Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser’s Early Life, 1859-88 
by John Röhl, translated by Jeremy Gaines.
Cambridge, 979 pp., £45, October 1999, 0 521 49752 3
Show More
Show More

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’.

For Vicky, the character issue was closely tied to political concerns. Well-educated, ambitious, a keen reader of John Stuart Mill and a very English Crown Princess at a hated Prussian Court, she initially dreamed of her eldest son as a liberal Frederick the Great. Instead, he and his closest siblings Heinrich and Charlotte became ‘complete Prussians in their nature’. It was to remove him from the reactionaries in Berlin that Wilhelm was sent briefly to study at a middle-class Gymnasium in Kassel. There he established a warm friendship with a Jewish classmate, Siegfried Sommer (the great-grandfather of Ben Elton), and initially responded well to his new surroundings. Soon, however, Wilhelm found the tough academic regime irksome. Teachers noted his tendency to digress from the subject at hand, and Hinzpeter – who continued to give him private instruction – looked back on the prince’s education as ‘a complete failure’. His ‘cocky and conceited nature’ made it essential that any exercise of responsibility be delayed as long as possible.

Hinzpeter strongly advised that Wilhelm travel – spend some time in France or even America, then live in England for a year. But the prince went off to study in Bonn, like his father and Coburg grandfather, where he joined a duelling fraternity, mixed with officers of the King’s Hussars stationed in the town, and found himself surrounded by flatterers. He also imbibed the German-nationalist message of the historian Wilhelm Maurenbrecher, which bolstered his already well-developed sense of Hohen-zollern destiny. As he approached the age of majority, he became increasingly estranged from his parents. Vicky’s textbook complaints of neglect (‘sons that love their mothers write as often as they can!’) were accompanied by epistolary lectures on the awfulness of the Germans and the superiority of all things English. When Wilhelm praised the English fleet, his mother corrected him: England was not just the greatest naval power, but ‘the largest & most powerful Empire in the world, in wh. the sun never sets! As England is the freest, the most progressive advanced, & liberal & the most developed race in the world, also the richest, she clearly is more suited than any other to civilise other countries!’ Father and son also quarrelled. Crown Prince Friedrich despaired of Wilhelm’s ‘icy, narcissistic nature’ and deplored the political company he was keeping. It was hoped that his marriage in 1881 to a princess of Schleswig-Holstein might work some improvement; but Dona turned out to be as xenophobic as her husband and even more empty-headed.

Through the 1880s the rift grew wider. Wilhelm cultivated his grandfather, the ageing Emperor Wilhelm I, symbol of unification and stern Prussian virtues. He was enchanted by Tsarism and spouted anti-English sentiments at every opportunity, scornfully dismissing his maternal grandmother as ‘the Empress of Hindustan’. At home he supported the anti-semitic movement of the Court preacher Adolf Stoecker and became the stalking horse of right-wing schemers such as Count Alfred von Waldersee, who as early as 1884 talked about skipping a generation in the succession when Wilhelm I died. Bismarck was alarmed that Wilhelm had become prey to all the ‘aspiring toadies in Potsdam’, but efforts to tame the hyperactive prince by introducing him to Foreign Ministry work foundered on Wilhelm’s predictable lack of interest in mastering the files. The combination of vanity and indolence struck many contemporaries. The head of the Admiralty and future Chancellor, Caprivi, observed presciently: ‘He thinks he understands everything, even shipbuilding.’ Meanwhile, Friedrich and Vicky were alternately melancholy and enraged as their hopes of presiding over a liberal Germany diminished.

At a grand ball in January 1887, the Crown Prince was reported to be ‘so hoarse that he could hardly say a word’. The condition persisted and was diagnosed in March as throat cancer. Vicky, desperate for a more optimistic second opinion, placed her trust in the English physician Morell Mackenzie, who was knighted for effecting a ‘cure’ even before it turned out not to be one. In November the diagnosis of cancer was confirmed. The stock market fell, prompting Herbert Bismarck – who inherited his father’s nasty wit, if little else – to express surprise: ‘If I were a share, I’d be going up.’ Others reacted to the news with a more becoming regret, although not necessarily for the best of reasons. Those who hated the English Crown Princess now feared that this would strengthen her ascendancy over the dying Friedrich and open the way to a reign as appallingly ‘democratic’ as it was brief.

And so the scene was set for 1888, ‘year of the three emperors’. Wilhelm I died in March, two weeks short of his 91st birthday, and Friedrich returned from his sickbed in San Remo to assume the throne. But it was, as Vicky wrote bitterly to Windsor, ‘too late’. Bismarck and most of his ministerial colleagues stayed in office; even among Court officials there were relatively few changes. This did not inhibit criticism of the new Empress. She was, according to Bismarck, a ‘wild woman’ who had the Emperor ‘under her thumb’ and behaving ‘like a dog’. The new heir to the throne complained that the family shield was being ‘besmirched’: even now there was no tempering of the family psychodrama. Wilhelm, sounding like a cut-price Hamlet, cursed the ruin of the Reich ‘by an English princess who is my mother’. And Queen Victoria, sounding exactly like herself, commented on reports of his filial ingratitude: ‘How wicked & horrid.’ On 11 June, Friedrich made his last diary entry: ‘I must get well again, I have so much to do.’ Four days later he died and Wilhelm became German Kaiser, King of Prussia, Summus Episcopus of the Protestant Church and Supreme War Lord.

