Recently I’ve been re-reading Lamar Cecil’s highly enjoyable two-volume biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II. I picked up the complete biography shortly after the final volume came out in 1996 and have read it through a few times since. Vol. I runs from his birth through 1900, and Vol. II takes him up through his death in 1941 a few days before Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
[Aside: I cannot fathom people who cannot understand re-reading a book. I’ve yet to meet anyone – and certainly I myself am not such – who is so perceptive that he picks up every last detail, every nuance, every interpretive shading, every careless conclusion, every challenge to his established thinking, on the first read-through. Just as you can never set foot in the same stream twice, because the water continuously flows and your second step is in different water, so you can never read a book as the same person twice. I would have first read Wilhelm II five or so years before my oldest child was born. I can tell you to a certainty that today I read the chapters on his troubled relationship with his parents, Uncle Bertie, and Granny Victoria through eyes that are substantively different than the eyes which first read those books. Similarly I have since 1996 read no small number of other books treating of the same times, personalities, and events. I think I would be fool indeed if nothing of what I have learned and seen and thought in the interval provided any deeper color, or more helpful perspective, on Wilhelm.]
At the risk of a plot-spoiler, Cecil’s summing-up comes down to this, in the final paragraph of Vol. II:
“What debts do Germans of today owe to their last kaiser? * * * Unhappily, there are none. It would seem that the last of the kaisers deserves, for his own time and place in history, the brutal envoi that the Duke of Wellington paid to King George IV, an inglorious king who had ruled England long before his kinsman Wilhelm was born. He was a sovereign, the Iron Duke regretfully concluded, who lived and died without having been able to assert so much as a single claim on the gratitude of posterity.”
In his preface Cecil observes that he’s spent some 30 years with Wilhelm; presumably that condemnation is the fruit of all those years’ acquaintance.
Wilhelm still fascinates, though. Seldom has a ruler come to a throne with such enormous capital in goodwill, youth, energy, and native intelligence. Seldom has a ruler come to a throne to rule over a people offering the scope of potential which late 19th Century Germany offered. Seldom has a ruler with such a people and such resources hit an historical sweet spot so squarely as Wilhelm II did. The Imperial Germany of 1889 to the crown of which Wilhelm succeeded was incontestably the most vibrant, most powerful nation in the most vigorous, prosperous, admired continent in the world. To borrow a naval metaphor, Germany was hurtling down the catapult, afterburners fully lit off, and with nothing but clear sky off the bow and above. By a freak of pathology — his father’s cancer — Wilhelm was able to hop into the cockpit and strap in before it cleared the flight deck.
As headily as Germany was advancing in 1889, in terms of learning, industry, the sciences, the arts, and general human advancement, the Germany of 1889 was just getting started. Britain, getting first off the mark of industrialization in the late 1700s, had hit and was beginning to pass her peak by then. France never would really get there. Italy, Spain, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were decrepit, mis-ruled societies still mired in centuries’ worth of inertia, corruption, and political stasis. The Netherlands and Belgium were making the run, but they were tiny, their influence on the larger course of the world negligible. Only Britain with her titanic empire and her absolute mastery of the seas which bound it together could seriously dispute Germany’s rise had she chosen. She did not choose to; German merchants were winning ever-greater market share wherever they went . . . and thanks to a merchant marine that was expanding exponentially, they went wherever they pleased, the Royal Navy bearing the burden of protecting their trade as well. The United States, still hobbled by the lingering effects of the Panic of 1873 and with an entire region of the country – the South – still devastated from the Civil War, was only slowing beginning to see its way to becoming the behemoth it did. Think not? In 1889, American trains rolled on seamless tires manufactured in Essen by Krupp.
Had Wilhelm had the vision and strength of character to seize his world-historical opportunity – to repeat: the confluence of favorable circumstances at his accession was nearly unique in all history – even today the Wilhelmine Era might be looked back upon as not a gilded (as that time in the U.S. has become known) but a Golden Age.
