The German Emperor
ALL his life William II, King of Prussia and German Emperor, has lain under the shadow of his own greatness. His manysidedness, his vivid temperament, his faceted intellect, his sweeping ambition, have made him one of the least understood of men. For the world is mostly commonplace, and can see only mental malady in genius, and has neither the comprehension nor the desire to perceive that the inconsistency of genius is proof of greatness. Popular prejudice sees what it pleases and not what is plain. The versatility of the Kaiser is so bewildering, the activities of his alert mind are so varied, that they have at times obscured a fixed idea, — one might almost say an ideal, — to accomplish which he has fused all his powers and coördinated all the elements of his personality, — that idea the greatness of Germany. To make Germany respected and feared, a voice that shall compel obedience and whose frown no nation shall wittingly provoke, and to do this through the force of diplomacy and not the force of arms, — this is the purpose to which the third German Emperor has consecrated himself. He believes in his divine mission; that he is king by the grace of God. This is not an anachronism; it is not one of those poses in which he is supposed to delight. It is innate belief rather than acquired persuasion. God has called him to do his work, and he walks in the way of the Lord.
The heritage coming to him from his grandfather, Bismarck’s creation in Moltke’s alembic, has been to him a sacred heritage, and he has guarded it with all the fervor of the acolyte to whom the hallowed flame is the light everlasting. This Emperor is a serious man, a man fully impressed with the responsibilities of kingly station, to whom the crown is more than a symbol and the sceptre less the sign of power than the vow of duty. This almost fanatical recognition of the duty he owes to himself, to his ancestors, to his posterity; the duty no less he owes to his people (and it is no figure of speech when in kingly fashion he talks of meine Leute, because literally the sorrows and joys and aspirations of the German people are his own), this makes his life what it is, — a life so full, so rounded, so often brought in contact with lives of others, that it is dazzling to the beholder.
It is the penalty genius pays to mediocrity to be misunderstood. William has paid in full his debt. In the long line of great historical characters there is not one whose motives have been more cruelly misinterpreted, whose actions have been so misconstrued, whose purpose has been so ridiculed. The strong man, the man of force and resolute character, the man who knows his own strength, invites the stigma “iconoclast,” and seldom fails to excite envy and hatred and distrust. This was the beginning of the world-wide cabal that with malignant ingenuity attempted — and not without success — to picture the ruling Hohenzollern as a vainglorious, impetuous, undisciplined youth; unfilial, selfish, passionate; puffed up with his own conceit, brooking no opposition, willing to sacrifice everything for the moment’s pleasure of gratified vanity.
But glance at the forces confronting William II, as the heir presumptive, and let what the man has done tell what he is. As his grandfather, William I, approached his end, and his father Frederick, “Unser Fritz,” — a stricken, albeit a knightly and adored figure to the German people, — seemed more likely to be crowned by death than man, a cloud of intrigue and deceit gathered over the throne of the newly welded German Empire. And in the dim shadow there lurked, half hidden, the form of the greatest, and withal the most unprincipled, statesman of modern Europe. To Bismarck nations were simply the pieces to play the game, and men the pawns to be sacrificed when they stood in the way of a great move. In Frederick’s virtues Bismarck could see only evidence of weakness and a menace to the infant empire that needed, to the mind of the man of iron, force instead of gentleness or even honesty for its successful rearing.
The genius of Bismarck was not great enough to understand the complex German character nor to appreciate that the German, like the Englishman, is born with a love for liberal constitutional government and the largest measure of freedom consistent with law. By temperament and training Bismarck was a military autocrat, who neither comprehended the spirit of democracy nor sympathized with it. He was a feudalist, a paternalist, who would, had the power been given him, have regulated not only the affairs of the state but the thoughts and actions of its people. To him truth was one of those theoretic virtues that too often collide with the more serious things of life, and he was never enmeshed by “ a foolish consistency, the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Such were the conditions and the adversary that faced William II as he approached the throne; and a study of the young prince, hardening his moral thews and sinews in that struggle for a crown over the weakened body of his well beloved father, opposing his strength single-handed against the Iron Chancellor’s might, and standing like a lion whelp at bay between the hunter and his prostrate victim, discloses no unfilial youth or weakling. But no saint this, no man of profound humility abasing himself for his sins and imploring forgiveness. On the contrary, a very human man, a man of many faults, chief of which are ambition and jealousy, and envy of the might and power and universal domination of England. He looked across the narrow stretch of blue water separating his throne from that of his aged grandmother; he saw the cross of St. George dotting the seven seas, and not a pawn moved on the chessboard of international politics without England’s consent, and he determined to make Germany equally as important; to carry the double eagle of Germany wherever ships sailed or territory was to be developed.
