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.