Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile 1900–1941 by John C G Röhl (Translated by Sheila de Bellaigue and Roy Bridge) - review by Norman Stone

Norman Stone

Crimes of the Kaiser

Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile 1900–1941


Cambridge University Press 1,562pp £45 order from our bookshop

Macaulay called one of the Kaiser’s ancestors, the appalling father of Frederick the Great, ‘a cross between Moloch and Puck’. This fits Kaiser Wilhelm II, but with the addition of Peter Sellers as well. Almost every page in this vast book shows the man in a dreadful light: blundering, vainglorious, tactless, mean. Having taken Germany into the First World War, he fled at its end to Holland, where Queen Wilhelmina gallantly gave him sanctuary at a time when he might have faced extradition to a proto-Nuremberg. Other monarchs in exile had a very bad time of things – the last sultan was cheated by his landlady, the last Habsburg died in impoverished despair in Madeira – but Kaiser Wilhelm arrived in Holland with a massive train and seventy servants and had a substantial manor house at his disposal. The republican governments of Germany not only allowed him a very large income but even in 1919, a supposedly revolutionary time, sent fifty-nine railway carriages of ‘priceless treasures’ from the various schlosses to join him in Holland. His family kept Cecilienhof, where the Potsdam Conference took place in 1945, a palace on Unter den Linden, another one in the Wilhelmstrasse and a great deal more. He was not grateful for any of this. When news came that republican ministers who had helped him had been murdered, he ordered champagne and did a little dance. Having given him refuge, Queen Wilhelmina came under pressure from the Allies to extradite him. She refused, on the condition that he stay put on his Utrecht estate. The Kaiser found this ‘absolutely scandalous’ and said he would ‘never’ forgive the queen. She owed him a great deal, he thought, because, after all, in 1914 his armies could have violated Dutch neutrality quite as much as Belgian had he ordered it.

John Röhl’s book starts with the death of Queen Victoria, the Kaiser’s grandmother. As her oldest grandchild, he knelt by her deathbed, a curiously symbolic moment, given the damage that Germany would do to the British Empire. As the old queen died, her country was in trouble, fighting a difficult

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter