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 …

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