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. 

Neurasthenia – A Disease For the 20th Century

The years leading up to the Great War were a time of huge upheaval. The dizzying pace of change which preceded the outbreak of hostilities undoubtedly set the stage for that horrible conflict. The turn of the century brought with it rapid technological advancement as well as changes in the roles of women and a blurring of the previous century’s class structure. The world was shifting on its axis and a new feeling of anxiety presented itself during those times.

Neurasthenia was the name given to this new dis-ease, which affected more men than women —a surprise to the establishment, given its similarity to hysteria, which was largely viewed as a female disease. (On a side note, hysteria was an overused, misogynistic diagnosis. Have a bad day? Hysterical. Don’t feel like having sex tonight? Hysterical. A woman could be labeled hysterical for simply disagreeing with her husband’s demands. It was diabolical. Anyway…) The psychiatrists saw this nervous exhaustion as a result of the fast pace of life in the modern world. For example, with the advent of the assembly line, manufacturing was transformed from a system in which one worker saw the building or assembly of the product from start to finish to one in which the product was built or assembled by a team of workers each repetitively performing one task. The faster the process, the more machines built, the more units sold, with lower the cost to the consumer and more profits to the company. The pace could be as frenetic as the work was mind numbing.

The condition was even more common among the professional class: doctors, lawyers, judges and businessmen were finding it difficult to cope with their lives. The pressure to work hard, play hard resulted in irritability, sleep deprivation, depression, various physical pains and eventual breakdown. Those professions in which new technology was being employed suffered the greatest. Telephone operators, typesetters, railway workers, and engineers working on ever faster machines struggled to keep up. All throughout the Western World, the numbers of new diagnoses of neurasthenia rose at a frightening pace. For example, in Germany, just over 40,000 patients were registered in mental hospitals in 1870. By 1900, that number had risen to nearly 116,000 and to 220,000 by 1910. These numbers don’t include those who consulted a doctor without being admitted to hospital or those who spent time in a private sanatorium for respite. One German doctor called the illness ‘the pathological signature of the time in which we are living.’

Imagine a world where the great powers were rapidly developing their economies, competing for dominance in the colonial holdings, embracing new technologies, expanding their military might and simultaneously trying to hold on to the political systems of the past. The working classes were primed for revolution and the professional classes were having nervous breakdowns. It was a recipe for disaster and inevitably culminated in a global catastrophe like the world had never seen before.

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!