Decisions for War

Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859-1941) acceded to the Prusso-German throne on 15 June 1888. He established a system of personal monarchy in which he, his courtiers and military entourage determined policy and he alone held responsibility for the appointment and dismissal of civilian statesmen.[1] He abandoned Otto von Bismarck’s (1815-1898) policy of “satiation” in favour of Weltmachtpolitik and he supported Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s (1849-1930) battlefleet building programme, placing Germany on a collision course with Britain. On 8 December 1912, in the aftermath to the First Balkan War, when Austria-Hungary secured Germany’s support to attack Serbia, he summoned a “war-council” of his top generals and admirals to discuss how Germany should respond were this to lead to war not just against France and Russia, as seemed likely, but against Britain as well. The meeting, to which the Reich Chancellor was not invited, decided to avoid war for at least one to two years, by which time Germany would have a larger army and further naval preparations would be completed. By spring 1914 the Kaiser was urging the Austrians to subjugate Serbia or eliminate it altogether. After the assassination of his friend Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este (1863-1914) in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Wilhelm scribbled on a diplomatic report from Vienna: “now or never! The Serbs must be swept away and that right soon!”[2]

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856-1921) took this as a signal to set in motion the steps that led to war. On 5 July 1914 Wilhelm assured the Austrian ambassador Count Ladislaus von Szögyény (1841-1916) that Germany would fully support Austria should Russia come to the aid of Serbia. On 6 July he left for his annual cruise to avert suspicion of German war planning. At this juncture Wilhelm II seemed ready to support a major war with the aim of establishing German control over the European continent. He knew that Germany had only one military plan – the revised Schlieffen plan – and he understood that its realisation would result in a two front war. Therefore, his support for Austria in a war against Russia also implied his readiness for a war against both of Germany’s neighbours. This must have been his expectation if not indeed his hope.

Instead of sailing into the Arctic Circle as usual, the imperial yacht Hohenzollern anchored just north of Bergen, from where it could return to Germany within a day or two to allow the Kaiser to sign the mobilisation order. In Norway he engaged in feverish activity to secure the support of Italy, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Sweden, and – most important of all – the Ottoman Empire. On leaving for home on 25 July, Wilhelm ordered the bombardment of the Russian naval bases of Reval (Tallinn) and Libau (Liepaja) together with a blockade of the eastern Baltic Sea. His orders were ignored – an early sign of his marginalisation during the war.[3]

On 28 July, after his return to Potsdam, Wilhelm was suddenly alarmed at the prospect that Britain would enter the war in support of France and Russia. Briefly, he tried to avert the wider conflict by proposing a halt to the Austrian invasion of Serbia at Belgrade. His, albeit momentary, change of heart was scorned by the Prussian War Minister General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) and ignored by the Chancellor. He was reassured that Britain would stay neutral following a meeting between his brother Heinrich, Prince of Prussia (1862-1929) and their cousin George V, King of Great Britain (1865-1936) at Buckingham Palace on 26 July. Immediately after the hoped-for news of Russian mobilisation reached Berlin, Wilhelm, his brother, and his six sons left Potsdam for Berlin, where he signed the orders initiating the attack on France through Luxembourg and Belgium. Once war had been declared he appeared on the balcony of the royal palace in Berlin, where on 1 August he declared that he saw “no more parties...only Germans.”[4] Furious at Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August, in one of his most notorious marginal comments he railed against his mother’s homeland, accusing the English of hypocrisy and demanding that German agents and consuls “in Turkey and the whole Mohammedan world to fierce rebellion against this hated, lying, conscienceless nation of shop-keepers; for if we are to be bled to death, England shall at least lose India.”[5]

The Kaiser as Supreme War Lord

With few exceptions, from August 1914 to November 1918, the Kaiser was present at the German Supreme Headquarters. However, even though he was nominally titled the “Supreme War Lord” he played virtually no part in determining military operations and was deliberately kept inadequately informed. He was subject to extreme mood swings, needed distraction, stayed away from Berlin and made little attempt to show, at least symbolically, that he shared the sufferings of his people. In this way the Hohenzollern monarchy came to seem irrelevant the longer the war continued. Nevertheless, his role should not be underestimated.[6] Until the appointment of the third Supreme Army Command under Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) and Erich Ludendorff (1865-1927) in August 1916, he had a decisive influence both on appointments and on the conduct of the war at sea. He chose Falkenhayn in September 1914 to replace Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916) as chief of the General Staff and, much to the fury of Tirpitz, refused to allow the High Seas Fleet to risk engagement with the Royal Navy except at Jutland in 1916. In January 1917, after months of uncertainty, the Kaiser finally decided in favour of unrestricted submarine warfare, provoking the USA to declare war on Germany a few weeks later as Bethmann Hollweg had warned.

