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. 

I plead insanity …

How long has it been?!? I have been an atrocious blogger the last several weeks, maybe months. And I’ve been terrible at reading, visiting and commenting at all your lovely blogs as well. But now its a new year, time for new goals and getting back to business. I promise to visit everyone soon!

I finished up 2019 by doing a lot of reading. I tackled some heavy hitters this year and fell one short of meeting my GoodReads challenge of 30 books. Still, considering the weight of some of the material I covered, it’s a pretty good show. I tackled The Divine Comedy with notes, The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States, The Art of Memory, The Stranger, The Plague and One Hundred Years Of Solitude, just to name a few.

The second half 2019 was insane, there’s no other way to put it. I’m in a new country, new house, finding new friends and my way around unfamiliar territory, physically, mentally and emotionally. But it’s good. It really is.

The move consumed a lot of time and energy and it prevented me from writing and posting here on the blog. That changes now. I am back to writing this week. I have an editing project to work on and another one possibly after that. The very act of working on writing, even though it’s someone else’s material, has given me the inspiration to get started on my own work again.

So this year, I’ll be sharing more of my World War One research, updates on the historical novel, bits and pieces of writing advice/mistakes, and an occasional piece of art. I’m not going to try any challenges this year, though. That became a bit of a burden last year. I am going to try and keep any artwork that I do relevant to my historical work. For example, characters I encounter in research or events set during the Great War.

I hope you all are well and that 2020 is off to a good start. Happy writing and productive editing!

Research Notes – The Great War (21) The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Reworked and edited from an earlier post:

In researching for my story Here Lies a Soldier, I needed to educate myself on The Spanish Flu Epidemic: the plague that killed some 50 million people worldwide in 1918, more than 10 times the number killed by The Great War. I found an excellent book about the flu:  Living With Enza -The Forgotten Story Of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic Of 1918. The author, Mark Honigsbaum, has compiled and sifted through a huge amount of data to write this book. Here are some of the things I found interesting and frankly, horrifying.

Some facts about influenza:

Influenza viruses spread aerially, usually in small droplets expelled when someone coughs or sneezes, and tend to be more stable in cool dry conditions. Researchers have also discovered that at around 5 degrees C (41 degrees Fahrenheit) the virus transmits for about 2 days longer than at 20 degrees. A popular (and morbid) children’s rhyme of the time may actually be spot on. It goes like this:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza

The Spanish Flu in particular:

The Spanish Flu was so virulent because of its genetic makeup. There are 3 types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. The B type produces classic winter flu while the C type rarely causes disease in humans. The A type, however, is the one responsible for the great pandemics of history. Because viruses are not cells, they do not have DNA to organize their replication. Rather, they use 8 delicate strands of RNA which codes for proteins and enzymes on the surface of the virus. Trouble arises during replication because the RNA cannot copy perfectly. Errors called ‘antigenic drift’ occur when the avian or swine strain of the virus is exchanging genes with the human host.  The result is a new subtype of the virus. Then once inside the new host, the 8 strands of RNA randomly shuffle, generating an entirely new virus for which the human immune system has no antibodies. With no defense, the virus can spread like a wild-fire.

The rate of mortality fell disproportionally on young adults, usually the least vulnerable of a population. The 1918 flu struck suddenly and without warning. One moment a person was up and about, the next day they would be lying incapacitated, coughing up greenish-yellow sputum. The final stage came when their lungs filled with fluid, prompting the heart to leach oxygen from the head and feet, resulting in a dark purple staining across the lips and cheeks of the victim.

Courtesy Philly Voice

Possible contributing factors:

The effects of gas attacks during the war.  Gasses like phosgene and chlorine were not only capable of disabling and killing on contact, they also acted as soil contaminants denying valuable ground to the enemy. In all, it is estimated that some 150,000 tons of poison gasses – the equivalent of a modern day supertanker – were dumped on the killing fields of Flanders and Northern France during the last 2 years of the war, saturating the soil to the point where it became impossible for attacking troops to hold territory without large numbers of men having to retreat to field hospitals with suppurating blisters, damaged lungs, and eyes.

The most mutagenic of all gasses – mustard gas – 12,000 tons of which was dumped on the Western Front in 1917, accounted for 400,000 casualties. According to John Oxford, Professor of virology at Queen Mary’s Medical School of London and military historian Douglas Gill: these agents may have prompted ‘stepwise mutational changes’ in the influenza virus. And in combination with the bitterly cold conditions that prevailed at the Western Front in the winter of 1917, and the stresses and strains of war, it is possible such contaminants would have lowered men’s resistance to the flu.

Though this particular strain of flu was traced to a United States Army barracks in Kansas (for more on that see Patient Zero: The Spanish Flu) it quickly spread all over North America and Europe. Some of it’s famous victims included: American President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, the future Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, artist Edvard Munch, and celebrities Walt Disney, Lilian Gish, and Mary Pickford.

Header Image: courtesy health