These imperial cousins are of considerable controversy. Both were the last leaders of their respective empires and dynasties. Both were men who held considerable power in a European power. Both were subject to critiques of their leadership, particularly relating to the First World War. Wilhelm II, whilst still controversial, has seen more nuanced interpretations by historians and citizens. Nicholas II has seen something of a revival at the hands of the Russian Federation, given saint-hood by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The states these two men helmed, however, were miles apart despite sharing a border and even an alliance for years. Germany was an industrialized power with a maritime colonial empire, a flourishing industrial economy, state funding of the arts and sciences, a well-entrenched bourgeois public sphere, and a welfare state. Russia had few of these. Even with the coming of the 20th century she was still a peasant nation nation with an incomplete modernization process. Russia was a state with a massive, centralized bureaucracy that was unwilling to relent, which made industrialization very difficult, and the failure of modernization pushes by men such as Count Witte or Prime Minister Stolypin led to Russian classes being alienated and unwilling to cooperate.
This can be seen in the actions of their monarchs. The Kaiser saw himself as a man of the center, pushing himself as a symbol of German unity. One of the earliest actions of his reign was a disagreement with Bismarck over the treatment of German workers. He saw himself as the protector of the workers, and wished to see workers’ benefits and the welfare state expanded. Willy attempted to be apart of the “Social Monarchy” that was at the heart of modernization in Europe and attempted to be fully involved in the continued modernization of Germany. The Tsar had no interest in a Social Monarchy. Nicky wished to see the preservation of medieval autocracy and was deeply anxious of modernization. It is here that we see the roots of the Tsar’s infamous anti-semitism, and what these men mean.
The Kaiser, for all his flaws, attempted to be a modern monarch, and was blamed for the death of his empire. The Tsar was an anti-semite who refused to even entertain modernity, and was then seen as a victim of bolshevism. Would we had said the same of Willy if he was shot brutally by German extremists? This is not to suggest that the Kaiser should be fully exhumed and romanticized. But why do we romanticize an infamous autocrat whilst damning a deeply flawed but ultimately parliamentarian monarch?
Clark, Christopher M. Kaiser Wilhelm II: Profiles in Power. Harlow: Longman, 2000.
Clowes, Edith W., Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West. Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.P., 1999.
Hohenzollern, Wilhelm Von, and Christian Gauss. The German Emperor as Shown in His Public Utterances. London: Heinemann, 1915.