Books: Stretching devices and a spell in the Prussian Guards

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Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life 1859-1888

by John C G Rohl Cambridge pounds 45

Contemporary royal biography brings to mind a cast of immaculately coiffed and tailored, plummy-voiced characters. Not the royals themselves, who seem dull by comparison, but the authors and "experts" who make a decent living out of them. Historical royal biography is a more distinguished affair, judging from Lindsey Hughes's recent biography of Peter the Great, and now the Anglo-German historian John Rohl's first 800-page instalment of the life of Kaiser Bill.

The Anglo-German theme runs through the book, for Wilhelm's love-hate relationship with his English mother, "Vicky", Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, and his liberal Hohenzollern father, was translated to the level of high politics, with all the catastrophic consequences that eventually entailed. Among other things, the book is an excellent guide to how not to bring up a child, with morals in it for everyone.

To say that Rohl's research is as thorough as his prose is elegantly unassuming would be an understatement. Apart from immersing himself in public and private archives, Rohl has an awesome knowledge of breech births, osteopathy, porphyria, the psychology of dreams, illnesses of the inner ear, student fraternities and Wilhelm's affairs, including one involving a Miss Love from Alsace, otherwise known as Emilie Klopp. On a technical level, Rohl's book is a brilliant example of a new kind of social history, without envy or rancour towards privileged but flawed people; that it also resembles a grand 19th-century novel in its psychological acuity and stately pace transforms it into a masterpiece, all achieved in a fine, limpid English prose.

The future Kaiser's birth was ill-starred; an intensely private act which went horribly wrong under the gaze of half of Europe. Wrongly positioned in Vicky's womb, Wilhelm was yanked out by his left arm, causing permanent nerve damage to the arm, neck and shoulder. His disappointed parents - perhaps already haunted by genetic defects the English royals had communicated to other European dynasties - imposed a harsh therapeutic regime, involving electrotherapy, surgery, stretching devices and daily insertion of Wilhelm's enfeebled arm inside the warm guts of dead hares. This would traumatise most people, but there were more insidious forms of psychological coercion at work, for his liberal parents wished to cast Wilhelm in the image of the late Prince Albert.

Attempts to correct Wilhelm's body were paralleled by an education designed to engineer his soul in a liberal, anglophile direction; that is, to be the antithesis of his autocratic grandfather, the Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia. A not very bright boy, who liked medals, uniforms and bullying others, he was forced to undergo a rigorous education at the hands of austere private tutors and at a classical grammar school in Kassel. The learning day began at six and ended at 10 at night, with his mother recommending further bedside reading involving multi-volume tomes each totalling up to 5,000 pages. The only consolations were a Jewish schoolfriend, the great-grandfather of the comic Ben Elton as it happens, and fetishistic dreams about kissing his mother's gloved hands. Plans for him to imbibe the open air of America or Britain were shelved. Wilhelm began to rebuff his parent's choice of his friends, and refused to read the newspapers they recommended to him. God knows why anyone should blame him.

Relations between parents and son deteriorated. Rohl's book affords several insights into why many 19th-century Germans did not care much for the British, a subject rarely explored on these shores. British complacency and conceit were mind-boggling. Who would not take against Vicky's chauvinistic puffery about "the largest and most powerful Empire in the world, in wh. [sic] the sun never sets!" She desired an Anglo-German alliance as the cornerstone of a great combination against Russia, her hatred of that country even extending to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, dismissed as "Disgusting & aweful, but ... true as a photograph".

Vicky and her consort may have been honourably opposed to the mounting hostility being propagated from lecterns and pulpits towards Germany's minuscule, but prominent, Jewish minority. But ironically the propagators were precisely that highminded German middle class in which the Crown Princess invested so much hope. For the political sub-text of Rohl's book is that the sort of trickle-down elite liberalism represented by the royal duo in waiting had had its day, challenged from the left by Marxist social democracy, and from the right by a conservatism which began to realise how to work on the middling masses with chauvinism, nationalism and racism. Wilhelm threw in his lot with the latter, becoming a maniacal antisemite worthy of the later German Fuhrer, and regarding gunfire as the solution to socialism.

For his parents' liberal educational experiment not only failed, but propelled Wilhelm in a diametrically opposed direction. Chauvinistic attitudes first acquired from historians at the university of Bonn were compounded by a spell in the First Prussian Guards regiment. His mother feared he was becoming "Ver-Potsdammt" - or "Potsdamised", after the regiment's suburban Berlin quarters - "with that evil admixture of a very loud mouth and the chauvinist's hatred & ignorance of all things foreign". When the parents registered their disapproval of the antisemitic court chaplain Stoecker, their son made a crucial intervention with his Emperor grandpapa to retain Stoecker in his influential position. In contrast to his mother's russophobia, Wilhelm lapped up the autocratic atmosphere in St Petersburg, and was positively obsequious towards Tsar Alexander III with whom he spent three months in 1884. This was how real God-men ruled.

In addition to inaugurating a wholly improper political correspondence with the Tsar, Wilhelm began actively to wish the British ill, gloating over their military misadventures in Afghanistan and the Sudan, even as he offered Queen Victoria unsolicited strategic advice as to how to fight these colonial wars. The marriage diplomacy of the English royal family, whose details need not detain us, further convinced Wilhelm that his mother and grandmother were trying to slip their relatives on to three thrones in the Balkans, undermine Prussian-German autocracy, and create a European coalition against the reactionary Tsar. Wilhelm's machinations against this project finally led his mother to line up a dashing Battenberg prince as her husband's future right-hand man, and to blurt out in a letter to Victoria: "The dream of my Life was to have a son who should be something of what our beloved Papa was (Prince Albert) - a real grandson of his in soul and intellect, a grandson of yours!"

Long before her husband Friedrich contracted the throat cancer which killed him, the Crown Princess's strength of will and overweening ambitions were making hackles rise in conservative German circles, who feared the Hillary Clinton factor, namely that she would be the "real Kaiser". When the Crown Prince and the King of Saxony were almost killed in a riding accident, Bismarck's unrestrained son Herbert announced loudly: "It would have been a pity about the King of Saxony."

For their part, the Crown Prince and Princess feared the Prince Charles factor, with the middle generation being passed over in favour of an heir all too attuned to the spirit of the times. Friedrich began to talk privately of "giving up", for the German people were proving no more malleable than Wilhelm: "Force of habit is a significant factor for the Germans, given that they have let themselves be led for generations without ever realising that independence is what makes a people strong. A few individuals may break loose from the traditional bonds - but the majority, even those who are well-educated, have neither the desire nor the enterprising spirit to do so ... This is unfortunately the nature of the German people, and they cannot simply be re-educated - at least not in a short space of time."

Friedrich grew to hate Bismarck senior, resenting his fame and exclaiming on one occasion: "What's he done anyway? I was the man who first had the idea of a Reich." Friedrich's liberal public posturing was not helped by the fact that he was obsessed with who was entitled to wear what uniforms, and took great umbrage whenever commoners walked on his right. It was symptomatic of the man's arrogant but vacillating character that he was frequently nearly killed because he refused to stop or speed his pace when crossing Berlin's busy roads.

By the mid-1880s, relations between father and son consisted of public slanging matches, with virtually no communication at all now between Wilhelm and his mother. In 1888 first the old Kaiser Wilhelm, and after almost a hundred days, the dying Friedrich passed away, leaving the way clear for Wilhelm, with contemporaries prophesying that his desire to "show them what a monarch is" would prove to be "the nemesis of world history". Unfortunately they were right, although the Kaiser himself would live to congratulate Hitler on his victories from his post-1918 exile in far away Dutch Doorn.