Imperial Hubris

Lessons for America in the Tales of Prussia Crumbling Under Kaiser Wilhelm

News | Fritz Stern | February 2008

The United States, with its claims of exceptionalism, is usually thought of as free of historical analogies. But comparisons with the fate of earlier empires are becoming more common.

I have recently been struck by an analogy from German history: the disaster of German leadership during World War I, epitomized by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm assumed the throne in 1888 at age 29, his liberal father having reigned for 88 days before succumbing to throat cancer. His grandfather, Wilhelm I, had presided over Prussia’s military victories, which enabled Bismarck to create the unified Reich in 1871. Within two years, Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck.

Wilhelm II became the leader of a country on the cusp of European mastery. By the 1890’s, Germany was the strongest power on the continent. But power generates opposition, and Germany’s alarmed neighbors began to form defensive alliances.

Wilhelm flaunted his absolute power, believing it to be divinely ordained. He was contemptuous of parliament, whose circumscribed powers were set forth in a constitution that he boasted of never having read. He was intelligent, impressed by technological progress, perhaps even gifted, but untutored and impulsive; he reveled in the trappings of power and delighted in uniforms. His ostentation and extravagance were deeply un-Prussian.

He was given to bombastic speeches, once warning newly sworn-in recruits that, if he so ordered, they would have to shoot their parents. He gave astounding orders to soldiers departing to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China: they should awaken fear as had the Huns of yore. He detested liberal critics. And he spoke disparagingly of foreign nations, especially Great Britain. Some of this had to do with his ambivalent anglo-phobia and his distrust of his mother, Queen Victoria’s daughter.

Worse, he supported those groups that sought to increase German military power, including the creation of a high-sea fleet that could challenge the British navy. He shunned the details of government, for they interfered with his diversions. From the beginning, members of his entourage worried about his volatility and mental balance.

German foreign policy from 1890 to 1914, for which the Kaiser bore formal and intermittently actual responsibility, comprised a series of failures and setbacks. But Wilhelm did not in fact rule, as Germany’s conduct during WWI made clear. In early July 1914, after the murder of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Wilhelm egged on the Austrians, but by the end of the month he couldn’t restrain his own subordinates from starting a war, following the dictates of military strategy – the famed Schlieffen Plan.

Once war started, Wilhelm became Supreme War Lord, and his chief function would have been to adjudicate among rival elements within his government. At the center, a civilian-military conflict emerged, the German army having always had a state-within-a-state mentality and status. Moreover, military and civilian leaders were divided among themselves.

After the battle of the Marne (September 1914) and the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, some of Wilhelm’s advisers realized that the chances for a military victory were slim, hence the need for a negotiated peace. But by that time, even the civilian chancellor had resolved on extravagant war aims that made hopes for a negotiated peace illusory.

From then on, the Kaiser’s mental state became a dominant issue in the war’s conduct. Yet the most portentous decisions had to be taken: changes in the military and civilian leadership, and, in 1917, whether to declare unrestricted submarine warfare and thus insure the United States’ entry into the war.

The fate of his country (and of Europe) depended on how Wilhelm decided. But, after three years of unimaginable carnage, the Kaiser had been reduced to an instrument of a military dictatorship run by Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff. They enjoyed the confidence of Germany’s ruling classes, were determined to reject all compromise, and believed that "one more push" would deliver "total victory." Meanwhile, the Kaiser was systematically shielded from the truth and became estranged from reality.

For a moment in the spring of 1918 – after the Bolsheviks signed a German-dictated Carthaginian peace – a German victory seemed possible. But by August, Allied forces broke through German lines, and a stunned Ludendorff, fearing a sudden collapse of his army, demanded that the newly constituted civilian government send an immediate request for an armistice. But the Allies wouldn’t negotiate with the Kaiser. War-weary Germans began to demand the Kaiser’s abdication.

The army forced Wilhelm into exile in the Netherlands, where, until his death in 1941, he spread venomous poison where he could: the Jews and socialists were to blame; he alone was right. Once more reflecting and encouraging a large segment of what had been his people, he saw in Hitler the new man chosen by providence, the savior of a Germany defeated by treachery.

Wilhelm had terrifying flaws and operated at the head of a deeply flawed political system. But, ultimately, his chief failure had been to hand power to military and civilian hawks – wrongly called conservatives, for their vision was a radical reordering of Europe.

Of course, America is not Imperial Germany. But there may be a lesson from a country whose wartime rulers, quarrelling among themselves, inflicted unimaginable harm on their people and to the world with their mendacious, secretive, and paranoid style. The consequences of their leadership became manifest only later, as an aggrieved nation’s people turned against each other in their deep political and moral divisions and hatreds.

It took a worse catastrophe, a world-historical scourge, to teach these people a lesson. Let us hope that Americans learn their lesson about the dangers and follies of imperial hubris sooner.

Fritz Stern, emeritus professor of history 

at Columbia University, 

is the author of Five Germanys I Have Known.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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