PRESENTATION: Did the Kaiser really rule?
Wilhelm II succeeded to the German throne in 1888 upon the death of his father,
Frederick III, whose reign had lasted only 99 days. Wilhelm was twenty-nine, impetuous,
immature, and had a tendency towards authoritarian government which had been
encouraged by Bismarck when Wilhelm was Crown-Prince, much to the horror of
Wilhelm‟s liberal-minded parents. His mother, the Crown Princess, was Queen Victoria‟s
eldest daughter. Wilhelm‟s reign was to last thirty years ending in ignominy with his
abdication and the collapse of the Reich in November 1918.
During his reign Wilhelm was a controversial figure in both Germany and on the
European and world stage. His extraordinary speeches, his eccentric personality, and his
ineptitude for the proper fulfillment of the role of a constitutional monarch drew much
comment from contemporaries on his conduct, and there was much contemporary
criticism of his „personal rule‟, and since then extent of the Kaiser‟s power and influence
has been a source of disagreement and controversy among historians: Rohl, for example,
is the leading advocate of the so called personal rule thesis, while other historians like
Richard J. Evans, strongly reject this view and argue in favour of a structuralist approach.
In my essay I shall attempt to address these conflicting historiographical
interpretations of the reign of Wilhelm II and in doing so shall attempt to answer the
central question: did the Kaiser really rule?
John Rohl has made an extremely important contribution to our understanding of
the nature of the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He does not claim that the Kaiser „ever
established full-scale autocracy‟ and states that although „Wilhelm II may have dreamed
of establishing personal rule for himself, … it remained no more than a dream.‟ Rohl
prefers the use of the more neutral concept of the „kingship mechanism‟ and the idea of
the Kaiser‟s „personal monarchy‟ with „the Kaiser, the royal family, the Kaiser‟s circle of
friends, the Imperial entourage and the court form the heart of this system on which the
very highest officials of the Reich and state bureaucracy (as well as the leaders of the
army and navy) were psychologically and politically dependent.‟
Rohl has identified a number of stages in Wilhelm‟s reign, which are useful when
considering the question of whether the Kaier really ruled. The first two years of his
reign, 1888-90, were dominated by the young Kaiser‟s „conflict with the all-powerful
Bismarck.‟ The years 1890-97 were spent building up Wilhelm‟s personal power, with
the help of court favourite Phillip Eulenburg, This phase, Rohl states, should be
considered a transition from „improvised‟ to „institutionalized personal rule‟. 1897-1908
is described by Rohl as the Bulow era - the era of „personal rule in the good sense‟. After
1908 and the Daily Telegraph crisis Wilhelm‟s personal authority was reduced as he
faced a united barrage of criticism from all sections of Germany society and politics.
Rohl believes that the years after 1908 need to be researched further. Rohl agrees with the
general consensus that during the First World War Wilhelm II was a „shadow emperor.‟
Wilhelm, although he had great respect for Bismarck, desired to rule himself -
something he found impossible to do while Bismarck remained as Chancellor. Thus, after
a confrontation with the Kaiser on Social policy, Bismarck was forced to resign in March
1890. This was the beginning of a new course in German politics, where the influence of
the Kaiser was to increase greatly, with the assistance of his personal entourage and
especially his close friend, Phillip Eulenburg. According to Rohl, „With the removal of
Bismarck, the way now lay open for Wilhelm II to take over personal control of German
policy.‟ Rohl argues that in the 1890s „a genuinely monarchial regime was created… in
which the Kaiser and his court exercised real political power.‟
Rohl argues that the key to the Kaiser‟s victory in this struggle for personal rule
was in his constitutional prerogative of „control over appointments‟ including that of
Reich chancellor, ministers, and civil servants in Prussia and the Reich. Wilhelm‟s head
of the Civil Cabinet, from 1888-1908, von Luncanus, alongside the Kaiser‟s best friend,
Count Philipp zu Eulenburg, enabled the Kaiser to establish a system of „personal rule in
the good sense‟ in the 1890s.
