The bad feeling1 between England and Germany is indeed a great distress and anguish to me—as to you and to many,” the queen wrote to Vicky in the summer of 1897. It never occurred to her that the situation wasn’t fixable if Wilhelm would just keep quiet. “I trust this will pass away gradually if William will not keep it up by speeches and colonial follies. The peace is again rendered difficult by him which is incredible. These railings you have so often spoken of have something to do with it doubtless.” Within the British government too, most people assumed the situation with Germany was reversible. Sir Thomas Sanderson,2 Salisbury’s senior civil servant at the Foreign Office, for example, thought that while German brusqueness and hostility might be irritating, Britain should make a few allowances for the adolescent state’s understandable if clumsily asserted desire for world recognition, and things would return to normal.
But they were wrong. There had been a tangible shift towards hostility to Britain in the highest quarters of the German government—a hostility once discernible only in certain parts of Germany—and it was to some extent, but by no means entirely, due to Wilhelm. The architects of this new position were two men whom Wilhelm appointed in the summer of 1897, having purged the latest band of ministers to have displeased him: his new favourite, Bernhard von Bülow, the new secretary of state for foreign affairs, whom Wilhelm planned eventually to make chancellor, and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the new head of the Naval Ministry.
Bülow was a pure and fascinating manifestation of how Wilhelm’s whims and near-pathological reluctance to hear criticism had affected government. A former diplomat, he was a clever opportunist and a great conversationalist (his not altogether reliable four-volume memoirs are slyly amusing), with an astonishingly obvious but successful line in extravagant ingratiation. Among those he had cultivated on the way up was Fritz Holstein, who—years later when everyone had comprehensively stabbed everyone else in the back—said that Bülow had “read more Machiavelli3than he could digest,” and Eulenburg, whom he had assiduously flattered since the 1880s. But most of all he flattered Wilhelm. “He is so4 impressive!” he told Eulenburg. “He is, along with the Great King and the Great Elector, the most impressive Hohenzollern who has ever lived. In a manner which I have never seen before, he combines genius—the most genuine and original genius—with the clearest good sense. He possesses the kind of fantasy that lifts me on eagles’ pinions above all triviality … And with it, what energy! What swiftness and sureness of conception.” He persuaded Eulenburg that he was the man to turn the kaiser’s ideas and intentions—thus far so imperfectly interpreted—into reality, and reveal the kaiser as the great monarch he promised to be. With him as chancellor, he told Eulenburg, “personal rule—in the good sense” would begin. It was nonsense, but Eulenburg and Wilhelm wanted to hear it. Bülow’s big idea was “Weltpolitik”—a clever piece of naming to bring to mind Bismarck’s “Realpolitik”—the aggressive pursuit of what Bülow described as Germany’s “place in the sun”—in other words, the colonial empire it so obviously deserved. This would be done by operating a ruthless opportunist policy of exploiting other countries’ weaknesses while remaining untied by any more formal alliances, so that Germany would be the country which held the balance in Europe. It was actually a rather vague idea, and not that different from what the German Foreign Office had been doing for some years, but it sounded marvellous and the German public loved it.
Bülow’s fellow appointee, Alfred Tirpitz (he was given a “von” in 1900), was a naval officer with a plan to turn the German navy into the second largest in the world. Building a real navy was a dream Wilhelm had nursed for years, since his mother had regaled him with the wonders of the Royal Navy when he was a child. It had been confirmed by his reading of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, by the American naval historian Alfred Mahan, a book which claimed that naval power was the key to national prestige, power and wealth—and the colonies which were now regarded as the index of status in the world. Wilhelm had signally failed to persuade the Reichstag of this—it couldn’t see the point of a big navy when Germany had the most powerful land army in Europe and only a tiny coastline. Tirpitz, however, promised to deliver a navy, and he did, launching a successful propaganda crusade to persuade the country that it was absolutely necessary if Germany was to get its colonial empire. He was extraordinarily successful at extracting money from the Reichstag, and he managed and manipulated Wilhelm, whom he realized at his very first meeting did “not live5 in the real world,” more successfully than almost anyone else. Tirpitz was utterly single-minded and determined, and this fascinated Wilhelm. More dangerously, he was imbued with the German military worldview which saw military strategy as almost an end in itself, and was unable, or unwilling, to take as consequential other policy considerations, such as the need to make compromises with one’s near neighbours in the interests of peace.
The appointment of the two men marked a shift: Wilhelm and Bülow liked to call it the start of Wilhelm’s “personal rule.” It was a move to the Right, and with it came a lurch towards institutionalized hostility to Britain. Paradoxically, both men, like their emperor, were fascinated by Britain. Tirpitz ordered his suits from Savile Row, spoke English at home, and sent his daughter to Cheltenham Ladies’ College; Bülow adored the British upper classes and modelled his style in the Reichstag on the aristocratic insouciance of the Tory politician and parliamentary star Arthur Balfour—practising Balfour’s mannerism6 of holding his coat lapels and looking personable, in front of the bathroom mirror. England, Bülow liked to say half-ironically, was “the most wisely7 and successfully governed country” in the world.
They also, however, both regarded Britain as the chief obstacle to Germany’s imperial destiny. At the end of 1897 Bülow told the kaiser it was no longer possible to consider a “really honest,8 trustworthy Anglo-German alliance.” He had the Prussian aristocrat’s traditional suspicion of Britain combined with a new sense of direct rivalry. He claimed that the British looked down on Germany “with indifference9 or even now and again with contempt and sometimes intolerable arrogance,” and were jealous of its economic success. Instinctively he leaned towards Russia; counting himself a Bismarckian, he felt it had all gone wrong with the lapse of the Russian Reinsurance Treaty in 1890. It wasn’t sensible, besides, to be on bad terms with a next-door neighbour with a million-man army. He believed that if Germany pulled too close to Britain, “we would definitely10 lose Russia’s friendship and Russia is worth more to us than England.” Hostility to England and imperial rhetoric, moreover, won him cheers from the right-wing parties he needed to cultivate in the Reichstag in order to get legislation through. As for Tirpitz, in his first memo to Wilhelm in June 1897, he told him, “For Germany,11 the most dangerous enemy at the present time is England. It is also the enemy against which we most urgently require a certain measure of naval force as a political power factor.”
The notion that countries must inevitably clash and fight for dominance had become a truism of the 1890s, given a spurious pseudo-scientific credibility by theories of Social Darwinism which interpreted Darwin’s phrase “the survival of the fittest” as the survival of the most aggressive, rather than the most well-adapted. By extension it had become an established cliché that an empire that didn’t expand would find itself being torn apart by other circling imperial predators. As Germany began to catch up in industrial output and trade with England, the idea was gaining ground in Germany that the latter had reached its peak and that, as the German nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke put it, the sceptre was inevitably falling from British hands into German ones. Tirpitz believed that the German navy was the vehicle which would replace Pax Britannica with Pax Germanica. If Germany could build the second largest navy in the world, so powerful that in a conflict its ships could inflict enough damage to threaten the Royal Navy’s dominance, Britain would choose to back down in order to keep its naval superiority, and allow Germany to become the world power it ought to be.
