How powerful was the Kaiser?

Christopher Clark

In January 1904, King Leopold II of Belgium was invited to Berlin to attend a birthday dinner for Kaiser Wilhelm II. The two monarchs were seated next to each other and everything was going nicely until the Kaiser suddenly brought up the question of a possible future French attack on Germany. In the event of a war between Germany and France, Wilhelm explained, he would expect the Belgians to side with Germany. So long as they agreed, he would see to it personally that Belgium was rewarded after the conclusion of hostilities with territories annexed from northern France. Leopold himself, he added, warming to his theme, could expect to be rewarded with ‘the Crown of Old Burgundy’. When the king of the Belgians, unsettled by these speculations, countered that the ministers and parliament of his country were hardly likely to approve of such far-flung plans, Wilhelm became flustered. He couldn’t respect a king, he said, who felt himself answerable to ministers and parliament rather than to God alone. ‘I will not be trifled with!’ he snapped. ‘As a soldier, I belong to the school of Frederick the Great, to the school of Napoleon. If Belgium does not go with me, I will be guided solely by strategic considerations.’ Leopold is reported to have been so upset by the exchange that, on rising from the table, he put his helmet on backwards.

The career of the last German Kaiser is littered with effusions of this kind. They range from the gross and offensive to the bizarre or merely foolish. Wilhelm II spent most of his waking hours talking, arguing, shouting, speechifying, preaching, threatening and generally unbosoming himself of his latest preoccupations to whoever happened to be within earshot. He was like a Tourette’s tic at the heart of the German state executive. Even when he made the utmost effort to restrain himself, the indiscretions kept slipping out.

The summit meetings between the German and Russian leaderships at Baltic Port (now the Estonian town of Paldiski) in the summer of 1912 are a case in point. The German ambassador in St Petersburg had advised the Kaiser to avoid tendentious topics and to adopt a ‘listening attitude’ wherever possible. For the most part Wilhelm succeeded in reining himself in. But after a lunch on board the Russian imperial yacht Standart, the Kaiser drew the Russian foreign minister aside and spoke to him – or rather at him – for more than an hour about his relationship with his parents, who, he said, had never loved him. Sergei Sazonov later recalled this as an illustration of the German emperor’s ‘marked tendency to overshoot the boundaries of the reserve and dignity that one would expect of someone in such an elevated position’.

On the second day of the visit, during a tour in crippling heat of the ruined fortifications constructed around the port by Peter the Great, Wilhelm again forgot his instructions and buttonholed the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Kokovtsov, on one of his latest hobby-horses, the need to establish a pan-European oil trust to compete with American Standard Oil. The conversation, Kokovtsov recalled, ‘became extremely animated’:

The sun was scorching. The tsar did not want to interrupt our conversation, but behind Emperor Wilhelm’s back he made signs of impatience to me. The Kaiser, however, continued to answer my arguments with increasing fervour. Finally the tsar seemed to lose all patience, approached us, and began to listen to our conversation, whereupon Emperor Wilhelm turned to him with the following words (in French): ‘Your Chairman of the Council does not sympathise with my ideas, and I do not want to permit him to remain unconvinced. I want you to allow me to prove my point with data collected at Berlin, and when I am ready I should like to have your permission to resume this conversation with him.’

It’s worth picturing this scene: the glare of the sunlight on the broken stone of the old fort, Kokovtsov sweltering in his jacket, the Kaiser red-faced and gesticulating as, oblivious to the discomfort of his companions, he unfolds the ramifications of his proposal and behind him the tsar, trying desperately to end the ordeal and get the party out of the sun. No wonder Wilhelm was a figure of terror on the royal circuit.

Among the company of the royal ‘club’ that still ruled Europe in the years before 1914, Wilhelm’s inordinate loquacity stood out. Tsar Nicholas II was retiring by nature and George V was painfully shy. Scarcely a peep was heard in public from the elderly Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, a notoriously austere and laconic figure. And the contrast is heightened in retrospect by the fact that virtually everything the Kaiser said, no matter how risible, was recorded and preserved for posterity. One consequence is that his reputation has been shaped (as it was for contemporaries) much more by what he said than by what he did.

