His mother was the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and was only 17 when she married Frederic Wilhelm, the Crown Prince of Prussia. While Prussia was feared and hated by many as a reactionary and militaristic state Princess Vicky and her husband were liberal and progressive. They hoped an alliance with the powerful British Empire would help the development of a parliamentary style democracy in Germany and bring lasting peace in Europe. While in the years to come they would find themselves out-maneuvered by the King and his “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, they still had high hopes for the future of Germany when Vicky gave birth to a son in January 1859.
But the birth did not go smoothly. The baby was found to be in the breach position and, during the difficult process that followed, the doctor damaged nerves that left the infant with a paralyzed left arm. Vicky was mortified they tried to keep his injury a secret. What followed were years of treatments that ranged from the painful (surgery) to mechanical (a leather and iron harness “straightening machine”) to the just plain weird (dead rabbits). Finally they had to admit there was no remedy.
Still devastated that she had failed in her duty by producing an imperfect heir to the throne, Vicky tried a new approaches to the prince’s education as a way of compensating. First young Wilhelm was placed with a tutor who shared their liberal attitudes but whose methods were rigid and doctrinaire. Later they later sent Wilhelm to a public grammar school. It was a deeply emotional time for the impressionable teenager. Far from home, and craving his mother’s affection, Wilhelm wrote his mother a series of letters about his dreams in which he kissed her “sweet beautiful hands”. The letters reflected both a crush on Vicky and a plea to be accepted and loved by a mother still repulsed by his deformity. But Vicky was frustrated by these strange letters. Her rejection hit Wilhelm hard.
At age 18, free from the direct control of his parents, Wilhelm joined the army. There he gained the approval he had always sought: as the future leader he was celebrated and he enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow officers. This new-found sense of himself was strengthened when he studied at the University of Bonn and joined a fraternity that believed in the traditions of the Prussian military.
By the time he left Bonn Wilhelm had rejected his parent’s liberal aspirations and had fully embraced a rigid, Prussian military world view. At age 29 he became German Kaiser and King of Prussia. Twenty-six years later Kaiser Wilhelm would lead the world into a global war.
The production of Turning Point: Kaiser Wilhelm included shooting on location in Germany, evocative dramatizations and extensive archive material as well as interviews with leading experts Prof John Röhl (University of Sussex, UK), Prof Frank Lorenz Müller (University of St Andrews, USA) and Dr Andrew Webster (Murdoch University, Australia).
ROHL: “Twice a week they slaughter a wild hare and slit it open and put the warm flesh onto the left arm [of Wilhelm] in the hope that the vitality of this wild animal would transfer itself into the left arm.”