"The Winston of Germany": The British Foreign Policy Elite and the Last German Emperor
Otte, T. G., Canadian Journal of History
"A zig-zag streak of lightning in the brain." H.H. Asquith (1)
Lord Salisbury reputedly once remarked that he preferred foreign to domestic politics, for the latter dealt with issues, but the former with personalities. Like most gems of Cecilian cynicism, the statement contains a grain of troth, but is also misleading. It is one of the curious dichotomies of the nineteenth century that parallel to the rise of the modern, industrialized nation state, older patterns of political rule persisted, centred around monarchical heads of state. International relations in particular were to no small degree inter-dynastic relations right until 1914. Personalities, therefore, were potential issues.
It is true that, in the half-century before the First World War the monarchs of Europe ceased to exercise the sole, directing influence over foreign affairs. But under the impact of nationalism the idea of a monarchical brotherhood was replaced by the notion of rulers as almost archetypal representatives of their respective countries. (2) Resplendent in military uniform, the cynosure of pomp and ceremony, Kaiser Wilhelm II appeared to many of his subjects as the appropriate leader of the young Reich and its aspirations. To many historians, indeed, he epitomized the Germany of the two decades before the Great War: over-wheening pride and ambition combined with deep-seated insecurity and latent instability; technologically and industrially advanced, yet politically essentially pre-modern, with the Kaiser himself as "a self-conscious and very uncomfortable amalgam of Junker King, world-power Emperor and high-tech tycoon." (3) Moreover, under the German constitution, though he had but limited legislative power, the Emperor enjoyed substantial authority in military and foreign matters. (4) Thus, it was generally acknowledged in political circles in Whitehall and Westminster that German foreign policy was "largely dependent on the idiosyncrasy of the Emperor."(5) Indeed, as this article seeks to demonstrate, the perceived idiosyncrasies of the public (and private) persona of "German Bill" were of some significance in the formulation of British policy towards Germany. (6) This article will argue that these perceptions did not merely mirror the problems with which Anglo-German relations were increasingly fraught before 1914, (7) and that concerns about the Kaiser's flawed personality did not arise as part of an "invention of the German menace" as a device "to divert attention from the British Empire's vulnerability and rivet it on Germany," about which a certain historian has speculated in more general terms. (8) Nor did such concerns arise only sporadically in reaction to the Kaiser's better known "outbursts" such as the Kroger telegram episode or the Daily Telegraph affair. On the contrary, these concerns provided a form of basso continuo accompaniment to the cacophony of problems and tensions which complicated Anglo-German relations. The Kaiser's perceived personality, indeed, was one of these problems and needs to be taken into account in any appraisal of relations between the two countries.
Professor Rohl's painstaking and meticulous research has produced evidence to suggest, however tentatively, that the last Kaiser might have suffered from a slight brain defect, what modern medicine calls "minimal cerebral dysfunction (MCD)." (9) Wilhelm's contemporaries did not have the benefit of modern medical knowledge. However, as this article seeks to demonstrate, political circles in Britain (and elsewhere) were acutely aware of the Kaiser's perceived mental instability and character defects, and this perception informed the day-to-day conduct of British policy towards Germany. (10)
I. The "Sturm und Drang" Years: Britain and the Young Emperor
Until the later 1880s, British diplomats and their political masters in Whitehall only occasionally concerned themselves with the young Prince. It is not surprising that this should have been so. The final demise of the by now octogenarian Emperor Wilhelm I had been widely expected since the end of the previous decade, and all eyes were fixed on Crown Prince Friedrich and his wife Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. No doubt the high hopes which especially the Queen's husband, Prince Albert, had entertained at the time of their marriage, had waned somewhat under the impact of Bismarck's long rule. (11) Not only had the political realities changed considerably since the early post-Crimean days. It was also not lost on British diplomats that the liberal "Englanderin" had shown herself insensitive to the political realities of Bismarckian Germany. Her unpopularity in Germany, as the charge d'affaires at Munich, Hugh MacDonnell observed, was caused by her unconcealed intention to take an active part in politics, and because "she does not wish to identify herself with her adopted country." (12) Still, it was evidently assumed