All through the Great War and especially after it, Kaiser Wilhelm’s mental conditions were hotly discussed. This argument was used both to explain why Germany dragged Europe in the worst war ever fought and why Germany could not be held responsible for it.
Wilhelm II Hohenzollern acceded to the Prusso-German throne on 15 June 1888. He was the second Kaiser of Germany, which had been united in 1871. He immediately proceeded to imprint the German Empire’s actions with his personality, which, it was noticed even before the Great War, appeared to be unstable.
Unquestionably, he was broken psychologically by two scandals that hit his reign at the beginning of the 1900s: the Haden-Eulenburg scandal of 1907-1909, where members of his staff were accused of sodomy, and the interview that Wilhelm himself gave to the Daily Telegraph on 28 October 1908, intended to improve German-British relations, and which instead turned into a major diplomatic scandal that greatly weakened Wilhelm’s international stature. But he had shown a very peculiar personality even before this.
It has been speculated – in different decades – that he had lost touch with the realities of international politics. Queen Victoria’s first grandson, he loved and hated the British Empire, and it is known that during the Great War, he chased the unrealistic dream to make the German fleet more powerful than the British Imperial Fleet.
He probably deluded himself with the thought that his blood relationships with other European monarchs would suffice to stem any international crises. When in June 1914 the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Wilhelm tried to use that assault as the reason for attacking both France and Russia, his neighbours and long time enemies, to gain much-wanted land for his empire.
He vastly underestimated the repercussion of such an act, of course. Subject to drastic swings of temper and clearly having unrealistic expectations, it’s no surprise that, despite nominally being the “Supreme War Lord” of Germany, he largely became a shadow monarch during the second half of the war, when two generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, effectively led the nation.
He ended his days in exile in the province of Utrecht (Netherlands) on 4 June 1941.Kaiser (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) All through the Great War and especially after it, Kaiser Wilhelm’s mental conditions were hotly discussed. Could the war be blamed entirely on him? #WWI #historymatters Click To Tweet
Wilhelm’s personality and the Guilt Clause
Immediately after Wilhelm’s abdication and exile, several psychiatrists and physicians started to ponder Wilhelm’s alleged mental defects and their political implications. The question of whether Wilhelm was a ‘pathological figure’ became directly linked to who was to be held responsible for the butchering of the Great War.
The Kaiser’s possible mental pathologies allowed a defence of Germany once he was out of the stage. There is a long-standing legal tradition that madness may mitigate, even fully suspends culpability. That Wilhelm had led Germany – and consequently all Europe into war – was often pointed out as the act of a single person rather than the guilt of an entire nation.
Yet, some psychiatrists were sceptical about the political implications the Emperor’s mental health may have entailed, pointing out that the entire nation was responsible for all the events involving WWI. But others used Wilhelm’s alleged mental illness to mitigate Germany’s responsibility for the war, which potentially had both political and economic implications, especially in light of the Guilt Claus included in the Treaty of Versailles.
For a part of the German public, this meant that the strictures imposed by the victorious nations over Germany were unjust and duplicitous since Wilhelm and his mental condition were to blame, not the entire German population. For another part of the German public, who had previously rejected the Hohenzollern monarchy and had become disillusioned during the war and defeat, Wilhelm became a symbol of an outdated political order that needed to be revitalised, maybe by a new ‘real leader’.
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Wilhelm II, German Emperor
IWM – How Kaiser Wilhelm changed Europe forever
NCBI – Diagnosing the Kaiser: Psychiatry, Wilhelm II and the Question of German War Guilt (The William Bynum Prize Essay 2016)
Cambridge Blog – Understanding Wilhelm II
History – Kaiser Wilhelm II