The Reign of Wilhelm II

The Reign of Wilhelm II

Once the new kaiser, Wilhelm II, took the throne in 1888, he was determined to prove himself master of his German Empire. Son of Friedrich III and grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Wilhelm spent his reign in an attempt to prove himself the worthy successor to the great Hohenzollern rulers of the past. Born with a deformed left arm, the self-conscious Wilhelm was obsessed with the Prussian military, appearing throughout his reign in ostentatious military regalia, his mal-formed limb resting on the scabbard of a ceremonial sword to conceal his disability.

An arrogant and tempestuous man, the young kaiser iden-tifi ed with his grandfather, Wilhelm I, believing that he ruled Germany by the grace of God. Wilhelm’s fascination with the military and his overweening confi dence in his own divine purpose exacerbated the authoritarian and bellicose political culture of Wilhelmine Germany, ultimately leading to disaster.

As crown prince, Wilhelm had increasingly fallen under the infl u-ence of Otto von Bismarck, who convinced him to eschew the progres-sive policies advocated by his parents. By the time Wilhelm took the throne, at 29, he was determined to return Germany to the course of his grandfather, Wilhelm I, whom he idolized. The haughty young mon-arch soon clashed with Bismarck, impatient with the aging chancellor’s cautious foreign policy and chafi ng at his interference in imperial politics. Wilhelm scorned Bismarck’s painstaking attempts to maintain peace among Europe’s great powers and demanded aggressive action. The fi nal straw, however, proved to be a domestic controversy.

In early 1890, Bismarck tried to pass a bill through the Reichstag that would make his antisocialist laws permanent. Given Bismarck’s infl uence among the conservative parties in the Reichstag, the bill was certain to pass, but during the deliberations, a split emerged among the delegates regarding the police powers authorized by the legislation. As the debate became more heated, Wilhelm intervened, arguing against Bismarck’s measures against the socialists in an effort to curry favor among Germany’s working classes. Bismarck eventually acquiesced, but the disagreement strained his relationship with his monarch. It also signaled Wilhelm’s intention to take a more active role in government than the old chancellor would have liked.

Reeling from the confl ict with Wilhelm, Bismarck sought to shore up his support within the Reichstag by forming a new coalition that included his former enemies in the Catholic Center Party. He held a secret meeting with their leading delegate, one that enraged Wilhelm when he learned of it. Wilhelm felt that as monarch he should have been informed of the meeting and confronted Bismarck. After a heated exchange, the 79-year-old Iron Chancellor resigned in 1890, complain-ing bitterly of Wilhelm’s interference in both diplomacy and domestic policy.

With Bismarck out of the way, Kaiser Wilhelm endeavored to rule Germany himself, appointing a more docile chancellor, Leo von Caprivi (1831–99), to oversee the implementation of his increasingly reckless policies. Once Caprivi took over, he learned of the secret Reinsurance Treaty Bismarck had brokered in 1887 between Russia and Germany. On Caprivi’s advice, Wilhelm allowed this crucial agreement, one that guaranteed that Russia would remain neutral if France attacked Germany and safeguarded Germany from the specter of a two-front war, to lapse.

Abandoned by Germany and diplomatically isolated, the Russians reached out to France, a nation that had recovered its strength and still sought to avenge its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In August 1892, the two nations signed the Franco-Russian Alliance, promising each other military support in case of war, just the sort of agreement Bismarck had worked for decades to preclude.

In 1894, the incompetent Caprivi was replaced with Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst (1819–1901), before Wilhelm settled on a more able chancellor in 1900, Bernhard von Bülow (1849–1929). In the decade that followed, as the impatient and impulsive Wilhelm meddled in diplomacy, German foreign policy veered from crisis to crisis.

The fi rst of Wilhelm’s diplomatic blunders came in 1896, with the publica-tion of the Kruger telegram. Wilhelm resented the British monarchy his father had so revered and rashly sent a telegraph to the president of the Transvaal Republic in South Africa, congratulating him on defeating a coup by a band of English adventurers. Once made public, the telegram embarrassed the British government and enraged the English public, needlessly undoing Bismarck’s policy of avoiding confl ict with Britain.

On the heels of this debacle, Wilhelm II began a costly endeavor to make Germany into a naval power of the fi rst order. Jealous of the powerful fl eet controlled by his uncle, King Edward VII (1841–1910) of England, Wilhelm dreamed of possessing a naval force that could rival Britain’s mighty Royal Navy. Meanwhile, the Germans viewed a powerful navy as essential in acquiring overseas colonies and protect-ing maritime commerce. In 1897, the kaiser appointed Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930), an energetic naval commander, to run the Imperial Naval Offi ce, entrusting him with this daunting task.

Under von Tirpitz, Germany passed a succession of naval laws between 1898 and 1912, spending bills that fi nanced the rapid construction of a world-class imperial navy. Admiral von Tirpitz focused his efforts on building massive battleships that could ply the Baltic and North Atlantic, and challenge the capital ships of the Royal Navy. Since British strategy during this period required them to maintain a navy that was as powerful as the combined naval forces of any two other nations, the result was a tense arms race between Germany and the United Kingdom.

The competition heated up in 1900, amid the tension surrounding the Boer War, when von Tirpitz pushed a second naval law through the Reichstag that called for doubling the size of Germany’s navy. The planned naval construction would give Germany the world’s second-largest navy, a fl eet capable of challenging Britain’s dominance on the high seas. As an island nation dependent upon its foreign colonies, the British were deeply alarmed and accelerated their own naval construc-tion to keep pace. Using the frequent diplomatic crises of the early 1900s, von Tirpitz kept up the pace of German naval armament, issuing ambitious new naval laws in 1906, 1908, and 1912.

