It was a horrible labour. The baby was in the breech position and no one realized until too late. The eighteen-year-old mother had been too embarrassed to allow any of the court physicians to examine or even talk to her about her pregnancy—a prudishness learned from her own mother. The experience of childbirth would cure her of it. To make matters worse, an urgent summons to Berlin’s most eminent obstetrician got lost. After ten or eleven hours of excruciating pain—the mother cried for chloroform, she was given a handkerchief to bite on (her screams, her husband later wrote, were “horrible”)—the attending doctors, one German, one English, had pretty much given up on her and the baby. (There were bad precedents for medics who carried out risky interventions on royal patients: when Princess Charlotte, the heir to the British throne, died in childbirth in 1817, the attending physician felt obliged to shoot himself.) The child survived only because the famous obstetrician eventually received the message and arrived at the last minute. With liberal doses of chloroform and some difficulty, the doctor managed to manipulate the baby out. He emerged pale, limp, one arm around his neck, badly bruised and not breathing. The attending nurse had to rub and slap him repeatedly to make him cry. The sound, when it came, the boy’s father wrote, “cut through me like an electric shock.”1 Everybody wept with relief. It was 27 January 1859.
At the moment of his birth, two, or arguably three, factors immediately had a defining effect on the life and character of Friedrich Victor Wilhelm Albert Hohenzollern—soon known as Willy to distinguish him, his father said, from the “legion of Fritzes”2 in the family. Firstly, the baby’s left arm was damaged in the delivery—a fact which, in the relief and excitement following his birth, wasn’t noticed for three days. It seems likely that in the obstetrician’s urgency to get the baby out before he suffocated, he wrenched and irretrievably crushed the network of nerves in Willy’s arm, rendering it useless and unable to grow. Secondly, and unprovably, it’s possible that those first few minutes without oxygen may have caused brain damage. Willy grew up to be hyperactive and emotionally unstable; brain damage sustained at birth was a possible cause.
Thirdly, an almost impossible burden of conflicting demands and expectations came to rest upon Willy at the moment of his birth. Through his father, Friedrich, one of the ubiquitous Fritzes, he was heir to the throne of Prussia; his mother, Vicky, was the first-born child of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and he was the British queen’s first grandchild. As heir to Prussia, the biggest and most influential power in the loose confederation of thirty-eight duchies, kingdoms and four free cities that called itself Germany, he carried his family’s and country’s dreams of the future. Those dreams saw Prussia as the dominant power in a unified Germany, taking its place as one of the Great Powers. For Queen Victoria, monarch of the richest and arguably most influential country in the world, Willy was both a doted-on grandchild—“a fine fat child3 with a beautiful soft white skin,” as she put it when she finally saw him twenty months later—and the symbol and vehicle of a new political and dynastic bond between England and Prussia, a state whose future might take it in several different directions, directions in which Britain’s monarch and her husband took an intense interest. Three days after his birth the queen wrote delightedly to her friend and fellow grandmother Augusta of Prussia, “Our mutual grandson4 binds us and our two countries even closer together!”
Queen Victoria felt a deep affinity with Germany. Her mother was German and so was her husband, Albert, the younger brother of the ruling duke of the small but influential central German duchy of Coburg. She carried on intense correspondences with several German royals, including Fritz’s mother, Augusta, and she would marry six of her nine children to Germans. Although the queen’s Germanophilia was sometimes criticized in England, the British were at least less hostile to the Germans than they were to France and Russia, and occasionally even approving. At the battle of Waterloo, Britain and Prussia had fought side by side to defeat Napoleon, and well into the 1850s as a salute to the old alliance there were still German regiments stationed on the South Coast. Thomas Hardy described the German hussars stationed in Dorset in the 1850s as being so deeply embedded in the local culture that their language had over the years woven itself into the local dialect: “Thou bist” and “Er war” becoming familiar locutions. Germany—or at least the northern part—was the other Protestant power in Europe. German culture was much admired. In turn, German liberals looked to Britain as the model for a future German constitutional monarchy, its traders admired British practice, and at the other end of the political spectrum, it was to England that some of the more reactionary members of the German ruling elite—including Willy’s German grandfather—had fled during the revolutions of 1848. There he and his wife Augusta had become friends—sort of—of the queen and her husband Albert.
