Wilhelm II: Prince and Emperor, 1859-1900 - Vol. 1

Wilhelm II: Prince and Emperor, 1859-1900 - Vol. 1

Wilhelm II: Prince and Emperor, 1859-1900 - Vol. 1

Wilhelm II: Prince and Emperor, 1859-1900 - Vol. 1


Wilhelm II (1859-1941), King of Prussia and German Emperor from 1888 to 1918, reigned during a period of unprecedented economic, cultural, and intellectual achievement in Germany. Unlike most European sovereigns of his generation, Wilhelm was no mere figurehead, and his imprint on imperial Germany was profound. In this book and a second volume, historian Lamar Cecil provides the first comprehensive biography of one of modern history's most powerful--and most misunderstood--rulers.

Wilhelm II: Prince and Emperor, 1859-1900 concentrates on Wilhelm's youth. As Cecil shows, the future ruler's Anglo-German genealogy, his education, and his subsequent service as an officer in the Prussian army proved to be unfortunate legacies in shaping Wilhelm's behavior and ideas.

Throughout his thirty-year reign, Wilhelm's connection with his subjects was tenuous. He surrounded himself with a small coterie of persons drawn from the government, the military, and elite society, most of whom were valued not for their ability but for their loyalty to the crown. They, in turn, contrived to keep Wilhelm isolated from outside influences, learned to be accomplished in catering to his prejudices, and strengthened his conviction that the government should be composed only of those who agreed with him. The day-to-day conduct of Germany's affairs was left in the hands of these loyal followers, for the Kaiser himself did not at all enjoy work. Rejoicing instead in pageantry and the superficial trappings of authority, he was particular about what he did and what he read, eliminating anything that was unpleasant, difficult, or tedious. He never learned to listen, to reason, or to make decisions in a sound, informed manner; he was customarily inclined to act solely on the basis of his personal feelings.

Many people believed him to be mad. Even courtiers who admired Wilhelm recognized that he was responsible for the diplomatic embarrassment in which Germany found itself by 1914 and that the Kaiser's maladroit behavior endangered the prestige of the Hohenzollern crown. His is the story of a bizarre and incapable sovereign who never doubted that he possessed both genius and divine inspiration.

Originally published in 1989.


KAISER WILHELM II, in death no less than in life, manages to confound and annoy those who must deal with him. For a biographer, the last German Kaiser and King of Prussia poses three difficulties as a subject. A sovereign of autocratic pretensions, his imprint on imperial Germany was substantial, and the record for such a ruler is consequently staggering in its enormity. I can assert no claim to have examined more than a part of either the archival or, especially, the printed record. Wilhelm II was, moreover, an exceedingly foolish man, so that to explain--and sometimes merely to relate--what he did or said reduces a biographer to the greatest perplexity. Finally, he lived to a great, though hardly serene, old age. Born well before Bismarck became his grandfather's minister-president in 1862, he died early in June 1941, only days before Adolf Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht's ill-fated invasion of Russia.

Wilhelm II occupied the German throne for more than thirty years, but his connection with his subjects was tenuous indeed and only in a rarefied sense was he a part of the Germany at large over which he ruled so maladroitly. In all his long life, Wilhelm knew perhaps no more than several hundred Germans, and perhaps only ten or twenty men (and no women other than his wife) could be fairly described as being either his intimate friends or persons with whom he had a steady association. Almost all of these people were great figures drawn from the government, the military, or society. This coterie, grouped around the throne and dependent on it for their offices and other rewards, successfully insulated their sovereign against any influences that might try to penetrate its defenses, and as a result the Kaiser lived behind what one of Bismarck's successors referred to as a "Chinese wall." Wilhelm II, besides, was only spasmodically at the heart of the action in Berlin. He much preferred moving about with his handful of adjutants and advisors to regimental exercises in Potsdam or more distant and obscure garrisons, to aristocratic hunting preserves in Silesia and the mark of Brandenburg, or cruising in his yacht to the blue fiords of Norway, where he . . .

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