There are precious few life-enhancing moments in this miserable saga, and Röhl milks the sheer awfulness with deadpan relish. If Wilhelm is presented as a monster in the making, he is surrounded by a cast of characters who act out of possessiveness, spite, boredom, calculation and envy – or just plain act out. With its boorish protagonists, and fashionably large quotient of sleaze, Röhl’s story would be a perfect present for anyone who is soft on the upper classes. It includes – and this is far from being a complete list – Count Görtz dressed up as a circus poodle ‘with a marked rectal opening’, the brothel-trotting Prince of Wales, the libidinous heir to the Spanish throne, and the adulterous King of Serbia: ‘he seems to have been very busy f— king’, observed Wilhelm, who might have done well to keep quiet, given that his own affairs with prostitutes led on more than one occasion to blackmail. Sections of this romp through the titled Eurotrash of the 19th century read as if the Almanach de Gotha had been adapted for television by Jackie Collins.

Many more sections read like a medical dictionary. Starting with Wilhelm’s coraco brachialis and pectoralis major, the operation on his sternocleidomastoid muscle, and subsequent problems with torticollis and cholesteatoma of the middle ear, Röhl talks us through porphyria and haemophilia, Klumpke paralysis and Homer’s syndrome. There is page after page on Princess Charlotte’s cramps, fainting, nausea, vomiting, anaemia, headaches, rashes, itching, neuralgia, abscesses, toothache, ulcers, colic and abdominal pains. The closing chapters then tell us more about Crown Prince Friedrich’s sputum than anyone could reasonably want to know. Memorise this book, and you could probably qualify as a doctor.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, already qualified medical men stalk these pages. They outnumber members of other occupational groups, even soldiers, and appear almost five times as often as German party politicians of the period 1859-88. (By my reckoning, the final scoreboard reads: International physicians 70, German politicians 15.) Is there a good reason for this? Certainly, the events that bracket Röhl’s account – Wilhelm’s birth and Friedrich’s death – prompted disputes between English and German doctors, and arguments about their professional expertise among third parties, that were symptomatic of deeper political and dynastic struggles. By the same token, the author would undoubtedly justify the large amount of attention devoted to the proposed marriage between Alexander Battenberg, Prince of Bulgaria, and Wilhelm’s sister Viktoria on the grounds that conflicts over the match were emblematic of a larger struggle in Berlin between ‘Germandom’ and ‘Englishness’. And if, to take another example, we are given eight pages on how and why a certain Gustav Willert was not hired to tutor Wilhelm, well, the role of the tutor was crucial in bringing up a prince (as Hinzpeter was to show).

Fair enough, but I wish Röhl had done more to draw out the significance of patterns like these. There are tantalising references to the problem of choosing friends for a prince and the dilemmas of the ‘royal bridal market’, but mostly we have to extract any larger meaning from the surrounding detail. There is passing mention also of Wilhelm’s attitudes to nature, but little is made of it. On other subjects that might be expected to figure in the life of a young prince – servants, animals – there is surprisingly little. As Wilhelm grows older, politics plays a growing part. Between the lines there is much to be learnt about the crown prince syndrome, that golden oldie of European history, or about the role played by courtiers, cliques and favourites in a political system where the palace perspective still mattered. But Röhl is reluctant to point up the lessons. Life always trumps times in a book that begins with the birth canal, ends with throat cancer, and has no place for an introduction or conclusion. Even the foundational events of the new German Empire, between 1866 and 1871, are brushed aside because Wilhelm was still a boy. They ‘must naturally be borne in mind, but ...’

There is one welcome exception. The discussion of Wilhelm’s political views in Chapter 12 (‘The Student Prince’) ranges more broadly across modern German and European history. One can argue with some of the conclusions. Is it really true that Wilhelm’s view of the divinely ordained office of monarch ‘clearly anticipates the “Führer principle” of a later epoch’? If the sacerdotal, caesaristic notion of kingship was an ‘anachronistic revival’, should there not be some mention of what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where the old order was busily inventing traditions? Are there not grounds for questioning Röhl’s Whiggish assumption that industrial society, secularisation and democracy happily march forward hand in hand unless an oddball individual gets in the way? But in revealing some of his underlying convictions he invites argument here, and I wish he had done it more often.

I recall a conference in Mannheim twenty years ago, where Röhl gave a paper on Wilhelm’s personal rule. Surrounded by mainly hostile German structuralist historians, he was about to defend his supposedly ‘personalistic’ approach when a messenger arrived to request Professor Dr Röhl’s urgent presence on the phone. Exit Daniel from the lion’s den, accompanied by laughter all around (he returned to acquit himself stoutly). Times have changed: now it is the structuralists who are on the defensive. But Röhl has also changed. In the Seventies and Eighties he did as much as any historian of modern Germany to persuade us that Court society and the ‘kingship mechanism’ in Imperial Germany deserved renewed attention. This was not old-fashioned history: the emphasis on the individual was plausible because the personal was considered a system in itself. But not here.

We could attribute this to the limits of the biographical genre, especially when the protagonist is not exercising power. But Roy Foster on young Parnell and Drew McCoy on James Madison as an old man have shown that it is possible to brush a lesser known part of a well known life against the grain, to use it as a way of asking questions. Röhl’s ambition seems more muted. His book is everything the publishers say it is: deeply researched, unsurpassed in detail, stylishly written. It also lives up, or down, to another billing: ‘A story so extraordinary that it will fascinate anyone interested in the psychology and the throng of personalities of the period.’ Maybe I should accept that this is the way we live now, but I want to say ‘to hell with the throng of personalities.’ John Röhl is a terrific historian who knows more than anyone else in the world about Wilhelm, and he has written a fascinating book when he could have written a great one.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences