The Kaiser – His Life And Times by Michael Balfour is a studied, detailed and comprehensive picture of a man who made history. Kaiser Wilhelm II, or Bill, as the British preferred to call him, was Germany's head of state during World War I, and, given current recognition of the centenary of the conflict's opening, it is perhaps an apt moment to look again at the life of this absolute monarch who played such a pivotal role in the war.
It's hard now to recognize that Kaiser Wilhelm was a grandson of Britain's Queen Victoria. He was family and often expressed himself in English. But he also perceived a destiny that required him to emulate the great Prussian military leaders of the past, particularly Frederick The Great. In this task, however, he was doubly handicapped. On the one hand he clearly believed himself to be an absolute monarch, related to and answerable only to God, a belief that might have held sway in the eighteenth century but, by the opening of the twentieth, was mere anachronism. And, literally on the other hand, the Kaiser was hampered in his pursuit of macho militarism by a withered left arm, the result of an injury at birth when the infant had to be wrenched into the world by pulling too hard on the limb.
Michael Balfour's portrait of Germany's Emperor is much more than a life story. It's a political, economic, military and, to some extent, a social history as well. It is packed with intrigue and machination, but all seen through a lens which imposes the distortion of an absolute ruler's perspective, a distortion that for the contemporary reader actually aids understanding of otherwise inexplicable attitudes.
World War I, of course, is the big piece of history in this Kaiser's lifetime, but Balfour's account does not try to offer an account of the conflict, only the Emperor's involvement and impact on events. The author suggests why the conflict might have dragged on for so long with the comment: "One of the most curious and pathetic spectacles of the war was the genuine conviction of honest men on both sides that a God whom all admitted to be universal was more in favor of them than of their opposition. " The Kaiser may have been an absolute ruler, but he did have his moments of doubt: "The Kaiser, in 1918, described war as' a disciplinary action by God to educate mankind '(though he added that' God has not always been successful with these measures´). " Wilhelm's insulation from most of reality might have encouraged him to believe his distorted view of the world. Balfour describes it thus: "Wealthy men with a vent for intellectual hobbies and not quite enough to do are apt to become cranks …" But then his world view was certainly not faulty all of the time. He said, for instance, that: "… America is getting bigger, will go on gathering strength and will gradually absorb the power of England until she founds an English-speaking world empire of which England will be merely an outpost off the European continent ", so he was clearly right on occasions. But overall Balfour's context claims that "… men on the German side … had not managed to transcend the nineteenth century outlook in which the sovereign national state in a world of similar states still represented a perfectly adequate solution to the problem of human organization "and this, married to the Kaiser's belief in his own absolute right to rule, made any greater vision beyond these assumptions simply impossible. From separate city states to a unary German county and then on to world-dominating Empire was a progression that was simply assumed.
And contrary to our own time's assumptions about national characteristics, Balfour asserts that eventually Germany lost the war because its administration was badly organized: "… the position at the top was unorganized and haphazard in the extreme." Ally this with presumptions based on false locations: "The elite were so intent on inculcating what their inferiors ought to think, so indignant over any evidence about the real thought being different, that they insensibly came to base their own course of action on theories rather than facts. Dogmas survived because they corresponded to the prejudices and fulfilled the wishes of their authors, not because they embodied realities ", and again the distortion of false assumptions creates an inability to deal with the world as it is.
Some aspects of national character, however, might be both assumed and still accurate. Even in 1860, a German judge declared that "the English residing and traveling abroad are notorious for the rudeness, impudence and boorish arrogance of their behavior." But it is in the assumptions made, the presumptions declared that provide the greatest anachronisms. The Kaiser was absolute ruler of a nation that already was a mere participant in a global scheme that effectively dwarfed it. When the limit of one's view of the ocean is the glass of one's own tank, it remains possible to think of oneself as a big fish. Then, if one realises that the glass does not exist, one is presented with a necessity to come to terms with one's real limitations. Later in life and in Belgian exile, it is unlikely that the Kaiser ever made this intellectual leap, since he still pursued ideas of national and racial superiority via tacit support of Nazism. Perhaps we continue to study history to ensure we know when we are repeating past mistakes.