Hubris and Havoc: Wilhelm II and a Convicted President’s Parallels

This essay is part of “(There is Nothing New) Under the Sun A monthly column of random, historical vignettes demonstrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The parallels between Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and a certain one-term President and convicted felon who shall remain nameless are hard to ignore.  Both unscrupulous baby-men with gargantuan egos, raised in opulence and thinking themselves superior, but having actually accomplished nothing on their own and suffering the gnawing insecurity born of ignorance, each inherited the basic stability of previous administrations, but through their mishandling of and hubris in the face of crisis, their fawning wish to please the wealthy and the industrialists, each of these world leaders took their countries to the brink of disaster.  

By unknow person - https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/kaiser-wilhelm-german-emperor-1865726824, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102321089
By unknown person – https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/kaiser-wilhelm-german-emperor-1865726824, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102321089

Breach Entry

A spoiled, undereducated, narcissistic prince who inherited his throne at the tender age of 29, the Kaiser was dangerously confident in matters beyond his capabilities, convinced that he was the best man for every job.  The Grandson of England’s Queen Victoria, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert was the first of eight children born to Queen Victoria & Prince Albert’s favorite child, their clever and quick-witted daughter Victoria, nicknamed “Vickie,” who made a love match with the heir to the Prussian throne, a sickly Prince she called “Fritzie.” 

"Kaiser Wilhelm II. Im Jahre 1861"
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Kaiser Wilhelm II. Im Jahre 1861” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Kaiser’s relationship with his mother was pivotal in shaping the man he would become, beginning with the complications of his breach birth, which left him with a withered arm, a condition his family attempted to correct with the painful and tedious treatments available in the mid-19th century.  “Willie,” as he was known to his family, bitterly resented the defect but perhaps even more, resented his mother’s enlightened English education.  Vickie spoke French, German, Greek and Latin, and was raised with a curriculum of history, geography, science, politics, literature, and philosophy, quite unusual for a female child, and especially for a Princess Royal, who, historically, would be expected only to make a good marriage in which she would be a supportive but silent showpiece. Vickie was a thinker and arrived to her marriage into the ancient Hohenzollern dynasty with the intention of turning Prussia into a Constitutional Monarchy modeled after her homeland.  Fritzie was amenable to the idea, but ultimately, Willie, after the death of his father only 99 days after ascending to the throne, tossed out his mother’s liberal notions to embrace the Prussian tradition of the Warrior King.    

Mosaic on the ceiling and on the walls of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin, Germany
Mosaic on the ceiling and on the walls of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin, Germany

Pompous Circumstance

Willie loved magnificent military displays, dressed exclusively in military uniforms (changing up to six times a day!), and made a show of traveling throughout Germany and all of Europe with a large and fawning retinue of similarly attired courtiers simply for the sake of being seen as the axis upon which his cult of personality turned.  In the cathedral he commissioned in Berlin, he and his wife are pictured as holy figures.  His first cousins King George V of England and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia thought him a terrible boor and family gatherings became a game of avoidance and evasion.  He was sensitive about his deformed arm and spent his life trying to hide it. 

Fake news

He engaged in a very confrontational foreign policy; famously indiscreet, he delighted in publicly insulting other monarchs, and accused the media of his day of peddling fake news.  His life of glittering privilege and indulgence with no responsibility to temper his quick temper created a sociopath who would have his way in all things or heads would roll.  And roll they did. 

In the “Twitter/X” of the day, Willie famously fired off telegrams and telegraphs continuously, telling the leaders of other countries his opinion and giving instructions on all manner of things, in addition to burying his own generals, staff, and diplomatic ministers under an avalanche of ill-conceived, frequently contradictory, and half-baked orders.  He gleefully baited other world leaders, many of whom were close blood relations, and his tampering broke essential historical alliances, perhaps most notably with Russia, who fled into the arms of France, Germany’s arch enemy, in the years leading up to World War I.  In the nefarious Zimmerman Telegram of 1917, Germany offered to ally with Mexico and give back the lost territories should the United States enter the war.   

