Who was this “Kaiser Bill”?

By Dr. Vomact

[Editor’s note.  Dr. V describes himself thusly: There’s the usual dry facts: Dr. V was born in Munich in 1948, educated at Berkeley (B.A.) and University of Oregon (Ph.D. in philosophy). Once in his life, he took someone else’s advice and switched from philosophy to computer software. He found the pay scale much more to his liking. Sometimes, he’s sorry — then he remembers what the academic world is really like. As far as he can tell, he’s not dead yet.]

Every year, Mr. Lind treats us to another of his telephonic birthday chats with Kaiser Wilhelm II, and on every such occasion someone inevitably expresses puzzlement as to why Mr. Lind would, e.g., “invoke the spirit of the utterly unserious and notoriously shallow Kaiser Bill”.

I, too, belong to this select circle; several years ago, after I had made a similar comment, Mr. Lind replied indirectly in one of his subsequent postings. Among other remarks, he recommended a book — The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II, by Giles MacDonogh. I did, indeed read the book and have since revised my opinion of Wilhelm II — or at least have been able to judge this man more fairly than before.

One might view Kaiser Wilhelm II as simply the victim of a congenital Peter Principle: he was born to a station above his competence. Though that might make a fine epigram (or epitaph), it leaves out so very much. Could any man have been successful in the role meted out to Wilhelm by birth and circumstance? Perhaps — but it would require the sort of genius that appears very rarely among men. I think that this may be the sum of William’s crimes and failings: that he fell short of genius.

Consider the role Wilhelm the II was called upon to play. On his accession to the imperial throne of newly unified Germany, he became the Allerhöchster (the “All-highest”), theoretically in complete command of a potentially totalitarian state. Very few men have ever succeeded in such a role.

In modern times, I can think of only three who ruled a powerful state in the role of dictator with anything approaching success: Hitler, Napoleon, and Stalin. All three succeeded in imposing their will on a large part of the world for a time; only one could be said to have been successful to the end of his life. All three achieved their successes due to several personal qualities. One was their superb intuitive insight into the strengths and personal weaknesses of others, allowing them to make tools of even those who might have been their superiors in intellect or moral judgment. Another was ruthlessness bordering on the sociopathic. A third was strength of will, causing them to persevere in the face of adversities that would have caused any more ordinary man to turn away from his goal–and for good reason.

The Kaiser had none of these qualities.

He was certainly not born with the innate ability to understand the personalities of others outside the only circle in which he felt comfortable — the officer’s mess and the company of select friends, preferably isolated from the larger world on his personal yacht. His education is partly to be faulted by this — no one seems to have been concerned to provide the young prince with a good, catholic education. His intelligence was certainly no less than average — and most probably higher; what might a few years as student at Oxford or Paris done for him?

As to strength of will, little can be said for Wilhelm. He was both indecisive and impulsive; he was easily influenced, but far too unsure of himself to dominate men of quality who might have served him better otherwise. His decisions tended to reflect the advice of those who currently had his ear. For example, the rise of the German Imperial Navy was not so much Kaiser Wilhelm’s desire as it was the result of the ambitions of Admiral von Tirpitz — and of the popular German press, who saw a grand navy as the natural appurtenance of a Great Power. Wilhelm himself didn’t need to build a navy, for he was already an admiral in the world’s greatest navy — the British one.

If Wilhelm had a guiding star, it was to act well the role that he had been assigned to play. Alas, he was never shown the script. This desire to play-act the role of Allerhöchster, compounded by an inability to assess his real position in the world, led to his most unwise remarks, his most impolitic bluntness — a pompous bluntness that sometimes expressed itself in outright threats.

But surely those who belittle Wilhelm must consider his utter lack of ruthlessness to be his cardinal fault. As opposed to his words, the Kaiser’s actions were seldom in the least ruthless or even rash. For example, he could have prorogued the fledgling German parliament at any time, and ruled as a true autocrat. Irritated as he often was with the Social Democrats, who were then a powerful force in German politics, he never resorted to any such step. Instead, he cajoled the politicians to grant the funding necessary for Tirpitz’s new navy.

Nor did he show the slightest sign of wishing to expand German territory at the expense of its neighbors — barring perhaps the customary minor border adjustments after the usual European “cabinet wars”. He certainly had no desire to conquer Europe — let alone the world — as British war propaganda would have it at that time. (Ironically, a mere twenty years later, the British were to gain a German opponent who truly had many of the evil qualities they ascribed to Kaiser Wilhelm II.) That Wilhelm II started the Great War out of a desire for conquest is just a plain lie. If one can speak of guilt for this greatest of all modern disasters at all, then perhaps he shares in that guilt — but if so, there is certainly enough of it share all around.

So Wilhelm was neither a genius nor was he well-suited for the life of a dictator. Could he have reasonably been expected to succeeded, had he worked harder to overcome his personal failings? Probably not, and for two chief reasons: first, the sheer poverty of politically talented men at his disposal; second, the insufficiency of Bismarck’s vision.

As to the first handicap, the novelty of the unified German state (the Empire did not come into existence until 1871), and the consequent lack of coherent political institutions and tradition probably played the largest part. Contrast this with Britain, with its many hundreds of years of political evolution behind it — an evolution that culminated in a quasi-monarchical parliamentary democracy that conquered much of the known world. The British nation was like a magic pot out of which capable leaders and administrators fairly boiled forth, whereas the new German state could manage at most an inadequate dribble. What is a Bethmann-Hollweg or a Bülow, measured against the likes of Lloyd George, George Curzon, Bonar Law, Arthur Henderson, Alfred Milner, and Winston Churchill, to name just a very few?

