The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II


Germany’s last kaiser was born in Potsdam on January 27, 1859, the son of Prince Frederick of Prussia and Princess Vicky, Queen Victoria’s eldest child. William was born with a withered arm—-possibly the result of cerebral palsy—-and many historians have sought in this a clue to his behavior in later life. He was believed mad by some, eccentric by others. Possessed of a ferocious temper, he was prone to reactionary statements, often contradicted by his next action or utterance. He was rumored to have sired ...

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Germany’s last kaiser was born in Potsdam on January 27, 1859, the son of Prince Frederick of Prussia and Princess Vicky, Queen Victoria’s eldest child. William was born with a withered arm—-possibly the result of cerebral palsy—-and many historians have sought in this a clue to his behavior in later life. He was believed mad by some, eccentric by others. Possessed of a ferocious temper, he was prone to reactionary statements, often contradicted by his next action or utterance. He was rumored to have sired numerous illegitimate children and yet was by all appearances a prig. He was brought up by a severe Calvinist tutor Hinzpeter, but his entourage spoiled him, allowing him to win at games and maneuvers to compensate for his deformities. This gave him a sense of inherent invincibility.

William became kaiser at age twenty-nine. Two years later he drove Bismarck out after he had blocked his liberal social policy. He destabilized the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy by failing to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, a decision that opened the way for Russia’s alliance with France in 1891. William then went on to build a powerful fleet. Though he always denied his target was Britain, there is evidence that German domination of the seas was his real aim—-his secretary of state, Tirpitz, was less anxious to please the British than the grandson of Queen Victoria. But William idolized the British Queen. As soon as he heard she was dying he rushed to Osborne House to be at her bedside; his own daughter later said, “The Queen of England died in the arms of the German Kaiser.”

William II is widely perceived as a warmonger who seemed to delight in power-grabbing, bloodshed, and the belligerent aims of his staff; and yet the image he carved out for himself and for posterity was that of “Emperor of peace.” Historically he has been blamed for World War I, although he made real efforts to prevent it. He has been branded an anti-Semite, but ironically the Nazis wrote him off as a “Jew-lover.” In this fascinating, authoritative new life, MacDonogh, widely praised for his biography of Frederick the Great, takes a fresh look at this complex, contradictory statesman and the charges against him to find that many of them can no longer be upheld.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A gripping narrative about a flawed, but ultimately pitiable king."--Kirkus Reviews

"MacDonogh, in a thorough and incisive treatment, tackles [the] issues with both aplomb and fairness."—Booklist

"Readers looking for an introduction to this critical figure of German and European history will find a gem."--Library Journal

Library Journal
Freelance journalist and BBC contributor MacDonogh follows his excellent Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters with a biography of the German Empire's last kaiser, Wilhelm II. MacDonogh reinvigorates our understanding of a man frequently portrayed as a villain by looking at historical problems from the kaiser's point of view. As usual, he has thoroughly researched the diaries and memoirs of Wilhelm's contemporaries, and he exhibits his findings in a delightful writing style, more elegant than academic. In an attempt to explain a puzzling question why did Wilhelm insist on building a fleet when it would provoke Britain into a world war? MacDonogh carefully separates history from propaganda, arguing that the kaiser hoped the fleet would be a unifying symbol for a Germany that still thought of itself as Prussian, Bavarian, or Swabian. MacDonogh's plausible explanations show that the kaiser was not the maniac the Allies wanted us to believe. His book contrasts sharply with John van der Kiste's Kaiser Wilhelm II: Germany's Last Emperor (LJ 10/1/99), which posited that Wilhelm was not suited to be emperor. Highly recommended for all libraries. Randall L. Schroeder, Wartburg Coll. Lib., Waverly, IA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 overgovernment, 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312305574
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/25/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 318,338
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Giles MacDonogh is a historian and journalist. His biography of Frederick the Great was a bestseller in the United Kingdom. He contributes regularly to the Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, and Evening Standard. He lives in London.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vi
Acknowledgements viii
Family Tree x
Introduction 1
1 The Inheritance 11
2 Synthesis 21
3 The Emperor as a Young Man 58
4 Influence and Responsibilities 73
5 Duel to the Death 82
6 Countdown 92
7 Ninety-Nine Days 115
8 The Struggle with the Bismarcks 125
9 The Liberal Empire 167
10 Uncle Chlodwig 204
11 Bulow 246
12 A Sea of Troubles 297
13 Bethmann-Hollweg 319
14 The Slide into War 351
15 Into the Shadows 363
16 Bowing Out 398
17 Amerongen and Doorn 419
18 William and Adolf 446
Notes 463
Index 517
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