A Short History of Germany

By S. H. Steinberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
THE EMPIRE OF WILLIAM II (1890-1918)

THE period from 1890 to 1918 is known as the Wilhelmian era, not because William II was a strong personality who impressed his will and authority upon his generation, but because the absence of any outstanding man made him the prototype of the weaklings who for twenty-five years shaped the destiny of Germany. In no sphere of activities was this more obvious than in that of foreign affairs, which Bismarck had made his exclusive domain. The Reichstag was allowed to discuss them, but had no influence on their course, and the Federal Council, which had the authority, never used it. The Emperor's prerogative of personal intervention in foreign affairs soon therefore gained an importance which Bismarck had never conceded to his sovereign; and Germany's foreign policy from 1890 to 1914 clearly reflects the inconsistency of its imperial originator. William II's impulsive vagaries were by no means counterbalanced by the chancellors who succeeded Bismarck. General von Caprivi ( 1890-94) was a worthy old soldier; Bethmann Hollweg ( 1909-17) was an uninspired administrative official; neither of them had any experience of, or settled views on, foreign affairs. Prince Hohenlohe ( 1894- 1900), it is true, was a trained diplomatist; but, being seventy-five years of age when he took office, he was too old and inert to resist the flighty impromptus of his imperial nephew. Lastly, Bülow ( 1900-9) responded to the Emperor's sudden flashes with an unscrupulous alacrity which increased rather than checked their dangers. Similarly, fawning courtiers adapted themselves to their master's every whim, although not a few of them--such as Count Waldersee, Moltke's successor as Chief of the General Staff, and Prince Eulenburg, a base flatterer though well versed in foreign affairs--expressed in diaries and confidential letters their despair of the Emperor's ruinous policy; they even hinted at his being mentally deranged. The Emperor's unconstitutional politique à Popirette, however, provided a leading role for an actor of demoniacal gifts: it was Fritz von Holstein, councillor at the Foreign Office, who, though bearing no formal responsibility, was for sixteen fateful years the chief agent of German foreign policy. The central motive of Holstein's activities seems to have been a fiendish hatred of Bismarck

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