The Kaiser and English Relations
[Longmans, Green, $3.50]
MR. BENSON has the English gift of telling a familiar story in an acceptable way. His experienced hand allows him to lead his narrative almost effortlessly through the tangle of Court and diplomatic history stretching from 1855 to beyond 1918; and his unerring taste avoids the garish and theatrical effects which Emil Ludwig chose as the main accents of his work on the same theme. Like Ludwig, Mr. Benson has composed a biographical portrait from a series of anecdotes and episodes drawn from a very scattered field — ranging from intimate letters and memoirs to out-and-out diplomatic history. The diplomatic episodes at times make a very confused pattern, as the author very properly has avoided sketching in the diplomatic background of these many years. I n the end, also, he has hardly offered us any clear impression of the Kaiser’s actual influence in this field. We are kept moving rapidly over a very agitated surface of things, but only rarely are we given a look beneath the surface.
it is a handicap, also, to deal with the Kaiser only as a public figure. What King Edward, the Czar, and many diplomats and statesmen had to endure on stated occasions was the daily burden of the Kaiser’s official household and of those Ministers who dealt with him in person. The faults of character and the curious perversion of taste and feeling recorded by his own hand in the Willy-Nicky Letters (for instance), as well as the many cases Mr. Benson records, are not even believable when presented by themselves; they can he understood only as the customary and normal expression of a personality which is revealed to us in other than state documents. These more informal sources, which Ludwig exploited so crudely and unfairly, would have been used much more intelligently in Mr. Benson’s hands.
As it is, the author deals with his subject as a unique and bewildering phenomenon rather than as a person. He is a careful observer, but much observation, in this case, has left him almost a lack of curiosity as to inner springs of character and personality. It is fair to remember that Mr. Benson is in no wray responsible for the Kaiser; as an author, he has been content to set him forth and let explanations pass. No author, perhaps, has set him forth with such unruffled calm; even the most spectacular bit of misbehavior leaves this narrator untouched by heat or emotion, the most extreme offense produces no visible irritation or loss of poise. He relates the whole affair as unhurriedly and with the same impersonal detachment as if it had been a bizarre display of northern lights.
The final judgment stands out in amusing contrast to the Hymn of Hate: ‘Destiny had been cruel in ordaining that a man of his temper and temperament should be Emperor of a great nation. Throughout his reign he had never shown any grasp of the serious responsibilities of kingship, never once, for all his sincere patriotism, had he rendered any true service to his country, nor ever had he failed to use his great abilities in the cause of European disquiet. Save for those moments of hysterical exaltation when some imperious and imprudent impromptu had satiated his craving for imperial gestures, he had been the prey of fear and jealousy and deepseated self-mistrust. ... If only Providence had consecrated him to be a squire of ample means and estate, just outside some county town in England, what a pleasant and useful existence would have been his! His defects, ruinous in a monarch, would have been merely humorous and even endearing. He would have been a magistrate on the County Bench, hectoring in manner to his colleagues, but diligent in his duties. . . . He would have had shooting parties in the autumn and told tall stories about his prowess; he would have composed a hymn tune and been highly indignant when the organist had refused to use it at Cathedral service; he would have written to the Times about hearing a cuckoo in March. . . . But destiny denied him this humbler and happier sphere, and cruelly thrust into a crippled hand the sceptre that he was not strong enough to wield with steadiness and discretion.’
T. H. THOMAS