your were to ask an older person today, about the last German Kaiser
– Wilhelm II von Hohenzollern – the most likely answer you would
receive would be that Wilhelm was a scapegoat and held responsible
for the sins, errors and confusion of German politics at the end
of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
This includes the first World War with the arising evil of inflation,
mass unemployment and national socialism – would be ascribed to
A different reply would come from people who are around 50 years
old – apart from the lack of enthusiasm for the person of the Kaiser,
and very likely their superficial knowledge of him. Many former
GDR citizens would connect Wilhelm with the brilliant novel by Heinrich
Mann „Der Untertan“ (The Subject) which was required reading in
the schools of the GDR.
Naturally the above-mentioned opinion makes clear – particularly
in the form of Diederich Heßling, the typical German subject of
Mann’s novel set in the period before 1914 – how extensive the enthusiasm
for the “splendid young Kaiser” was among the average German citizens,
- and this is one of Nicolaus Sombart’s main intentions in his examination
of Wilhelm II and his times.
Sombart presents us a book intended to “save the honour” of Wilhelm
II, - as the title of the book suggests, - Wilhelm is widely held
responsible for the serious misjudgements and disastrous adventures
of German politics in the first half of the 20th century. Sombart
bases his argumentation against making the Kaiser the scapegoat
on two works by René Girard a French sociologist of religion who
teaches in the USA. Reduced to simple terms the Kaiser Wilhelm was
NOT solely responsible for the First World War, and that with Hitler
alone there would have been no holocaust. Both needed the support
of the German population – which they gave in no small means.
Sombart’s book can be recommended from two aspects: firstly Sombart
provides a brilliant analysis of the so-called “Wilhelm-Epoch” (1888
to 1918) using statements from eyewitnesses, diaries, letters, and
newspaper reports. Secondly, Sombart shows that the in part deep-based
hatred of the politics of the Kaiser are based on a fanatical rejection
of sexuality in general and homosexuality and homoerotic relations
in particular. In this process Maximilian Harden, the publicist
and publisher of the journal “Zukunft” ( = Future), plays an leading
role. The so-called Eulenburg-Affair became a key factor – and the
affair was used by opposition to the Kaiser
Phillip zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld, German Diplomat and Politician
– apart from the offices he held, was one of the Kaiser’s closest
advisors. He was a typical member of the upper nobility, a loyal
servant of the state and his king such as one reads about in books.
Eulenburg was a musical, artistic person, who regularly met with
others in the “Liebenberger Circle” at his country estate (Liebenberg.
north of Berlin). The circle is described by Sombart as a typical
grouping of men – and of course the Kaiser belonged to the circle
How Eulenburg became involved in the intrigues of the court-circle
in connection with the Morocco crisis for example, - the “infamous”
conclusion of which damaged German foreign politics, and which Harden
attributed to the influence of Eulenburg, and how Eulenburg became
consumed by trials at the heart of which was the bourgeois rejection
of “different sexual behaviour”, is described by Sombart who displays
a precise knowledge of the historical circumstances. However, Sombart
does assume a certain knowledge on the part of the reader.
At this point I would criticise Sombart, who does not manage to
show clearly, what precisely what the “misdeeds” of Eulenburg were.
For instance, homoerotic relations to the Kaiser are only cautiously
Sombart explains political errors of judgement by the Kaiser
on psychological grounds, above all he makes clear the role of the
majority of the “average citizens”, who were ready to follow their
Kaiser through thick and thin into disastrous adventures.
Whether Sombart will succeed in revising the public picture of
the Kaiser, is neither here nor there: He draws a magnificent picture
of the times showing many so far unknown facets. The book can be
whole-heartedly recommended to those who are interested in German
history at the beginning of the 20th century and seek
an explanation of its convolutions and serious consequences.
Colin de la Motte-Sherman