that once her husband ascended the throne, she would be able to exercise some degree of influence over German policy. One early assessment of Wilhelm by the military attache, Colonel Leopold Swaine, however, is instructive. The prince, he wrote, was "narrow minded" and "the life he leads between Potsdam and Berlin., and Berlin and Potsdam, is not calculated to increase his knowledge of the world or to induce him to understand either his own nation or ... other countries." Still, Swaine, who was later to become a useful link to the Kaiser, thought him "a right good young fellow," hard working and eager to learn. But he added ominously, "[h]e requires very careful leading." Swaine's successor, Lt. Col. Count Gleichen came to a similar conclusion and commented on the prince's "extreme Prussian views." (13)
It was only when the old emperor proved more longevous and the Crown Prince was already fatally stricken with cancer of the larynx that attention came to focus on young Prince Wilhelm. (14) His suspected pro-Russian leanings were now noted, as was his assumed association with the arch-conservative Junker party at the court. The prince, observed one Foreign Office clerk, "is warlike, impetuous & an inveterate hater of England, not a pleasant combination for the future ruler of Germany from our point of view." (15) Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, was worried on account" of [Wilhelm's] Russian proclivities, & that there stands between him & unchecked power, one life of ninety [Wilhelm I], another life of seventy three [Bismarck], and a third life [Friedrich], most lamentably threatened by a mortal disease." (160 Indeed the ambassador at Berlin, Sir Edward Malet, was instructed to induce Bismarck's son and amanuensis, Count Herbert Bismarck, "to dispel from the Prince's mind any prejudices against England." (17) Malet shared Salisbury's anxieties. The prospects for the Crown Prince's health were bleak; the political views of his son doubtful; and he had "but slender hope that [the Crown Princess] will display the tact necessary to get the tide [of popular opinion] in her favour." (18) On 9 March 1888 the old Emperor finally died, and the new, already speechless Emperor Friedrich III was too ill to return to Berlin from San Remo where he had spent the winter months. Wilhelm, now Crown Prince, was invested with full powers to sign on his father's behalf. (19) Salisbury was not the only one worried about Wilhelm. On the eve of the old Emperor's death Princess Victoria wrote to her mother:
William is used as a tool by the Government and conservative party and the Emperor's Court.... And he fancies himself consequently of immense importance, and that he is of more use to the country than his papa, who in his eyes does not keep up Prussian traditions enough and is suspected of a little leaning towards a more liberal and modern tendency! ... The Emperor and William are cards in the hands of very unprincipled and violent people. (20)
The Princess Royal had good reasons to be concerned. Under the stipulations of the German constitution, her political future was inextricably bound up with that of her husband. If Fritz died, the political role for which she had been groomed would elude her for ever. There was no place in German politics for an Empress Dowager. (21)
Lord Salisbury's apprehensions meanwhile had been given fresh fuel. On the day of the old Emperor's death he confided to his daughter: "Politically speaking it is the beginning of the end.... he felt as if we were just leaving harbour -- this was the shock of the first great wave on the bow.... 'I can see the sea covered with white horses'." Lady Gwendolen's diary continues, "S[alisbury's] political anxiety is enormously increased by a conversation he had with.... "Unfortunately, here the entry breaks off to continue partially enciphered, though there is mention that "S[alisbury] could hardly believe his ears and was still more horrified when he gathered that...." (22) A letter from Salisbury's private secretary, Sir Schomberg MacDonnell, to King George V, written in the early months of the Great War, may hold the key to Salisbury's horror. (23) On the day Lady Gwendolen made the above entry in her diary, MacDonnell informed Salisbury verbally of a conversation he had had with the well-known surgeon John Erichsen. According to Erichsen, "certain aspects of the mental condition" of Prince Wilhelm had given rise to anxiety among German court doctors in the mid-1870s. At the time, Erichsen had been invited to comment on a confidential memorandum on the subject compiled by a German colleague. Now, with the imminent prospect of Wilhelm's accession to the throne, he felt it incumbent upon him to warn Lord Salisbury:
That Prince William was not, and never would be, a normal man. ... That while it was not probable that he would actually become insane, some of his actions would probably be those of a man not wholly sane.., on these grounds the accession of the Crown Prince would possibly be a danger to Europe.
