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The Legacy of the Mad Kaiser
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Who was the great villain of the 20th century—the person most to blame for the evils of those decades?

The stock answer is the person whose name is an anagram of “HEIL! OLD FART.” I disagree. It seems to me the title properly belongs to Lenin, the guy who really got the totalitarian ball rolling. His influence was worldwide, and lasted far longer than Hitler’s.

Mao, Kim, Castro, Ho, and other practitioners of modern utopian despotism all modeled their party organization on Lenin’s, as indeed did Hitler. A milder, dumbed-down form of Leninism is still the state ideology of Western society today, generating endless rancor and discord, though mostly of a nonlethal kind. What we call Cultural Marxism is really Cultural Leninism: the notion of human society as a structure of cruel, amoral oppressors reveling in their heartless supremacy over soulful, righteous victims—a notion in direct line of descent from Lenin’s pithy formula: “Who? Whom?”

(Ed Capano, former publisher of National Review, told me a story about visiting Moscow with some colleagues back in Cold War days. Ed and columnist Keith Mano went to see Lenin’s preserved corpse. Emerging from the mausoleum, Ed noticed that Mano was pale and trembling. What was the matter? he asked. Mano, a religious man, replied: “I have just looked on the face of the Antichrist.”)

As a candidate for runner-up in the 20th-century villain pageant, I would nominate Kaiser Wilhelm II, the monarch of Germany from 1888 to 1918. This comes from reading John Röhl’s concise biography of the Kaiser, published this summer.

Röhl has written a much larger biography of Wilhelm II/?tag=taksmag-20: three big volumes totaling 4,000 pages and based, he tells us, on “fifty years of original archival research.” If you want to know that much about the man, good luck to you. If, like me, you just want to satisfy historical curiosity, the 240-page concise version will do.

The overwhelming impression you come away with is of an extremely unpleasant person. The Kaiser was arrogant, stubborn, graceless, and none too bright. He was also delusional in several different ways. He had, for example, the fixed idea that he understood the British better than any of his advisers did.

The grounds for this particular delusion were his blood connection with the British royals. His mother was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. Edward VII, who succeeded Victoria, was his uncle. George V, who succeeded Edward, was his cousin. The national anthem of Wilhelm’s Germany even shared a tune with Britain’s.

The delusion would have made more sense if the mother-son relationship had been a healthy one. Everything went wrong there, though, from his very birth—a bungled breech delivery that left him with a malformed left arm—through a childhood literally tortured by cruel attempts to fix the arm, then a loveless adolescence of Spartan discipline. Röhl tells us that the Kaiser arrived at adulthood with

A brittle, narcissistic amour propre combined with an icy coldness and an aggressive contempt for those he considered weaker than himself.

Somewhere along the way he also acquired a fetish for women’s hands.

Well, the world is full of unpleasant people. Did the Kaiser’s unpleasantness contribute to the outbreak of WWI, the greatest civilizational catastrophe of the modern West?


It seems that it did. There is ample documentation in Röhl’s book of the Kaiser’s eagerness for war, for victory over France and Russia. He was sure that Britain, the third member of the Triple Entente, would not intervene. His ambassadors in London, and British government ministers, and his royal British relatives, kept trying to set him straight; but what was their knowledge of Britain compared with his?

To be sure, the officials Wilhelm was surrounded with were just as intent on war as he was; in the crisis of July 1914, perhaps even more so. As Röhl points out, though:

He had personally chosen all these advisers … because he considered them forceful or adaptable, and kept them in office because they followed the guidelines of his policy. The personal rule he had exercised throughout two decades had produced, in the Prussian-German state apparatus and partly also in the officer corps, a dysfunctional polyarchy and a courtier culture in which cautious men … could not make themselves heard.

Inevitably there are revisionist and contrarian arguments to the contrary. WWI has been blamed on the British, the Russians, the French, and of course the Jews. Each point of view is defended by fierce partisans.

To swallow any of these theories, though, you have to believe that Röhl has made up all the innumerable quotations he cites from Wilhelm’s letters, speeches, marginal notes on state papers, and recorded conversations. Even if 90 percent of them are fake, the remainder are quite sufficient to make the prosecution’s case.

Does this sorry story have any geopolitical lessons for the present day? Possibly.

When post-Mao China got into its economic groove, it became common to compare China’s situation with Wilhelmine Germany’s. A major nation (Germany 1890, China 1990) was finding its feet at last and demanding respect; the world’s dominant power (Britain, the U.S.A.) was losing its grip; a major empire (Turkey, the U.S.S.R.) was moribund and disintegrating …

I found the analogy persuasive when it first appeared, having been deeply impressed by Barrington Moore’s poli-sci classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which argues that a constitutionally primitive regime can get from feudalism to modernity by enlisting the support of a rising middle class. Now I’m not so sure. What present-day nation, in the analogy, plays the part of Tsarist Russia, whose growing strength kept Wilhelm awake at night?

The analogy has anyway fallen from favor, although it’s still brought out for an airing now and then—here in American Thinker, for example, by David Archibald (whose recent book I reviewed on Takimag).

