Donald Trump takes office on Friday, and the world holds its breath. Has a major nation ever been led by such a man—a flighty, unstable narcissist, self-indulgent to the core, who acts on impulse, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and bullies his subordinates with pithy, brief comments? How exactly will the presence of such a man in the White House challenge the American people and the people of the world?
There is a very important historical precedent for Trump, dating from more than 100 years ago, on the other side of the Atlantic. The leader in question was German—but not the Austro-German whose name seems to be on so many people’s lips. The man in question was the German Emperor William II, the famous Kaiser Wilhelm, who ascended to the throne in 1888 at the age of 29 and ruled until driven into exile in the midst of defeat and revolution in November 1918, at the end for the First World War. That war grew out of the biggest obsession of William’s imperial career: to make Germany not simply great, but greater—not merely the leading European nation, which it already was, but also a world power on the scale of the British Empire or the United States.
To illustrate the profound similarities between William and Donald Trump, I would like to begin with an appreciation written in 1897, when William was 38. The author, Philip Eulenburg, was a nobleman and one of his intimate friends; the recipient was Bernhard von Bülow, a diplomat who had just become foreign minister and who would serve from 1899 until 1909 as Chancellor, the leading official of the empire. Eulenburg’s advice on how to handle the emperor would undoubtedly serve the leading figures of the new administration very well.
“Wilhelm II takes everything personally. Only personal arguments make any impression on him. He likes to give advice to others but is unwilling to take it himself. He cannot stand boredom; ponderous, stiff, excessively thorough people get on his nerves and cannot get anywhere with him. Wilhelm II wants to shine and to do and decide everything himself. What he wants to do himself unfortunately often goes wrong. He loves glory, he is ambitious and jealous. To get him to accept an idea one has to pretend that the idea came from him. . . . Never forget that His Majesty needs praise from time to time. He is the sort of person who becomes sullen unless he is given recognition from time to time form some one of importance.” (I owe this quote and much of the data here to the wonderful, multi-volume biogarphy of William by the British historian John C. G. Rohl.)
William also held grudges. Although Donald Trump spent much of his life within the eastern establishment, he has now developed a hatred for the liberal elite and lashes out against anyone who dares question him on twitter. William resented anyone who questioned his imperial authority. Even though Germany had had a constitution since 1866 and his chancellors could not govern without the support of the Reichstag or parliament, he saw himself as a divinely ordained absolute ruler. He frequently threatened to stage a coup d’etat and do away with the Reichstag altogether, and he regarded the two largest parties—the Social Democrats and the Catholics—as subversive elements whose leaders, he frequently said, should be shot.
Like Trump, William could not control himself. In Chancellor Bülow’s own memoirs, he told how he frequently accompanied the emperor on visits around Germany and had to beg the press not to print his latest intemperate remarks. His famous “marginal notes” on state papers—his comments in his own handwriting—read like Trump’s tweets. He frequently excoriated his own ministries and officials, as well as foreign leaders and domestic political opponents. He also made commitments to foreign leaders without consulting his subordinates, and sometimes created European crises by insulting them in public. He was sure he knew what foreign leaders intended, and his certainty that Russia would go to war with Germany as soon as it felt ready—an idea with very little basis in fact—played a big role in his aggressive policy in July 1914, which led to the First World War and his own and Germany’s downfall. In one marginal note he actually claimed that sovereigns like himself could see the future in ways that statesmen and diplomats very rarely could. And while these remarks were for the eyes of his leading subordinates alone, Trump has already stated or tweeted similar criticisms of military leaders and the intelligence committee for all to see.
The First World War might easily have broken out at various times between 1905 and 1914, but William’s civilian, military and naval leadership held him back during several previous crises. That was not all. In a famous passage in his memoirs, Bülow—who knew him as well as anyone—insisted that William did not want war, “if only because he did not trust his nerves not to give way in any really critical situation,” and knew that he could never command an army, lead a naval squadron, or even captain a ship. Whether Trump, another bully, will also prove to be a blowhard in office remains to be seen.
William came to power at the age of 29 at the end of an age of confidence and stability, and reigned for 30 years before he fled to Holland in disgrace. Trump is already 70, comes to power in the midst of a world political crisis, and knows he cannot remain in office for more than 8 years. He seems in more of a hurry to put his own stamp on events—and the Republican Congress shares his feeling of urgency. As a modern President of the United States, with Congressional majorities behind him, he is much closer to enjoying the absolute power that William only dreamed of. Some subordinates inevitably will try to curry his favor by telling him what he wants to hear, while others may try to make him see reason and restrain his emotional impulses. Trump is a commentary on the wretched state of our political life. William II inherited his throne, but the American people elected Donald Trump. William’s example suggests that Trump is truly a grave danger to our future as a nation. His tenure may well force his subordinates—whom he will select—to make difficult choices, and could force the Congress to choose between partisanship and fidelity to the Constitution. Let us hope they are all up to the task.