Donald Trump’s historical doppelgänger

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.

 

4 thoughts on “Donald Trump’s historical doppelgänger

  1. Jon Allen

    Hi,

    I think you point out just one feature that they have in common, but the comparison doesn’t hold in my view. All of the German Kaisers were a bit more focused than Trump. Trump doesn’t know how to delegate or assert power through a network either. He would rather wallow in dysfunction than run the government that he won. I can’t say much about his policies or ability to administrate – or lack thereof. However, his communication style is well studied at this point. Communication might be the most salient feature of Trump that history will remember – if he doesn’t start a World War.

    A better comparison would be President Harding a la teapot dome scandal. However, Trump comes off as a mix of Harding and William Jennings Bryan. A very toxic mix. The thoughtlessness of Harding combined with the crowd pleasing oratory style that might exceed Jennings and so utterly common is what comes to my mind for Trump. There is quite a few linguists are making a study of Trump. His true communication revolution is in the use of diction to sound like the common man that even kids can understand. It is utterly simplistic. Some liked his speech and grammar to 2nd grade levels. Is it just him, or is it something that he has fashioned over the years that serves him well? Or is it an artifact of some dementia? It is a formula that has worked. It also seems to mirror with and in Twitter medium. How long this will work? Only time will tell.

    There is an interesting quote about Harding on his current wikipedia page:

    “Harding’s vague oratory irritated some; McAdoo described a typical Harding speech as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and over work.”

    1. admin Post author

      “All of the German kaisers”? There were only three, one of whom lasted less than 100 days. I cannot think of anything much they had in common other than their office and surname. My post doesn’t address any but Wilhelm II, who most certainly did not know how to delegate. Don’t take my word for it, read Röhl or Clark.

      I’ve studied Wilhelm much more deeply than Harding, but I cannot see the comparison between him and Trump, fondness for golf not withstanding. And surely McAdoo was anything but an unbiased observer.

      1. Jon Allen

        It is interesting to compare the two personas, Wilhelm II and Trump – the more I look at it. The Kaiser’s international gaffes in Morocco for instance, certainly resonate well with Trump. So, I can see more of what you see after further reading.

        The point of focus I mentioned earlier or better stated ambition, was the building of the German imperial state – colonial development, Continental hegemony. The enhancement of the German navy was certainly a special project of the said Kaiser? There was a sense of future purpose and national greatness that at least guided the German government, including the Kaiser. I don’t think Trump has these kind of ambitions – perhaps too soon to tell for 200 days. Or tries to foster them. Trump is just trying to tread water. Maybe even as some suggest – reduce American hegemony. Return to past glory, that he defines as “America First”. So, for myself this difference in the sense of purpose leads to a pause in my mind in thinking of the comparison. What exactly is Trump’s purpose? How does it compare to Wilhelm II?

        When I see the phrase “Suprema lex regis voluntas” – I think of regal or internal state power. Much of your post is devoted to international issues. Of course, the Kaiser can and did act in such a manner personally on the world stage as well. And you point out isolation and increasing limits to his world prestige and power as the Great War approached.

        Didn’t the Kaiser Wilhelm effectively lose control of Germany to the military during the Great War? So, there were limits to power in the German state framework as well? How does “Suprema lex regis voluntas” really fit in with suspicion, fragmentation, and fear you describe? Are these tools that the Wilhelm used purposefully in exercise of his power, and that Trump uses as well? Or was suspicion, fragmentation, and fear just an unintended consequence of his actions both international and domestic settings?

        I can agree that the Harding comparison is wanting. I just think an American persona would make a more meaningful comparison to most people less stepped in the history of Germany and Europe, but one doesn’t jump out at me. Maybe Trump is an American original.

        1. admin Post author

          I don’t think you understand the point I’m making, not at all. It doesn’t make sense to talk about Wilhelm’s policies. He was incapable of formulating or pursuing any policy in the sense of a reasoned strategy in pursuit of some long-term external goal. He spent his whole long life following the gradient of immediate ego gratification. He had little more sense of policy than a chimpanzee has, or a 3-year old, and less than the average teenager. He absolutely had to have adulation and subservience: that was all there was to him. And because he had inherited great power and wealth there was never any real external check. Even when General Groener told him it was all over and shunted him off to his Dutch estate he spent the rest of his life in a fantasy world where he would soon be recalled to Berlin.

          To me this makes him a perfect model for Trump.

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