We can at least be glad that modern China has no absolute ruler as crazily stupid as Kaiser Bill.

(Republished from Takimag by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Kaiser Wilhelm, Review 
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  1. Sean says:

    McMeekin author of July 1914: Countdown to War, says “Germany’s civilian leaders, especially Kaiser Wilhelm II, were just as adamantly opposed to the “war party” in Berlin as [was] Franz Ferdinand … in Vienna … So far from backing up the Austrians in some kind of Germanic solidarity against the Slavic threat, the Kaiser was resented in Vienna as a kind of Serbophile; indeed Germany’s sovereign backed Serbia’s claim on Macedonia in the wake of the Balkan Wars, and called Austrian opposition to Serbian port access to the Adriatic Sea “nonsense.” As late as March 1914, the Kaiser angrily wrote that the “stupidity” of the Austrian war party threatened to “stir up the danger of a war with the Slavs, which would leave us quite cold. […]

    Grey’s policy of supporting France had so little support that he had to more or less blackmail his fellow Liberals into falling into line (paradoxically, the fact that the Tory Opposition was more pro-French than the Liberals meant that, if the Cabinet fell, Liberal Ministers opposed to the war would see the Opposition fight it — so they held their noses to support a belligerent line they did not believe in, in order to stay in power). […]

    As for why Poincaré took such a hard line, and encouraged Russia’s early mobilization — that remains one of the great questions of the July crisis. But it may not be that hard to answer. Sometimes historians, in their efforts to make sweeping generalizations, over think things. All the evidence we have on Poincaré suggests that he was a ferocious anti-German patriot, a Lorrainer born in territory lost to Berlin in the Franco-Prussian war who, as he once wrote, “saw no other reason to live than the possibility of recovering our lost provinces.” Of all the powers, one could even say the war was the least complicated for France. Motivation was ample, war aims were simple: avenge 1871. ”

    The French encouraged the Russians to mobilise, knowing the Russians were backing the Serbs. Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clarke, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge s says the Serbian leadership (including the PM) had extremely close links to the plot to kill Ferdinand.

    Crowe’s memorandum had a laundry list of vague complaints about Germany. Such as the Germans were not stopping German journalists from saying that there was widespread rape of Afrikaner girls during the Boer war.. Germany was not an aggressive dictatorship whose leadership had bizarre ideas, any country in a deteriorating correlation of forces between two powerful enemies would have to destroy the weaker and slower moving one first. The British or at least some elements of the British state gave undertakings to the French., and the French, or at least Poincaré re assured the Russians.

    Mearsheimer “The German decision to push for war in 1914 was not a case of wacky strategic ideas pushing a state to start a war it was sure to lose. It was … a calculated risk motivated in large part by Germany’s desire to break its encirclement by the Triple Entente, prevent the growth of Russian power, and become Europe’s hegemon.”

    I maintain that the invasion of Belgium was not the cause of Britain going to war to war with Germany. If you want to argue that the country that violated Belgian neutrality would have provoked a declaration of war by Britain, you are in effect saying if France had violated the neutrality of Belgium, (as Joffre wanted) Britain would have gone to war with France.

    While it is possible Britain might have not have came to the aid of France if it attacked Germany through Belgium, Britain would never have had gone to war against France. The top level preparations under Wilson and the and battleship dispositions, which included an actual naval treaty with France were aimed at winning a war against Germany.

    Britain was so worried about it’s precious Indian Empire that it gave crucial diplomatic and military assistance for Japan to defeat Russia, thus making Germany threateningly powerful by comparison. Russia then turned away from the east and, with massive financial support from France, started pursuing in the Balkans. Due to encouragement from Poincaré, Russia brought about WW1 by mobilising, hence there was aggression by France in the knowledge it would be fighting with Russia and Britain. After the war Poincaré, was openly accused by the French left of having started whole thing.

    One may think that gives him too much credit, after all he didn’t start WW2; or did he? Apart from backing a breakaway Rhineland Republic, Poincaré ordered the 1923 invasion and occupation of the Ruhr, which discredited moderate politicians as ineffectual and caused Germany to descend into chaos and officially subsidised strikes that caused hyperinflation. (Hitler alone among nationalist opposed this). There was serious unrest by communists and Hitler (whose movement had been aided by the presence of French occupation of all of Rhenish Bavaria) mounted a putsch attempt that made him a national figure.

    In 1929-30 Poincaré and foreign minister Briand again came to Hitler’s aid. The Young plan, which made the Allies owners of the German railway system and mandated reparations until 1988, was opposed by Hitler . From the relative obscurity he had sank back into in Bavaria Hitler was catapulted onto a national platform again. In 1930 the French proposed a united states of Europe, when the Germans rejected the idea the France used its financial muscle to bankrupt the largest Austrian bank (the Kreditanstalt) which caused Germany to slide into a banking crisis and seriously deepened the depression in Germany and the rest of the world including the US.

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    I learned a lot from Sean’s comment and the article. I wonder what can we apply from lessons learned to middle east from Pakistan to Maghreb

  3. colm says:

    Britain has to be humbled, with a big H. It has caused more trouble to the white race than all the blacks and asians combined.

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