Our Dutch correspondent H. Numan presents a historical overview of the man who did so much to usher in the Great War.
The worst emperor in history
by H. Numan
Who’s that? Though one to answer, what? So many choices. Was it Nero? Caligula? Perhaps a Chinese emperor? Nope. None of those. The very worst emperor in history was German. It was the last German emperor, Wilhelm II. He inherited a stable empire, well on its way to becoming a dominant economic power of Europe. When he was forced to abdicate, his empire lay in tatters. Not only his own empire, mind you. His fall was accompanied and preceded by the empires of Russia, Austria and the Ottomans. His rule influenced current world affairs enormously. Because of his actions the British empire fell a few decades later. And we can thank him for the demise of Western civilization. Due to his actions Hitler was able to rise to power, and in the east Lenin was put in charge. The latter was on his direct orders. Without his personal support Lenin could never have gained power in Russia. Without a communist Russia the People’s Republic of China was not possible.
It all began so well. When Wilhelm ascended his throne, Germany was a well-respected country. The world was (mostly) at peace. Germany was managed very capably by Bismarck. It was allied with Austria and Russia in the Three Emperors’ League. The three countries had a lot in common: none of them was democratic. All of them were ruled by autocrats, and they all were extremely conservative. If one political league was a natural one, this was it. When Austria couldn’t control socialist uprisings in 1848, the Russian Empire sent troops to its aid. Not because they had to. Not because they could grab some Austrian territories. But because the czar felt he was morally obliged to help his colleague ward off evil.
France was recovering from the Franco-Prussian war, but in no position to do something about it. There was no Franco-British alliance. More the opposite: France and England fought for centuries against one another. England’s position on Germany was somewhat indifferent: it wasn’t a naval superpower, that was all that mattered to England. They saw Wilhelm as a sort of clown, who excelled in one thing only: gigantic gaffes. The German foreign affairs department had to work overtime to defuse them.
Broadly speaking, the world was at peace. Colonialism worked. Yes, there were some uprisings here and there, but no national liberation movements. Some colonies became self governing countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada) within the British empire.
That more or less peaceful world changed completely when Wilhelm II took control. His first act was to get rid of Bismarck. Who needs a competent if not the best chancellor Germany ever had? Certainly not Wilhelm II. Who needs a league of emperors? So he got rid of that too. Wilhelm II was related to every monarch in Europe. Let’s keep it all in the family!
Wilhelm II fancied yachting. Then and now, a sport for the very rich. That made him an admiral, or so he thought. He read the book by Alfred Mahan, and decided Germany should become a naval superpower. Being Willy 2, he didn’t fancy becoming a naval super power, but of course the naval superpower.
He was in luck. The British made the same mistake as the French before them. The French built La Gloire, the first ocean-going all-steel warship. “Jolly good,” said the British, “we can do that too!” The French capacity to produce steel and warships was not nearly as developed as the British, so they didn’t even bother to try to compete. They knew they were beaten.
Later, the British built the first modern real battleship, HMS Dreadnought. Just as revolutionary as La Gloire, if not a good deal more so. At a stroke, all capital ships of every navy were obsolete, including those of the Royal Navy. Hey, said the emperor. Here’s our (= my) chance. Let’s build a lot of dreadnoughts. We’re gonna be the world’s naval superpower! Yes, openly. It was Germany’s destiny, after all. You don’t make friends that way. There was only one tiny little problem. Like France, Germany lacked the capability to outproduce Britain. Unlike France, Willy 2 refused to accept that fact. He tried to out-build the Royal Navy. In vain and at great cost to his nation.