According to MacDonnell, Erichsen's communication made a lasting impression on Salisbury: "He was of course immensely interested: and at times when the Emperor committed some indiscretion he used to say privately the single word `Erichsen'." (24) Such information caused much fluttering not only in Downing Street dovecotes. According to Friedrich von Holstein, the eminence grise of the German Foreign Office, in court and diplomatic circles at Berlin Wilhelm was thought to be "frankly, not quite right in the head." (25)
If any further proof of Wilhelm's instability was required, his behaviour during his father's brief reign and the first months of his own furnished it. Political life in Germany during the Ninety-Nine Days was on hold, save for the Empress's abortive attempt to bring about the marriage of one of her daughters to Alexander yon Battenberg, the recently deposed Prince of Bulgaria. Bismarck and the Crown Prince were opposed to this union, and there was much talk of a "chancellor crisis." Sir Edward Malet discounted such analyses, arguing instead that Bismarck had his eyes already fixed on Wilhelm's succession to the throne. Fearing that his control over the young prince might slip he had engineered this "imaginary conflict" to "show [Wilhelm] that an Emperor is not powerful enough to act in opposition to the views of the chancellor and that the chancellor cannot be snuffed out like a candle." In Malet's analysis the show-down with the Empress "would be useful hereafter [for Bismarck] as a warning for the future Emperor." (26) Bismarck got his way against the Empress, but Salisbury must have had his doubts about any salutary effect of the crisis on Wilhelm. In light of Bismarck's advanced age, it was only a question of time before Wilhelm would gain complete control over the government. At any rate, always wary of the detrimental effect family complications might produce on international diplomacy, Salisbury concluded that friendly relations with Germany were now more uncertain than with France. (27)
Salisbury's conclusion was not at all without foundation. Excerpts from the Empress's letters to her mother, complaining of the Crown Prince's conduct, were regularly sent to him from Osborne. The Queen herself, "trouble[d] and distresse[d]" by her grandson's "impudent and impertinent" behaviour, was shortly to travel to Berlin and Salisbury anticipated a major diplomatic eclat. (28) In the Wilhelmstrasse Holstein shared Salisbury's gloomy forebodings. Through the ambassador at London, Count Hatzfeldt, and independently of Bismarck, indeed against his wishes, he urged Salisbury to advise the Queen to treat the Crown Prince respectfully. The ambassador intimated that Wilhelm was perhaps somewhat overwhelmed by his own sense of importance but that this had to be taken into account now. Salisbury concurred and wrote to the Queen "that all Prince William's impulses, however blamable and unreasonable, will henceforth be political causes of enormous potency: & the two nations are so necessary to each other, that everything that is said to him must be carefully weighed. It is to be hoped that natural grief & a feeling of decency will ... dominate him & exclude all lower impulses." (29)
The meeting between the Queen and her grandson passed off cordially. But the Crown Prince's callous behaviour towards his parents during the last weeks of Friedrich's life did little to convince diplomatic observers that these "lower impulses" could be contained. He had warned his mother that on Friedrich's death soldiers would surround the palace and search for secret documents. Wilhelm kept his word: a military cordon was drawn round the palace; but, following the intervention of the Prussian minister of justice, the new Emperor, fearing the bad impression which such action might create, called off the search. (30) The bulk of the imperial couple's papers had already been burnt or sent to Windsor in the previous winter. What private papers there remained were smuggled out of the palace with Malet's aid shortly before the cordon was drawn up, and sent through Col. Swaine to Balmoral. (31)
What Salisbury and his officials made of these nocturnal cloak-and-dagger proceedings can only be imagined. The minor scandal surrounding Wilhelm's first state visit to Vienna in October 1888 merely seemed to fit into the pattern of his recent behaviour. The young Emperor had refused to meet his uncle, the Prince of Wales, who also happened to be in Austria, and indeed stipulated that he be kept away from Vienna for the duration of his visit, on the grounds that he was not sufficiently deferential to him. The Queen was incensed: "To pretend that he is to be treated in private as well as in public as `His Imperial Majesty' is perfect madness!" (32) Salisbury, saw his earlier warnings confirmed, resignedly observing to the ambassador at Vienna: "I think the Emperor William must be a little off his head." (33)
The experiences of 1888 shaped Salisbury's outlook on European affairs for the remainder of his political life. In July Malet had submitted his assessment of the altered situation at Berlin. For the past quarter of a century Bismarck had been the dominant force in Prusso-German politics, and although he was "not a character in which one can place confidence as we accept the term," his actions were calculable. The key to Bismarck's power had been the compliance of the old Emperor. Under the new regime, however, more attention had to be paid to Wilhelm. His rumoured Anglophobe sentiments were probably non-existent, and his general sentiments had not yet matured and were changeable: "But herein lies a danger ... The fear is that a continued show of want of confidence in him at this especial period of his life may produce a revulsion of the feelings which have hitherto weighed the balance." Bismarck's present friendliness towards Britain might not last and it was "therefore of special importance that the Emperor should be on our side. His sentiments will count as a strong factor in the policy which may be adopted towards us." The chancellor's position was no longer as strong as it had been previously; he now had to humour Wilhelm. But Malet recommended that the British government, too, ought to adopt a "general tone of confidence" in the new Emperor in an effort to win his support. (34)
Salisbury remained unmoved by the ambassador's ratiocination. However sensible and moderating his advice to the Queen, he himself could not bring himself to adopt that "general tone of confidence" Malet had recommended. The Earl of Lytton, the ambassador at Paris, reflected Salisbury's own sentiments when he observed that "[w]ith Boulanger at the head of France, the Emperor William at the head of Germany, and Crispi governing Italy, it may be ... a bad time for the peace of Europe." (35) His apprehensions about the Emperor's erratic personality also influenced Salisbury's cool reception of Bismarck's alliance offer in 1889. No doubt, Salisbury's recommendation "to leave it on the table, without …
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Publication information: Article title: "The Winston of Germany": The British Foreign Policy Elite and the Last German Emperor. Contributors: Otte, T. G. - Author. Journal title: Canadian Journal of History. Volume: 36. Issue: 3 Publication date: December 2001. Page number: 471+. © 1999 Canadian Journal of History. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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