The Last Kaiser The Life of Wilhelm II

Giles MacDonogh

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

560 Pages



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Germany's last kaiser was born in Potsdam on January 27, 1859, the son of Prince Frederick of Prussia and Princess Vicky, Queen Victoria's eldest child. Wilhelm was born with a withered arm—possibly the result of cerebral palsy—and many historians have sought in this a clue to his behavior later in life. He was brought up by a severe Calvinist tutor, but his entourage spoiled him, allowing him to win at games and maneuvers to compensate for his deformities. This gave him a sense of inherent invincibility. He was believed mad by some, eccentric by others. Possessed of a ferocious temper, he was prone to reactionary statements, often contradicted by his next action or utterance. He was rumored to have sired numerous illegitimate children, though he was by all appearances a prig.

As Germany's last emperor, Wilhelm II is widely perceived as a warmonger who seemed to delight in power-grabbing bloodshed, and the belligerent aims of his staff; but the image he craved for himself and for posterity was that of "Emperor of peace." Historically he has been blamed for World War I, although he made real efforts to prevent it. He has been branded an anti-Semite, even though the Nazis wrote him off as a "Jew-lover." Giles MacDonogh, widely praised for his biography of Frederick the Great, takes a fresh look at this complex, contradictory statesman in this fascinating, authoritative new biography.


Praise for The Last Kaiser

"MacDonogh is scrupulously fair. He stresses the contraints surrounding the kaiser and the extent to which others made decisions for which he was blamed."—Financial Times

"Thorough, fair-minded, and knowledgeable."—The Washington Times

"A gripping narrative about a flawed, but ultimately pitiable, king."—Kirkus Reviews

"MacDonogh reinvigorates our understanding of [the kaiser] . . . As usual, he has thoroughly researched the diaries, and memoirs of Wilhelm's contemporaries, and he exhibits his findings in a delightful writing style . . . Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"Wilhelm II, the infamous 'Kaiser Bill' of WWI, has long been seen as the principal instigator of that catastrophe. In the first biography of the kaiser in over 30 years, historian and journalist MacDonogh intends to set the record straight by examining events usually adduced as evidence against the intelligence and character of the last Hohenzollern monarch. Wilhelm's dismissal of the chancellor, Bismarck, generally attributed to a young, incompetent kaiser's jealousy, is here construed as a necessary and long-overdue act. Wilhelm's withered left arm, the result of incompetent obstetricians and seen by Freud as the source of the emperor's compulsion to prove his masculinity, was actually only a slight handicap that Wilhelm overcame with great strength of character, attests MacDonogh. The author also shows that in the prewar crises, the kaiser could be seen as the most far-seeing and level-headed person in the higher reaches of the imperial German government, and that he endeavored to head off the impending war. Moreover, charges of anti-Semitism are complicated by the fact that the Nazis called him a 'Jew-lover' based on his sometime amity with Jewish businessmen and intelligentsia. Though adroit at winning popular acclaim, the kaiser had an unfortunate tendency toward bombast that led him time and again to dissipate whatever support he had won. The last kaiser of the Second German Reich emerges from these pages as a talented man who would have made an excellent professor of archeology but unfortunately was doomed to rule one of the world's great national powers."—Publishers Weekly

"Any biographer of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany must deal with three important issues in his life: his egomaniacal personality; his contentious relationship with his parents, particularly his mother, who never forgot she was the Princess Royal of Britain before marrying into the Prussian royal house; and his role in the outbreak of World War I, specifically the quality and even extent of his leadership once the war began. Historian MacDonogh, in a thorough and incisive treatment, tackles these issues with both aplomb and fairness."—Brad Hooper, Booklist

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Giles MacDonogh is a historian and journalist. His biography of Frederick the Great was a bestseller in the United Kingdom. He contributes regularly to the Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, and Evening Standard. He lives in London.
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  • Giles MacDonogh

  • Giles MacDonogh is a historian and journalist. His biography of Frederick the Great was a bestseller in the United Kingdom. He contributes regularly to the Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, and Evening Standard. He lives in London.