History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Vorwärts

The Vanity of Black Jack Pershing


Preceding article: Wilson and the Fourteen Points


YouTube Documentary Video

Video – Dramatization [by Innis Lake Entertainment]


American troops attacking on the order of John J. Pershing

The German army was still slowing down Allied progress in late October, but, clearly, their stand was the next-to-last act of the drama: something had to give. In the event, it was the Kaiser‘s favourite toy, the High Seas Fleet, the navy.

With the German empire in its death throes, two groups in the German navy, first the admirals, then the seamen, took matters into their own hands. The submarine weapon had been sheathed but the High Seas Fleet remained a powerful force. Enraged by the U-boat decision, Scheer and the Naval Staff decided to use the surface ships in one last offensive thrust, a bold variation on earlier unsuccessful attempts to lure the Grand Fleet over a U-boat ambush. The difference this time was that the Germans intended to fight a battle whether or not the U-boats had managed to reduce the Grand Fleet’s numerical superiority. Further, the German admirals did not care whether the High Seas Fleet won or lost; they cared only that it inflict heavy damage on the Grand Fleet. Hipper agreed with Scheer that “an honourable battle by the fleet – even if it should be a fight to the death – will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.” Besides preserving honour, a battle that inflicted severe damage on the Grand Fleet might also influence the peace negotiations in Germany’s favour. (42)

Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, P. 773

Kept secret from the German government, the scheme devised to bring everything that floated to bear against the Royal Navy: eighteen Dreadnought-type battleships, five battlecruisers, twelve light cruisers and seventy-two destroyers. The tactical plan was to tempt the Grand Fleet to pursue the High Seas Fleet over a barricade of mines and U-boats, which would reduce the British numerical superiority enough to allow the Germans to win the day or die in glory. To entice the British admiralty’s attention, Hipper, promoted to Fleet Admiral, envisaged raids on British ports and bombardments of coastal cities. A special group of cruisers and destroyers was to rattle the British cage by sailing into the Thames estuary and attacking the local shipping. When the Grand Fleet descended to end the nuisance, the Germans would be ready. Scheer, now naval C-in-C, and Hipper both hoped that “a tactical success might reverse the military position and avert surrender.” (43)

Battle Plan for October 31

This was either remarkable optimism or complete delusion. Scheer approved Hipper’s plan on October 27, and twenty-two U-boats headed out to set a trap. The rest of the fleet was called on to assemble in Jade Bay, where their unexpected presence caused ado galore. Instances of desertion had already occurred at Cuxhaven, and continued among the crews of the battleships that arrived in the bay during October 29. The concentration of all the big ships in one port could not mean anything but an operation being laid on, and the scuttlebutt soon confirmed that the next morning would bring the order to weigh anchor. No sailor had doubts as to for what purpose. The crews of the battleships “König“, “Kronprinz Wilhelm“, “Markgraf“, “Kaiserin“, “Thüringen” and “Helgoland” hoisted red flags and thus declared their insurrection; “on all these ships, seamen had no interest in ‘an honourable death for the glory of the fleet’; they wanted surrender, discharge and permission to go home.” (44)

The SMS Thüringen was one of the ships to lead the revolution …

Around 10 pm on October 29, Hipper found most of his fleet inoperative, and when, on the next morning, the mutiny spread to the battleships “Friedrich der Grosse” and “König Albert“, the sortie had to be aborted. To quench further insubordination, Hipper ordered the three battleship squadrons to separate and return to their home ports of Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Kiel. “Thüringen” and “Helgoland”, however, did not move an inch, and Hipper called on a battalion of loyal marine infantry to have their crews arrested, shackled and imprisoned. (45)

Soldier’s Council of the “Prinzregent Luitpold”.

Hipper’s attempts at enforcing discipline only stoked the fire, and by dividing the battleship squadrons to three harbours he only succeeded in spreading disobedience further. When the 3rd Squadron arrived at Kiel on November 1, carrying chained seamen by the hundreds, it was greeted by four thousand rebellious mariners and dock hands that had helped themselves to arms by breaking into the well-stocked arsenals and demanded the captives’ release. The next day saw the establishment of provisional sailors’ and workers’ councils, a call for a general strike by the unions, and the taking over of port and town by November 4. A posse of mutineers set out to arrest the commanding admiral, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, Wilhelm’s brother, who…

Sailors demonstrate in Kiel

was forced to flee for his life, hiding behind a set of false whiskers and the red flag flying on his car. Even so, the car was shot at several times, the driver was seriously wounded, and the Prince was forced to take the wheel himself in a mad dash for the Danish frontier at Flensburg. (46)

Soon the mutiny fostered open calls for revolution, and as coastal vessels spread the message to the smaller port towns, the railways spread the germs of revolt over the country. Committees of revolting sailors and soldiers brought their demands to the burghers of any town they entered: an immediate armistice, the abdication of the Kaiser and the formation of a new, democratic and republican government. Still, the news was sketchy in many places, and in an attempt to find out exactly had happened in Kiel, Chancellor Prince von Baden sent an embassy of two Reichstag deputies to the town: his friend Conrad Haußmann and the former butcher and journalist Gustav Noske, a representative of the Social Democrats. When the emissaries arrived at the town’s railway station, they were greeted by a crowd whose apparent revolutionary resilience convinced Noske to hold an improvised speech in which he essentially promised the listeners that their demands were soon to be met. The same evening he was able to inform Berlin about the details of the revolt, adding that the crowd had elected him to the post of revolutionary governor of Schleswig-Holstein. (47)

The Revolution spread like a wildfire …

In the meantime, suffering on the Western Front was much increased by the return of the so-called Spanish Influenza, which, despite the name, seems to have originated at Fort Riley, Kansas. (48) [FN 1] There had been an early outbreak of influenza in the summer, subtracting about 400,000 soldiers from the already weakened German lines and perhaps a comparable number from the Allied trenches, but the second outbreak proved both more contagious and lethal. Arriving American troop ships brought the epidemic to the great debarkation ports; the soldiers infected the French, who in turn infected the British, and both their POW’s, in turn, infected the Germans.

Fort Riley soldiers at Camp Funston

[FN 1] The Influenza Epidemic of 1918/19 undoubtedly deserves its own blog entry. Please refer to the Wikipedia article in this context.

