FROM WEAKLING TO MEGALOMANIACAL RULER
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.