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The Kaiser and the Kritik

Kaiser, Hof und Staat: Wilhlem II und die deutsche Politik

by John C.G. Röhl
Verlag C.H. Beck, 262 pp., DM39.80

Max Weber and German Politics: 1890–1920

by Wolfgang J. Mommsen, translated by Michael S. Steinberg
University of Chicago Press, 498 pp., $50.00

Max Weber zur Politik im Weltkrieg: Schriften und Reden, 1914–1918 (Max Weber Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung 1, Band 15)

edited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen, in collaboration with Gangolf Hübner
Verlag J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 864 pp.

Max Weber and his Contemporaries

edited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen, edited by Jürgen Osterhammel
The German Historical Institute and Allen and Unwin (London), 591 pp., $50.00

In the early 1920s at regular intervals the Sunday illustrated supplements used to print photographs of an energetic-looking elderly gentleman with aggressively pointed mustaches, wearing a Norfolk jacket, knickerbockers, and stout boots and standing in front of a pile of logs. He was generally accompanied by a group of well-fleshed men of his own age, some in frock coats, others in shirt sleeves, with one of the latter rather sheepishly holding either an ax or a crosscut saw. The caption usually read “The Woodcutter of Doorn.” I was puzzled by the recurrence, with slight variations, of this awkward group portrait and also by the exclamations of anger and the derisive snorts of “Kaiser Bill!” that it elicited when I showed it to my elders, but, long before I had come to understand that the gentleman with the mustaches was the late emperor of Germany, the newspapers had lost interest in him, and his picture stopped appearing.

Fortunately, in the years that followed there was no dearth of books in English to satisfy one’s curiosity about William II, and this has continued to be the case, with three English biographies in the last twenty years, of which Michael Balfour’s The Kaiser and His Times (1964) is the most substantial, and with a brilliant study of the emperor’s entourage by the American Isabel V. Hull and biographies by Lamar Cecil, Thomas A. Kohut, and Robert G.L. Waite in progress. William’s own countrymen, however, have not been so well served. As John Röhl points out in his new collection of essays on the emperor and his court, not only is there no full-scale scholarly German biography of the emperor (a circumstance that can be explained only partly by the reluctance of German historians in the 1920s to weaken their case in the war-guilt controversy by revelations of the Kaiser’s disastrous interventions in foreign policy or by the fact that the Nazi period was not a propitious one for biographies of the Hohenzollerns), but there has been a tendency among German historians since 1945 to depreciate the importance of individuals and to tell the story of the Wilhelmine age with scant reference to the man who gave it its name.

Mr. Röhl is particularly aggrieved by the thesis advanced by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, in his highly regarded book The German Empire: 1871–1918, that, after the fall of Bismarck, a political vacuum existed in Germany which went unfilled, creating “a polycracy of rival centers of power,” and that it was this that determined the character of the regime and its policies rather than William II, whom Wehler, following Hans Delbrück, calls a “shadow emperor.” Considering the stamp that William placed upon every aspect of domestic and foreign policy and the importance of his personal decisions in the fields of naval policy, imperial expansion, war planning, and alliance policy, Röhl considers this position untenable, and he cites the opinion of the influential journalist Maximilian Harden, who wrote in 1902.

All the important decisions of the past twelve years have been made by [the emperor]. Changes in trade policy, the build-up of the fleet, the belief in the German Reich attaining Weltmacht on an enormous scale,…relations…with England, the military campaign in China, all that and a lot more besides are his work.

Röhl would probably find equally inexcusable the fact that Max Weber and his Contemporaries, an interesting collection of essays that resulted from a conference held by the German Historical Institute in London in September 1984, has no chapter on William II, who has, indeed, only one entry in its index.

Mr. Röhl’s complaint does not derive from any desire to rehabilitate the emperor or to reveal hitherto unremarked virtues in his character or behavior. In his opening chapter, indeed, he not only subscribes to the generally accepted view of William as a ruler who possessed neither the education, the capacity for growth, nor any realistic sense of the world in which he lived to support his inflated view of his own talent and authority, but he also adduces details about his ambivalent sexual preferences and his physical disabilities (notably a birth defect in his inner right ear that made it dangerously susceptible to tumors and discharges) as explanations for his excitability, his violent swings of mood, and his often ludicrous self-dramatization. He also points out that any claims that the emperor-in-exile might have had on our sympathy are weakened by new evidence showing that during his years in Holland William not only harbored the most bloodthirsty thoughts of revenge against those who, he felt, had betrayed him but became viciously anti-Semitic and increasingly sympathetic to National Socialism.