Oddly, the disease struck hardest at the fittest, particularly young men in their prime. Troopships laden with men packed closely together became floating pest holes. An American convoy arriving at Brest on October 8 in the midst of the Meuse-Argonne campaign had 4,000 men disabled by the flu, with 200 already buried at sea. Two hundred of the sick carried off the “Leviathan” died within days. …

The epidemic posed a dilemma for President Wilson. Since military camps had become hothouses for spreading the infection, orders for 142,000 men scheduled to report for induction late in September were cancelled. Should he, Wilson wondered, also cancel the embarkation of troopships? On October 8, he met with the army’s gruff chief of staff, General Peyton March, to ask his guidance. Both men accepted that to cram soldiers into the ships was to pass a death sentence on thousands of them. But Pershing was pleading desperately for replacements, especially since he had 150,000 men down with the flu. Just two days before Wilson and March met, Prince Max had made his appeal to the president to bring about peace. Wilson and March recognized that the surest guarantee of defeating the Germans was to continue the deliveries of Americans to France, now swelling to an average of 50,000 weekly. How might the Germans react if they learned that the pressure was off because the American manpower pipeline had shut down? March told Wilson, “Every such soldier who has died [from influenza] has just as surely played his part as his comrade who has died in France. The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause.” The troopships continued to sail. (49)

Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 304

On October 27, Prince Max signalled President Wilson that all his demands were to be met. Technically, it was of course not his decision but his cousin’s Wilhelm, but Max had, cautiously, preferred not to inform the Kaiser of the clause in Wilson’s demarche of October 23, which seemed to demand the abolishment of the monarchy. He would cross this particular bridge when he met it. When Turkey asked for an armistice on October 30 and Austria on November 4, Germany was alone in the war. The front still held, miraculously, but in the air hung the smell of revolution. On October 29, Wilhelm left Berlin for the Supreme Command Headquarter at Spa, in the questionable belief that his presence close to the front would improve the soldiers’ panache. But it was the absence, not the presence, of the Imperial person that set things in motion, which set free a sort of rebellious entelechy in the capital, causing the final, decisive, and irreparable dissipation of the Ancien Régime.

“Reds are streaming with every train from Hamburg to Berlin,” Count Harry Kessler, socialite, diplomat and Social Democrat supporter, recorded in his diary on 6 November. “An uprising is expected here tonight. This morning the Russian Embassy was raided like a disreputable pot-house and Joffe [the ambassador] with his staff, departed. That puts paid to the Bolshevik centre in Berlin. But perhaps we shall yet call these people back.” (50)

Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 28

By the first November week, the mutiny of the sailors had been followed by the insubordination of many garrisons, whose unwillingness to support the failing Prussian state eased the appearance of public uprisings. Local anarchists, Spartacists and Independent Social Democrats proposed various forms of revolution, and councils took over the administration of most big towns. In the first week of November, Red flags were carried through the streets of Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Duisburg, Frankfurt and München. But it was a curiously silent rebellion, the reports agree, that pervaded the streets; violence, nay, even overspirited discussion was strangely absent. That was to change soon enough. The Spartakusbund, German’s Bolsheviks in disguise, had quietly concentrated followers in the capital during the first week of November while their leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, prepared the German Revolution.

Karl Liebknecht (1871 – 1919), a co-founder of the Spartacist League, foments revolution in Berlin

Liebknecht’s Father Wilhelm had been a personal friend of Karl Marx and achieved socialist sainthood by becoming a co-founder of the SPD and editor of its newspaper, “Vorwärts” [‘Ahead’]. His son studied law and economy in Leipzig and Berlin before becoming, essentially, a lawyer for the socialist movement. He was elected to the Reichstag for the SPD in 1912 and was the sole member of the socialist camp to vote against war credits in August 1914. When it became clear that the rest of the party would at least temporarily support the government, and hence the war, Liebknecht began to seek sympathizers outside of the party.

For this objective he founded the “Spartakusbund“, the League of Spartacists, named, of course, for the Thracian slave Spartacus who had led the uprising against Rome in 72-70 BC. The “Spartakusbriefe” (‘Spartacus Letters’), the league’s anti-war newspapers, were banned soon enough, and its founder and editor found himself at the Russian front, where he refused to fight and was consequently assigned to a burial detail. Released from service for reasons of health, he went straight back to anti-war propaganda and headed the Socialist Peace Demonstration on May Day 1916 through the streets of Berlin. This time he was charged with high treason and sent to prison for four years, but the sentence was commuted under Prince von Baden’s amnesty for political prisoners of October 1918. As soon as he was back on the streets, he “resumed his leadership of the Spartacists, in partnership with the Polish activist, Rosa Luxemburg.” (51)

Rosa Luxemburg

Frau Luxemburg was an early apprentice in the business of insurrection; she had been active in the illegal socialist and anti-Czarist movements of pre-war Russia since she was a schoolgirl. (52) Timely escaping the attentions of the Okhrana, she wound up in Switzerland where an affluent lover allowed her to study at the University of Zürich and to subsidize the illegal socialist parties of Poland and Lithuania. She was perhaps the most extreme socialist outside of Russia in these years, advocating global and remorseless revolution. She became a German by marriage in 1903, joined the SPD, and began to throw her weight behind the radical wing. Eventually, she became known as the factotum of the world revolution and was regularly thrown in jail, rescued by her old Swiss flame, and jailed again. She joined Liebknecht immediately after her release by von Baden’s amnesty and began to organize the revolutionary bureaucracy of the Spartacists.

This poisonous pair, like Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, saw the moderate Socialists of the SPD as their principal enemies. “The party must be recaptured from below,” Luxemburg wrote, “by mass rebellion.” Their allies were the anti-war left-wingers who had split from the main SPD in 1917 and formed their own Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and who were only slightly less extreme than the Spartacists. The moderate Socialists responded by sneering at them in “Vorwärts”, contrasting the “pathological instability” of Spartacus with their own “clear-headed and sensible calm.” But while the moderate Socialists were maintaining their sensible calm, the Spartacists were meeting returning troop trains at the rail termini to beg for or buy rifles, pistols and machine guns. (53)

Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, p. 30

Meanwhile, Prince Max faced the problem of how to end the war and the monarchy without involuntary nurturing the revolution. He concentrated his final efforts on three decisive issues: the replacement of Ludendorff, the deputation of the executive power to a government able to guide the country peacefully through the many changes that were to follow and, a prerequisite for the latter, the abdication of his cousin Wilhelm. On November 9 he appointed General Wilhelm Groener, son of a NCO from Württemberg and a transportation and supply specialist, to Ludendorff’s former post of Chief of Staff and – quite unlawfully – transferred his own office and authority as chancellor of the Reich to the forty-seven-year-old former saddle maker and chairman of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. The remaining task was the most difficult. No civil, much less a government led by socialists, could exercise authority with the discredited emperor still in office.