Under this system the Reich Chancellor would act merely as „the executive tool of
His Majesty, so to speak, his political chief of staff.‟ Rohl argues that the initiative for
much of the legislation introduced in Germany in the Wilhelmine period came from
Wilhelm himslef. This includes the Lex Heinze of 1891 against prostitution; the
education reforms which Wilhelm announced in 1890 which flowed, according to Brauer
(the Prime-Minister of Baden), ‟directly from H.M.‟s own inspiration‟; and the 1893
Army Bill which the Minister for War was commanded to draft by the Kaiser through a
Flugeladjutant. Rohl gives as examples of the best policies inaugurated by the Kaiser:
the socialist policy; the programme of naval expansion, and the Prussian Canal policy.
Rohl asks his readers to bear in mind certain points when considering the role of
Wilhelm II. Firstly, Rohl concedes that the participation of the Kaiser in the formulation
of German policy was not consistent or constant, and he described the main phases of the
reign which I have already outlined above.
Secondly, Rohl claims that in the phase of „personal rule in the good sense‟
(1897-1908) the Kaiser had ministers, i.e. Tirpitz, Bulow, Miquel, and Podbielski, who
he appointed in order to carry out his will, and thus direct interference by the Kaiser „in
this institutionalized personal rule… was hardly necessary.‟
Thirdly, Rohl states that any examination of the power of the Kaiser must take
into the account the policies which ministers did not propose or implement because they
knew „in advance that the Kaiser and his entourage would block them.‟ A difference of
opinion with Wilhelm II could lead to an immediate loss of „All-Highest Confidence.‟
This aspect of the Kaiser‟s power is aptly described by Rohl‟s phrase „negative personal
Fourthly, Rohl believes out that the „polycratic chaos‟ referred to by some
historians when discussing the government of Wilhelmine Germany was actually a result
of „a system of government constructed on the principle of “All-Highest confidence”.‟
Fifthly, Rohl reminds us that the Kaiser was not acting alone but was supported
by a significant administrative apparatus (the Ministry of the Household, the Civil,
Military and Naval Cabinets) and was also surrounded by an adoring entourage - General
Adjutants and Flugeladjutanten, the Liebenburg Circle, headed by Phillip Eulenburg, etc.,
who were ready to advise the Kaiser on matters of state. Rohl argues that since „this
circle of friends was selected purely on the basis of the monarch‟s inclinations, it…
represented the institutionalisation of the Kaiser‟s personality.
An Anti-Revolutionary Bill and a Hard Labour Bill drafted at the instigation of
the Kaiser were introduced to the Reichstag in the 1890s but both bills were duly
defeated. This, Rohl claims, shows that although Wilhelm was not a dictator or an
autocrat he did enjoy vast powers, including that of legislative initiative, which, for
example in the British system would be more akin to the role and powers of the Prime-
Minister than the monarch.
Another initiative of Kaiser Wilhelm II was the German Naval policy first
pursued in the 1890s. The driving force behind this policy was the Kaiser. Admiral von
Hollmann, the Secretary of State in the Reich Navy Office admitted in February 1896
„that there are not as many as ten people in the Reichstag in favour of future fleet plans‟.
The first Navy Bill was introduced in October 1897, at a „tactically inopportune‟ moment
because the „The Kaiser [had] already… made up his mind‟ and refused to hear any
further discussion of the matter.
Rohl states that it is evident that the Kaiser „was the originator and co-author of
the Tirpitz plan‟ with regard to the first Navy Law 1897, and that this was „even more the
case in relation to the second Navy Bill of 1900.‟ The Kaiser even determined the time of
the introduction of this Bill - it was to be delayed until after he had returned from
Windsor where he was to visit his grandmother, Queen Victoria, in November 1899,
because he intended „to be close by during the debates on this matter so he can intervene
with his directives at any time.‟ Perhaps also Wilhelm would have felt rather awkward
being in England just when the Navy Bill was introduced given the sensitivities of the
English on that particular issue.
