The first Great War may have technically begun after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, but it was another German royal who dominated the first global conflict of the twenty-first century. Wilhelm II, Kaiser (Emperor) of Germany and King of Prussia, was a brash ass whose aggressive policies helped instigate World War I. But investigating his traumatic childhood shines light on how he became an arrogant emperor.
Wilhelm was the firstborn of Queen Victoria's eldest child, the brilliant Victoria, Princess Royal, and her husband, Prince Frederick, heir to the increasingly ambitious Prussian kingdom (and eventual German Empire). "Vicky" and Fritz's marriage was both a love and political match; though the British royals frequently married their German counterparts, this alliance was also strategic. After the wedding, poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a poem that emphasized newfound ties: "God bless our Prince and Bride/God keep their lands allied!"
99 Problems...and a Mother Was One
But all the hopes both countries had pinned on this marriage fell short with Wilhelm's birth in 1859. He was indeed the hoped-for son and heir, but his left arm suffered permanent nerve damage during childbirth. Wilhelm was never able to properly use it and posed for pictures in ways that specifically made the withered arm look fully-sized. His neck and hearing were also permanently damaged.
While these issues wouldn't in and of itself be a travesty, the child's parents were horrified at Wilhelm's ailments and stopped at nothing to rectify what they saw as an incurable ailment. The treatments they inflicted on their son made him feel horribly inadequate and self-conscious from a young age. As a result, he overcompensated and sought out others' approval, becoming the aggressive, self-righteous jerk that world history hates.
Baby Wilhelm and his mother. Image courtesy of The Grand Ladies Site.
By the time Wilhelm turned seven months old, his mother, Princess Victoria, admitted she worried about her son's arm "day and night." His childhood was spent in and out of treatment, leading Wilhelm to want to seek out his mother's undying approval to be the "perfectly formed" son she wished she had. Unfortunately for the prince, his mother didn't respond to his entreaties for maternal affection, especially after her beloved father, Prince Albert, died when Wilhelm was two; political tensions plaguing the Hohenzollern household also contributed to distance between parents and baby.
Wilhelm's paternal grandparents, who disliked their liberal daughter-in-law, worked time and again to turn Wilhelm against his mom. His grandma, Empress Augusta, told her young grandson that his mother didn't feed him herself because she couldn't deal with his disabilities. Such issues, created by Vicky and her in-laws, soured his relationship with the British-born Princess Royal and created Wilhelm's life-long disdain for his mother's home country.
Germany's Weirdest Cures
Instead of working with the son she had, Vicky was obsessed with finding cures to make herself a perfect baby, writing that "the idea of his remaining a cripple haunts me." At first, these remedies started simply: His left arm was swaddled in cool clothes. Then, when that didn't work, there were saltwater baths and massage, allowing increased range of movement.
A young Wilhelm poses. Out of view in this cropped shot is his arm. Image via Heroes of Serbia/BBC.
Eventually, though, these cure-alls became more bizarre. Vicky put him in a neck brace, tied his right arm for an hour each day to encourage her son to use his other limb, and put his left arm inside the body of a freshly-killed hare for a half-hour. The worst was yet to come: The desperate Prussian royals even tried electroshock therapy, which probably didn't help him in the long run.