The new line was not made explicit, however. The reason for the navy’s expansion was kept deliberately vague so as not to alert the British or to attract opposition within Germany. Abroad, Bülow’s justification was that it was to protect Germany’s growing merchant marine and colonies; playing to his audience in the Reichstag, he presented it as anti-British. Even the government’s own senior officials, such as Holstein, were not clear as to precisely what Germany’s position was. And then there was Wilhelm, charging in and changing his mind all the time. The kaiser might have appointed Bülow and Tirpitz, and he certainly had moments when he was furious with England and fantasized about punishing it, or suddenly convinced himself that Britain was planning to attack Germany. But there were other moments when he loved and longed for England; or saw his navy as something to impress Britain with; or as an engine of tough love, the thing that would force it to take him seriously and join with him.
Indeed, his tendency to succumb to moments of fondness for Britain led other anti-British members of his retinue to extreme measures to keep him hostile. In February 1898 the chief of his naval cabinet, Admiral Senden-Bibran, an Anglophobe and hawk, returned from London claiming that Edward had deliberately cut him when he visited Marlborough House. The complaint brought Wilhelm storming to the British embassy, declaring that Edward’s behaviour would have serious international consequences.12 Edward denied the charge: “Nobody is more anxious for friendly relations with the Emperor than I am—though on more than one occasion I have been ‘highly tried’ … I think I have the character of being civil to everybody.” He pointed out that he had personally arranged for Senden-Bibran to join the Royal Yacht Squadron. When the British ambassador read the letter out to Wilhelm, he muttered that Edward had always regarded him as a “silly boy.”13 British diplomats were convinced that Senden-Bibran had cooked the whole thing up to drive a wedge between Wilhelm and the English family.
It was perhaps, then, a slightly inopportune moment for Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary—taking advantage of Salisbury succumbing to a bout of flu—to arrange a private meeting with the German ambassador at the end of March 1898, Hatzfeldt, in which, without consulting the prime minister, he seems to have proposed a fully fledged defensive alliance between the two countries. The German response was somewhat confused.
Chamberlain was a unique and unignorable figure in British politics. A self-made Birmingham industrialist from a lower-middle-class home—which in itself made him different—he had spent the first half of his political career as a popular hero in the Liberal Party, championing a revolution in workers’ conditions. After leaving the Liberals over Irish Home Rule, he had joined the Conservative Party, and now occupied himself with imperialism, British greatness, and ways to unify and extend the empire. He was the most popular politician in the country, someone the Conservatives needed in the new democratic age, though Salisbury and the other Tory grandees did not rejoice to admit it. (When Chamberlain was invited to stay with the then Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth for the weekend, she claimed to be anxious that “he would eat14 peas with his knife.”) While Salisbury looked increasingly tired and distant, Chamberlain was charismatic, dynamic and indisputably modern. He tapped into a new strain in British politics with which Salisbury had no connection—populist and demotic, but also jingoistic, aggressive, touchy and anxious. He had been furious about Russia’s grabbing of Port Arthur and had been all for declaring war—a move Salisbury had wearily dissuaded him from. He worried about Britain’s isolation, and had impressed on Arthur Balfour, Salisbury’s nephew and deputy, along with other ministers, his view that Britain should befriend Germany, using fashionable phrases about race and destiny—he talked about the natural links between the British Anglo-Saxons and the German Teutons. But his buccaneering passion, his quickness to antagonism and his unsure grasp of foreign affairs (not helped by Salisbury’s habit of keeping secret so much of what the Foreign Office did) made him a loose cannon in international relations. Salisbury complained Chamberlain wanted “to go to war15 with any Power in the world and has no thought but Imperialism.”
Once Salisbury returned to office, Chamberlain became rather sheepish about his overtures and claimed they had all come from the German side—though he supported them. The confusion didn’t help the negotiations, which Salisbury and Bülow, for different reasons, worked to close down. Bülow—publicly stating how extremely anxious he was for an understanding with Britain—seems to have encouraged the German Foreign Ministry to make excessive demands that he knew the British would reject. Under the impression that the British were desperate for German friendship, it presented a bullish list of colonial demands as a prerequisite for negotiations, which Salisbury refused. He saw no reason to hand over colonies for no obvious advantage and had no desire for an alliance with Germany. Talks limped along into May. Neither side wanted to be seen as the supplicant. As Salisbury’s clever nephew Balfour observed, both countries wanted to be “the one that16 leant the cheek, not that imprinted the kiss.”
In the meantime a mangled version of Chamberlain’s original proposal and Salisbury’s subsequent negotiations found their way to the British royal family. At the end of May, Vicky—recently diagnosed with cancer and convinced it was her last chance to bring about the alliance she had so long dreamed of—wrote an emotional letter to Wilhelm, urging him to grab this “world-saving idea.”17 Germany, she added, “need never fear the Russians and French again … It seems to me that you can have this ripe fruit of inestimable value in the hollow of your hand if you will and can but seize it!” Unfortunately, with her characteristic tactlessness, Vicky also let slip that Salisbury himself was probably the greatest stumbling block to an alliance. The news confirmed Wilhelm’s suspicions that Salisbury had taken against him. He sent his mother a long complaint against the prime minister and Britain. “I for the last three18 years have been abused, ill-treated and a butt to any bad joke any musikhall [sic] singer or fishmonger or pressman thought to let fly at me!” Now the British dangled the possibility of an alliance, but expected him to come in by the back door, “like a thief in the night whom one does not like to own before one’s richer friends.” The tsar, by contrast, had happily given him a coaling station in China. (In fact, he and Nicholas were still barely on speaking terms.)
Nevertheless Vicky’s letter convinced Wilhelm that, apart from Salisbury, the rest of the British government wanted an alliance. Though Bülow tried to remind him that “We must hold19 our selves independent between the two [Russia and Britain] and be the tongue on the balance, not the pendulum oscillating to and fro,” he and the German Foreign Office drew up another, even longer, list of colonies they wanted from Britain. Once again Salisbury refused. At the end of July the prime minister told Hatzfeldt there could be no agreement because Germany asked for too much. “Shameless scoundrel!”20 Wilhelm scribbled on the report of Salisbury’s words. “Positively jesuitical, monstrous and insolent!” Bülow, meanwhile, worked Wilhelm up with stories that “Princess Beatrice,”21 his least favourite aunt, along with “the entire English-Battenbergian-Hessian-Danish etc cousinage is quietly plotting against His Majesty.” Furious, Wilhelm fired off a telegram to his mother, who was now staying at Windsor with the queen, complaining that his offers of alliance had been received with “something between a22 joke and a snub.” As he hoped she would, Vicky passed on his complaints. The queen asked her prime minister for an explanation. Salisbury swore he had no idea what “snub” Wilhelm was talking about. He told the queen23 the disagreement was purely over colonies which public opinion made it impossible to hand over to Germany.
In hopes of resuscitating the idea of an alliance, Vicky asked the kaiser to meet the British ambassador, Sir Frank Lascelles, at her home, Schloss Friedrichshof, near Frankfurt, in mid-August. Lascelles was, in many respects, Wilhelm’s perfect ambassador. An old-school diplomat who had previously served in St. Petersburg, he was scrupulously polite and congenial, and regarded his prime function as to establish the best relations he could with the kaiser. He noted that24 the kaiser really took notice of only four ambassadors: the Italian, the Austrian, the Russian and himself. He had also come to believe that beneath all the sound and fury, Wilhelm sincerely loved England, and as a result the ambassador made himself an ever-available ear and tactful filter between the kaiser and the British government. Years later, he told Philipp zu Eulenburg25 that if he’d reported everything Wilhelm had said to him in the twelve years he spent in Berlin, England and Germany would have been at war twenty times over. The kaiser regularly subjected Lascelles to earfuls of enthusiasm, or fury, at all times of the day or night. Other embassy staff were less enthused. Shortly after the Kruger telegram in early 1896, Wilhelm turned up at 10 p.m. and stayed until 1:30, helping himself to whisky and cigars and talking for hours “about Grand Mamma and26 Cowes and Lord Dunraven and his journey in Cumberland,” while the embassy staff stood and listened and longed for him to leave.