The selection of Bulow as Reich Chancellor in 1897 was unique according to
Rohl, in that „no Reich Chancellor was so carefully chosen nor so extensively prepared
for office‟. Bulow was proposed as Chancellor by Phillip Eulenburg, and was to be unlike
his predecessors in that he would act as „the executive tool of His Majesty‟ and he
assured Eulenburg that if he were Chancellor „personal rule, in the good sense, would
begin‟. This was unlike previous chancellors of Wilhelm II‟s reign who considered
themselves representatives of the government or even the Reichstag, against the Kaiser.
Bulow recognized that German Government machinery could only be operated on
the basis of the Kaiser‟s confidence - he had witnessed how Caprivi had been able to
settle even the most awkward questions of Reich policy as long as he retained Wlhelm‟s
confidence. When Caprivi lost the „All-Highest Confidence‟ over the 1892 School Bill he
found he had many opponents in government and at court. Hohenlohe (who was
Wilhelm‟s uncle) had started out with the Kaiser‟s full confidence but he too lost that
important royal support over the Koller Crisis in the Winter of 1895 when the Chancellor
felt obliged to support the Prussian Ministry of State in opposition to the Kaiser.
Rohl does point out that Bulow‟s indication that he would act merely as the
Kiasier‟s „executive tool‟ should not be taken too literally. Instead, he believed he could
maintain his relationship with the Kaiser on a good footing by means of constant flattery,
thereby paving the way for him to achieve any aims he may have had himself. Because
he realized the Kaiser‟s paramount importance to his future position as Reich
Chancellor,, Bulow made sure to make no suggestions or proposals when he was Foreign
Secretary which Wilhelm may have found disagreeable and which he knew had „no
prospect of actual success‟, and which would only serve to make the Kaiser „annoyed
with me‟. This, Rohl, claims shows that Bulow‟s „personal rule in a good sense‟
amounted to what Rohl calls „negative personal rule‟.
Having gained the trust and complete confidence of the Kaiser Bulow was, Rohl
argues, „able to control the complicated Prusso-German system of government with more
authority than had been possible since Bismarck‟s fall‟. Jagemann, the Badenese envoy to
Berlin, reported in May 1901 that „Under the present Kaiser no chancellor has been able
to construct his ministry on his own terms to the same extent‟. According to Rohl,
Bulow„s complete dependence on the Kaiser‟s support was evident to all informed
It was, however, not to last - and Rohl rightly points out that such a system based
on the Kaiser‟s confidence alone and the avoidance of any issues which may have been
unpalatable to his Imperial master was bound to „result in catastrophe… sooner or later‟
for Bulow. By 1905/1906 a number of events - the ill-fated Bjorko Treaty between the
Kaiser and the Tsar, the Morocco Crisis, and other colonial issues, as well as Bulow‟s
collapse in the Reichstag - combined to create a very precarious situation in the Reich
government and tension between Bulow and Wilhelm.
The Kaiser‟s insistance that Prussian Agriculture Minister, General Viktor von
Podbielski remain in office against the wishes of the entire Prussian ministry and the
Reichstag created a situation similar to the Koller crisis of 1895. Seasoned observers,
including the Bavarian envoy Count Lerchenfeld, opined that Bulow „would indeed
succeed in pushing through Podbielski‟s resignation but this would be a Pyrrhic victory
from which he would not benefit for very long because the relationship between the
Kaiser and the Chancellor is at the moment very tense.‟
The final blow to Bulow‟s chancellorship came in the form of the Daily
Telegraph Crisis 1908. Wilhelm gave an ill-advised and indiscreet interview to the Daily
Telegraph newspaper in which he described himself as the Anglophile ruler of an
Anglophobe people. There was outrage in Germany at the Kaiser‟s remarks and for the
first time in his reign Wilhelm found himself facing a barrage of criticism from all angles.
