Wilhelm II is perhaps the best known of the German Kaisers and Kings of Prussia--and the greatest failure. This was not preordained. He was a handicapped child that through strength of character became a capable horesman and marksman. Kaiser Wilhelm's upbrining and family background equiped him ideally to play the kind of peace keeping role played by his uncle Edward VII. However this role was not to his liking. He rejected the liberal leanings of his parents and instead the beicose leanings of the Prussian Junkers appealed to him. The result was to be disastorous for Germany, Europe and the Hohenzollern dynasty. While not the monster portrayed in British war-time propaganda, the bombastic Kaisser proved until Hitler to be one of the most disatrous rulers in German history.
It was said of Wilhelm that he was a man who wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Many historians trace his narcisistic personality to his hanndicap and childhood. It is not because of his parents, more than his predecessors, Wilhelm grew up in a loving family. Edward VII, a perceptive judge of character, said of his nephew, "the most brilliant failure in Europe". Certainly he became the most hated man in Europe, although today's historical judgement after Hitler and the Holacaust now sees Wilhelm as less sinister than he was viewed after World War I. In many ways, however, it was Wilhelm who made Hitler possible. Kaiser Wilheml II was a dutiful husband and father. He had had seven children, including six sons (Fredrich-Wilhelm, Eitel Friedrich, Adalbert, August-Wilhelm, Oscar Charles, Joachim Francis.
Wilhelm was the eldest son of the Crown Prince (whom reined briefly as Frederick III) and the Princess Victoria (English Princess Royal, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter. They were both of liberal disposition and sought to convey a liberal outlook to their son. Wilhelm's grandfather and Chancellor Bismark, however, influenced the boy's education. His strict tutor had a very great impact on the young Wilhelm and he grew up with very different attitudes from his parents.
Frederick was born in 1831, the son of King Wilhelm I of Prussia at Potsdam. When his father succeeded to the throne of Prussia in 1861, Frederick became Crown Prince Frederick William. Frederick was liberal in his political views, uncharacteristic for the Hohenzollerens. He opposed Count von Bismark throught his long term as Chancellor.
Victoria and Alfred's oldest child was the Princess Royal, named Victoria after her mother. The Princess Royal was born in 1840 and Victoria was concerned that her subjects would be dissapointed that her first child was a girl. Most were delighted that "Uncle Earnest," King of Hanover, was no longer directly in line to inherit the throne. She was called "Pussy," "Pussette," or "Vicky," in the family. Before the age of 3 years she was conversing in English, German, and French. The Queen once commented that we find Pussy amazingly advanced in inteligence and also in naughtines. The Princess Royal once told her governess, I'm sorry I was naughty--but I mean to be just as naughty next time. She
married Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia who was to become Kaiser Frederick III, but reigned only a few days. She strove to introduce English manners and the precepts of constitutional monarachy, but was opposed by Bismark. Even her influence on her son and
grandson were limited by Bismark. When her husband died, she was long estrainged from her bombastic son who became Wilhelm II.
Wilhelm's German grandfather, Wilhelm I, became king at 63 yers of age and did not expecrt to serve long. He in fact served for 17 years and presided over the unification of Germany and became the first Kaiser. He was not at all pleased when he learned of his grandson's handicaps. His grandmother Augusta who played a key role in arranging the mairrage of Wilhelm's parents, appears to have changed her attitude about the mairrage. She is known to have told cruel lies to Wilhelm about his mother.
Wilhelm's English grandarents were of cource Queeen Victoria and Prince Albert. He was the only one of Albert's many grandchildren that he ever saw. In fact, Wilhelm said that his earliest recollections was Prince Albert dangling him on a table napkin during a visit to Osborne. For this reason Queen Victoria had a soft spot in her hear for Wilhelm and tolerated antics that she would noit have allowed in her own children or grand children. As a young man, however, she began to lose patience with him. Wilhelm for his part admired his grandmother, but was known to poke fun of her among intimates and times uttered some crude comments about her.
We have included information om royal births in the HBC site, primarily as a matter of historical refference. Wilhelm's birth is, however, of considerable importance. Wilhelm was born in Berlin in 1859. It was breech birth and the German doctors in attendance thought that both Wilhelm and his mother would die--few babies survived breech births in the mid-19th century. Victoria's mother, in fact, rose to the English throne because her cousin Princess Charlotte died in child birth. Actually the German doctors in attendance largely gave up on Wilhelm who appeared to be dead. A consequence of the breech birth and poor care by the atending German doctors was an accident that weaked Wilhelm's left arm, which became withered and virtually useless. Manny historians believe that this handicap had a major impact on the formation of Wilhelms's character.
