William was early alienated from his liberal-minded parents by his belief in the divine nature of kingship, his love of military display, and his impulsiveness. Much has been made of the fact that he had a withered left arm, in order to explain these traits as a compensation for his physical weakness. After studying at the Univ. of Bonn, he entered the army and in 1881 married Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein.
As emperor, William endeavored to maintain and if possible extend the royal prerogative in order to make Germany a major naval, colonial, and commercial power. Friction soon developed between him and Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor who had controlled German affairs for nearly 30 years, and Bismarck was forced to resign in 1890. Succeeding chancellors (Leo von Caprivi, Prince Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, Prince von Bülow, and Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg) were much less influential, and William was in general the dominating force in his own government. In domestic affairs he extended social reform, although he detested the socialists.
The conduct of foreign affairs was William's major interest, but he had no basic policy and was greatly influenced by his ministers. The reinsurance treaty with Russia, which had been a chief feature of Bismarck's system of alliance, was not renewed in 1890. Although sincerely desirous of maintaining friendly relations with Great Britain, William by his naval program and his colonial and commercial aspirations precluded an alliance between the two countries and drove England into the Entente Cordiale with France (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente).
The German support of Russia in East Asia and the friendly relations between William and Czar Nicholas II of Russia (as revealed in the "Willy-Nicky" correspondence) were counteracted by the encouragement William gave to Austria in its Balkan policy. The already strained relations with France were further embittered by German interference in French colonial affairs in Africa, especially in Morocco. Alarmed at the growing isolation of Germany, William strengthened the Triple Alliance with Austria and Italy and secured Turkish adherence.
The emperor was fond of travel, but his state visits frequently engendered ill feeling, as in the Moroccan crisis of 1905. His combined eloquence and impetuousness led him to speak or act unadvisedly on many occasions. Among the more famous incidents was his dispatch of a telegram of encouragement to President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal after the Boers had repulsed a British raid on the Transvaal (Dec., 1895; see Jameson, Sir Leander Starr). The message aroused British public opinion against Germany and the emperor.
Again in 1908, in the Daily Telegraph affair, William's indiscretion caused a public furor in Great Britain and in Germany. In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph, William revealed that German naval expansion was not directed at Great Britain but at Japan. He also stated that German public opinion was anti-British but that he did not share this sentiment. The affair produced a widespread demand for a check on the emperor's personal rule.
After the outbreak of World War I William's power declined. From 1917 the military leaders Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg were the virtual dictators of Germany. The failure of the great German drive of 1918 was a prelude to the collapse of the Hohenzollern dynasty. The last chancellor of the German Empire, Maximilian, prince of Baden, negotiated for an armistice, but clamor for the emperor's abdication began to be heard in Germany, especially after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made it a prerequisite of peace negotiations. Naval mutiny and civilian revolt were followed by republican proclamations in leading German cities.
On Nov. 9, 1918, Prince Max, without William's consent, announced the emperor's abdication. William fled to Holland and two weeks later formally abdicated in his own name and that of his family. Although the Treaty of Versailles provided that William be tried for promoting the war, the Dutch government refused to extradite him, and he remained in retirement at Doorn. There, after the death of Augusta Victoria, he married the widowed Princess Hermine of Schönaich-Carolath (1922).
See his memoirs (tr. 1922); My Early Life (tr. 1926); J. von Kürenberg, The Kaiser (tr. 1954); T. Aronson, The Kaisers (1971); M. Balfour, The Kaiser and His Times (1972); V. R. Berghahn, Imperial Germany, 1871-1914 (1995).
His first act as king was to put down the effort of his uncle, Odo of Bayeux, to seat William I's eldest son, Robert II, duke of Normandy, on the English throne. Having quelled the rebellion in England, William invaded (1090) Normandy, secured a portion of Robert's lands, and then agreed to help his brother regain lands, most notably Maine, that Robert had previously lost. After his return to England, William forced Malcolm III of Scotland to do him homage (1091) and seized (1092) the city of Carlisle from the Scots. Having quarreled with Robert over their agreement of 1091, William again invaded Normandy in 1094 and bribed Philip I of France to withdraw his support from Robert.
In 1095 he suppressed an English rebellion led by the earl of Northumberland and made an unsuccessful expedition against the Welsh. A second Welsh campaign in 1097 was also ineffective, but in that year William gained control of the Scottish throne by sanctioning the successful expedition of Edgar Atheling to dethrone Malcolm III's son Donald Bane. In the meantime Robert, who needed money to go on the First Crusade, had pledged (1096) his duchy to William in return for the sum of 10,000 marks. From 1097 to 1099 William was engaged primarily in campaigns in France, securing and holding northern Maine but failing in his attempt to seize the French Vexin. At the time of his death he was planning to occupy Aquitaine.
William ruled England with a strong hand and aroused the hatred particularly of the church, for which he had utter contempt. He extorted large sums of money from the church by the sale of church appointments and by leaving sees and abbeys vacant so that their revenues would come to him. Although responsible for the appointment (1093) of Saint Anselm as archbishop of Canterbury, he quarreled with the archbishop over the question of investiture and finally drove him into exile in 1097. William was killed by an arrow while on a hunting party, and there is some evidence to suggest that his death was not an accident. The English throne was immediately seized by his younger brother, Henry I.
See E. A. Freeman, The Reign of William Rufus (1882, repr. 1970); A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (2d ed. 1955); D. W. Grinnell-Milne, The Killing of William Rufus (1968).