Magazine article The Spectator

'Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900-1941', by John C.G. Röhl, Translated by Sheila De Bellaigue and Roy Bridge - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900-1941', by John C.G. Röhl, Translated by Sheila De Bellaigue and Roy Bridge - Review

Article excerpt

The life of Kaiser Wilhelm II is also a guide to how to ruin a country, says Philip Mansel

He who must be obeyed: portrait of the Kaiser by Ferdinand Keller, 1893Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900-1941 John C.G. Röhl, translated by Sheila de Bellaigue and Roy Bridge

CUP, pp.1562, £45, ISBN: 9786521844314

The role of personality in politics is the theme of this awe-inspiring biography. This is the third volume, 1,562 pages long, of John Röhl's life of the Kaiser. It has been brilliantly translated -- the labyrinth of imperial Germany navigated by many headed subdivisions in each chapter -- by Sheila de Bellaigue.

The fruit of what Röhl calls a 'dark obsession' with the Kaiser, it had its origin when, writing about Germany after the fall of Bismarck at the apogee of social and institutional history in the 1960s, he realised that he was analysing not a modern government but a court society. Personalities and dynasties were as important as classes and parties. One of the outstanding biographies of the past 20 years, based on research in almost as many archives as the Kaiser had palaces, it is also a guide to how to ruin a country.

This volume deals with the years from 1900 to the Kaiser's death in exile in the Netherlands in 1941. Behind Germany's façade of parliamentary government, with the most advanced economy in Europe (by 1914 twice as many books were published in Germany as in France), considerable power remained with the Kaiser and his private military, naval and civil cabinets. He could appoint the Chancellor, ambassadors and generals. As he wrote to his first cousin George V in 1912, 'They have to obey and follow my will.' Germany did not make ministers responsible to the legislature rather than the monarch until October 1918 -- in a last-minute attempt to win better peace terms, rather than a sudden enthusiasm for constitutionalism.

Journeys reveal power structure. The Chancellor travelled to remote royal hunting lodges -- Rominten, Springe, Hubertusstock, even to the Kaiser's villa in Corfu -- in order to consult his master. One of the Kaiser's closest friends, Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, provoked public exposure as a homosexual by returning to Germany in January 1907 to be received into the Order of the Black Eagle in the Schlosss in Berlin. He risked everything to attend a court function.

Admirers of Prince Charles's speeches might reflect on the damage inflicted by the Kaiser's indiscretions on his country, his monarchy and himself. From the start of his reign, he said 'I' instead of 'my government'. After 1899 this forceful, volatile, controversy-courting ruler was openly attacked in a way other German monarchs were not. Every imperial speech, August Bebel said, to gales of laughter in the Reichstag, won 100,000 votes for the socialists.

Germany's ruin was long foretold. General Count Waldersee wrote in 1900, 'the Kaiser ruins everyone he deals with.' Germany was heading for 'a bad end'. In April 1904 Baroness von Spitzemberg wrote in her diary that the Kaiser was 'leading glorious Germany into disaster, unless God helps us!'

After an especially indiscreet interview with the Kaiser, printed by the Daily Telegraph in 1908, which Röhl thinks was intended to lull England while Germany built up its navy, the Reichstag passed a unanimous vote of censure against his personal rule. A few weeks later, staying with Prince Furstenberg in Donaueschingen, the Kaiser and his household were entertained by General von Hülsen-Haeseler, head of his military cabinet, dancing in their hostess's ball-gown, blowing kisses to the guests -- until a heart attack left him dead at his master's feet. The Kaiser's subsequent nervous collapse lasted several weeks.

When he wanted he could be -- wrote his cousin Queen Mary -- 'charming and agreeable'. Churchill admired his 'easy grace'. In 1913 he boasted that his reign had seen 25 years of peace. …

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