Roehl, cover

Wilhelm's Role
Book Essay on: John C.G. Röhl, The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 287 pages.
UCSB: DD229.R6413 1994

by Mitchell Simerly
December 4, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
19th Century Germany
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2006

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About Mitchell Simerly

I am a fourth-year statistical science major and history minor. My father’s family is of German ancestry but it is quite distant. The decades leading up to World War I are some that I find the most fascinating. That, plus the fact that I traveled through Germany spending nights in Hamburg, Berlin, and Dresden made my decision to take a German history class easy. My interest in the history leading up to World War I helped me to pick a book about Kaiser Wilhelm II and his government.

Abstract (back to top)

Kaiser Wilhelm II was the German leader from 1888 to 1918 and led his country into World War I. Taking control of the nation away from the skillful Bismarck, Wilhelm was unable to manage the internal and foreign disputes. Some would say that it was the Kaiser with his ‘personal rule’ that led to the German precipitation of World War I. Others cast a picture of a ‘Shadow Kaiser’ where Wilhelm is not the driving force behind policy but advisers and special interest groups dictate it. The Kaiser and his Court depicts Wilhelm as a man who felt he had something to prove and someone who had a childlike temperament. Kaiser Wilhelm might not have always been in complete control, he was responsible for the path his country took towards war. He lacked political tact and allowed the bad decisions of others to move policy under him, which, combined with his ego, meant bad news for Germany.

Essay (back to top)

Wilhelm’s Role

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s significance is sometimes overlooked in German history. Between Bismarck and Hitler, the period of his reign is defined by the mistakes made which drove Germany to war. He was the leader however, when Germany began World War I, so it would be assumed that he played a key role in starting the war. This idea could be questioned, however, since a homosexual scandal that hit his inner circle in 1908 led to Wilhelm being viewed by some as a “shadow Kaiser” (p. 110). Yet it seems that his hubris and German pride are critical factors that led Germany into war. Tough weakened by scandal in 1908 and being partially controlled by elites, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II that led Germany to instigate World War I. Between his immature hubris, German nationalism, and the actual political maneuverings he made leading to war, it is quite clear that Kaiser Wilhelm II was a key factor for the European Continent erupting in war.

Throughout his reign, Kaiser Wilhelm II relied on friends and confidants to help realize his ideas, and though the Kaiser did not care for dissent, it did not mean that his advisors were not able to influence him. In 1886, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia became good friends with German Ambassador Philipp Eulenburg. Friendship with the Kaiser meant political influence, which began, for Eulenburg, almost as Wilhelm II took the throne. Eulenburg was a key factor in the Kaiser getting rid of Bismarck, and later helping set up the rise of his friends Holstein and Bülow to the office of Chancellor (p. 52). These were not the only incidents when Eulenburg was able to influence the Kaiser as to who was appointed to a certain post. Although it might not seem as though others were dictating much to the Kaiser, this power to influence was probably significant. These appointees were making decisions as diplomats and guiding the Kaiser and his decision process, even though direct conflict with opinions was tolerated very well. There is the power of influence, is not blatant control, but it does lead to policy that is not solely the Kaiser’s. Therefore, the Kaiser was not in complete control. Influence does have limits as a scandal can eliminate any possible power. Such is the case as in the scandal of 1908.

In 1908 any possible personal rule enjoyed by Kaiser Wilhelm was pretty much over because of scandals. First there was a homosexual scandal, which accused his best friend, Eulenburg, and his other close confidants. Another scandal that hurt him in 1908 was the Daily Telegraph crisis, in which the Kaiser said the Germans do not care about the British to that British newspaper. These incidents both embarrassed Wilhelm and hurt him politically; the crisis really questioned his mental health (p. 23). It went so far that the Reichstag demanded that the Kaiser should pay more attention to the constitution (p.8). These are signs that in the years leading up to World War I, Wilhelm was definitely not at his most powerful position in the government that thought that he was not the great instigator.

Although it may seem as if the Kaiser did not have that much power, particularly leading into World War I, he had some characteristics that make it easy to see his influence on entering a war. Kaiser Wilhelm II had a sense of hubris about himself in which everything in German life should revolve around him (p. 12-13). It seams as if the Kaiser was rather stubborn and would not listen to other opinions, telling admirals they only needed to know that he alone made the decisions (p.12). Also, the Kaiser would use his inner circle to block any legislation he did not care for regardless of its popularity (p. 116). This hubris could easily lead to the Kaiser believing he was right in starting a European war and that he would win.

