Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Kaiser Bill and Me

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the last Germany emperor, Wilhelm II. Unfairly maligned and the victim of allied propaganda, he was a better ruler than given credit for and he has been arbitrarily labeled an anti-Semite and the one who began the carnage of the First World War (which was largely controlled by the military and the Kaiser had already lost his authority over politics and foreign policy at this point).  He was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 15 June 1888 to 9 November 1918. He was a grandson of the British Queen Victoria and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe.  He died on this day in 1941.

Wilhelm II enthusiastically promoted the arts and sciences, as well as public education and social welfare. He sponsored the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the promotion of scientific research; it was funded by wealthy private donors and by the state and comprised a number of research institutes in both pure and applied sciences.  Wilhelm II supported the modernizers as they tried to reform the Prussian system of secondary education, which was rigidly traditional, elitist, politically authoritarian, and unchanged by the progress in the natural sciences. As hereditary Protector of the Order of Saint John, he offered encouragement to the Christian order's attempts to place German medicine at the forefront of modern medical practice through its system of hospitals, nursing sisterhood and nursing schools, and nursing homes throughout the German Empire. Wilhelm continued as Protector of the Order even after 1918, as the position was in essence attached to the head of the House of Hohenzollern.

Giles MacDonogh gives a more nuanced treatment of Kaiser Bill, often written off as a mentally ill, arrogant, lazy, and self-absorbed ruler.  He also offers us a picture of Wilhelm's role as a surprisingly progressive and modern ruler. For example, the Kaiser was one of the first to speak of a United States of Europe and the need to let down customs barriers, eighty years before such ideas became fashionable.  The family tree is worth noting since the conflicts with Britain were as much familial as tension between nations. Young Wilhelm studied under a severe Calvinist tutor and suffered from a less than wonderful home life.

I say this not to defend him to point out that the picture of this man is much more complicated than often described.  He was certainly not a great ruler and was a man with many character flaws that were only exacerbated by with family tensions and political circumstance. I find myself personally caught in this tension.  My Swedish great-grandfather made political cartoons against him and my German great-grandfather tended the Kaiser's horses in his personal stable (service for which he took particular pride).  Oh, well... life is truly a bundle of contradictions in which the easy characterizations are mostly inaccurate and often just plain wrong.  I don't know what to think of Kaiser Wilhelm -- bad but not as bad as often portrayed?  Perhaps that is the best he can get... God gets to decide the ultimate verdict and His judgment is often much more charitable than a historians -- not in the least because He judges mercifully and He knows the heart.  Something we see only dimly here on earth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The royalty of the German and Habsburg empires were no better nor worse than any other European leader who lived and reigned prior to the end of WWI. The German and Austrian elite had the misfortune of being on the losing side of the Great War.

Whenever modern Germany is criticized for being too nationalistic (protective of its interests), Germany's enemies make erroneous assumptions: nationalism equals naziism; and 19th century German and Austrian intelligensia were responsible for creating naziism. The British government employs such propaganda in order to misdirect the frustration of its people away from itself and toward an imaginary enemy.