In the third and final volume of John Röhl’s immense biography of Wilhelm II, the Kaiser’s voice is the thread that holds the text together. On page after page, he cajoles, whines, demands, vociferates and babbles, bombarding his interlocutors (and the reader) with fantastical geopolitical speculations, crackpot plans, sarcastic asides and off-colour jokes. Reading Wilhelm II on every conceivable subject for more than 1200 pages (3000 if you read the three volumes in sequence) is like listening for days on end to a dog barking inside a locked car. And the effect is heightened by the fact that this volume is focused more narrowly on the monarch than its predecessors – there are fewer excursions into the worlds of the rest of the imperial elite and fewer pen-portraits of friends and associates.

It would be difficult to overstate what Röhl has achieved. This trilogy is the fruit of a lifetime’s work. Röhl has been studying and writing on the subject for fifty years and has combed the world’s archives, libraries and family collections in search of every last note or letter that could shed light on the Kaiser and his circle. And he has documented his findings in eloquent and sometimes passionate prose, superbly translated this time by Sheila de Bellaigue and Roy Bridge. Beyond the biography, Röhl has illuminated the people and structures of the imperial court in dozens of books and essays; his first book, Germany without Bismarck (1967), a pioneering work of archival reconstruction, remains the go-to text for students of Fin-de-Siècle German high politics; he spent 17 years editing the oceanic political correspondence of the Kaiser’s intimate Count Philipp zu Eulenburg. Taken together, these publications (and there are many others) represent a unique monument to primary scholarship.

At the core of all three volumes of the biography, especially of the later two, are two driving ideas: that Wilhelm II possessed immense personal power, and that he wielded this power to catastrophic effect. Volume I closed with the prediction that Wilhelm, once enthroned, would reveal himself to be ‘the nemesis of world history’. Volume II opened with a stark characterisation of the Kaiser as ‘a kind of missing link, as it were, between Bismarck and Hitler’. Wilhelm, Röhl argued, was ‘almost invincible’. The Reich and Prussian governments were ‘mere administrative organs’ carrying out his ‘imperial commands’. Right up until 1914, Röhl declares in Volume III, Wilhelm ‘controlled every fundamental decision on matters of personnel, foreign and armaments policy’. His power in domestic politics may have been undermined by the crises of the Eulenburg scandal of 1907-9 (when the homosexuality of some of those close to him was exposed by a liberal smear campaign) and the Daily Telegraph affair of 1908 (when his jejune remarks to a British journalist triggered a media storm across Germany), but in the sphere of foreign policy Wilhelm’s ‘decision-making power’ continued undiminished. In short: this was the man who ‘steered’ Germany and Europe ‘into the vortex of the world war’.

Did the Kaiser really wield this kind of power? How important were his interventions in shaping the course of German foreign policy? The main obstacle to answering this question is simply that Wilhelm’s objectives were anything but consistent. Had he pursued throughout his career a clear and coherent political vision or programme, we could easily measure his influence by weighing intentions against outcomes. But Wilhelm’s interventions were often impulsive shots from the hip and his objectives were diffuse and constantly shifting. Incensed by a strike among Berlin’s tramway workers in 1900, the Kaiser fired off a telegram to the Guards Corps command: ‘When the troops move in, I expect at least five hundred fatalities’ – a demand so outrageous that it doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone to act on it. In the late 1890s he became enthusiastic about the idea of founding a ‘New Germany’ in the jungles of Brazil and ‘demanded impatiently’ of the imperial administration that it do everything in its power to stimulate German emigration there. Nothing happened. In a conversation with Cecil Rhodes in 1899, he declared that he had always planned to acquire Mesopotamia as a German colony (the British got it instead). A year later, he proposed to Chancellor Bülow that China should be partitioned among the great powers. In 1903 he announced that ‘Latin America is our goal’ and ordered the imperial admiralty staff – which appears to have been drastically underemployed – to prepare invasion plans for Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York. The result was Operationsplan III, presented to the Kaiser by the naval staff in March 1903. But the idea got nowhere, partly because the army never agreed to supply the necessary troops or logistical support: in 1906 the plan was declared ‘obsolete’ and filed away.

