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Friday, April 06, 2018

Trump's real German analog, part II

It was very early in the Trump Administration, I believe, that I had occasion to note the similarities between Trump and a famous German leader.  The man in question was not Adolf Hitler, who had a discipline, singleness of purpose, capacity for dissimulation, and, when necessary, patience, that our President entirely lacks.  Instead, it was the Emperor William II, who acceded to his throne in 1888 at the age of 29, and reigned until he was forced to abdicate in November 1918, taking the German Empire with him, and helping to pave the way for Hitler's eventual rise, which he applauded from exile in Holland.  I have in my lap the third volume of the memoirs of Prince von Bülow, a Prussian diplomat who became William's Imperial Chancellor--the equivalent of a Prime Minister--in 1900, and remained at that post for nine years, until William dismissed him.  Published after the First World War, his memoirs created a sensation as a result of his utterly unsparing criticisms of so many of his fellow public men--and above all, of the Emperor himself.  Bülow's dealings with the emperor occupy many pages of this long volume, but I need only dip into it more or less at random to show why I know think the parallel is more appropriate than ever.

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.


Bruce Wilder said...

This morning I heard via a soundbite on NPR some Democratic politician claim we uniquely had in this President someone with the potential to provoke war. I understand the judgment against Trump's character -- that much seems reasonable. I do not understand the amnesia for the last twenty years of history.

Every President since Reagan has initiated wars, large or small, and subverted foreign governments. The U.S. has not deserved respect for its conduct of foreign affairs since George W Bush attacked Iraq with only transparent lies as an excuse. The country under Obama settled thoughtlessly into a policy of fighting multiple "small" wars on a perpetual basis ("staying the course" without any planned end). In this context, to ask if Trump is "a danger to world peace" really draws into question your sanity, not because your judgment of Trump's character is inaccurate (he does seem to me to be a bully without fixed principles of any kind and dangerously authoritarian in his general outlook), but because you seem inexplicably ignorant of the last twenty years. What world peace?

Wilhelm's personal character played its part in a political context dominated by institutions of government of an almost feudal character. The German determination to bring on war in 1912 or 1914 was a sentiment deep and broad among key elites.

In the U.S. in the present day, the foreign policy "blob" presses its case for continued military intervention relentlessly. Trump a few days ago opined that the U.S. should be looking to leave Syria soon, and the pushback has been substantial. Trump, having no apparent commitment to anything, most probably will not follow thru and direct a withdrawal.

Wilhelm may well have vacillated in accordance with Bulow's assessment in August 1914, but he had been left no lever of power to pull. Trump may bluster, but it may be that he has no capacity to loose or hold the dogs of war. Our institutions have degenerated beyond the control of even a skilled statesman let alone an imbecile like Trump.

Energyflow said...

USA is not contained but has 100s of bases globallly, 10x military budget of competitors, allies combined. Regardless of Trump's personality, which is leading to a final conflict based on basic Americam paranoia against any limits tp power, periiod, the inertia of the American system remains, similarly China,Japan, Germany in trade, as amiltary and global policeman. Russia and China are attempting to challenge US military dominance and USD dominance. USA has so many weaknesses, like treasury sales by sovereigns as blackmail or replacement of petrodollar. China goes that route while Ruussia works on bigger diplomatic, security, military picture. So the containment of Russia/China is being finally responded to by fully equal countries. Germany/Japan were small, isolated. Now China/Russia have advanced economies, militaries on a rising curve while West is in decline. Trump is simply a sign of decline. To ignore the whole global picture, focusing on a personality, distorts what is happening. Power is shifting elsewhere. As a recent history professor there is difficulty finding sensible comparisons. Even Rome was just a regional power. The whole presumption of naive innocence has to be abandoned without the mistake of the antiwar movement of the 60s. We are not automatically the goodguys by every drone attack, invasion, regime change operation. Banana companies calling in US troops to central Americ and oil companies motivating same in middle East are equally reprehensible. Monroe Doctrine is now global. Eurasia will take back its birthright. Continental isolation allows naive distance, optimism which other countries can ill afford, see japan vis-a-vis N. Korea or muslim terrorist infiltration into Russian underbelly or immigration over Mediterranean after regime change wars in Middle. East to Europe. Creating havoc is a USA hobby which can only end one way. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword. Juvenile country will grow upsome day in heap of ashes.

Unknown said...

Hey David,

This comparison prompted me to crack out the old BBC series: "Edward the Seventh", you know the one, from the 70s. As what better description to go along with your comparison of Wilhelm II and Trump, than a description of Wilhelm II by his mother Victoria. It's from Episode 11: King at Last, the scene where Edward visits his ailing sister prior to her death in Germany.

<"Victoria: They don't trust me, Willie, nor his advisors.

Edward: I'm sure you're exaggerating. And Willie's been so friendly lately, and I think he means it.

Victoria: Yes he does, today, and perhaps tomorrow, maybe even next week, but one day he will change--he can't help it. ... He cannot allow himself to be second to anyone.">

That shared changeability and desire to be top dog is as Edward VII calls Wilhelm in the next episode, the composition of "a dangerous fool."

Bozon said...

Very interesting account of an analogy.

I also recently watched the series LitCritChas A refers to on Edward VII (and of course Victoria and Albert, and their dynastic connections).

Yet, I fail to see Wilhelm II in Trump at all, for a variety of reasons.

At least you stop short, in this account, as you have not in the past, of blaming Germany for WWI.

That conclusion, to me, is an analytic blunder, often made in the West, of the first magnitude.

It is not an accident that it has long been one promulgated by the British, even more than by the French, including in the television series I mentioned.

Explaining how that can be is an exercise that would take longer than I have in this comment.

All the best

noribori said...

November 9th, again and again:

1918 William II forced to abdicate, end of German Empire
1938 "Kristallnacht", end of alleged humanity in Germany
1989 Fall of the wall in Berlin, end of east-west confrontation
2016 Trump is elected, end of post war era