Wilhelm II had the desire to be a much more powerful Kaiser than his grandfather had been and subsequently, he was not willing to leave the running of the country to the Chancellor. It was due to this belief in his ‘divine right’ to rule autocratically – he often referred to himself as ‘the instrument of God’ – he was constantly striving to achieve personal rule within the German Empire. However, despite his efforts, Wilhelm was too easily influenced by those around him to ever truly achieve personal rule. In order to achieve his own wishes, Eulenburg only had to flatter Wilhelm, and persuade him that his ideas were actually Wilhelm’s, such as over the issue of the anti-socialist bill in 1894.
The Constitution, introduced upon the re-unification of Germany in 1871, was created in such a way that the 26 states were not completely equal, as Prussia remained somewhat in control, and that the Chancellor, upon instruction from the Kaiser, ultimately could control them. In terms of Wilhelm’s ability to achieve personal rule, this had various implications. As he had control over the appointment of government ministers to the Prussian State Administration, along with the same control over the Imperial Government ministers, most importantly, the Chancellor, he certain held a high degree of influence over the partially democratic system within Germany. This, coupled with his role as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, allowed him to have visions of creating an authoritarian, military dictatorship in which he could genuinely achieve personal rule. However, there was a constant power struggle between the publicly elected Reichstag and the Kaiser.
Only the Chancellor, through the Kaiser’s direction, could initiate new legislation into the Reichstag, severely limiting their powers and increasing that of the Kaiser. In spite of this, the Reichstag prevented the Kaiser from achieving personal rule, which would ultimately enabled him to pass which ever laws he desired, as they were required to debate and vote upon his suggested policies, before they could become law. Subsequently, they could veto any Bills the majority did not agree with, resulting in a constant need for the Chancellor to please the majority in order to retain their support.
Yet, one could argue that overall, Wilhelm retained a degree of jurisdiction in the form of his ability to dissolve the Reichstag when it suited him. This meant, if his allies in the Reichstag were not dominant, he could allow for an election in order to correct this situation. Ludicrously, despite having command over the Reichstag, he had to rely upon the manipulative charms of his high-ranking ministers in order to ensure they passed his Bills. A fine example of this problem is the fact that the individual states retained authority over taxation, enabling them to control the volume of money at the Kaiser’s disposal – most significantly, they control the military budget, which was set once every seven years, making it difficult for the Kaiser to achieve his dream of a world-class navy easily.
One cannot solely blame the constitution for the restrictions upon Wilhelm’s strength and ability to grasp personal rule. Instead, the fact his ‘grasp of politics was limited’ (Layton) and his ‘pleasure seeking’ nature prevented him from truly fighting to achieve his ambition of having personal rule. Furthermore, those around him satisfied him through flattery and created a false illusion of his grandeur as an autocratic leader – reflect in Layton’s statement that they gave him a ‘delusion of power’. This linked to Wehler’s idea of the Prussian elites holding a great deal of influence over Wilhelm acts to support this impression. However, Blackbourne and Eley, whilst supporting the idea of Wilhelm’s role as pawn to be pressured and used by others, believed that it was the working classes and their main political party, the SPD, which posed the major threat to his ability to rule, which is reflected in his consistent battle to overcome their influence in the Reichstag.
Wilhelm was an indecisive man, a negative trait, which is seen most clearly through his treatment of the socialists. Initially, in 1890, he appeared to have a much more accepting view of the SPD after he forced Bismarck to resign rather than allowing Bismarck to renew the anti-socialist laws. Although, he may have had an ulterior motive for this decision, as Bismarck had few allies in the Reichstag and he had become alienated from the people – subsequently, removing Bismarck from the role of Chancellor would increase his own popularity, whilst acting as an example of his intention to use his constitutional powers. This decision brought him one step closer achieving personal rule, by removing a very opinionated Chancellor, so that Wilhelm could replace him with someone more puppet-like.
When Caprivi took over, he dropped the anti-socialist laws, as was the Kaiser’s wish. This in turn increased Wilhelm’s popularity within the Reichstag by pleasing both the Zentrum and the SPD – with this increased support, they were able to pass further social measures – such as the banning of Sunday working – which made Wilhelm more appealing to his people, and less remote from their situation. The cycle continued as the Kaiser gained yet more influence within the Reichstag, which enabled him to have his Bills passed more easily, giving him a sense of personal rule.
However, the mere fact that Caprivi had to consult and negotiate with the Reichstag proved that without their agreement, the Kaiser could do very little. By 1893, Wilhelm had once again been influenced by his advisors, in this case Eulenburg, whom wanted to introduce a new anti-socialist Subversion Bill. This linked in to Wilhelm developing his own hatred of socialism – he frequently insulted them during his speeches, which was somewhat foolish as their seats in the Reichstag had grown to 44, from 11, in just six years. Once again though, Wilhelm had to deal with an uncooperative Chancellor, as Caprivi refused to propose the Bill, and actually managed to persuade Wilhelm to dismiss Eulenburg’s plans for a Staatsstreich. Far from having person rule, it appeared that the Kaiser was being ruled by those around him. Once again, Wilhelm lost the support of his Chancellor due to a difference of opinion, and Caprivi resigned in October 1894, as he believed he could not go back on his previous actions, namely dropping the anti-socialist Bill.
