"The Winston of Germany": The British Foreign Policy Elite and the Last German Emperor

By Otte, T. G. | Canadian Journal of History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

"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. …

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