In Europe Germany had nothing to fear. France lay prostrate, spent and bleeding from the fierce onslaught of the armies that the genius of Moltke had called into being. Bismarck had early inculcated in the minds of the statesmen of Germany and Russia that between them there should exist a complete understanding, and that it was to their interest to pursue a policy of common rather than antagonistic purposes. Bismarck, however, always believed in the policy of reinsurance. The triple alliance, which owed its inspiration not to Bismarck but to Crispi, who feared that France in revenge for her crushing defeat would seek to rehabilitate herself by making war on Italy, was the policy of insurance taken out by Germany to protect herself against France; and then to prove his loyalty to his allies, especially to Austria, Bismarck entered into a secret alliance with Russia.
Knowing that England would engage in no aggressive policy unless driven to it by the wanton act of Germany, the time seemed peculiarly propitious for the same commercial development of Germany that had made England what she was and so excited the envy of the Emperor. His accession to the throne filled the world with fear. Remembering the world’s judgment of this young king; knowing that in his veins ran the blood of the great Frederick; that he had been brought up under the eye of his grandfather, who was a soldier and not a statesman; that to William II the army of Germany was everything, — invincible, magnificent, the very perfection of military science, — it was not unreasonable for the world to believe that this monarch would want to make Germany rank still higher by another series of astounding victories.
Men said that before long Saxon and Prussian and Bavarian would again march shoulder to shoulder, carrying anew the triumphant banner of the Fatherland. The position of Germany at that time was peculiar. As an empire she had no traditions. Overcoming their intense jealousy of the Kingdom of Prussia, Bismarck had transmuted a score of petty principalities and miniature grand duchies into an empire, and made of the German people a nation. But as an empire Germany had no past, and its fame lay in the future. The war with France had infused into these separate states a national spirit. How long, Europe asked, would the spirit of nationality last ? When the great domestic problems, inseparable from the confederation but held in abeyance by the war, pressed for settlement, would not the old jealousies reassert themselves, and either dissolve the union in blood, or cement it in blood so strong that a union it would remain, forever and indissoluble ? Many an anxious moment Europe knew, waiting for the first signs of revolution or the massing of troops to engage in foreign war, which was to save the empire from falling to pieces. That was a quarter of a century ago. In that time there has seldom been a year that a war with Germany has not been predicted with all the positiveness that is one of the privileges of prophecy; and while Great Britain and the United States have drawn the sword, and the most epochmaking war the world has known has been fought on the plains of Manchuria, in Germany the temple of Janus has remained shut and the beacon fires on the Rhine signal no marching hosts.
Waiting with foreboding for the expected, with all eyes turned on Berlin for the first sign of the torch to flame into life and spread ruin and desolation, suddenly the flame burst forth, and Europe saw in it the confirmation of its judgment. The Emperor dismissed Bismarck. It was an act of such unparalleled audacity, or such crass folly, or such heartless brutality; it was so wanton, so absolutely without reason, as the world viewed it, this turning adrift the creative force of the German Empire, that from all over the world arose a chorus of hostile criticism. It was evident that Bismarck, the wise, the prudent, the peaceloving (that was before Bismarck’s candid friends disclosed the real nature of the man), had been dismissed because he stood in the way of the Emperor’s ambitious schemes and pleaded for peace while the Emperor urged war.
