Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Kaiser and the Führer

When the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, went into exile in the Netherlands in 1918 he was a man rejected by his country, betrayed by his army and demonized by the world. To understand why he came to take such a cool approach to the politics of Germany in the days leading up to the Second World War one must understand how close the Kaiser came to public humiliation and execution after the first. It had to make an impression on the crestfallen former monarch. After being vilified in the Allied press since 1914 as the very incarnation of evil itself there was no shortage of powerful individuals who wanted to see the last German Kaiser pay with his life for the mass atrocity that was the Great War. The British were the most adamant to see him hanged, the French, surprisingly, were not terribly moved one way or the other and the Americans opposed taking the life of the fallen monarch. Britain’s King George V opposed the idea but, given the clamor for it in his own country, would not speak on his cousin’s behalf. Belgian King Albert I, perhaps surprisingly and perhaps not, opposed executing the Kaiser and did speak up in opposition to such a thing.

Kronprinz Wilhelm, Dutch Princess Juliana & the Kaiser
The lack of Allied unity on the subject, the lack of any recognized legal precedent to do such a thing and the refusal of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands to hand her guest over (as a matter of Dutch sovereignty) meant that eventually the issue, rather than the Kaiser, died after 1920. However, for about a year Wilhelm II had to have been apprehensive as his life hung in the balance. He felt considerable bitterness at having been made the scapegoat for the murderous insanity that gripped Europe in August of 1914, and rightly so for, if he was to blame, he was certainly no more guilty than the leaders of Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Britain and France. Kaiser Wilhelm II saw himself as a man who had been wronged and so he was. He refused to recognize the Weimar Republic of Germany and vowed that he would not set foot on German soil again unless it was as King of Prussia and German Emperor. When some suggested that his son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, run for president alongside Field Marshal Hindenburg, the Kaiser was repelled by the very idea. Somewhat unjustly but also somewhat understandably, Wilhelm II always viewed Hindenburg as one of his betrayers.

The Kaiser, of course, followed German politics quite closely and hoped that an opportunity to restore the monarchy might present itself even as he gloomily admitted that such second chances seldom to never come about. His days were further darkened in 1921 when his beloved wife, Kaiserin Augusta Victoria passed away. The Kaiser accompanied the remains of his wife to the German border but could go no farther. However, some 200,000 Germans turned out to mourn her, which was noted as a hopeful sign that considerable monarchist support remained in Germany. Only the year before about 5,000 men had staged a coup in Berlin, under the nominal leadership of Wolfgang Kapp, that aimed to restore the Kaiser but it had been swiftly suppressed. In 1923 Hitler launched his “Beer Hall Putsch” in Munich which was suppressed even faster but the Kaiser certainly did not support it. He feared that behind it was an effort by the Bavarian royal House of Wittelsbach to replace the House of Hohenzollern on the German throne. In fact, however, the popular Bavarian Crown Prince had refused to have anything to do with Hitler’s wild scheme and remained staunchly opposed to the Nazis for the rest of his life.

There were various monarchist groups in Germany but the one political party most associated with a desire to restore the empire was the German National People’s Party or DNVP. However, while monarchists made up a large part of its membership, it was not a purely monarchist party by any means and as total electoral success continued to elude them, many began drifting toward an alliance with the rising power of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP); the Nazis. Eventually the DNVP would join in a coalition with the Nazis but it was only one example out of many of Hitler courting the monarchists when they could be of use to him and dropping them as soon as his goals were achieved. When Hitler began to become a major player on the German political stage he began to make some effort to court the exiled Kaiser and, having the bulk of his support in the middle to lower class, add aristocratic respectability to his movement. His choice for this campaign was his most likeable lieutenant, former First World War flying ace, Hermann Goering.

