Wilhelm II, German Emperor
Wilhelm II (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert; 27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941), anglicised as William II, was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia. His reign lasted from 15 June 1888 to 9 November 1918. Despite strengthening Germany’s position as a great power by building a blue-water navy and promoting scientific innovation, his tactless public statements and reckless foreign policy greatly antagonized the international community and ultimately plunged his country into World War I. When the German war effort collapsed after a series of crushing defeats on the Western Front in 1918, he was forced to abdicate, thereby bringing an end to the Hohenzollern dynasty’s three hundred year rule.
As the eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria, Wilhelm’s first cousins included George V of the United Kingdom and many princesses who, along with Wilhelm’s sister Sophia, became European consorts. For most of his life before becoming emperor, he was second in line to succeed his grandfather Wilhelm I on the German and Prussian thrones after his father, Frederick. His grandfather and father both died in 1888, the Year of Three Emperors, making Wilhelm emperor and king. On 20 March 1890, he dismissed the German Empire’s powerful longtime chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.
After Bismarck’s departure, Wilhelm II assumed direct control over his nation’s policies and embarked on a bellicose “New Course” to cement its status as a respected world power. Subsequently, over the course of his reign, Germany acquired territories in the Far East and became Europe’s largest manufacturer. However, he frequently undermined such progress by making threatening statements towards other countries and voicing xenophobic views without consulting his ministers. Likewise, his regime did much to alienate itself from the world’s other Great Powers by initiating a massive naval build-up, challenging French control of Morocco, and building a railway through Baghdad that threatened Britain’s dominion in the Persian Gulf. Thus, by the second decade of the 20th century, Germany could rely only on significantly weaker nations such as Austria-Hungary and the declining Ottoman Empire as its allies.
Wilhelm II’s turbulent reign ultimately culminated in Germany’s guarantee of military support to Austria-Hungary during the crisis of July 1914, one of the direct underlying causes for the First World War. A lax wartime leader, he left virtually all decision-making regarding strategy and organisation of the war effort to the Imperial German Army’s Great General Staff. By 29 August 1916, this broad delegation of power resulted in a de facto military dictatorship that dominated national policy for the rest of the conflict. Despite emerging victorious over Russia and achieving significant gains in Western Europe, Germany was forced to relinquish all its conquests after its forces’ decisive defeat in November 1918. Upon losing the support of the military and his subjects, Wilhelm abdicated his throne and fled to exile in the Netherlands. He remained there during the German occupation in World War II, and died in 1941.