And Wilhelm pissed it away. All of it. All the way down to his very throne itself. Not only did he wreck his army, the beautiful army to which he addressed his very first message as kaiser, but by the end of the war hundreds of thousands of civilians had been starved to death by the punishing blockade imposed by the Royal Navy. That would be the same navy which at one time had benignly stood guard over the trade routes German merchants followed to bring untold wealth back home. Wilhelm put to plow, disked, raked, and fertilized the soil from which Hitler’s monstrosities grew. In 1914 Germany was the most over-educated, flourishing society in Europe, and in fact in most of the world. It was well on the way towards the society which, by the time Hitler came along, held more Nobel prizes in the sciences than everyone else put together. In terms of the acid question of how ordinary people lived, only certain regions of the United States even came close to it (and in what is called the Life of the Mind, America had adopted entire chunks of the German Way of Doing Things, such as its university system; large portion of the “Progressive” creed sweeping the nation in the hand of people like T. Roosevelt and Wilson had similarly been taken over wholesale from German political thought). If Serious Learning can in fact be a safeguard against the societal expression of the darkest of human nature, then in Germany if anywhere that proposition should have held. But it wasn’t even fifteen years since Wilhelm slipped over the border into the Netherlands that Germans went to the polls and elected the Nazis, and only eighteen years and six months – just barely enough time for a child to be born and grow to majority age – between August, 1914 and January 30, 1933. Talk about “fundamental transformation.”
As repeatedly observed and illustrated by Cecil, the defective monarch who presided over this wastage of human potential was someone who had been told all his life long how clever he was, how infallible his judgments, how extraordinary, how central to a world-historical phenomenon he was. He surrounded himself with sycophants and charlatans, people whose sole function was to breathe reassurance into his ears, who shielded him from all information which might disturb his self-image of a figure of massive importance, keen insight, and unlimited talents. He kept these playthings about him until he tired of them or their presence became awkward to him or they failed somehow to live up (down?) to his standard of boot-licking, at which time they were cast aside with nary a further thought. No matter what he mucked up, it was always someone else’s fault – the Jews, Lord Salisbury, his Uncle Bertie (later Edward VII), the Catholics, or his servants who were just insufficiently loyal to the Hohenzollern crown and its cosmic destiny.
He fancied himself august beyond approach, the arbiter of sophistication, taste, and learning. In fact his intelligence, which was not mean at all (even those who fully appreciated his character flaws confessed themselves very impressed by the speed with which he could grasp issues and by his phenomenal memory, the latter a trait he shared with his grandmother), was nonetheless dilettantish, spanning a broad range but very, very little if anything penetrated to any depth. His judgments were snap and superficial, usually formed in terms of how an external stimulus had affected or reflected on him, and how his response to it would emphasize or might diminish his importance and dominance. He scrupulously screened those whom he permitted into his court for pedigree and function. If you weren’t of ancient nobility, or among the very highest governmental officials, or a military officer, then by and large you were simply not hoffähig (presentable). Of course, at his disportments – and he spent a phenomenal amount of time on vacation, hunting in the fall and winter, sailing in the summer, and betwixt and between flitting about the place, inviting himself to his fellow sovereigns and his wealthier nobles – you were perfectly fine as long as you were filthy rich enough. It was on the water, for example, that he hung out with American (and a few English) plutocrats. The Krupps, Thyssens, Stumms, Henckels, and so forth were very much to his taste – outside Berlin. And to repeat: He spent as little time in Berlin as he could get away with doing. Everyone who ever knew him, from his childhood on, remarked at how little work he was willing to do, how little the hard work of mastering the governing process interested him, how willingly he cast his duties aside to play dress-up soldier.
Through it all, he never, ever learned. Anything. Even at Doorn, as a lonely, bitter old man, he was convinced that he had been right all along, that it was them, all those other people, who had ruined him.
