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An American Kaiser?

Does any of the following sound familiar?

  • When he was young, his mother remarked that “he talks for the sake of his own voice, without making any effort whatsoever to think or to express a particular thought.”
  • By his teenage years, he had developed “a superiority complex—a brittle, narcissistic amour propre [self-love] combined with an icy coldness and an aggressive contempt for those he considered weaker than himself.”
  • His best friend wrote that he “becomes sullen unless he is given recognition from time to time by someone of importance.”
  • Installed as the leader and self-proclaimed “sole master” of policy of his nation, he declared that “we are destined for greatness, and I shall lead you to glorious days.” But one of his diplomats lamented his “almost crass ignorance” of foreign affairs, and the wife of another diplomat complained that he “is ruining our political position and making us the laughing-stock of the world!”
  • A foreign leader thought his communications reflected “the workings of a disordered brain.”

If you were thinking Donald Trump, you may be interested to know that these quotations are from historian John Röhl’s biography of Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser who led his country over the cliff into the abyss of World War I. Reading Röhl’s work two years ago while writing a book on the psychology of war, I felt as though I was reading about the candidate then trying to overturn traditional Republican politics.

Despite differences in historical era and social background, the Kaiser who ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918 and the American president who parlayed a real-estate empire into electoral (if not popular) victory displayed remarkably similar temperament. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen suggested, “Germany used to have a leader like Trump,” adding that “it’s not who you think.”

Comparing the 45th president of the United States to the defeated and deposed German Kaiser is more serious—and ominous—than a diverting party game.

Some parallels are obvious: verbal bombast, childish language, flamboyant and erratic behavior, a bullying interpersonal style that masks anxiety about weakness (recall Trump’s telephone lament that “I will be seen as a weak and ineffective leader in my first week”), and views that changed by the day—or even the hour—often in response to the last person talked to. Overall, what is presented is a sense of “Napoleonic supremacy” involving a “dangerous susceptibility to sycophantic flattery and backstairs intrigue.”

The similarity even extends to body narcissism focused on hands. Kaiser Wilhelm went to great lengths to conceal his withered left arm (the result of a traumatic breech birth). After Marco Rubio’s claim taunt that “you know what they say about men with small hands,” Trump counter-attacked with an implicit boast about the size of his genitals: “He referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.” In an interview two weeks later, he perseverated about his hands for more than six hundred words.

Kaiser Wilhelm, too, indulged in his own early 20th century version of Twitter storms—scribbling bizarre, hasty, and often xenophobic comments in the margins of diplomatic telegrams and reports. For example, when Austria-Hungary presented its harsh ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914 (a major step toward the outbreak of war), Wilhelm commented: “How hollow the whole so-called Serbian power is proving itself to be; thus it is seen to be with all Slavic nations! Just tread hard on the heels of that rabble!” Later he dismissed British Foreign Secretary Grey’s efforts to mediate the crisis with contempt: “Grey is a false dog who is afraid of his own cheapness and false policy.” And when Italy withdrew from its alliance with Germany at the beginning of the war, he railed against the Italian king: “Scoundrel! In spite of his written compact!”

Comparing the 45th president of the United States to the defeated and deposed German Kaiser is more serious—and ominous—than a diverting party game. For all his bluster, Wilhelm became increasingly ambivalent as the July 1914 crisis descended into world war; yet he went along with his generals, and so lost control of the whirlwind he had set in motion. The war descended into stalemate and slaughter, Wilhelm became a figurehead, and Germany was effectively controlled by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. They pursued the chimera of victory until their forces practically disintegrated, leaving them no choice but to ask for an armistice, even as they denied defeat with the myth of a “stab in the back.”

Two days before that armistice, Wilhelm abdicated and escaped to asylum in the Netherlands. During the remaining 23 years of his life, he “descended into a nightmare of violent paranoia” and rabid anti-Semitism, “obsessed with the idea that satanic machinations had been at work to destroy him.”

William’s controller of the household had confided to his diary ten years earlier, quoting the biblical Ecclesiastes, “Woe to the country that has a child for King!”

Featured image credit: Kaiser generals. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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