The Chancellor did not attempt to defend the Kaiser in the Reichstag, thereby losing
Wilhelm‟s trust, which had been the cornerstone of his chancellorship since his
appointment by Wilhelm in 1900. Wilhelm later wrote that „I had become so accustomed
to the amiability of the prince [Bulow] that I found the treatment now accorded me
incomprehensible.‟ In the July 1909, facing opposition from the Reichstag and a lack of
support from his Imperial master, Bulow was forced to resign and was replaced by
After the controversy surrounding his utterances published in the form of the
Daily Telegraph interview, Wilhelm‟s influence was less than it had previously been,
though he did still take an interest in political developments and affairs.
Rohl does, I think, build a persuasive case for the idea of the Kaiser‟s „personal
monarchy‟, of which the „kingship mechanism‟ and „negative personal rule were a part‟. I
shall now address the criticism of Rohl‟s work by Richard J. Evans.
Richard J. Evans is decidedly opposed to the personal monarchy thesis of John
Rohl, and instead is a proponent of the structuralist interpretation of Wilhelmine
government. In a review article entitled „From Hitler to Bismarck: “Third Reich” and
Kaiserreich in recent Historiography, Part I‟, Evans sets out his criticism of John Rohl‟s
thesis in no uncertain terms when discussing Kaiser Wilhelm II: New Interpretations, a
collection of essays by various authors, including Rohl, and edited by Rohl.
Evan‟s sets out what he sees as Rohl‟s main aim in the book: the rehabilitation of
„Wilhelm II as the maker of German policy in his own time.‟ Rohl‟s work, Evan‟s
recognizes, is based on extensive archival research but he complains that „Rohl and some
of his collaborators have evidently spent so many years immersed in court records that
they have lost the ability to read them critically.‟ Evans continues his scathing attack on
the research methods and analysis of documentary sources saying that „New archival
discoveries, however trivial, are given pride of place.‟
Evans criticises the conclusion reached by Thomas Kohut (one of the
contributors) that Wilhelm‟s mother tried „to make him an Englishman; at the same time
the ideal which she held out to him was evidently Prince Albert, her father, who was, of
course, German (indeed the whole English royal family was regarded in England as
„German‟).‟ I strongly disagree with these criticisms leveled at Kohut by Evans.
Firslty, Wilhelm‟s mother, Princess Victoria (later the Crown Princess of Prussia,
and subsequently the Empress Frederick) was a daughter of Queen Victoria and first and
foremost an Englishwoman. In many ways she did attempt to make Wilhelm an
Englishman: she conversed with him only in English; all her letters to him were in
English and he was expected to respond in English; she constantly lectured him on the
superiority of all things English over all things German - manners, customs, government,
politics, doctors even. She praised the English Royal Navy to Wilhelm and spoke of
England as the greatest and most civilized nation on earth.
Secondly, Evans states that the ideal Princess Victoria held out to Wilhelm was
that of Prince Albert who was German. Evans fails to recognise that it was not Prince
Albert‟s German nationality that Victoria held up to Wilhelm, but rather Prince Albert‟s
political belief in a liberal constitutional monarchy which could temper the militaristic,
belligerent, Prussian ascendancy. A liberal constitutional Germany could be an ally for
England on the continent - so Prince Albert believed. The Crown Princess shared her
father‟s liberal views and she wished to impress these on her son. Evans seems to ignore
or be unaware of this important point. As far as his political views are concerned, Prince
Albert, who was originally from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was actually very „un-Prussian‟.