And then it hit me: Our current Dear Leader is neither more nor less than Wilhelm II transcribed for 21st Century America, like Bach’s setting Vivaldi’s A minor violin concerto for organ (except instead of a masterpiece Dear Leader’s delivered up an excrescence). He’s spent his entire life being told how wonderfully clever he is, how infallible his judgments are, how destined (dare we say it? predestined) he is to play a fundamentally transformative role not only in his own country but on a world stage. Wilhelm’s acknowledged intelligence somehow never produced any noteworthy scholarly or mental achievement; we’ve been assured for seven years now how Dear Leader is just so brilliant that governing us contemptible roobs just bores him to death . . . and yet we have yet to see so much as an elementary school report card by way of actual documentation. Dear Leader’s books apparently were ghost-written; so were Wilhelm’s. Like the kaiser, Dear Leader too surrounds himself with groveling, fawning, truckling courtiers who vie for his attention by finding amusements for him and singing hosannas of praise of him, to him. And like the Kaiser, Dear Leader is notorious for throwing his people under the bus, as soon as it becomes expedient to do so.
Dear Leader, like Wilhelm, fancies himself a consummate diplomat and statesman; like Wilhelm, his peers the world over view him with a mixture of pity and contempt, and more or less with impunity defy his wishes. Wilhelm could seldom utter six sentences in a row without telling an outright fable or offending someone who meant him well. Dear Leader, when prized away from his Telepromptr, is renowned for his ability to say the wrong thing, at the wrong time, to the wrong people. When Wilhelm let his guard down, as in the Daily Telegraph interview, out came gushing a torrent of falsehood, confusion, illogic, petulance, and self-pity. When Dear Leader gets off-script and speaks his mind, we get treated to . . . well, to the same bizarre mixture of lies about himself and his actions, self-pity that no one will do as he instructs, and glimpses into an understanding of the world which conforms to exactly no observable data at all. No one, absolutely no one with anything more than bare walking-around sense, believes a word coming from Dear Leader’s pie-hole, exactly as Wilhelm’s bloviating was treated by his contemporaries both within German government and abroad.
Wilhelm’s capacity for empty rhetoric and bombast (remember it was the dear ol’ kaiser who exhorted his troops to behave like Huns when he sent them to China to suppress the Boxers; how’d that work out for you, sport?) was limitless. In our own time we have a candidate for office the mere nomination of whom by his party causes the planet to cool and the seas to recede (paging King Cnut! King Cnut!!), “red lines” that suddenly aren’t, high-flown gobbledy-gook about post-partisan healing matched with relentless race- and class-baiting, ceaseless tripe about the “one percent” all while siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from precisely the plutocrats about whom he gasses on to us, and on whose Martha’s Vineyard estates he relaxes from his next-most-recent vacation.
Speaking of which, like Wilhelm, Dear Leader views his time at his government desk as so much tedium between vacations. Like the kaiser, our latter-day Wilhelm always, always travels in high state, with fleets of flunkeys, retainers, and of course boorish-but-wealthy louts and hangers-on to lend a tinselly air of glamor to it all.
Wilhelm by virtue of having been born to his throne knew nearly nothing of the country he was destined to rule, and in fact even managed to avoid learning anything during his brief time in school and at the university. Dear Leader, born (according to his own statements made over the course of decades) abroad and raised in luxury in the fairy-tale atmosphere of Hawaii, makes a point of flaunting his ignorance of us little people out in fly-over country, commiserating with His People about how stupid we are in our clinging to our God and our guns.
Most striking of all is the absolute, immune-to-all-data conviction observable in both Wilhelm and Dear Leader of their own sublime magnificence, their all-encompassing infallibility in everything on which they choose to bestow the grace of their attention. Kool Aid didn’t exist in Wilhelmine Germany, but if it had, the kaiser would have drained his own pitcher, repeatedly and with a smirk on his face. And no one in modern American life appears more eager to believe his own bullshit than Dear Leader.
I could go on. Of course no historical parallel is ever perfect, and that’s no less true in the comparison of Wilhelm II and Dear Leader. But Jesus Christ and General Jackson! the resemblance is strong, disturbingly strong.
There is, of course, one significant point of distinction between the two: Wilhelm actually desired the prosperity and security of his country; however boorish he might have been about it, he was unapologetically German. Dear Leader is, at his warmest, profoundly ambivalent about the United States, and from everything he has said or done, both before taking office and since, genuinely believes that the world would be a better place with a less-powerful, less-prosperous, less-imitated America.
Wilhelm found a flourishing garden and left it a charnel house the toxins of which leach into the air and water of world society to this day. Where will we find ourselves, fifteen years after Dear Leader departs?