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Tuesday 10 May 2011

The Kaiser and Archetypal Images

There was once a rare radio phone-in, which differed from many others in that it wasn’t just a whole load of people complaining about things, and it happened to be about racism. What made it wonderful was a call from a local taxi driver who said that, being short-tempered, whenever a poor driver pulled out in front of him without indicating or someone drove badly, it was his natural instinct to shout out about the first thing he saw in that person, “You stupid....” maybe it was the colour of their hair, or their facial hair or an older person or a young lad...whatever it was, he found the immediate phrase. The driver happened to be Asian and said that when he made a similar driving error, he understood why people shouted what might be taken as a racist comment at him. In fact he said he would have shouted the same comment about another person who looked like him! Of course, I am not advocating aggression or nasty personal comments in this post but this man’s honesty was not only a refreshing change from political correctness (whatever that means??) but also made a big impact on me.

Immediate images are more powerful than years of learning and in times of heightened emotion we resort to our immediate impressions and the archetypal images from childhood. Dark-haired men tweaking their curly moustaches are usually sinister; pretty little women, like fairies, are often innocent damsels in distress; hooded figures are frightening like the Grim Reaper and so on.

While researching for a forthcoming series of books about the royalties in the First World War, I have seen Kaiser Wilhelm II - for whom I have always felt affection, though thought him a little bizarre!! - in an entirely different light. One of the questions I have often asked myself is why he is still seen as either evil or an imbecile. A chance comment from a child to whom I showed a picture of the Kaiser led me to an interesting thought. The child said, without knowing anything about the Kaiser, “He looks like a Nazi.” When I asked what he meant, he replied, “He has that look about him...a wacky moustache and a strange arm.”

It suddenly dawned on me how Wilhelm’s image has been massively tarnished by Hitler, who is often viewed in the same light, though two men couldn’t be less alike! Have you noticed how Hitler, during speeches such as the one in this link, keeps his left arm pinned to his side while gesticulating with his right arm? He is imitating and distorting the mannerism of the Kaiser (who, of course, could not use his left arm due to an accident of birth). Hitler’s moustache, while completely different to that of the Kaiser, is an equally noticeable feature of his face.


It is horrific to think that the image of the Kaiser – whom I firmly believe was a ‘good’ man who did his utmost to prevent war – has been so distorted by this shadow of the maniac Hitler. There is a great deal more to write in defence of Kaiser Wilhelm, whose image, I believe, has been so terribly distorted for the past hundred years. Again and again I return to the certainty that many of the charges levelled against him - like the charges of weakness levelled against Tsar Nicholas II - are completely without foundation.

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