I’ve heard Donald J. Trump compared to Hitler, Mussolini, Nero, Ivan the Terrible, and Vlad the Impaler. He’s been likened to Satan and likened himself to George Washington, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. But he’s relatively infrequently been compared with the historical figure who in many ways is most like him, and whose story has much to teach us: Wilhelm II (1859-1941), King of Prussia and German Emperor (Kaiser).
The empire had been formed in 1870 on the initiative of Otto von Bismarck, minister-president (prime minister) of the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia was much the largest of several German Kingdoms and Bismarck engineered her rise to preeminence in Germany between 1862 and 1870, fomenting several wars to use as stepping stones. After the defeat of France in 1870 he employed cajolery, flattery, and jingoism, liberally seasoned with bribery and threats, to persuade the 25 other German kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free Hanseatic cities to agree to a treaty of union under Prussian leadership, Bismarck himself becoming imperial chancellor. The “Iron Chancellor,” as he was justly known, recognized that the new empire’s geographic position made her vulnerable to attack from three sides; he successfully sought to spin a web of alliances and agreements to enhance German security. The diplomatic roads of Europe all led to Berlin. Thus Germany was able to grow economically at high rates, untroubled by threats of war.
Wilhelm’s grandfather, the old kaiser, died early in 1888, and his father followed just a few months later. At age 29 Wilhelm was the monarch of Prussia and the German empire, with vast powers. Germans greeted their glamorous and dynamic young leader with adulation, but those who had close contact with him saw Wilhelm as remarkably impetuous and immature. He was extremely self-centered and thin-skinned, far, far beyond the norm even for brash young noblemen. He always had to be the center of attention and would throw a tantrum when he wasn’t. No one could tell him any bad news without severe consequences. So he always wound up reading it in the newspapers, prompting rages, sulks, and hasty and often counterproductive responses.
Although the empire and the Prussian kingdom both had constitutional governments, to Wilhelm they were his own personal domains, identified with him. In 1891, during an official visit to the city of Munich, he wrote in the city’s “Golden Book,” “Suprema lex regis voluntas” — “The will of the monarch is supreme law.” Appointments as ministers, officers, and officials went only to favorites; all of those at the highest levels were courtiers, obsequious toadies who took his degrading abuse and came back for more. In 1908 one of his top generals, a stout 56-year old, expired of a heart attack while prancing in a ballerina’s attire for his master’s amusement, an incident exceptional only for its fatal consequences.
Germany had become too large and complex a state to be ruled as a personal domain. There were many powerful men who had to be accommodated to one extent or another, and even the will of the people counted for a good deal. Though he despised and tried always to subvert Germany’s limited institutions of constitutional rule, Wilhelm sought relentlessly to manipulate and mobilize powerful factions and popular opinion. There was no Twitter then but he gave speeches at every opportunity and interviews with the press. Naturally he did not think it necessary to be guided by or even to seek the advice of relevant ministers or officials. He was intelligent, well educated by the standards of the day, and kept himself well informed by reading newspapers, dispatches, and intelligence reports; he felt fully confident in his own opinions.
Wilhelm was the first Prussian king in centuries not to have been raised in the army, not to have become a thoroughly competent soldier. His father, Frederich, had distinguished himself in high command in Bismarck’s wars. Although some of his ancestors had gone to war while still children, Wilhelm remained home in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, later serving briefly as a junior officer in a posh cavalry regiment. Yet no one ever put on a more ostentatiously military front. He was seldom seen out of uniform and surrounded himself with military men. Wilhelm was obsessed with military strength and always bellicose. He frequently threatened war, although when war loomed he invariably got cold feet, much to the dismay and and disgust of his more aggressive generals.
For Germany, his Germany, to depend on allies and accommodate herself to their needs was unworthy of her glory, and his, in Wilhelm’s view. Germany’s links to other nations were discarded or allowed to wither, retaining only the creaky Austro-Hungarian Empire which had nowhere else to turn. Wilhelm would steer his empire out boldly pursuing an independent and self-reliant course built on strength. Many of his actions and pronouncements alienated and alarmed others, but what of it?
Step by step Germany became diplomatically isolated, first mistrusted by all and then universally feared. Nations that had relied on Bismarck to resolve crises impartially and evenhandedly, grew mistrustful and formed alliances to defend against German aggression. As crises arose Wilhelm always played for near-term tactical advantage; nothing was ever resolved and each crisis left tensions higher than before. But Wilhelm remained supremely confident of his mastery of diplomatic dealing and ability to make settlements.
When Serbian state-sponsored terrorists assassinated the heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, Wilhelm encouraged Vienna to deal harshly with Serbia without thinking through the consequences and how to deal with them. As the chain of alliances, agreements, and narrowly-conceived interests dragged state after state into the abyss Wilhelm struggled with increasing desperation to find a way out. But in the Europe he had done so much to form, all exits were sealed.
Obviously there are many fundamental differences between Wilhelm von Preussen and Donald Trump, and between Wilhelm’s age and ours. Yet there are few historical figures closer in character to Trump and I believe that there is something to be learned from Wilhelm’s example. It is often contended that Wilhelm willed and caused the First World War, but it’s very difficult to make a convincing case. What he clearly did do, however, was to help greatly to set in motion the fragmentation, fear, and mutual suspicion that did so much to make war possible if not altogether inevitable. If every state had to look out for its own interests, if no one could count on the fairness and good-will of others, then who could afford to be the last to take up arms? It’s very much the Trump-Bannon spirit.
It’s also clear that Trump and Wilhelm converge in their views on power. “Suprema lex regis voluntas” is no doubt a motto that would serve Trump’s ends very well indeed. Wilhelm consistently used his power to keep the institutions of the state weak, and particularly its civil institutions, with the result that there was little check on his destructive and lawless impulses.
Germans had very few defenses for themselves and their state. We have many, but it is up to us to use them.
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While I have read a great deal about Wilhelm for my research my overall portrait of him and his influence is drawn most from Clark, Christopher M., Kaiser Wilhelm II (London: Longman, 2000) as well as Röhl, John C. G., The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Röhl, John C. G., Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). For better and worse Bismark utterly reshaped Europe in its politics in the late 19th century; the best summary is Steinberg, Jonathan, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Googling for “Trump and Wilhelm II” will lead to various other comparisons between the two.