The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was launched in 1897 as the largest liner afloat. She was Germany's first entry into the competitive Atlantic ocean liner trade and was the ship to start the four funnel ship design that proved so popular for the next decade. In addition, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse raised the bar on transport across the ocean, including luxury staterooms in 1st class with until then unparalleled comfort.

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was built to capture the prized Blue Riband and demonstrate Germany's rising sea power. On her first western and eastern crossings she shattered the existing records, greatly humbling Great Britain until the debut of the Lusitania.

While the vessel proved to be very popular in her early years, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse aged rapidly as newer, faster, more luxurious vessels appeared, diminishing her star. In 1913 Norddeutscher Lloyd rebuilt the ship to carry only 3rd class passengers in a bid to capture a greater share of the ever growing immigrant trade.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was requisitioned by the Germany government and quickly converted into an armed merchant cruiser. On her first cruise she sank three merchant vessels before scuttling herself off the coast of Western Africa after a short battle with the British cruiser H.M.S. Highflyer.