|The Worst Emperor in History
Posted on July 5, 2021 by Baron Bodissey
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.
There was something else, too: at that time, Germany had not one but two separate fleets. The Baltic fleet, obviously patrolling the Baltic Sea. And the North Sea fleet doing likewise in the North Sea. The Royal Navy could easily blockade the Danish passage with a couple of ships, if need be. Until Germany decided to connect the North Sea with the Baltic Sea by digging the Kiel Canal, or in German: the Nord-Ostsee Kanal. Now they could easily maneuver either fleet to become one much bigger fleet. That got Britain’s immediate attention.
The British had three options. They could try to negotiate reasonable fleet numbers, diplomatically asking not to begin an arms race that couldn’t be won by Germany, and finally negotiate a treaty with France. They did all three. Negotiations didn’t work. Perhaps it’s in the nature of Germany to refuse to negotiate anything if they think they can win. Mr. Mustachio (a.k.a. Hitler) did exactly the same a generation later. And he was as trustworthy as his imperial predecessor. Likewise, not much that one could convey diplomatically to the emperor. So, with utter reluctance, Britain negotiated a treaty with France. The feud of a nearly millennium (!) was finally over. All because of one man: Wilhelm II.
You see, British policy has always been to prevent one dominant European superpower. That used to be France, but now Germany tried to dominate the continent. Today is no different. It is no accident Britain left the EU.
On the other side of Germany, Wilhelm’s foreign policy didn’t work, either. The emperor of Russia didn’t like to be spoken to like a little dimwitted boy by his big bright nephew. Yes, he was somewhat slow in the mental department. Even so, he resented Wilhelm’s “big nephew knows best” attitude. So much so that Russia negotiated a treaty of mutual assistance with… France!
At that time, France was the proverbial democracy with a thriving economy. Russia was the most autocratic empire in the world, with a stagnant economy. Politically and economically they couldn’t be further apart. Translated to today: North Korea signing a mutual assistance treaty with the USA, to defend against China. That unlikely. Wilhelm was often nicknamed Willy. It takes a big willy (or a very small one) to accomplish both feats. France and England were unlikely partners, and Russia with France even more so.
We’re not done yet. We have to look at how the Germans waged war. Everybody knows about Blitzkrieg. But that isn’t a German word. The Germans call it Bewegungskrieg or war of movement. The word was created by British journalists during World War 2. The doctrine of Bewegungskrieg is centuries old. Nathan Bedford Forrest summed it up rather nicely: “Get there first with the most.”
It was the only way Prussia, and later Germany, could hold out against highly aggressive neighbors surrounding it. To the east, Russia. To the south, Austria. To the west, France. All of them much bigger than Prussia. And all of them very aggressive. To counter that Prussia professionalized their military and only fought short, fast and ferocious wars. The entire military and economic system of Prussia and Germany was build around that principle. Blitzkrieg wasn’t anything new at all.
It worked, and worked well. But it came at a price. The Bewegungskrieg doctrine requires as many troops as possible surrounding and destroying the enemy army. That automatically means as few as possible occupation troops garrisoned in occupied territories. Every army in history commits atrocities. That’s a given in war. But some commit a lot more than others. The Prussian and German armies fall into that category. Even von Clausewitz teaches that the occupation must be ruthless. He advises to put the fear of God into occupied territories. He doesn’t go into detail, nor does he have to. You get the drift.
There is another price to pay: trustworthiness. Belgium was a strictly neutral country, guaranteed by France, Britain and Germany. Willy with his innumerable gaffes offered Belgium Burgundy if they would allow German troops to pass through Belgium. After the war, and after they had decided to leave Belgium. If that were to happen, something which both kings Leopold and Albert very much doubted. And, of course, he repeated his solemn promise to respect Belgium’s neutrality many times. Hitler didn’t behave any differently, later.
Even during the Franco-Prussian War the German troops misbehaved badly. On purpose, mind you. They needed every capable soldier in the field, and couldn’t afford to waste any with occupational duties. Shoot a few angry looking men, burn some villages, carry a lot of farmers off to do harvesting work in Germany. Your own farmers are now under arms. It’s only natural to draft slave labor. Those fields don’t harvest themselves, you know. And it keeps the peasants from rising up against you. You can’t revolt if you’re dead or harvesting in Germany.
