Kaiser Wilhelm II certainly didn’t cause The Great War—at least not single-handedly—but he didn’t do a whole lot to prevent it, either. Listing all the reasons for the first of the two world wars of the 20th century would take a complex discussion of rising nationalism and empires scrambling to acquire colonies like children grabbing candy after busting a pinata.
Note. I’m a little astonished at the cartoon to the right. I fed that first paragraph into an AI program and asked for a cartoon. There was a ten-second pause, then it spit out the cartoon. Don’t bother trying to decipher the caption, it’s either gibberish or the text of another meaningless email from Enema U’s Vice-President of Research.
That’s not to say that the Kaiser was exactly blameless, either. As he grew up, he was fed a steady diet of tales of Prussian military glory, and once he became Kaiser, he wanted to lead Germany to a victorious future. By definition, that meant he needed a war.
And there was, however, that small difficulty with the Kaiser’s ship complex. Great Britain had ruled the seas from long before the days of Napoleon, and since being a great naval power was de rigueur for maintaining an overseas empire, the Kaiser wanted his own great navy. The fact that both of his cousins, the King of England and the Tsar of Russia, had great navies really rankled Wilhelm, so he started building one of his own, touching off an international arms race that greatly added to the spirit of militarism across Europe and even resonated in the United States.
If you doubt that the Kaiser was envious of the British Navy, look at the photo at left, in which the Kaiser is seen wearing the uniform of a British Admiral of the Fleet while attending the funeral of his grandmother, Queen Victoria.
Early on in the war, Germany did very well…for a while. The Kaiser’s army successfully pushed into France and his navy fought the British Navy to a draw at the Battle of Jutland, but then the war bogged down into a stalemate. Two years into the war, there was a power shift within Germany when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff seized control, leaving the Kaiser with only a purely ceremonial role and no actual control over conduct of the war.
When the war ended, one of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty required that the Kaiser—who had recently abdicated—be handed over to the Allies to face prosecution “for a supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties”. Considering the low opinions both the French and the English had of the Kaiser, it was likely that he would have been found guilty and executed. Desperate, the Kaiser wrote to another cousin, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, asking for asylum.
The Netherlands had remained neutral during the war, and while public opinion of the Dutch people was divided on the fate of the Kaiser, Queen Wilhelmina resisted the demands of the Allies and granted amnesty to the abdicated Kaiser. Since both were direct descendants of Queen Victoria, and Wilhelmina’s grandfather had married the Kaiser’s sister, the queen no doubt wanted to keep peace in the family.
The Kaiser moved to the Netherlands late in 1918 and began house hunting. Since he was not exactly traveling light—he moved 59 freight cars of antiques, paintings, silver, and memorabilia with him—it took him two years to find the perfect little house.
Doorn House had started as a 14th century castle and had been steadily improved in the intervening five centuries. Covering over eighty acres, the estate sports a functioning moat, an elaborate gate house, and extensive English-style gardens. The former Kaiser was free to live at the estate but was required to stay within ten kilometers of home. Despite frequent invitations, Queen Wilhelmina never visited her cousin.
In all, Wilhelm lived a comfortable, but somewhat lonely, life. At Doorn house, he frequently spent his time working in the gardens, chopping wood, and futilely dreaming of the day when the German people would demand his return to the throne. In the 1930’s, Wilhelm had several meetings with Hermann Goering, who wanted the Kaiser to support the Nazi Party. Disgusted by Kristallnacht, the former Kaiser refused to have anything to do with Hitler or his party, saying:
Of Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians, of artists and soldiers, Hitler has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics.
When World War II started, Winston Churchill offered asylum to the former Kaiser in England, but Wilhelm refused to leave his home. When the Netherlands were invaded by the Germans in 1940, German troops guarded Doorn House but were not allowed inside the gate. Wilhelm died of a pulmonary embolism in 1942, and his wishes to have no swastikas present at his funeral were not honored. His remains were placed in a mausoleum in the garden, there to await the day when the Prussian monarchy returns to Germany.
Today, Doorn House is a museum, remaining largely as the former Kaiser knew it, with his books and papers still on display along with the more than 30,000 objects he brought with him from Germany. Of special interest to probably no one is his extensive collection of ornate snuff boxes. The estate has become a shrine to a group of German monarchists, who still gather at the house once a year in support of the current claimant to the throne, Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia. His 2014 claim to recover the estate was rejected by the Dutch government.
One last note about Doorn House: When Wilhelm found the estate, he bought it for 500,000 guilders from the family of the Baron van Heemstra. Among the Baron’s children who were raised in the old castle was Baroness van Heemstra, who later became a British citizen and a well-known author of children’s book under the penname of Ellaline Vere. She is better known as the mother of Aubrey Hepburn.