Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the death in exile at Doorn of Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia.

Anyone who reads about the personalities of his era cannot but be intrigued by him. Vilified and caricatured as he was - and his speeches and distinctive appearance were a gift to opponants - it is clear with hindsight that he was a much more complex and interesting figure than he once appeared. At times bombastic and vainglorious, at others insightful and far-sighted, a man who could be both bullying and selfless, he still arouses strong feelings. He may no longer be the hate figure he became in Britain  during the First World War, but one Bavarian friend was very keen to lay the blame for what happened on the Kaiser himself. Was that, I wondered, because my friend was proud of being Bavarian, and Wilhelm II incarnated  Prussia? I did n't ask, but I suspected it. Clearly for many Germans in 1918 Wilhelm and his Empire along with their other Kings, Grand Dukes and Dukes were easily made into scapegoats. The trouble, as we now know, was not with the old order, but with the fightening possibilities offered by the New Orders which succeeded it.

File:Kohner - Kaiser Wilhelm II.jpg


Wilhelm II 

by Max Koner 1890

This portrait , showing the young ruler at his most flamboyant, depicts him as King of Prussia rather than as German Emperor, with the Priussian crown as his side, and in the insignia of the Order of the Black Eagle 

The Kaiser in exile in 1933

Another German friend made the point that Kaiser Wilhelm's English ancestry meant that for some of his subjects he was not fully German, and it is clear that  his love-hate relationship with his mother and her country was a major factor in both his own life and in his actions as sovereign. 

Continuing interest in him by German monarchists is covered in this article about pilgrimages to his last resting place at Doorn

His life has something of the qualities of classical tragedy - birth and rank, genuine gifts, the effect of historical cirumstance, and a character full of conflicting impulses, gave him a central role in the great drama that erupted in the Great War. His own part in that is receiving significant new attention from historians.

My own sense is that despite his high profile actions and ambitions he did not realise the extent to which the modern state as it had come to function had taken on a life of its own which was increasingly resistant to interventions by the head of state or other figures. Like his fellow monarchs in 1914 he found things, as he himself commented in later years, got away from him. The concert of Europe no longer worked as a family reunion to sort out local difficulties. Nationalisms of all varieties were calling the new and strident tune. The Kaiser and his fellow rulers were drawn into that - how could they not be - but the pressures were too often to drag them down. 

The anniversary has prompted me to start reading Giles MacDonagh's biography of the Emperor  The Last Kaiser: William the Impetuous, which was published in 2000. From an initial skimming and what I have read it appears a well-balanced and humane biography, well researched and eminently readable. I will comment further when I have finished reading it. I also have some links to archive film of his life which I will publish.

1 comment:

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