Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Kaiser Willie For Our Times

I've been interested, the last decade or so, in learning about World War I and the forces that caused that war.  In reading about the horrible record of the military leadership of that war, I found that most all of what I read about the Western front, having been written in English, tended to be about commanders on our side, like Generals French and Haig, and their French equivalents.  It has to make you wonder how the Germans could not have totally destroyed the Allied troops, unless the Germans were just as incompetent.  So, it interested me to come on a book entitled The German High Command at War, by Robert B. Asprey.*  I don't want to discuss the basic content of this book here, but what I do want to deal with is the character of German Kaiser Wilhelm II, as revealed by the book's very colorful character sketch of him.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II was a very flawed figure, who ascended to the German throne in 1888, at the age of 29.  He was, upon becoming Emperor, the most powerful ruler in the world, as a result of the German constitution written by Otto von Bismarck, which gave him almost unlimited power.  His misuse of that power, his out of control behavior and his disregard for his duties made him, I think it is safe to say, the single most important figure in precipitating the European slide into chaos which culminated in by far the most horrific war the world had ever known up to that point.  I found so much of what Mr. Asprey had to say of such interest that I am going to bend the rules of fair quotation here, and reproduce a fair amount of it.  There is no electronic version of this book, so I had to transcribe it by hand; I hope some of you will find it worth your time to read it, as I believe it has a good deal of current relevance.


"It was all glitter, a constant parade, an unending ego trip.  Bismarck once remarked that Wilhelm would like to have a birthday every day.  Irrereverant Viennese joked that "Wilhelm insisted on being the stag at every hunt, the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.  An elderly friend bluntly told him: "Your Majesty finds life impossible unless Prussia applauds you daily, Germany weekly and Europe once a fortnight.  He was a showoff, a spoiled dilettante who played at life instead of trying to govern an empire that he hadn't worked to deserve.

"...He would talk endlessly and often superficially on any subject. With intimates he would brook no argument.  Those who acted against his will "betrayed him."...

Court cabals and intrigues flourished...He was extremely rude to his diplomats...He addressed his ministers of war and the chief of the military cabinet as "you old asses."  He told a group of admirals, "You know absolutely nothing.  Only I know anything, only I decide."

Sounding familiar?  Of course, the Germans were sort of stuck with Kaiser Willie; they didn't go out of their way to make him their leader. Well, on with Mr. Asprey's comments:

"At a time when England was looking for alliance with Germany, Wilhelm went out of his way to worsen relations...

The new century opened with Wilhelm's disastrous appointment of Prince Bernhard von Bulow as chancellor.  Bulow was a sycophant, an arch conservative...preferring to bask in power while carrying out the Kaiser's mandate to bring Germany to Great Power status.  He might have succeeded had he formed the alliance tentatively offered by Great Britain.  Instead he listened to the pernicious advice of Baron Holstein and refused to pursue the matter.  Subsequent saber-rattling diplomacy further isolated Germany from France, Russia, and Britain, a process encouraged by the Kaiser's jingoistic phrases...

Despite pretensions to be "the people's ruler," Wilhelm held many of his subjects in contempt and saw as little of them as possible...

A good many responsible people, Germans and foreigners, throughout the 1890's had commented on Wilhelm's refusal to face reality, his unwillingness to be alone, his extreme Casarwahnsinn** with its delusions of either persecution or grandeur, his nervousness and instability, inability to concentrate, constant talking, incessant traveling, charm on the one hand, rudeness, vulgarity and even cruelty on the other, his military posturing...his utter conceit: "a postcard picture of the Kaiser, signed by his own hand, was, in his own estimation, one of the most priceless gifts he could bestow."

As early as 1888 Britain's prime minister, lord Salisbury, believed that Wilhelm was "Perhaps not in full possession of his senses." Bismarck held that "the Emperor is like a balloon, if one didn't hold him fast on a string, he would go no one knows whither." In 1896, his war minister believed that he was "not quite sane," as did some princes of the empire and the Austro-Hungarian military attache.  Philipp Eulenburg noted in 1897 that the "entire Foreign Office now regarded the monarch as insane."  Three years later he wrote to a friend of another furious outburst that deeply concerned him because of its violence and fierceness.  The Kaiser's physician was at a loss, seeing it as a sort of temporary nervous breakdown.  Eulenburg felt that he was sitting "on a powder keg."

...He enjoyed hurting people with his exceptionally strong handshake and he punctuated his incessant conversation by tapping the trapped auditor sharply in the ribs...

His blustering performances during the Annexation Crisis and the Moroccan crisis earned him international opprobrium.  Britain's prime minister, Herbert Asquith, noted in 1911:  "One is almost tempted to discern in some of the things he said...the workings of a disordered brain."  The foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, believed that he was "not quite sane, and very superficial."  

The cost of inaction, multiplied by about four million times

As powerful as Wilhelm was during his reign, he is now remembered as a figure both malignant and ludicrous.  No one would defend him after the fact, but no one was willing to stop him.  I hope people will think about this because I cannot help but feel that the above description is going to be tragically familiar to anyone watching what is going on in our country today, and I want people to realize the consequences of letting it continue unchecked.  I can hardly find a situation that could more frighteningly exemplify the truth of the old canard that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.  So, here we go again, if people are not prepared to put a stop to it.

*The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I, Robert B. Asprey, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1991

**A term coined in 1894 making an analogy between the Kaiser and Caligula.


Infidel753 said...

Fascinating stuff. I didn't know Britain sought an alliance with Germany at that time. History would certainly have followed a very different path if such an alliance had come into being.

The parallels with Trump are obvious, except insofar as Wilhelm II, being younger, had somewhat more of an excuse for his immaturity.

Trump, at least, doesn't have unlimited power -- except over nuclear weapons, unfortunately.

Green Eagle said...

Of course, because the British, German and Russian royal families were so closely related, there was always talk of them cutting deals between themselves. Willie spent parts of his childhood in England, and was, at one point, very close to the British Royals. As for power, yes, Willie had more absolute power within his own country, but that country was not as dominant militarily or politically as the US is today, so I think it sort of balances out.

There are some fascinating things to be learned from history, I guess, and one of them is the danger that the world is in when a childish, narcissistic, basically ignorant person is allowed to run a major world power. Trump, like Willie, is, on some level, hungering for war, and I am afraid that the corruption of his own party is preventing them from stopping him.

It's going to be a sad couple of years facing us.

ez said...

The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Act II, scene i, the character of Antonio utters the phrase “what's past is prologue”

Yogi Berra: "It's déjà vu all over again."

As an American living in the UK the locals think I must have the inside knowledge to be able to explain what is going on 3,500 miles away. The best I can do is say America has gone crazy.

In reply America sez, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Anonymous said...

"It has to make you wonder how the Germans could not have totally destroyed the Allied troops, unless the Germans were just as incompetent."

Your reference to the Western Front indicates the existence of another front: in this case, the Eastern Front. (There was no such Western Front in the Franco-Prussian War, for example.)

Germany was fighting a two-front war between 1914 and 1917. While England and France were able to bring most of their forces to the Western Front, Germany could not act likewise, for it had to maintain lines against the Russian Empire. After the Russian collapse in 1917, a depleted Germany could finally fight a one-front war, but the Allies had a new member with a new army in the United States, which more than matched the German additions in the west.