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Thursday, April 16, 2015

The tinny, catastrophic, arf of the dynast

Better in the abstract than the concrete.

Christopher Clark reviews the third volume of a biography fifty years in the making:
Among the company of the royal ‘club’ that still ruled Europe in the years before 1914, Wilhelm’s inordinate loquacity stood out. Tsar Nicholas II was retiring by nature and George V was painfully shy. Scarcely a peep was heard in public from the elderly Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, a notoriously austere and laconic figure. And the contrast is heightened in retrospect by the fact that virtually everything the Kaiser said, no matter how risible, was recorded and preserved for posterity. One consequence is that his reputation has been shaped (as it was for contemporaries) much more by what he said than by what he did...
The career of the last German Kaiser is littered with effusions of this kind. They range from the gross and offensive to the bizarre or merely foolish. Wilhelm II spent most of his waking hours talking, arguing, shouting, speechifying, preaching, threatening and generally unbosoming himself of his latest preoccupations to whoever happened to be within earshot. He was like a Tourette’s tic at the heart of the German state executive. Even when he made the utmost effort to restrain himself, the indiscretions kept slipping out.  
In the third and final volume of John Röhl’s immense biography of Wilhelm II, the Kaiser’s voice is the thread that holds the text together. On page after page, he cajoles, whines, demands, vociferates and babbles, bombarding his interlocutors (and the reader) with fantastical geopolitical speculations, crackpot plans, sarcastic asides and off-colour jokes. Reading Wilhelm II on every conceivable subject for more than 1200 pages (3000 if you read the three volumes in sequence) is like listening for days on end to a dog barking inside a locked car. 
  • Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900-41 by John Röhl, translated by Sheila de Bellaigue and Roy Bridge
    Cambridge, 1562 pp, £45.00, February 2014, ISBN 978 0 521 84431 4

1 comment:

  1. Things would likely have turned out much differently for Germany, Europe and the World had Wilhelm's father Frederick III not died barely three months after assuming the throne. Had he lived, say, another five or ten years, he could have, at best, guided his son, at minimum, given his son time to mature, so that Wilhelm would have at least been a more stable ruler.

    Looks like an interesting read. Thanks for the heads-up, Waldo.