By Elayne Savage, PhD
My high school history teacher, in her booming Southern accent would advise, “Save your confederate money folks — the South will rise again!”
Another colorful lesson she taught was on how wars start. I’ll never forget her gusto in describing how a war was started because of insults and taking things personally. Too bad I can't remember the details of that lesson.
Forty years later, when I was writing Don’t Take It Personally! I remembered her vivid descriptions and tried many times to search for additional information. Trouble was, I couldn’t recall for sure which war she was talking about nor which monarch she was referring to.
I kept punching in keywords and hitting a wall. It was frustrating because normally I’m a pretty good online researcher. I began to think I had imagined that entire history lesson.
And then . . . the other night on MSNBC’s 'The Last Word' I heard author and journalist Jonathan Alter telling the story of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and how he started WW I.
They were describing how easily 140 character tweets can be misinterpreted and even start wars. He told the story of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany whose taunts, braggadocio, miscommunication and repeated insulting of his cousins contributed to starting WW I.
I recognized the description immediately! Wilhelm was the very same emperor of my teacher’s vivid characterization. The flavor of Jonathan Alter’s description was almost identical to my history teacher’s words. Finally I found the reference I’ve been searching for all these years. I was finally able to retrieve that long-lost memory.
So now I had a name and of course I went right to my computer to research Kaiser Wilhelm II. I learned great stuff about his temperament, impulsiveness and personality quirks.
I am so excited to learn about this character I want to share him with you! Here are some summaries and excerpts of the intriguing information I found:
• bombastic and impetuous, he sometimes made tactless pronouncements on sensitive topics without consulting his ministers
• due to his emotional outbursts during the course of the London newspaper interview, he ended up further alienating not only the British, but also the French, Russians, and Japanese
• critics judged Wilhelm to be completely unable to handle the great responsibilities of his position, a ruler too reckless to deal with power
• seen as superficial, hasty, restless, unable to relax, without any deeper level of seriousness or sense of sobriety, for balance and boundaries, or even for reality and real problems
• uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience
• desperate for applause and success—as Bismarck said, he wanted every day to be his birthday—romantic, sentimental and theatrical
• unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off, a juvenile cadet, who never took the tone of the officers' mess out of his voice, and brashly wanted to play the part of the supreme warlord
• full of panicky fear of a monotonous life without any diversions, and yet aimless
• pathological in his hatred against his English mother
• not lacking in intelligence but was seen as lacking stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk, he frequently fell into depressions and hysterics
• his personal instability was reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion
• concerned with asserting his will. Because he was the ruler of the leading Continental power this trait was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn-of-the-century
WW I started when there was a showdown between Wilhelm and his cousin Tsar Nicolas II. When the Tsar refused Wilhelm’s demand to suspend the Russian mobilization, Germany took steps to declare war on Russia (and France as well.)
• he appointed chancellors who were upper-level civil servants rather than statesmen
• he meddled in German foreign policy on the basis of his emotions, resulting in incoherence and inconsistency in German relations with other nations
• he offended his British cousins in a London newspaper interview, saying, “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares”
• he was out of touch with the realities of 1914 international politics, counting on his blood relationships to European monarchs to manage the crisis that followed the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand
Can Insults Really Start a War?
Wilhelm II is considered to be the individual most responsible for the outbreak of WW I because of his taunts, overreactions and taking things personally.
• there is a consensus that Wilhelm II’s brash, ambitious and aggressive leadership was a critical factor
• his imperialistic and nationalistic agenda in the late 1800s and early1900s fueled pre-war diplomatic tensions, while his careless advice to Austria-Hungary during the July Crisis of 1914 was a major factor in the outbreak of war
• he was stubborn, arrogant, moody and prone to frightening outbursts and tantrums
• unwilling to impose limits on his own power, his strong-willed and impatient personality was desperately unsuited to matters of diplomacy and foreign policy. Several of his outspoken comments and misjudgments fueled European tensions in the decade prior to World War I
• his remarks were full of gaffes and undisciplined rants, including bitter criticisms of the English government and other European leaders
• his aunt, Queen Victoria told one of her ministers that Wilhelm was a “hot-headed, conceited and wrong-headed young man”
• the public saw him as an out-of-control, power-drunk madman who was desperate for confrontation and war
When Wilhelm lost the support of the army he abdicated his throne and fled to the Netherlands in exile.
So now I finally understand what my history teacher was describing with so much gusto those many years ago.
Thanks, Jonathan Alter for giving me the reference I’ve been searching for all this time!
I really love this story and wanted to share it with you. Do you have comments or theories? Would love to hear what you have to say...
You can email me at elayne@QueenofRejection.com or post on the comments section of this blog.
Warmest wishes for a New Year filled with all good things . . .
Until next month,
Elayne Savage is the author of ground-breaking relationship books published in 9 languages.
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