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Crowns in Conflict
The All Highest
With the death of King Edward VII, his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, could at last lay claim to be Europe's leading monarch. While his assured and imposing uncle had been alive, Wilhelm II had always felt slightly overshadowed; now he was confident of having no close rival. King George V might reign over a larger empire. Tsar Nicholas II might wield more personal power, the Emperor Franz Joseph might have been on his throne for almost three times as long, but no one could deny' that the Second Reich was the most powerful nation on the Continent and its Kaiser the most spectacular sovereign.
Fifty-one in the year 1910, Wilhelm II had been German Emperor for twenty-two years. During this time he had developed into one of the world's most recognisable figures. In that flood of official portraits and photographs with which he submerged the civilised world, he looked the very epitome of the warrior-king. Pictured in one of his four hundred uniforms, his eyes glaring, his chin jutting, his puffed-out chest glittering with orders, Kaiser Wilhelm II created an image at once heroic and intimidating. It was small wonder that a French general could describe the Kaiser's portrait on the wall of the German Embassy in Paris as 'a declaration of war'.
His public behaviour was hardly less aggressive. Here, too, he was rarely seen out of uniform. His speech was emphatic and his manner assertive. His handshake was like a grip of iron. His walk was an energetic strut. He was never happier than when sitting astride some great white charger acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. He was a tireless orator. In his loud and grating voice he would treat his long-suffering audiences to hours of what he considered to be his God-given eloquence. 'If Your Majesty would be a little more economical of such a gift', ventured one bold friend, 'it would be a hundred times more efficacious.'
The advice came too late. From the day that he succeeded his father, the humane and moderate Frederick III, in 1858, Wilhelm II had been subjecting the world to his bellicose brand of oratory.
His egotism was notorious. He wanted, it was said, to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. He would always refer to 'my army' or ' my fortresses'; he never missed an opportunity to draw attention to 'my prowess' and 'my indefatigability'. Civic visitors' books and regimental bibles throughout Germany carried the sovereign's vainglorious inscriptions. The Will of the King is the supreme law, read one; and in the bible of the new Berlin garrison church he wrote, without quotation marks, Ye shall walk in all the ways which I have commanded you, Wilhelm Imperator Rex.
That he enjoyed some sort of special relationship with God, he never doubted. He was forever calling on his Celestial Ally to back him up in this or that project. With all the swagger of a parvenu emperor (the German Reich had been proclaimed in 1871, less than forty years before) he insisted that he reigned by divine right; that his sceptre had been handed to him by the King of Kings. Indeed, there were times when it was difficult to decide who ranked first: God or Kaiser.
His talents, he imagined, were exceptional. There were few things to which he did not turn his hand. He fancied himself as a poet, a novelist, a painter, a sculptor, an architect, a designer of ships, a sportsman, a strategist and a diplomat. He chose the Kaiserin's hats and put them on display once a year so that all could appreciate the excellence of his taste. He would assure his listeners that, in common with Frederick the Great, his Hohenzollern ancestor, he was an inspired composer.
To emphasise his manliness, the Kaiser would employ any device, however sadistic. The jewels of his many rings would be turned inwards so as to make his already vice-like handshake more painful. He would subject his entourage to crude practical jokes and punishing physical exercise. His conversation could be cruelly teasing or vehemently derogatory. He was often violent in his denunciation of the Jews or the Socialists.
Wilhelm II was a born showman. With his active encouragement, Berlin was transformed into one of the most impressive capitals in Europe: a city of massive gateways, triumphant statuary and colossal squares. His palaces – the Old Schloss in Berlin and the Neues Palais in Potsdam – were magnificent; his court the most lavish on the Continent. 'The rooms', wrote one enraptured guest, 'are very beautifully decorated. Their painted ceilings, encased in richly-gilt "coffered" work in high relief, have a Venetian effect, recalling some of the rooms in the Doge's Palace ... Their silk-hung walls, their pictures, and the splendid pieces of old furniture they contain, redeem these rooms from the soulless, impersonal look most palaces wear ...'
In these ostentatious settings, the Kaiser behaved like the leading actor in a never-ending pageant. 'He did everything on the grandest possible scale; it was overwhelming,' remembered his British cousin, Princess Alice, afterwards Countess of Athlone. With his overdressed Kaiserin by his side and with one or two of his six strapping sons in attendance, he moved in a kaleidoscopic pattern of balls, receptions, parades and state visits. He had a costume for every occasion. For a gala performance of The Flying Dutchman he wore a grand admiral's uniform. For his state entrance into Jerusalem he draped himself in a white cloak emblazoned with a crusader's cross. To open the Reichstag he sported a crimson mantle and a gold, eagle-crowned helmet. Only with difficulty was he once dissuaded from dressing himself as a Roman general to inaugurate a museum of antiquities.
