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Thursday 23 September 2010

Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler

No one can deny that dreadful atrocities have been committed throughout history, and uncovering the truth of the past seems to bring some kind of resolution to terrible situations but I fear there is often a danger of laying crimes at the feet of rulers who had little say in what exactly happened.

An article in the 'Daily Mail' today, describes a new book: "The Kaiser's Holocaust", which relates an appalling story of cruelty and murder in Namibia. The horrendousness of the story needed, perhaps, to be told but I cannot help but feel unsettled by the title or one phrase in the article which speaks of the 'tacit consent' of the Kaiser, while at the same time showing a very large picture of Wilhelm in uniform, looking every inch the German conquering hero.


Willy was, there is no doubt, racist - as were a large majority of Europeans at that time (with a notably exception in Queen Victoria) - but he was not a sadist and to compare him to Hitler, or worse, lay the blame for Hitler's abominable crimes at the feet of such a man is so unjust. Much as he would have hated to admit it, Kaiser Wilhelm was not a great leader but one who was often disregarded by his ministers who had their own agenda and desire for power. The more they took power from him, the more uniforms Willy acquired and the more aggressive poses he adopted on his photos and portraits, but at heart he was not an aggressive man, but simply a patriot in a new country, and one who wanted his country to stand equally alongside the other 'major powers' of Europe. It must be remembered that by the outbreak of WW1, Germany, unlike the other powers, had known 40 years of peace and prosperity. Germany was way ahead of other countries in caring for the unemployed and the aged, and advancing rapidly technologically. Willy simply wanted that to be recognised by the rest of Europe (and especially by Britain) and, alas, his own personal hang-ups, made it impossible for him ever to feel happy in his skin. I very, very much doubt though that he would have willingly accepted this horrendous slaughter in Namibia. During the Boer War, the British were 'inventing' concentration camps in S. Africa and, all that time, Queen Victoria was writing letters to her generals and politicians, urging them to respect the culture, religion and way of life of native peoples. Willy, I think, wanted to be like his grandmother....but never lived up to his own image of what he wanted to be.

A lot is written about the subsequent involvement of some of the German princes, grand dukes etc. with the Nazis. Making it absolutely clear that I utterly, totally and completely reject all forms of racism, control etc. and find the Nazis abhorrent, I have to say we cannot judge it all as it was then from the position of hindsight when we see the full horrific effects of how it played out. Imagine, though, if you knew and had lived through a time when your country prospered; a World War, for which you were not solely responsible, that led not only to shame of defeat and the memory of how many young men had died in vain, but also to the bankruptcy of your great nation, the loss of so many lands, being humiliated and deprived of an army to defend your borders (the Treaty of Versailles was so short-sighted!!*)...and suddenly there appeared a man who promised to restore a sense of pride. I think, before they understood the true manic and perverse nature of this man (Hitler), it is understandable that many believed in him.

None of that, of course, excuses believing in him so much that you would willingly attack your neighbours (literal neighbours - the Jewish people who lived next door; or national neighbours - like invading Poland!) but nothing is ever quite what it appears. No nation has been totally blameless and I think the large picture of the Kaiser in that newspaper, alongside such a headline, merely prolongs the mistaken myth of the Kaiser being an evil war lord and the German nation being behind all the aggression in Europe and beyond.

(And I write this as a full blooded English person!)

* Incidentally, during the Balkan Wars, the nuch-maligned Tsar Nicholas II was one of the very few people who understood the effects of short-sightedness. He knew that humiliating Bulgaria, would lead to resentment in that country and tried to broker a fair deal for everyone. What a pity he wasn't present to offer his wisdom at Versailles!)


Isabela said...

Most of people in Europe at 19th century were racists, it's not a surprise. But compare Wilhelm with Hitler?! It's an absurd!

Well... If your country was humiliated and a man come and said that he will fix all, it's hard to discredit him, but I admire the people who were not fooled by him.

That final note... Seriously? He had a better politic sense than I though before!

Christina said...

Thank you, Isabela. I think Wilhelm has been so badly treated by historians who continue to believe the First World War propaganda, and their view of him is clouded by what happened later in Germany (though Wilhelm himself denounced Hitler!!).

Yes, indeed, Nicholas had far better political sense than he is given credit for!! He certainly had some very wise views about the Balkan Wars and tried to broker a fair peace for Bulgaria to ensure that the country wasn't humiliated. He also offered sound advice to the Prince Regent of Serbia when he received the Austrian ultimatum in 1914.

(My Shattered Crowns novels go into these events at length :-))

Thank you for commenting!