Under Willy the Second it became much, much, MUCH worse. The almost sacred von Schlieffen plan demanded far more troops moving much faster than was actually possible. Add to that the fierce resistance of the Belgian army, which wasn’t expected at all. The Germany army raped, pillaged, looted and executed itself through Belgium and northern France. Visit the areas under German occupation during WW1. You’ll see countless war memorials honoring the thousands of civilians executed by the German army.
What you won’t see are memorials for many more people who were carried off into slavery. Thousands of people were executed as franc-tireurs, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people were carried of into slavery. They were sent to Germany to work in the fields and factories. To keep the war production going. Like WW2 slavery, conditions were harsh. Perhaps not as harsh as in WW2, but nothing to sneer at. Not out of mercy or empathy. It simply wasn’t in Germany’s interest to work those slaves to death. They were worth far more alive.
Wir haben es nicht gewusst (we did not know) is not a line Willy 2 can use. Atrocities were reported by German officers (they weren’t all bad) and many neutral diplomats and reporters to the Oberste Heeresleitung. That was the supreme command of the German armed forces, and for the first half of the war, that included the emperor himself as well. He knew everything. In fact, he applauded the culprits, and basically encouraged them to do much worse. How? All he did was not promote or decorate them. Not immediately after the fact, that is. He never punished an officer for breaking the Geneva Convention. Being accused of atrocities wasn’t even a black mark on your resume. More the opposite.
The Germans were very keen on the Geneva Convention. But only when it suited them. If it didn’t, you could find the Geneva Convention in the outhouse. And yes, that is a direct consequence of what Willy allowed his troops to do.
That behavior opened the very gates of hell. I’ll grant WW1 Germans not setting up concentration camps. And that they didn’t have SS troops in the field. Simply because they didn’t need them. Not because they were incapable of it, or had any moral qualms. It wasn’t the most effective use of manpower, that was all.
During the later stages of the war, the German army decided to allow Lenin to return to Russia, to foment his revolution. By then the power of Willy was as big as his … willy, but nevertheless, it was a decision he and nobody else had to take. He did so with little hesitation.
I’ll happily admit Lenin did far worse than the Germans could wished for. But it was emperor Wilhelm who made everything possible. The same goes for Mr. Mustachio (Hitler). He didn’t come up with the stab-in-the-back-myth. German army officers after WW1 did. Willy never denied it, and actively promoted that idea. Of course, he didn’t admit guilt over anything at all. What else can you expect from a man who had his private war bulletins printed in gold ink? At the same time, his subjects were eating turnips — provided they had some. Most didn’t. Starvation was very real in Germany and Austria during WW1.
Could he foresee the fall of the British empire, colonialism, Western civilization and nihilism today? Of course not. We can, looking back with hindsight. At the time, nobody could. Least of all Willy with the bird brain he had. He was extremely ambitious and utterly ruthless. Much more than other emperors. Not himself personally, but in what he allowed other to do. He opened Pandora’s box. We can’t blame him for the consequences, but can blame him for opening the box in the first place.
The Russian Revolution would have happened anyway, but not the Bolshevik revolution. World War One probably would have happened, too, perhaps a bit later for a different reason. Austrian troops behaved just as atrociously in the Balkans and on their eastern front. But it was the methodical scale of German atrocities that made it possible. Later during World War Two it got much worse. Under Hitler methodical became industrial. Even there they were beaten by the sheer scale of Japanese and later communist Chinese atrocities. But you have to begin somewhere first.
Quite understandably the colonies (India, Africa) wanted to have a lot more to say about their governance, after their enormous sacrifices. National liberation movements began after WW1 almost everywhere. The horrors of war disillusioned not just a generation, but it still disillusions us now, today. Today’s nihilism can be attributed directly to World War One.
Those first modest beginnings were simply because of the actions of one man: Emperor Wilhelm II. No other ruler in history influenced the entire world that much and that bad.
— H. Numan