Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Victoria’s Grandchildren, Part 1: Kaiser Wilhelm II

Queen Victoria’s most famous (or perhaps infamous) grandchild was probably her first one, son of eldest daughter Vicky and her husband Fritz (Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia). I am speaking, of course, of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who led his country into the maelstrom of World War I, and lost his throne as a result.

Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert was born on January 27, 1859, in Berlin. It was a long and difficult labor for his 18-year-old mother; a clumsy delivery injured the baby’s left arm, which would be weak and withered his entire life. Some historians conjecture that his difficult birth (he was not breathing and had to be rubbed and slapped into drawing breath) and physical imperfection had a profound effect on the boy; from an early age it was noted that he was clever but hyperactive, aggressive and emotionally unstable.

Willy’s parents loved him dearly (that's him with his father on a visit to Balmoral in 1863), but few of the decisions around the boy’s upbringing were left to Vicky and Fritz. As third in line to the throne of Prussia (and eventually, to the imperial throne of Germany), Willy’s care and education were dictated by his grandfather, the arch-conservative Wilhelm, and indirectly by his Grandfather’s chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who did not want the child influenced by Fritz’s and especially Vicky’s well-known liberalism. Nor was Vicky necessarily the best parent of a difficult child: herself the child of hypercritical parents, Vicky in turn was a hypercritical mother. Trapped between her and the sycophantic courtiers who surrounded him, there is little wonder that Willy had a deeply confused relationship with her that lasted until her death. He respected his father’s sterling record as a soldier, but it was his reactionary grandfather he idolized, and his grandfather’s reactionary view of the world he adopted…though all his life he was fascinated by his English grandmother, Queen Victoria, and by England’s global domination (which he felt should have belonged to Germany).

The Prussian royal family was a strongly military one, and Willy was no exception. Though he spent a few years dabbling at Bonn University (where most of his time was spent at the Borussa, the university’s most exclusive drinking and dueling club), Willy’s main love was the army, in which he was enrolled at age 18; it seems, however, that he was more concerned with the niceties of uniforms and decorations than of actual military science. An Englishwoman who had married into a prominent German family described him as “a high spirited, sensitive boy who had a ready brain and a quick but not profound intelligence…He always thought he knew everything and no one dared to tell him he was sometimes wrong. He hated to be told the truth and seldom, perhaps, never, forgave those who insisted on telling him.”

At the age of 22 he married a distant cousin, Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sondersburg-Glucksburg, a rather lackluster young woman who worshipped Willy and obeyed him unquestioningly. They had seven children together—six sons and a daughter.

In 1888, his grandfather Wilhelm I died, to be followed only 99 days later by his father Fritz, who died of throat cancer...and at age 29, Willy became Emperor Wilhelm II. Though he had long been a disciple of his grandfather’s chancellor, Bismarck, a few short years later he dismissed Bismarck to rule on his own, with weak chancellors to serve as yesmen.

Willy’s obsession with England continued; he longed to have a navy and colonial possessions to rival England’s and spent the next decades trying to building both up, to England’s dismay. He also became increasingly paranoid, sure that England, in the form of his uncle, Edward VII, was out to grind him and Germany into the dust. It was this paranoia, combined with the militarism of the Prussian ruling class, that would lead down the road to the first world war.

This is, necessarily, a very brief overview of a complex person and complicated times. For a deeper and fascinating (and very readable!) look at Willy’s life and how it led to the war, I highly recommend Miranda Carter’s George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I. Happy reading!

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