In his criticism of the personal rule thesis Evans points out the inconsistency of
the Kaiser - that he had no clear goals or purpose, and he quotes Lemar Cecil‟s remark
that „The Kaiser was too easily manipulated and too spasmodic in effort to have
capitalized on his autocratic prerogatives and thereby dictated German diplomacy.‟ He
dismisses the Kaiser‟s role in Germany‟s Naval policy with a quote from the head of
Germany‟s naval cabinet that Wilhelm‟s views on naval matters were „amateurish
nonsense‟. That they may have been, but it is quite clear that without the Kaier‟s will-
power and enthusiasm, and his appointment of Tirpitz as Naval Secretary, Germany‟s
Naval expansion would not have happened so quickly and on such a scale. The Kaiser‟s
support of the policy of Flottenpolitik was of crucial importance and Rohl proves this.
Evans‟ dismissal of the crucial role of the Kaiser in the success of Germany‟s naval
policy is surprising, and it seems he is so bent on the correctness of his conclusion that
the Kaiser was of no real consequence - „merely a spanner in the works‟ - that he ignores
or dismisses all the evidence to the contrary.
In his conclusion Evans states that it is a well-known fact that the Kaiser was not
a dictator. I agree. He was, as Rohl argues, a monarch with powers „akin to that of a
modern prime minister or president. His power, at least as far as domestic policy is
concerned, was not unlimited: his measures still had to gain the acceptance of the
legislature before passing into law.‟ Evans dismissal of the Kaiser as a mere „spanner in
the works‟ in incorrect and greatly underestimates the power and influence of Wilhelm II.
The various phases of the Kaiser‟s reign are an important qualification when
assessing the power of Wilhelm II: while Bismarck remained as Chancellor, until 1890,
the Kaiser‟s influence was contained under the massive prestige of the Iron Chancellor.
Bismarck‟s removal made way for an increase in Wilhelm‟s power but Caprivi did act as
a counterweight to Wilhelm. It was during these years 1890-97 that the foundations for
Wilhelm‟s personal monarchy were laid. With the appointment of Tirpitz (Naval
Secretary), Bulow (Foreign Secretary) in 1897 Wilhelm II‟s position was greatly
Rohl claims that the Kaiser‟s power was greatest between 1897 and 1900 during
the final years Hohenlohe‟s Chancellorship - that the Kaiser acted as his own chancellor
during this period. With the appointment of Bulow as Chancellor in 1900 the Kaiser‟s
„personal monarchy‟ continued but Bulow through flattery and tactfulness was able to
retain the support of Kaiser while pursuing policies which „went against the grain of
Wilhelm‟s known political preferences.‟ After the 1908 Daily Telegraph affair the Kaiser
attempted to interfere in politics to a lesser extent than before, and during the
Chancellorship of Bethmann „the Kaiser‟s key role in personnel decisions declined.‟ The
fact that Wilhelm was a „shadow Kaiser‟ during the First World War is universally
It can be seen from my essay that the Kaiser did not rule, but was rather a
powerful and influential figure at the centre of a complicated and chaotic system of
government. The Kaiser could wield great power when he believed firmly and
consistently in a policy and pursued it to its conclusion: his naval policy is evidence of
that. But because of his personality the Kaiser was unable to exploit his prerogatives in
such a way that a more able monarch may have been able to.
1. Clark, Christopher, „Kaiser Wilhelm II‟ Profiles in Power. London (2000).
2. Rohl, John C. G., „Germany without Bismarck: The Crisis of Government in the
Second Reich, 1890-1900.‟
3. Evans, Richard J., „Review: From Hitler to Bismarck: “Third Reich” and Kaiserreich
in Recent Historiography, Part I‟. The Historical Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2, (Jun, 1983)
4. Rohl, John C. G. „The Kaiser and his court: Wilhelm II and the Government of
Germany.‟ Cambridge (1994)
5. William II, „My Memoirs: 1878-1918‟, London (1922)
6. Rohl, John C. G. „Wilhelm II, the Kaiser‟s Personal Monarchy, 1888-1900‟.