Attracted and impressed by the pomp of military heraldry, his theatrical posturing as 'supreme warlord' served only to disguise his unpredictability and ineffectiveness as a war leader, and proved a gift for Allied satirists and caricaturists. During the First World War his image was exploited as the personification of evil and ultimate source of all German 'frightfulness'.
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The reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II as King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany (1888-1918) witnessed the meteoric rise of Germany as an economic and military power. It also saw the fragmentation of Europe into opposed camps of mutually-mistrusting alliances, a world war ending in Germany’s humiliating defeat and the abolition of German monarchical rule. Wilhelm’s life, actions and complex character played a significant part in this destructive process.
Utterly convinced of his right to rule, Wilhelm early on overestimated his capacity for wise political judgement. His dismissal of Chancellor Bismarck in 1890 and ambitious aim to make Germany a world power served to disrupt the established balance of the European order. As Queen Victoria’s first grandson, his ambivalent, love-hate, attitude to Britain, strained relations between the two countries. An obsession with the enlargement of the German Navy, pro-Boer stance during the Second Boer War and blustering claims for German colonial expansion merely served to bring Britain and France closer together. Wilhelm’s paranoid perception of a deliberate encirclement of Germany served only to increase her isolation.
During the July 1914 crisis Wilhelm’s rash assurance of unlimited support to Austria-Hungary opened the floodgates for bloody conflict. He proved indecisive and ineffective as a war leader and increasingly strategic and political power devolved on the German High Command. By late 1918 Wilhelm’s presence proved an obstacle to peace negotiations and, forced to abdicate on 9 November 1918, he was bundled off to neutral Holland, where he remained until his death in 1941.
Kaiser Wilhelm II prepares to lay the final stone and name the new waterway the 'Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal'. The opening ceremony spanned two days. On 20 June 1895, the German Imperial yacht Hohenzollern, with the Kaiser and Kaiserin on board, entered the lock at Brunsbuttel. The Kaiser officially opened this end of the canal. The Hohenzollern then led a convoy of 24 ships down the canal to Holtenau. Complementing his pet obsession of enlarging the Imperial German Navy to a scale to rival the battle fleet of the Royal Navy, the construction of the Kiel Canal allowed German warships to move rapidly from their Baltic ports to the open sea without travelling through the waters of other countries. The naval rivalries between Britain and Germany contributed significantly to an increase in tension between the two countries prior to the outbreak of war in August 1914.
The Kaiser was a tireless traveller, especially in support of German economic and political influence. In 1898 he and the Kaiserin visited Palestine, where he visited many sites of historic and archaeological significance. This visit to the Tomb of King David in Jerusalem was permitted specially by the Sultan of Turkey. Although the Royal visit to Palestine was ostensibly to allow the Kaiser and Kaiserin to attend the dedication ceremony of the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem (which had been constructed by Germans), the visit offered an opportunity to strengthen his personal interest in Turkey and the Arab people.
Double-breasted officer quality greatcoat associated with the 13th Narvski Hussars and formerly belonging to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser personally possessed a large variety of uniforms (over 300) representing many regiments of the 'German' Army as well as those of the Navy, and in the tradition of a sovereign monarch, enjoyed the status of 'honorary colonel' of many overseas formations including those of Great Britain and Imperial Russia. This particular coat represents his pre-war honorary command of one of his cousin’s (Tsar Nicholas II) cavalry regiments. In deference to the Kaiser’s withered left arm all his jackets and coats were tailored to accommodate his shorter limb.
uniforms and insignia
Ornate gilt bronze wreath presented in memory of the Kaiser's pilgrimage to the tomb of Saladin during his visit to Palestine in 1898 (as part of his state tour of the Middle East)The decorative wreath was acquired for the Imperial War Museum in November 1918 by the good offices of Colonel T E Lawrence.
souvenirs and ephemera
Blood and Iron, 1916, by Charles Ernest Butler. Despite Kaiser Wilhelm II’s long-term attempts to portray himself as civilised and courteous, his image has been chosen deliberately by the artist, within the context of a war of unprecedented scale and violence, to evoke the very essence of evil. In the foreground Christ nurses a dying woman who holds a child. Looming behind them is the Kaiser on horseback with the Angel of Death at his shoulder. All around him is chaos and destruction; he is depicted as the Lord of a new world of violence, terror and disorder.
This is the last official portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II taken at his home at Doorn in the Netherlands in 1938. This portrait was used on the Kaiser’s last Christmas card and was sent to his long-standing British friend, Lord Lonsdale.