The United States, with its claims of exceptionalism, is usually thought of as free of historical analogies. But comparisons with the fate of earlier empires are becoming more common.
I have recently been struck by an analogy from German history: the disaster of German leadership during the first world war, epitomised by Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1888, at just 29, Wilhelm became the leader of a country on the cusp of European mastery. Wilhelm flaunted his absolute power, believing it to be divinely ordained, was contemptuous of parliament, revelled in the trappings of power, and delighted in uniforms. He was given to bombastic speeches, detested liberal critics, and spoke disparagingly of foreign nations.
Worse, he supported ministers and military personnel who called for an ever-greater German army, including a navy strong enough to challenge Britain’s, and shunned the details of government, for they interfered with his diversions. From the beginning, members of his entourage worried about his volatility and mental balance.
German foreign policy from 1890 to 1914, for which the kaiser bore formal and intermittently actual responsibility, comprised a series of failures and setbacks. But Wilhelm did not in fact rule, as Germany’s conduct during the second world war made clear. In early July 1914, after the murder of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Wilhelm egged on the Austrians, but by the end of the month he couldn’t restrain his own subordinates from starting a war, following the dictates of military strategy – the famed Schlieffen plan.
After the battle of the Marne (in September 1914) and the failure of the Schlieffen plan, some of Wilhelm’s advisers realised that the chances for a military victory were slim, hence the need for a negotiated peace. But by that time, even the civilian chancellor had resolved on extravagant war aims that made hopes for a negotiated peace illusory.
From then on, the kaiser’s mental state became a dominant issue in the war’s conduct. Yet the most portentous decisions had to be taken: changes in the military and civilian leadership, and, in 1917, whether to declare unrestricted submarine warfare and thus ensure the US entry into the war.
The fate of his country (and of Europe) depended on how Wilhelm decided. But the kaiser was systematically shielded from bad news, and, after three years of unimaginable carnage, had been reduced to an instrument of a military dictatorship run by Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff. They enjoyed the confidence of Germany’s ruling classes, were determined to reject all compromise, and believed that “one more push” would deliver “total victory”.
For a moment in the spring of 1918 – after the Bolsheviks signed a German-dictated Carthaginian peace – a German victory seemed possible. But by August, allied forces broke through German lines, and a stunned Ludendorff, fearing a sudden collapse of his army, demanded that the newly constituted civilian government send an immediate request for an armistice. But the allies wouldn’t negotiate with the kaiser. Warweary Germans began to demand the kaiser’s abdication.
The army forced Wilhelm into exile in the Netherlands, where, until his death in 1941, he spread venomous poison where he could: the Jews and socialists were to blame; he alone was right. Once more reflecting and encouraging a large segment of what had been his people, he saw in Hitler the new man chosen by providence, the saviour of a Germany defeated by treachery.
Wilhelm had his terrifying flaws, and he operated at the head of a deeply flawed political system. But, ultimately, his chief failure had been to hand power to military and civilian hawks – wrongly called conservatives, for their vision was a radical reordering of Europe.
Of course, America is not like imperial Germany. But there may be a lesson from a country whose wartime rulers, quarrelling among themselves, inflicted unimaginable harm on their people and to the world with their mendacious, secretive and paranoid style. The consequences of their leadership became manifest only later, as an aggrieved nation’s people turned against each other in their deep political and moral divisions and hatreds.
It took a worse catastrophe, a world-historical scourge, to teach these people a lesson. Let us hope that Americans learn their lesson about the dangers and follies of imperial hubris sooner.
In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2008.
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