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 lay 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], introduces us 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 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 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 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)

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.

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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