Book Review: Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life


by John C. G. Röhl

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xxii, 244. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $27.99 paper. ISBN: 1107420776

The Life of “Kaiser Bill”

Drawing upon his award-winning three-volume biography of the Kaiser, Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859–1888, Wilhelm II: The Kaiser's Personal Monarchy, 1888–1900, and Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900–1941, Prof. Röhl (emeritus Sussex), gives us a concise examination of the life, character, and actions of this complex and conflicted man whom he terms “a German trauma” and who arguably did more to shape the twentieth century than any other.

Naturally, this book is not as detailed as Röhl’s trilogy. It does, however, offer critical coverage of the essential aspects of Wilhelm’s life with some. So we get a look at his childhood, marred by a stern upbringing, torturous attempts to “cure” his damaged left arm, and remarkably unsympathetic and aloof parents, an upbringing so horrendous the reader is likely to develop unexpected sympathy for the young prince. Röhl covers Wilhelm’s political views, social circles, family life, and more, even his mistress, revealing many contradictions in his personality, an anti-Semite and all-around bigot who had Jewish and gay friends, a man with rather keen mind, hampered by ego.

Unlike many earlier works, which viewed the outbreak of the world war as the result of “structural” forces, Röhl argues that although every nation and every European leader bore some responsibility for the coming of the war, Wilhelm’s narcissism, racism, authoritarianism, and militarism were major factors in the outbreak of the European disaster which was triggered by his decision to go to war. Röhl also gives us insights into Wilhelm’s interactions with many other contemporary figures, from Bismarck to Churchill, as well as his relatives who populated the various thrones of Europe by virtue of their ties to Queen Victoria

concludes with a looks into Wilhelm’s postwar exile in the Netherlands, including his interests in the occult and the Aryan myth, plus his flirtation with Hitler, a matter often ignored.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life is certainly the best one-volume treatment of the Kaiser.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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