At this point, Wilhelm was at Spa, the imperial head full of foolish fantasies of how, as soon as an armistice was signed, he would lead his loyal armies back to Germany and restore order. What Prince Max back in Berlin recognized was that, far from being a solution, Wilhelm’s return was the problem. In Metz, the Allies’ next target, 10,000 German soldiers had reportedly mutinied, formed a Soldier’s Council, and taken over the city. Similar overthrows of the old order were erupting all over Germany. … Peace seekers inside Germany accepted that the only act that would prevent the masses from swinging over to the radicals was the removal of the country’s discredited monarch. (54)

Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, p. 315-16

In the last ten days since his arrival at Spa, Wilhelm had successfully managed to avoid the intrusions of reality and maintained that abdication was out of the question. Not quite used to being contradicted, the Kaiser refused to listen to the explanations of Prince Max’s messenger Drews, Prussian Minister of the Interior. He had “no intention of quitting the throne because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workmen. Tell that to your masters in Berlin.” (55)

Baden recognized that he had to talk to his cousin in person. On the evening of November 8, he called Wilhelm on the telephone and tried to cut through the Kaiser’s obstinacy by making clear that, in lieu of Wilhelm’s abdication, civil war was to ravage the country. The emperor did not believe a word. It was inconceivable, he riposted, that the army would refuse to follow him. In addition, since it was Prince Max who had asked Wilson for an armistice, not Wilhelm himself, he felt quite unconcerned. “You sent out the armistice offer,” he said, “you will also have to accept the conditions.” (56) On the next morning, November 9, the leadership of the army, Hindenburg and Groener, called at the Hotel Britannique in Spa to pay their sovereign a final, necessary visit.

In Spa, on 9 November, the Emperor met the leaders of his army, the institution through which the Hohenzollern dynasty had risen to power, and to which it had always looked to sustain its dignity and authority. Wilhelm II still believed that, whatever disloyalties were being transacted by civilian politicians in Berlin, whatever affronts to order disturbed the streets, his subjects in field-grey remained true to their oath of military obedience. Even on 9 November, he continued to delude himself that the army could be used against the people and the royal house preserved by turning German against German.

His generals knew otherwise. Hindenburg, the wooden titan, heard him out in silence. Groener, the workaday railway transport officer, son of a sergeant, who had replaced Ludendorff, found the sense to speak. He knew, from soundings taken among fifty regimental commanders, that the soldiers now wanted “only one thing – an armistice at the earliest possible moment.” The price of that, to the House of Hohenzollern, was the Kaiser’s abdication. The Kaiser heard him with continuing incredulity. What about, he asked, the Oath of Allegiance, on the regimental colours, which bound every German soldier to die rather than disobey? Groener uttered the unutterable. “Today,” he said, “the Oath of Allegiance is only a few meaningless words.” (57)

In the chancellery in Berlin, unable to follow events in distant Spa, von Baden consulted Ebert on the situation on the streets. Ebert warned that unless the abdication could be effected with speed, a coup d ‘état by Spartacists and USPD became more likely every hour. Since Prince Max was aware that the monarchy was finished willy-nilly, he dictated, in antecedence of actuality, to an employee of the Wolff Telegraph Office in Berlin a message stating that “The Kaiser and King has resolved to renounce the throne.” (58)

Fireworks of the High Seas Fleet on account of the Kaiser’s Abdication
“The Kaiser has renounced the Throne” -afternoon extra by the SPD paper “Vorwärts” on November 9, 1918

When the sensational cable was brought to the attention of the party in Spa within minutes, Wilhelm exploded in a diatribe against all traitors, civilian or military, but was forced to realize that the game was up. At 3:30 pm, on Saturday, November 9, 1918, he relinquished the throne, and the Second Empire had come to its end, forty-seven years and ten months after its inception in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. On Hindenburg’s advice, Wilhelm left for exile in the early morning hours of November 10, to Castle Amerongen in the Netherlands, the seat of Count Godard Bentinck, who would be his host for the next twenty-three years. (59)

Wilhelm II crossing the Dutch frontier

Meanwhile, events in the capital precipitated head over heels. Philip Scheidemann, vice chairman of the SPD, had rushed from the chancellery to the Reichstag to inform his colleagues of Ebert’s appointment. Having a well-deserved lunch in the cafeteria, he was informed that Spartakus and USPD had summoned their followers to the Emperor’s town palace, ostensibly for the proclamation of the revolution and the launch of the German Socialist Soviet Republic. Speed was of the essence.

Scheidemann proclaiming the German Republic

Scheidemann stormed to the terrace outside the Reichstag library where he was cheered by a crowd vacillating between hope and apprehension. Improvising, Scheidemann informed the people about the Ebert appointment and the creation of a new, republican and democratic government, and ended his brief address with the words: “The rotten old monarchy has collapsed. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!” (60) Meanwhile, Spartacist delegations had appeared in factories, barracks and caserns and mobilized a crowd of thousands of supporters, who were marched to meet at the Royal Palace. Liebknecht greeted the revolutionary assembly from the balcony of the building, whence formerly the Kaiser had addressed his subjects:

Comrades!” he cried. “The red flag flies over Berlin! The proletariat is marching. The reign of capitalism which has turned Europe into a graveyard is over. We must summon our strength to build a new government of workers and peasants, to create a new order of peace and happiness and freedom not merely for our brothers in Germany but for the whole world. Whoever is resolved not to cease from the fight until the Free Socialist Republic and the world revolution shall be realized, let him raise his hand and swear!” The crowd roared back “We swear!” But Liebknecht was two hours too late. (61)

Ebert had acted quickly and already persuaded the USPD, Liebknecht’s sole possible supporters, to enter into a coalition with the SPD by offering the smaller party an equal share, three of six posts, in the provisional government. The new executive power was named Council of People’s Commissars and was expected to share the administration with the workers’ and soldiers’ councils of the capital until a national assembly could enact a constitution and subsequently install a legitimate government. Ebert’s cautious manoeuvring also persuaded the liberal and Catholic interests in the capital and much of the country to support the formerly dreaded SPD as a mainstay of the new republic, and thus the government had at least the legitimacy of the popular backing.

That was, if the revolution could be kept at bay. This indeed seemed to be the case: except for a few skirmishes on Saturday evening and Sunday, November 10, Berlin remained quiet, and, the issue of a German republic now advanced from the realm of possibility to actuality, the eyes of the nation returned to the Western Front. The war was still going on, and the Allied Supreme Command had already scheduled the next offensive, against Metz, for November 14, and further attacks were planned far into 1915.