He had a passion for travel. Because of this he was known as der Reise-Kaiser. Well over half of each year was spent away from Berlin; indeed, a member of his household doubted if he were at home for one hundred days a year. His luxurious white and gold yacht, Hohenzollern, flying the imperial pennant with its braggardly message Gott Mit Uns, was forever cruising the Baltic or the North Sea; his blue and ivory train was forever criss-crossing the Continent. He visited the Sultan Abdul Hamid II in Constantinople; he rode through the specially widened Jaffa Gate into Jerusalem; he made one of his tactless speeches beside the tomb of Saladin of Damascus. There were few European capitals through which he had not ridden in glorious procession.
That so showy a personality should be surrounded by fawners and flatterers was only to be expected. He lived in an aura of adulation. His circle was as artificial and theatrical as himself. His officers saw themselves as a band of medieval knights devotedly serving their leige rather than as paid servants of the state; generals bent to kiss his hand; statesmen overwhelmed him with praise.
The Kaiser's relationship with his wife, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria (known in the family as Dona) was generally regarded, in contemporary German terms, as exemplary. Born a princess of Schleswig-Holstein- Sonderburg-Augustenburg (Bismarck called her 'the cow from Holstein') Dona had married Wilhelm in 1881, when they were both aged twenty-two. Since then she had established a reputation as the perfect Hausfrau, confining her interests to Küche, Kinderstube, Krankenstube und Kirche – kitchen, nursery, sickroom and church. She had borne her husband seven children – six boys and a girl; and in the year 1910 their eldest son, the reactionary and frivolous Crown Prince Wilhelm, turned twenty-eight. The Kaiserin's public behaviour was no less satisfactory. With her full-blown figure and sumptuous dresses, she made a suitably imposing and dignified consort.
One of Wilhelm II's many cousins, the future Queen Marie of Romania, visiting Berlin in these years before the First World War, could not help being impressed by this theatrical Kaiser. He had invited her to accompany him to the official opening of some public building. 'I am grateful', she writes, 'that this occasion was offered me to see, I may even say feel, Kaiser Wilhelm in all his Prussian glory during a ceremony when he expanded in an atmosphere profoundly congenial to him and characteristic of truly German achievement ...
'Es ist erreieht. It has been achieved! I felt that this was really Emperor Wilhelm's Germany, something which had been moulded according to his taste and the ideal he was reaching out for. This colossal building stood for success: huge, solid, somewhat flashy, somewhat too splendid, too new, but an attainment, mighty, audacious, with a touch of aggressiveness about it, almost a challenge in fact ...
'Luckily there are hours when occasionally some man touches his ideal, be it only for a fleeting instant. I could feel at that moment in my very bones Wilhelm's proud content, and because of this I was able to rejoice with him. In his own special, spectacular way, at that time Kaiser Wilhelm was a success.'
Such, then, was the façade. But when one looked behind the baroque grandeur of Wilhelm II's presentation of himself, things were rather different. Seldom, in fact, has the contrast between the fantasy and the reality of monarchy been more pronounced than in the person of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Close to, with his greying hair, his sagging jowls, his spreading waist and his short stature, the Kaiser was not quite the warlord of popular imagination. He was always careful to keep his undersized left arm – rendered all but useless during his difficult birth – bent, so as to minimise its shortness. To make himself appear taller, he would sit on a cushion. If looked at too hard, he tended to shift that famous piercing gaze. In repose his face wore a sensitive, almost diffident expression. For the truth was that there lay, not far below that assured and brilliant surface, a sense of deep inferiority.
He was not nearly as warlike or as reactionary as he pretended. For all his arrogance, Wilhelm II did not mean any real harm. One of his sons afterwards admitted that, to avoid an appearance of 'softness', his father assumed a hearty toughness quite alien to his true nature. Wilhelm II was a sabre-rattler, not a fighter. He preferred military manoeuvres to actual battle; bloodthirsty words to bloodthirsty deeds. He wanted to be a Napoleon, said Winston Churchill, without fighting Napoleon's battles. He wanted victories without wars.
For all his apparent energy, he was lazy. For all his professed strength of will, he was ill-disciplined and capricious. For all his show of manliness, he was nervous, excitable, emotional. Any crisis, whether personal or political, tended to reduce him to a state of blind panic or nervous exhaustion.