Though Bülow had tried to remind him to be calm and collected, within minutes Wilhelm launched into a tirade about Britain’s “scant consideration,” and the “curt refusal which His demands usually met with.” Lascelles tried to explain that the British had found the German demands for African territory “exorbitant.” But he added cautiously that there might be those in England who would support a strictly defensive alliance which would come into force only if one side were attacked by two other powers simultaneously. The problem with saying things like this to Wilhelm was that he heard what he wanted to hear. The next day he sent Lascelles a telegram thanking him for his “energetic intercession” and looking forward to a “favourable conclusion.” The day after, there was another enthusiastic telegram telling a bemused Lascelles that he’d given “instructions”27 to London and Berlin. With that, Wilhelm set off on a tour of the Holy Land, which climaxed in his grand entry into Jerusalem.
He returned to Europe in autumn to find Britain on the point of war with France over a solitary little fort in the middle of nowhere in southern Sudan called Fashoda. Fashoda was the point where French plans to dominate Africa east to west, from Dakar to Djibouti, intersected with British plans to connect South Africa to Cairo. A French troop occupied the fort; a British one sat outside it—very politely.* Back in Europe, however, French and British public opinion was hysterical about the threat from the other—demonstrating the pitch to which imperial competition had come. Then, in early November, the French government became engulfed in the latest fall-out from the Dreyfus case and reluctantly withdrew. Though the crisis had passed, Wilhelm wrote to his mother—expecting her to send the letter on to the queen, as she did—encouraging the British to go to war with France. “The moment28—militarily spoken—is well chosen as nobody will dream of helping France … I of course in private as Grandmama’s grandson will pray for the success of her arms with all my heart … Officially as the head of the German Empire I would uphold a strict and benevolent neutrality. Should a second Power think fit to attack England from the rear, whilst it is fighting, I would act according to our arrangements made with Sir Frank Lascelles.”
Poor Sir Frank. What “arrangements,” the queen and Salisbury wanted to know? Lascelles tried to resolve the misunderstanding, not entirely successfully. At dinner in mid-December, Wilhelm firstly told him that Britain was about to go to war with France, a pronouncement “I attempted, though I am afraid in vain, to combat.” Then, when Lascelles suggested that perhaps Wilhelm might have “attributed too great importance to what I then said” at their August meeting, the kaiser explained that the agreement was that “if either of our two countries were to be attacked by two powers at the same time the other would come to its assistance, and that he would be prepared to act accordingly.” Trying not to look completely dazed, Lascelles said carefully that while this might be a possible starting point for negotiation, he of course had no authority to make such an agreement. Wilhelm said he understood, but naturally if England was ever in danger, he “would certainly come to her assistance.” Lascelles reminded Wilhelm that the German ambassador had recently said that the Germans believed that “no formal agreement was necessary between England and Germany” because if it came to a war, such arrangements could be made “in 24 hours.” “Half an hour,”29 Wilhelm said. A few days later he wrote to his mother that as a result of his “understanding” with Lascelles, he had been able to inform the Russian ambassador that England was about to attack France but that Germany and Russia could remain uninvolved because it would take place on water.
Lascelles wasn’t the only one who found the kaiser exhausting to deal with. Bülow found managing him far more difficult and time-consuming than he had expected—especially over Britain. “You cannot have the faintest idea what I have prevented,” he grumbled to Eulenburg, “and how much of my time I must devote to restoring order where our All Highest master has created chaos.” At the same time, the endemic intrigue in the German court meant Bülow felt obliged to devote a great deal of time to staying in his master’s favour. “No one,” one member of Wilhelm’s entourage observed, “could fail to admire—though it shook one’s confidence—the inconceivable skill with which he would almost imperceptibly shift his ground whenever he had inadvertently expressed an opinion which did not quite find favour with the Emperor, and veer to his side.”30 He would even change his trousers if Wilhelm happened to express a dislike for their particular shade of grey. It was by no means always clear who was the manipulator and who the manipulated.
Months after the war with France failed to materialize, Wilhelm was still telling anyone who would listen that Britain had missed a perfect opportunity to annihilate France. The reason, he claimed, was that Grandmama refused to31 forgo her annual holiday in the South of France.
At the end of August 1898 Nicholas astonished the world by proposing an international conference to discuss disarmament and “universal peace.” His open letter described nations “building terrible engines of destruction,” which were “transforming the armed peace into a crushing burden that weighs on all nations and if prolonged will lead inevitably to the very catastrophe which it is desired to avert.”32 To publicize his initiative, Nicholas took the unprecedented step of giving no fewer than three audiences to the most famous journalist in the English-speaking world, W. T. Stead, the man who had campaigned against slavery in the Congo, exposed child prostitution in London, and turned Gordon of Khartoum into a saint. The excitable Stead was completely starstruck. He gushed about Nicholas’s perceptiveness, his modesty, his disarmament ideas, his desire to be on good terms with England, his conviction that Queen Victoria was “the greatest living33 statesman,” and pronounced himself “grateful to God that such a man sits upon the Russian throne.”
Nicholas had been inspired by the writings of a Polish banker and railway entrepreneur called Ivan Bloch, whose six-volume tome La Guerre future—published in English as Is War Now Impossible?—painted a grim picture of the consequences of a full-scale European conflict, pointed out how crushing the costs of defence spending were becoming to all European states, and argued that war must become impossible. Bloch managed to get an audience with the tsar—despite being Jewish—and Nicholas had been horrified, not so much by the projected casualties, as by Bloch’s all-too-convincing predictions of social collapse and revolution. The Russian government knew only too well how defence spending could impact on an economy. Its vast expenditure on its western frontier with Germany, for example, was directly reducing the money available for internal development.
Across Europe there was an enormously positive response from the public and press. What Bloch and Nicholas described seemed frighteningly true: nations were at each other’s throats; the largest, richest manufacturers in Europe were now armaments companies: German Krupp, British Vickers Maxim and French Schneider-Creusot. It was no accident that 1898 was the year H. G. Wells published the mother of all invasion-scare novels, The War of the Worlds, with its devastating death rays and mass destruction. In certain lights the future looked pretty scary. The political elite, however, was more cynical and resistant. Vicky, who saw some merit in the idea, pointed out to her mother, “Nicky is quite34 against constitutions and liberty for Russia … peace seems hardly in accordance with the oppression and suffering of a race still governed by despotism.” Edward was convinced it was a “dodge” cooked up by the unscrupulous foreign minister, Muraviev: “It is the greatest rubbish and nonsense I ever heard of … the thing is simply impossible … France could never consent to it—nor we.”35 When Nicholas met George at their Danish grandmother Amama’s funeral in September, and tried to persuade him to head the British campaign (somewhat paradoxically, since what Nicholas had always liked about George was that he made no political demands upon him), Edward flatly refused. As for Wilhelm, he was disgusted. “Imagine!”36 he scolded Nicholas. “A monarch dissolving his regiments sacred with a hundred years of history and handing them over to Anarchists and Democracy!”
