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Sunday 6 June 2010

The Innocence of Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II - oh, had he not grown that silly moustache and adopted those theatrical poses, how differently he might have appeared in history books!

To the British of WW1, he was an object of scorn - "Belgium put the kybosh on the Kaiser" - or a figure of grotesque proportions who sent in his troops to commit all kinds of atrocities against the innocent Belgians. To the Russians, he was a duplicitous fraud who wrote one thing to the Tsar, while secretly plotting for war. To the French, he was the arch-enemy, the successor of those who had stolen Alsace-Lorraine; and to the Austrians he was the their one chance of success in suppressing the Serbs.

But behind that huge moustache stood a poor little fellow. Like Richard III of England, Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Wilhelm has been labelled as a 'bad thing' by posterity and his particular label is that of the aggressor which is, perhaps, the most unattractive of all labels. The Willy-Nicky telegrams (cousin-to-cousin in the days leading up to the outbreak of WW1) imply his perfidy and his own memoirs seem to tell quite a different story from what was actually happening on the world stage but the more I learn of this man, the more clear it is that he has been so wrongly labelled.

Wilhelm, in spite of his love of uniforms and military prowess, had no more stomach for war than any of his cousins. He had never led an army into battle or captained a ship. Like Nicholas, he saw his role as doing the best for his country. Germany at that time, in spite of the unification, still comprised so many different states, each with its own military uniforms and view of the world. The same was true of Austria, where Franz Ferdinand suggested a sort of American model of governance, and Russia comprised an equally eclectic mix of cultures. The difference for Willy was that his country was so 'new' - only 40 years old - and he, with own psychological hang-ups, found himself responsible for bringing it all together. To add to his woes, he obviously had many difficult childhood experiences and had such a longing to be loved. He seems to me to have loved the sense of his own magnanimity. He wanted to please people. Above all, he wanted to be loved. He once described Germany as 'the custodian of peace' in Europe and I don't think he said that insincerely.

Alas! Like the rest of his contemporaries, he found himself at the mercy of ministers who sought only their own ends and their own route to power. Not one single monarch wanted war in Europe but someone obviously did. As in all wars, look at who gained from it in order to discover who instigated it. Ah, the whole arms machine, the shadowy power-seekers who think they rule the world by hoodwinking people with propaganda and finding a face to pin to the idea of 'saviour' or 'aggressor'.

Willy, like so many others...a convenient caricature. At the same time, an amazingly intellectually intelligent man who never quite caught up with his own emotions. Had the Central Powers 'won' the First World War (if such mindless carnage could ever be called a victory) he would probably have been labelled "Wilhelm the Great", but even if that had happened I doubt that he would ever have felt victorious.

Perhaps it is time for a trial to be held, like that which - several hundred years later found Richard III innocent of the crimes of which he was accused - and this one would show that Willy was not the aggressor; Nicholas of Russia was anything but weak and the real responsibility for the carnage of the war lies with those who hid behind th scenes....

It was ever thus...

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