That historical event is now sufficiently remote to admit of its true perspective. Bismarck was dismissed for not one, but many reasons. Both men were too much alike, too positive, too pugnacious, too determined, too convinced of their own inerrancy, for the relation of master and servant long to endure. Bismarck had never been forgiven for the way he intrigued over the dying Frederick, and the Emperor was sagacious enough to know that if Bismarck remained in power he would again so manipulate affairs as to force Germany into war, precisely as he had made the first William take the field against France. The Emperor, in spite of all that has been said to the contrary, is essentially a man of peace, and while he is not afraid to fight, he knows the cost of war, and that the nation victorious pays a price almost as heavy as the nation defeated. And there was still another reason to move the Emperor. He was determined to be his own master in the eyes of the world. To take the full responsibility for all his actions, and not to shield himself behind any man, was evidence of strength and courage. From that day the policy of Germany has been the policy of the Emperor. The voice may be the chancellor’s, but it is William, imperator et rex, who speaks. He it is who really writes the despatches; to him the chancellor must come before he can set in train the machinery that may involve not only Germany, but the world.
The Emperor inherits the dominant mental characteristics of his grandmother, which made her one of the great figures of history. These salient traits are a tremendous grasp and intense love of detail, and a capacity to get at the bottom of every subject. Queen Victoria would never consent perfunctorily to sign a paper that her ministers might lay before her, but insisted upon knowing its full significance. She had a passion for hearing about things and great events at first hand. Ambassadors, soldiers, men of science,— in a word all men of action or thought, no matter in what direction their activities extended,—must be brought to her and tell exactly what they had done. The queen was the first English sovereign who required the leader of the House of Commons to make her a daily report of its proceedings. This was perhaps extraconstitutional; it was almost an infringement of the free and unhampered rights of the ministry; but every day when Parliament was in session the government leader wrote her a résumé of the session, with such free and confidential comment as he considered necessary to enable her to keep au courant with the work of Parliament.
In much the same way the Emperor has his hand upon the pulse of affairs. I have already said that no important despatch is written without being first submitted to him for approval, and the Emperor “edits” his chancellor’s despatches with the freedom of a teacher correcting his pupil’s composition. Despatches from the various German ambassadors are annotated by the Emperor, and frequently sent back to the writers so that they may know precisely the Emperor’s views in his own words. These comments and criticisms are always sharp, short, and pointed.
The Emperor understands his own people a good deal better than many of them understand him. The German character is contradictory. There are probably no more practical people, and yet their practicality is tempered and softened by the vein of sentiment that finds its expression in charming Liebslieder and dreamy waltzes, and in gemüthlichkeit, a word which has ho exact English equivalent.
We talk of Germany, and unconsciously we think of the Great Elector and the Great Frederick, as if Germany could show her descent in an unbroken line through the ages. We forget that Germany, as an empire, is the parvenu among nations, that the German Empire is a creation of to-day, and has existed, as an empire, only since the war with France, a matter of thirty-five years. Bear this fact in mind. It explains much of the emperor’s policy that has seemed to be erratic, undisciplined, irresponsible almost; it is the reason why the Emperor has done many things at which the world has laughed, because to laugh is always the refuge of the foolish.
If Germany was to become the great and powerful and prosperous nation, the dream of the Emperor’s ambition, — and he is a dreamer of dreams whose dreams take form, — a national spirit must be infused into her people, to drive out local jealousies by the deeper feeling of nationality. This point must be reiterated even at the risk of being wearisome, because, unless the American reader fully understands the conditions that existed when the Emperor came to the throne, he cannot have a true understanding of the emperor’s character; he cannot comprehend the problems confronting the Emperor, and the opposition he mastered. Imagine the United States united for defense and certain other national purposes, with each state practically independent, the smaller jealous of the larger. This was much the position of Germany. The world talks of the United States as a young country; young she is, but as a nation she is venerable compared with Germany. Here many of the great constitutional questions have been settled; in Germany, so new is the empire, they are as yet unsettled.
