History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Wil­helm II – The Eas­i­ness of Liv­ing

Wilhelm at age 21
Wil­helm at age 21

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

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 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 con­tinuüm.” 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.

Imper­i­al Man­oeuvres 1913 – Sui­cide 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)

Hits: 120


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  1. merl

    He sounds just like don­ald.

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