Incidents of War - Kaiser Bill and His Big Mouth
Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen (1859-1941) was rather intelligent and talented, though not as much as he thought he was. In most ways he was a man of his times, a racist, as was pretty much everyone else in the Western world, and, also like pretty much everyone else, rather anti-Semitic, though shipping magnate Albert Ballin of the Hamburg-America Line was one of his best friends. He greatly admired his grandfather, Wilhelm I (1797-1888), who had soldiered against Napoleon. As a young prince, just 12, “Willy,” as his cousins called him, had been in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on January 18, 1871 when his granddad was proclaimed Emperor of a united Germany by battalions of uniformed nobility and soldiery, and he wished to attain such greatness as well.
Wilhelm was also glib, too glib for his own good. or Germany’s, often coming out with howlers that were in the least embarrassing and at worse exacerbated diplomatic tensions. He often he called his Uncle Edward VII of Britain “a Satan” and his cousin George V “a nice boy,” referred to the attitudinally challenged King Victor Emanuel III of Italy as “The Dwarf,” and so forth.
Some other examples:
- 1901: At the funeral of his grandmother, Queen Victoria, Wilhelm told the British Foreign Secretary that his cousin Tsar Nicholas was “only fit to live in a country house and grow turnips,” which was probably correct, but seriously undiplomatic.
- 1902: In the aftermath of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, which strengthened the Royal Navy’s presence in European waters, an irate Wilhelm wrote President Theodore Roosevelt promising that should the United States find itself at war with the two island empires, the entire U.S. Navy could be transferred to the Pacific, as he would insure that the German Navy protected the American East Coast.
- 1904: Meeting Leopold II of Belgium in Berlin, the Kaiser proposed giving the king large swathes of France in the event of European war. When Leopold suggested that his government would never agree, Wilhelm flew into a rage, bellowing about the evils of democracy and threatening dire consequences should Belgium interfere with his plans. Leopold, hardly a shrinking violet (he had been running the charnel house that was the “Kongo Free State” for decades), was so shaken that when he left the building he was wearing his helmet on backwards.
- 1905: Cruising the Baltic in his yacht Hohenzollern, Wilhelm quietly dropped in on his cousin Nicky, the tsar, a notoriously dim bulb. Without consulting their ministers, the two concluded a secret mutual defense agreement known as the Treaty of Björkö that would have nullified the Franco-Russian alliance. Fortunately the adults in their respective governments intervened and the treaty was never considered legitimate.
- 1906: During a banquet at the American embassy in Berlin, Wilhelm spoke of how Germany’s population was outgrowing its territory, and speculated that France, which seemed to be declining in population, might cede some territory to help ease the problem.
- 1908: Wilhelm told a reporter that during the Boer War he had scuttled a Franco-Russia conspiracy to enter the conflict on the side of the Boers, that he had supplied the British with the winning war plan, and that his navy was actually intended to fight the Japanese! The subsequent uproar actually caused the Kaiser to shut up for a few months.
- 1910: While King Ferdinand of Bulgaria was on a state visit to Berlin, Wilhelm couldn’t resist smacking the king’s ample bottom, with significant consequences for Germany’s arms industry.
- 1910: During the funeral of Edward VII of Great Britain, Wilhelm attended a banquet during which he buttonholed the French Foreign Minister and proposed that in the event of war between Germany and Britain, France should join in on his side!
- 1910: In a public speech at Konigsberg he said, “I look on myself as an instrument of the Almighty and go on my way regardless of transient opinions and views.”
- 1912: While attending the Swiss Army’s annual maneuvers, Wilhelm told the Federal President that because Switzerland had such a strong army, he didn’t have to worry about a French attack through its territory, which allowed him to have six additional army corps available in Alsace-Lorraine, his second gaffe of the visit
- 1912: Informed by the German ambassador to Denmark that the Danish government had assured him of their desire to remain neutral any possible Great Power war, Wilhelm responded by saying “No, they have to go with us!”
- 1913: Visiting Belgium during the international kerfuffle known as the “Zarben Affair” (a German officer assaulted an elderly Alsatian and then publicly insulted French-speaking Alsatians and France, causing a rise in tensions), Wilhelm told King Albert that war between Germany and France was “inevitable and imminent,” and then made no objection when Army Chief-of-Staff Helmuth von Moltke “the Younger” made a heavy handed attempt to convince the Albert to support Germany, “for the consequences of the war will be harsh for those who side against us. . . . small countries, such as Belgium, would be well advised to rally to the side of the strong if they wished to retain their independence.”
- On several occasions, Wilhelm dropped public hints to the French that he would greatly appreciate an invitation to visit Paris, which he had not seen since he was a child, thereby tactlessly reminding everyone that he had been with the German armies when they marched into the city in 1871.
Wilhelm committed gaffes like these with great frequency, making outrageous statements in conversations and speeches and curious proposals to politicians and diplomats, generally offending pretty much everyone in Europe at various times, even the Swiss.
Perhaps Wilhelm’s most enduring gaffe occurred on July 27, 1900, when he coined the term which would be attached to Germans for decades to come while addressing troops preparing to join the international expedition to suppress the “Boxer Rebellion” in China;
"When you meet the enemy, you will beat him; you will give no pardon and take no prisoners. Those whom you capture are at your mercy. As the Huns a thousand years ago under King Attila made a name for themselves that has lasted mightily in memory, so may the name 'German' be known in China, such that no Chinaman will ever again dare to look askance at a German."
Even with his family, Wilhelm could be dense. Every year on the Empress Augusta Victoria’s birthday he gave her twelve hats. Despite numerous hints, he never caught on to the fact that, since he insisted on picking them out himself they were often in bad taste. The Empress tried to avoid wearing them, but he usually insisted. This continued until 1916, when the Empress convinced him that it was essential that the Imperial family set a good example by eschewing luxuries during the war.