Albert, the Prince Consort, an intelligent, energetic and thoughtful man denied a formal public role in England, was even more preoccupied with Germany than his wife, particularly with its future and that of its ruling class. He had seen the German royals rocked by the revolutions of 1848, their very existence called into question by the rise of republicanism and democratic movements. He’d come to believe that Germany’s future lay in unification under a modern liberal constitutional monarchy, like that of England. Prussia, as the largest, strongest state in Germany, was the obvious candidate.
Though it was not necessarily the perfect one. Prussia was a peculiar hybrid, rather like Germany itself: it was half dynamic and forward-looking, half autocratic backwater. On the one hand, it was a rich state with an impressive civil service, a fine education system, and a fast-growing industrial heartland in the Western Rhineland. It had been one of the first states in Europe to emancipate Jews, and had a tradition of active citizenship, demonstrated most visibly in 1813, when it had not been the pusillanimous king but a determined citizenry who had pulled together an army to fight Napoleon. After 1848 a representative assembly, the Landtag, had been forced on the king, and liberal politicians and thinkers seemed to be in the ascendant. On the other hand, however, Prussia was stuck in the dark ages: it was a semi-autocracy whose ruling institutions were dominated by a deeply conservative small landowning class from its traditional heartland on the East Elbian plain, the Junkers. They had a reputation for being tough, austere, incorruptible, fearsomely reactionary, piously Protestant, anti-Semitic, feudal in their attitudes to their workers, their land and their women, and resistant to almost any change—whether democratization, urbanization or industrialization—which might threaten their considerable privileges. These included almost total exemption from taxation. They dominated the Prussian court, the most conservative in Germany. They regarded Prussia’s next-door neighbour, Russia—England’s great world rival—as their natural ally, sharing with Russia a long frontier, a belief in autocratic government and a pervasive military culture.
Prussia’s highly professional army was the reason for its domination of Germany, and in many respects gave Prussia what political coherence and identity it had. It had long been dominated by the Junkers, and was the heart of Prussian conservatism. Almost all European aristocracies identified themselves with the army, but since the seventeenth century the Prussian aristocracy, more than any other, had been encouraged by its rulers to equate its noble status and privileges entirely with senior military rank. It was not unusual for boys of the Prussian ruling classes to wear military uniform from the age of six. History showed that war paid: Prussia had benefited territorially from every central European military conflict since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century Frederick the Great had doubled Prussia’s size in a series of vicious central European wars. Prussia’s intervention in the Napoleonic Wars had doubled its size again, making it the dominant power in Germany. But at the same time, Prussia’s military culture had arisen not simply from a desire to expand and conquer, but quite as much from the fact that the Prussian ruling class was haunted—obsessed even—by its country’s vulnerability in the middle of Europe, undefended by natural barriers, always a potential victim for some larger power’s territorial ambitions. Territorial expansion had constantly alternated with disaster and near annihilation. During the Thirty Years War, Prussia had lost half its population to disease, famine and fighting; the scar remained in folk memory. During the Napoleonic Wars, it had been humiliated, overrun and threatened with dismemberment while the French and Russians squared up to each other. Since then, Prussia had been hostile to France and carefully deferential to the Russian colossus next door. The ruling dynasties of Hohenzollern and Romanov had intermarried and even developed genuine friendships. Willy’s Prussian great-aunt Charlotte had married Tsar Nicholas I, and Willy’s grandfather, who would become King of Prussia and then Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, enjoyed a long and close friendship with his son, Tsar Alexander II.
The contradictions in Prussia mirrored the extraordinary heterogeneity of Germany and its states as a whole. Within its loose boundaries there existed a plethora of conflicting Germanys: the Germany that led the world in scientific and technological innovation, the Germany that was the most cultured, literate, academically innovative state in Europe—the Germany of Goethe, Leibnitz, the von Humboldt brothers, Bach and Beethoven—stood alongside the Germany of resolutely philistine Junkers. In East Elbia, the heartland of the Junker estates, disenfranchised peasants lived in almost feudal conditions, and yet at the same time Germany was the most industrialized place in Europe with some of the best labour conditions. Germany had some of the most hierarchical, undemocratic states in Europe, ruled by an embarrassment of self-important little princelings, and was also home to the largest and best organized Socialist Party in Europe. Southern, predominantly Catholic, Germany coexisted with northern, Protestant Germany. It seems entirely appropriate that Berlin, Prussia’s capital, with its vast avenues, seemed like a parade ground, while also being a centre for political radicalism, for scholarship, for a wealthy Jewish community.