Pershing, now commanding close to two million doughboys, seemed to long for an augmentation of his military prestige by the conquest of Sedan, which was by far the most attractive target on the south-eastern part of the front. It was the town where the Prussian army had beaten the French in 1870 and taken Napoleon III and 100,000 poilus prisoners-of-war.

Mathias Erzberger

Meanwhile, Prince Max had dispatched a delegation for the negotiation of the armistice to the French trenches near Haudroy on November 7. The party was headed by Matthias Erzberger, chairman of the German Catholic Centre Party, which supported von Baden’s informal government. He was a known pacifist and the sole well-known face in the German deputation which, except for him, consisted of mid-level functionaries of the Foreign Service, Army and Navy. (62) The embassy was taken, by train, to a railway coach in the Forest of Compiègne, sixty-five kilometres north-east of Paris, and the expected gruff treatment delivered by Foch and General Weygand. The armistice conditions were laid out as follows:

All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany, must be evacuated within fourteen days; the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometres deep; German forces must be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania and Turkey; Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. She was to be stripped of heavy armament, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 aeroplanes.

The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though their people already faced famine, the Allies intended to paralyse the country’s transportation by continuing the naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. Weygand droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded she pay reparations for all damage caused. (63)

The French delegation at Compiégne

The German delegation was given a seventy-two hours deadline and an opportunity to convey the Allied demands by radio to Berlin. Erzberger realized that the conditions imposed were far too acrimonious to be entrusted to the radio, which might be monitored, and only informed Prince Max that a courier was on the way. Then he asked for a preliminary suspension of combat until a reply was received, pointing out that four thousand lives or more a day could thus be saved. Foch refused, as a favour to Pershing, who, furious that his grand design of conquering Germany was being foiled, insisted on fighting to the last minute; to the greater glory of the American Expeditionary Forces and his own command.

The Erzberger mission overnighted in the Forest of Compiègne near Foch’s railway coach, drafting letters of protest they hoped might have a moderating influence on the Allied conditions. At 8 pm on November 10, they received a French report of an intercepted message from Berlin which confirmed Erzberger’s plenipotentiary powers and authorized him to sign the instrument of truce.

Early French Plan for the partitioning of the Continent

A second message was received, from Hindenburg, verifying the authenticity of the first signal and instructing Erzberger to try to have the naval blockade lifted, for the sake of the starving women and children. At 2 am the next morning, November 11, the German deputation was led back to the railway car for a second round of discussions.

Foch, however, remained intransigent, and the sole moderation of terms Erzberger achieved was that the Allies “would contemplate the provisioning of Germany during the Armistice as shall be found necessary.” (64) The cease-fire was signed just after 5 am, to take effect by 11:00 of the same day, six hours hence, and the meeting was adjourned. All that remained for the soldiers on both sides of the wire was to spend six more hours in their trenches and the slaughter would be over.

Matthias Erzberger at the armistice at Compiegne

That is, for everyone except the AEF, which was directed by Pershing to continue the attacks scheduled for the day without regard of the armistice taking effect at 11:00. Since Foch had informed all Allied commanders, including Pershing, in advance of the conditions of the truce, it was clear that whatever ground could be gained in a last-minute offensive would be ground the Germans were obliged to give up within two weeks anyway.

Pershing did inform his regimental and division commanders that a ceasefire was to take effect on 11:00, but directed his chief of staff that, between 5:00 and 11:00, the AEF was “to take every advantage of the situation.” (65) Nine out of sixteen U.S. division commanders on the Western Front interpreted the absence of specific orders as an incentive to launch the scheduled attacks; seven refrained from further jeopardizing their men lives and limbs.

Thus, nine U.S. divisions attacked the enemy on the morning of November 11, and since the Germans were forced to defend themselves whether they wanted or not, almost 11,000 casualties were unnecessarily added to the total of the war’s losses. With more than 2700 men dead at the end of these few hours, the last day exceeded the average daily toll of 2,000 dead by far.

Putting these losses into perspective, in the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were reported at 10,000 for all sides. Thus, the total Armistice Day casualties were nearly 10 per cent higher than those on D-Day. There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided. (66)

At 11:00 on November 11, 1918, the guns ceased fire along the Western Front. But it was only in the aftermath of the great conflict that the members of the old Imperial houses realized for how long, in truth, their relevance had diminished without their notice. For it turned out that the power of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov dynasties had not ended in February 1917 or November 1918, but in the summer of 1914 or even earlier – in their driving the old continent into war and pestilence they had, alas, overlooked the shadows of nationalism and socialism lingering in the rear mirror, forces eager to embrace the Imperial inheritance.


[42] [43] [44] [45] Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Ballantine Books 2003, ISBN 0-345-40878-0, pp. 773, 775, 775, 776

[57] Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, p. 418-419

[48] [49] [54] [55] [56] [58] [59] [62] [63] [64] [65] [66] Persico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Random House 2004, ISBN 0-375-50825-2, pp. 303, 304-5, 315-16, 316, 317, 318, 318, 306, 307-8, 323, 325, 378-9

[46] [47] [50] [51] 52] [53] [60] [61] Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-06124-6, pp. 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 30, 32, 32

Next Article: Revolution in Bavaria and Germany

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Wilhelm II – The Easiness of Living

Wilhelmus Ornatus

Videos: I. Christina Croft on her book about Wilhelm II. Original Footage III. Reviewing Troops IV: Colourized Photographs


Wilhelm at age 21
Wilhelm at age 21

In the 1890s, the German Empire might have felt fortunate enough – industrialization progressed, early social legislation was initiated, and the Congress of Berlin in 1878 had settled the major political tensions in Europe. German was the language of science worldwide and after the victory of 1870/71 the empire was also militarily secure. But a huge problem appeared in her political and constitutional reality, i.e. her leadership.

The old-fashioned, almost medieval, monarch-centred constitutional provisions under which the Imperial government of the recently unified nation operated, lingered far behind the modernism of her economy. Friedrich Stampfer, chief editor of “Vorwärts”, the (still existing) national Social Democratic newspaper, famously opined that Wilhelmine Germany was the most successfully industrialized and most effectively administered, but, sadly, the worst governed nation in pre-war Europe. Max Weber thought the nation governed by a herd of lunatics. The fish stank from the head, and the head, of course, was the Kaiser himself, Wilhelm II, King in Prussia and German Emperor.