Wilhelm had seven brothers and sisters, three brothers and four sisters. It was not a large family by German standards. But considering their mother's harrowing experience at Wihelm's birth, it was surprising that she would have six more children. Wilhelm was especialy close to Henry who was born 3 years after him. We have few details at this time on the children and the relationships between them. We also have few ideas on how the children were dressed or the relationship between them:
We do not at this time have much information on Wilhelm's nursery. Given the number of brothers and sisters, however, it must have been a busy place. We do not know how the nursery was organized and to what extent the parents and grandparents supervised the nursery. We hope to find some information about the nursery. One important note is the grain strain that Wilhelm's parents were under at the time that he was a young boy in the nursery.
I have only little information about Wilhelm's childhood. He seems to have been an active baby despite his handicap. He does not appear to have been the best behaved boy. His antics during the 1863 wedding of his uncle, the Prince of Wales were noticed. He threw Beatrice's muff from the cairrage and threw the dirk from his highland outfit across the floor of St. George's Chappel during the wedding ceremony. (One his reminded at the modern Prince William's behavior at his Uncle Andrew's wedding.) I have less information about Wilhelm's behavior at home.
Wilhelm grew up in a happy home. Hisparents took a deep personal interest in him. This was not always the case for young royals. Some controversy exists in the written record, in part because Victoria was not popular with Prince Wilhelm's family.
HBRC does not yet have full details about the relationship between Wilhelm and his mother. We know that the English Princess Royal Victoria (1840-1901), despite the difficult birth, was enchanted with her first baby and doted on him. We do know that his mother was egocentric, combative--and an early advocate of women's rights. All characteristics that did not endear her to the conservative Prussian court. Some authors describe Victoria as an "ambivalent mother", but were are not sure that this is the case.
Friedrich appears to have been a very engaged father. He spent much more time with his children than his father had spent with him. He was delighted with Wilhelm. Friederich delighted in carrying the baby around the palace showing him off to everyone. The Prince wrote an aunt, "... in his clear blue eyes we can already see signs of sparking intelligence." Surely Victoria incouraged her husband to spend time with the children as she did. Also important was that because of the Danzig incident, the King and Bismarck did their best to keep him away from official duties.
Wilelm was a handicapped child that through strength of character became a capable horesman and marksman. The German doctors at first thought it was a temprary impairment. They recomended exercise and massage which had no effect. As an infant his good hand would be tied down to force him to use his disabled left arm. In 1863 when Wilhelm was about 4 years old a special device was employed. It consisted of a leather belt around the waist. An iron bar running up his back was afixed to the belt with an object rather like a horse bridele attached. Into this Wilhelm's head was strapped and turned as recommended by the doctors. The iron bar was moved by a screw determining how his head was turned.
At this time HBC has very little information on how Wilhelm was dressed as a boy. We do know that he wore dresses as a small boy. He does not appear to have commonly wore kilts, although he did so at least once--for the Prince of Wales' wedding. I'm less sure to what extent he wore sailor suits. We have less information on his other oufits. We are beginning to acquire some information about him based on a few photographs. Wilhelm does not appeared to have been photographed as a child as much as some other royals. At abou age 5 after he was breeched, he wears a dark colored blouse with knickers. As a adult, the Kaiser loved to wear elaborate military uniforms.
HBRC has no written information on Wilhelm's hair styles. Some information can be obtained by examining the available images. Wilhelm at about 2 years of age appears to have curls, but they are cut well short of his collar. By 5 years of age he has relatively short hair. This seemns to have been a similar pattern followed with his childre, although I am not sure it whether this reflects his or his wife's preferences.
The young Prince's education was a tug of war between the conservative influences of his Grandfather, the court, and Count von Bismark and the liberal attitudes of his father and mother. In the contest it was his Grandfather and Bismark who prevailed. The education planned by Bismark and his grandfather led Wilhelm towards the military lifestyle. He loved his numerous uniforms and was to surround himself with the elite of German military society. From the beginning, the conservative Prussian court
was suspicious of the liberal English influence of his English mother. Victoria's personality did not help her allay their concerns. Despite attempts by his parents to give Wilhelm a liberal education, the prince became imbued with with the ethos of conservative nationalism.
Wilhelm as a child traveled widely with many trips to England and Holland. He also visited Austruia. I do not know of trips to France. As a result, he came into contact with many other royaln children. We have some details on these encouters.
Wilhelm passed his gymnasium exams in 1877. When he turned 18 he becam of age. His grandfather the Kaiser invested him with the Order of the Black Eagle. His Grandmother Queen Victoria approved the Order of the Bath, but Wilhelm wanted the Garter and complained that Tsar Alexander II and Emperor Franz Josef had confered their highest owners. So Queen Victoria relented.
