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Wilhelm II

A Dictionary of Contemporary World History

Jan Palmowski

Wilhelm II 

(b. 27 Jan. 1859, d. 4 June 1941).

German Emperor (Kaiser) 1888–1918 Upon his accession to the throne the young, self‐confident monarch soon clashed with his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (b. 1815, d. 1898), whom he dismissed in 1890 to increase his own political influence. In an effort to end the increasing political polarization of German society, he proclaimed the conciliatory ‘New Course’ in 1890, but when this failed to stop the rise of socialism, he ordered his Chancellor to reintroduce measures to persecute the SPD through the Revolutions (Subversions) Bill, (Umsturzvorlage, 1894–5) and the Penitentiaries Bill (Zuchthausvorlage, 1899), measures which failed to get the necessary parliamentary support.

Subsequently Wilhelm's influence waned, and his political statements, such as those made in the Daily Telegraph Affair, became increasingly incoherent as well as controversial. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Tirpitz's plans for naval expansion, and he fully approved of his Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg's handling of the events following from the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Although his precise influence on the outbreak of the war is subject to dispute, he did not have a decisive say, though his opinion contributed to a bellicose atmosphere in the German leadership. During the war he moved into the background. When the military began to collapse and workers' councils at home started to rise against the system, his generals led by Hindenburg refused to support him. Wihelm abdicated on 10 November 1918 and fled to Doorn in the Netherlands, where he died.