Repeatedly, socialism acted as a stage showing Wilhelm’s continued struggle to gain personal rule. With the appointment of Hohenlohe, Wilhelm finally managed to find a Chancellor who was willing to work solely upon trying to achieve the Kaiser’s wish of absolute authority. This was mainly due to his failure to gain a natural majority in the Reichstag, resulting in the 1895 Subversion Bill being rejected. However, he was willing to remain a figurehead Chancellor, whilst Wilhelm appointed other ministers to work towards his goal. In terms of the fight against socialism, Posadowsky-Wehner was appointed as Reich Secretary of Interior, in 1897, whom was believed to have the person strength to force an anti-socialist bill through. Although, again, this proved not to be true and instead Sammlunspolitik was introduced in order to try and gain parliamentary allies, as this was the only way Wilhelm could ever achieve a level of authority that resembled personal rule.
Again, Wilhelm’s fight against socialism was one of his biggest failures in terms of achieving personal rule. The Prussian Suffrage Bill, of 1910, was a complete disaster for Bethmann and Wilhelm as it completely failed to achieve it’s objective of increasing the Kaiser’s influence within the Reichstag. Instead, the Bill designed to strengthen the middle class vote in order to reduce the value of the working class support for the socialists, was rejected by the masses. The Right didn’t wish to see a rise in the weight of the middle class vote, nor did the Left wish to see the working class vote weakened any further – instead, they wished for all classes to be equal. Subsequently, Bethmann had to withdraw the Bill, which proved that neither he, or the Kaiser, held any substantial power within the Reichstag and that, far from having personal rule, Wilhelm could only achieve his goals if he were willing to compromise on them.
The issue of protective tariffs caused many issues for Wilhelm. Initially, Bulow lowered the tariffs placed on goods from Italy, Austria-Hungry and Russia, in return for a favourable rate on German goods. This decision made Wilhelm more popular with the Centre Left within the Reichstag, enabling him to gain a higher chance of receiving support for his Bills. However, as a further display of his irresolute nature, he failed to successfully have the Subversion Bill passed, as the working classes rose alongside German’s industrial growth. This suggests that it was partly due to the Kaiser’s own inability to chose consistent allies within the Reichstag that left him struggling to gain the type of authoritarian rule he desired.
Unsurprisingly, Wilhelm changed his approach to protective tariffs in 1902 when Bulow presented the Tariff Act to the Reichstag. Instead of lowering the tariffs, as Bulow wished this Act increased them, in order to act as protection for the Junkers. One could argue that this act enabled Wilhelm to gain a higher degree of personal rule as it resulted in the formation of a Centre Right coalition, whilst leaving the SPD excluded and annoyed. However, it failed to please the more extreme Junkers and the loss of support from the SPD made it harder for the Kaiser to pass his Bills later on, including the 1905 military budget. Consequently, the sheer fact that Bulow had to play games with the Reichstag in order to enable the Kaiser to enforce his authority shows that in reality, the Kaiser was far from having personal rule and was instead accountable to those whom he would have seen as beneath him.
This sense of being subject to the wishes of the Reichstag can be seen through the consequences of the Daily Telegraph Affair, in 1908. This incident, in which Wilhelm isolated himself from the public after an he had an unmonitored interview with the British newspaper, and that of the previous year when it became well known that some of his closet friends and advisors had been involved in a homosexual scandal, created a wedge between Bulow and Wilhelm. It reinforced his lack of personal rule as he was forced to submit to the whims of the Reichstag by promising to moderate his conduct in the future, and proved that the Kaiser was both reliant upon, and limited by, the Reichstag. So, rather than enforcing his full authority, he was seen somewhat as a child needing to be reprimanded for bad behaviour, not respected as divinely appointed ruler.
The fight for power within Germany was not solely between the Kaiser, the Reichstag and the senior ministers, instead it also featured the Junkers. The Pan German League was founded in 1890 in order to apply pressure upon the Reichstag so as to ensure they acted in the Junkers best interests. They sought an aggressive foreign policy and harsh attacks upon the national minorities. Their influence can be seen through the Expropriation Law, which was passed in 1908 by Bulow. Although this was not fully enforced, it provided the government with the power to force the sale of Polish owned land in East Prussia, which pleased the League as it reduced the foreign influence in the Reich. This ultimately increased the Conservative support for the Kaiser but this failed to outweigh the loss of support from the Centre Left. Subsequently, when Bethmann Holwegg tried to enforce it in 1913, the Reichstag proved that they were in control as they opposed the motion and took a vote to censure him – they effectively told him, and through him the Kaiser, off. This acted as a further reinforcement of the Kaiser’s lack of power and the Reichstag’s supremacy – to some degree – over him.
