One of the monarchs who still stirs extreme emotions from the last century today is the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, better known to the English-speaking world as “Kaiser Bill”. A somewhat mysterious man who often seemed contradictory much of his inconsistent behavior has been attributed to his family background to the extent that he could at times be seen as a stereotypical Englishman and a stereotypical Prussian. Born on January 27, 1859 he was the eldest child of Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich III and the British Princess Royal Victoria. His traumatic birth left him with a stunted and all but useless left arm, deaf in his left ear and unbalanced because of that. His parents were rather unimpressed with him from the start and would remain so and in his early years methods were employed in an effort to correct his disabilities that were almost torturous. However, from an early age his upbringing was supervised by Prince Bismarck and his grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I who distrusted the liberal tendencies of his parents.
As a result Wilhelm II grew up with a very reactionary mindset. He believed in nationalism, military dominance and the Divine Right of Kings. To compensate for his disability he went out of his way to act the part of the Prussian warrior king and to sound as bombastic as possible. However, he was also always in awe of his British grandmother Queen Victoria and looked upon the massive British Empire with a mixture of admiration and envy. He wanted Germany to have colonies too and he wanted Germany to have a powerful navy too. Upon coming to the throne in 1888 he said he wanted to put no one in the shade but demanded for Germany her own “place in the sun”. The British took this as a challenge to their global dominance and likewise felt threatened by the increasing economic strength of Germany. As a result, the Kaiser shifted back and forth from adoring to despising Great Britain.
When the Kaiser dismissed Bismarck as Chancellor there followed a succession of statesmen who were largely dominated by Wilhelm II. He tried to walk a line between being a traditional autocrat and a modern people’s prince. Largely popular in Germany, his comments on foreign affairs often led to controversy. When he voiced support for the British in the Boer War the German public was angered and when he congratulated Paul Kruger on a Boer victory the British people were angered. A visit to Morocco during calls for independence angered France though the Kaiser had not thought the trip a good idea. In later years his enemies could point to a number of comments to portray the Kaiser as an aggressive militarist. Probably most famous was his comments to German troops leaving for the international expedition against the Boxer rebels in China in which he advised them to bear themselves as the Huns of Attila. Yet, he never fought an actual war during his reign until 1914 and even then was very hesitant about taking action. He liked seeing his army parade, dressing up in uniform and going out on maneuvers but the last thing he wanted was to risk his army in actual combat. He was even more protective of his navy.
When the Great War did come the Kaiser was slowly sidelined. He blamed the conflict on a conspiracy against him started by King Edward VII with the alliance with France and, given his tendency to view things in personal terms, considered it a betrayal on the part of his cousins George V of Great Britain and Nicholas II of Russia. During the war he was reduced to settling disputes between generals and finally to almost purely figurehead status as the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff came to dominate and could have their way on almost anything by threatening to resign. His advice and warnings were often ignored and when the Allies made it clear that the presence of the Kaiser was a block to ending the war he was forced to abdicate and go into exile in the Netherlands. It was a decision the Kaiser wrestled with and he always held a little anger on Hindenburg for failing to try to use the army to maintain his throne.
Exiled in Holland, Wilhelm II lived the life of a country gentleman and though he thought a restoration highly unlikely he never completely lost hope in an eventual return. Always a very religious man this only increased during his exile. The Nazis flirted with him, and the Kaiser extended some courtesies but he quickly realized they were no friends of his and he came to despise them. When World War II broke out he turned down an offer of rescue from the British and, it must be said, he took some joy in seeing France defeated and German troops marching triumphantly through Paris. The Kaiser died on June 4, 1941 and in his will forbid the display of any swastikas at his funeral and also refused to be buried in Germany so long as it was not a monarchy. This prevented Hitler from making a spectacle of his passing and despite a ban from the Nazi leader many high-ranking German officers and officials attended. His remains rest to this day at House Doorn in the Netherlands.