He had been born in Berlin on January 27, 1859, the first child of the crown prince and future emperor Friedrich III and the Princess Royal Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of England. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England, two of Queen Victoria’s other grandchildren, were his cousins, and he was related by blood to almost every other reigning house of the continent. Unfortunately, he suffered from a birth defect that had a huge impact on his nascent personality. John C.G. Röhl, who examines Wilhelm in his book “The Kaiser and His Court” [Cambridge University Press 1996, ISBN 0-521-56504-9], may introduce us here to mother and child:

It is well-known that Wilhelm suffered organic damage at birth, although the full extent of the damage is still not fully appreciated. Apart from his useless left arm, which was eventually about fifteen centimetres too short, he also suffered from the alarming growths and inflammations in the inner ear already referred to. As a result of his condition he underwent a serious operation in 1896 which left him deaf in the right ear. The possibility that he also suffered brain damage at the time of his birth cannot be ruled out. In Germany in 1859, the year in which Wilhelm was born, no fewer than 98 per cent of babies in the breech position were stillborn. The danger was of course greatest in young mothers having their first child, and it stemmed above all from the possibility of suffocation as the baby’s head squeezed the umbilical cord running up alongside it. If the air supply was cut off for longer than, say, eight minutes, the baby was sure to die. And indeed, the royal baby with which we are concerned was “seemingly dead to a high degree”, as the doctor’s report put it, when he came into the world on the afternoon of 27 January 1859, over ten hours after the waters had broken. Whatever damage was done to Wilhelm’s brain in those hours, it is certain that the left arm was crippled not locally, as the doctors assumed, but rather as a result of damage to the brachial plexus, that is to say the nerves which ensure the innervation of the shoulder, arm and hand muscles were torn from the vertebral column in the neck during the final stages of the delivery.

The entire experience was a ghastly one for Vicky, the Princess Royal. Despite the fact that she had inhaled chloroform for hours on end, the birth was extremely painful. She had married only a year before at the age of seventeen. During the long, complicated birth of her first child, “poor Dr. Martin” had to work under her long flannel skirt so that royal decency prevailed. Vicky’s response to giving birth to a crippled boy was, it would seem, ambivalent. If she had been male, as the first child of Queen Victoria, she would have been able to stay in her beloved England and in due course become its sovereign. As things stood, however, all that was open to her was to bear a son, and through him to do what she could to remodel the country into which she had married along the lines of the country of her birth. But this son had a crippled arm, he was not particularly talented, and he exhibited from a very early age a stormy, hyperactive temperament which gave growing cause for concern. Sigmund Freud himself put the finger on Vicky’s sense of narcissistic injury as one of the root-causes of Wilhelm’s later psychological disturbance. In 1932, he wrote:

“It is usual for mothers whom Fate has presented with a child who is sickly or otherwise at a disadvantage to try to compensate him for his unfair handicap by a super-abundance of love. In the instant before us, the proud mother behaved otherwise; she withdrew her love from the child on account of its infirmity. When he had grown up into a man of great power, he proved unambiguously by his actions that he had never forgiven his mother.”

Mother and Son
Mother and Son

Once the doctors were set loose on the young Wilhelm with their “animal baths”, their electric-shock treatment and their metal contraptions and leather straps for stretching his arm and his neck, once his education was placed in the hands of the unsmiling, never-praising Calvinist Hinzpeter, whatever slender hope there still remained for his emotional and mental stability lay in his mother’s hands. But she was unable to establish that bond of unconditional love and trust which he so desperately needed. Small wonder, then, that he felt drawn precisely to those elements who depreciated his mother above all else – to Bismarck, to the “kind nice young men” of the Potsdam guards regiments, to the Byzantine “Liebenberg Round Table“; small wonder that he felt one could not have enough hatred for England. When he came to the throne, at the age of twenty-nine, Wilhelm could use the whole apparatus of the army, the navy and the state, the whole arena of world politics to prove his worth. (Röhl, p. 25 – 26)

And here the flip side of Bismarck’s monarchical constitution came up: nobody could reign in the imperial chatterbox when he travelled through the world, informing everybody who asked, and all who did not, of his personal and his country’s power. It seemed that Germany had become a hermaphroditic affair with a top-notch industry, a relatively free press, an impotent parliament, and a governmental mixture out of Don Juan and medieval brigand, right out of “The Prisoner of Zenda”; on top, it was, as John Röhl noted, as if the country’s “development towards a modern unitary constitutional state had stopped at the half-way mark.” (24) The perception of Germany in the world depended too much upon the asinine opinions Wilhelm gave out freely, and Foreign Office and diplomatic service were frequently unable to correct the unfavourable impressions the Kaiser left behind wherever he journeyed and to whomever he spoke.

Opening Ceremony of the Reichstag on June 25, 1888 - Painting by Anton von Werner
Opening Ceremony of the Reichstag on June 25, 1888 – Painting by Anton von Werner

In addition to his capricious politics, his private pleasures aroused suspicion and received publicity; for example in the juicy scandals of the “Liebenberg Trials“:

Even before his accession, Wilhelm had announced his intention to do “battle against vice, high living, gambling, betting etc.”, against “all the doings of our so-called ‘good society'”. This battle was not particular successful, however. Soon after he came to the throne, hundreds of obscene anonymous letters began to circulate around the court, and although this went on for years the author was never discovered, even though (or perhaps precisely because?) the culprit must have been a member of the close circle surrounding Wilhelm and the empress.
A decade later the Wilhelmine court experienced its greatest scandal when Philipp Eulenburg [Wilhelm’s best friend] and his “Liebenberg Round Table” were publicly attacked on the grounds of their homosexuality [which was technically a criminal offence] and finally had to be banned from the court. [Dozens of court and administration officials turned out to be involved in the scandal] Embarrassing questions were asked – even about the Kaiser. The German system of government, already inefficient, suffered an immediate collapse into “complete disequilibrium at the top”.