Cynicism was not entirely misplaced. The Russian government’s chief reason for taking up the idea was its discovery that the Austrian army was about to adopt a new generation of rapid-fire field guns, which Russia, currently rearming its infantry, simply couldn’t afford. And when, a couple of months before the Hague peace conference took place in May 1899, the British ambassador in St. Petersburg raised the issue of the four new battleships Russia had commissioned, Nicholas replied that it wasn’t the right moment for “exchanging views37 about a mutual curtailment of naval programmes.” By then, the tsar’s enthusiasm had waned when, according to the British Russia expert Donald Mackenzie Wallace, it had been pointed out to him that the proposed alternative to war—an arbitration court—would undermine38 the intrinsic superiority of the Great Powers, since small countries would have just as much muscle as big ones; and that there were thirty outstanding small disputes with other Asian powers which Russia would almost certainly lose in arbitration. Nor did he like being hailed as a hero by European socialists.
All the major European nations and America felt obliged to send delegations to the Hague conference, but most of the government delegates were pro-war and the proposals were endlessly watered down. Disarmament disappeared from the agenda, and the modest suggestion to freeze arms levels was almost universally opposed. The German delegation was particularly obstructive, utterly opposed even to the idea of arbitration, which Wilhelm claimed was an infringement of his divine right.* Within six months of the conference, Russia would be sending large numbers of troops into Manchuria, and Britain would be at war in Southern Africa—both would prove horribly expensive mistakes in all senses. Despite the grim credibility of Bloch’s arguments, no European government would accept the idea of arms reduction. Writing in the Contemporary Review in 1901, he put his failure down to the fact that his ideas ran too much counter to “the vested interests of the most powerful class of the community,” and “the steadfastness with which the military caste clings to the memory of a state of things which has already passed away.”
The truth was there were highly influential voices within the international political elite proclaiming the inevitability and even the morality of war. It wasn’t just the chauvinistic German historian Treitschke—required reading for all German army officers and government officials—who insisted that states existed in a constant state of Hobbesian conflict and that war purified and united, ennobled and invigorated, and that too much peace led to decadence. In all the colonial and would-be colonial states, war had become legitimized as a test of national racial fitness, and pronounced inevitable as a vital mode of natural selection by the idea of Social Darwinism—which also, by no coincidence, legitimized the domination of “backward” and “inferior” races by “advanced,” “superior” ones. Theodore Roosevelt had told the American Naval War College in 1897, “No triumph39 of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war … the minute that a race loses the hard fighting virtues, then … it has lost its proud right to stand as the equal of the best,” and the rest of the country had applauded. And in an article implicitly critical of the peace conference, the admired naval historian Alfred Mahan, whose single vote at the Hague conference was said to have prevented the banning of “asphyxiating gas,” described war as an “honest collision”40 between nations, a “heroic idea” and a “law of progress.”
That’s not to say that everyone who believed in the inevitability of war wanted it right now. It was dawning on Queen Victoria, for example, that her German grandson showed a worrying propensity to create conflict where it wasn’t wanted. In March 1899 she wrote to Nicholas warning him that Wilhelm took
every opportunity41 of impressing upon Sir F. Lascelles that Russia is doing all in her power to work against us; that she offers alliances to other Powers and has made one with the Ameer of Afghanistan against us. I need not say that I do not believe a word of this, neither do Lord Salisbury nor Sir F. Lascelles. But I am afraid William may go and tell things against us to you, just as he does about you to us. If so, pray tell me openly and confidentially. It is so important that we should understand each other, and that such mischievousness and unstraightforward proceedings should be put a stop to. You are so true yourself, that I am sure you will be shocked at this.
It was an extraordinary thing to do in view of the queen’s lifelong antipathy to Russia and her sense of kinship with Germany. But Wilhelm had worn her down. He had recently been sending her messages that Russia was about to attack Northern India. Neither Salisbury nor she believed him, it was just, she wrote, another attempt “to set [Russia]42 against us.”
Nicholas’s reply confirmed the queen’s suspicions:
I am so happy43 you told me in that open way about Wilhelm. Now I fully understand what he is up to—it is a dangerous double game he is playing at. I heard very much the same from Count Osten-Sacken from Berlin about the English policy, as what you and Lord Salisbury must have learnt from Sir F Lascelles about us. I am very glad you did not believe the story of the alleged alliance between us and the Amire [sic] of Afghanistan, for there is not a syllable of truth in it. As you know, dearest Grandmama, all I am striving at now is for the longest possible prolongation of peace in this world.
Anglo-Russian relations had not themselves been in an especially happy place. The British Foreign Office knew the Russians had offered to help44 the French military during Fashoda, and the two sides were still locked in furious rivalry over China, but they had agreed to try to negotiate a settlement, to split China into a Russian sphere of influence north of the Great Wall and a British one south of it. The British hadn’t really wanted it, but at least it promised to put a curb on Russian expansion. “All that Russia45 wants,” Nicholas told the queen, “is to be left quiet and to develop her position in the sphere of interest which concerns her being so close to Siberia.” The negotiations had been tortuous. “Mouravieff [sic] is a terrible46 trickster, and always contrives on some plea or other to put off the final meeting,” one British minister commented. At least part of the delay was due to an internal power struggle between Muraviev, who believed Russia needed a hiatus to establish itself in Manchuria without constant international hostility, and Witte, who was utterly against limiting Russia’s railway and financial expansion in China. The agreement, a historic one between England and Russia, was signed—after the Foreign Office delivered a blunt, irritated ultimatum—in April 1899.
Wilhelm, meanwhile, remained in the queen’s bad books. It was not just the going behind her back and the lame attempts to set her against Russia. They had also argued when Affie’s only son had killed himself in the early New Year of 1899,* leaving the duchy of Coburg without a direct male heir. The queen was exasperated by Wilhelm’s lack of sympathy and they clashed over who should inherit. She wanted the duchy to go to one of her other sons, Arthur of Connaught or Leopold, or their sons. Wilhelm threatened to pass a law to make it impossible for a foreigner to inherit. The queen retaliated by not inviting him to her eightieth birthday celebrations in May. Wilhelm saw this as a personal rejection, and it set off another geyser of resentment, antipathy and suspicion. He summoned the British military attaché, Colonel Sir James Grierson, and calmly told him that it would be impossible for him to come to his grandmother’s birthday party, or to visit England at all, while Salisbury, “his consistent47 enemy,” with his “disgraceful” foreign policy, remained prime minister. He had, he continued, been England’s “one true friend” for years, but had “received nothing in return but ingratitude.” One day, he told Grierson, England would be sorry. Then he began to talk about Joseph Chamberlain and the City, saying they wanted to go to war with Germany because it had fewer ships than France. The kaiser, Grierson reported, was perfectly friendly, but “from the above, Your Excellency will not fail to see that his Majesty was talking somewhat at random.” Privately, Grierson told his friend Arthur Bigge, the queen’s deputy private secretary, that he had not reported everything that Wilhelm had said, and that he seriously wondered if the emperor might be slightly mad.48
The Queen remarked drily that if Wilhelm refused to come until Salisbury left office he’d have to wait a long time. She nevertheless wrote reminding him that she had invited him to Osborne in August. Salisbury told her, “I cannot help49 fearing that it indicates a consciousness on the part of His Majesty that he cherishes some design which is bound to make me his enemy … It is a great nuisance that one of the main factors in the European calculation should be so ultra human. He is as jealous as a woman because he does not think the Queen pays him enough attention.”
