The Labour MP George Barnes announced in November 1918, during the general election campaign following the end of the First World War, that he was "for hanging the Kaiser". He held the German emperor, Wilhelm II, responsible for the outbreak of war and the deaths of millions. The verdict of history, or at least historians, has not been much kinder. In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of German scholars killed the Kaiser with contempt, portraying him as prisoner of the conservative "structures" of Wilhelmine society, the army, bureaucracy and aristocracy. He had his uses as a figurehead for a conservative coup d'état against parliament, but had been reduced to a cipher during the war itself. If the pioneering biographer John Roehl still insisted on the central importance of the Kaiser, it was only in order to expose a man obsessed with "personal rule", military adventurism, and anti-semitic to boot, who represented the "missing link" in the baleful progression from Bismarck to Hitler.
Christopher Clark, the author of a magisterial history of Prussia, does not hide the Kaiser's failings. His work is no "rehabilitation", but an attempt to restore context and balance in a compact analysis of the Kaiser's political impact. Wilhelm emerges as "a man of intelligence but of poor judgment, of tactless outburst and short-lived enthusiasm, a fearful panic-prone figure who often acted on impulse out of a sense of weakness and threat".
In a series of svelte, brilliantly-written set-pieces, often drawing on fascinating archival material, Clark sheds new light on familiar themes and episodes. A full reading of the documents on Wilhelm's apparent call for war in the Balkans in 1912 shows that he specifically wanted the locals to "get on with it", not German intervention. Clark is also sceptical of the alleged continuity between the Kaiser's anti-semitism and the Nazis'. The really offensive statements largely date from the period after defeat and abdication in 1918, when Wilhelm fell into depression and paranoia. Before that he was so close to individual Jews that he was targeted by the anti-semitic press.
The chapter on Wilhelm as a "media monarch" is a particular tour de force. The Kaiser was ahead of his time in appreciating the importance of the press. At the same time, Wilhelm could be extraordinarily cack-handed, as in his exhortations to German troops to treat the Chinese Boxer rebels like "Huns" and generally "show no mercy".
What Wilhelm was not, and never seriously attempted to be, was an absolute monarch. His "personal rule", Clark shows, was more of a programme than a fact. For all the bombastic rhetoric, the Kaiser was acutely conscious of his limitations, and even though he enjoyed the right of appointing the chancellor, he came to accept that his choice could only govern with the consent of a parliamentary majority.
The one prerogative on which he did insist was that of "supreme warlord". This led him into confrontations with civil society before 1914, and while the Kaiser was happy to defer to the experts on the running of the war, he did take a keen interest in senior military appointments. As Clark demonstrates, Erich von Falkenhayn would never have survived so long as chief of staff without Wilhelm's backing. All the same, by the end of the war, the Kaiser had been forced to accept the uncongenial tutelage of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and to embrace the principle of franchise reform in Prussia.
Nor was this just a question of yielding to force majeure. Wilhelm seems to have genuinely regarded military dictatorship with disdain. In a striking passage, he remarked in November 1913 that "coups d'état may belong to the art of government in southern- and central-American republics; in Germany, they have never thank God, been customary and must never become so". He was reflecting the German 19th- and early 20-century paradox: that a highly militarised society should have been so immune from intervention by the armed forces. Ironically, the world would have reason to lament the absence of an effective putchist tradition when the military coup against Adolf Hitler failed in July 1944.
Brendan Simms in professor of the History of European International Relations at Cambridge UniversityReuse content