Nationalist circles inclined to the view that they must press either for an external war or else for the abdication of Wilhelm II. “To clear ourselves of shame and ridicule,” wrote Maximilian Harden [newspaper editor and the driving force behind the prosecution] in November 1908, “we will have to go to war, soon, or face the sad necessity of making a change of imperial personnel on our own account, even if the strongest personal pressure had to be brought to bear.” As Maurice Baumont has rightly remarked in his study of L’Affair Eulenburg, “la réalité pathologique des scandales Eulenburg doit prendre parmi les causes complexes de la guerre mondiale”. (Röhl, p. 100)

Wilhelm II and King Edward VII
Wilhelm II and King Edward VII

Certainly, many other countries had had monarchs in their history who had provided topics for satire or salacious jokes, but the German classes that profited most from Wilhelm’s government, the Prussian Junker and the high civil and military bureaucracy, all of them noble, showed not only an astounding ability to forgive and forget, but outdid themselves in applauding the Kaiser’s putative designs on the globe. John Röhl narrates the story of a Prussian officer in Brazil who, at the important news of the outbreak of war, wrote to a friend that, finally, the German people could see that the Kaiser impersonated “more greatness than Bismarck and Moltke put together, a higher destiny than Napoleon I; that Wilhelm, indeed, was the Weltgestalter, the “shaper of the world.” (Röhl, p. 9) He wrote:

“Who is this Kaiser, whose peacetime rule was so full of vexation and tiresome compromise, whose temperament would flare up wildly, only to die away again? … Who is this Kaiser who now suddenly throws caution to the wind, who tears open his visor to bare his Titanic head and take on the world? … I have misunderstood this Kaiser; I have thought him a waverer. He is a Jupiter, standing on the Olympus of his iron-studded might, the lightning-bolts in his grasp. At this moment he is God and master of the world.” (Röhl, p.9)

Salutations of this kind contrasted sharply to the reality of the Emperor’s foreign politics in the post-Bismarck era, which caused war to become a possibility that could not be ruled out. Wilhelm fired the old chancellor in 1890, and the latter’s system of treaties quickly fell apart. Luigi Albertini comments on the significance of this falling-out between the old practical hand and a green monarch:

Bismarck’s position became critical when, on 9 March 1888, the death took place of the nonagenarian Emperor Wilhelm I, whose support he had always enjoyed, and when, three months after the untimely decease of Wilhelm’s son Frederick III, his grandson Wilhelm II mounted the throne. The latter had at first been pro-Russian and anti-British; but under the influence of General Waldersee he had been won over to the view of the General Staff that Germany must stand solidly with Austria and wage a preventive war on Russia.

The Chancellor sought to persuade him that, on the contrary, it would be better to seek a pretext for a war with France in which Russia would remain neutral, whereas if Germany made war on Russia, France would snatch the opportunity to attack Germany. He almost seemed to have succeeded inasmuch as Wilhelm II some days after his accession announced to the world his intention of paying a visit to the Tsar at once before visiting any other sovereign. After it, at the request of Girs [the Russian Foreign Minister] with the Tsar’s approval, he agreed to the renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty* with Russia due to lapse in June 1880. But by the time the Ambassador Shuvalov presented himself armed with the necessary powers to renew it for another six years, Bismarck had resigned.

The Reinsurance Treaty [PDF]

The Kaiser, having received from Baron Holstein, a high official of the Wilhelmstraße [site of the German Foreign Office], reports apparently revealing hostile preparations on the part of Russia which he thought Bismarck had withheld from him, wrote to the Chancellor that Austria should be warned and had copies of the reports sent to Vienna, disregarding Bismarck’s explanations that they had no importance. This convinced Bismarck that their differences were insurmountable and on 18 March 1890 he handed in his resignation.

Dropping the Pilot - Sir John Tenniel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine
Dropping the Pilot – Sir John Tenniel, 29.03.1890, Punch Magazine

Wilhelm II accepted it and Shuvalov thereupon expressed doubts whether the Tsar would be willing to renew the secret treaty with another Chancellor. Perturbed, Wilhelm II sent a message to him by night and told him he had been obliged to “retire” Bismarck for health reasons but that nothing was changed in German foreign policy and that he was ready to renew the treaty. But Holstein manoeuvred in such a way that the new Chancellor General Caprivi and the German Ambassador at St. Petersburg persuaded the Kaiser to change his mind, alleging that the treaty with Russia was incompatible with the Austrian alliance and that, if St. Petersburg divulged it to Vienna, the Triple Alliance would be broken and England estranged from Germany. The Kaiser surrendered to this advice without much resistance and the German Ambassador was instructed to inform St. Petersburg that the Reinsurance Treaty would not be renewed. (Albertini I, p. 62 – 64)

  • The Reinsurance Treaty was a tricky piece of Bismarckian diplomacy. Given the priority that Russia must be kept off France at all costs, Bismarck realized that the 1879 Dual Alliance Treaty between Germany and Austria might lead to a scenario in which Germany would be bound to support Austria in the case of Austro-Russian tensions in the Balkan, which were guaranteed to arise by next Wednesday or so. This might throw a wrench into Russo-German relations and in turn might draw Russia to France, which had to be avoided. Hence, a solution had to be found which gave both Russia and Germany a face-saving way out if Austria behaved badly in the Balkans, but neither Germany nor Russia wanted to let it come to war. Whatever Austria’s designs in this region, it was clear that she could never afford to attack Russia without German aid. Bismarck and Shuvalov thus developed “a formula binding the two parties [Germany and Russia] to benevolent neutrality in a war of one of them against a third Power except in the case that one of the contracting parties directly attacked Austria or France.”(Albertini I, p. 58) That was to say that as long as neither Germany nor Russia attacked Austria or France unilaterally, they would remain mutual benevolent neutrals and since Austria could not afford to attack Russia on her own, no big war because of a Slavic or Turkish issue in the Balkans could arise.

Bismarck’s policy was guided by the principle to preclude any coalition of powers that might result in a general European war. This completely rational policy, which took notice of the special requirements and individual sensitivities of Russia and England, was completely upended by a succession of four chancellors that did not understand foreign policy or, in general, didn’t care much about it – a catastrophe that was only aggravated by the monarch’s capricious personality. What, then, were the particulars of Wilhelm’s character that led to the acts of political lunacy that so much destabilized Europe from 1890 on? In his essay “Kaiser Wilhelm II: a suitable case for treatment?” John Röhl presents his observations:

Any sketch of his character must begin with the fact that he never matured. To the end of his thirty-year reign he remained the “young” emperor with the “childlike genius”. “He is a child and will always remain one,” sighed an astute court official in December 1908. Wilhelm seemed incapable of learning from experience. Philip Eulenburg, who knew him better than anyone, remarked in a letter to Bülow at the turn of the century that Wilhelm had, in the eleven years since his accession to the throne, “become very much quieter as far as his outer being is concerned. … Spiritually, however there has not been the slightest development. He is unchanged in his explosive manner. Indeed, even harsher and more sudden as his self-esteem has grown with experience – which is no experience. For his ‘individuality’ is stronger than the effect of experience.”