Wilhelm’s rage about Salisbury and the lost birthday could not be assuaged. Two weeks later he wrote the queen a furious nine-page letter, accusing Salisbury of deliberately stalling negotiations with Germany, most recently over disagreements over the Samoan islands.
This way of treating Germany’s feelings and interests has come upon the people like an electric shock and has evoked the impression that Lord Salisbury cares for us no more than for Portugal … if this sort of highhanded treatment of German affairs by Lord Salisbury’s Government is suffered to continue, I am afraid that there will be a permanent source of misunderstandings and recriminations between the two Nations, which may in the end lead to bad blood. I of course have been silent as to what I have personally gone through these last six months, the shame and pain I have suffered and how my heart has bled when to my despair I had to watch how the arduous work of years was destroyed—to make the two Nations understand each other and respect their aspirations and wishes … Lord Salisbury’s Government must learn to respect and treat us as equals, as long as he cannot be brought to do that, People over here will remain distrustful and a sort of coolness will be the unavoidable result … Now you will understand dear Grandmama why I so ardently hoped to be able to go over for your birthday. That visit would have been perfectly understood over here, as the duty of the grandson to his grandmother50.
He added that until now he had maintained a dignified silence hoping that Salisbury might mend his ways, “and therefore gulped everything down and held my tongue.”
It was unprecedented for a monarch to attack another monarch’s chief minister in a private letter, a contravention of what Wilhelm himself described as “the European rules of civility.”500 The queen rallied herself to administer a reproof. She was feeling her age. Almost blind, completely lame, increasingly tired, she had been gradually withdrawing from public affairs, avoiding her ministers and even her private secretaries, because she said she couldn’t bear to argue with them anymore. (She insisted, instead, that her daughter Beatrice read her official missives. This had given rise to some awkward misunderstandings when, for example, Beatrice was called upon to explain major foreign policy issues, or vaccination, to the queen.)
“I doubt,”51 she wrote, frostily, “whether any Sovereign ever wrote in such terms to another Sovereign and that Sovereign his own Grand Mother, about their Prime Minister. I never should do such a thing, and I never personally attacked or complained of Prince Bismarck, though I knew well what a bitter enemy he was to England and all the harm he did.” The truth was, however, that Salisbury was once again stalling on negotiations, this time over who should run Samoa, where Germany and Britain had taken opposite sides in a civil war. And his distant attitude during the negotiations had not just maddened the kaiser, it also had a lastingly disenchanting effect52 on one of the influential pro-British voices in the German Foreign Office, Fritz Holstein.
“Old Victoria’s53 rude letter has hurt Him unutterably deeply!” Eulenburg wrote to Bülow from Wilhelm’s annual Scandinavian yachting trip in July. He was once again worried about Wilhelm, who seemed constantly on the edge of hysteria. Eulenburg watched him bully his entourage, fly into rages and launch into flights of terrifyingly violent rhetoric, demanding the gunning down of the Socialists who had once again done well in the German elections. Wilhelm had indulged in this kind of bloody rhetoric for years; he rarely, if ever, acted on it. What upset Eulenburg was the realization that the kaiser would never grow up. “Psychologically speaking,54 there is not the slightest change,” he wrote miserably to Bülow. “He is the same explosive being, if not even more violent and unaccountable … When so markedly eccentric a nature dominates a realm there cannot but be convulsions.” Like an indulgent parent Eulenburg had tolerated the spoilt child in Wilhelm, while nursing the conviction that if all the obstacles were removed from the kaiser’s way, he would somehow become the monarch and the man Eulenburg sincerely wanted him to be. He wrote sad, disillusioned, disappointed letters to Bülow, describing Wilhelm’s erratic behaviour and his own failed attempts to modify it. No friend to Britain, nor especially to Russia, he worried particularly over Wilhelm’s anger towards the two countries. It was still, he thought, better “to run after55Russia and England than to anger them both.”
In the late summer of 1899 the British performed a remarkable volte-face which melted Wilhelm’s anger overnight. Salisbury suddenly agreed to give up British claims to Samoa in return for Germany renouncing claims to a few Pacific islands and parts of western Africa and agreeing to be neutral should anything blow up in the Transvaal. The kaiser was delighted. Having sulkily refused to come to England in August, he asked to visit Windsor in November. The likeliest reason for the British change of heart became apparent six weeks after the Samoan agreement, when the Anglo-Boer War broke out on 11 October.
The alleged British casus belli was the Boers’ refusal to grant basic rights to British immigrants who had come to the Transvaal to mine gold. The Boers had refused to do this as they would have instantly been vastly outnumbered. The real motivation for Britain’s entry into the Boer War is still disputed—to absorb the Orange Free State and Transvaal into South Africa, to get at the Boers’ gold, to teach them a lesson. Whatever the reason, it was an ugly, expensive little conflict encouraged by Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain, and one which Salisbury in earlier days might have headed off. Unlike Chamberlain, who was excited by imperialism, he’d always considered war a manifestation of failure: “I am an utter unbeliever that anything that is violent will have permanent results.” An economic imperialist, he nevertheless deplored the rising tide of jingoism and strident nationalism which Chamberlain articulated. He said it was like having “a huge lunatic asylum at one’s back.”56 But the times were increasingly against him, his age was beginning to tell, and his wife was ill—she would die six weeks after the war began. Salisbury’s zest for politics was dribbling away, and he had allowed the government to drift into a conflict which he himself called “Joe’s war.”
The campaign quickly inflicted on Britain a series of nasty, intense shocks. Firstly, there was a succession of humiliating defeats: the Boers were the first properly armed force the British had faced in decades, and their effectiveness exposed gaping weaknesses and bungling at the highest levels. Second, there was the horror at the state of the British volunteers: between 40 and 60 percent of them were too malnourished and unfit to join up, exposing levels of abject poverty and ill health in a country which considered itself the best governed and, if you subscribed to those views, the most advanced of all races. These facts had an absolutely devastating effect on Britain’s myth of its own imperial invincibility. After the first burst of enthusiasm for the war, there was the hypocrisy of the Conservative government, which championed the basic rights of British immigrants in the Transvaal, while withholding them from its own subjects in Ireland. (No one, of course, took much interest in the far more numerous and far more ill-treated—by the Boers as much as by the British—indigenous black population, who in the racial assumptions of Europe hardly counted as people.)
Abroad, the war unleashed what Edward called an “incessant storm57 of obloquy and misrepresentation … from every part of the Continent”—part resentment of Britain’s super-power status, part dislike of its bullying. The Boers were hailed as underdog heroes. In France a cartoonist from Le Rire was decorated by the Ministère des Beaux-Arts for his obscene caricatures of British leaders. In Germany, colonial groups demanded that aid and arms be sent to the Boers, and the mainstream press, which had spent the summer complaining about British behaviour in Samoa, became feverishly denunciatory. Several German officers went to fight with the Boers—a fact which Wilhelm repeatedly denied to his grandmother. In Russia senior members of the government demanded that Russia should exploit Britain’s vulnerability and cause trouble in Afghanistan and on the Indian border. Though Nicholas, like the rest of the Russian elite, thought it an “unequal and unjust58 war,” he repeatedly assured the queen that he would not allow his government to take advantage of Britain’s situation, and had no desire to involve Russia in African affairs. The assurances seemed to owe more to pragmatism and Russia’s overstretchedness in China than any family ties, for he toyed with the thought. “My dear,”59 he wrote to his sister Xenia, who was vigorously pro-Boer, “you know I am not proud, but I do like knowing that it lies solely with me in the last resort to change the course of the war in Africa. The means is very simple—telegraph an order for the whole of the Turkestan army to mobilize and march to the Indian frontier. That’s all.” At Windsor, the queen took to “declaring the60 devotion of the Czar to her and England as genuine only.”
