The Man Who Got It Wrong

Kaiser Wilhelm II
by Emil Ludwig
(Republished in facsimile in recent years under the title Wilhelm Hohenzollern: The Last of the Kaisers.)

As the First World War reaches the final year of its centenary and recedes further from memory, I have found a German best-seller written in the 1920s to be a wonderful guide as to how such a pointless calamity could happen, with consequences that are still with us, for example in Korea and the Middle East.

Kaiser Wilhelm, says Emil Ludwig in his 1926 biography Kaiser Wilhelm II, was a “talker, not a doer”, indecisive, frightened of war despite his world-shaking bluster, an erratic mixture of under-confidence and over-confidence, with poor judgment. He feared the workers and aristocratically disdained the middle classes. He was “inspired by the best intentions” but “never met with such resistance from his people as in time would have matured him”.

Ludwig depicts every decision that led Germany to the war and its horrors as the Kaiser’s own doing, mainly out of fear of losing his status. He was “intellectually gifted” but not in a practical way. He revived the discredited doctrine of the divine right of kings, would not listen to unwelcome news and blamed others when things went wrong. By extension, the Second World War and the Cold War were both outcomes of the First World War and the Kaiser’s incompetence as a leader.

The Kaiser led the boasting and bluster about German strength, virtue, military glory and need for a place in the sun that frightened neighbouring countries. He backed his ambitious naval chief, Tirpitz, in the naval build-up that led to a European arms race. He loved the cheers when, in royal regalia, he fulminated to admiring nationalist clubs, but Ludwig says the Pan-Germanists, who advocated expansion, amounted to “a few hundred thousand” people out of sixty million.

The flawed Schlieffen Plan of 1907, under which Germany fatefully invaded neutral Belgium in August 1914, was the Kaiser’s. The army chief, von Schlieffen, a talented military technician but no politician, “acquiesced” in it, Ludwig says. It was then locked away for seven years as The Plan. The Kaiser’s choice as new military chief from 1907, Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of an illustrious namesake uncle who was military chief in the victorious Franco-Prussian war of 1871, was a loyal, presentable opera-goer, but, says Ludwig, a “tormented intellectual”.

When the European crisis came in June 1914 the Kaiser again got it wrong. Bosnian Serb nationalists—who wanted their ethnically mixed Austrian-ruled province to join independent Serbia—assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Kaiser raged with fear and contempt against Serbia for assassinating a fellow royal but also because the upstart Serbian “bandits” had recently adopted constitutional monarchy. This was the reduced status for an absolute monarch like himself that was winning worldwide support; but he lived in dread of it. He thought his cousin the Russian Tsar would not honour his Pan-Slav alliance to protect Serbia; that the Tsar would not allow an attack on an absolute monarchy.

When the Kaiser cooled down and the normal diplomatic process developed, he did not support it consistently enough. His key error, Ludwig says, was to see the crisis as a struggle between royal dynasties. But Germany, with its military strength, could have prevented hostilities and led negotiations to resolve the crisis. It had been automatically involved as Austria’s ally against the Russia–France alliance.

Mixed messages from Berlin emboldened the trigger-happy factions in Vienna and Moscow. When they started moving to war to respectively attack or defend Serbia, thus embroiling France as Russia’s ally and sparking war on two fronts, he unleashed the Schlieffen Plan. While “everything that ensued in the decisive four days [before war] was born of his will to peace”, nevertheless the hysterical Kaiser swung between terror and dreams of martial glory.

Flaws soon showed. The plan assumed a quick win against France on the Western front first, that Belgium would acquiesce in Germany’s march through into France, and that Britain would not join in a continental war. But the Russians reached the border faster than expected, the Belgians did fight back, and Britain did go to war to support France, its pleading, invaded ally and neighbour.

“I felt as if my heart would break,” Moltke wrote in his diary of the Kaiser’s confused orders to go ahead.

Britain and France stopped Germany a month later just across the French border. The opposing lines were to change little for four years. Though he was commander-in-chief, the Kaiser “lost all power of decision” and was rarely seen or heard in public. He refused to hear any bad news. Moltke had a nervous breakdown. The military hard men next in line replaced him, von Falkenhayn and then von Ludendorff in the West and von Hindenberg in the East. Hindenberg was to be the last German president before Hitler squeezed him from office in 1933. It was said Hindenberg had the presence and Ludendorff the brains.

“Frozen in fear”, the Kaiser ceded most of his power to the generals for the duration of the war, in practice to the dynamically single-minded Ludendorff. As Ludwig points out, their job was not to stop the war but to win it, to obey royal orders—which they rarely got.

With stalemate on the French borders with Belgium and Germany into 1916, “one big push” for a breakthrough appealed. Falkenhayn launched the Battle of Verdun on his French border and the Allies responded in the west with the Battle of the Somme, with the dual objectives of breaking through the German lines and holding German troops in the west to keep them from Verdun. Approximately two million young men, including 20,000 Australians, died in that year’s terrible fighting, but the stalemate continued.

The Kaiser then kicked perhaps the most disastrous own-goal in all human history. Early in 1917 a delegation from the Reichstag (the federal parliament, which he loathed and feared), presented him with an agreement on a ceasefire. The Reichstag and public opinion were ready for it, they said. The Kaiser said no. Shielded from any but good news, he demanded the “guaranteed peace” advised by Ludendorff, meaning peace on severe German terms. The alternative would be “total war”.

