Monday, April 20, 2009

The Kaiser: His Life and Times by Michael Balfour

The theme of this enormously dense book is Kaiser Wilhelm's personal responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, and consequently for its hideous aftermath, World War II, and the decline of Europe (John Keegan would say its "ruin") as a civilized world power.

It's a book that could only have been written in the 1960s, not in the sense that nobody before or after that decade could write enormously dense books about the Kaiser, but in the sense that by publication date (1964), enough time had passed to give the author some perspective, all the while events remained alive enough to encourage him to take his reader along on leisurely explorations of little details which later scholars probably summarize or ignore. There are details, for example, about how fast the train went carrying the body of Queen Victoria to her funeral site in 1901, the Kaiser her grandson, who hated being late, accompanying her ... possibly 92 miles per hour ....

I am not sure, also, if later books on the World Wars are quite so apt to begin, as this does and as William Manchester's The Arms of Krupp did, with serious and pained explorations of the, do we dare say, atrocious German character. It was 1964. Photographs and memories of the concentration camps were only twenty years in the past. Veterans of 1940-1945 were still young men barely into their forties; plenty of veterans of 1914-1918 were still hearty men in their late sixties or just nearing seventy. They had had their lives shaped and had set foot on a continent whose millions, across two generations, had had their lives destroyed by German decisions. When they sat down to read or to write about it, it seems they wanted answers to the question why. Why the Germans.

The passage of forty more years has laid most of those veterans in peaceful graves, and so has faded immediate memories and dulled that curiosity. I suspect political correctness has done the rest, frankly freezing any tendency to dare ask questions about national characteristics which sober men once asked -- even when they recognized that the Nazis were partial to those questions, too. Michael Balfour begins what one expects to be a simple biography of the Kaiser with a chapter on the huge topic "The Historical Background: 400 B.C. - A.D. 1880," and follows this with a second big chapter on "The Background to Anglo-German Relations." Anyone expecting a life story to begin with a discussion of a subject's parents or grandparents soon learns he is in the hands of a different type of scholar.

As he probes the Kaiser's moral responsibility, what Balfour studies in this book is the tragic conflation of three or four giant historical circumstances, centering on one people when that people was still burdened with the personal crapshoot of a hereditary monarchy. By the nineteenth century political liberalism and parliamentary democracy had evolved, most naturally and prominently in Britain. But "Germany" -- Bavaria, Hesse, Prussia, dozens of other small warmed-over medieval fiefdoms -- had only just united as a nation state, and Germany's people equated their country with the means that had unified it: a powerful military, a landed and splendid noble class, and a mystic, ancient German-ness outdazzling small things like individual rights, middle class urban living, and drab, democratic electioneering. By the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution and surging economic prosperity had arrived, most prominently in sea-girt, trading, colonizing Britain. But Germany was landlocked, and its economic life amounted to a long game of catch-up, mostly Balfour thinks because so much of its population was either absorbed in farming and the military, or lost to emigration ("800,000 left in the decade after unification alone," among them a set of my own great-grandparents, who departed in 1874.)

In the late nineteenth century, also, the nations of Europe still stood ready to contemplate war with one another in any combination at any time for any reason. It seems as if the middle ages had not died, and powerful men still ogled dragon-drawn maps and grinned over what dukedom could be had for what princess and why. Add to this that behemoth to the east, Russia, which considered itself the owner of the Balkans and yet made it policy to overleap central Europe ("we are Central Europe," the Kaiser said) and ally with France and Britain, too, for whatever reasons it liked. Add to this the Industrial Revolution's improvements in weaponry and transportation, and you have a sinister stage for the Kaiser to tread.

Then there is Wilhelm himself. The reader expecting to learn about his private life, his marriage, and the births of his children will not learn much. This is a man's book. Wilhelm grew up under the thumbs of his frantically English mother, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter Vicky, and -- not to sound comical -- of the frantically German Bismarck. German-ness and Englishness warred within him. He was intelligent but light-minded, and he had power, simply because he was born, at a time when a Germany suffering political and economic growing pains could pursue lethal plans because "the national mood" would not have it otherwise.

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated. The killer was a Serbian subject of that empire. The assassination of an empire's heir really serves as an announcement that that empire is stupid and shouldn't exist. A simple way of putting it, but those of us who have never quite understood why the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's death mattered might perhaps understand that. Russia, would be owner of the Balkans, supported Serbia. Outraged Austria was Germany's ally, and so in that summer the clanking machineries of alliance and counter alliance, of monarchical and ministerial decision-making in Russia, France, Germany, Austria, Britain, all moved. Russia was the first to mobilize troops. In five weeks, the rest was done. One of the reasons why war had to be declared, Balfour says, was simply because pre-arranged railway timetables for getting German troops to the front --any front, for any reason -- required the pestering of Russian officials for explanations and replies that, outrageously, failed to come on time. When they didn't, the Kaiser, on August 1, 1914, signed the declaration of war which called into being all the others.

At the back of Norman Davies' huge book Europe, there is an appendix with the numbers of soldiers killed or dead of wounds by 1918: in round figures Russia lost 1.7 million, France 1.35 million, Britain 908,000, Italy 650,000; Germany lost 1.7 million, Austria-Hungary 1.2 million. It remains incomprehensible to see human deaths, and these the deaths of active young men only, expressed as fractions of a million.

The Kaiser signed the paper which started World War I, but how much was he responsible for everything leading up to it? Balfour concludes that "he was not fit for the outsize job destiny assigned him." True, but no one would have been. And, under the Kaiser's leadership (or lack of it), what was Germany's responsibility? More than once, Balfour says that it should be incumbent on nations, as it is on individuals, to realize they are not alone in the world and that their actions and ambitions will rub up against other peoples' and other nations,' and perhaps cause problems and suffering. Small actions, apparently trivial choices especially could be paramount in retrospect; in describing the Kaiser's birth to a young mother who suffered a horrific labor and delivery, Balfour asks whether history might have moved differently, if only the doctor attending had been a German committed to saving the baby rather than an Englishman committed to saving the mother (who lived to work the influence she did).

He does not quite say that the Great War proves nations should rise above happenstances, recognize their frightful moral interdependence, and trim the sails of their self-interest accordingly. As a historian and an adult he knows they don't and won't, especially not the most active and the most ambitious. On his last pages he writes, in fact, that there is no way of imagining how World War I could not have happened. "There are a number of things which one cannot imagine happening in a significantly different way unless one presupposes so many other alterations in the world as to turn the exercise into idle speculation." Germany was anxious for its "place in the sun." Britain was rich. Russia supported Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm was born. And so on. " 'It happened because it happened,' " as Norman Davies quotes a later scholar in Europe.

Balfour ends with a quote that is true, if not terribly helpful. (What helps to understand World War I, and/or human nature? Scholars write huge books, and still don't know.) It also serves to illustrate a writing style that is really beautiful, and beautifully sustained, throughout all the enormous density:

We must always remember that it is our choices and decisions which will go to circumscribe the freedom of succeeding generations. Taken individually they may seem trivial, but taken together, and along with other people's, they add up to destiny.

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