Prince Albert believed there was a battle going on for the soul and political future of Germany. “The German stands5 in the centre between England and Russia,” he wrote to his future son-in-law Fritz in 1856. “His high culture and his philosophic love of truth drive him towards the English conception, his military discipline, his admiration of the asiatic greatness … which is achieved by the merging of the individual into the whole, drives him in the other direction.” Albert also felt that in the post-1848 world, monarchy was under threat. He wanted to prove that good relations between monarchies created peace between countries. And he had come to the conclusion that princes must justify their status by their moral and intellectual superiority to everyone else.
One of Albert’s projects had been to design a rigorous academic regime for his nine children to turn them into accomplished princes. His eldest daughter, Vicky—his favourite—responded brilliantly to it. She was clever, intellectually curious and passionate—qualities not always associated with royalty. Her younger brother Bertie—the future Edward VII—had suffered miserably under the same regime. Albert thought that, under the right circumstances, a royal marriage between Britain and Prussia might nudge Germany in the right direction, towards unification, towards a constitutional monarchy and a safe future for the German royal families. It might even bring about an alliance with Britain, an alliance which could become the cornerstone of peace in Europe. Albert resolved to send his clever daughter on a mission to fix Germany, by marrying Vicky to Friedrich Wilhelm Hohenzollern, nephew of the childless and increasingly doddery King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and second in line to the throne after his sixty-two-year-old father, who had already taken over many of his brother’s duties.
Fritz, as he was called, was ten years older than Vicky, dashingly handsome, charismatic and an effective officer—so much the Wagnerian hero that in Germany he was actually known as Siegfried. The marriage, which took place in January 1858, looked good on paper—the heir of the rising Protestant German state marrying the daughter of the richest, stablest power in Europe. Unlike most arranged royal marriages, it worked even better in reality. Personally gentle, earnest and prone to depression—somewhat at odds with the emphatically blunt, masculine ideal of the Prussian officer—twenty-seven-year-old Fritz adored his clever seventeen-year-old wife, and she adored him. He also showed, Victoria and Albert noted approvingly, a liking for England and admirable liberal tendencies very much at odds with those of his father and the Prussian court.
At the time, the plan of sending a completely inexperienced seventeen-year-old girl to unify Germany may not have seemed quite so extraordinary as it does now. The external circumstances looked promising. In 1858 the political balance in Prussia seemed to be held by the liberals: they had just won a landslide victory in the Landtag elections. Prussia’s king was elderly and had recently suffered a series of incapacitating strokes, and his heir, Fritz’s father, was sixty-two years old. Fritz and Vicky shouldn’t have to wait too long before they would be in control.
That was the plan. It didn’t turn out that way. Firstly, Albert had been away from Germany a long time and didn’t understand how suspicious the Prussian ruling class was of Vicky’s Englishness, and how touchy about the prospect that larger powers might interfere in its country. “The ‘English’6 in it does not please me,” the future chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, told a friend, “the ‘marriage’ may be quite good … If the Princess can leave the Englishwoman at home.” Secondly, Vicky, though extremely bright, had no talent for politics, was hopelessly tactless and held fast to her Englishness. Thirdly, Fritz’s father turned out to be astonishingly long-lived, and appointed Otto von Bismarck, the greatest conservative European statesman of the late nineteenth century, his chief minister.
It went wrong quite quickly. The Prussian court was not welcoming and was critical of Vicky’s forthright views and intellectual confidence. Prussian wives were supposed to be silent and submissive; there was none of the leeway allowed in Britain for an intelligent, educated woman to shine. It was said disapprovingly that Vicky dominated Fritz. She met intellectuals and artists, whether or not they were commoners, and this contravened the social strictures of court etiquette: princesses did not host salons or mix with non-royals. Bewildered and isolated, Vicky had no idea what to do. She responded with a social tone-deafness and complete lack of strategic tact which would become characteristic. She complained—imperiously and incessantly—about the philistine, rigid and deadly dull Prussian court; about the threadbare carpets, dirty floors, and lack of baths and lavatories in the Hohenzollerns’ ancestral castles;* about the frequent absences of her soldier husband. Worse, she displayed the insufferable habit of saying that everything was better in England, a habit that became almost compulsive as time went on. This seemed to confirm Prussian suspicions that she intended to bring Prussia under English influence, though it was actually a manifestation of loneliness and homesickness. “She loved England8 and everything English with a fervour which at times roused contradictions in her Prussian surroundings,” one of her few allies, her lady-in-waiting Walpurga Hohenthal, later wrote. “I was perhaps the only one who entirely sympathized … but I was too young and inexperienced to reflect that it would not be wise to give them too much scope.”
