Philip Mansel

Kaiser Wilhelm’s guide to ruining a country

A review of Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900-1941, by John C.G. Röhl, translated by Sheila de Bellaigue and Roy Bridge. The anachro­nistic, racist and militaristic German monarch hastened his country’s self-destruction

He who must be obeyed: portrait of the Kaiser by Ferdinand Keller, 1893 [Getty Images]

The role of personality in politics is the theme of this awe-inspiring biography. This is the third volume, 1,562 pages long, of John Röhl’s life of the Kaiser. It has been brilliantly translated — the labyrinth of imperial Germany navigated by many headed subdivisions in each chapter — by Sheila de Bellaigue.

The fruit of what Röhl calls a ‘dark obsession’ with the Kaiser, it had its origin when, writing about Germany after the fall of Bismarck at the apogee of social and institutional history in the 1960s, he realised that he was analysing not a modern government but a court society. Personalities and dynasties were as important as classes and parties. One of the outstanding biographies of the past 20 years, based on research in almost as many archives as the Kaiser had palaces, it is also a guide to how to ruin a country.

This volume deals with the years from 1900 to the Kaiser’s death in exile in the Netherlands in 1941. Behind Germany’s façade of parliamentary government, with the most advanced economy in Europe (by 1914 twice as many books were published in Germany as in France), considerable  power remained with the Kaiser and his private military, naval and civil cabinets. He could appoint the Chancellor, ambassadors and generals. As he wrote to his first cousin George V in 1912, ‘They have to obey and follow my will.’ Germany did not make ministers responsible to the legislature rather than the monarch until October 1918 — in a last-minute attempt to win better peace terms, rather than a sudden enthusiasm for constitutionalism.

Journeys reveal power structure. The Chancellor travelled to remote royal hunting lodges — Rominten, Springe, Hubertusstock, even to the Kaiser’s villa in Corfu — in order to consult his master. One of the Kaiser’s closest friends, Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, provoked public exposure as a homosexual by returning to Germany in January 1907 to be received into the Order of the Black Eagle in the Schlosss in Berlin.

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