“Grey-haired deputies [MPs] who hitherto would have nothing to do with the parliamentary system discussed it openly that evening,” one of them remembered. When I visited it more than half a century later, the Reichstag building had a prominent “don’t blame us” display in the foyer, referring to both world wars.

The terrible result was nearly two further years of even more appalling trench warfare and fevered bitterness, another 30,000 Australians among the millions more dead. Germany’s proud name would stink for half a century after 1917 and then only slowly improve. Worldwide, more than 100 million people would eventually die in the resulting chain of linked war and disaster, 10 million during 1914–18 alone.

In Australia 1917 was the bitter year of the second defeated conscription referendum and “khaki election”. In Moscow the Tsarist regime collapsed in chaos, which at first seemed good news in Berlin until the generals arranged for the exiled Vladimir Lenin to return home. By the year’s end Lenin, his henchman Joseph Stalin and their splinter socialist party had imposed a Bolshevik revolution. Berlin unleashed the Kaiser’s navy in the savage “unrestricted” submarine campaign that brought the US into the war and tipped the precarious balance to the Allies.

Ludwig is almost poignant in describing the eventual efforts to prise the now unwanted Kaiser off his throne when in October and November 1918 he tried to thwart a new ceasefire, surrender dressed up as an armistice. Troops at the fronts were dying. Hungry, exhausted workers in the over-stretched factories were striking. The Kaiser’s navy was threatening mutiny. The food cupboards were almost bare. First they tried flattery (“you’ll go down in history”) then threats. The Kaiser suggested sending troops in against the workers, but the soldiers were too busy at the front. Then he proposed an enlarged protection squad for himself—a forerunner of the SS of a few years later (which was at first the fuhrer’s protection squad—the Schutz Staffeln).

Next he considered heroic death by poison. Finally he accepted the choice nearly everybody else wanted—abdication and self-pitying exile in the neutral Netherlands. He died there in disgrace in 1941, hardly noticed while a new world war raged against Germany.

The Kaiser left behind a largely intact Germany—until 1945—but one with a disturbed population, angry and vengeful, feeling wrongly blamed for the war. Its economy was wobbly. The fledgling republic’s government stumbled in the difficulties, especially when in 1929 global depression hit, made much worse than it might have been by the postwar disruption.

Few Germans wanted to hear the word Prussia ever again, but the Kaiser era before 1914 lingered in the collective memory as a time of stability, strength and prosperity. At least he was not Hitler.

By the time I was taking much interest, the causes of both world wars, as discussed in the newspapers and adults’ conversation, seemed to merge, something about arms merchants, war mongers, militarists, Prussian Junkers (landed aristocracy), terrible British generals and worse German ones. Ever more erudite books appeared about the fighting and the background causes of the war.

I bought Ludwig’s book for $3 in a Melbourne op shop about thirty years ago, a moth-chewed 1927 edition, already the seventh reprint since its publication the previous year. He was writing for Germans, his slightly operatic German showing through the translation. It dripped with sad contempt for the “man-boy” who could not prevent an unnecessary war and then led Germany to defeat with the deaths of nearly two million Germans.

Ludwig, a popular biographer between the wars, says he kept to the many official records and memoirs; his book was not part of the hostile socialist or foreign literature. It is a personality study of the tragedy rather than a conventional biography of an already neurotic person further warped, man and boy, by the pressures of royal life. Ludwig is a reporter rather than a commentator but is scathing about the bizarrely sycophantic pre-war flattery at court—while some officials privately put in writing concern about His Majesty’s sanity.

Most writers are not as hard on the Kaiser, and other leaders had their share of responsibility, made mistakes and rattled sabres. But there is wide agreement that the Kaiser held the cards and played them all badly.

International crises are common and someone has to make decisions. Germany’s problem was the system. Before the First World War most conservative and nationalist Germans proudly supported hereditary absolute monarchy as the Sonderweg, the German special or middle way between royal despotism and a disdained republic as in France or the “semi-republic” that had evolved in Britain. The monarch was the permanent chief executive and supreme military commander, but worked with a well organised—if under-powered and at times argumentative—legislature and competent public service, under a light rein of constitution.

This was the way German states had evolved over centuries; Wilhelm’s Hohenzollern family had been royalty for a thousand years since the day of the medieval Teutonic Knights who conquered the wild eastern regions and became kings of Prussia, the stern, unwieldy and somewhat artificial state that had expanded from east to west.

Wilhelm II’s grandfather, Wilhelm I, was hereditary king of Prussia and the first Kaiser, (emperor) of the states which federated as the Second Reich with Bismarck as Chancellor after victory over France in 1871. It was billed as the successor to Charlemagne’s German-led medieval empire, which in turn had fancied itself as successor to Rome.

Much was expected from the glamorous and modern young Wilhelm II when he came to the throne in 1888, aged twenty-nine, when his father died after a short reign. Third generations, of whom a proud, hard family and people expect too much and who fall short, are of course all too common, locked into demanding careers for which they are ill-suited, perhaps to become incompetent and boastful bullies. Few, however, become warlord-in-chief of the most powerful military machine on earth.

Twenty-odd years after the Kaiser died, I got talking with a rather Anglicised German girl who knew some of the Kaiser’s relations, whose father was a Berlin architect. They were, she said, “terribly nice”.

Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History (Rosenberg)

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