For years the world has read with derision and sarcastic comment the Emperor’s speeches, and has always found in them proof of his undisciplined mind and his vaingloriousness; but it is the misfortune of the world to be superficial rather than analytical, and it fails to understand that the Emperor, like every great orator, adapts himself to his immediate audience. Every one recalls the celebrated “mailed fist” speech that the Emperor made to his brother, Prince Henry, before he sailed to place Kiaochau under the German flag. To the casual reader the speech was bombastic and without restraint; it sounded more like the effusion of a comic opera monarch than the benediction of a practical ruler of a practical people. It was jeered at by the press; it was accepted by the opposition at home and abroad as another proof of the Emperor’s irresponsibility and unfitness; it was further evidence that he was a firebrand, always imperilling the peace of the world. But the Emperor had a distinct object in view. For the first time since Germany had become an empire the German navy was about to be sent across the sea to establish an outpost of empire. To inspire his sailors and soldiers with enthusiasm, to appeal to their love of fatherland and the sentiment for the flag, was the purpose of the Emperor. He knew that he was addressing uneducated men and that it was necessary to stir their emotions. He knew that they would not read his speech, but that his ringing words would be remembered and repeated in the forecastle, and talked over during the long watches of the night, and would make an ineffaceable impression. His audience would not split hairs, or calmly analyze his sentences or consider the ethical questions involved. He fired them with his own ardor. The men went forth without any regrets at leaving home, longing for an opportunity to show that they were worthy of their war lord’s confidence. The thrilling words of the Kaiser were the only stimulus they needed to make the campaign in the East a memory as glorious to the fatherland as the campaign of 1870, which focused the attention of the world on the yet to be born German Empire. It was the supreme power of oratory.
The Emperor is an extemporaneous speaker. It is only on rare occasions that he prepares a speech. His quickness of thought and his ability to put into language the ideas lying dormant in his brain, needing only the spark of opportunity to fire them with life, while a gift to be envied, has frequently caused him to say more than he intended and more than was wise. Like all extemporaneous speakers, and especially men of his temperament, he is carried away by his own enthusiasm; for the moment at least he believes everything he says, and is his own most zealous convert, which perhaps explains more than anything else why he sways his audience. His adaptability is remarkable; instinctively he knows what note to strike. Any one who reads carefully the Emperor’s speeches will not fail to notice that the Kaiser bidding Godspeed to his sailors and the commander-in-chief of the army addressing a group of educated noblemen are different men. In each case he has so accurately gauged the comprehension of his listeners, and varied accordingly his language and the very process of thought, that the two speeches give the impression of a dual personality in their author. His speeches are a revelation of the Emperor’s complete sympathy with all classes of his people and constitute a strong element in his popularity. Another secret of his hold over men is a peculiar quality of mind, — the power of instinctive judgment and knowledge. For William II combines with the logical and strong masculine mind the distinguishing feminine characteristics of reaching without conscious reasoning quick decisions which are often superior to a man’s most careful deductions.
A constitutional monarch, who observes the restrictions of the constitution, and yet would shape Parliament to his own ends, must display much wisdom and much tact if his people are not to rise up some fine night and tip over the royal apple-cart. William keeps within the limitations of the constitution and still exercises over Parliament a tremendous influence, which is not easy, because the Reichstag is jealous of its prerogatives and suspicious of royal interference. During the winter, when the Reichstag is in session, the Emperor regularly attends the receptions given by the ministers of the crown to which the members of the Reichstag are invited. Meeting there men who may not be so friendly to his policy as he would like to have them, he attempts to convert them by argument, by appeal, by the subtlest of all flattery, asking them with most engaging frankness to show him the fallacy or weakness of his policy. In this way he has won over more than one rebellious member.