Another characteristic that demonstrates how influential Wilhelm was to the start of the war was his paranoia that the English, Slavic, French, or Asian armies could attack Germany, and the Kaiser just had a general dislike of them. This helped Wilhelm develop a strong German nationalist pride (p. 202-203). The Kaiser believed a conspiracy of Anglo-Jews, led by his mother, who wanted to take over Germany (p. 202). He was also worried about a Russian, French, and English attack on the Germans as a racial ‘Endkampf’ (p. 203). Wilhelm was also paranoid about the ‘yellow peril,’ normally that the Japanese would attack the whites, thus uniting European people regardless of politics to fight them off (p. 203). It seems as if his fear of all these possible attacks on Germany, and how in all the cases the Germans were the wronged side, led to Wilhelm being very nationalistic in his views. Also, it would increase his desire to strengthen German military might to fend off all combatants. The combination of nationalism and paranoia is definitely strong enough to encourage Wilhelm to go on the offensive instead of waiting to be attacked.

Not only was he paranoid of and disliked by many other nations, but Kaiser Wilhelm II also showed obvious intentions of war with attempted political maneuverings and military adjustments. The actions of the Kaiser, beginning in December 1912 with the ‘military-political conference,’ show him stepping into the direction of a European war (p. 163). The items discussed included: how any conflict with France would bring England to France’s aid and was there any possible way to avoid English entrance into the conflict, postponement of any German attack until a canal was finished, thereby allowing better movement for the U-boats, possibilities of making Russia look like the aggressor, and the best way to implement army and navy bills in order to avoid notice from other countries (p. 164-175).

All of these discussion topics show definite signs that the Kaiser was planning to go to war. Not only that, but they show it was a German-initiated war. Germany was taking a conscious effort to improve its chances of winning a war that was nowhere near underway. They looked at all the main possible enemies and probable allies and weighed them together to see if it left them a good chance of coming out on top. Also, the Kaiser and his advisors were making internal adjustments in order to better Germany as a military state. Waiting to get canals completed and also to get its battle forces strong not only show the thought but were actual actions. These actions were not just for defensive purposes because the planning and thoughts of hiding it show that Wilhelm knew he was starting the conflict. These actions strongly demonstrate how Kaiser Wilhelm II took the actions that led Germany to start World War I.

Conclusion (back to top)

In The Kaiser and His Court, by John C.G. Röhl, it becomes quite apparent that Kaiser Wilhelm II a major factor in starting World War I. Even though it seems at times the Kaiser was prone to influence from friends and advisors, and in the five or so years leading up to the War he was probably the weakest politically because of scandal in his inner circle and because questions regarding his mental health made people question him a bit. It was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s egocentric nationalism that led him down the path to war. He had sense of self so high, he felt he was always right and would force opposition to back down or be eliminated. Also, paranoia fueled his German pride, as he wanted to protect his nation from, in his mind, foreseeable attacks from other nations. These factors ignited the engines that began his planning of a European war. He was not just being defensive, as he tried to be secretive when he initiated plans to increase military might and tried to plan who would be his allies, his enemies, and who would remain neutral. The final straw is the encouragement to Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia thus causing other nations to enter and create a major war. It seems as if without Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Great War might not have occurred, or not have happened in the devastating manner it eventually did. It is hard to answer that possibility, but the Kaiser definitely moved things along.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

  • MacDonogh, Giles, The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II (St. Martin's Griffin, 2003), 560 pages.
    The Last Kaiser is a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II from childhood to rule. The book looks into what made him the warmonger that he is viewed as. With his withered arm, to his possible madness, this book delves into what made the Kaiser tick.
  • Röhl, John C.G., Wilhelm II: The Kaiser’s Personal Monarchy, 1888-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1310 pages.
    Wilhelm II takes an in depth look at the first part of the Kaiser’s reign, which is considered his personal rule. The book shows how the Kaiser was in complete control of the government during this time and how policy was made. It also explains the transition from Bismarck’s government and how the Kaiser paved the way for the third Reich and Hitler.
  • Ziff, John, Causes of World War I (The Road to War: Causes of Conflict) (OTTN Publishing, 2005) 72 pages.
    Causes of World War I takes a look at the factors leading to World War I. It takes a look at how the delicate balance of power in Europe crumbled. This would be a good book to better place in context of how the Kaiser and his actions moved Germany into the Great War.


  • Tonkin, Boyd, “The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany,” New Statesman Society v7.n327 (Nov 4, 1994). Expanded Academic ASAP. 3 November 2006.
  • Dr. Sked, Alan, “The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm and the Government of Germany,” Reviews in History (January 1998). December 11, 2006.


  • “William II, German Emperor” entry in Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia with entries from users. This website has a good mini-biography of the Kaiser. This is a good site because there are many links on it to get a more in-depth look at aspects mentioned in the biography including his chancellors and The Daily Telegraph Affair. .
  • “World War I Causes,” entry in History on the Net, is an article that focuses on the various causes of World War One. This site is helpful in giving a good intro to the topics of causes. Though it does not blatantly accuse the Kaiser or Germany, it provides enough evidence that Germany was a major factor in many of the reasons the war started. The website was created in November 2000.

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/13/06; last updated: 12/15/06
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