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.
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.