The Last Kaiser

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

In the best tradition of England’s gentleman-journalist historians, Michael Sidney Tyler-Whittle is the author of a half dozen popular biographies of the English royal house, including a three-volume trilogy on Queen Victoria. Now he has ventured beyond the familiar confines of the British Isles with a fresh biography of Germany’s controversial Emperor William II.

History’s view of Kaiser Wilhelm is not flattering. Among professional historians he is the man who dismissed the brilliant Bismarck and whose amateurish direction of German foreign policy helped dismantle the great chancellor’s ironclad alliance system. He is the unbalanced eccentric whose craving for acclaim and glory aroused England from a half-century of smug isolation. His blundering and blustering are traditionally regarded as a major cause of the paranoia that led England, most of the Continent, and eventually America into World War I. To the layman, and particularly to the English-speaking public, he is viewed as a brutal, war-mongering dictator who was directly responsible for the outbreak of World War I and for many of the worst German atrocities of that war.

Tyler-Whittle’s interpretation challenges not only the popular image of William II but also, to some extent, the view accepted by historians. Although he leans toward Erich Eyck’s classic characterization of William as the real ruler of Germany before the war, the author goes somewhat further than most historians in attributing many of the blunders of his foreign policy exclusively to the men around him, such as Bülow, Holstein, and his generals. Although he admits that William often tended to get carried away with his own rhetoric, sometimes making irresponsible and provocative remarks, the author contends that the Emperor was far more sane and less volatile than his traditional image allows, that he was in fact generally far more judicious in his policies and personal behavior, and that he was usually a moderating influence in the plotting of Germany’s foreign initiatives. What Tyler-Whittle does not contest, however, is that the Kaiser’s blustering facade—whether mythical or real—did help to spread the paranoia and alarm about Germany’s ultimate intentions that made World War I inevitable. In this sense William II remains a crucial, if widely misunderstood, element in the study of the origins of World War I.

Though English historians and writers have generally treated William and the Germans most critically, Tyler-Whittle seems to overcome his English sources and frame of reference, and tries, perhaps too zealously, throughout the book to view events from a German perspective. Nevertheless, his first venture onto foreign soil is not without some missteps. Though he has read some published German sources, the author’s research into foreign language collections and monographs is far from exhaustive. Instead, he relies heavily on English-language accounts, including many popular biographies, memoirs, and reminiscences. He leans heavily on Michael Balfour’s The Kaiser and His Times and, although this is a fine biography, it too is devoid of original research. Moreover, Tyler-Whittle’s reliance on English-language works is reflected by the rather exaggerated prominence of England, its statesmen, and its royal family in the narrative. Indeed, virtually every one of the text’s 341 pages contains some reference to Great Britain and its leaders.

This heavy English emphasis is not without its rewards. Given the disastrous legacy of William’s relations with Great Britain, events and trends across the Channel are a legitimate concern of the reader, especially when they shed light on how and why the two great nations drifted toward war. Tyler-Whittle is, in fact, rather sensitive to the growing malaise and mistrust that characterized Anglo-German relations. Moreover, he ably demonstrates that the trend toward war was fostered by a mutual antipathy which both nations already felt toward each other, an antipathy which William intensified, but did not initiate. By showing this the author goes a long way toward clearing up some of the traditional Anglo-American misconceptions about the Kaiser’s role as a catalyst and helps reapportion the responsibility for subsequent events.

Notwithstanding the benefits we derive from this perspective, Tyler-Whittle’s approach has the disadvantage of giving his portrait of the Kaiser an unnaturally narrow and perverted scope that would be more appropriately employed in a joint history of Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. There is very little mention of the other important courts and capitals, despite the fact that the crowned heads of Austria and Italy are William’s allies, that the king of Rumania is a Hohenzollern, and that the republican government in Paris is still intent on recovering Alsace-Lorraine from Germany. In addition, the reader is oppressed not only by all the quaint but largely irrelevant anecdotes about the English royal family, Gladstone, Disraeli, and others, but also by the anglicized terminology, through which William’s sister Carlotta becomes “Charly”; his third chancellor, Chlodwig von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, becomes “Uncle Clovis”; and through which German currency is measured in pounds sterling.

When the author does discuss William’s royal counterparts he gives us a vivid and intimate picture of European monarchy beset by the emerging forces of liberalism and...

(The entire section is 2239 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, December 1, 1977, p. 597.

Books and Bookmen. XXIII, October, 1977, p. 25.

History Today. XXVII, November, 1977, p. 751.