Wilhelm was a great dissapointment to both his parents. Wilhelm was torn between his liberal parents n one side and his conservative grandfather and Chancellor Bismarck on the other. Hinzpeter's tutoring did not have the effect that his parents had desired. The young Wilhelm as he prepared to leave his parent's household was as one biographer described him was "an arrogant prigish youth" who "worshipped Chancelloe Bismarck's policies and accepted his program of "blood and iron". [Van der Kriste, p. 26.] Prince Wilhelm was only a small boy during the wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71). These wars must have had an enormous impression on him. One has to wonder if his subsequent commitment to the military was not inspired by boyhood memories. Certainly he must have felt the need to follow the example of his grandfather who used the military to expand Prussia and create the German Empire by force of arms. One has to wonder if the dazzling military victories of his boyhood were just too much for his liberal parents to compete with.
Wilhelm had wanted to marry Elizabeth Ella, the daughter of his Aunt Alice. Ella rejected his overtures. After a period of military service, Wilhelm married Princess Auguste-Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921) in 1881. Some in Germany criticized the mairrage as the Princess was a member of a royal family of such a small, unimportant country, closely aligned to the British royal family. Not to mention the fact that Prussia had just fought a war with Denmark. The Kaiser and Bismark were not pleased with Wilhem's choice, but they were anxious to get him out of the Crown Prince's household anmd away from the liberal influence of his parents. His parents, for their part thought that mairrage might have a beneficial impact on their increasingly arrogant son.
Auguste-Victoria's father was Duke Frederick of Schleswig-Holstein, Duke of Schleswig-Holsein (1829- ). Her mother was Princess Adelaide von Hohenlohe-Langenburg (1835- ). Auguste-Victoria was born in 1858. After the death of the Danish King Christian IX, King Friedrich VIII attempted to unite Schleswig-Holstein under the Danish crown. First Schleswig and then Holstein, after a war with Austria is annexed by Prussia. Auguste-Victoria's dispossed family withdraws to Dolzig. As a young woman beginning about 1875, she begins to travel extensively, especially in England and France. In England she meets Prince Wilhelm and he proposes in 1879. Her father died in 1880. They marry in 1881. She has seven children. As a result of her personality and domestic life, the German people come to see her as the embodiment of the ideal German mother. She certainly was a dutiful wife and mother. Her dutiful obedience to her husband, however, meant that there was no one to moderate his arrogant manner that his mother thought so necessary. In 1888 with the accession of her husband to the throne, Auguste-Victoria becomes German empress and queen of Prussia. She often was disturbed by what she considered his neglect. They did argue about raising the children who grew up closer to her than their father.
Kaiser Wilhelm II's immediate family consisted of seven children, including six sons, but only one daughter. Many photographs exist of the family. HBC has so far been able to find very little information about the individual children. Even infornmation on Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm. There is probably a good bit of information available in German-language sources. HBC has, however, been able to find very little available in English sources. We would be very intererted in any information that our German readers could offer. Some fought in World War I. The family followed their father into exile after World War I, but many eventually returned to Germany. They apparently thought that the NAZIs would restore the monarchy.
Wilhelm who often complained about his childhood, does not appear to have been much of a father himself. He made little effort to have fun with the children or create a warm home. Wilhelm, in fact, appears to have very little concept of childhood. He appears to have treated the boys as "small recruits". He often barked at them and strictly diisciplined them. This seems quite a contrast to how he and his brothers and sisters had been treated by their father. While the children were close to their mother, the boys especially were never close to their father.
HBC is collecting details on the family life and how Wilhelm and Dona intereacted with their children. There was a complete staff of nursemaids, governesses, and tutors. The children traveled widely with their parents. Trips to England and the Netherlands were especially common.
General Adolf von Deines was put in charge of the boys' education. He complained that their mother was ill and excessively nervous, complicating his efforts. We have only limited information on the General's approach. We do know that they grew up with an exagerated view of their importance and a unrealtic appreciation of their talents and abilities. The boys were sent to a military (cadet) academy in Plön in Schleswig-Holstein.
Kaiser Wilhelm's children wore a variety of outfits. As young boys they wore dresses, some with sailor styling. Some wore pantalettes with their dresses. They were born during the Fauntleroy era and at least some of the children wore velvet suits with lace collars. The sailor suit with kneepants appears to have been a popular outfit. These outfits, however, were only worn when they were younger boys. The boys also wore military uniforms which was usually the uniforms for the military academies that they attended. They also had formal military uniforms that they wore on special occasions.
Families in the 19th cnury had different conventions for breaching their boys and cutting their curls. Some times it was done at the same time. Some fmilies did one earlier than the other. Families varied widely on this in America. We do not know if there was more consistency in Germany. We have no information written information yet on what the conventions were in the German royal family. Photographic evidence, however, suggests that the childrn were breached about 3 years of age and their hair cut at about age 5, although that is just an estimate.
The German royal family was one of the largest in Europe. Wilhem II was the eldest of eight children. The Kaiser fathered eight children himself. The number of nieces and nephews as well as grand children and great nieces and nephews is indeed daunting.
