I speak often on the issue of Kaiser Wilhelm II as of late, not merely because of my preexisting fascination but due to the literature I have been reviewing lately. There comes Christopher Clark’s 2000 book on the Kaiser, and Robert Waite’s The Kaiser and the Führer that I have mentioned in the previous post, and also literature for an OSU seminar class taught by Professor David Hoffmann on the regime of Joesph Stalin. The latter literature concerns articles by Ronald Grigor Suny and Martin Malia that concern the relationship between the Stalin’s personality and the nature of his regime. Such concerns are also at the heart of discussions concerning our aforementioned Kaiser. John Röhl, probably the most authoritative researcher of Wilhelm II, argues that the nature of the Kaiserreich was often dictated by the mercurial and pseudo-absolutist nature of Wilhelm himself.
The issue I have with this argument is that it understates the democratic organs of the Kaiserreich. The Kaiserreich was a state with a quite democratic core in the Reichstag and a full judicial wing symbolically housed far from Berlin in a massive building in Leipzig. The Reichstag was an institution elected by full universal male suffrage and would contain, at the start of the First World War, the largest socialist party in all of Europe. Its power is not marginal either, there is constant evidence of figures like Bismarck and the Kaiser having to deal with an “unruly” Reichstag. To return to Stalin, the personalist narrative holds much more water as any organs of state that could had fought off the rise of Stalin were killed off by the Bolsheviks in their fight for a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Stalin was far more responsible for the nature of his state than anyone else, so the analysis of his character actually does do much to explain the nature of his regime.
With the Kaiser, understanding his personality does quite little to fully explain the activity and nature of the Kaiserreich from 1888 to 1918. The Kaiserreich was a state that had fully operational organs of democratic and balancing power, and they had much say in how the leaders of the Kaiserreich (whether the Chancellor, Ministers, or even the Kaiser) acted, at least in the civilian sphere. Whilst the mercurial personality of the Kaiser is not something to be thrown away in the context of understanding Kaiserreich politics, it is not to be compared to the relationship between personality and totalitarian regimes. This should always be remembered, particularly when we make Sonderweg-style arguments connecting the Kaiserreich to the “Third Reich.”
Clark, Christopher M. Kaiser Wilhelm II: Profiles in Power. Harlow: Longman, 2000.
Hoffmann, David L. Stalinism: The Essential Readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Waite, Robert G. L. Kaiser and Führer A Comparative Study of Personality and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
A special thanks to Professor Hoffmann for triggering these comparative thoughts.