While Salisbury seemed to fade, the war revived the queen. She summoned up for it a last burst of splendid certainty. She was in no doubt that it was just, having been assured by the Governor-General of South Africa, Viscount Milner, that the English “Uitlanders” were just like the “downtrodden serfs61 of ancient Sparta.” (This was an extraordinary analogy by Milner—one of the instigators of the war—given that he was at that moment encouraging the use of real serfs, indentured Chinese labourers, in the South African mines.) She furthermore claimed that it was good for all those “idle young men62 to miss a Season and rough it with the troops.” When, in mid-December, the British suffered three defeats in “Black week,” she told a minister who dared to offer his commiseration, “Please understand63 there is no one depressed in this house.”
In Germany, the kaiser’s first visit to Britain for five years was deeply unpopular. Dona—usually the acme of submissive obedience—was so against it she claimed she was too ill to travel and it would have to be cancelled. She told Bülow that British “mammonism” was strangling “the brave and godly Boers.” Deciding it was too late to cancel the visit, Bülow accompanied Wilhelm to keep an eye on him, and Holstein was drafted in to persuade the kaiser to keep his Anglophilic tendencies under control. He wrote a flattering memo assuring Wilhelm that he was “more gifted” than his relations, but too honest and open with them. It suggested that he play hard to get, and urged him to “avoid all political conversations,” especially with Salisbury. “The impression made on him [Salisbury] will be all the greater if Your Majesty does not express a desire to receive him … but … merely disposes of him fairly quickly and with immaculate politeness.”64 As it turned out, Salisbury’s wife died the day Wilhelm arrived in England, so he was absent, a cause of relief on both sides.
Wilhelm viewed the visit in a haze of conflicting daydreams. He fancied himself as Britain’s lone white knight in Europe. He simultaneously decided to exploit hostility to Britain in the Reichstag, ordering Tirpitz to bring forward the next stage of naval expansion by a year—though this was not to be announced until after the visit. He also insisted on bringing with him two members of his entourage whom Edward loathed: Kessel, a confirmed Anglophobe, who had persecuted Vicky after Fritz’s death, and Senden Bibran, who had the previous year accused the prince of deliberately slighting him.
He arrived in England67 on 20 November 1899, along with his reluctant wife and two of his sons. England began to work its magic at once. There were troops of strapping horse guards, cheering crowds. There was no hint of condescension. A pleasing cluster of cousins and uncles all professed their gratitude that he had come at such a time. Edward made gracious speeches. The papers, which had always been susceptible to the kaiser’s talent for public show, and were only too aware of the rest of Europe’s condemnation of the Boer War, showered him with an embarrassment of praise—the Kruger telegram seemed entirely forgotten. “His tenacity65 of will, his power of political adaptation, his genuine gift of eloquence, his extraordinary versatility, his clear insight into some of the tendencies of the time, cannot fail to impress,” gushed the Daily News. “A man whose66 remarkable personal qualities are hardly less fully appreciated in England than in Germany itself,” enthused The Times. The only shadow for Wilhelm was discovering the counsellor of the German legation, a small, short-sighted man called Count Karl Puckler, wearing blue evening dress with gold buttons, a painful faux pas for someone who, as Bülow noted, “In England … felt himself, at all events in externals, entirely an Englishman.” The kaiser winced. Bülow quietly advised Puckler to cover himself with a coat. But Puckler, who was also very nervous, had lost his overcoat on the journey, and managed to startle the kaiser twice more before he arrived at Windsor.
At a grand banquet in St. George’s Hall—to which the queen was brought on a litter carried by four bejewelled “Hindus”—they dined off gold. (Bülow beadily remarked that the queen looked like a “mushroom”—presumably pale and bulging—and that the way she prodded her potatoes to see if they were soft reminded him of “some good old soul” in Hanover.) “This is the finest reception and the most inspiring impression of my life,” Wilhelm told Bülow. “Here, where as a child I went along holding my mother’s hand and marvelling, modestly and timidly at the splendour, I am now staying as Emperor-King.” His suite felt differently. “Every morning,” Bülow wrote, “Wilhelm II annoyed the gentlemen of his military entourage by pointing to Windsor Tower and saying to them, ‘From this tower the world is ruled.’” His mood was jolted by the sight of the unfortunate Puckler, still in his blue tail coat with gold buttons, “trying to worm his way through the riders, disturbing some of the horses.” The counsellor, definitively damned in Wilhelm’s eyes, was quietly transferred to the Vienna embassy.
The war was hardly mentioned, though everyone, from the queen down, buttonholed Wilhelm and Bülow about the “spiteful utterances”68 and “shocking tone” of the German press. Wilhelm said it was all the doing of Bismarck, who in retirement still ran a series of papers. Bülow noted that the British were much less anti-German than the Germans were anti-British.
Among the retinue at Windsor was Joseph Chamberlain, who was impressed, as people often were on their first meeting, by Wilhelm’s directness and ability to range knowledgeably across a huge variety of subjects. Chamberlain had been directly attacked by the German press, but despite this he was more certain than ever that Britain needed Germany as an ally, and he had the support of most of the cabinet. With Salisbury absent, he told Wilhelm how much he wanted a “comprehensive understanding” between Germany and Britain. The kaiser had been warned by Holstein to avoid the seductions of Chamberlain, who was fantastically unpopular in Germany because of the Boer War. To Bülow’s relief, the kaiser observed that Britain didn’t traditionally conclude formal alliances, and that Germany was too close to Russia to consider such a move (which wasn’t true). But he allowed that they perhaps might agree on various outstanding matters case by case. The British, he added, must bear in mind that “the German” was touchy, must avoid “trying his patience” and must “show him goodwill even in small things.”69 The next day Chamberlain met Bülow and proposed a union of the United States, Germany and Britain against France and Russia. Bülow suggested Chamberlain might speak positively of Anglo-German relations in public to create a favourable atmosphere in which talks might begin.
The visit concluded with three days of pampering and shooting at Sandringham. It was Wilhelm’s first visit to his uncle’s home since 1880. Edward was faultlessly solicitous. For some time he had let it be known at the German embassy that he was prepared to “do everything that70 lay in his powers to remove all misunderstandings, both of a personal and political nature.” Like his mother, he very much wanted to see an improvement in Anglo-German relations. He and Bülow, however, did not take to each other. Edward called Bülow a “humbug”71—a trickster and deceiver. Bülow described watching Edward with Wilhelm as like “a fat malicious72 tom-cat playing with a shrewmouse.” George, drafted in to take Wilhelm shooting, wrote approvingly that he “shot remarkably73 well considering he has only got one arm.” The following year he and May invited Wilhelm to be godfather to their third son, Henry, and attended the coming-of-age of the kaiser’s eldest son, “Little Willy.”