In January of 1931 Goering visited the Kaiser at his home in Doorn for the first time. It was a brief visit and somewhat stormy. Princess Hermine (the Kaiser’s second wife) stated that the conversation between the two had become quite heated, probably due to the Kaiser not being used to being challenged and disagreed with. For her part, Princess Hermine was rather hopeful about the Nazis but Wilhelm II distrusted them. For someone who had been around politics for as long as he had, there seemed to be something unsavory about them. When Goering returned in May of 1932 he stayed for a week and afterwards there were reports that the Kaiser had been completely won over. They were entirely mistaken. The Kaiser adopted a wait-and-see attitude about them but while he praised the positive changes that came with the Nazi takeover (and no one denies that these existed), he was never taken in by them and warned his family to keep their distance. When, on his second visit, Goering claimed to be in favor of restoring the imperial throne (which he certainly was not as he was set to be Hitler’s designated successor), the Kaiser stood up for his fellow German royals and insisted that such a thing would not be sufficient as the whole “princely brotherhood” had to be revived as well. The Bavarian monarchists and others of the German states should remember that in his haggling the former King of Prussia had not abandoned them.

Hermann Goering, Hitler's #2
If the Kaiser had ever read ‘Mein Kampf’ he might have known that Hitler was no friend of the old reich. He stated quite clearly that his intention was a racial state rather than a restored monarchy and that he had nothing but contempt for the Kaiser, blaming him for the mistakes of World War I (he would, of course, go on to make bigger ones). As it was, the Kaiser approved of the DNVP voting with the Nazis in the hope that they could help achieve sufficient mastery over the leftists to bring about a vote on restoring the monarchy. As for the Nazis themselves though, he could see that their claim to represent something new was simply an effort to turn both ends against the middle and had no consistency to it. He had been around long enough to know that there was no “third” direction. One could go left or right but any effort to go both was false and doomed to failure. He wrote in 1930 of National Socialism, “Social = National! - Socialism = Bolshevism = antinational and international…This socialism is therefore irreconcilable with the idea of the national.” Socialism by any other name, to the Kaiser, was still the same poison that had been preached by Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, the Paris Communards and Vladimir Lenin.

Princess Hermine, who had actually met Hitler once, remained hopeful and after the visit by Goering she asked her husband if he might have some place of honor in the restored German Empire if their hopes were realized. The Kaiser remained dubious and said, at best, he might give him command of the air force. He was more positive about the prospects of Mussolini and Italian Fascism under which the monarchy remained in place and which hearkened back to Italian tradition and history in Imperial Rome. However, when he sent one of his courtiers to Rome to convey his greetings to Mussolini, the Duce refused to even see him, so that was the end of that. When Hitler began his talks with Field Marshal Hindenburg, President of Germany, the Kaiser was disgusted by the whole scene, still regarding Hindenburg as a traitor and dismissing Hitler as “a fool”. The higher the Nazis climbed the less likely it seemed that they would do any favors for the monarchists. As far as Hitler was concerned, giving the former German monarch a pension as a former head-of-state was more than sufficient.

Wilhelm II, last legitimate German leader
When some of the Kaiser’s private sentiments were leaked to the Nazi leadership, Wilhelm II did all in his power to separate his family from them. He dismissed his openly pro-Nazi courtier, Leopold von Kleist, urged his son Prince August Wilhelm and his grandson to leave the Nazi Party as well as Princess Hermine’s son Georg (though they did not listen). When one of his former courtiers asked permission to stand for office as a Nazi the Kaiser refused on the grounds that anyone who worked for him should have nothing to do with politics (since he regarded the entire German government as illegitimate). When the man protested, defending the Nazis, the Kaiser took it as proof enough that he was not a loyal monarchist and never had been. There would be no more visits from high-ranking Nazi officials, which was as well for the Kaiser who was happier to have as his guests on his birthday the deposed kings of Saxony and Wurttemberg. When the Nazis did finally come to power, with some DNVP members in the coalition, some raised the issue of a restoration but found no support and after the Reichstag fire and Hitler’s assumption of dictatorial powers, any realistic chance of working within the system to bring the Kaiser back came to an end.