Back in England her parents didn’t understand. The queen tried to micromanage her, sometimes sending her four letters a week and telling her not to get too familiar with her Prussian relatives. Albert limited himself to writing once a week, and was gentler, but in his way just as insistent. He demanded essays on international affairs and told her to study chemistry and geometry—which she duly did. Her in-laws were unsympathetic: Fritz’s father, Wilhelm, was a philistine arch-traditionalist whose deepest emotional attachment was to the army. He required only that his son and daughter-in-law attend every court function and be entirely obedient to his will. Fritz’s mother, Augusta, who loathed her husband and was hugely disliked at court at least partly for being an educated woman with liberal views, was angry and difficult (the King of Belgium called her “the Dragon9 of the Rhine”), and made no attempt to support her daughter-in-law. The Hohenzollerns were a by-word for family dysfunction. The father of Frederick the Great (Wilhelm’s great-great-great-great-uncle) had locked him up and forced him to watch his best friend’s execution. Oedipal conflicts seemed to afflict every generation.
Within a couple of years of Willy’s birth, Vicky’s “mission” was in shreds. “You cannot think10 how painful it is, to be continuously surrounded by people who consider your very existence a misfortune,” she wrote to her mother. Then, just before Willy’s third birthday in 1861, Albert died and Vicky lost her guide and hero. Later that same year Fritz’s sixty-four-year-old father, Wilhelm, came to the throne for what would be a twenty-seven-year reign. He made it clear he wanted to strengthen relations with Russia, and at his coronation he announced that he ruled by divine right—a concept the English crown had abandoned 300 years before. A year later, in the midst of a battle with the Landtag over military reform, which everyone expected to end with the king giving in to more constitutional curtailments of his powers, he appointed Otto von Bismarck as his minister-president. Bismarck closed down the Landtag. Over the next twenty years, he would turn Germany into the political powerhouse of continental Europe, while also eliminating liberals from power and delivering the organs of government into the hands of conservatives and rural property-owners, the Junkers.
Vicky hated Bismarck. “That wretch11 Bismarck … has done all he could to irritate the King against London and Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell,” she complained in 1862. “Bismarck is such a wicked man that he does not care how many fibs he tells to serve his own purposes, and this is the man who is to govern this country.” To Bismarck, Vicky and Fritz were a dangerous magnet for liberal sympathies. He set out deliberately to neutralize the couple. He alienated father from son, and used every weapon at his disposal: feeding damaging stories into the Berlin rumour mill and the German press—much of which he secretly funded—to characterize Vicky as a sinister representative of British ambitions in Germany and Fritz as her dupe. Vicky thought she could take Bismarck on. “I enjoy12 a pitched battle,” she wrote optimistically. But she was a rank amateur prone to moments of tremendous misjudgement, and he was perhaps the most brilliant political tactician of the late nineteenth century. As if that weren’t enough, Vicky’s health collapsed: she was plagued for weeks at a time by chronic pains and fevers for which there seemed no cure, symptoms that some historians now think might have been porphyria13—the illness which had caused George III’s madness.