The extravagant, romantic, sentimental atmosphere by which he was so often surrounded was not as innocent as it appeared. In 1907 several members of his entourage were publicly branded as homosexuals and his closest confidant. Count Philipp von Eulenburg (in whose circle the Kaiser was always referred to as das Liebchen – the little sweetheart) was actually tried for homosexual offences. Matters were hardly improved when, at the height of this scandal, the fifty-six-year-old General Hülsen-Haeseler, head of the military cabinet, collapsed and died after diverting the Kaiser and his guests by dancing – with considerable grace it is claimed – a pas seul in a ballerina's tutu.
Nor was Wilhelm's relationship with his wife quite what it seemed to outsiders. With the passing years. Dona had developed into the stronger personality. By now she not only saw it as her duty to protect him from his frequent indiscretions but she encouraged him, advised him and bolstered his often flagging resolve.
To his credit, Wilhelm II was sometimes aware of his own shortcomings. 'Do not hold me to my marginalia,' he once begged of his navy secretary, referring to the bellicose comments which he would scrawl in the margins of official documents. And to one long-suffering chancellor he exclaimed, 'I am what I am and I cannot change.'
Nor was the Kaiser quite as foolish as he sometimes sounded. His mind was lively, his memory excellent and his intelligence well above average. He had an insatiable appetite for information. There were times when his charm could be exceptional. More than one guest came away enchanted by the vivacity of his conversation and the warmth of his manner.
The fact was that the Kaiser was very much a product of his time and his environment. He had grown to manhood during those thrilling years in which Bismarck, by his 'blood and iron' methods, was forging the German empire; much of his militancy and absolutism was in direct reaction to the political moderation of his father. Crown Prince Frederick, and the outspoken liberalism of his mother, Crown Princess Victoria. In many ways, Wilhelm II had come to epitomise the Germany of the Second Reich – defiant, thrusting, power-conscious, ostentatious and ultra-sensitive.
King Edward VII was not far wrong in describing his nephew as 'the most brilliant failure in history'.
Wilhelm II, for all the strident authoritarianism of his public pronouncements, was a constitutional monarch. And so, by the year 1910, were all the sovereigns of Europe. Constitutional monarchy had been the royal answer to the liberalism of the age. By now every European country had the trappings of a democratic state: franchise, political parties, elected assemblies and representative governments. In theory, kings now owed their allegiance to the constitution rather than to God.
Yet the powers of these constitutional monarchs vis-á-vis their governments varied widely. In a country such as Britain, parliament was a sovereign body and George V virtually powerless. In a country like Belgium, King Albert sat in on ministerial meetings. In the less sophisticated Balkan states, monarchs like Carol of Romania or Ferdinand of Bulgaria exercised considerable personal control. And in the three Continental empires of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, the rulers – Wilhelm II, Nicholas II and Franz Joseph I – were all in a position to wield autocratic powers.
Of the three emperors, Wilhelm II was the one with the least well-defined status. The constitution of the Second Reich was extremely complicated, an uncomfortable blend of authoritarianism and democracy. It was, as Emil Ludwig has described it, 'a tissue of contradictions'.
The Kaiser held supreme executive power, governing through a chancellor who was not only appointed and dismissed by him but responsible to him alone. 'The Emperor', as one analyst has so graphically put it, 'regarded himself as being in the position of a landowner who had complete freedom in the choice of a bailiff to run his estates for him ... The bailiff's job was to manage the estate to the general satisfaction, some people's views (and particularly the owner's) being entitled to more consideration than others.'
There were two national assemblies in the Reich. The Bundesrat consisted of delegates from each of the states that went to make up the Confederation. The Reichstag – the more important of the two assemblies – was elected by universal male suffrage. The only practical limitation to the Kaiser's authority was the right of the Reichstag to refuse authorisation of certain expenditures. Through his chancellor, the Kaiser could appoint or dismiss ministers, propose legislation and summon and dissolve the assembly. Although the Kaiser could not always ignore these representatives of public opinion, an astute chancellor could usually play the three conservative parties off against each other; when he could not, and they continued to vote against him, he could usually ignore their vote. The Reichstag, as one disgruntled member once described it, was 'the figleaf of absolutism'.
But in spite of his potentially powerful position, Wilhelm II did not really take advantage of it. He was too indolent, too erratic, too irresolute to be an autocrat. He was quite content to leave the day-to-day running of the country to officials. And in his heart of hearts he realised that he could not really act in defiance of his chancellor, his ministers, his general staff or public opinion.