But none of this, he argues, is an excuse for failing to give careful attention not only to the effect of William’s personality upon policy, but also to the unique character of his system of government. For the Wilhelmine regime was no mere continuation of the Bonapartist style of the Bismarck chancellorship; it was rather a bizarre attempt, in a period of industrialism, urbanism, and democracy, to establish a divine-right monarchy with a court culture and a system of preferment based upon connections with the crown that was similar to that of the age of absolutism, and it was so successful that—to give only one example—“a Hannoverian with virtually no property or educational qualification could win a prince’s title and a powerful position in government, not least of all because as an adjutant he had performed useful services for the future Emperor in several amorous adventures.” The reference is to Count Philipp zu Eulenburg, the Kaiser’s best friend, who played a crucial role in establishing the young monarch’s legitimacy in the first difficult years after Bismarck’s fall. Eulenburg was the chief architect of the system of personal rule that was instituted, on the basis of Weltpolitik and the concentration of conservative forces on the home front, in 1897, and remained the most influential person in William’s immediate circle until revelations of homosexuality in court society brought him down in 1908.

Mr. Röhl, who has edited Eulenburg’s voluminous political correspondence, provides an informative account here of the rise and fall of the man who has been called the crisis manager of the Wilhelmine period, but the most interesting and original parts of this volume deal with what the author calls “the monstrous late-blooming of court culture” during William’s reign: on the one hand, a royal establishment that required the services of 2,320 functionaries ranging from supreme chamberlains, marshals, stewards, and masters of the hunt, adjutants general and aides-de-camp, and councilors of various grades, to coachmen, gardeners, cooks, and servants, at a cost to the state that exceeded the total expenses of the chancellor and his office, the foreign ministry, including the diplomatic and consular services, the colonial office, and the entire judicial system; and, on the other hand, an attendant society that was divided into sixty-two gradations of rank and governed by the strictest protocol, which went so far as to prescribe the color of the underwear worn by gentlemen appearing at court balls.

The external purpose of this elaborate show was, like the emperor’s speeches and appearances at parades, dedications, and the formal swearing in of military recruits, to add charisma to the institution of monarchy. Its internal function was to integrate and give hierarchical order to the leadership elite, in which it succeeded, but at the cost of jealousies and intrigue in the government, the upper bureaucracy, and the diplomatic service, which Röhl describes in rich detail. A system in which the chancellor would secretly block a ministerial appointment because the candidate’s wife had precedence over his own wife in the regulation of court ranking, which happened during Bülow’s chancellorship when the hereditary prince Ernst zu Hohenlohe-Langenberg was proposed for the office of state secretary of the colonial office, was obviously not a healthy one. But this is the way the Königsmechanismus, Röhl’s term for William’s personal rule, worked in the middle years of his reign.

In addition to his virtually unrestricted power of command in military affairs, granted by the constitution and exercised through his private military and naval cabinets, William, by virtue of the structure of court society and his “absolute control over all appointments, decorations and even plans of marriage, possessed the power to corrupt the whole imperial and state bureaucracy and to make it dependent upon himself.” At least this was true until the scandals of 1908 shook the emperor’s position, and the deterioration of Germany’s external position led the military to begin to arrogate to itself the decision-making authority.

Before that happened, William regarded himself, as he once wrote in a letter to his mother, as “the one true emperor in the world,” whose ministers existed only to carry out his commands. Particularly in foreign affairs, he claimed the right to speak for the nation and did so loudly, boastfully, and with the most baleful results for Germany’s international position. Yet the remarkable thing is that this made him popular with his subjects rather than the reverse. In a study of the imperial idea in Germany, Elizabeth Fehrenbach once wrote that Germans of all classes were excited and inspired by their flamboyant ruler; that “the Kaiser made possible the escape from the labyrinths of mass society; he concentrated the people’s gaze on the great man, the gifted individual, the embodiment of the historical mission”; and that an impressive number of leading figures in the Church, the universities, and the world of affairs eulogized him for “revivifying the old image of the Kaiser inside us and for enriching it with new qualities” (the theologian Adolf Harnack in 1907) and for giving Germany “a leader for whom we can march through flames” (the historian Friedrich Meinecke in 1913). William’s telegram to President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal in 1896, which was probably the most important single action in inaugurating the fatal deterioration of Anglo-German relations, was hailed with transports of enthusiasm in Germany, a fact that may have persuaded the influential evangelical publicist Friedrich Naumann to argue in 1900, in his book Kaisertum und Demokratie, that the emperor and his policy of imperialism might be the instruments for a reconciliation of the working class with bourgeois society.

A conspicuous exception to this chorus of praise was Max Weber. In his brilliant study of the sociologist’s politics, of which the first version appeared almost thirty years ago but which is available now in expanded form in English, Wolfgang J. Mommsen tells us that, even as a young scholar in 1889, Weber was worried by the lack of consistency in the new emperor’s attitudes and behavior and wrote to his friend Baumgarten, “It is like sitting in a railroad car traveling at a great velocity without being certain that the next switch has been put into position.” This concern increased in urgency and bitterness as the years passed. In 1892 Weber described the emperor as seeing politics with the eyes of “an eccentrically inventive lieutenant” whose sense of duty was unexceptionable but was accompanied by “recurring confusion and [an] uncomfortable relationship to power,” causing “such disorganization at the top that an effect upon the administration as a whole cannot be avoided.”

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