On the day of Wilhelm’s departure, Joseph Chamberlain made a grand public overture to Germany in a speech at Leicester, in which he said that no “far-seeing English74 statesman could be content with England’s permanent isolation on the continent of Europe … The natural alliance is between ourselves and the great German Empire.” Barely two weeks later, introducing the new navy bill in the Reichstag, which in one go doubled the size of the German navy, Bülow described, to cheers, Britain’s arrogant jealousy and growing hatred of Germany and its shameful conduct in the Boer War. Not unsurprisingly, Chamberlain felt profoundly insulted.
But Wilhelm, who had personally arranged for the navy bill to be brought forward, was now in the grip of another Anglo-passion, informed as ever by the familiar combination of enthusiasm, tactlessness and ill will which his exasperated entourage struggled to hide. When the British defeats reached their climax in “Black week,” two weeks after his departure, he wrote cheerfully to his uncle, “Instead of the75 Angel’s song ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill amongst men,’ the new century will be greeted by the shrieks of dying men killed and maimed by sydditte [sic] shells and balls from Quickfirers!” Never mind, he concluded; at least the “British aristocracy” were showing “the world that they know how to die doing their duty.” And he enclosed a series of what he called “aphorisms,” advising Bertie on how Britain could do better. He sent another set two months later, in February 1900, and with it a letter likening the latest British humiliation to a defeat by Australia at cricket. Bertie and the queen were privately infuriated by his presumption, but Bertie took care to thank the kaiser,76 though he complained about his nephew’s inappropriate sporting metaphor. A possibly apocryphal story claims that at this time the kaiser bounced into Sir Francis Lascelles’s bedroom one morning while he was still in bed to present him with his strategy for beating the Boers. The ambassador, horribly embarrassed, tried to get up: “he pushed me77back on the pillows and advanced nearer, unfurling and placing before me a roll of documents and maps.” Lascelles struggled to recover his dignity and his dressing-gown as the kaiser demanded his plan be sent to London. In his next letter to Edward, he told him how pleased he was that Lord Roberts, the new commander in South Africa, had followed his advice: “This clearly shows78 the correctness in my calculations in my last Gedankensplitter [aphorisms].”
Meanwhile, Russia, France and Germany secretly discussed how they might intervene to impose a Great Power settlement on Britain, or even exploit its vulnerability. In the New Year of 1900 Muraviev suggested79 that, while Britain was indisposed, Russia should get a foothold in Persia with a big loan and some well-applied pressure, and start making trouble on the North-West Frontier. Nicholas approved the plan. The Russians, however, accepted they had to be careful. The costs of running Manchuria had become crippling. The new “border” between Russian-occupied China and the rest and the railway lines required lots of soldiers to patrol them, and the single track of the great Trans-Siberian railway meant that moving men and goods to China was slow and expensive. The Chinese remained deeply unimpressed by dear and poorly made Russian goods, so money wasn’t coming in. The whole colonial project was becoming horribly expensive. Angering the British too much might be an even more costly mistake in the long run. The Russians restricted themselves to a large loan to the Persian government, and moved their troops up and down the Afghan border, which always alarmed the British. Wilhelm, meanwhile, offered to guard the frontier, should the Russians wish to attack Northern India.80 The Russians greeted the offer without enthusiasm; they regarded it as a provocation. Russo-German relations had not recovered since Germany had taken Kiaochow in late 1897, and had lurched uneasily along since, punctuated by the kaiser’s clumsy demands for attention from Nicholas and suggestions that they act together either against France or Britain. Bernhard von Bülow claimed to want to improve relations with Russia, but he had not been very effective in bringing the two emperors together. In 1899 he’d allowed a visit by the tsar to Potsdam—which Bülow had pestered the Russians for for months—to be entirely upstaged by the signing of the deal with Britain over Samoa. And Dona had deliberately insulted Alix by refusing to escort her to the railway station on the imperial couple’s departure.
Then in February 1900 Muraviev suggested that Russia, Germany and France combine to impose a diplomatic solution on the Boer War. Wilhelm now81 said that he must sound out London first—which persuaded the Russians even more emphatically that he was up to something. A few days later the kaiser wrote to Edward warning that “Sundry Peoples82 are quietly preparing to take liberties and foster intrigues and surprises in other parts of the world … Be on the look out! … Humbugs! Ware wolf!! We must both keep our weather eye open!”
Two weeks later he wrote, “My warnings83 have not been too soon. Yesterday evening I received a note from St. Petersburg in which Count Mouraview [sic] formally invites me to take part in a collective action with France and Russia against England for the enforcing of peace and the help of the Boers! I have declined … Sir Frank has been informed by me of this preposterous step in a very confidential manner.” The kaiser told Lascelles that Russia had made a large loan to Persia with an eye to getting an advantage over Britain there, and that if England went to war with France, “he would keep84 his bayonets fixed on the land side.”
At the end of March Wilhelm assured his grandmother that he’d saved England “from a most dangerous85 situation.” “There lingers,”86 the prime minister told the queen, “in Lord Salisbury’s mind a doubt, whether a proposal for a combination against England was ever really made by France and Russia to Germany; but still, it is very satisfactory to receive from the German Emperor such clear expressions of good will.” When Edward was shot at in Belgium by a teenage would-be anarchist in April, Wilhelm rushed to see him—national interest might divide royal families, but everyone in the ruling class hated an anarchist. In Copenhagen, where he went afterwards, however, Edward appears to have been shown papers which87 suggested that it was Germany which had made the preliminary overtures to France and Russia to join a coalition, and that it had encouraged Russia to invade India.
Wilhelm’s account of how he saved England from a Russian plot would become more elaborate with the years. In 1908 he told a British newspaper that he’d prevented a Russian attempt to “humiliate England88 to the dust.” By the time he came to write his memoirs, he had fought off a Franco-Russian conspiracy to attack Britain by threatening to make war on them in return. When he telegraphed the queen with the news, he claimed, she had said she would never forget his help.
In the months towards the end of 1900, the eighty-two-year-old queen-empress began to fail. Almost simultaneously, just after the general election of October, which the Conservatives, with a campaign orchestrated by Chamberlain, won, Salisbury gave up the post of foreign secretary, an inescapable sign of his waning energy. The burst of righteous fervour that had got the queen through the first months of the Boer War had gradually evaporated. Then Affie died of throat cancer early in 1900, and the news came that Vicky’s cancer was also entering its final virulent phase. The queen had insisted on keeping up a positive front through the war, but as the months passed, she became, her household observed, “lachrymose about the89 senseless waste of human lives.” She started an album for the dead, but abandoned it because she found it too sad. Her ladies-in-waiting would find her crying over the casualty lists. By December, ensconced at Osborne, the mausoleum, she was almost completely blind and increasingly feeble. By the New Year of 1901 she was dying.
In Berlin, Wilhelm was in the midst of celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Prussian crown. When he heard, he dropped everything and rushed to his grandmother’s deathbed. No one wanted him to go: Bülow and Eulenburg dreaded both the effect of his departure on German public opinion—with news of British successes in South Africa, the German press had become hostile again, running cartoons of the queen decorating a British soldier for raping Boer girls, referring to Chamberlain as the devil and Kitchener, now running the war, as a butcher—and worried that Wilhelm would succumb to the temptations of England. Just the week before, Joseph Chamberlain had made another request for an Anglo-German alliance. “I think of all90 the things he will say!” Eulenburg wrote worriedly. “He will be like a child amidst all these people.” Bülow sent a diplomatic minder to keep an eye on him.
