FROM WEAK­LING TO MEGALOMANIACAL RULER

World of Knowledge (Australia) - - History -

Can the char­ac­ter of a na­tion be em­bod­ied in one per­son? Can a pop­u­la­tion have the same psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­file as their leader? It’s tempt­ing to make par­al­lels be­tween the Ger­man Em­pire and its ruler, Wil­helm II. The Ger­man Em­pire was born from three wars and Wil­helm’s birth was sim­i­larly dra­matic: he suf­fered a res­pi­ra­tory ar­rest and only just sur­vived. But he had a withered, paral­ysed arm as a re­sult of the breech birth. We now know a lack of oxy­gen at birth can cause brain dam­age, which can man­i­fest it­self as psy­chopatho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders. That Wil­helm II learned to ride a horse, de­spite his paral­ysed arm, con­vinced him that he could do any­thing if he set his mind to it – the first step in his jour­ney to­wards mega­lo­ma­nia.

When Wil­helm II in­her­ited the throne in 1888, peo­ple cel­e­brated. The Ger­man Em­pire was just 17 years old and was al­ready a ma­jor power. Kaiser Wil­helm saw him­self as the em­bod­i­ment of the for­ward-look­ing na­tion: strong, up to ev­ery chal­lenge, des­tined for great things. “But he was mas­sively over­con­fi­dent,” says Pro­fes­sor John Rohl, a his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Sus­sex. “Wil­helm II was ir­re­spon­si­ble, ar­ro­gant, a know-it-all and of­ten delu­sional.” He forced Otto von Bismarck to re­sign, de­spite hav­ing lit­tle knowl­edge of the machi­na­tions of diplo­macy. He re­peat­edly alien­ated the UK, pro­vok­ing Bri­tain with his naval ex­pan­sion. He be­lieved that he was com­pletely sur­rounded by en­e­mies and, con­se­quently, be­came more and more mil­i­taris­tic – forc­ing the ma­jor Euro­pean pow­ers into an al­liance against Ger­many.

The mis­trust sown by the em­peror made its way to the Ger­man peo­ple. Like Wil­helm II, the Ger­mans felt per­se­cuted and like they weren’t being taken se­ri­ously. Along with its leader, Ger­many in­evitably slipped into the catas­tro­phe of the First World War. Wil­helm wanted a con­vinc­ing vic­tory, but it didn’t ma­te­ri­alise. “The war has ended – quite dif­fer­ently, in­deed, from how we ex­pected. Our politi­cians have failed us mis­er­ably,” he be­moaned. The eu­pho­ria was re­placed with anger.

Even­tu­ally, he sank into ap­a­thy and ex­pe­ri­enced panic attacks. When the de­feat was made of­fi­cial, Wil­helm II fled into ex­ile in Hol­land. He never took re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fate of Ger­many.

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