It wasn’t surprising, perhaps, that Vicky’s family and children became one of her refuges from the hostility of the court, a place where she could express her frustration with her situation, and where she channelled all the disappointed energy. There were eight children in all: Willy, his sister Charlotte and his brother Heinrich, to whom he was closest; then five subsequent siblings: Sigismund, Victoria (known as Moretta), Waldemar, Sophie and Margaret (or Mossy), of whom the two boys died in childhood. The family dynamic seems to have been in the main warm and loving. When Fritz was in one of his depressions, Vicky believed the company of the children dispelled it. She loved her children, especially her eldest. “You do not know14 how dear that child is,” she wrote to her mother when he was a few months old. “… I feel so proud of him and it makes me so happy to carry him about.” But her love was complicated, especially for her first three children, and most of all for Wilhelm. She veered between tenderness and love, and brutal criticism, obsessively high expectations and anxiety over their shortcomings. Albert had instilled in her a belief that character could be created and moulded by education, that perfectibility could be achieved by hard work. “The welfare15 of the world,” he said, depended on “the good education of princes.” He’d also—along with the queen, who was a relentless critic of her children—turned his daughter into an anxious perfectionist compulsively critical of herself, and then of her own children. Vicky was determined that her son would measure up to her father’s standards. She scrutinized every bit of the boy—just as her parents had scrutinized her—frequently found him wanting and let him know it. She wrote to her mother when he was nine, “Still I dote16 on Willy and think there is a great deal in him. He is by no means a common place child; if one can root out or keep down pride, conceitedness, selfishness and laziness … I do not speak as openly of our little ones to anyone but you.” But whatever she said to her mother, she did communicate her dissatisfactions to her children. She would mark the misspellings in Wilhelm’s letters to her and send them back. She was just as bad with his brother Heinrich, describing “his poor ugly17 face,” and reporting that he was “awfully backward”18 and “hopelessly lazy.” The question of perfection (or imperfection) was constantly in the air because, of course, Willy’s stunted arm meant he was very visibly imperfect.
Within a few months of Willy’s birth it was clear that his arm wasn’t growing properly. He couldn’t lift it and the fingers had curled into a kind of claw. In Prussia, royalty was closely identified with the army and physical prowess. On Willy’s birth, in a gesture of typical Hohenzollern tact, Fritz’s father had wondered to his face whether it was appropriate to congratulate him on the birth of a “defective”19 prince. Vicky worried over it constantly, asking herself whether the nation would tolerate a physically disabled prince. “I cannot tell you20 how it worries me, I am ready to cry whenever I think of it,” she wrote to her father when Willy was six months old and had begun to undergo all kinds of peculiar treatments to mend the arm. It was covered in cold compresses, sprayed with sea water, massaged and given a weekly “animal bath,” in which it was placed inside the warm carcass of a freshly killed hare—an experience, his mother noticed, Willy seemed to like very much. Queen Victoria thought the practice medieval, and it was: the idea was that the heat of the dead animal would transmute itself into the arm of the child. At least this was harmless. Less so was the binding of his right arm to his body, when Willy reached toddler-hood, in an attempt to force the other arm to function. It left him with nothing to balance with as he tried to learn to walk. Even nastier were the electric shocks passed regularly through his arm from the age of fourteen months. “He gets so21 fretful and cross and violent and passionate that it makes me quite nervous sometimes,” Vicky wrote. By the age of four, Willy had developed torticollis—the right side of his neck had contracted, lifting the shoulder and making him look crooked. (One biographer has suggested that this came about through a desire to turn away from his affliction.) To try to correct this, he was strapped into a body-length machine to stretch the muscles of his right side. Vicky wrote painful, guilty letters to Queen Victoria describing and drawing the contraption, which looked like a medieval instrument of torture. “He has been22 a constant source of anxiety ever since he has been in the world. I cannot tell you what I suffered when I saw him in that machine the day before yesterday—it was all I could do to prevent myself from crying. To see one’s child treated like one deformed—it is really very hard …”
In the end two small operations severed the tendons that were distorting his body and corrected the torticollis. The arm never improved, though there was always another “specialist” with another crank “cure.” The electric shocks and stretching machines continued until Willy was ten, when the doctors noted how “nervously tense”23 the treatments made him. Wilhelm later claimed they caused “intolerable pain.”24 The only thing that made any difference was a course of gymnastics which developed a compensatory great strength in Willy’s right arm.
