Oligarchs and their wars:
Keeping the kaiser in check
A look at The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark.
World War I killed 17 million people and injured 20 million more. After 100 years, new historical research allows us to examine the genuine causes of the war, involving Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, the nations of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and others.
While many compare Donald Trump’s presidency to the rule of Adolph Hitler, the better comparison might be the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the monarch who took Germany into World War I.
In his prize-winning book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark takes a look at a relative few “movers and shakers” in Europe’s capitals, the ruling monarchs and ministers whose everyday lives involved toying with matters of internal politics, foreign diplomacy, and military might.
Clark gives a vivid picture of people and events in the different European capitals — in Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, Russia. He immerses the reader in the various intrigues among the “hawks” and “doves” working in royal palaces, in ministries of defense, and even at the newspapers of that time. It is surprising to read how European monarchs and ministers fought for their their own interests — personal, professional, ideological, or financial — as they they managed affairs of state.
More than anyone, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II — whose government was given the entire blame for World War I — reminds me of US President Donald Trump.
Clark’s book tells us that Wilhelm’s ministers, between 1905 and 1914, constantly struggled to keep him “in check.” Apparently having nothing better to do, Wilhelm ordered his admirals to draw up invasion plans for places around the globe. At various times, he proposed sending German forces to Brazil, to China, and Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). Also to Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York.
The German kaiser’s ever-shifting focus and ‘grossly inappropriate’ communication expressed nothing close to a coherent policy. His staff never agreed to his ideas, and Wilhelm quickly forgot or abandoned them.
“The Kaiser picked up ideas, enthused over them, grew bored or discouraged, and dropped them again,” writes Clark. “He was angry with the Russian Tsar one week, but infatuated with him the next. There were endless alliance projects: for an alliance with Russia and France against Japan and Britain; with Russia, Britain and France against the USA; with China and America against Japan and the Triple Entente (Russia-France-Great Britain), or with Japan and the USA against the Entente, and so on.”
Wilhelm’s attempts at deal-making were always “equivocal,” the focus of his attention “always shifting,” with “grossly inappropriate” communication giving no sense of clear and consistent policy, says Clark. Wilhelm’s general staff never agreed to his military adventures, working to distract the kaiser, who quickly forgot or abandoned his own plans.
The record shows that Wilhelm often fired off erratic internal notes to his minsters, and sometimes raised his nutty ideas directly to foreign leaders. At one dinner, in 1906, the kaiser joked with American diplomats, saying he was considering asking the French government to move its border westward, to accommodate the growing number of Germans. In 1908, he read widespread speculation in the press that the United States might go to war with Japan. Wilhelm promptly offered President Theodore Roosevelt a Prussian army corps to serve in California and help defend the West Coast against Japanese invasion.
Sometimes Wilhelm’s interventions opposed the direction of official German policy, sometimes they endorsed it, says Clark. Sometimes his ideas “overshot the mark, to arrive at a grossly overdrawn parody of the official view,” which opened Germany to accusations that it was shrewdly planning for war. The fear of German armament and military ambition was eagerly and consistently raised by war “hawks” in other European capitals. This was how European leaders blundered their way into World War I — and how Germany was blamed for it.
At the end of the terrible “war to end all wars,” in 1918, Wilhelm II was unseated by a popular socialist/social democratic uprising. The resulting Weimar democratic government (1918–1933), however, was never able to get its feet planted — partly because blame for WWI was easily placed on the new German government, including the forced payment of huge sums as reparations to the victorious European Allies. Germany’s political and economic situation remained profoundly unstable during the 1920s, a time of deep poverty and bitterness around the country, making it vulnerable to the rise of fascism, to the lies of Adolf Hitler and the start of World War II.