Hang the Kaiser?

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II; drawing by David Levine

Kaiser Wilhelm II was an emblem of his era. Modern in his appreciation of the power of the media, hungry for publicity and adulation, he was constantly in the news, whether celebrating with his royal English and Russian cousins or inaugurating local railroad stations and monuments. Articulate and garrulous, the kaiser broadcast remarks that became instant catchphrases, especially those that escaped the censorship of his handlers, such as his claim that “the ruler’s will is the public law” or his favorable comparison of German soldiers to “Huns.” His ubiquity earned him the name “Reise-Kaiser” (the traveling emperor). He was also impetuous, flighty, and hard to control—“Wilhelm der Plötzliche” (Wilhelm the Sudden). Even his aggressively upright mustache acquired an epithet: “Es ist erreicht!” (It is achieved!)

On June 28, 1914, Bosnian-Serb students who chafed at Austria’s repression of Serbian nationalism in its empire assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Wilhelm responded to the death of his royal friend by pressing for war. Two days later, he noted in the margin of a diplomatic telegram that it was “now or never.” On July 5, he assured the Austrian ambassador that Germany would support Austria’s retaliation against Serbia even if it ignited a continental war against Serbia’s ally Russia (and Russia’s ally France).

The kaiser’s resolution was uncharacteristic. In previous crises, he had either scotched the warlike plans of his advisers (for example during the Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911) or they had had to stir up his enthusiasm, as in the late autumn of 1912 during the First Balkan War. In the latter instance, he eventually went beyond their intentions, demanding in effect a world war, but then pulled back when naval leaders complained that they were unready to take on England.

In the July Crisis of 1914 he wavered again, despite his initial resolve. Austria delivered a harsh ultimatum to the Serbs that demanded vast interference in Serbian domestic affairs. It was designed to be rejected and thus offer cover for an Austrian invasion. Serbia’s clever reply seemed to submit to the terms with a few reservations. The kaiser then declared on July 28 that “all ground for war has vanished.” Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke manipulated the reluctant monarch back to bellicosity. Without royal approval, Germany could not have begun the war. On the first anniversary of its outbreak, when Germany was mired in stalemate despite its use of poison gas and unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilhelm said, “I did not want the war.”

It did not matter. Foreign opinion, high and low, held the kaiser responsible for German militarism and aggression. The first serious call to put him on trial was published as early as October 1914 by an anonymous writer in The Edinburgh Review. By 1918, the idea of a trial was so commonplace that, as the armistice neared,…

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