clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

This week in history: Wilhelm II becomes kaiser of Germany

German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in his field uniform during World War I, shown in this undated photo. (AP Photo)
German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in his field uniform during World War I, shown in this undated photo. (AP Photo)

On June 15, 1888, Crown Prince Wilhelm of the House Hohenzollern became Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany after the brief reign of his father. Wilhelm II ultimately proved to be the last German emperor.

Forged in 1871 by Otto von Bismarck, the German empire was a young European state. The newest great power on the continent was ruled over by Kaiser Wilhelm I, who also retained his title of king of Prussia, the largest German state within the empire. With Bismarck at his side, Wilhelm I had been a staunch political traditionalist and conservative. (In the European terminology of the time, a “conservative” was a person who thought society operated best on the traditional props of feudal government — the church, landed nobility, the army and the monarch.)

Wilhelm I's political views were not shared by his son, Crown Prince Frederick, and Frederick's English wife Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The couple looked to Britain as their favored political model. Though Germany boasted a Reichstag (parliament), German democracy ultimately was subordinated to the will of the emperor and his chancellor. Frederick and Victoria sought a more liberal system for Germany. (In this context, a “liberal” was someone who supported a written constitution that guaranteed rights, large scale democracy, and markets free from government interference and control.)

Frederick and Victoria's oldest son, Wilhelm, was born in 1859. An injury at birth meant that the young prince's left arm was 6 inches shorter than his right arm. In his book “Wilhelm II: Prince and Emperor, 1859-1900,” biographer Lamar Cecil wrote:

“The young prince found his useless arm very frustrating, and the medical treatments to which he was subjected, some of which were quite painful, aggravated him considerably. … Willy learned to accept his handicap with remarkably good grace. … While he was always at pains to conceal his arm's lifelessness from his subjects, a concern understandable in a figure whose every act was a public spectacle, he tried hard to ensure that his physical deficiency caused no embarrassment to his immediate entourage.” Indeed, virtually every extant photograph of Wilhelm shows him with his left hand either behind his back, clutched in his right, or upon the pommel of his sword.

Whether as a result of his disfigurement or other reasons, Victoria tended to be rather cold toward her child, and as Wilhelm grew to manhood their affection always remained frigid. It did not help matters that the young prince glorified martial pursuits and adopted his grandfather's conservative politics.

In the spring of 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died just a few weeks short of his 91st birthday. His son was soon hailed as Kaiser Frederick III, (by rights he should have been known as either Frederick I of the new German empire, or Frederick IV, as a continuation of the Holy Roman Emperors. Instead he chose to take the name he enjoyed as King of Prussia.) Finally, Frederick and Victoria could enact their liberal political program and strengthen German democracy.

This was not to be, however. The 56-year-old emperor was very sick, suffering from a form of throat cancer. Several surgeries were attempted, and hopes ran high, but his condition only worsened. Another of Frederick and Victoria's long-cherished dreams was dashed. They had long wanted to remove Bismarck from power, seeing in him a powerful conservative figure and author of German authoritarianism and militarism. With Frederick's sickness, however, they had to accept Bismarck's continued stewardship.

After just 99 days on the throne, Frederick finally succumbed to his sickness on June 15, and his son Wilhelm was proclaimed Kaiser Wilhelm II. Subsequently, 1888 was to be known as the year of the three emperors: Wilhelm I, Frederick III and Wilhelm II.

The death of Frederick saw the final deathblow for his and his wife's liberal vision for Germany. Wilhelm immediately set about reversing what little change they had had time to enact. In her book, “King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War,” historian Catrine Clay wrote:

“The moment his father died he put a long-laid plan into action. Major von Nutzmer, the officer in charge of the Guards Hussars, galloped round the perimeter of the palace shouting the order to lock all the gates. No one could enter or leave without a signed permit, not even the doctors. Every letter and parcel was opened and examined. Once everything was sealed off, guards waiting at strategic points inside the palace began systematically to ransack the rooms, searching for incriminating evidence of a liberal plot supposedly hatched by (Frederick) and his wife, the English princess.”

Wilhelm was looking for his parents' private papers, which unknown to him had already been taken to England. The new kaiser's minister of justice told him that although he could legally detain people and search the palace, “If you exercise the power, you will begin your reign badly.”

This period marks one of the great “What if?” moments of history. What if Frederick hadn't been sick, or what if one of his surgeries had been successful? Would Germany have developed more liberal institutions? Could World War I have been averted? Subsequently, would there ever have been the advent of Hitler and World War II? History, however, does not allow for any formula to explore such possibilities.

Wilhelm II ultimately reigned for 30 years. Though he reigned during 26 years of peace, he proved unable or unwilling to prevent the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He finally abdicated both his imperial crown and his title as King of Prussia in November 1918 at the end of that war. He was eventually granted asylum in Holland where he lived until 1941, long enough to see his adopted home conquered by Hitler's Third Reich.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: