Profile: Kaiser Wilhelm II

The visage of Kaiser Wilhelm II – a steely gaze between a pointed moustache and spiked, Pickelhaube helmet – is one of the most potent images of the first World War. Yet this image of the King of Prussia and German emperor steering the war effort with an absolute, iron will is at odds with the reality of 1914 Berlin.

After 26 years on the throne Kaiser Wilhelm was, on the eve of war, more tolerated than feared by the Berlin government and German generals. They kept up the pretence that the kaiser was in charge long after they had tired of his dilettante diplomacy and violent mood swings. The latter biographers attribute to an inferiority complex, fed by a withered left arm and a stormy relationship with his mother, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria.

As legendary as his outbursts was the kaiser's poor political judgment. On ascending the throne in 1888 he dismissed his political mentor, iron chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and broke with his stability-oriented foreign policy. By 1914 the kaiser's own "new course" foreign policy had, bar its alliance with an enfeebled Austria-Hungary, left the German Reich isolated in Europe. Six years earlier an infamous Daily Telegraph interview had triggered a state crisis, undermined his policy-making credibility and fed his neurotic inferiority complex towards the British. To prevent further outbursts – and ensure they got the desired decision – the German government fed the German monarch only carefully filtered information.

And so the isolated emperor learned of Vienna's ultimatum to Serbia – not from his own government – but from a Norwegian newspaper while cruising aboard his imperial yacht.


Despite his limited political influence, Wilhelm succeeded in stoking up up the July crisis. A week after the Sarajevo assassinations, an enraged Wilhelm – without consulting his government – assured the Austrian ambassador that Vienna could count on Berlin's full support to deal with Serbia as it felt best. The delighted ambassador added in his dispatch: "His majesty . . . said he would regret if we didn't take advantage of this fortuitous moment."

It was a fateful move, without government consultation and against the old advice of Bismarck, that military intrigues in the Balkans were "not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier". Just two years previously, Wilhelm himself had insisted that "no one of good conscience" would allow the German empire be caught up in Austria-Hungary's struggle for survival. Tinkering with the unstable Balkan region would, he said in 1912, "put the existence of Germany up for grabs".

After firing up the July crisis, sealing his reputation as a warmonger, Kaiser Wilhelm performed one final pirouette: telling a cheering crowd from his Berlin balcony on July 31st how Germany accepted hesitatingly the sword of war “pressed into its hand”.

“If our neighbours don’t grant us peace,” he added, “then let us hope and wish that our good German sword emerges victorious from the struggle.”

Wishful thinking: he fled Berlin in 1918, ending centuries of rule by the Hohenzollern dynasty, and died in exile in the Netherlands in 1941.