This superb new edition of Christopher Clark's magisterial study of the Kaiser contains some new material and photographs.
Many questions hang over Wilhelm II -- just how much power and influence did he wield in Germany? To what degree did he shape the development of Germany during the three decades of his rule? To what extent was the Great War the result of his planning and leadership? Christopher Clark sets out to answer these questions in an incisive, beautifully-written synthesis of current scholarship.
Prof. Clark's interest is primarily in the political sphere; but despite his claim that this "makes no pretense at the comprehensiveness of a biography," it is also a revealing study of Wilhelm's family, character and personal foibles. I found it fascinating.
Highly recommended to serious students of the period.
on 10 December 2009
This is not a new book; it is a reissue of the 'Profiles in Power' book published a decade ago. Like most books in PIP series, this is NOT a biography. Rather, it is a chronological study of the Kaiser's political career and the ways in which he exercised political power. The book thus becomes quite dry in places and by the end of it you are still left feeling that the 'personal' Kaiser is an enigma. But the 'political' Kaiser is completely revealed, and thus the author fulfills his objective. An interesting read.
Kaiser Wilhelm 11, the last German Emperor, has not been well treated by history or historians. Part of this was due to the instability of his personality which was overbearing and arrogant. While some have emphasised his enmity towards his mother, who blamed herself for his disability, others claim he had a psychologically incestuous relationship with her. The latter can be dismissed as nonsense and Wilhelm learned to live with his disability. Once he had dismissed Bismarck in 1890 he lacked the nous to grasp the fact that real power lay with the executive and his Imperial functions did not automatically include him as an active part of the executive.
Clark provides an excellent insight into the nature of the court life of the ruling families of Europe which explains Wilhelm's behaviour in a manner which is scarcely appreciated today. Such families were constantly at odds with each other and themselves. In Wilhelm's case he supported the more authoritarian ideas of his grandfather than the liberal ideas of his parents. He did not believe anyone other than himself should take executive decisions, either directly or through trusted emissaries. As Emperor (Kaiser) of the German States his political problems were different from those in his role as King of Prussia, primarily because of the different interests and forces at play.
Wilhelm wanted to rule as well as reign but was unable to do so unless he had sufficient political support. However, the dual nature of German constitutional rule militated against this. Wilhelm was King of Prussia and accepted its conservative militaristic tradition. In Germany as a whole he was Kaiser of an Empire in which Prussia was one participating principality. Hence his influence was not as strong and he needed to provide political leadership which he was unable to do because of the practical limitations of his power and his indecisiveness in taking decisions which varied from day to day according to his mood. Although Clark's book is sub-titled "A Life in Power" it would have been more accurate to have written "A Life Near to Power". He failed to realise the day of the authoritarian monarch had passed and his many gaffes embarrassed politicians in Germany.
Having supported Bismark's repressive conservatism Wilhelm adopted reformist ideas to ward off the growing strength of the socialist movement, one source of his antisemitism which, after the First World War, resulted in him calling for the world wide extermination of Jews. His interference against Bismarck's repressive social policies led to the decisive break between the two men. However, his reformism was short-lived and he quickly asserted his arrogance in making public statements which were politically and diplomatically indiscreet. He told troops leaving to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, 'Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German'. He did not understand the insensitivity of his comments.
Wilhelm wanted to build a strong navy to rival the British but his inept diplomacy served to upset the balance of power alienating the British, French and Russians. His control of appointments alienated the Reichstag and isolated him from democratic influences. Hence he was surprised when his comment to the Daily Telegraph in 1908 that, "You English," he said, "are mad, mad, mad as March hares".' led to calls for his abdication in Germany. Wilhelm sacrificed his chancellor Prince Bulow instead. He never fully appreciated that as Emperor he was perceived as the embodiment of Germany as a whole and too often gave Imperial speeches which were considered those of a partisan Prussian. Gradually, he was marginalised from the policy process and by 1916 he was, in practical terms, dominated by the military regime led by Hindenburg and Luddendorf. He isolated himself from the populace by leaving Berlin to reside at the imperial headquarters in Spa, Belgium.
Wilhelm was shocked at the news from the army in September 1918 that the war was lost. Clark notes, 'The emperor's braggadocio and flights of fancy had always concealed a profound aversion to open confrontation or real conflict. By 1918, after years of relative isolation in the unreal world of the imperial headquarters, they....emerged as dominant forces in his personality'.' Public opinion had turned against him and the newly installed civilian government removed him from office just as he was about to abdicate. Wilhelm travelled to neutral Netherlands where he remained for twenty years, the Dutch refusing to extradite him for an international trial which would have been of dubious legality.