The year 1888 in Germany is known as the year of the three emperors. Wilhelm ascended the throne in 1888 after his elderly grandfather and then his father died unexpectely after reigning for only 3 months. The history of Germany and Europe may have been very different if Wilhelm's father had been healthier and had a long reign. Bismarck and Wilhelm's grandfather were successful in frusrtating Wilhelm's parents attempt to raise a son with a liberal outlook. Under the guise of training him for his future royal duties, Bismarck saw Wilhelm as a conservative foil against his parents liberalism. While the Chacellor's scheme to frustrate Wilhelm's parents succeeded, it did no produce the Kaiser that Bismarck envisioned.
One would have thought that with an English mother that Wilhelm would have developed a fondness for England. As a boy he indeed was very close to his mother and made constant visits to England with her. Bismarkck considered his mother a dangerous foreign influence, especially because of her liberal views. As a young man Wilhelm's attitude toward his mother changed markedly and with it his attitudes toward his English realtives, including Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. He is known to have made extrodianarily crude comments about them, even to their realtives in foreign courts. More is involved here than a family squable. Wilhelm's private comments about his family and belicose public comments on diplomatic incident well as his decisssion to build a navy to challenge England were major factors in changing England from viewing Prussia/Germany as an ally against France to seeing Germany as England's principal adversary requiring a raprochment with France. Thus undoing Bismarck's principal admonition--isolate France.
Wilhem was the virtual absolute monarch of the most powerful nation in Europe. Unlike his English relatives, the German Emperor was not a figurehead. The authority of the Reichstag was limited. He was generally considered to be an able and energetic, but bombastic ans seld-absorbed leader. Wilhelm II was probably the most powerful world figure at turn-of-the-century Europe. His policies, especially his foreign policies, however, proved disastrous. As a result, when World War I begun Germany found itself figting an allince of tyhe most powerful nations in Europe.
I have no information yet on the relatinship between Wilhelm II and his grandchildren. There are many photographs with the children. Many are rather touching, intimate family portraits. He appears to be rather a loving, doting grandfather. That is just based, however, on an examination of the photographs. The images that we have appear to be primarily of the Kaiser and the children of the Crown Prince. IThis suggests of course that these were the children that he took the freatesrt interest in. Photographs of William II with his other grandchildren are much more limited.
The Kaiser's role in the cataclism of World War I has been the subject of considerable historical study. His role has often overstated, but modern scholarship has revealed that he did play a central role. The Kaiser, unlike Hitler a generatiion later, did not want a war. "Saber rattling" is one thing, a war with the other major
European powers is something very different indeed! He cannot be blamed by himself for the war.
The end of World War I found Wilhelm, who had wielded virtual absolute authority, berift of power, a fugative from his own people. He was hated by millions the world over. During the peace negotiations at Versailles, various representatives of the victorious Allies urged vainly that Wilhelm be extradited and tried as a war criminal. Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands rejected the Allies' demands to turn the former Kaiser over to them for trial. The Emperess Auguste-Victoria died in 1921. Wilhelm remaired to Princess Hermine of Schönaich-Carolath in 1921. The Princess had five children of her own, three boys and two girls, from a previous mairrage. The Princes were Georg Wilhelm, Hans Georg, and Ferdinand. The Princesses were Henrietta and Karno. One can not help but compare Wilhelm and Hitler. There were many disturbing similarities, but the Kaiser governed within a constitutional government. The Prussian Government settled 250,000 acres of land and 15 million gold marks on Wilhelm in recompence for confiscated property. Efforts to pass the imperial crown to the Kaiser's eldest grandson failed to gain popular support in Germany. The Kaisser lived to see the resurgence of German military might. He was thrilled with the German victories.
After Wilhelm's death in 1941, he was buried with military honors by order of Adolf Hitler, but at his reques without the swastica flag. He was buried at his Dutch estate in Doorn.
The Kaiser had seven children and many more grand children. They were extensively photographed as children and priovide a rich source on German boys' dress. Keeping track of this large extended family, however is quite difficult. HBC is thus providing a geneology to make it easier to identify and keep track of the various individuals involved.
Kohut, Thomas A. Kaiser Wilhelm II and his parents, in John C. G. Röhl and Nicolaus Sombart (eds). Kaiser Wilhelm II. New Interpretations. The Corfu Papers (Cambridge, 1982).
Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little, Brown, and Company, 1927).
Morier, Sir Robert. Memoirs and Letters, (Edward Arnold, 1911), 2 volumes.
Röhl, John C.G. Young Wilhelm : the Kaiser's early life, 1859-1888, translated by Jeremy Gaines and Rebecca Wallach.
Van der Kriste, John. Kaiser Wihelm II: Germany's Last Kaiser (Bodmin: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 244p.
Wilhelm II. My Early Life (New York, 1926).
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