As to the second obstacle that would have prevented even a more talented Wilhelm II from attaining success, it was Bismarck’s failure to form a German state that could function without him. Bismarck was indeed a genius, and the new German Empire worked well enough as long as he was in his place at the steering wheel. However, Bismarck distrusted democratic institutions, and had seen to it that they remained as weak as he could make them, while still keeping the specter of revolution at bay. That meant a centralized, autocratic government in which power flowed to him as directly as possible — through the legitimate authority of the Kaiser. But what would happen if no suitable genius could be found to replace Bismarck? What if Bismarck departed, and left in charge a Kaiser who was less than a genius? Sadly, the Iron Chancellor made no provisions for such an eventuality.

There is controversy whether Wilhelm II should have dismissed Bismarck when he did, but it is undeniable that Bismark was showing his age. He rarely came to Berlin, insisting on running the Empire by remote control from his country estate (and then becoming apoplectic when the young Kaiser made decisions in his absence.) Disaster was inevitable: Bismarck would inevitably have to go at some time; whenever that time came, Prussia would become a rudderless ship, steered neither by a genius nor by a competent assembly of capable men. This was not the fault of Wilhelm II, but of Bismarck.

Though I cannot speak for Mr. Lind, I can say what I guess of his thoughts, based on what he has written. I think that Mr. Lind’s attachment to Wilhelm II comes from his understanding that the disaster of our age was the Great War and that blame for this disaster has been unfairly attached to the Kaiser. To Mr. Lind, Wilhelm embodies an older, more civilized order that was destroyed in that war, superior to most who came after him — and most certainly to the vultures of Versailles.

Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy.

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed in Uncategorized | 4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Who was this “Kaiser Bill”?”

  1. rmhitchenson 06 Feb 2009 at 1:18 pm 1

    Thank you for a spirited defense of the all-highest, whose person I so cavalierly dismissed. I am in wholehearted agreement that the Great War was the tragedy of our age, although I wasn’t aware that any serious historian of late has blamed the Kaiser. I concur with most of what you say about Wilhelm II, with reservations about him being “superior to most who came after him.”

    But two trivial objections come to mind with regard to Mr. Lind’s rhetorical device. One is that putting words in a dead man’s mouth may well, if done by a Person Of Substance, tend to inflate the dead man’s standing in popular memory. (Look what Thornton Wilder did for Julius Caesar.) The other is that it raises a nagging suspicion that Mr. Lind finds popular sovereignty as baffling as did the Kaiser.

  2. Dr_Vomacton 07 Feb 2009 at 5:57 pm 2

    Thank you for your kind words, rmhitchens.

    With regard to “superior to most who came after…” I was thinking of the “Weimar” era; it was not exactly an age of great political talent or statesmanship in Germany. But of course a writer shouldn’t expect readers to infer the contents of his mind, so I apologize for my lack of clarity in that regard!

    You may be right about “serious historians”; I am not sure if I can speak of “popular opinion” in this regard, as popular opinion in the United States or Europe does not concern itself with weighty historical matters today. However, it is my perception that the proposition that “the Germans tried to take over the world twice”, and the assignation of blame for the first instance to poor Wilhelm II would find many assenting echoes among those who take a superficial interest in history, but have not thought critically about the matter. This is especially true for English-speakers, among whom British war propaganda (during both wars—it was easy to make the Kaiser and Hitler seem like two of a kind) is still the last word.

    And who would defend the Kaiser these days? It is no accident that MacDonough is Irish.

  3. JRBehrmanon 07 Feb 2009 at 8:05 pm 3

    Herr Vomact’s critical appraisal of a brilliant statesman, Bismarck, relative to the institutions of an actually resiliant polity is very useful. But, the rhetorical device of Herr Lind is more entertaining. Thanks for both.

    It will be interesting to see what the United States can do today with some brilliance at the center of our public life and some resiliance on the periphery but also with some pervasive dysfunction among what that other Lind — Michael Lind — calls the Anglo-American overclass.

    Two aspects of that dysfunction seem conspicuous and scary today:

    Imposing the peculiar military and financial institutions of Edwardian imperialism (relatively prestigious and seemingly victorious in the Great War) on a U.S. constitution rooted in universal principles of republican democracy seems unjustified and precarious just now.

    Very specifically, the outlandish domination of all aspects of military and civil life by the three anglophile professions necessary and sufficient to a Whig gpvernment — doctors, lawyers, and preachers — seems deformed and dangerous: It entails subordination and even exclusion of engineers, accountants, and professional naval or military officers.

    These should function as a patriotic bureaucracy: a counterweight to our unpatriotic managerial elite.

    I am more comfortable than William Lind with American notions of popular sovereignty that are fundamental to republican democracy. But, do we really have a republican democracy here in the United States or just a Whig tyranny wrapped in jingoistic anglophilia and legalism?

  4. loggie20on 08 Feb 2009 at 6:14 am 4

    Whig tyranny!

    Outside of silicon valley the engineering is gone.

    Accounting is gone.

    There are no more “professional naval or military officers” than there were in the Wehrmacht under Hitler’s meddling.

    They all leave as disgruntled O-3’s.