More than thirty years later, when both Eulenburg and Bülow were dead and the Kaiser exiled and seventy-two years old, his adjutant Sigurd von Ilsemann wrote in his diary at Doorn: “I have now almost finished reading the second volume of the Bülow memoirs and am struck over and over again by how little the Kaiser has changed since those times. Almost everything that occurred then still happens now, the only difference being that his actions, which then had grave significance and practical consequences, now do no damage. The many good qualities, too, of this strange, peculiar person, of the Kaiser’s so very complicated character, are repeatedly stressed by Bülow.” (Röhl, p. 11 – 12)

We will rediscover, almost eerily, many of Wilhelm’s other traits, perpetual travelling, the inability to listen, a penchant for monologues about topics imperfectly understood, and the constant need for company and light entertainment, in the character and habits of the young Austrian painter who, in a sense, became his heir. They express a mixture of immaturity, egocentrism and megalomania; understandable, perhaps, in a young man, but hazardous in the leader of the globe’s second-biggest industrial power who, in the bargain, had a medieval understanding of a monarch’s rights and duties.

Kaiser Wilhelm and the Equilibrium of Europe
Kaiser Wilhelm and the Equilibrium of Europe

However, another of Wilhelm’s character traits, his notorious overestimation of his own abilities, dubbed by contemporaries “Caesaromania” or “Folie D’Empereur”, similarly inhibited his responsiveness to constructive criticism. For how could the monarch learn from experience if he despised his ministers, rarely received them and seldom listened to what they had to say; if he was convinced that all his diplomats had so “filled their knickers” that “the entire Wilhelmstraße stank” to high heaven; when he addressed even the War Minister and the Chief of the Military Cabinet with the words “you old asses”; and announced to a group of admirals: “All of you know nothing; I alone know something, I alone decide.” Even before coming to the throne he had warned, “Beware the time when I shall give the orders.” Even before Bismarck’s dismissal he had threatened to “smash” all opposition to his will. He alone was master of the Reich, he said in a speech in May 1891, and he would tolerate no others. To the Prince of Wales he proclaimed at the turn of the century: “I am the sole master of German policy and my country must follow me wherever I go.” Ten years later he explained in a letter to a young Englishwoman: “As for having to sink my ideas and feelings at the bidding of the people, that is a thing unheard-of in Prussian history or traditions of my house! What the German Emperor, King of Prussia thinks right and best for his People he does.” In September 1912 he chose Prince Lichnowsky to be ambassador in London against the advice of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the Foreign Office with the words: “I will only send an ambassador to London who has My trust, obeys My will and carries out My orders.” And during the First World War he exclaimed: “What the public thinks is totally immaterial to me.” [Emphases added] (Röhl, p. 12 – 13).

The “iron will” to be the master of the nation or, perhaps, the world, was assisted by his ability to contemplate reality according to the dictates of his imagination. Even in his seventies, exiled in the Netherlands, he was able to arrive at the most surprising conclusion concerning the racial identity of his enemies:

“At last I know what the future holds for the German people, what we shall still have to achieve. We shall be the leaders of the Orient against the Occident! I shall now have to alter my picture ‘Peoples of Europe’. We belong on the other side! Once we have proved to the Germans that the French and English are not Whites at all but Blacks then they will set upon this rabble.” (Röhl, p. 13)

Thus, Wilhelm had made the amazing discovery that, in fact, the French and English are Negroes. Another reason for the ongoing decay of the human race, the retired emperor maintained, was a lack of proper respect for the authorities, in particular for himself. The news of the Boxer Rebellion in China he took as a personal insult and ordered Beijing to be “razed to the ground”. In his fear of the impending socialist revolution, he dwelt in fantasies of hundreds of demonstrators “gunned down” in the streets of Berlin, and occasionally recommended as the proper treatment for prisoners of war to starve them to death. Not only did he long to inflict revenge for slights in his own lifetime, in a desire to, literally, expunge history – to undo the Second, perhaps also the First French Revolution – he thirsted to “take revenge for 1848 – revenge!!!” (Röhl, p. 14)

His sense of humour was peculiar, too.

While his left arm was weak due to damage at birth, his right hand was strong in comparison, and he found amusement in turning his rings inwards and then squeezing the hand of visiting dignitaries so hard that tears came to their eyes. King Ferdinand of Bulgaria left Berlin “white-hot with hatred” after the Kaiser had slapped him hard on the behind in public. Grand Duke Wladimir of Russia [Tsar Nicholas II’s brother] was hit over the back by Wilhelm with a field-marshal’s baton. (Röhl, p. 15)

Aware of His Majesty’s sense of humour, his friends practiced creative imagination. At the occasion of a hunting expedition at Liebenberg in 1892, General Intendant Georg von Hülsen proposed to Count Görtz [“who was on the plump side”] (Röhl, p. 16):

“You must be paraded by me as a circus poodle! – That will be a ‘hit’ like nothing else. Just think: behind shaved (tights), in front long bangs out of black or white wool, at the back under a genuine poodle tail a marked rectal opening and, when you ‘beg’, in front a fig leaf. Just think how wonderful when you bark, howl to music, shoot off a pistol or do other tricks. It is simply splendid!!” [Emphases in original] (Röhl, p. 16)

Courtiers and bureaucrats soon found out that to offer such exquisite entertainment was a tried and true way to the monarch’s good graces, but, on the flip side, it aided to the proliferation of rumours. What, then, can we say about Wilhelm’s love life? As Edward Gibbon noted about Charlemagne, the two emperors had in common that chastity was not their most conspicuous quality. Officially, Wilhelm was able to have his court reporters belabour his marital fidelity, in the furtherance of which the Empress delivered sons in regular intervals, all in all six of them. Yet Wilhelm also had a certain propensity of writing hazardous letters, some of them to a well-known procuress in Vienna, and because of his willingness to sample the offers, the further maintenance of his public virtue was entrusted to the ministrations of his privy councillors, who bought the ladies’ discretion, took care, confidentially, of royal alimonies or, perhaps, arranged abortions. But it seems that these extramarital activities were purely of biological nature, so to say; sympathy, comfort and repose the monarch found with his male friends, although it appears that he did not participate in the more intimate expressions of these friendships.

