“During this whole affair I underwent great mental anguish”

I don’t know how I feel about the last Deutscher Kaiser. I often do find the desire to defend his legacy in certain regards as the historiography that surrounds the Kaiser can often be quite toxic with psycho-analytical projections that will always (because no historian has personally done an in-person psychological test of the Kaiser himself) be speculative at best and fallacious at worst. I also have a habit of grafting my own personality onto him, as some kind of sub-conscious exercise of empathy as I read endless accounts of his words and his actions. It can be easy to look at his fragmented personality and reports of his depressions and hysterias as evidence of a fragile mind wishing to do all it can for an impossible task in an unhealthy environment.

Perhaps these feelings resonate within me as I do not envy the task of being Emperor of a nation like the German Empire. Whilst historians such as John Röhl have framed the role of the Deutscher Kaiser as a position of great power, I posit that the interpretations of Christopher Clark are the closest to understanding the duel behavior of the Kaiser. Clark claims that the Monarch’s office was at once a constitutional position of great potential power, but also one strung by the legal reality of the Kaiserreich: “Here again, we encounter the dialectic of empowerment and constraint that was so characteristic of Wilhelm’s experience of sovereign office.” Even after a “purge” of disagreeable ministers in 1897, Clark posits that, due to the continual maneuvering nature of the ministers. “In reality, little had changed.”

Wilhelm would often feel dejected about the lack of impact of his efforts, such as after a personal push for reform of the educational system in the spring of 1889. Dejected sentiments also followed the sometimes impossible juggling act of his position, such as another event in 1892 concerning the possible resignation of Chancellor Caprivi: “Am very wretched… and must abstain from work. Condition caused by strain and over-exertion. Fever abated. But still great lassitude. – The shock of Caprivi’s threat of resignation seems to have triggered a nervous collapse lasting some two weeks.”

It is, however, inaccurate to claim that the Kaiser was some marginalized figure that couldn’t claim power. He was something of a constitutional absolutist and sometimes his lack of power and control was of his own flaws: an inability to take to details or to relax being quite obvious ones. However, the Kaiser often attempted to approach the role of Kaiser as a neutral arbiter. If one must define the Kaiser politically, it was authoritarian centrism. Only rarely were the Kaiser’s political views on the fringe of contemporary beliefs. So possibly it comes only naturally that I feel a certain sympathy for a long-dead man who probably didn’t need it. Kaiser Wilhelm II was a man whom, whilst vain and a problem-child, still attempted often in good faith to be a Kaiser of unity and often failed either of his omission or of the nature of the state he helmed. It is often difficult to look at good-natured failure without a sense of internal empathy wishing to address itself. Perhaps my fascination with the Kaiser is not with his personage in particular, but why I have feelings of empathy for a man whom was one of the strongest men in the world during his reign.

Works Cited:

Clark, Christopher M. Kaiser Wilhelm II: Profiles in Power. Harlow: Longman, 2000.

Waite, Robert G. L. Kaiser and Führer A Comparative Study of Personality and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

