Crippled Kaiser Had Grip of Iron

A typical portrait of the Kaiser, with his left arm carefully concealed
A typical portrait of the Kaiser, with his left arm carefully concealed

by Ray Setterfield

January 27, 1859Wilhelm II, better known in the English-speaking world as "Kaiser Bill," was born on this day. He was the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, and a prominent figure of the First World War.

But his problems began at the start of his life when his mother, the British Princess-Royal Victoria – daughter of Queen Victoria – delivered her son after a traumatic birth. Born in Berlin, he arrived in this world with a stunted and all but useless left arm as well as being deaf in his left ear and unbalanced because of that.

This was not the stuff of which German and Prussian nobility was made and torturous attempts were employed in his childhood to correct his disabilities.

They included electrotherapy and having a dead hare wrapped around his arm. None were successful and Wilhelm spent the rest of his life trying to hide his shortcomings.

Years later, the Aga Khan wrote of the problem*: "I had an audience of the Kaiser at Potsdam. I had been warned that he was acutely sensitive about his physical deformity and disliked his withered left arm being looked at.

"While I awaited my audience, I said to myself over and over again, 'You won't look at his arm; you WON'T look at his arm.'

"He strode into the room; my eyes became a law unto themselves, and there I was staring at his left arm. Fortunately for me, I suppose, he must have been so accustomed to this happening that he did not let it diminish the warmth and courtesy of his greeting.

"He held out his right hand and shook hands with me. This was literally a crushing experience. As compensation for his deformity the Kaiser had, from childhood, determined that his right hand and arm should be so strong that they would do the work of two.

"He took constant, vigorous exercise. Every day he had at least twenty minutes' fencing; he played tennis often for two hours at a time; and undertook all manner of other remedial exercises.

"The result was an immense development of strength in his right hand and arm. One of its effects was this appallingly powerful handshake.

"I am told that mine was no unusual experience. The Duchess of Teck told me that she – like most other women with whom His Imperial Majesty shook hands – had the greatest difficulty in not letting out a cry of pain as he took her hand in his."

In 1888, Wilhelm’s father died of cancer and his 29-year-old deformed son became emperor of Germany. He was determined to expand Germany’s power and set out to create a naval force to rival the British Royal Navy, one of the leading naval fleets in the world.

In 1890 Wilhelm forced the Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to resign and took control of Germany’s foreign and domestic policies.

After a Serbian rebel assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in 1914, Wilhelm encouraged Austria-Hungary to retaliate against Serbia. But, as countries across Europe became embroiled in the First World War after the assassination, German generals excluded Wilhelm from key decisions. Though he remained the titular Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, the real power was in the hands of the military.

When in 1918 the generals decided to surrender to the Allies, Wilhelm was forced to abdicate. He fled to the Netherlands where he stayed until 1941 when, at the age of 82, he died of a pulmonary embolism. And the German and Prussian monarchies died with him.

*The Memoirs of Aga Khan, Cassell & Co., 1954.

Published: January 16, 2018

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