German War Aims

Real power may have passed to the generals at the outbreak of the war, but Wilhelm II remained convinced that the peace terms would be negotiated by himself and the other crowned heads of Europe as of old. His ambitions for what he called the “German God-given peace” that would follow victory were in line with the annexationist aims of the military and far exceeded the war aims listed in Bethmann Hollweg’s notorious memorandum of 9 September 1914. He proposed that deserving non-commissioned officers and men be rewarded with land grants in those parts of Belgium and France along the Channel coast that were to be annexed to Germany. Wilhelm designated the ports of Antwerp, Zeebrugge, Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne as “the objective of my Navy,” to serve as a base for the future invasion of England and the domination of the seas. In addition, as early as July 1914 he declared it to be his goal to found a Polish state at Russia’s expense that would be nominally independent but in reality aligned with Germany – he personally would hold the supreme command of the Polish military forces, and Poland’s foreign policy and economic affairs would be directed by Germany. In April 1917 he demanded the capture of Malta, the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Islands as naval bases for his fleet, the acquisition of the Belgian Congo, all of the French colonies, and the French ore field of Longwy-Briey together with the annexation of Poland, Lithuania, and Courland (southern Latvia) to the Reich. Furthermore, Ukraine, Livonia (northern Latvia), and Estonia were to become German satellite states. Reparations in terms of billions were to be demanded from Britain, the USA, France, and Italy. Such demands were not the Kaiser’s alone; a few days later at a conference in Bad Kreuznach they were formally adopted as Germany’s war aims. All of these measures were part of a broader programme that would have reduced Britain to an insignificant island under constant threat from the German navy.[7]


The Kaiser opposed all of Bethmann Hollweg’s proposals for the reform of the antiquated Prussian-German constitution, preferring instead to rely upon the authority of the generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. On 13 July 1917, he finally gave in to the relentless insubordination of the generals and dismissed the Reich Chancellor. At the end of September 1918, following the failure of his summer offensives, and under the influence of heavy German losses during the subsequent allied counter-offensives of August and September, Ludendorff told the Kaiser that the war was lost and that power must be transferred to civilian statesmen. Wilhelm accepted Ludendorff’s demands and appointed Prince Max von Baden (1867-1929) as Chancellor.[8] On 3 October 1918 Prince Max sent a peace note to American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). Once the German public sensed that they would obtain a better peace if they sacrificed the Kaiser, Wilhelm’s days on the German throne were numbered. On 1 November 1918 the Prussian Interior Minister Bill Drews (1870-1938) was sent to Supreme Headquarters in Spa to urge the Kaiser to abdicate in the hope of saving at least the institution of monarchy, but Wilhelm refused with fury. On 3 November 1918, as revolution broke out in Kiel, he remained determined to answer the revolutionaries “with machine guns in the streets” and said he would not dream of quitting his throne “on account of a few hundred Jews or 1,000 workers”.[9]

At Spa, a poll of commanders revealed that the soldiers would be unwilling to march on their homeland to keep the Kaiser on his throne. Alternative proposals, such as allowing Wilhelm to relinquish the imperial crown but remain as King of Prussia were dismissed. Faced with revolution across Germany, close to midday on 9 November 1918, Prince Max announced Wilhelm’s abdication as Kaiser and King in a desperate attempt to keep control. A few hours later the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann (1865-1939) proclaimed the German Republic to pre-empt a Communist coup. On 9-10 November 1918 Wilhelm fled to neutral Holland and on 28 November abdicated both as German Kaiser and King of Prussia. Despite a British electoral campaign promising to “hang the Kaiser,” Wilhelm managed to avoid extradition and trial as a war criminal. He failed in his bid to be restored to the throne by Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and died in exile at Huis Doorn, his home in the province of Utrecht, on 4 June 1941.[10]

John C. G. Röhl, University of Sussex

Section Editor: Mark Jones