WDF THINKS: Wilhelm II and life in abdication

"Your Majesty, so long as you have this present officer corps, you can do as you please. But when this is no longer the case, it will be very different for you."

Thus were the words of Otto von Bismarck, in one of the final meetings he held with Wilhelm II in late 1897. Bismarck warned Wilhelm that the increasing militarism of the country boded well for a military leader, but could sense that within such feelings of militarism dwelt an impatience with one who could not or would not lead. Wilhelm would feel the sting of these words barely 20 years later, when the various military institutions of his Empire abandoned him, and flew up in revolt.

 Wilhelm II and his first wife, when times were royal and simple. Her death in 1921 was a crushing blow to Wilhelm, especially as their son Joachim had committed suicide only recently before.

Wilhelm II and his first wife, when times were royal and simple. Her death in 1921 was a crushing blow to Wilhelm, especially as their son Joachim had committed suicide only recently before.

Wilhlem was profoundly shocked and wounded by the experience, but such feelings did not prevent him from leaving his home. At first believing that he would have to abdicate the Imperial crown, but that he could keep the Hohenzollern Crown as King of Prussia, Wilhelm was then made to realise that under the German constitution this could not be the case. It was to be all or nothing, so faced with little other option, this Emperor chose nothing. On 28th November 1918 went out the following memo to all of Germany's armed forces and civilian heads of government:

"I herewith renounce for all time claims to the throne of Prussia and to the German Imperial throne connected therewith. At the same time I release all officials of the German Empire and of Prussia, as well as all officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the navy and of the Prussian army, as well as the troops of the federated states of Germany, from the oath of fidelity which they tendered to me as their Emperor, King and Commander-in-Chief. I expect of them that until the re-establishment of order in the German Empire they shall render assistance to those in actual power in Germany, in protecting the German people from the threatening dangers of anarchy, famine, and foreign rule.

Proclaimed under our own hand and with the imperial seal attached."

Yet this was not the end of Wilhlem II's life. Until his death in 1941, Wilhelm was a guest of the Netherlands. Living in a self-imposed exile, he saw the new Wiemar Republic rise and then endure a terrifying fall. Seeking to return to his old homeland, Wilhelm and his offspring were feared by Hitler, who believed that the Hohenzollern dynasty would strip him of his own influence and overawe the German people, who hadn't seen their former monarch in so many decades. In the end, the Fuhrer went to great lengths to prevent Wilhelm's return, an idea which the old Kaiser himself didn't seem especially invested in once it became clear that affairs had drastically changed in the new regime. 

 In exile in 1933, the same year Hitler achieved the previously unthinkable and nabbed the position of Chancellor

In exile in 1933, the same year Hitler achieved the previously unthinkable and nabbed the position of Chancellor

Perhaps because of this increasingly clear change in his old homeland's character, Wilhelm came to admit that 'for once, I am ashamed to be a German', when he learned of the Kristillnacht attacks on Jewish businesses and the rampant uptick in anti-Semitism which soon followed. Launching an all-out attack on the Nazis in December 1938, the former Kaiser said:

"There's a man alone, without family, without children, without God... He builds legions, but he doesn't build a nation. A nation is created by families, a religion, traditions: it is made up out of the hearts of mothers, the wisdom of fathers, the joy and the exuberance of children... For a few months I was inclined to believe in National Socialism. I thought of it as a necessary fever. And I was gratified to see that there were, associated with it for a time, some of the wisest and most outstanding Germans. But these, one by one, he has got rid of or even killed... He has left nothing but a bunch of shirted gangsters! This man could bring home victories to our people each year, without bringing them either glory or danger. But of our Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians, of artists and soldiers, he has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics."

Yet, for all that condemnation, Wilhelm proved as inconsistent in exile as he would in rule. When Poland was crushed in September 1939, Wilhelm's adjutant wrote to Hitler on his behalf, alluding to the large number of soldiers sourced from the Prussian House of Hohenzollern serving in Hitler's war machine; he said: "because of the special circumstances that require residence in a neutral foreign country, His Majesty must personally decline to make the aforementioned comment. The Emperor has therefore charged me with making a communication." What was more, when his homeland in the Netherlands was forced to surrender in May 1940, he wrote to Hitler personally, saying "My Fuhrer, I congratulate you and hope that under your marvelous leadership the German monarchy will be restored completely." Hitler was bemused, but did not allow Wilhlem to come home.

 The Huis Doorn in Doorn, Netherlands. Wilhlem's new palace

The Huis Doorn in Doorn, Netherlands. Wilhlem's new palace

A more surprising offer came from Winston Churchill of all people, who offered Wilhlem exile in Britain over his continued residence among the conquered Dutch. Wilhlem, in Churchill's mind, may well have represented a threat to Hitler's position, but Hitler never seemed to take him seriously, particularly in his advanced years - Wilhelm was 81 by the time France fell. Perhaps demonstrating a more consistent aspect of his character - his terminal dislike for his uncle Edward VII of Britain, who had helped bring through the Entente Cordiale with France in 1905. He would write to his niece as Hitler made his way to Paris "Thus is the pernicious Entente Cordiale of Uncle Edward VII brought to nought." Fortunately for world history, the Cordiale proved more resiliant than either Wilhelm or Hitler expected, and Britain remained resolute for the remainder of the war, refusing to abandon its occupied French ally.

 A rare photo of Wilhelm with his second wife, Hermine Reuss of Greiz

A rare photo of Wilhelm with his second wife, Hermine Reuss of Greiz

Though he retired from public life after the German occupation of the Netherlands, we must consider the fact that Wilhelm lived through the fall of France in the summer of 1940. The symbolic means by which France was made to sign over its sovereignty to Nazi Germany would surely not have been lost on the former Kaiser. In the same cart that Germany had signed its own surrender; in the same vehicle where his own flight from the country was made inevitable, Hitler wrested a capitulation from the French which Wilhelm had never been able to secure. If he was jealous of the Fuhrer, he did not express it. The ex-Emperor was content to remain in the background to current events, unless these same events sought to involve him. He had no true illusions about returning home, though he had certainly been emotionally, if not psychologically broken, by the events of the war. He would have known deep down that he had failed - that he had failed everyone from his great and glorious ancestors, to the most humble of the German Empire's citizens. Yet, if he knew such facts and took them to heart, he did not allow them to humble him or reduce his sense of importance.

Wilhelm II would die on 4th June, 1941 at the age of 82. At the time of his death, Adolf Hitler was planning the campaign against the USSR which in time would cost him everything. Wilhelm certainly knew, by the end of his death, what it meant to lose next to everything. With him died the last man to rule the German Empire. With his death, the Hohenzollern royal line which had been officially established by the Prussian King's own force of will in 1700, was gone. Never to rise again. This curious relic passed on into legend and infamy, and only historians can piece together now what such an aftermath was truly like for the man, the Kaiser of all Germans, who had once seemed so powerful and menacing to the Western World.