The kaiser’s imminent arrival upset everybody in the English family too. Victoria’s daughters Helena and Louise, who had been supervising her care, sent frantic telegrams trying to fend him off. Wilhelm merely laughed that “the petticoats” were “fencing off poor grandmama from the world.”91 He arrived at Victoria Station, where Edward and George met him. In his memoirs, Wilhelm wrote that as he emerged from the train an “ordinary man” said “Thank you Kaiser!” and Bertie nodded. “‘That’s what they all think, every one of them, and they will never forget this coming of yours.’ Nevertheless, they did forget it,” Wilhelm wrote bitterly years later, “and quickly.”92
They set off for Osborne the next day. To everyone’s surprise, Wilhelm played it exactly right. “He behaved in93 a most dignified and admirable manner. He said to the Princesses, ‘My first wish is not to be in the light, and I will return to London if you wish. I should like to see Grandmama before she died, but if that is impossible I shall quite understand.’” Edward wrote to Vicky, who was now too ill to come herself, “William was94 kindness itself and touching in his devotion.”
As the queen’s condition worsened, each member of the family had a few minutes with her. “She looked just the same, not a bit changed,” George wrote in his diary. “She was almost asleep and had her eyes shut … I kissed her hand, Motherdear was with me.” On the afternoon of 22 January the whole family gathered around her bed. “She was conscious up til 5.0 and called each of us by name and we took leave of her. I shall never forget that scene in her room with all of us sobbing and heartbroken round her bed. It was terribly distressing.”95 As Wilhelm very much liked to say later, the queen “softly passed away96 in my arms” (or arm). In a feat of physical stamina much remarked on by the household, he knelt by her bedside and held her for two and a half hours without moving. He had the queen laid out on the dining table and at his request the Union Jack was laid across her coffin. He would have put her in the coffin all by himself if Edward and his brother Arthur hadn’t claimed it.
Messages of condolence and grief poured in from across the globe. In St. Petersburg, Alix broke down at her grandmother’s memorial service—a rare public display of emotion that brought her no credit in Russia. She hadn’t seen the queen for four years, but her grandmother’s letters had been a solid connection to Europe and her old life. The rest of the Russian family’s reaction to the queen’s death was a paradigm of their confused attitudes to Britain. The fervently pro-Boer Xenia wrote, “The Queen was everything97 that was best about England; she was so much loved, and exuded such enormous calm!” Nicky wrote to Edward, “She was so remarkably98 kind and touching towards me since the first time I ever saw her … I shall forever cherish her memory. I am quite sure that with your help dear Bertie, the friendly relations between our two countries shall become still closer … notwithstanding the occasional slight frictions in the Far East.” In Manchuria, Russia was using its 170,000-man army to blackmail the Chinese government and gain advantage at Britain’s expense. Witte had demanded that it formally acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the province and make the Russo-Chinese bank the only foreign bank from which it would take loans. He also demanded exclusive rights to railway concessions and raw materials in neighbouring provinces such as Mongolia, and a concession to build a branch line from the north to Peking.* Naturally, when asked by the British, the Russians denied making any such demands. “The lying is unprecedented99 even in the annals of Russian diplomacy,” sniffed the British secretary of state for India.
The British papers lavished Wilhelm with praise. “We may be100 pardoned if we cannot help regarding him a half Englishman,” the Telegraph wrote. “… We have never lost our secret pride in the fact that the most striking and gifted personality born to any European throne since Frederick the Great was largely of our own blood.” Even the Daily Mail, the country’s most nationalistic paper, called him “a friend in need.” (The left-wing press was less impressed: Justice railed at the way the mainstream papers worshipped “This presumptuous101 and half-mad Emperor … because he has shown respect and handsome behaviour.”) It was very tempting to stay. Days turned into a week, one week into two. At the funeral he rode a great white horse next to Edward at the head of the funeral cortège. George, who had come down with measles, was absent. Henry James, watching the final journey of his adoptive homeland’s queen, picked out the kaiser, in his shiny Wagnerian helmet, as its most inspiring figure: “We seem to have102 suddenly acquired a sort of unsuspected cousin in the person of mustachioed William, who looked wonderful and sturdy in the cortege and who has done himself no end of good here by his long visit and visible filiality to the old Queen … May it make for peace!”
Edward indulged his nephew. He arranged for him to drive around London in an open carriage so the public could cheer him—which they obligingly did. He presented him with an Order of the Garter decoration inlaid with diamonds, he made him a field marshal in the British army. Then he introduced him to the new foreign secretary, the irreproachably aristocratic Lord Lansdowne. Wilhelm followed Bülow’s instructions and avoided the implied invitation to closer relations; instead he lectured Lansdowne: “The old English103 strategy of keeping Europe in balance, of trying to play one nation off against the other for the benefit of England, was ‘exploded.’” No one on the continent would fall for that anymore.” He himself, Wilhelm explained, was now “the balance of power in Europe.” He also, however, awarded Lord Roberts, the commander who had led the British army in the Transvaal, the Order of the Black Eagle.
In Germany, there were howls of fury—Bülow described it as “a slap in the104 face” for German public opinion. The press groused about his absence—“Oh! If only the105 Kaiser realized what a wealth of love and trust he loses with his own people by so openly manifesting his affection for a foreign people.” Several key government bills were voted down in the Reichstag as the right-wing Anglophobic agrarian vote, which the chancellor had strenuously cultivated, melted away in anger. No one quite understood the significance of the visit for Wilhelm. His grandmother had been acknowledged as the most senior monarch in Europe. The kaiser believed that just as Germany was the natural heir to Britain’s position, so he—rather than “Fat Edward”—should be his grandmother’s natural successor among the kings and emperors of Europe. He went to England not merely to say goodbye to his grandmother, but also to receive what he saw as the anointing kiss of the dying monarch.
At a special lunch at Marlborough House the day before he left, however, he couldn’t resist making an impassioned speech calling for a union between “the two Teutonic nations” (he had recently met Houston Stewart Chamberlain, English author of The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a synthesis of nineteenth-century thinking about race, which heavily advanced the primacy of the “Teuton race”). Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, they would help keep “the peace of the world. We ought to form an Anglo-Germanic alliance, you to keep the seas, while we would be responsible for the land; with such an alliance, not a mouse could stir in Europe without our permission.”106 That it had no effect, he blamed on the fact that the British failed to make it public.
Victoria’s death left Britain feeling intensely vulnerable. “Who can think of the nation and the race without her?” the Daily Mail asked. The nation, Henry James wrote, had felt “safe and mothered”107 by the “old middleclass queen who held the nation warm under the fold of her big, hideous, Scotch-plaid shawl.” “Her death in108 short, will let loose incalculable forces for possible ill. I’m very pessimistic.” In Europe there was no such sympathy; ugly and even obscene caricatures of her continued to appear. In Germany, the satirical magazine Simplicissimus published a cartoon of the dead queen109 struggling through a sea of blood to reach the shore where St. Peter and the Boer president, Kruger, stood by the gates of heaven.
* The two commanders, Marchand and Kitchener, took tea together.
* The conference did, however, against all the odds, agree to a series of rules of warfare and to set up a permanent court of arbitration.
* Prince Alfred shot himself on the day of his parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary celebrations in January 1899 and died two weeks later. Various rumours suggested that he was in the last stage of tertiary syphilis, and that he had been ordered to separate from his mistress.
* In fact, the Russian plan to annex Manchuria would simply crumble the following spring, defeated by the collective opposition of Britain, Japan, France and Germany, and—rather more pressingly—Russia’s own massive economic problems and the expense of the project.