From that point on, the whole hope for the Kaiser to enjoy his own again would purely depend on the generosity of Hitler or the overthrow of his regime. An overthrow was not likely to happen as Hitler enjoyed widespread popular support and was successfully suppressing those who opposed him. An early target, of course, was the Jews. Critical historians have tried to portray the Kaiser as an anti-Semite and he certainly made some anti-Semitic statements but it would be a total deception to portray this as being anything at all like the Nazi position. When the Kaiser condemned “the Jews” he did so in the context of condemning a variety of peoples whom he believed had betrayed him. However, when the Nazis began their first organized persecution of Jews the Kaiser was disgusted, famously saying that it made him ashamed to be a German for the first time in his life. Such activities, he thought, showed the Nazi regime to be gangsters, unworthy of a position of national leadership. Still, for the time being, care had to be taken not to offend Hitler or it would have meant ruination for everyone.

Princess Hermine & Kaiser Wilhelm II
The 75th birthday of the Kaiser was a turning point. There were public celebrations in Germany which Hitler ordered broken up. He then followed this up by outlawing all monarchist organizations, something Wilhelm II considered “an act of war against the House of Hohenzollern”. Even Princess Hermine, who had been the most hopeful regarding the Nazis being the short-cut to restoration, finally lost her rose-colored glasses and dropped all sympathy for the new regime. The Kaiser was further alienated when the Nazis began to remove from public view any lingering traces of the monarchial past. The mutual loathing of Nazi government in Berlin and the exiled court in Doorn was obvious and ever deepening. In terms of policy, the Kaiser approved of Hitler ignoring the Versailles Treaty, the building back up of the military and the steps taken to redress German grievances but disapproved of the anti-Semitic program. In any dealings with the regime in Germany he was polite and correct but knew that they had only been trying to use him and so was careful to keep a space between himself and them. When war came in 1939 the Kaiser doubted that Hitler would ultimately succeed.

After the conquest of Poland, a courtier wrote to Hitler (as the Kaiser would not) pointing out that nine Prussian princes had served at the front and after the German invasion and occupation of the Netherlands an honor guard was posted at Doorn. Churchill, once his enemy, had offered to take the Kaiser away to England but Wilhelm II refused, preferring to stay where he was and, in any event, would not countenance “escaping” from German troops. When the Nazi regime expressed their displeasure that there had been no formal word from Doorn about the Nazi victory over France, the Kaiser finally sent a message of congratulations. However, while the Kaiser certainly did relish the defeat of France as revenge for 1918 his message was less than well received as the Kaiser referred to the victorious troops as ‘his’ army and expressed his hope that the monarchy would be restored. Hitler, upon reading the message, referred to the Kaiser as “an idiot”. At his home, the Kaiser would often go out to chat with the German guards and to the horror of the  strict Nazi-types these men soon began snapping to attention, saluting and treating the Kaiser as if he were still their sovereign. Hitler was less than pleased.

Seyß-Inquart, Mackensen, Canaris, Christiansen,
Haase and Densch at the Kaiser's funeral
Not long after, on June 3, 1941 Kaiser Wilhelm II passed away. Hitler was still thinking of using the former monarch for his own purposes. He envisioned an elaborate state funeral in Berlin, with Hitler playing the mourner, walking behind the coffin to give the appearance of himself as the “legitimate” successor to the past imperial leader. However, this dream fell apart when the last will of the Kaiser was produced. Wilhelm II had suspected that such ambitions were on the mind of Hitler and he forbid such a thing. If Germany would not have him back in life, they would not have him back in death. He expressed his wish to be buried on his estate at Doorn, that his funeral be simple and that no Nazi pageantry be allowed. Hitler was furious and immediately forbid any German officers to appear in uniform at the service, refused to send any high-ranking Nazi official but did send a wreath, making sure it was draped with a very large swastika in a last act of spitefulness.

