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Sunday 24 January 2010

Helen's Nose, Willy's Arm

Some wise person whom I cannot remember once pointed out that 'if Helen of Sparta's nose had been half an inch shorter" it would have changed the whole course of history. The reference is, of course, to the Trojan Wars as described by Homer, wherein Helen - she whose face 'launched a thousand ships' - was abducted by the Trojan, Paris, which led to the decade long battle and siege. Had she been less beautiful, (her nose half an inch shorter) the war might never have happened.

Had the German Kaiser Wilhelm II's disabled arm been a few inches longer, would it have changed the course of history? I doubt it, really, because - like young lads spoiling for a fight - the ministers of most European countries were so geared up for war that it seemed inevitable. It would, however, have made a great deal of difference to Wilhelm himself. His was such a difficult birth that the doctors had almost given up on his chances of survival and, as he wasn't breathing, wrenched his limb and shoulders to such an extent that his arm failed to grow properly and remained quite useless - and quite an embarrassment - to him. Throughout his early years, he suffered greatly at the hands of doctors using various unhelpful appliances to try to make the arm grow. He could not ride without falling from his horse, found it impossible to use cutlery and, most humiliating of all, overheard whispers that a 'one armed man could never be Kaiser.' It says a great deal for his own strength of character that he learned to ride skillfully and overcame this disability, even succeeding, by the use of pockets or selected poses, in hiding the deformity on his photographs. Original film footage, however, shows his difficulties far more clearly. What today would seem like nothing, at that time seemed like a major handicap for a Prussian King and German Kaiser and the saddest part of his story is that somehow he held his English mother responsible for it. Alternatively hating and adoring her, he likewise hated and adored all things British. His English grandmother, Queen Victoria, was someone whom he deeply loved but his mother, the Empress Frederick, seemed to epitomise to him some mythical ideal that had let him down so badly.

Everything about him was driven to proving himself: proving that he was powerful in spite of his arm, and proving that he could surpass his mother and all that she stood for (read 'Britain') in every way. Had he been as powerful and autocratic a ruler as he thought he was, he might have succeeded in preventing the outbreak of WWI, but in reality, his ministers paid him little attention and everything was already signed and sealed to prove German supremacy in Europe in 1914. He was such a beautiful and attentive-looking young boy and the tragedy is that, behind that stiff moustache and all the medals and uniforms, the little boy is always visibly searching for acceptance.

'Willy' unfortunately came down through British history as some cartoon character whom we defeated. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm II was, in my opinion. forever a lost little boy, playing at being a brave man and wanting to feel loved. Had his arm been a few inches longer, things might have been very different. What a shame that we pay so much attention to appearances!


Viola said...

Hello Christina,

I have read that Wilhelm was a great disappointment to his mother because of his withered arm. She was a perfectionist and, couldn't stand his disability. Her favourite son died very young and this greatly affected her.

I do think that Wilhelm was partly responsible for the war, at least. He was jealous of the power of GB and very keen on entering a naval race with them. He was also influenced by his grandfather, Bismarck and the military to dislike his parents and their liberal policies. He certainly didn't mean to have a war with GB but he finally went too far.

I am not sympathetic with Wilhelm. He treated his mother shamefully and he annoyed everybody.

I do think that things might have been different if he hadn't had a withered arm because his mother would have treated him differently and he wouldn't have had such an inferiority comples.

Cheryl Ciucevich said...

If Vicky did treat him poorly, he certainly made up for it in his treatment of her, especially toward the end of this life. If his arm had not been withered, their family life at least would have been more pleasant.

It's hard to say how a more contented kaiser might have impacted the world at the turn of the century. As the adage goes, "For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost." As an eternal optimist, I have to believe that one person can make a difference.

Christina said...

Thank you Viola and Cheryl for your interesting comments :-)

I believe that Vicky felt in some way responsible for Willy's withered arm and her letters to Queen Victoria about it suggest that she felt deeply for all he suffered because of it. Although she was a perfectionist who did not often praise her children, it seems that in Willy's mind his arm was responsible for his failure to please her (though she was equally critical of Henry and Charlotte, too) and that he also blamed her for it. As you say, Viola, his grandparents and Bismarck deliberately set out to create a bigger rift between them - and succeeded!

Cheryl, I agree that Willy treated his mother appallingly not only at the death of Fritz, but also when she was dying and he refused to allow her to see English doctors or to be prescribed increased doses of morphine. It must have been heart-breaking for her because I believe she really loved all her children (her 'baby-worship' as Queen Victoria put it) even though she did not always express her affection to the elder ones (partly, too, I think because she was so young when they born - still virtually a child herself).

Thank you so much for such interesting comments!

Anonymous said...

I've never come across a reference to Helen of Troy's nose before, but it did ring a faint bell. Do you by any chance mean E. H. Carr's illustration of Montesquieu's "chance causation" theory of history - his example being that had Cleopatra's nose not been perfect and caused her to infatuate Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony then the Roman Empire might never have been established by the war between Anthony and Augustus? It was a theory that he went on to argue against, incidentally.

Reference: E. H. Carr's What is History (second edition London 1990) pp. 101-108

Christina said...

Hello doctorhuw, I am sorry, I cannot remember where exactly I first read/heard the quotation about Helen's nose, I just remember it making a big impact on me! It surely must be from the author you have mentioned so thank you for filling in more details about it!

Christina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.