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Author Topic: A short essay I wrote on Kaiser Wilhelm II  (Read 5443 times)
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« on: June 30, 2013, 07:41:58 pm »

For the record, I don't particularly agree with everything I had to say here, though I don't entirely disagree either. I'm more or less mixed on Wilhelm II, but my assignment was to argue that he was a "bold and effective leader" (I was paired in a debate in my college-in-the-HS class with someone whose assignment was to argue the opposite) and so I did. For the record I got a 73/75 on the paper and something like a 130/150 in the debate, which is fairly good for an assignment that's supposedly harshly graded.

     It is often said that history is written by the winners. During and after World War I, the eventual victors did a fine work in tarnishing the reputation of the last monarch of the German Reich, Wilhelm II. Though Allied propaganda was fully justified (and if anything too lenient) in the Second World War, Kaiser Wilhelm II is a far more nuanced and morally gray figure than Hitler or Mussolini. In fact, a cogent argument can be made that he was not savage, or incompetent, or insane, as he is often portrayed. In fact, Wilhelm II was a bold and visionary leader who aimed to build a more powerful Germany.

     A young Wilhelm II ascended to the throne on June 15th, 1888. Possibly because of his withered right arm, he was from the beginning brash and self-assertive in nature (Feuchtwanger 96). This youthful energy and motivation put him into immediate conflict with Germany’s iron-fisted chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. In May 1889, the two rivals clashed over a miners’ strike in the Ruhr. Young Wilhelm’s response was one of sympathy towards the miners, while Bismarck saw the strikers as political opponents to be crushed and introduced a new set of laws aimed at curbing socialists in Germany (Feuchtwanger 96).

     These laws were a gambit for increased power on Bismarck’s part; by directly provoking the workers, he would have a strong cause to reestablish the more conservative 1867 German Constitution and effectively become a dictator (“Bismarck’s Fall From Power, 1890”). This attempt to deliberately cause civil unrest in Germany, especially as opposed to Wilhelm’s strategy of providing concessions such as wage reform to placate the working classes, angered the Kaiser and led to Bismarck’s cartel’s collapse in the next year’s Reichstag elections as well as the death of the anti-socialist laws. After desperately attempting to form coalitions to hold on to power with liberal and Catholic parties, neither of which saw value anymore in allying with Bismarck (Stürmer 72) and repeated demands from Wilhelm, Bismarck finally resigned on March 18th, 1890 (Feuchtwanger 97). Though many contemporary and modern figures criticize Wilhelm for effectively ousting the politician who had essentially created modern Germany, the circumstances of Bismarck’s fall show that Wilhelm II was attempting to prevent a potential civil war and protect his own people while smashing the power of his main rival.

     Given the long fuse to and eventual clash of the great powers in 1914, it is no surprise that Wilhelm II’s pre-war foreign policy is given more attention than his aforementioned domestic policies. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pre-war foreign policy could be perhaps compared to Eisenhower’s “brinksmanship”—pushing crises to their brink for maximum reward without actually going over the edge and entering a state of war. This brinksmanship could be best observed in the Agadir Crisis of 1911.

     In an attempt to protect German economic interests in Morocco, Germany sent the gunboat Panther to the Moroccan port of Agadir, a move that, on the surface, appeared to be German warmongering against France (which Morocco was effectively a puppet state of) and Britain (which feared Germany flexing its naval muscles). But Germany had no interest in war, especially over a territorial dispute in Africa. In the eventual compromise, Germany relinquished its (non-serious) claims on Morocco and gained a swathe of territory in central Africa, which gave Germany direct access to the extraordinarily rich Belgian Congo (Feuchtwanger 157).
     Wilhelm II was bold and aggressive in his foreign policy, but despite the claim in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, he never actively pushed for a massive European conflict; instead, with tensions between the great powers having risen since 1871, all that was needed was a spark to set the world ablaze. That spark, of course, was the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip on June 28th, 1914. Austria-Hungary took the murder as an opportunity to settle tensions with Serbia, but if war did occur, needed assurance that Germany would support Austro-Hungarian plans. Wilhelm II’s official response read, “His Majesty will stand faithfully at Austria-Hungary’s side”, but more importantly added that Germany had no desire to see the situation between Vienna and Belgrade devolve into a larger conflict. However, Austria-Hungary, due to the lack of full specificity in Wilhelm’s statement, took a liberal interpretation and acted recklessly, giving Serbia a highly unreasonable ultimatum without notifying Germany. After reading Serbia’s response, Wilhelm II, assuming that the situation had been defused, exclaimed, “Now there can be no object in going to war” (Vogt 80-81).

     Even after Austria-Hungary eventually declared war on Serbia, both British and German diplomats were confident that the situation could remain a regional one. But as they often do, Russia chose to push itself into the situation and openly back Serbia. Czar Nicholas II declared general mobilization, an openly hostile act against both Austria-Hungary and Germany, followed almost immediately by French mobilization. In a last-ditch effort to prevent war, Germany demanded Russia to cancel its mobilization and France to remain neutral in any potential war, but it was no use, and Germany was at war with both France and Russia by August 3rd (Vogt 81). Contrary to the idea of German war guilt, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German people had been dragged into a war by a combination of Austrian recklessness and Russian aggression.

     Contrary to modern perception, Wilhelm II, though certainly a flawed leader, cannot be considered a poor leader. The most common criticisms of his rule, that he was wrong in firing Bismarck and that he can be held responsible for the senseless bloodbath that was World War I, are demonstrably false. At the same time, Wilhelm II’s bold foreign policy was one which led to German gains while delaying a potential war for the first 26 years of his reign, until the world was sucked into a great war by factors outside his control. With the 100th anniversary of World War I approaching, it is time to take a second look at the war, which was not a noble struggle against a voracious Germany but a tragic and morally gray conflict, and we can begin by dimming the unfair light in which Kaiser Wilhelm II has been portrayed.
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« Reply #1 on: June 30, 2013, 08:04:07 pm »

Good work. Given the quality of essays my peers submitted back when I was in APUSH, I can give you a solid 89, or almost an "A". I am, however, disappointed that you didn't include the phrase "Pan-Slavic" to describe Russia's agenda in regards to helping out Serbia.
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