However, in spite of Hitler’s order, a number of serving German officers attended the funeral in uniform (and there was a small official delegation) such as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, General Friedrich Christiansen of the German occupation forces in the Netherlands, Admiral Hermann Densch, III Corps commander General Curt Haase and others. Nazi commissioner for the Netherlands Arthur Seyss-Inquart was the highest ranking political official present but the most prominent attendee was General Field Marshal August von Mackensen who appeared in his old Life Guard Hussars uniform, clutching the marshal’s baton that the Kaiser had given to him in the First World War. The 91-year old veteran was a committed monarchist. He was also suspected of “disloyalty” to the Nazi regime and, as most know, Admiral Canaris was later executed on such a charge after it was found he was actively working to thwart the Nazi Party. Hitler himself, of course, would have a very different sort of funeral, his remains being doused with gasoline and burned in a ditch.

On the mind of the Indian judge?
The Nazi Fuhrer and the German Kaiser never met each other and remained at odds to the very end. However, Hitler did do the Kaiser one service, inadvertently, in that he gave the world a new German villain to rail against. After the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, few people could summon that much outrage against the Kaiser. Efforts to link the two proved to be intellectually weak and taken seriously by very few. Hitler was the new bogeyman and the Nazi state the new example of perfect evil on the world stage. The old Kaiser quickly faded from memory in favor of the new global antagonist. However, after World War II, the name of Kaiser Wilhelm II was invoked in a rather strange way.  In his dissenting opinion at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial Indian Justice Radhabinad Pal lumped the Kaiser together with Hitler and the Allies when he compared America’s use of the atomic bomb to “the directives of the German Emperor during the first World War and of the Nazi leaders during the second World War”. It was a bizarre comparison but probably the last time the Kaiser was linked to Hitler on the world stage.

3 comments:

  1. Well written, though I disagree with calling the Prussian Margrave the last legitimate German leader. Are you aware of Ritter Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddihn's opinion of the "Second and Third Wars of Austrian Succession," as he calls them?

    "It must be said in all candor that it is impossible to make a correct historical evaluation of World War I while disregarding the fact that Austria-Hungary began the war, that she was the real issue of the war, and that the most important result of the war is the new order in the Danubian area as established in 1919. Everybody who denies that the World War I is not "about" Austria-Hungary, understands neither history nor Europe. Neither is it possible to continue the legend of German aggression in 1914. This legend has been thoroughly destroyed.
    "It must be realized that the Habsburgs in exile meant the green light for Prussianized Germany. When William II arrived in Amerongen the way for Adolf Hitler was open, when Charles I debarked from a British cruiser on the shores of an African island to die a bitter death in exile, the war was lost for the Allies. The fact that it took them twenty years
    to become aware of this truth has no bearing on the matter."- The Menace of the Herd (a great Monarchist book)

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    Replies
    1. The King of Prussia and German Kaiser was the last legitimate ruler of Germany. He never abdicated and never recognized the republic which followed him. To deny his title and his position is to deny the authority of many Hapsburg emperors who granted and/or recognized them. It is quite understandable that Keuhnelt-Leddihn would take an Austro-centric view of the war, however, it was much larger than that. Ironically, based on the claims of the countries at the height of their success, if the Central Powers had won the First World War, the one who would have gained the most, in land and ultimate wealth, would have been one of Austria's oldest enemies: the Ottoman Empire of Turkey.

      For World War II, as mentioned in previous posts, a Hapsburg restoration had been agreed to, it was all set to happen but that it did not was due to a single issue most do not connect with it. That will be covered in a post later this month on the Hapsburgs in World War II.

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    2. Well put, and I do agree that Wilhelm II was the last legitimate King of Prussia, and after a fashion the last leader of Germany (the legitimacy of his occupation of this position is not something I would debate right now). I would, of course, had rather that the Ottomans had never been part of the Central Powers (neither for that fact, would I wish that Prussia was). I merely meant by the quote that Prussian Germany was neither the focus nor the "villain" of the war it is always made out to be.

      I look forward to your post on the Hapsburgs in the Second World War, and in the meantime I will continue to enjoy your other posts.

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