Life in the Blogosphere
Now that new readers are here I invite you to browse. This weekend's post is a good place to start, and I also recommend "George W. Bush, Man of the Sixties," which appeared on October 21, 2004; "The Regeneracy May Not be Televised," from July 5, 2010; reviews of more or less recent books by Robert Caro and James McGregor Burns, which you can find by searching for their names; my obituary for George McGovern on October 22 of this year; "Struggle," from May 19 of this year; and last, but hardly least, "Ayn Rand's America," which appeared on September 28. Posts appear every weekend.]
During the past seven days this blog has had about 1100 hits, which may be a record. I do hope some of my new patrons will return, but the reason for the outburst of interest is quite ironic: the fraudulent attribution to myself of a piece of right-wing hysteria which continues to circulate around the net. Snopes.com, a site which specializes in exposing fraud, published this almost immediately when I called it to their attention, and during the past ten days 168 hits on historyunfolding.com have come from there. They have traced it to an anonymous comment on a right wing blog last November. It has been misattributed to a couple of other people since then. In addition, another David Kaiser--a scientist at a well-known university--is receiving an average of about one piece of fan mail a day from around the world, praising his perspicacity. (His university publishes his email address on its web site; mine does not.) We have been in touch, and he has a form letter which he uses to reply, making it clear that 1) he isn't the David Kaiser they are looking for and 2) that the David Kaiser they are looking for didn't write it, either. I have queried at least half a dozen of his and my "fans" asking them who sent the article to them, in an effort to start tracing the fraud back to its source, but that seems to be a fruitless endeavor--only a couple have replied and in both cases the trail immediately went cold.
I suppose it's another indication of the world that we are living in that, after a remarkably steady readership of about 800 readers a week for the last few years, the hits could have increased by about 40% thanks to my association with right-wing paranoia. (The full text is available, among many other places, here. This has not actually disturbed me very much. Perhaps because I have taken so much heat for things I actually did say, especially over the last year, I am merely amused by the interest in something that I did not say. But this piece of anti-Obama lunacy--so similar to much of what circulated in the 1930s about FDR, and probably to things written about Lincoln as well--has resonated among a measurable segment of the population, it seems, in a way that the kind of commentary that appears here every week does not. I should not be surprised. Crisis eras bring crazies out of the woodwork. So far we, unlike the French in the 1790s or the Germans in the 1930s, have been able to avoid having them in charge--may it continue to be so. Now, back to work.
Bernhard von Bülow, born in 1849 to a noble German family of diplomats and soldiers, served in the latter stages of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1, spent more than twenty years in the diplomatic service, and became German Foreign Secretary in 1897 and Chancellor in 1900, holding that position for the next nine years. After the Emperor William II asked for, and accepted, his resignation in 1909 (more later), he went into retirement, but returned to the government as Ambassador to Italy in 1914-5 (he had an Italian wife) in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Italy from entering the war on the side of the allies. In 1917, when his successor, Bethmann Hollweg, fell from power, some thought that he would return, but instead the Emperor picked a cipher who essentially fronted for the High Command, who ruled Germany, in effect, for the last disastrous 18 months of the war. In the 1920s Bülow published four volumes of memoirs, one of the most sensational such works ever issued in the western world. They were translated into English and published in the United States, and in the early 1990s, shortly after returning to New England, I found a full set among the library of William Langer, for many years a distinguished Harvard professor (who coincidentally retired the year before I arrived there), whose books were on sale at the late, lamented Pangloss book store. (When I was a grad student there were at least four major used bookstores in Harvard Square; now all have disappeared.) I have read a volume from time to time and am now in the middle of the third one, chronologically, which covers most of his time as Chancellor.
Bülow's memoirs caused an uproar for two reasons. Because the Versailles Treaty had not only blamed Germany and its allies for the war, but imposed reparations upon the Germans for that very reason, it had become an article of German national faith during the 1920s that Germany was not to blame for the conflict. But Bülow put the blame squarely upon his successor, Bethmann Hollweg, for whom he had nothing but contempt. He also reproached the government for its failure to make peace until it was too late, arguing at one point that Germany should even have willingly given up Alsace-Lorraine, the spoils of the war in which he himself had been fought, if necessary to secure a compromise. Having himself steered Germany through two major crises without war--the Moroccan Crisis of 1905-6 and the Bosnian crisis of 1908-9--he felt no need to make excuses for anyone else or spare his countrymen any unpleasant facts. Knowing every major European language fluently, having lived much of his adult life abroad, and having read widely in both the ancient and modern languages (although, most untypically for a German, he had no interest in music), he balanced his passionate loyalty to his own country with an acute sense of its strengths and weaknesses in comparison to others. Here, for instance, is a characteristic passage about German attitudes towards Britain and France:
"Even those Germans who were familiar with England's long and successful history, and who were not so naïive in judging her unlimited political egotism as the majority of their fellow countrymen, had only an incomplete idea of the strength of the English people and of the English national character generally. The old German mistake of interpreting important questions of international policy and events on the world's stage and the peoples of the world in the light of narrow German Party politics also affected the Germans' judgment of hte English. The German Democrat, and particularly the German Social Democrat, looked at Tsarist Russia with grim eyes; his thoughtful forehead grew red with 'angry indignation' when good or will more intimate relations with this 'barbaric country' were suggested to him. For a long time many democratic Germans judged all Frenchmen in the light of the Dreyfus affair. . . .German conservatives, on the other hand, regarded the 'nation of shopkeepers' [Britain] with contempt. They looked with mocking eyes upon Wellington who, when he was surprised by a sudden rain while he was conducting a parade, quickly opened an umbrella which some one handed to him, and they scorned a country where the sons of dukes became clerks in banking houses."