The Kaiser picked up ideas, became excited about them, got bored and dropped them. Proposals flowed endlessly from the imperial pen: for an alliance with Russia and France against Japan and England; or with Russia, England and France against the United States; or with China and the United States against Japan and the Triple Entente; or with Japan and the United States against the Entente and so on. In 1902 he proposed that Britain should join Germany’s Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. At around the same time, the former chief of the general staff General Waldersee reported that the idea of a lasting ‘reconciliation with France’ belonged to the Kaiser’s ‘many plans for the future’. On the other hand, if France and Britain were to turn against Germany, Wilhelm proposed in a letter to the chancellor in 1905, the Russians should be lured into a German alliance by ‘the pleasing prospect of plundering and laying waste to beautiful Gaul’.

These interventions don’t suggest a man with a tight grip on the policy-making process. To be sure, Wilhelm II stood at the centre of the German constitution. He was the point – the only point – at which the civilian and military chains of command converged. But he was unable to play the kind of co-ordinating role that might have compensated for the absence in Germany of unified command structures comparable with the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre in France or the Committee of Imperial Defence in Britain. And he remained incapable of developing or realising a political programme of his own, or even of imposing his will on the executive in a consistent manner. He was, as Friedrich von Holstein observed, ‘unfortunately very impressionable’; his sometime intimate Herbert von Bismarck described him as ‘tractable, sensible and easy to win over’. Bismarck the elder famously remarked that the Kaiser was apt to wander off at any moment ‘like a balloon’. ‘It seems that His Majesty is recommending another new programme,’ Chancellor Hohenlohe sighed in February 1897. ‘But I don’t take it too tragically; I’ve seen too many programmes come and go.’ None of this means that the Kaiser was unimportant. But it does suggest that his significance lay less in the imposition of an autocratic will than in a chronic failure of leadership.

Did the Kaiser, as Röhl suggests, ‘steer’ Germany and thereby the world into the war that broke out in 1914? Does the power wielded by ‘the mightiest throne on earth’ hold ‘the key to understanding how the world came to be plunged into the seminal catastrophe of the Great War’? Here, I must confess to being unconvinced by the case Röhl makes. There is no doubt that Wilhelm’s flamboyant, aggressive and careless language makes it easy to set him up as an inveterate warmonger, and Röhl presents a plethora of documents for the reader’s inspection. Yet even these documents suggest that Wilhelm continued right up until the outbreak of war to vacillate between doveish and hawkish positions. In February 1913, when a militarised stand-off between Austria and Russia in the Balkans stirred fears of imminent European war, the Kaiser wrote to his friend Archduke Franz Ferdinand urging him to take the initiative in de-escalating the crisis. Austrian efforts at ‘disarmament’, he suggested, would delight the tsar, who was about to celebrate the 300th jubilee of the House of Romanov, and ‘be welcomed with sheer joy all over the world’. In early and mid-October 1913, on the other hand, as a crisis broke out over the invasion of northern Albania by Serbian troops, he urged Vienna to take a hard line against the Serbs: ‘Now or never! It is high time that peace and order were established down there!’ And yet in mid-December 1913, we find him pressing the Austrians to be moderate and flexible and to win the Serbs over with money, concessions and officer exchange programmes.

Context, I would argue, is crucial here. When the risk of an Austrian-Russian conflict was high, as it seemed to be in February 1913, Wilhelm tried to apply the brakes. In October 1913, by contrast, there was little risk of a major war, since the great powers were united in condemning the Serbian invasion of Albania; at this juncture, Wilhelm was in favour of taking a hard line against Austria’s Balkan neighbour precisely because the risk of serious consequences seemed so low. By December 1913, however, with tension rising between Berlin and St Petersburg over the future status of the Turkish Straits, Wilhelm once again urged caution. This pattern repeated itself throughout his reign. ‘It is a curious thing,’ remarked Jules Cambon, the French ambassador in Berlin, in 1912, ‘to see how this man, so sudden, so reckless and impulsive in words, is full of caution and patience in action.’

Röhl’s account offers a very different reading of the same episodes. The Kaiser, he argues, had already ‘decided’ in the winter of 1912 to bring about a European war by one means or another, and his subsequent utterances and actions must be construed in this light. When Wilhelm hesitates or urges the case for peace, he is merely ‘postponing’ to a more convenient date a war that he has already decided on as a matter of policy. Pressing the Austrians to mollify Belgrade becomes a tactical move to strengthen his ally’s position against St Petersburg in preparation for the instigation of a war with Russia. On the other hand, when Wilhelm assures the Austrians of his support in their action against Serbia, as in October 1913, Röhl accuses him of providing the ‘blank cheque’ that will be cashed by Vienna in the summer of the following year.