Willie loved the sound of his own voice, and particularly to pontificate to the press, and gave many disastrous interviews to journalists from all over the world in which he sketched out in detail his resentments and hatreds, and his uninformed propaganda against even his allies. In only one example of his delight in schoolyard bullying, Willie exclaimed in a speech to the troops heading to Asia to suppress The Boxer Rebellion that “No Chinese will ever again dare look cross-eyed at a German,” and later claimed that the Spanish Influenza was created in an American laboratory and loosed upon the world.  He referred to Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel “the dwarf,” spread rumors that Prince Fernando of Bulgaria was a hermaphrodite, and referred to his cousin Tsar Nicholas II of Russia as a man “fit only to grow turnips.”  He told the reporter from the English publication The Daily Telegraph that the Brits were “mad, mad, mad!”  He had always been resentful of his British cousin’s mastery of the high seas, and so built his own navy to compete with Uncle Bertie, (King Edward VII) and never tired of bragging about Germany’s military superiority.  After smacking the bottom of a world leader at a public forum, Willie lost a lucrative arms contract.  

The Kaiser loved to read his press clippings and had a staff whose sole job was to compile everything in print about his accomplishments, and while there are no reports of Willie throwing ketchup bottles against dining room walls, he was reported to have terrifying temper tantrums over bad news about himself. 

color photo of wilhem kaiser ii
Color Photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II, NPG, 1906, Series 1 No. 5. NPG (Neue Photographische Gesellschaft) of Steglitz in Berlin, Germany

Exile to His Dutch ‘Mar-a-lago’

Upon losing World War I in 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated his throne and fled to Holland where he lived out the rest of his life under protection of the Dutch government (in a mansion purchased from Audrey Hepburn’s Baroness grandmother), which refused to extradite him to the Allies, who wanted to try him as a political war criminal, an unprecedented notion that would be revisited at Nuremberg a world war later. 

The treaties that brought the “Great War” to an end plunged Germany into a paralyzing financial crisis and to the brink of revolution from within.  The provisional German government treated Wilhelm very well, even picking up the tab for a staff of 40 and packing and paying for trainloads of royal swag delivered to his door in Holland, so much palace booty that the mansion couldn’t accommodate the lion’s share and so it has remained in storage, unseen by human eyes, for more than 100 years.    

In exile in the Netherlands, protected by his royal hosts, Wilhelm dodged the bullet of a public trial and execution for crimes against peace, as outlined in the Treaty of Versailles.  The Pope and the still seated European kings of Spain, Italy, Sweden, and England campaigned for their fellow sovereign.  British and French Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Georges Clémenceau wanted to hang the Emperor.  Winston Churchill and President Wilson did not.  In any case, nothing ever came of it either way as Holland wouldn’t give him up, claiming that doing so would compromise their neutrality. 

A Warning From The Past

Throughout his exile, the Kaiser behaved badly.  Unable to comprehend his fall from lofty heights, and incapable of seeing or taking responsibility for his part in his own demise, he blamed the German people, the Bolsheviks, the French, the English, the Americans, the Catholic Church, the Jesuits, the Freemasons and, heinously but predictably, the Jews, for his downfall.  Because they refused to restore him to the throne, the Kaiser also blamed Hitler and the Nazis.    

Like his latter day doppelganger, Willie believed that mistakes and misfortunes were never his fault and that victories and successes were always his personal triumphs and that he deserved to have the world revolve around him, but he was, in the final analysis, a huge and hugely public loser.  The worst possible outcome for America would be for this ignorant, blow hard Kaiser reincarnate to win back the Oval Office, because he is in so many ways worse than the original.  


  • Diane Gager Hesler

    Diane Gager Hesler is a virulent history buff, writer, and elementary school educator who lives in a 100-year-old Arts & Crafts Bungalow in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her exceptional husband, her beloved cats, an herb garden, her books, and an excessively large collection of cast iron frying pans.

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