Friday, March 24, 2017

The Innocence of Kaiser Wilhelm II

Like many students of modern history, I have spent my life seeing Kaiser Wilhelm II as a buffoonish warmonger whose vanity stirred up the Armageddon of World War I. For propaganda purposes during the war, the Kaiser was portrayed as a relentless bogey-man who wanted to take over the world. Later, he was depicted as a prelude to Hitler, personally responsible for the rise of German belligerence and the mass atrocities of the global conflict. To top it off, he was mean to his mother. Based upon letters, memoirs, newspapers and other primary sources, English historian Christina Croft succeeds in constructing a fresh perspective of the last reigning Hohenzollern monarch. Written with a commanding knowledge of the great dynasties of Europe, as well as of the diplomacy of global conflicts, Croft's new biography The Innocence of Kaiser Wilhelm II gives not only an understanding of the Kaiser but of the complex political situation he faced, as well as of the many forces of change which Wilhelm and the other monarchs did not understand until it was too late.

The book relates the painful events of Wilhelm's childhood, especially in regard to his crippled arm. In spite of his handicap, he learned to ride and shoot and do all the things that princes had to do. His parents, Frederick of Prussia and Victoria of Great Britain, the Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia and eventually of a united Germany, were strict about him overcoming his disability. His relationship with his mother was complex and damaged early on from misunderstandings; all efforts to mend the relationship seemed to worsen it. Wilhelm appears to have been a sensitive and creative child who required a great deal of attention.Vicky basically found Wilhelm difficult and incomprehensible and could not deal with him, although he adored her. He was close to his father, the Crown Prince, as much as Vicky would allow it. The person with whom he had the most strong and loving bond was his grandmother, Queen Victoria. Wilhelm was intensely fond of England as a young man and one of the great tragedies of his life was that he had to wage war on a country he loved almost as much as his own.

Wilhelm is generally seen as being the cause of the First World War, but Croft's biography meticulously reveals the facts of the matter. In the years before the war, Wilhelm was known as the "Peace Emperor," a title later given to Blessed Karl of Austria as well. While Wilhelm's tendency towards theatrical gestures made him an easy figure for caricature both at home and abroad, he was nevertheless a business-like ruler who oversaw decades of growth and prosperity for Germany. Not only did Wilhelm II do everything in his power to prevent a war but even while the war was going on he never stopped trying to make peace. He tried to work with the American President Woodrow Wilson but Wilson was determined to foster the overthrow of the great continental monarchies. Ultimately, the forces of Revolution were at work and the end of the Great War saw the fall of many kings and emperors, including Wilhelm II.

I listened to the book on Audible, an experience I would highly recommend, although it would be worth reading in any format, as it gives a perspective unavailable to the majority of Americans.


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