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. 

Galway Girl

[A little history from the place I will soon call home; a repost from a while back]

In Eyre Square, the center of the old city of Galway, there hang 14 banners with the names of the tribal families of the region. On one of those banners is the name O’Flaherty. The O’Flahertys were the most notorious of the 14 families. Their men were known to be drinkers, fighters and ruthless killers. It’s said that when you were going to bed at night to say your prayers, after thanking God for all your blessings and forgiveness of your sins, you’d finish the prayer by saying, “God preserve us from the ferocious O’Flahertys,” because it was a real possibility, that on their way home from a night of drinking and carousing, if they passed by your house, the O’Flaherty boys might decide on a whim to break and and kill the lot of you. 

Now what does that have to do with a Galway girl? Well, it has to do with the woman one of the O’Flahertys married. There was a young lady named Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Mhaol) nearly as infamous as the O’Flahertys. Little Grace was the daughter of a pirate. And rather than play with dollies and stay at home with her Mam, Grace craved to follow after her father’s footsteps. Her father of course, thought this was ridiculous and told her to settle down and be a good girl. Grace was having none of it. 

So great was her desire to go to sea, that she cut off all her hair, stole the clothing of a neighbor boy and sneaked onto her father’s ship just as it was about to go out of port. It was only after they were far away from land that Grace revealed herself to her father. Her father, naturally, was angry, but he also saw Grace’s determination and ferocity. So he set about to take the girl under his wing and teach her the ways of pirating. Grace eventually took over the family business and became known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland.

Grace outlasted two husbands. The first -O’Flaherty- was killed after sustaining grievous wounds in a fight. The second -Richard Burke- was a wealthy lord and landowner. However, after just a year of marriage, legend says that O’Malley and her followers locked themselves in Rockfleet Castle and she called out a window to Burke, “Richard Burke, I dismiss you.” This effectively rendered them divorced. But she retained much of his holdings.

Later, after having dealings with Queen Elizabeth I, it’s said that the English Monarch developed a soft spot for Grace. Grace claimed that both of her husbands had abused her during their married lives and this evoked pity from the Virgin Queen, so much so that as Grace attained old age, the queen bestowed a pension upon the Pirate Queen of Ireland.

So let’s hear it for the Galway Girl. Cunning and fierce, wealthy and powerful. And as wicked as they come!

Research Notes – The Great War (23) Max Beckmann, Artist

“My heart beats more for a rougher, more vulgar art… one that offers access to the terrible, the crude, the magnificent, the ordinary, the grotesque, and the banal in life. Art that can always be right there for us, in the realest things of life.” Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann was born on February 12, 1884 in Leipzig, The Kingdom of Saxony, part of the newly established German Empire. He began painting as a youth, attempting to emulate the old masters, resulting in his early work following the classic, academic style. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Beckmann enlisted as a medical orderly and his experiences as such would forever change his art. Rather than continuing to paint traditional and realistic depictions, he began to distort figures and space —a demonstration of his altered view of the world and humanity within it.

In letters home, he wrote of his experiences as a medical officer, bringing the wounded to the hospitals for treatment: “…the sick lie naked on the table, often four or five of them. … With no sign of emotion, the doctors courteously show me the most horrible wounds. The sharp smell of putrefaction was hovering over everything, despite good ventilation and well-lit rooms. I was able to take it for about an hour and a half then I had to go out into the open landscape.”

Beckmann recreated this vision in his etching: The Large Operation, (1914):

Grosse Operation, Max Beckmann 1914 (courtesy MoMa)

After his discharge from the military, he transformed his art to reflect the horrors of war. Even those works not explicitly about the war are informed by it. Now his works —crowded with figures and details— were all jagged lines, broken planes and angular forms. The effect was unsettling and claustrophobic.

An example of this style can be seen in Playing Children (1918) in which the figures of the children are compressed into a tight circle. Adding to the sense of menace, most of the children wield weapons and engage in a violent mock battle.

Spielende Kinder; Max Beckmann, 1918 (courtesy MoMa)

Beckmann became quite successful in the years after the war. Many of his paintings portrayed the cabaret culture of post war Germany and the decadence that arose during the time of the Weimar Republic.

Dancing Bar In Baden-Baden; Max Beckmann, 1923

However, things changed with the rise of the Nazis. Adolf Hitler disliked Modern Art to the extent that it was suppressed by the state. Beckmann was labeled a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work declared degenerate. In 1937, Beckmann left Germany for the Netherlands and never returned.

In 1948, he moved to the United States but his tenure as an American was to be short lived. Only months after obtaining a professorship at the Art School of New York’s Brooklyn Museum, he suffered a heart attack and died at the corner of 69th and Central Park West, not far from the apartment he shared with his wife.

Header image: Self Portrait in a Tuxedo; Max Beckmann