Wilhelm II with his wifr Auguste Victoria von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augstenburg and his seven children
Wilhelm II with his wife Augusta Victoria von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augstenburg and his seven children

“I never feel happy, really happy at Berlin,” he wrote in his idiosyncratic English. “Only Potsdam [the station of his Guard Regiment, ¶], that is my ‘El Dorado’ … where one feels free with the beautiful nature around you
and soldiers as much as you like, for I love my dear regiment very much, those such kind nice young men in it.” In his regiment, as he confided to Eulenburg, he found his family, his friends, his interests – everything which he had previously missed. Over were the “terrible years in which no-one understood my individuality“… The voluminous political correspondence of Philipp Eulenburg leaves no scope for doubt that he (Eulenburg) and the other members of the influential “Liebenberg Circle” who in the 1890s stood at the very centre of the political stage in the Kaiser’s Germany were indeed homosexual, as their destroyer, Maximilian Harden, believed.

This of course raises the question of where to place the Kaiser on the “heterosexual – homosexual continuum.” If he ever did have anything approaching a homosexual experience, it almost certainly occurred in the mid-1880s, in the same period, that is, as his numerous extra-marital affairs with women. After interviewing Jakob Ernst, the Starnberg fisherman whose testimony in 1908 damaged Eulenburg’s case irreparably, Maximilian Harden became convinced that he was in possession of evidence which, if laid before the Kaiser, would suffice to cause him to abdicate. What information Harden received from Jakob Ernst, we can only guess at. In several letters written at this time, Harden linked Wilhelm II not only with Jakob Ernst but also with Eulenburg’s private secretary, Karl Kistler. But these are only straws in the wind, not proof. On the evidence presently available to us, it is probably wiser to assume, as Isabel Hull has written, that Wilhelm remained unconscious of the homoerotic basis of his friendship with Eulenburg and thus failed to recognize the homosexual aspects of his own character. (Röhl, p. 19 – 20)

In addition to these private distractions, the Kaiser’s medical afflictions gave reason for concern. From the pure medical point of view, the frequent infections of his right ear and sinus threatened to implicate the brain, and complications regarding the monarch’s moods and faculties of reasoning could not be ruled out. In 1895, the British diplomat M. Gosselin, who was employed in the British Embassy in Berlin, wrote to Lord Salisbury that the consequences for the peace of the world might be enormous “if a Sovereign who possesses a dominant voice in the foreign policy of the Empire is subject to hallucinations and influences which must in the long term warp his judgement, and render Him liable at any moment to sudden changes of opinion which no-one can anticipate or provide against.” (Röhl, p. 21)

There was general agreement. Lord Salisbury himself thought the Kaiser “not quite normal”; Prime Minister Herbert Asquith saw a “disordered brain” at work; Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Minister, regarded Wilhelm as “not quite sane, and very superficial”; Grand Duke Sergius of Russia thought the Kaiser “mentally ill”; and the doyen of the Berlin Diplomatic Corps, the Austrian Military Attaché Freiherr von Klepsch-Kloth, diagnosed that Wilhelm was “not really sane” and had, “as one says, a screw loose.” (Röhl, p. 21 – 22) John Röhl collected a few more statements of witnesses:

In 1895 Friedrich von Holstein complained that the Kaiser’s “glow-worm” character constantly reminded Germans of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, both of whom had gone mad. Early in 1896, after a violent row with the Kaiser, the Prussian War Minister, General Bronsart von Schellendorf, said “that H.M. did not appear to be quite normal and that he [Schellendorf] was deeply concerned about the future”. In the following year Holstein wrote that the Conservative Party thought the Kaiser was “not quite normal”, that the King of Saxony had declared him to be “not quite stable” and that the Grand Duke of Baden had spoken “in a very worrying way about the psychological side of the matter, about the loss of touch with reality”. Reich Chancellor Prince Hohenlohe also once earnestly asked Bülow [his eventual successor] whether he “really believed that the Kaiser was mentally normal”. Such views became commonplace after the Kaiser’s notorious speech of February 1897, in which he referred to Bismarck and Moltke as “lackeys and pygmies”. Count Anton Monts, the Prussian Envoy to Bavaria, wrote from Munich that the emperor was clearly no longer of sane mind. “I gather from the hints of the doctors that the Kaiser can still be cured, but that the chances grow dimmer with each day.” (Röhl, p. 22)

Wilhelm and his sons on parade ...
Wilhelm and his sons on parade …

Now the complete absence of meaningful checks and balances in the federal constitution came to harm the nation. There were no procedures for a transfer of power except for the death or the voluntary abdication of the monarch, an act Wilhelm clearly would not consider. Thus, he continued to utter the abstruse opinions the world press by now expected from him, and it was easy enough for Germany’s opponents to profit from the uninterrupted chain of public relation debacles the Kaiser left in his wake. Soon a theory developed that explained Wilhelm’s recklessness as the result of a specific German inclination towards authoritarian government, militarism, and general unfriendliness.

The young Kaiser’s less than stellar performance eventually split the nationalist Right: one faction that remained committed to the monarch and another that, as splits are wont to do, only escalated its patriotic demands to pursue a policy of maximal “German power and greatness through expansion and conquest of inferior people.” (Kershaw, p. 78) In practice, this super-nationalist cabal tended to narrow the political options of the government, which at the same time was hysterically engaged to suppress anti-Prussian socialists and Catholics as much as was legally possible. The administration’s demographic basis of support was in danger of shrinking; parts of the “old order … were prepared even to contemplate war as a way of holding on to their power and fending off the threat of socialism.” (Kershaw, p. 74) The Kaiser did not publicly disagree.

For those who listened, it was quite clear from the 1890s onward that the Kaiser’s idea of war was that it was a rather normal occasion – he believed and so publicly admitted – that “war” was a “royal sport, to be indulged in by hereditary monarchs and concluded at their will”. (Röhl, p. 207) In the age of machine guns, this was an atavistic attitude. And here the Kaiser’s authority in appointments and dismissals fired back: soon no other counsels were waged than such that were sure to meet His Majesty’s approval; no one dared to oppose him, and his brown-nosed sycophants, who at length populated the upper crust of the civil and military leadership, became used to and most efficient in anticipating the monarch’s desires.

Cavalry attack at the Battle of Loigny, 1870

In the realm of the military, Willy remained a man of the past as well. Influenced by the victorious battles of the German unification wars of 1864 to 1871, he evidenced a propensity for cavalry attacks over open terrain – which had worked then, but in an age of quick-firing artillery and machine guns proved to come to nothing but mass suicide.

Such Imperial Manoeuvres as in 1913 became suicidal in 1914

So how could anything go wrong in July 1914, when the Imperial will-o’-the-wisp was confronted with the question of world peace itself? This will be the subject of a separate post.


(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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