Wilhelm was born on 27 January 1859 at the
Crown Prince's Palace,
Prince Frederick William of Prussia (the future Frederick III) and his wife,
Victoria, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of Britain's Queen Victoria. At the time of his birth, his great-uncle
Frederick William IV was king of Prussia, and his grandfather and namesake
Wilhelm was acting as Regent. He was the first grandchild of Queen Victoria and
Prince Albert, but more importantly, as the first son of the Crown Prince of Prussia, Wilhelm was from 1861 second in the line of
Prussia, and also, after 1871, to the newly created
German Empire, which, according to the
constitution of the German Empire, was ruled by the Prussian King.
Wilhelm with his father, in Highland dress, in 1862
breech birth left him with a withered left arm due to
Erb's palsy, which he tried with some success to conceal. In many photos he carries a pair of white gloves in his left hand to make the arm seem longer, holds his left hand with his right, or has his crippled arm on the hilt of a sword or holding a cane to give the effect of a useful limb posed at a dignified angle. His left arm was about 6 inches (15 centimetres) shorter than his right arm. Historians have suggested that this disability affected his emotional development.
In 1863, Wilhelm was taken to England to be present at the wedding of his Uncle Bertie, (later King
Edward VII), and Princess
Alexandra of Denmark. William attended the ceremony in a
Highland costume, complete with a small toy
dirk. During the ceremony the four-year-old became restless. His eighteen-year-old uncle
Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, charged with keeping an eye on him, told him to be quiet, but Wilhelm drew his dirk and threatened Alfred. When Alfred attempted to subdue him by force, Wilhelm bit him on the leg. His grandmother, Queen Victoria, missed seeing the fracas; to her Wilhelm remained "a clever, dear, good little child, the great favourite of my beloved Vicky".
His mother, Vicky, was obsessed with his damaged arm. She blamed herself for the child's handicap and insisted that he become a good rider. The thought that he, as heir to the throne, should not be able to ride was intolerable to her. Riding lessons began when Wilhelm was eight and were a matter of endurance for Wilhelm. Over and over, the weeping prince was set on his horse and compelled to go through the paces. He fell off time after time but despite his tears was set on its back again. After weeks of this he finally got it right and was able to maintain his balance.
Wilhelm, from six years of age, was tutored and heavily influenced by the 39-year-old teacher Georg Hinzpeter. "Hinzpeter," he later wrote, "was really a good fellow. Whether he was the right tutor for me, I dare not decide. The torments inflicted on me, in this pony riding, must be attributed to my mother."
As a teenager he was educated at
Kassel at the
Friedrichsgymnasium. In January 1877, Wilhelm finished high school and on his eighteenth birthday received as a present from his grandmother, Queen Victoria, the
Order of the Garter. After Kassel he spent four terms at the
University of Bonn, studying law and politics. He became a member of the exclusive
Corps Borussia Bonn. Wilhelm possessed a quick intelligence, but this was often overshadowed by a cantankerous temper.
As a scion of the
royal house of Hohenzollern, Wilhelm was exposed from an early age to the military society of the
Prussian aristocracy. This had a major impact on him and, in maturity, Wilhelm was seldom seen out of uniform. The hyper-masculine
military culture of Prussia in this period did much to frame his political ideals and personal relationships.
Crown Prince Frederick was viewed by his son with a deeply felt love and respect. His father's status as a hero of the wars of unification was largely responsible for the young Wilhelm's attitude, as were the circumstances in which he was raised; close emotional contact between father and son was not encouraged. Later, as he came into contact with the Crown Prince's political opponents, Wilhelm came to adopt more ambivalent feelings toward his father, perceiving the influence of Wilhelm's mother over a figure who should have been possessed of masculine independence and strength. Wilhelm also idolised his grandfather,
Wilhelm I, and he was instrumental in later attempts to foster a cult of the first German Emperor as "Wilhelm the Great". However, he had a distant relationship with his mother.
Wilhelm resisted attempts by his parents (especially his mother) to educate him in a spirit of British liberalism. Instead, he agreed with his tutors' support of autocratic rule, and gradually became thoroughly 'Prussianized' under their influence. He thus became alienated from his parents, suspecting them of putting Britain's interests first. The German Emperor, Wilhelm I, watched as his grandson, guided principally by the Crown Princess Victoria, grew to manhood. When Wilhelm was nearing twenty-one the Emperor decided it was time his grandson should begin the military phase of his preparation for the throne. He was assigned as a lieutenant to the
First Regiment of Foot Guards, stationed at
Potsdam. "In the Guards," Wilhelm said, "I really found my family, my friends, my interests — everything of which I had up to that time had to do without." As a boy and a student, his manner had been polite and agreeable; as an officer, he began to strut and speak brusquely in the tone he deemed appropriate for a Prussian officer.
In many ways, Wilhelm was a victim of his inheritance and of Otto von Bismarck's machinations. Both sides of his family had suffered from mental illness, and this may explain his emotional instability.English doctor killed my father, and an English doctor crippled my arm – which is the fault of my mother", who allowed no German physicians to attend to herself or her immediate family.
When Wilhelm was in his early twenties, Bismarck tried to separate him from his parents (who opposed Bismarck and his policies) with some success. Bismarck planned to use the young prince as a weapon against his parents in order to retain his own political dominance. Wilhelm thus developed a dysfunctional relationship with his parents, but especially with his English mother. In an outburst in April 1889, Wilhelm angrily implied that "an
As a young man, Wilhelm fell in love with one of his maternal first cousins,
Princess Elisabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt. She turned him down, and would, in time, marry into the Russian imperial family. In 1880 Wilhelm became engaged to
Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, known as "Dona". The couple married on 27 February 1881, and would remain married for forty years, until her death in 1921. In a period of ten years, between 1882 and 1892, Augusta Victoria would bear Wilhelm seven children, six sons and a daughter.
Beginning in 1884, Bismarck began advocating that Kaiser Wilhelm send his grandson on diplomatic missions, a privilege denied to the Crown Prince. That year, Prince Wilhelm was sent to the court of Tsar
Alexander III of Russia in St. Petersburg to attend the coming of age ceremony of the sixteen-year-old
Tsarevich Nicholas. Wilhelm's behavior did little to ingratiate himself to the tsar. Two years later, Kaiser Wilhelm I took Prince Wilhelm on a trip to meet with the Austro-Hungarian emperor,
Franz Joseph. In 1886, also, thanks to
Herbert von Bismarck, the son of the Chancellor, Prince Wilhelm began to be trained twice a week at the Foreign Ministry. One privilege was denied to Prince Wilhelm: to represent Germany at his maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria's,
Golden Jubilee Celebrations in London in 1887.