Trump = Hitler? Nah.
Trump = Kaiser Wilhelm II? Hmmm. . . .
From Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers:
Like Nicholas II, Wilhelm frequently—especially in the early years of his reign—bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with prevailing policy. (p. 178)
The Kaiser picked up ideas, enthused over them, grew bored or discouraged, and dropped them again. He was angry with the Russian Tsar one week, but infatuated with him the next. (p. 180)
We’ve yet to see the angry part, but it’s coming.
Wilhelm wasn’t content to fire off notes and marginalia to his ministers, he also broached his ideas directly to the representatives of foreign powers. Sometimes his interventions opposed the direction of official policy, sometimes they endorsed it; sometimes they overshot the mark to arrive at a grown overdrawn parody of the official view. …
It was precisely because of episodes like this that Wilhelm’s ministers sought to keep him at one removed from the actual decision-making process. (pp. 180-81)
Not that those ministers’ decisions were always that great, either, but let’s see how much Trump’s advisers seek to, ah, shield him from having to make certain decisions.
It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.
And Clark is rather more temperate in his assessment of the last Kaiser than either Barbara Tuchman or Margaret MacMillan. Tuchman portrays him less the ‘over-excited teenager’ than petulance personified; in The Guns of August she notes
Envy of the older nations gnawed at him. He complained to Theodore Roosevelt that the English nobility on continental tours never visited Berlin but always went to Paris. He felt unappreciated. “All the long years of my reign,” he told the King of Italy, “my colleagues, the Monarchs of Europe, have paid no attention to what I have to say. Soon, with my great Navy to endorse my words, they will be more respectful.” (p. 6)
Like Clark, Tuchman observes a preference for aggressive words over aggressive actions:
He wanted greater power, greater prestige, above all more authority in the world’s affairs for Germany but he preferred to obtain them by frightening rather than by fighting other nations. He wanted the gladiator’s rewards without the battle, and whenever the prospect of battle came too close, as at Algeciras and Agadir, he shrank. (p. 75)
The Kaiser was also unhappy when his diplomacy/bullying didn’t work, peeved at the Belgians for their unwillingness to be peacefully invaded, and outraged at the English’s willingness to take up arms against him:
The Kaiser, in one of the least profound of all comments on the war, lamented: “To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive she would never have allowed it.” (p. 130)
Trump and the Kaiser also share an overestimation of their own abilities: “I need no chief,” said the Kaiser; “I can do this for myself.” (p. 331)
MacMillan most savors her roasting of the Kaiser, titling her chapter on him in The War That Ended Peace with the quote “Woe to the Country That Has a Child for King!”, but also giving him his due as an intelligent, earnest man whose position meant that his passions were never disciplined.
Wilhelm had a tendency, largely unchecked because of who he was, to know it all. He told his uncle, Edward, how the British should conduct the Boer War and sent sketches for battleships to his Navy Office. (He also gave the British navy much unsolicited advice.) He told conductors how to conduct and painters how to paint. As Edward said unkindly, he was “the most brilliant failure in history.”
He did not like being contradicted and did his best to avoid those who disagreed with him or wanted to give him unwelcome news. As the diplomat Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter said to Holstein in 1891, “He just talks himself into an opinion. . . .Anyone in favor of it is quoted as an authority; anyone who differs from it ‘is being fooled.'” (p. 66)
To be fair, a fair number of us tend toward that last particular bias.
The Kaiser, as the Eulenburg case so clearly demonstrated, was not perceptive when it came to character. Nor was he good at understanding the point of view of others. Eulenburg himself, possibly the Kaiser’s closest friend and one who loved him for himself, wrote in 1903: “H.M. sees and judges all things and all men purely from his personal standpoint. Objectivity is lost and subjectivity rides on a biting and stamping stallion.” He was always quick to feel affronted but frequently insulted others. (p. 68)
Wilhelm was both lazy and incapable of concentrating on anything for long. Bismarck compared him to a balloon: “If you don’t keep fast hold the string, you never know where he’ll be off to.” Although he complained about how overworked he was, Wilhelm cut back significantly on the regular schedule of interviews with military chiefs, Chancellor and ministers which his grandfather had faithfully maintained. Some ministers saw him only once or twice a year. Many grumbled even so that the Kaiser was inattentive and complained if their reports were too long. He refused to read newspapers and tossed long documents aside in irritation. Although he insisted he would be responsible for the annual fleet maneuvers of his new navy, he lost his temper when he found he was expected to consult with his officers and work out the details: “To hell with it! I am the Supreme War Lord. I do not decide. I command.” (p. 76)
I do not decide. I command.
This goes on, as do all of these brief bios of the Kaiser—and I should not that I have yet not gotten hold of JCG Rohl’s highly regarded work on Wilhelm II—to offer up example after example of his self-regard, his insecurities, his bloviations, and his sincere belief in himself as a great leader and Germany as deserving of its place on the center stage of the world.
Two further things: One, it does seem that the Kaiser was sincere and not cynical, and that, perhaps, it might have been better had he been a bit more of the latter. He sought aggrandizement, yes, but as always tied to Germany. He may have been terribly wrong in his judgements, but there remained in Wilhelm II a naïveté that lends a kind of pathos to the man himself.
I see little sincerity in Trump, and if America is somehow not made great again, he will blame us for having failed him.
That said, whatever human frailties both men exhibit, they are unable to take them into account. They see themselves as masters whom others must serve, reserve the best judgements to themselves, and seem quite incapable of seeing others (whether as people or as nations) as having their own legitimate interests. They do recognize the interests of others, but solely in terms of their own interests, such that when they conflict, those others become enemies. They dismiss complexity and the views of any which do not align with their own. The world exists for them, and to the extent the world does not agree, all the worse for the world.
Two, even after laying out these similarities, it must, however, be admitted that this kind of comparison is too easy. With so much information on both men, all it takes to make a comparison is to pull out those bits which, on the surface, appear the same. Whatever qualities these two men share are likely shared by other leaders, and their dissimilarities are easily trivialized. That I can not-implausibly write Donald=Wilhelm doesn’t make it so.
Still, there is that not-implausibility. I tweeted about this originally as a lark, a way to amuse myself on a December night, but whatever the caveats, I think a line can be drawn between Queen Victoria’s grandson and Fred Trump’s Queens-born son.
Not that there’s much comfort to be drawn from this. No, Trump’s not Hitler and his regime will not be a Nazi regime, but his authoritarian impulses—which, in an impulsive man, are rather worrying—can lead to an incredible amount of damage.
As the memorials across Europe can attest.