Arguably, even when Wilhelm succeeded in having his Bills passed, that did not mean he had achieved personal rule. Due to his lazy attitude towards daily affairs, it was easy for the powerful, calculating ministers surrounding him to influence him greatly. Subsequently, those around him could enforce their own wishes, simply by flattering the Kaiser and allowing him to believe their ideas were his own. When Tirpitz became the Naval Secretary, in 1897, he used his position, as a trusted advisor, to persuade Wilhelm to support his plans for naval expansion. On this occasion, as with others, due to the Kaiser’s passion for the military – he once described his feelings by stating, ‘we belong to each other, I and the army’ – he was easily manipulated into following the plans of others. This resulted in a situation where the Kaiser believed he had achieved personal rule, within the strict confines of the democratic system, when, in reality, he has become something of pawn to be used by the ministers he appointed.
Despite Wilhelm’s strong personal connection with the military, and their strong influence over him, the policies introduced received mixed responses. Significantly, in 1893, Caprivi introduced the Army Bill, which reduced conscription from three to just two years. This left the military leaders annoyed and frustrated; although whether or not this was Wilhelm’s intention is unknown as this could merely have resulted from his ministers ever growing influence upon him. Yet, when the Navy League was founded in 1898, their influence over the Kaiser grew in strength, which created a favourable situation for their cause with the Navy Laws, supporting expansion, of 1898 and 1900, using the support of the Centre Party.
This therefore, as well as being of personal interest to the Kaiser, increased his support block within the Reichstag. Furthermore, in 1912, Holwegg introduced new Army and Navy Bills, as a part of a policy of, later named, Imperial Socialism, through which they intended to unite the parties of the Reichstag so that Wilhelm would find it easier to pass his Bills. This Bill introduced a tax on spirits in order to fund a military expansion and was supported by a unified Reichstag – the Centre Left supported this, as it did not directly affect the working classes, as alcohol was a luxury good that only those with disposable income could afford. This meant that Holwegg had successfully increased military funding in order to satisfy Wilhelm’s personal desire to achieve military supremacy – subsequently, Wilhelm had managed to achieve a degree of personal rule, even if it were partially due to the manipulative skill of his Chancellor.
In 1913, with the Zabern incident, in which a Prussian regiment began making their own law resulting in the arbitrary arrest of twenty-seven locals, displayed Wilhelm’s belief in personal rule, in the sense that he believed he could dismiss the Reichstag, as the army was above the law. Subsequently, as he was the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, he believed that he too was above the law. Consequently, one can assume that with the support of the military he could achieve respect and ultimately, personal rule through the use of force. Maybe, through Wilhelm’s decision to back the army, he had managed to somewhat achieve personal rule and to regain some control, despite criticism form the Reichstag, after the Daily Telegraph Affair.
One of Wilhelm’s only ways to achieve a somewhat authoritarian rule was to try and form a coalition of support within the Reichstag. Bulow, in particular, tried to use this tactic in order to enable Wilhelm to pass the laws he desired. Firstly, in 1907, they targeted the Centre party, alienating them in order to increase their support from the National Liberals and the Conservatives. Although this was successfully in creating a centre-right bloc, totalling over 200 members, its use in terms of passing Bills was purely artificial, meaning Wilhelm had to continue to struggle in order to achieve his wishes regardless, which was a far cry from personal rule. The 1909 Blue-Black bloc consisted of the Conservatives and the Centre party, and enabled him to pass many of Wilhelm’s financial reforms due to an increased influence over the Reichstag. However, as shown with the Inheritance Tax, Bulow was constantly forced to compromise, resulting in some Bills being rejected. Subsequently, he and the Kaiser were subject to the whims of the Reichstag and simply could not impose laws by themselves, as Wilhelm would have been able to do if he had achieved personal rule. Consequently, there was a constant battle between the Kaiser and the Reichstag as the power balance fell strongly in the favour of the Reichstag.
Financial problems, mainly due to the Kaiser’s lack of direct control over taxation, occurred throughout this period, resulting in him having too little money to go ahead with his desired projects, such as gaining and running of Germany’s unprofitable colonies. This in itself was a sign of his lack of personal rule but was further confirmed when Bulow was unable to solve the treasury’s operating deficit due to the contrasting wishes of the various Reichstag parties, showing that the Kaiser was trapped in a battle to satisfy everyone else, rather than being able to simply satisfy himself through personal rule. Holwegg was able to delay the Reichstag elections for 2 years, freeing up funds to pay 90 million marks off the country’s debt. Although this proved the Kaiser had some power granted by the constitution, in terms of raising more sustainable cash sources – such as through taxation – he was restricted by the Reichstag due to the limitations he had in relation to enforcing new legislation.
Overall, throughout this twenty-four year period Wilhelm was engaged in a constant power struggle with the Reichstag. In relation to the statement, it is difficult to say that he used his full authority as those around him were constantly questioning this authority. Subsequently, there is strong evidence to suggest this statement is indeed incorrect – particularly, when one considers the frequent examples of the Reichstag’s control over Wilhelm, such as that displayed after the Daily Telegraph Incident. However, there were also periods of triumph for Wilhelm, where, through a series of compromises and the skilful talents of his Chancellors, he managed to achieve his desires. Yet, by the sheer fact he needed to be so manipulative, proved he had failed to achieve personal rule and to thus use his full authority.