Ein Mann und sein Reich

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.”

Works Cited:

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.

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.