In our day no ruler hedged in by the restrictions of a constitution and a free Parliament has met with such resolute opposition as did the Emperor when he determined to make Germany a naval power, nor was opposition ever so adroitly overcome. The Emperor recognized that a powerful military nation must be powerful on sea as well as on land, and that if Germany were to hold her own among the great nations she must have a navy commensurate with those of other nations. But Parliament stormed and protested, and the press fulminated against another heavy burden being laid upon the people. The Emperor had prepared a number of charts and drawings showing the comparative strength of the various navies of the world, the proportion between the navies of the great powers and their mercantile marine, Germany’s armed strength on the sea, and what it ought to be to make it relatively equal to the other leading naval powers. Some of these diagrams were roughly sketched by the Emperor himself, others were elaborate drawings, worked to scale according to the ideas he furnished. The whole thing was very clever and would have commended itself to any magazine editor who was looking for an illustrated article on the navies of the world. The emperor carried on his campaign of education with great perseverance and patience, exhibiting his diagrams at every opportunity, and impressing upon the members of the Reichstag the necessity of Germany taking her place among the other nations, and the importance of her being able to hold her own on the sea. The result was that he won his fight and the bill was passed that began the work of giving Germany a navy which wall give her high rank among the sea powers in the next few years.
Again the Emperor had accurately gauged public sentiment. The most popular thing in Germany to-day is the navy, and the popularity of Prince Henry is due to his being the sailor prince. To prove how keen an interest the German takes in his navy it is only necessary to walk up and down the Linden, and watch the people bunched in front of the windows of the offices of the North German Lloyd and Hamburg American steamship companies, looking at the models of the magnificent vessels that in the last few years have been turned out of the German shipyards and have vanquished the ships of all other nations; or one has only to stand in front of the Mutoscopes, so plentifully distributed about the Linden and the “Passages” opening from it, and notice that the machines labeled “Unsere Marine” have a group of men, women, and children eagerly waiting to drop their pennies in the slot and look at the pictures of cruisers and torpedo boats, or sailors and marines about to embark for the Far East, or the emperor standing on the quarter deck of the imperial yacht in his favorite attitude of making a speech, or directing the imaginary evolutions of an imaginary squadron. If the popular taste is any indication, the Germans at the present time are much more interested in the pictures of their ships than they are in pictures of their soldiers.
“Weltreich” and “Weltpolitik” are words almost constantly on the lips of the Emperor, and their repetition seldom fails to arouse the ridicule as well as the censure of the Emperor’s enemies. It is insinuated that he is a monomaniac on the subject of making Germany the dominant factor in the world’s politics. Now the policy of William II, which has been carried out with rare intelligence, does not differ greatly from that of other rulers, nor is its purpose dissimilar. He wants to make Germany not only respected but feared; his empire must be powerful enough to give pause to any nation contemplating an alliance or a combination that might lead to war, until it has been carefully considered on which side of the scale Germany would throw her weight. He has succeeded. Germany, it is true, has to-day more foes than friends in the concert of Europe, but she can afford to ignore her foes so long as they fear to provoke her strength. And the position Germany holds has been won without setting in motion the great army which the Kaiser leads. The Emperor would go to war to-morrow if war were the alternative, but up to the present time he has been able to avoid war because he has been bold, adroit, diplomatic.
Recognizing that Germany, to be powerful, must be politically as well as commercially great, the Emperor since he came to the throne has worked along two lines, seemingly divergent but in fact parallel. Everything possible has been done to foster Germany’s commercial resources, and how well he has succeeded the tremendous strides made by German commerce testify. Simultaneously he has made Germany the foremost military power. Always the army has been a club to intimidate weaker neighbors, yet he has never exerted the force which lies under his hand. As an illustration take the Morocco policy, which has caused both England and France to see the spectre of war. To settle long-standing differences England recognized the “predominant rights” of France in Morocco, in return for France’s recognition of the “ regularity ” of the position of England in Egypt, and other mutual concessions. So far as England and France were alone concerned, it was a most excellent arrangement ; it was purely selfish, —“intelligent selfishness,” no doubt, but none the less the policy of self-interest. Germany was moved to protest by two considerations. She objects because it does not accord with her dignity to be treated as a negligible quantity in the politics of Europe; and because, if England is to make her profit out of Egypt, and France her profit out of Morocco, Germany also must make her profit somewhere.