Alarmed by Germany’s increasing aggressive stance and growing naval might, the British and French governments established the Entente Cordiale, a series of agreements that brought an end to their historic animosity. Addressing the colonial ambitions of the two part-ners, the agreements divided contested areas into British and French spheres of infl uence, in order to forestall confl ict. Having already signed an alliance with Russia, the French used their new relationship with Britain, reeling from the disastrous Boer War, to counter the growing power of Germany.

In fact, British and French diplomats had been dis-cussing the possibility of forming an alliance against Germany since the early 1880s, but amid colonial rivalries, these efforts had faltered. At the insistence of Britain’s King Edward VII, who acceded to the throne in 1901, his country ended its “splendid isolation,” and the agreement, the Entente Cordiale, meant to restore the balance of power on the Continent, was fi nally signed in April 1904. For the French, the back-ing of Russia and Britain gave them the confi dence to adopt a more aggressive stance against Germany.

In 1905, France’s growing confi dence and Wilhelm’s active involve-ment in diplomacy caused another spectacular blunder, the so-called First Moroccan Crisis. On a state visit to Tangiers, Wilhelm made remarks that seemed to suggest his support for Moroccan indepen-dence, angering the French, who considered the region to be within their sphere of infl uence and were in the process of establishing a pro-tectorate over the area. The German chancellor Bernhard von Bülow sought to use the ensuing crisis to test the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France.

He wagered that the two nations would fi nd them-selves unable to set aside their traditional animosity or their colonial rivalry. As tensions between France and Germany heightened, von Bülow proposed an international conference that would resolve the issue, but France refused to submit to such an arrangement. By mid-June, the crisis threatened to boil over, as France and Germany geared for war, but the British convinced the French to attend the conference, which would meet at Algeciras in southern Spain in January 1906.

The Algeciras Conference proved to be a disaster for Germany and demonstrated its growing isolation from the other major powers. Only Austria-Hungary stood by Germany, while France enjoyed the sup-port of Britain, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United States. In the fi nal agreement of May 31, 1906, France was granted effective control over Morocco, and Germany suffered yet another embarrassing diplomatic setback.

In the following year, 1907, another ominous event helped pave the way for the First World War. Just as Britain had put an end to its long-running adversarial relationship with France with the Entente Cordiale, the Anglo-Russian Convention, signed in St. Petersburg in August 1907, now ended Britain’s rivalry with the Romanovs.

The Anglo-Russian Convention accord defi ned the two powers’ spheres of infl uence in Central Asia and also guaranteed mutual military support against Germany. With this 1907 Anglo-Russian agreement, along with the earlier Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892 and the Entente Cordiale of 1904, Germany increasingly found itself at odds with the combined clout of three great imperial powers: Britain, France, and Russia, a situ-ation that would come to a head with the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911.

The growing rift between Germany and Britain came to the fore once again a year later when Kaiser Wilhelm gave a damaging interview that was published in the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, in 1908. In the interview, Wilhelm fumbled his attempt to heal the division with Britain and to charm the English people, making a variety of provoca-tive and bizarre statements. In one famous excerpt, he declared:

You English . . . are mad, mad, mad as March hares. What has come over you that you are so completely given over to suspicions quite unworthy of a great nation? What more can I do than I have done? I declared with all the emphasis at my command, in my speech at Guildhall, that my heart is set upon peace, and that it is one of my dearest wishes to live on the best of terms with England. Have I ever been false to my word? Falsehood and prevarication are alien to my nature. My actions ought to speak for themselves, but you listen not to them but to those who misinterpret and distort them. That is a personal insult which I feel and resent. (Snyder 1958, 296–297)

The effect of Wilhelm’s ill-considered remarks was catastrophic, with the interview igniting fi erce anti-German sentiment abroad and prompt-ing serious questions about his judgment at home. Deeply embarrassed, Wilhelm removed Chancellor von Bülow from offi ce, hoping to use him as a scapegoat for the debacle, but the damage was done. He appointed a reliable Prussian bureaucrat, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856–1921), to the post, but after 1908, Wilhelm’s infl uence within the German government waned.

By 1911, relations between Britain and Germany were strained, owing to Wilhelm’s reckless attempts to challenge Britain’s control of the sea and the bellicose nationalism exhibited by the two nations’ presses. When a rebellion broke out against the Moroccan sultan, Wilhelm seized his chance to avenge the humiliations he had suffered at the Algeciras Conference by using Germany’s navy to intervene in the crisis, openly challenging Anglo-French control of the region. When the revolt against the sultan had broken out in Morocco in April 1911, the French and Spanish had rushed troops to the region to quell the rebellion.

When a German gunboat, the Panther, landed at the Moroccan port of Agadir a month later, however, the French sent troops into Fez and the British readied their Gibraltar fl eet to counter the Germans. Faced with the combined forces of Britain and France, whose Entente Cordiale once again held fi rm, the Germans were forced to seek terms to defuse the crisis. In early July, the German ambassador to France offered to withdraw from Morocco and recog-nize French administration of the region in exchange for territorial concessions from the French in the Congo.

The subsequent Treaty of Fez, signed on November 4, 1911, set these terms, ending the crisis. Again, the episode had the opposite effect from the one the Germans intended: Instead of breaking the Anglo-French alliance, it strength-ened their combined opposition to Germany. The Germans’ failed use of “gunboat diplomacy” also exacerbated the growing animosity between Britain and Germany and confi rmed fears of Wilhelm’s grow-ing naval might.