Colorized photo of Kaiser Wilhelm II sitting on a chair in a suit with a German Shepard in 1940 at his home in the Netherlands.
This photo shows 81-year-old former German Kaiser Wilhelm II in color (thanks to the process of colorization) in 1940 at his home in Doorn, the Netherlands. Colorization by Gavin Wieszala

It can be argued that no man’s legacy has had a more negative impact on the German people than that of its third and last Kaiser, Wilhelm II. Upon the death of his father in 1888, Wilhelm inherited the throne of the young German Empire, formed just 17 years earlier following the unification of the German territories. The new nation was ruled by the Kaiser, a German term for “emperor” derived from “Caesar”, but the true power laid with Otto von Bismarck, dubbed “the Iron Chancellor” for his skilled peace-seeking diplomacy and domestic realpolitik that allowed the infant empire to quickly become a global leader and industrial power. Kaiser Wilhelm had different plans for his Empire, however; he quickly dismissed Bismarck in 1890 and embarked on an aggressive plan called ‘Weltpolitik’ (world politics): domestic militarism, regional alliances, and foreign colonialism. 

In the aftermath of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Wilhelm used his Austrian alliance to push for the war declarations that subsequently turned into the First World War, eager to display German military prowess on a global stage against the French and British. The bitter warfare that ensued proved precarious: the German Empire found itself fighting on two fronts, and making little progress on either. By 1917, the Russians to the East succumbed to revolution and surrendered to the Germans in nearly 1918. While the Kaiser now only had one front to command, it was too late. The Allies, now joined by the Americans, had broken through the stalemate in the West and made continuous victories against an ever-weakened and resourceless Germany. On November 11, Germany signed an armistice, but not before revolution on the homefront forced the abdication of the Kaiser. For Germany, the worst was to still come. 

The humiliating Treaty of Versailles dealt harsh punishment to Germany: the transfer of all foreign territories and large portions of Germany proper to the victors, incredibly strict regulations on the size and scope of the German military, and unrealistic debts to be paid to the victors. To repay its debts, the weak Weimar government printed money en masse, leading to hyperinflation that sent the German economy into the Great Depression ten years before the Wall Street Crash. These economic troubles, paired with frequent riots, led to drastically polarized politics; millions of working-class Germans joined extremist groups, particularly the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) Parties that utilized inflammatory populism and scapegoats for Germany’s problems (the capitalists and the Jews, respectively). By 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis gained power and set into motion the events of the Second World War, ultimately ending with yet another two-front German defeat and the division of Germany until 1989. 

Black and white version of the Kaiser at his home in 1940.

It is compelling to theorize how Germany’s fate would be changed had Kaiser Wilhelm II not taken his aggressive actions, or if the Iron Chancellor had continued to steer Germany through the turn of the century. The story of the rise and fall of Wilhelm and his empire continues to be a prime example of failed international politics that continues to serve us today. 

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