Monday, January 11, 2010
Book Review: Wilhelm Hohenzollern, Emil Ludwig
Reading Wilhelm Hohenzollern, The Last of the Kaisers was like watching the movie of a train wreck, one slow cell at a time. The conductor, oblivious to the trouble right before his eyes, scowls at the masses standing by the tracks and smiles at his companions -- the German nobility -- as he takes them on a death ride.
The German Empire suffered two misfortunes that brought William the Second to the throne when it did. First, the grandfather lived and ruled into his 90's and second was that William's father died of cancer only a few weeks into his long-awaited reign. William took the throne at a time of peace and prosperity and he assumed a kind of autocratic control that was better suited to the middle ages rather than a modern empire. From the start, people around him bowed to his capricious whims and no one told him anything he didn't want to hear. Even in the depths of war, they continued to feed him with news of victory and hid from him even that the people who had followed him to the brink of disaster were ready to sacrifice their Kaiser for peace.
William liked to saber-rattle. He wanted to be the most powerful of all rulers, and he turned that longing against two groups: the Russians and the English. This was more than country against country -- Tsar Nicholas was his cousin, King Edward was his Uncle -- and Queen Victoria is grandmother. He hated and loved them all, but it was his personality -- that need to be the better of all of them -- that shaped the policy of the German Empire, and drove Europe into World War I. From his ill-thought outbursts to his private letters and even to his insistence on a growing navy that clearly threatened England, he pushed each country step-by-step toward war.
And yet, when the war came, he was the one who realized the enormity of the trouble and did his best to back away. By then, though, the Generals had gained too much control and he had lost all power of persuasion outside of the German Empire. He had his war when he finally had grown up enough to realize he didn't want it.
This is a complex and long journey through the thirty years of the Kaiser's reign, and the portrait that Emil Ludwig paints is clearly not without the author's own prejudices. Ludwig was too fond of adding the thoughts of people, assigning motivations and other things that he clearly could not have really known. He also tried far too hard to hint that the Kaiser was a hidden homosexual without actually saying it. He did this by the continued use of such terms as 'his womanish tendencies' and applying nearly the same terms to Eulenberg who was removed from his post -- and close link to the Kaiser -- because he was found guilty of sexual perversions, a terrible crime in that day. Oddly, though, Ludwig's sympathy is often apparent when he writes about Eulenberg and he often laments the loss of Euglenberg's influence on the Emperor.
Emil Ludwig's diatribe aimed at William the Second in the final couple pages of the work clearly shows he is not an objective viewer at this point. His regret that the Kaiser didn't make a suicidal march to the front or kill himself 'behind the curtains' rather than go into exile is a personal opinion in full force, rather than half-hidden as such observances had been in other parts of the book.
Ludwig makes much about how the Kaiser's crippled left arm affected his early life and how it likely made him more forceful in his nature. William expected criticism and he used his power of place to make certain he could not be judged as weak. However, Ludwig's assertions that the William was a 'civilian' at heart, and never a military man, seems to be more of a personal attack along the same lines as his 'womanish' statements. There is no doubt that Emil Ludwig had not divorced himself from the situation in order to write this book, so soon after the abdication and the disastrous (for Germany) aftermath of the war. In some ways, that makes it all the more interesting. The views of those who lived through the age are often far different than those written from sources fifty or a hundred years later.
Although I am not qualified to make a true judgment, and certainly not based on one single book, I think William the Second showed signs of being bi-polar. The pattern of frantic activity and high spirits, balanced with crushing depression seems to point in that direction.
Ludwig lacks the grace and style of a writer like Andre Maurois, who also wrote biographies at about the same time. Maybe this is partly due to the choice of subject, or even the work of the translators. However, it seems that Ludwig uses a hammer, pounding the same point again and again. His timeline for the work sometimes skips back and forth making it hard to follow events, and isn't helped that ninety years later the names everyone knew are now obscure.
There is another odd item: While he speaks of William's mother, the daughter of Queen Victoria and named after her, it is never in any good terms. I wouldn't have thought much about it, except that while he mentions William's wife, he never, as far as I remember, named her or even when they wed. The only mention of any of his children is that he refused to visit wife and child when his wife was ill. There are later references to the Crown Prince and even a grandchild. Since Ludwig states in his preface that this book 'is a portrait of William the Second -- no more: it presents neither his epoch, nor the whole story of his life' I find it odd that anything about his marriage would be left out while he dwelled on the relationship with the unfortunate Eulenberg.
Overall, the book proved fascinating and well worth reading and I would recommend it not only to people studying in the history of the era, but also to writers interested in a fascinating character study.