Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany from 1888 until 1918. The emperor of the German empire and king of Prussia, he was the son of Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia and Princess Victoria of England. His mother was Queen Victoria's oldest daughter. When his father died of throat cancer after ruling for less than a year, Wilhelm ascended the throne at the age of 29. He continued to rule the German empire through the end of World War I.
Formation of the German Empire
At birth, Wilhelm was second in line to rule as king of Prussia. However, in 1871 the independent German republics united with Prussia to form the German empire. Prussia led the empire, its territory making up 64 percent of Germany with 61 percent of the nation's population. The fledgling empire's capital was in Berlin, part of Prussia, and the king of Prussia became the kaiser, or emperor, of Germany. The German empire was a young nation among the old European powers, and Wilhelm set out to prove Germany could compete with the other, more established nations.
Launching a New Course
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had maintained strong control over German politics and government for decades, but within two years of his coronation, Wilhelm dismissed the leader. For Wilhelm, a "New Course" was needed, starting with more personal leadership from himself and chancellors who were high-ranking career civil servants rather than popular politicians. Since Wilhelm's mother was British, he'd grown up around sailing ships and focused on expanding the German navy. For an island nation like Great Britain, a strong navy was essential to maintain its global empire. However, for Germany, landlocked except for borders on the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, an expansive navy wasn't a major priority. Wilhelm persisted, believing a strong navy was key to establishing German power.
Great Britain perceived Wilhelm's naval build-up as a threat, leading the nation to align with France and Russia. Russia had interests in the Balkan region, as did the Austro-Hungarian empire. Austria-Hungary annexed the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, angering Serbian nationalists who considered Bosnia-Herzegovina a rightful part of the independent Serbian state. On June 28, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Emperor Franz Josef requested support from Kaiser Wilhelm to quell the Serbian violence and reinstate Austro-Hungarian dominance in the Balkan region. Serbia sought assistance from Russia against the Austro-Hungarian incursion. In August, Wilhelm followed Austria-Hungary in declaring war on Russia and its ally, France, as a result of the Balkan conflict, beginning World War I.
The Emperor in Exile
World War I continued for four years and devastated much of continental Europe. More than 20 million soldiers died in the conflict, along with countless other casualties. The German and Austro-Hungarian empires were destroyed. For much of the second half of the war, Wilhelm kept quiet. His two leading generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, effectively ran Germany as a military dictatorship. The end of the war resulted in unrest among the German people, many of whom felt the war had been fought to defend the existence of the young empire from the established European powers. The government attempted to ease national tension by announcing Wilhelm had abdicated the throne before he'd agreed to do so. The emperor fled his home, slipping across the border to the Netherlands where he spent the rest of his life in exile.
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