Eighty years ago today Kaiser Wilhelm II died in exile at Doorn in the Netherlands.
The reality was different. Although as Kaiser he had greater freedom to appoint the Chancellor than his British relatives might to appoint a Prime Minister both the Reich and Prussia were constitutional monarchies. He might have fancied at times being an absolute monarch but was not. The absolutism in First World War Germany came from the army in a nation at war, not the ever more symbolic monarch. The final split with Bismarck came over the niceties of such matters in 1890. In the last months of the War the principle of accepting as Chancellor the leader of the majority in the Reichstag was conceded and could have led to evolution on lines similar to Britain and the Scandinavian monarchies ( where these issues were also being thrashed out in the early twentieth century ). After the unfortunate episode of the Daily Telegraph interview in 1908 the Kaiser stood back from internal political matters, and his part in the diplomatic events of the July crisis of 1914 surely suggests a lack of engagement, having reassured his nation’s principal ally of formal support ( reasonable enough surely ) he went off on holiday. He returned when it became clear events had moved shockingly out of anyone’s control. During the War his role was that of a morale boosting monarch distributing medals, the Supreme War Lord who was told little about the conduct of the war, but whose photographs could be used by friend and foe alike.
In the world into which he was born in 1859 the structures of government of the Great Powers were still small scale and monarchs by personal contact could make a significant difference. Just at that time in the 1860s things began to change - government expanded, popular political pressures began to be articulated through representative institutions and to have greater impact, and after 1871 the buffer regions of Europe were largely gone - nation state faced nation state across clear and defined, if not hard, frontiers. Industry and commerce had the means to provide the states with the means for overseas expansion and for warfare as never before. In this situation, changing behind the scenes, monarchs and the old order, and popular perception appear to have not realised how much had changed and how quickly. In the 1880s exchanges of letters between Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm I could enable the diplomatic process and facilitate peace; in 1914 similar messages between King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II could do little. Both bewailed the fact of what was happening but the unstoppable juggernaut of destruction had been unleashed.
The personality of the Kaiser and the effects upon it of his stunted left arm and other health issues figure in all biographies of him. Less credit is given to him for overcoming such handicaps as well as he did as a public figure. He was undoubtedly a complex man but much of that was part of his make-up as a man born into particular circumstances when he was. His attitudes in part were those of his milieu, nothing more, nothing less. His far from easy relationship with his mother has so often been presented to the English speaking world with his mother as the long suffering victim. Reading more one feels that may indeed how she saw herself, and one is grateful not to have had her as a parent. The intelligence of her father and the emotion of her mother without both their common sense was a fairly fateful inheritance, combined quite probably with porphyria, and a rather too biddable husband in the future Kaiser Freiderich III made for stresses in growing up. One senses young Wilhelm rushed into marriage with Augusta Victoria just to get away from home. His difficult relationship with his mother, shaped in part by her inability to be other than English in Germany and vice versa as her brother King Edward VII observed certainly made for family tension with her eldest son. His reactions in the 1880s did not lead directly to the First World War.
For all the stories of a rather, or very, brash manner the memoirs of his cousins and others, as well as there who met him in later life, suggest a man of humour and not a monster. Many families have at least one relative who has the knack of making their presence felt and being just a bit too much. Wilhelm had all that as a young man, but it should not damn him.
From his parents and his very mid- nineteenth century education to create a future monarch he had many cultured interests and was clearly intelligent, if perhaps possibly showing something of Aspergerism.
His tendency to think before he spoke and to be carried away by his ideas is a recurring theme. As Emperor the Palace press officers used to persuade newspaper reporters to tone down the more lurid phrases when they were able. He may have been prolix and not always thought what he was saying or writing, but words are just that. It might on occasion have amused his people who well into the War remained attached to him and the carefull presented image of a close Imperial Family.
One of the causes of his breach with Bismarck - not the first or last political leader to fail to see the time had come to retire - was over the Chancellor’s attitude to workers’ rights. The young Kaiser’s speech setting out a vision of national cohesion in such matters was an influence on Pope Leo XIII in drawing up Rerum Novum.
I have read the first of the three volumes of John Röhl’s monumental biography of the Kaiser. The second and third await. As a reviewer said what other subject of a biography has forty pages devoted to their birth.... It is a tremendous achievement yet one so often feels the author is always seeking to portray the Emperor as the cause of all the woes of his people and nation. Bad behaviour as a child does not, and should not be presented as, marking a man for life. Thus in other works Professor Röhl cites anti-Semitic passages from the Kaiser. They are probably no different from many of his contemporaries, if not normal today. Yet as a pupil at the Gymnasium in Kassel the young Prince’s great school friend was a Jewish boy ( who was in turn an ancestor of the historian Sir Geoffrey Elton ), he had Jewish friends in the yachting world of the pre-1914 Kiel regattas, and for all his intemperate remarks about some Jews at least in the 1920s was appalled in 1938 by Kristellnacht as a blot on Germany.
Röhl is a marvellous resource - no detail missed - but too often it is a prosecutor’s charge sheet. Standard length biographies by Sir Christopher Clark Kaiser Wilhelm II : A Life in Power - which is good on the constitutional position of the Emperors and on the Wilhelminne concept of monarchy - and Giles MacDonagh The Last Kaiser are well researched and balanced in their assessment. There is also, though I have not yet read it myself, Christina Croft’s The Innocence of Kaiser Wilhelm II which has received positive reviews and seeks to rehabilitate the Emperor’s reputation.
A strange, complex and fascinating man - worth exploring as a major historical figure, and as a human story of a fallible but far from evil man struggling to do what he thought was his duty and calling.