fiddle and be slaves,” the phrases which still woke responsive echoes in the squires of the Old Mark of Brandenburg were apt to create surprise, if not indignation; and in the great industrial classes the principles of Social Democracy spread apace. The emperor himself here and there even yielded a little to the new ideas, as when, in the famous “Babel and Bible” controversy of 1903, arising out of lectures in which Professor Delitzsch had derived Jewish monotheism from Babylonian polytheism, he publicly accepted the main conclusion of the “higher criticism” of the Old Testament, while maintaining that the kernel and contents, God and His works, remain always the same; or when on the 17th of November 1906, on the 25th anniversary of William I.'s edict announcing national insurance, he promised further social reforms. But he was impatient of what he considered factious opposition, and was apt to appeal from the nation in parliament to the nation in arms, as when in 1906, at the Silesian manœuvres, he condemned the critical spirit exercised towaids the government, and invoked once more the protection of Germany's “Divine Ally.” Clearly, this was an attitude which was inconsistent with the development of what prided itself on being a constitutional state; but there were obvious difficulties in the way of controlling the utterances of a ruler, vigorous, self-confident and conscious of the best intentions, who was also the master of many legions, whose military spirit he could evoke at will. In October 1906 the publication of Prince Hohenlohe's Memoirs, containing indiscreet revelations of the emperor's action in the dismissal of Bismarck, caused a profound sensation. A few months later, in February 1907, the prestige of the court was further damaged by various unsavoury revelations, made by Herr Harden in the Zukunft, as to the character of the “camarilla” by which the emperor was surrounded, and it was affirmed that a connexion could hers be traced with the fall of Caprivi in 1894. The long-drawn-out trials and counter-trials left the character of the emperor entirely unstained, but they resulted in the disgrace of men who had been his confidants — Prince Philip Eulenburg, Count Kuno Moltke and others. The attitude of the emperor throughout was manly and sensible; and not the least satisfactory outcome of the whole sorry business was the issue, on the 28th of January 1907, of an edict, afterwards embodied in a bill, greatly modifying the law of lèse-majesté, which in the earlier part of the reign had been used to ridiculous excess in the imprisonment of the authors of the slightest reflection on the person of the sovereign.

Anglo-German relations were apparently improved by a visit of the emperor to England in November 1907. But early in 1908 they were again strained by the revelation, made in The Times of the 6th of March, of a correspondence between the emperor and Lord Tweedmouth, the first lord of the admiralty, in which, in answer to friendly assurances on the emperor's part, the British secretary of state had communicated to him an outline of the new naval programme before it had even been laid on the table of the House of Commons. The angry controversy to which this gave rise, and the emperor's attempts to allay it, led at the end of the year to a serious crisis in his relations with his subjects. On the 11th of August he had met Edward VII. at Cronberg; on the 30th, in a speech at Strassburg, he reiterated the intention of Germany to maintain the high level of her armaments; and on the 28th of October there appeared in the Daily Telegraph an extraordinary “interview,” authorized by him, in which he expounded his attitude. The document was a résumé of his table-talk during his stay at Highcliffe Castle, on the Hampshire coast opposite the Isle of Wight, in the autumn of 1907. In it he reiterated that his heart was set on peace; he declared that, so far from being hostile to the English, he had offended large sections of his people by his friendship for England. He instanced his refusal to receive the Boer delegates and his rejection of the proposals of France and Russia for a joint intervention to stop the South African War; he also mentioned the curious fact that at an early stage of the war he had himself drawn up a plan of campaign for the British and sent it to Windsor. It was on this occasion, too, that he made the suggestion of an eventual co-operation of the British and German fleets in the Far East. This pronouncement created a profound sensation, not only in Germany, where the indignation was intense, but in Russia, France and Japan, where it was regarded as a Machiavellian attempt to loosen existing alliances. In the German press and parliament a storm of protest arose. Prince Bülow, as technically responsible, handed in his resignation, which was not accepted, and he was forced to make in the Reichstag the best defence that he could for the imperial indiscretion, declaring that henceforth the emperor would show more reserve. The emperor publicly endorsed the chancellor's explanations, and for nearly two years maintained in public an almost unbroken silence. But this came to an end in a speech delivered at Königsberg, on the 25th of August 1910. In this the emperor again laid special stress upon the divine right by which alone the kings of Prussia rule, adding: “considering myself as the instrument of the Lord, without heeding the views and opinions of the day, I go my way.” This speech led to a debate, on a Socialist interpellation, in the Reichstag (November 26). In reply to the enquiry what the government intended to do in fulfilment of the pledge given in 1908, the chancellor denied that the emperor had exceeded his constitutional rights, a view supported by the majority of the House.

The emperor married on the 27th of February 1881 Princess Auguste Victoria, daughter of Frederick, duke of Augustenburg, who in 1864 had come forward as claimant to the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein; the marriage had, therefore, some political importance, for it sealed the reconciliation of one of the dynasties that had suffered by the rise of Prussia. They had six sons and one daughter: (1) Wilhelm, born 6th May 1882, Crown Prince, whose coming of age was celebrated with much ceremony on his eighteenth birthday, and who married on the 6th of June 1905 the duchess Cecilia of Mecklenburg, their eldest son, Wilhelm, being born on the 4th of July 1906; (2) Eitel Friedrich, born on the 7th of July 1883; (3) Adalbert, born on the 14th of July 1884; (4) August Wilhelm, born on the 29th of January 1887; (5) Oskar, born on the 27th of July 1888; (6) Joachim, born on the 17th of December 1890; and (7) Viktoria Luise, born on the 13th of September 1892.

For the emperor's speeches, &c., see Kaiserreden. Reden und Erlasse, Briefe und Telegramme Kaiser Wilhelms II. (Leipzig, 1902); translated by L. Elkind, as The German Emperor's Speeches (London, 1904).


  1. Speech at Bremen (March 1905).
  2. Speech at Gniezno, Poland (August 1905).
  3. Speech at confirmation of his son (October 1903).