Clark identifies Wilhelm's weakness as being "intellectually and emotionally incapable of self-criticism". It was always the fault of others and, in particular, he needed to deflect guilt and responsibility for the start of the war and the collapse of the empire. Wilhelm's antisemitism flourished in the post-war period. Hitler and Goering suggested the monarchy might be restored but Wilhelm was sceptical and proved correct when the Nazis outlawed all monarchist organisations. By the time the Nazis began to organise pogroms against Jews in 1938 Wilhelm was publicly critical. To regard Wilhelm as a precursor to Hitler is, in Clark's view, erroneous. Wilhelm's legacy was the collapse of German monarchism. That the gap was filled by a dictator was a side-effect of the failure of the Wiemar Republic not the loss of the war as Hitler claimed. " Wilhelm remains.....a man of intelligence but of poor judgement, of tactless outbursts and short-lived enthusiasms, a fearful, sense of weakness and threat". Clark's purpose was to 'redress the balance between denunciation and understanding' and to a very large extent he has succeeded. Four stars.
on 13 November 2011
Having read Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom I did not hesitate in reading Kaiser Wilhelm II, Life in Power. I was not disspointed.
History has been brutal to Kaiser Wilhelm portraying him as a warmongering and power hungry figure, vain and foolish causing the destruction of the Hohenzollern Empire his forefathers worked so tirelessly to create.
Clark really uncovers the layers upon layers of the complex personality that is Wilhelm the Second. The book is a breathtaking study in the psyche of leader taking us through his childhood and early years as well as his years in power. His disliking of his father, envy of Bismarck and increasing lack of any authority as the First World War progresses are amongst the intriguing facts that Clark brings to front.
Clark really does a fine job decoding Wilhelm the tragic figure that lost a crown and an empire and paved the way for the horrors that were to descend upon Germany in the years to come, one which he watched in horror from his exile in Holland.
on 22 August 2011
There has never been any doubt in England that Germany was responsible for the two World Wars of the twentieth century; but, whereas Hitler has been a relatively uncontroversial war criminal, the same cannot be said of Kaiser Wilhelm II. After all, he was very closely related to the British royal family, and prior to 1914 the Germans were thought of as our cousins, far more closely related than the French. The Entente Cordiale was a relatively recent phenomenon, and people simply could not understand how the First World War had come about.
My grandmother used to refer to the period before that War as the period 'before the world went mad'; and, because the Kaiser was clearly to blame for the mass slaughter which followed, there was a movement in England which was in favour of hanging him. He was clearly a very bad man. Was he also mad? Christopher Clark brings the cool mind of the professional historian to these problems, and he provides some very convincing answers, firmly based on a vast German literature which is not readily accessible by most English readers.
The view he presents of the Kaiser will surprise many. He was neither mad, nor particularly bad. He was not an absolute ruler, indeed he had no very clearly defined role within the Imperial Constitution (though he liked to talk big). He had difficult relationships with his Chancellors, starting with the formidable Bismarck. He did not by any means always get his own way. He was not particularly militaristic, though he was always very keen on the Navy (root cause of the growing and fatal misunderstanding between Germany and Britain). On some issues, he was a liberal; and he favoured a policy to improve the schools. He was not principally responsible for the Agadir incident, nor for the decision to back Austria against Serbia in 1914, even if that meant a war. He did not in fact want war, and tried to avoid it. In some circles, he was mockingly referred to as 'the Peace Kaiser'. He was not in favour of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, until 1917, when he felt compelled to authorise it. He was much less in favour of invading France, and of crushing the French, than his generals were. He did not expect war with Russia. We may question this portrait at various points, but I suspect it is accurate, if only because life is seldom as simple as we would like it to be.
The book is not intended to be a biography. It is more of a study in political history; and it is more of a summary than a full-length exposition of the arguments deployed; but, as a non-specialist, I found it all the better and more readable for that. Certainly it will be difficult to think of Germany, and the Kaiser's role in the First World War, in quite the same way again.
on 19 August 2011
A very good in-depth biography of a rather puzzling character. The author examines HIM's actions, and gives convincing reasons for what would otherwise seem inexplicable, not to say contradictory, behaviour. Altogether, an excellent biography that is a readable contribution to a victim of propaganda.