Research Notes – The Great War : Kaiser Wilhelm II

“Good heavens, whatever will happen if Prince Wilhelm becomes Kaiser as early as this? … “He thinks he understands everything, even shipbuilding.” A senior general talking about the future Kaiser a year before his ascension to the throne. And regarding Wilhelm’s short attention span, Otto von Bismarck said, “[Wilhelm] would take a little peek … learn nothing and end up believing he knew everything.”

Kaiser Wilhelm II was one of three royal cousins embroiled in the First World War. George V of Great Britain and Nicholas II of Russia stood against their cousin on the opposite side of the conflict. Of the three, Wilhelm’s story is by far the most interesting (at least to me). His behaviour is infuriating but perhaps some of it can be excused (or at least explained) when examining his childhood. As the first of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, the eldest son of Princess Victoria and Frederick, King of Prussia and Kaiser of the German Empire, he should have had a special place in the ageing empress’s heart but he managed even to alienate his Grandmama. Wilhelm got off to a bad start from day one…

Wilhelm’s birth was difficult and resulted in an injury to his left arm. The damaged arm never fully developed, remaining six inches shorter than his right one. He managed to disguise it well by strategically posing with it bent or in a pocket or fold of his coat. [If you look closely, you can see the difference in the header image photo.] Despite numerous experimental and painfully torturous treatments inflicted on the young prince, the condition was permanent. His mother, Vicky, blamed herself and overcompensated by pushing him to excel at riding. But because the boy had only one arm strong enough to hold on, the results were predictably disastrous. Over and over he fell, weeping, from the back of his pony and over and over he was put back on to try again. It must have been a miserable existence.

As a child, he was prone to temper tantrums, much to the horror of his mother and their extended royal family. At the age of four, while in attendance of his uncle Edward’s wedding, he grew bored. To get the attention of his uncles Leopold and Arthur, he scratched their legs and when that didn’t work, he threw part of his clothing into the choir. When finally disciplined, he bit one of the uncles in the leg. On another occasion, during a visit to his British relatives on The Isle of Wight when he was seven years old, he tried to kick another member of the party —a former secretary of Prince Albert’s— and was given a spanking by the intended victim.

His emerging personality was certainly influenced by the high expectations placed on him as the future king of Prussia and Kaiser of the German Empire. In addition, the Prussian court, the servants, really everyone else, treated him like a little god. In a letter to Wilhelm’s father, Friedrich, his mother wrote: “He is very arrogant, extremely smug and quite taken with himself. [He] is offended at the slightest comment, plays the injured party, and more than occasionally gives an impudent answer; furthermore he is unbelievably lazy and slovenly.”

To add insult to injury, his education, unlike other royal princes at the time was unconventional yet harsh and humiliating. His tutor worked him from 5 AM to 8 PM six days a week —way beyond the normal school day— and at the same time reported to everyone including Wilhelm himself, that he did not believe he was up to it. Nevertheless, Wilhelm was a good student and after completing his education, he joined the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, the grandest and most aristocratic regiment in Germany. The army, eventually would become his obsession.

Despite this love and admiration of the military, Wilhelm developed none of the discipline or mental habits of a military officer. He looked and played the part but that is where the application of his army experience ended. He loved the ‘appearance’ of the army: the parade and performance, the display of medals and the clicking of heels and most of all the uniform. In fact the uniform became his only attire after about the age of twenty. The Kaiser even went so far as to design the army uniform himself.

It was his aim upon ascension to the throne of German Emperor, to be a charismatic, soldier-king. He adopted mannerisms to accentuate this persona: a fierce expression, staccato vocal delivery, rigid posture and stance. Nevertheless, his own overconfidence and his tendency to think he knew more than anyone else in the room, to change his mind from one position to another in quick succession and to surround himself with people who only agreed with him [he was easily offended and prone to outbursts of rage when he was questioned or proven wrong] made governance under the Kaiser’s lead a near impossible task. His ministers were constantly frustrated by him and spent a great deal of time undoing the Kaiser’s mistakes while keeping him in the dark.

In analysing the Kaiser through the microscope of a hundred years of time and with the application of all we have discovered in the field of psychology, many believe that Kaiser Wilhelm II displayed many symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These include: arrogance, inflated self importance, an enormous sense of entitlement, the delusion of unlimited power and success, confidence in his own brilliance, a constant need for flattery and a rejection of criticism, and a regard for other people only as instruments of his will.

One has to ask the question whether this was a result of nature: the prevalence of intermarriage within the noble families of Europe gave the royals a very narrow gene pool, the difficult birth and resulting injury —or of nurture: the torturous treatment implemented to correct the birth injury, or the rigorous, atypical education, isolation, and simultaneous humiliation by some and exaggerated veneration as heir to the throne by others. What an awful list of ingredients contributed to the formation of the man who would lead the German Empire during the Great War. It would not be an easy choice to either pity or despise Kaiser Wilhelm II. 

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