Although Bülow never seems to have visited the United States--certainly not before the First World War--he had a keen sense of our potential importance on the world stage, and, as he explains, worked for good relations with the US as feelings between Britain and Germany became worse. "Kaiser William II," he wrote, "was not difficult to win over to my standpoint and my efforts to promote it. The active, enterprising, daring and unwearied American was a type who by reason of his very individuality was bound to appeal to His Majesty the Kaiser. The American multi-millionaire, who was then beginning to come over to Europe more often, pleased the German Emperor in a veyr high degree. . . .Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States, exercised a quite particular fascination over the Kaiser. 'That's my man!' he used to say, as soon as the name of Roosevelt was mentioned. He read in dispatched from our ambassador that Roosevelt performed feats of riding equal to those of a cowboy, that he could hit the bull's-eye with deadly marksmanship at a prodigious distance, that his spirit was unquenchable, fearless, and ready for anything. But, as was often the case with William II, the danger of exaggeration marred ideas that were correct enough in their inception."
Bülow's relationship to his sovereign, indeed, provides most of the drama of the two middle volumes of the memoirs. Reading about William II, and thinking meanwhile of American Presidents like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, it seems astonishing how little influence forms of government, whether democratic or monarchical, seem to have upon the personalities of those who, by such different routes, become heads of state. (Of course, in Bush's case the results were not altogether different from those of a European monarch.) The split between Bülow and William was largely generational. Bülow, who in the Franco-Prussian war had participated in the last act of Bismarck's creation of the German Empire, and who had spent the first twenty years of his career as a diplomat under Bismarck, was as devoted to the memory and the legacy of the Iron Chancellor as LBJ was to that of FDR. He shared Bismarck's view that Germany was already large enough--indeed, perhaps a little too large--and that there was nothing to gain from any European war. He also understood the domestic compromises between absolutism and constitutional government that Bismarck had forged, and knew that the German people, while loyal to the monarchy, no longer had any use for absolutism. But William II (like Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson) had been merely a child during his country's last great crisis, and made up for his lack of actual military experience with emotional bombast. His lack of self-restraint, like Johnson's, Nixon's, and (as I believe we shall eventually learn) Bush's, gave his subordinates many difficult problems to solve. Again and again Bülow listened to William make an impromptu and indiscreet speech on the danger of foreign war or the divine right of kings, and hastened to plead with any reporters present not to report the Emperor's remarks until he, Bülow, had had a chance to edit them. I always feel that Bülow's memoirs resemble what Henry Kissinger's might have been had he been willing to tell the exact truth about his own head of state. And never is Bülow, the combat veteran, more scathing than when he dismisses his chief's warlike statements and marginal notes on diplomatic documents. "William II," he wrote, "did not want war. He feared it. . . .William II did not want war, if only because he did not trust his nerves not to give way in any really critical situation. The moment there was danger, His Majesty became uncomfortably aware that he could never lead an Army in the field. He knew that he was neurasthenic, without real capacity as a General, and still less able, despite his naval hobby, of commanding a squadron or even captaining a ship."
One does not have to look far, indeed, for passages reminiscent of recent American history. "[William II] never understood that one cannot imitate genius. He wanted to substitute genius by 'Divine Right,' but the latter cannot be acquired by force, even if the ruler, who craves divine grace, proclaims himself again and again to be an instrument of heaven and a keepr of God's household. There were times when William II, as the son of his rationalist mother, believed that considerable innate talents, activity and English common sense played a greater role in the world than genius. If necessary, he would attain his ends by force, by the police and the army. Kaiser William II's megalomania was encouraged by flattering courtiers and, regrettable as it is, by unscrupulous scholars as well, just as the megalomania of other rulers, such as blind King George of Hannover, as the Stuarts in England, and the Bourbons in France, was encouraged by their entourage."
Bülow's fall, ironically, took place largely because he failed in 1908 to perform his most critical task, and allowed an interview William had given to a British correspondent of the Daily Telegraph to be published without having gone over it himself. In it, the Emperor took credit for having given the British the plan that had enabled them to win the Boer War, thereby enraging not only the British public, but his own, since Germans had almost unanimously sympathized with the Boers. The storm of protest threatened to bring down the monarchy, and William, who did not feel that Bülow had taken enough of the responsibility for the disaster, took the next opportunity to accept his resignation.
The qualities of real statesmanship to which Bülow so often refers--especially the need to see the world as it is, to understand the thoughts of feelings of other nations, and realistically to assess the needs of one's own nation--seem to be both rare, and distributed more or less at random throughout the human race. To have such a person actually ascend to a position of great power seems to be a fortunate accident--and such men and women, like all the rest of us, eventually fall from power and die. Thus it behooves us both to study and to understand them. That is why it is so sad that college history students are given so little opportunity to do so now.
This blog is about current and historical events, not the state of academia, but I have referred frequently to the decline of my profession, an opportunity has now arisen for me to let readers see what I am talking about. During the last month there has been another controversy about the state of history on the internet list, H-Diplo, which deals with the history of international relations, and on which I have been a very regular contributor for about 15 years. The thread can be followed on the net--it begins innocently enough here, but eventually becomes quite a bit more heated and revealing. It will give any lay person, I think, a good idea of what is going on in the halls of academe, which in my opinion are every bit as much in need of a housecleaning and a re-orientation as Wall Street.