How Wicked – Horrid

David Blackbourn

  • Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser’s Early Life, 1859-88 by John Röhl, translated by Jeremy Gaines
    Cambridge, 979 pp, £45.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 521 49752 3

To his mother, the daughter of Queen Victoria, he was ‘Willie’, or ‘Willy’. His sister Charlotte, with characteristic charm, gave him the pet name ‘Nigger’. To the British, the man who ruled Germany as Wilhelm II from his accession in 1888 until his abdication thirty years later has always been simply ‘the Kaiser’. Wilhelm has never attracted biographers in the same numbers as Bismarck or Hitler, but no fewer than three Anglo-Saxon historians have tried their hand recently. Thomas Kohut gave us Wilhelm II and the Germans in 1991; Lamar Cecil needed two books to capture the life, the second published in 1996. Now comes John Röhl, with the first of three projected volumes. Wilhelm himself, to whom modesty was always a mysterious idea, would doubtless have been pleased by the thought of a thousand-page doorstopper devoted to his youth. It is unlikely that he would have enjoyed its contents.

Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Albert Victor was born in January 1859. He was a breech baby, whose delivery was mishandled by the attending physician so that the muscles of the shoulder, arm and hand were damaged. This was the origin of the ‘withered arm’. His mother Vicky was acutely aware of the ‘mutilated’ limb and found excuses to delay showing off her infant son to his grandparents. It became an obsessive theme. Nine years later she was still writing to her mother: ‘I think he wd. be very good looking someday if it was not for the distressing crookedness caused by his poor arm.’ The condition led to attempts at corrective surgery and a remorseless regimen of exercises, animal baths, electrotherapy and the application of an ‘arm-stretching machine’ (readers trying to handle a five-pound book will sympathise). The impact of all this on the mother-son relationship has been explored by others, but never before with the combination of diagnostic zeal and good sense that Röhl brings to the task.

The arm was not Vicky’s only concern. Her letters report early signs that Willy was ‘very wild and violent, never still a minute’; he was ‘a most destructive little person’. Queen Victoria was also unamused: the five-year-old was ‘very fond of ordering people about, & thinks a gt. deal of his own importance’. Wilhelm disappointed his mother in other ways: he was slow to talk, wrote a bad hand, spelled erratically (although this was something that ran in the family) and showed poor concentration at his lessons. To counter these self-centred and lazy habits, he was entrusted at the age of seven to Dr Georg Hinzpeter. The tutor’s pedagogical views tended to be (in his own words) ‘hard or even bleak’, and he certainly had little time for self-esteem. But it was not self-esteem that Wilhelm lacked. Röhl makes a plausible case that Hinzpeter was not the merciless martinet often depicted; nor were the tutor and the Crown Princess fundamentally at odds, notwithstanding later recriminations. Both could see the problem, but neither was able to do anything to correct it. They were jointly, if unwittingly, responsible for the fact that by the age of 15 Wilhelm had developed what Hinzpeter called an ‘egoism almost as hard as crystals’.

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