If I asked you to name the most notorious German dictator of the Twentieth Century, known for intense German nationalism and anti-Semitism, it would not surprise me if you nominated Adolf Hitler. However, there is definitely a case to be made for Kaiser Wilhelm II. The leading scholar on the subject is John C. G. Rohl, who has produced a 4,000 page, 3-volume history of the Wilhelm years. Thankfully, he has recently published Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life, so that interested readers can get to the heart of the matter in less than 200 pages. It is a fascinating and deeply saddening tale.
Hitler’s crimes are legendary and well documented. Kaiser Wilhelm II, on the other hand, pretty much singlehandedly caused World War I and created the German chauvinist culture that inspired Hitler. He cheered the rise of the Nazi’s as the champions of his unfinished work to establish Germany as the unquestioned power in Europe and the World. In the words of my first-generation German immigrant father-in-law, “He was bad news!”
Germany came into monarchy late in the game. Unification of the 39 German states under Kaiser Wilhelm I did not begin until 1866. His son, Wilhelm II, took his birth-rite crown very seriously. From 1888 on, he operated as one of the most absolute autocrats, steeped in divine rights and surrounded by sycophants, of any European sovereign. Unfortunately, his judgement was terrible and his ideals completely misguided. Millions lost their lives and livelihoods because of him, and the map of Europe and the Middle East was radically redrawn.
Many of us learned in 10th Grade World History that World War I was started by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Rohl presents the overwhelming evidence that Wilhelm II orchestrated the political morass, hoping something would trigger a fight he could win with his new German war machine. When his wish came true, he was not up to the challenge and the result was disastrous.
To begin to understand the atrocities of World War II, you have to understand the monumental folly of World War I. For that, you have to understand the unforgivable egotism of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The place to start is Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life.