On Scapegoats and Sexuality  

On Scapegoats and Sexuality

Nicolaus Sombart: Wilhelm II. - Sündenbock und Herr der Mitte.

Verlag Volk & Welt Berlin 1996

ISBN 3-353-01066-1

f 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 Wilhelm.

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 as well.

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 hinted at.

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

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