A biography of Wilhelm II, who oversaw the collapse of the German empire.
MacDonogh’s (Frederick the Great, 2001, etc.) Wilhelm runs hot and cold. Sometimes full of bluster, his saber-rattling contributed to the outbreak of the Great War, but at other times the last Kaiser was given to compromise in international disputes. The central figure of Wilhelm’s childhood was his mother, Vicky, daughter of Queen Victoria of Britain. Vicky dominated his father, Frederick III, who died only a few months after assuming the throne. Once Wilhelm took over, he invigorated the government, bypassing the legendary Bismarck and establishing liberal policies in the conservative Prussian-centered empire. His choice of archaeology as a hobby signified his modern state of mind, which was put to good use in the development of German schools and infrastructure. From his mother, Wilhelm inherited a love-hate relationship with the English, whom he felt treated Germany like a second-class state, and much of his foreign policy (such as his rapid buildup of the navy) was designed to earn the respect of the British—who responded by identifying Germany as their enemy. The author shifts the focus of his account away from WWI once the fighting begins, however, and concentrates instead on how Wilhelm vacillated at crucial moments, losing the confidence of his advisers. Initially, the Kaiser worked hard to avoid catastrophe, especially in his diplomacy with Russia and his cousin Czar Nicholas, but eventually the entangling alliances of the period, as well as a bellicose German public, overwhelmed him. In the end, Wilhelm’s standing fell with Germany’s fortunes on the battlefield. By 1917, the army had taken over government, relegating Wilhelm to a purely ceremonial role. The last hundred pages of the biography detail Wilhelm’s eclipse and exile in Holland—painful reading compared to the earlier parts of the story (which show him as a sometimes heroic, if reckless, character). His ambivalence towards the Nazis—he supported their nationalism but was disturbed by Hitler’s tactics—was all the more tragic because it was irrelevant.
A gripping narrative about a flawed, but ultimately pitiable, king.