We have here a seemingly unfalsifiable thesis. But the thesis is unfalsifiable only if we accept that the prior imperial ‘decision’ really exists. And yet, with the best will in the world, I can find in Röhl’s exceptionally generous citations from the documents no evidence that such a decision was taken. I see a great deal of dangerous talk about threats and future conflicts, speculative scenarios, and a worrying blend of paranoia and aggression, but no imperial ‘decision for war’ 18 months in advance of the summer crisis of 1914. And it must be said that in insisting on this point, Röhl is virtually alone among scholars of the war’s aetiology, even among those who join him in affirming Germany’s preponderant responsibility for its outbreak.

Several problems seem to arise here. The first is a tendency to construe disparate utterances as born of a coherent intention, a particularly problematic assumption in the case of this monarch, who was the soul of inconsistency in word and action and remained so until and beyond the summer of 1914. The second is merely empirical: why, if the Kaiser wielded such immense power in peacetime, was he so easily shunted to the sidelines during the July Crisis, when, as even Röhl concedes, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg took control of German policy? And why did his power collapse so irretrievably after the outbreak of war? Finally there is the question of context. For Röhl, ‘context’ means first and foremost other statements by the Kaiser or by members of his circle. The dynamics of the international setting are barely sketched in, so that Berlin appears as an island of seething aggression in an otherwise peaceable continent peopled by grandfatherly great powers keen to rub along together and keep the peace.

But what if we can find analogous posturing and dangerous talk among the prewar decision-makers of the other powers? If the deputy chief of the French general staff tells the Russian ambassador in December 1912 ‘that he personally is ready for war and even that he would like a war’; if the semi-official journal of the Russian general staff writes in January 1914 of an impending ‘war of extermination’ between the Slavs and the Germanic peoples; if the Russian minister of war inserts a leader article in a newspaper in March 1914 declaring that ‘Russia is ready for war and France should get ready too,’ are these utterances evidence of a coherent Franco-Russian ‘plan’ to instigate war? Of course not. Rather they express the wariness and aggression of decision-makers who were willing to accept the risk that by preparing for the worst they might help to bring the worst about. It’s a striking feature of Wilhelm II’s most hawkish outbursts that they were coupled not with threats of a war of aggression launched by Germany, but with the (admittedly often deluded) fear of sudden attack by another power: even the appalling birthday conversation with Leopold II in 1904 opened with the imagined scenario of an unprovoked Franco-British assault on Germany’s western frontier.

Röhl’s great work on the Kaiser opened as the chronicle of a life. It closes as an indictment. He acknowledges as much when he describes the extensive quotations from the sources that make up such a large portion of his text as ‘forensic evidence’, to be compared with ‘fingerprints or DNA evidence in a criminal case’. Whether the sources presented here can carry the full weight of the indictment is, in my view, doubtful. But this doesn’t in the least diminish the magnitude of what Röhl has achieved. It is worth emphasising this point, because as the debate on the outbreak of war in 1914 has reopened over the past anniversary year, Röhl has attacked with great bitterness those (me included) who dissent from his view, accusing them of wilfully distorting the past in the service of a propagandistic ‘revisionism’ whose purpose is to exculpate the Germany of 1914, break the spell of ‘war guilt’ on today’s Germany and thereby reinvigorate the ancestral Germanic totems that poisoned the first half of the 20th century. Such calumnies are wrong and unfair, but they also sell short the significance of what Röhl has done. His reputation doesn’t hang on his ability to prove (or not) that the First World War was deliberately planned and instigated by Kaiser Wilhelm II and twenty of his ‘paladins’. The unique importance of Röhl’s contribution lies in the scholarly depth of a body of work that has done more than any other to illuminate the summit of the imperial German state in the last decades of its existence. All of us who have ventured onto this historiographical terrain are deeply in his debt. This biography is a meticulous portrait of a beleaguered elite unsure of its place in a dangerous world, preyed on by dark visions of catastrophe and prepared to risk everything to secure its own future.