The German Empire had three leaders in the course of its rather short existence. All were titled Kaiser, the German spelling of Cesar, and were, at least in name, absolute rulers of Germany. On June 15th, 1888, Wilhelm became Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. He succeeded Frederick III, who had led Germany for ninety-nine days before his death, who himself succeeded Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Once he became Kaiser, Wilhelm quickly set about changing the direction of German foreign policy. He soon forced Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany, to resign after Bismarck’s coalition in the Reichstag had fractured over the issues of socialism and labor protections. Wilhelm appointed Chancellors loyal to him and weakened the office, securing control over foreign policy and the state as a whole. Wilhelm replaced Realpolitik with Weltpolitik, an expansionist stance that saw Germany exert greater influence and pressure on neighboring European powers. In doing so, he destroyed the diplomatic balance that Bismarck had worked to build. His rhetoric against the French and the Russians alienated both nations and so pushed them closer together. Further, he initiated several diplomatic incidents in France’s African colonies, which further damaged Germany’s image worldwide. Worst of all, he began a massive naval buildup that challenged Britain, the most powerful nation in the world into the arms of Germany’s enemies. In Asia, his racially tinged proclamations against Japan pushed those nations to form closer ties with Britain. The two nations with which he enjoyed successful diplomacy were Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, two of the most unstable Great Powers. Thus, Germany faced off against three Great Powers in the early years of the First World War, with only Austria as its ally. The entry of the Ottomans into the war barely compensated for Italy’s entrance on the side of the Allies. During the war, Wilhelm lost political influence as Germany came under the effective control, of Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenberg. Wilhelm abdicated the throne in 1918 following mutinies and revolutions. He spent the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands. For a time he was hopeful that the rise of the Nazi Party would lead to the restoration of the Monarchy. This, however, would never come to pass. Although antisemitic himself, he was disgusted by Nazi atrocities against German Jews. He was overjoyed at Germany’s victories in the early years of World War II. He died in 1941, before he could see Germany defeated by its enemies a second time.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was, if not the most incompetent German ruler in history, certainly made the worst of the situation he was given. In 1888, he became king of the most powerful nation in Europe. Germany had the largest land army outside of Russia and the largest economy with the exception of the United States. Further, Germany had only one enemy, France, and allies in Italy and Austria. Thirty years later, the monarchy that had ruled Prussia for 400 years had fallen and Wilhelm was forced to flee to the Netherlands to escape an angry populace. In every way, Kaiser Wilhelm II failed as a national leader.