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People in war

Tillmann Bendikowski / glbApril 9, 2014

Caught between euphoria and incredulity: How did the Germans experience the outbreak of World War I? DW takes a look at what was going on in the hearts and minds of Germans 100 years ago. This week, Wilhelm II.

Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

When an empire goes to war, the emperor automatically becomes the commander-in-chief, the central political and military figure. With regards to Germany in the run-up to the First World War, however, it is striking to see how difficult it was for Wilhelm II to influence his empire's course. Here was a man at the helm of Germany who had already lost his authority, one who had been effectively excluded from concrete military planning for some time.

His greatest instance of success came with his speech on July 31, 1914, delivered from the balcony of his Berlin palace. "The sword has been forced into our hands," Wilhelm beckoned, and the legend of German wartime innocence was born. His speech mobilized even Social Democrat parliamentarians, who had formerly been against the war, and it would shape how Germany saw its own role in contributing to the outbreak of war even after 1918. Any notions that Wilhelm's stance further escalated the international crisis in Europe, by effectively forcing Austria into conflict with Serbia, were quickly brushed aside.

Wilhelm's speech to the Germans on July 31, 1914
'The sword has been forced into our hands,' Wilhelm announced at the end of JulyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

When it comes to the actual operations, Wilhelm would have gladly been seen as the man in charge. In reality, however, he lacked an overview of strategic planning and was seen as a poor, unqualified tactician. The 55-year-old nevertheless put an emphasis on establishing appearance; his top command officially recognized his status as commander-in-chief, in exchange for the emperor's promise not to meddle in military affairs. General Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke was given the authority to issue orders in Wilhelm's name.

To keep up appearances, Wilhelm had to be in the middle of the action; he moved into command headquarters in August 1914. But still, he was an outsider. His mood swings were well known, and they gave rise to fears that the monarch would suffer a breakdown. The protection of Wilhelm's nerves became a high priority during the years of war; any information he received about developments were carefully filtered. This all intensified his sense of disorientation, making the failure of his fractured mission all but inexorable.

He failed in the political crisis of 1914, and then handed over the war to his top generals, rendering him unfit to forge peace in the ensuing years.