The German state of which William had become head in 1890 was not an absolute monarchy, since both Prussia--the leading state within the Empire--and the Empire itself had constitutions and parliaments whom the emperor needed to respect. But William believed that it should be an absolute monarchy, and although he never mustered the courage to try to do away with those constitutions, he insisted that he and he alone knew what was best for Germany, and that the duty of his ministers was to enforce his will. He was, meanwhile, a narcissist, convinced that he knew more than anyone else about every important question, distrustful of all his subordinates, and liable to seize upon absurd ideas that came to him from various quarters. Thus, in 1903, when tensions between Germany and Britain were rising because of William's determination to build a fleet, an historian [!], Theodor Schiemann, convinced William that Germany should challenge Britain to a naval duel, a battle to which they would both dispatch an agreed number of warships."My patience was sorely tried and the nervous energy necessary for serious affairs exhausted," Bülow wrote, "by refuting such suggestions to the Kaiser, who, unfortunately, in such matters displayed a peculiar naivete. With all the exalted ideas of the dignity and sacredness of his Imperial alling, William II failed to understand that, more than any other, this very calling demanded hard work, concentration, and seriousness." Today, obviously, Generals Kelly and Mattis are similarly devoted from their real and very serious work by the need to refute the suggestions of various commentators on Fox News.
The horrible tragedy of William's rule, as Bülow saw at the time, was that Germany was already the strongest and richest power in Europe, and that it was growing thanks to international trade and did not need war or a much larger colonial empire to continue on its path to pre-eminence, though not necessarily hegemony in Europe. Yet William insisted on seeing Germany as threatened by encirclement and spoke constantly of taking preventive action, including war, to stop it. In a typical letter to Bülow in 1908, he insisted that King Edward VII of Great Britain was trying to encircle Germany and bring about her ruin, but that his policies were unpopular even in Britain itself, while William's own subjects were more than ready to fight the British. William was just as indiscreet with foreign leaders as he was with his own subjects, and bluntly told the King of Italy, on a visit to Venice, that while the other European states had always tended to ignore what he had to say before he began building his beloved fleet in 1897, now they had changed their tune. He also exaggerated the force of his own personality and was repeatedly convinced that he could win Tsar Nicholas II of Russia over to an alliance with himself. I could not help but be reminded, reading about these episodes, of President Trump's rants about how the United States, actually the world's most powerful and (until recently) respected nation), had been "losing" in world affairs for decades, and his certainty that the force of his personality can redress the balance.
William's biggest flaw was a complete lack of tact, both in public and in private. Again and again, Bülow accompanied him to public appearances all over Germany and heard him utter such inflammatory words that the Chancellor immediately went to the press gallery to beg the reporters, usually successfully, not to report them verbatim, in the interests of the nation and the monarch himself. Trump;s staff, of course, is helpless, since the President so frequently shares his most unrestrained thoughts on Twitter. One of the great crises of William's reign occurred when Bülow cleared an interview the monarch had done with the British Daily Telegraph correspondent without reading it. The Emperor had taken credit, not for the first time, for the campaign plan that had allowed the British to win the Boer War, enraging his own people, who had sympathized with the Boers, as much as the British. Typically, William could never forgive Bülow for failing to prevent the publication of his own words, and within a year, he had replaced the Chancellor. Because the Emperor could not take responsibility for anything that went wrong, he replaced his subordinates quite frequently, especially during the First World War.
The real question raised by this parallel, however, is this: is President Trump a danger to world peace? The answer turns out to be surprisingly complex.
William II endangered the peace of Europe, in the long run, because he was not satisfied with Germany's very strong position in the world and did believe that war might improve it. His insistence on building his fleet helped drive Britain into an opposing alliance with France. I concluded many years ago in an article I wrote that his subordinates, civilian and military, were more to blame than he for their course of action in July 1914, when they welcomed a confrontation with Russia, France and possibly Britain, confident that it would produce either a diplomatic or military victory. William too favored that course, although the experience of previous crises suggests that they could have changed his mind if they had wanted to do so. Meanwhile, however, there was another side to William, which may also be relevant to our problem today.
Bülow was older than William, and had been barely old enough to participate in the latter phases of the Franco-Prussian War that had established the German Empire as a combat soldier. For that reason, he--like all the veterans of the Second World War who became Presidents of the US--was essentially satisfied with the position his country had obtained in that war, and did not believe in war to go beyond it. William, who had been only a child in that war (in which his own father commanded an army), felt very differently. In many of Bülow's appreciations of him, one hears the contempt of the combat veteran for the man who has never heard guns fired in anger--and nowhere more so than in this passage from the memoirs, which I quoted from the lecture podium many times.
"William II did not want war. He feared it. His bellicose marginal notes [tweets, essentially, written in the margins of diplomatic papers] prove nothing. They were meant to ring in the ears of his privy councilors, just as his more bellicose speeches were designed to convince the listener that here was another Frederick the Great or Napoleon. 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."
The President of the United States is a bully, and many bullies are cowards. I would not be surprised if the same could be said of him. Meanwhile, we must not lose sight of the different systems that brought these two kindred spirits to power. William inherited the throne at the age of 29 and reigned for 26 years before disaster struck. Incompetent monarchs are obviously an inevitable hazard of hereditary monarchy. Our founding fathers had studied the classics, and they knew that the Greek and Roman Republics had produced poor or evil leaders too, but they left the responsibility for the selection to the people, and limited the President to terms of four years. Until the week that he abdicated, William believed that his hold on power was secure by virtue of his birth. Trump, of course, has no such assurance, and that could make him more dangerous. Meanwhile, whatever happens, he will live as one of the foremost examples of the pitfalls and perils of democratic government has it has evolved into the 21st century.