The ethics involved are not considered. It is the diplomacy of Germany with which we are now dealing. Germany’s policy may be unmoral, but perhaps no more unmoral than that of her rivals. As a practical result of this policy Germany has forced France directly, and England indirectly, to recognize the right of Germany to question an agreement made without her consent. Both powers are compelled to admit this right, but Englishmen find consolation in the “isolation” of Germany. It is only when events are projected on the background of history that they stand out clearly. Wherein does the “isolation” of Germany differ so greatly from the “isolation” of England a few years ago, even at a date so recent as the Boer war, when, like jackals, Germany, France, and Russia watched the lion at bay, longing to attack him yet fearing his mighty paw ? Wherein does the policy of Germany differ from that of England when Disraeli dictated to Russia the terms of the Treaty of Berlin ? It was England who taught the Kaiser self-confidence, and the Kaiser has proved himself an apt pupil.
Nothing illustrates better the flexibility of the Kaiser’s mind than his volte-face in his relations with the United States. Only a few years ago, — to be exact, at the time of the Spanish war, — the Kaiser had no love for America, and all his sympathies were with Spain. But when the United States compelled recognition by defeating a European power, when the United States became an Asiatic power as well as a western, the Kaiser was among the first to appreciate the importance of this new force in weltpolitik. With the Kaiser to see was to act quickly. The friendship of the United States was worth having; doubly worth having because the tide of sentiment and material interest was swiftly bearing England and the United States to the same sea. How well the Emperor has effaced the mistakes of the past, how assiduously he has cultivated the friendship of America, all the world has seen in the last few months, when the President thanked the Kaiser for his efforts in behalf of peace. The Emperor may have no higher regard for the United States now than he had seven years ago. The sincerity of his motives need not now be questioned. It is his diplomacy that commands admiration,— that mental capacity that enables him to look backward as well as forward, and to turn a situation to his own advantage and to the discomfiture of his opponents.
The intuitive faculty of grasping the psychological moment, which has so often borne him triumphant over opposition, was never more strikingly shown than when he disarmed a political party with the gift of a toy. To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, William I, he instituted a new order and decorated every man, officers as well as privates, who served in the Franco-Prussian war. Because of the general and somewhat promiscuous distribution of the decoration, the officers held it in light esteem and among themselves satirically termed it the “ Order of the Orange,” as the large medal was suspended from a broad yellow ribbon. The newspapers gave vent to their ironical comments and regarded the decoration as another of the emperor’s childish notions. But the men who marched from the Rhine to Paris do not see anything ridiculous because the emperor has rewarded their valor; on the contrary, they wear their bronze medals suspended from their yellow ribbons with a feeling of pride, a feeling increased by the knowledge that the Emperor wears the same decoration; or, as one of them put it, “ My emperor and I are companions of the same order.” By bestowing this medal the Emperor greatly weakened the Social Democratic Party, and it must be admitted that the man who can disarm an active opposition by the bestowal of a pound or two of bronze and a few yards of yellow ribbon is a practical politician of no mean order. It is cheaper at any rate than paying pensions.
This is William II, the man who has been termed badly balanced, vain, impetuous. Badly balanced he is not, because no man not equably poised could have escaped the pitfalls which have surrounded him for the past seventeen years. A vain man is usually a foolish man. The Emperor is not. Impetuous he is, and yet it is vehemence tempered by reason and restraint; he knows when to strike and when to hold himself in leash. This is the man whom the world has regarded as only half responsible, longing for war; a royal demagogue, a mouther of meaningless phrases; a man with a child’s brain and a monarch’s power for harm.
The burden of history is always what has been; it is written as a message from the dead, and we do not accept men as great until their lives and acts have been embalmed and treasured up for the judgment of a generation not their own. When the history of this period of the German Empire is written, it may be discovered that William the Second was a man who spoke for the future to hear. Then it may be understood that his influence was for peace and not for war; that he spoke with a purpose; that he heard the voice of humanity; that he was one of the positive forces of his time. The Hohenzollerns have given to history a great elector and a great king, and William the First has been called a great emperor. History may yet find that greater than the greatest of his race is the reigning sovereign; because while the claims of his ancestors are written in war, his title to greatness is the dower of peace.