A Reichstag Story

Emile Wetterlé was an Alsatian nationalist whom wrote a book concerning his 16 years in the Reichstag from 1898 called: Behind the Scenes of the Reichstag. The book is something of a war-time hit piece written before Wetterlé would take up time in the parliament of the French Third Republic. Despite these biases, oftentimes the criticisms of Imperial Germany given by Wetterlé are feelings shared by Germans themselves. Such as his criticisms of Berlin as, “a very ugly city.” This leads to his analysis of the Reichstag building itself. In spite of its war-torn sleek look today, the Reichstag was a sea of orientation when new: “There is a bewildering excess of wainscoting, bas-reliefs, statues, frescos, and stained glass windows.” One can find little Imperial crowns dotted about on chandeliers, neo-renassiance towers and on a “thickset” Germania. The building was so richly ornamented that they ran out of Imperial imagery, hence why Emile must ask himself: “What, indeed, are those huge stained-glass windows which remind us of the gallant adventures of Romeo and Juliet, and the tragic destiny of Othello and Desdemona, doing there?” Though, amongst his criticisms of the Reichstag structure comes an particular event of Imperial compromise. Apart of his critique of the structure includes a “powerful stone lion, rampant, holding under its left paw a ball of which one could read the words ‘Elass-Lothringen'” (The German for Alsace-Lorraine). Wetterlé claimed that this was a “humiliating symbol” that they the Alsatian representatives had asked “several times” to remove. Wetterlé, however, then immediately describes a scenario in 1906 where a massive painting of Wilhelm I trampling with his horse a flag of France in the Reichstag Plenary Hall became a source of controversy. A Centre Party representative, Prince von Arenberg, thought the painting portrayed, “an insult to France [that] was too indecent.” Despite that the painting was, allegedly a, “source of constant joy to the Prussian Conservatives,” it was removed from the Plenary Hall of the Reichstag and moved to where the Budget Committee sat. This was in a Germany that was molded by Bismarck for the purposes of Prussian hegemony and a parliament molded for Prussian conservative control. Yet, in this scenario, there is presented the reality that Germany was also a state built upon compromise and unity. The push for Prussian hegemony by 1906 had fallen and the push for the Imperial Project had won out. Imperial Germany was not merely a state dedicated to Prussian Junkers. Even in this tiny little controversy comes the sense to find compromise for the Imperial project.

Works Cited:

Clark, Christopher M. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

WETTERLE, EMILE. BEHIND THE SCENES IN THE REICHSTAG: Sixteen Years of Parliamentary Life in Germany. FORGOTTEN Books, 2015.

Populist Historicism

Dedicated on December 18th, 1901, the Victory Avenue in Berlin became an emblematic symbol of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign as perceived by intellectual circles in the Kaiserreich: crude and overly bombastic. The avenue, consisting of a series of statues to former Prussian kings, was named the “Avenue of Dolls” by Berliners. It became not only a symbol of dissatisfaction with the Kaiser himself, but with dissatisfaction with Berliner historicism. Christopher Clark, in his book Iron Kingdom, frames these issues in the light of a disconnect between Prussian state culture and contemporary German culture. The Kaiser, in a speech he gave at its dedication, framed it in the following light: “An art that oversteps the laws and boundaries which I have indicated is no longer art; it is factory work, it is trade, and that no art dare become.”

As easy as it is to frame this event in the light of autocratic pomposity, Kaiser Wilhelm II also presents this avenue in the light of soft populism, “art must help to educate the people; it must give the lower classes, after their cramping exertions, the opportunity to right themselves again through ideals.” From this comes an Industrial-Period yearning to raise-up the lower dregs of society through high works. This was also the ideology of the Hobrecht Plan to expand Berlin: neo-renaissance city palaces that hold all the classes. The plan, in that singular regard, failed and instead gave rise to Berlin’s infamous “Rental Barracks”, but the idealism is still there. This is the backing of the Kaiser’s support for historicism in this particular context, “The fostering of the ideal is the greatest work of culture; and if we wish to be and to remain a pattern in this for other peoples, then we must work all together; and if culture is to accomplish its full task, then it must penetrate through to the very lower strata of the people.”

To be certain, the Kaiser’s desires are certainly anachronistic as this speech also contains many a reference to, “great achievements in the art of the Middles Ages and of the Italians,” and is a hardly veiled insult to modern art. These views, however, come connected to an interesting social idealism that makes the issue a little more complex than upon first blush. Whilst they seem to have not gained much contemporary enthusiasm nor do they remove the aforementioned reactionary opinions, they are an interesting thought exercise for those interested in the Imperial era. This is rather emblematic for the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The more you look and scratch into the nature of his reign, the most complexities and contradictions you find.

Clark, Christopher M. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Ladd, Brian. The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Hohenzollern, Wilhelm Von, and Christian Gauss. The German Emperor as Shown in His Public Utterances. London: Heinemann, 1915.

Pugh, Emily. Architecture, Politics, and Identity in Divided Berlin. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.