Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Sleepwalking... and the Nightmare that was Kaiser Wilhelm

I have long harboured doubts about the so-called "Sleepwalkers" thesis - the idea that the world slithered into war in 1914 due to some sort of collective misunderstanding and lapse of concentration - finding it all rather too neat.

Of course, history books often chime subconsciously or not with the times in which they are written, but I suspect that Christopher Clark's book is a rather egregious example of this - telling us as much about the world in 2014 as about 1914. To me, its message of, effectively, "no-one was to blame, we were all at fault", with a side-order of "Behold the perils of national sovereignty!" seems to coincide rather too well with the modern mores - and political imperatives - of the European Union.  The only surprise, perhaps, is that the book has been so well-received in Germany, which has otherwise made something of a fetish of the guilt of its forefathers.

So, it was with some relish that I picked up John Röhl's new biography of Kaiser Wilhelm (the abridged edition, natch, not the 3-volume behemoth).  Röhl - born in the UK to a German father - is a highly-respected academic historian, who has made a career out of damning Kaiser Wilhelm - highlighting his deficient character, his anachronistic political beliefs and the catastrophic results of his 'personal rule'.

It was indeed a toxic mix.  Röhl's Kaiser Wilhelm is an emotionally-stunted buffoon, an arrogant braggart, an almost schizophrenic Anglophobe, desperate for acclamation and viciously vindictive if he didn't get it.  He was a man-out-of-time, a monarch whose authoritarian conviction of his own divine right to rule belonged more to the eighteenth century than the twentieth.

Most crucially, these negative traits would be hideously and catastrophically brought to bear.  Coming to the German throne in 1888, Wilhelm would not allow himself to be a mere figurehead - like his British cousins - he insisted on ruling personally. Successive German Chancellors would merely be his creatures; fawning and obsequious, more medieval courtiers than modern politicians.

The book is richly noted with original sources and full of quotes from Wilhelm and others, so there is no shortage of evidence for Röhl's thesis.  Indeed, never was a man more roundly damned by his own words, it would appear, than Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Of course, any historian has to be alive to the distant sound of an axe being ground, and - as we know - Röhl has spent many a long year seeking to prove Wilhelm's political and personal shortcomings.  What he presents is certainly convincing.  Wilhelm was a catastrophe - surely one of the most disturbed and dysfunctional individuals ever to accede to a modern throne.  The vital point, of course, is whether those shortcomings were permitted to have political and strategic expression - and on this point, too, I find Röhl convincing.

It may be, of course, that Röhl overstates his case; overeggs his pudding.  But, crucially, if even a fraction of the evidence that he presents is as pertinent as he claims it is, then surely the 'Sleepwalkers' thesis - however cosy and comforting for us in 2014 - is a dead duck?  Other European states and statesmen might have been sleepwalking into disaster in 1914 - misreading each other's intentions and sending mixed messages - but Wilhelm was in a perverse wet dream all of his own: actively desiring his 'glorious' war to establish German hegemony and pushing his feckless Allies to bring it about.

As Röhl himself puts it: the idea that the world "slithered into the First World War...can be sustained only by the deliberate omission or marginalisation of much well-known cast-iron evidence to the contrary".  It might not be fashionable, but this brilliant and convincing demolition of Kaiser Wilhelm at least has the whiff of veracity about it.

No comments: