Historical Notes: Kaiser: `We will be the US of Europe'

NEARLY 60 years after his death, the name of Kaiser Wilhelm II is still a potent one throughout Europe. He claimed that he adored England, and spoke of a dream in which German warships combined with the British Royal Navy to destroy the French and Russian fleets, and celebrated their joint victory with a ceremony in London. At Windsor Castle in 1899 he exasperated his entourage by proclaiming that "from this tower the world is ruled". Yet a few years earlier he had alarmed friends at Berlin who feared that his "blind fury" against England might one day prove to be a diplomatic liability. His uncle King Edward VII knew that he was vain, cowardly and inconsistent, prophesying in 1905 that "it is not by his will that he will unleash a war, but by his weakness".

His private life was not above reproach either. Although married for over 40 years to a distant cousin notorious for her prudery and narrow- mindedness, he managed to keep up the facade of a devoted husband and father, reproaching King Edward for his lapses, while himself enjoying extra-marital liaisons, at least one of which resulted in the birth of a child. This was hushed up far more effectively than Wilhelm's close friendship with the bisexual Count von Eulenburg and others, culminating in scandal which threatened the German throne and almost caused the shattered Kaiser's abdication.

Relatives and ministers in Berlin and London frequently cast doubts on his sanity, and with good reason. His mother nearly died in giving birth to him and at first he was thought to be stillborn. There is a plausible theory that a lack of oxygen in the first few minutes of his life caused irreversible brain damage. His physical handicap was beyond doubt; during delivery his neck and shoulder muscles were damaged, and despite treatment his left arm remained several inches shorter than the right, while his left hand was too weak to grip or hold anything heavier than a piece of paper. Recent research has also suggested that he may have had porphyria, the inherited constitutional metabolic disorder which darkened his ancestor King George III's life, and from which Wilhelm's mother and eldest sister likewise suffered.

One of the Kaiser's earlier biographers has noted that he should not be held to account for the catastrophe of the Great War; one should "blame instead the system which could assign so onerous a post to someone who had so little chance of filling it with credit". On balance, however, it is difficult to exonerate him from the charge that he was partially to blame by deliberately surrounding himself with the hawks among his generals, who by the time of the "war council" in 1912 were seeking any pretext for the German empire to prove itself victorious in war.

Defeat, abdication and exile in the Netherlands followed, but despite his disgust at Kristallnacht, Hitler's night of anti-Jewish thuggery in 1938, the ex-Kaiser remained inconsistent to the last. In 1929 he had anticipated the Nazis' "final solution" by calling Jews "a nuisance that humanity must get rid of in some way or other". In June 1940, after German troops entered Paris, he telegraphed congratulations to Hitler and called for champagne. Five months later he wrote that the hand of God was creating a new world and working miracles: "We are becoming the US of Europe under German leadership, a united European continent."

He died in June 1941, aged 82, but his aspirations lived on in the German leadership, surviving the defeat of Hitler, the partition of Germany and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. In September 1995 Chancellor Helmut Kohl advocated the political union of Europe, proclaiming that "if there is no monetary union then there cannot be political union, and vice versa". The ghost of His Imperial Majesty would have approved.

John Van der Kiste is the author of `Kaiser Wilhelm II: Germany's last emperor' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 19.99)