Kaiser Wilhelm II & World War I

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Can we establish a link between the nature of the Wilhelmine system and that outbreak of war in 1914?

In 1888, Wilhelm II ascended to the German throne as Kaiser. The policies and style of government he instigated over the next 26 years played a major role in the outbreak of war in 1914. In a marked change from the conservative Bismarckian politics of the 1870s and 1880s, Wilhelm II embarked upon a militaristic and expansionist political path in an attempt to ‘defend Germany’s so-called “place in the sun”’. While some historians have downplayed the role of the Kaiser and of Germany in the outbreak of war, an analysis of the events of July 1914 and the role Germany played appears to prove otherwise. Moreover, by realising that military and foreign affairs were solely the prerogative of the Kaiser, it becomes clear that there was a strong link between the Wilhelmine system, the Kaiser himself, and the outbreak of war in 1914.

Wars in 1864, 1866 and 1871 respectively against Denmark, Austria and France, eventually leading to the creation of a united Germany, had created a precarious diplomatic situation. Skilful diplomatic negotiations by Bismarck with Russia, Britain and Austria between 1871 and 1890 had isolated France and created a peaceful continental Europe. However, Bismarck’s system has been described as ‘crisis management’ and relatively short-term: while creating peace in Europe it began the process of forming alliances, which was one of the major causes of the First World War. Bismarck’s foreign policy required a very competent successor to ensure that Germany could maintain its treaties and continue to isolate France. Instead Wilhelm II’s nationalistic and expansionist foreign policy destroyed the fragile situation which Bismarck had worked so hard to achieve. German foreign policy under Wilhelm II was influenced by the same militaristic and nationalistic sentiments that brought about the unification of Germany in 1871.

To found a nation on military success can be seen as very dangerous, and the constitution of Germany that was created reflected the militaristic foundation of the new empire. The Wilhelmine system was not an autocracy, but neither was it a constitutional monarchy: the Bundesrat, the Reichstag under leadership of the Chancellor, as well as the Prussian Cabinet and the military establishment all had real political power. The Reichstag, which was elected through a universal franchise for all males over the age of 24, gave Germany a legislative body that was as democratic as any political system in Europe. However, this whole system was held together by the Kaiser, and greatly relied upon his ability to mediate between the different political bodies. In effect, this gave the Kaiser considerable political power, and Wilhelm II maximised the influence which the constitution gave him in order to fulfil his belief in ‘personal rule’. Therefore it is difficult to distinguish whether the political system can be blamed for the outbreak of war, or whether it was Wilhelm II’s mismanagement of the system which led to war.

The first major political move for Wilhelm II was his decision to force Bismarck to resign in 1890; the Chancellor was 79 years old at this time, while Wilhelm II was only 29. Their political ideologies were in direct conflict, Bismarck’s conservatism contrasting with ‘the brashly self-assertive young Kaiser’. Wilhelm II was convinced of his divine right to rule, and was not prepared to play a passive role alongside Bismarck as his grandfather Wilhelm I had done. Once rid of Bismarck, Wilhelm II was able to implement the policies that he personally desired, including naval armament and a colonial empire for Germany. Both these policies, while uplifting German national pride, were in direct conflict with the interests of Germany’s European neighbours and undermined the precarious alliance system that Bismarck had created during the 1870s and 1880s in order to isolate France and ensure German security.

With the breakdown of Bismarck’s system of alliances, clearly shown by the failure to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1893 and Wilhelm II’s failure to negotiate a settlement with Britain, a new system of alliances was created with Germany in a far worse position than it had been under Bismarck. France was no longer isolated, the Dual Alliance of 1894 between France and Russia ensuring that if war was to break out then the Germans would have to fight on two fronts, leaving them increasingly reliant on the declining Austro-Hungarian empire. Germany’s reliance on Austria-Hungary drew it into the tumultuous Balkan region and into ever increasing conflict with Russia.

Wilhelm II’s desire for ‘personal rule’ meant that any of his personal traits would be very important; therefore ‘Wilhelm II’s impulsiveness and infirmity of purpose aroused mistrust everywhere’. Historians are in general agreement that Wilhelm II did not have the right personality to be a competent leader. Furthermore, because he had constitutional prerogative over foreign and military affairs, such a mismatch between personality and power would have disastrous results. Wilhelm II’s desire for Germany to impose itself on the European stage, through military armament (and potentially war) as well as by acquiring a colonial empire brought Germany into conflict with every major European power except the unstable Austria-Hungary, whose alliance can be seen as more of a hindrance rather than a help to Germany’s cause.

Some historians believe that Germany did not intentionally seek war; they were backed into a corner where the only escape was through a European war because of their other interests and the diplomatic incompetence of Wilhelm II. However, this argument is not universally accepted. Other historians believe that Germany played a more active role in the outbreak of war in that the Sarajevo assassinations served only as an excuse to re-ignite the militaristic Prussian tradition that looked towards war as a method of solving any problems, domestic or international. Chancellor Bulow insisted that the fate of Germany depended on the ‘sharpness of the Prussian sword’. Such a view epitomised the attitude of many high-ranking German policymakers from 1900-1914.

The direction of German policy during the July crisis in 1914, following the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand undoubtedly escalated the crisis, by providing Austria-Hungary with a ‘blank cheque’. Moreover, ensuring that any attempts at mediation would prove fruitless does present a strong argument that Germany viewed a war as desirable. Wilhelm II stated publicly that it was ‘now or never for Austria to deal the Serbs’, which led to Austria-Hungary being pressured into declaring war on Russia on August 6, thus escalating a localised conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia into a European war. There was definitely motivation for Germany to declare war against France and Russia sooner rather than later as the armament programmes of Germany’s two main potential enemies were due to be completed by 1917 and war would have been much more difficult to win if it had been fought then. A general consensus within Germany was reached just before the outbreak of war, when the Reichstag unanimously voted for the war act and to dissolve itself, handing all power over to the Kaiser and the military establishment.

The capitulation of any anti-war sentiment can be seen as a manifestation of the endemic militarism of the Wilhelmine system; however all over Europe similar decisions were being reached in political systems as diverse as Russian Tsarism and British democracy. Is it therefore fair to blame the outbreak of war and the accompanying pro-war sentiment on the Wilhelmine system when it appears that a similar sequence of events was occurring throughout Europe? Much of the pro-war sentiment in other European nations was in response to the threat of German invasion: it is completely logical that a population would react more actively towards conflict if it is directly under threat. In France and Russia a direct threat was posed by Germany and the populations responded in a way that could only be expected, which cannot undermine Germany’s role in provoking much of this reaction.

The nature of the Wilhelmine system, especially the important political role Kaiser Wilhelm II himself played was most definitely conducive to the outbreak of war in 1914. By destroying Bismarck’s carefully constructed (although admittedly shortsighted) alliance system Wilhelm II re-ignited many diplomatic problems which had been created by the unification of Germany in 1871. Through a nationalistic and militaristic foreign policy, Wilhelm II alienated Britain and Russia – two potential allies – and created a situation where only the slightest spark would explode into a Europe-wide conflict. Whether this was the result of incompetence on Wilhelm’s behalf or a specific desire to go to war remains a moot point; however it is clear that there is a strong link between the Wilhelmine system and the outbreak of war in 1914.


Lerman, Katharine A, ‘Wilhelmine Germany’, in Mary Fulbrook, ed.,German History since 1800.
Mommsen, W.J., ‘Kaiser Wilhelm II and German Politics’, Journal of Contemporary History, 25, 1990, pp.289-316.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Imperial Germany: The Birth of the German Republic 1871-1918, New York, 1970.