Willy seemed a jolly, boisterous, affectionate small boy. Vicky described him, aged three, patting her face, saying, “Nice little25 Mama, you have a nice little face and I want to kiss you.” He slept in her bed when his father was away with the army, and she saw much more of him than most royal parents. “Willy is a dear,26 interesting charming boy,” Vicky wrote when he was seven, “clever, amusing, engaging, it is impossible not to spoil him a little. He is growing so handsome and his large eyes have now and then a pensive, dreamy expression and then again they sparkle with fun and delight.” He could also be aggressive and difficult. He hit his nurses; after a trip to England in 1864, his grandmother complained that he was thumping his27 aunt Beatrice—who was only two years older and afraid of him. “We have a gt.28 deal of trouble to keep him in order—he is so jealous of the Baby,” Vicky wrote after the birth of his sister Charlotte. Aged seven or so, on the beach at the Isle of Wight, he threw a furious tantrum29 and tried to kick an eminent gentleman and throw his walking stick into the sea. (The eminent gentleman, a former secretary of Prince Albert’s, tripped him up and spanked him.) On another occasion, at his uncle Edward’s wedding in England in 1863, aged four, he got bored, scratched the legs of his uncles Leopold and Arthur to get their attention, threw his sporran into the choir, and when scolded, bit one of his uncles in the leg.* W. P. Frith, celebrated painter of crowd scenes such as Derby Day, who had been commissioned to paint the occasion, muttered, “Of all the30 little Turks he is the worst.” To modern eyes, this seems like fairly typical obstreperous, spoilt toddler behaviour, but at the time it struck his mother and the British relatives as more than that—though this may have been just as much to do with their impossible expectations of how a young monarch-to-be should behave.
To add to the pressures and confusion there were the competing tugs of his English and German inheritances. The conflict was incarnated in his own name—to his mother and his English relations he was William, to his German relations and his country he was Wilhelm. The more Vicky felt alienated from her German environment, the more she denigrated her son’s German heritage. One ten-year-old visitor remembered Vicky reprimanding her children for dunking their cake in their tea: “None of your31 nasty German habits at my table!” She was determined to root out any signs of “that terrible32 Prussian pride” and she loathed the Prussian obsession with the army. When he was ten, Willy wrote plaintively to his English grandmother, “There were lately33 two parades where I marched towards the King. he [sic] told me that I marched well, but Mama said I did it very badly.” Vicky told her mother that in his miniature Hohenzollern uniform, he had looked like some “organ grinder’s34 unfortunate little monkey.”
Everything British, Vicky made it clear, was better. She told her son the Royal Navy was the greatest fighting force in the world and she dressed him up35 in a sailor outfit, aged two, feeling she’d won a great victory in managing to do it before he’d worn a Prussian army uniform. “He is so fond36 of ships,” she told her mother when he was five, “and I wish that to be encouraged as much as possible—as an antidote to the possibility of a too engrossing military passion.” In his teenage years, she wrote to him extolling England’s37 civilizing imperial mission, contrasting it with Germany’s foolish claims to be a player in Europe. She took him as often as possible to visit Queen Victoria at Osborne House, her holiday home on the Isle of Wight. Even after the First World War, beaten by the British and in exile, his memories of Osborne were golden. “How entirely like a second home to me was my grandmother’s house, and how England might well have been a second home to me also,” he wrote wistfully. “We were treated as children of the house.” He recalled a visit in 1871, aged twelve, when his uncle Arthur of Connaught took him round London and how impressed he was by the sharp figure Arthur cut in uniform; he remembered his favourite aunt Louise letting him play in her rooms and giving him sweets: he recalled going to see Nelson’s HMS Victory at Portsmouth in the queen’s paddle steamer and seeing British battleships off Spithead on the way. Osborne, he later claimed, was “the scene of my earliest recollections.”38 The family story went that on Willy’s first visit in June 1861, aged two-and-a-half, Albert had wrapped him in a towel and dandled him in it.
The Prince Consort died six months later, but the connection remained important to Willy and to his grandmother. “Albert,” she wrote39 a month after her husband’s death, “loved that dear child so dearly, felt so anxious about him, was so sure he would be clever—that it only adds to my love for … the sweet child … You know he is my favourite.” The fact that Willy would be king of the most powerful state in Germany also focused her attention. The queen had never been very keen on babies (“I don’t dislike babies,” she wrote, “though I think very young ones rather disgusting”), and by the time grandchildren came at a rate of three a year, admitted they were “a cause of mere anxiety for my own children” and “of no great interest either.”40 But Willy was the first, and the queen was indulgent with him as she was with few others. He called her “a duck,” and she pronounced him “full of fun and mischief, and in fact very impertinent, though he is very affectionate with it all.”41 In turn, Willy was fascinated by the queen. “She was a proper42 Grandmother,” he wrote approvingly. The two had a weakness for each other which would endure, despite everything.
It was impossible, of course, for Vicky to keep Prussian influences away from her children. Growing up in Berlin and Potsdam, which was appropriately both the military and leisure capital of Prussia, they were surrounded by the symbols of Prussian military might and ambition—parade grounds and drilling regiments—and they lived in the vast, rather chilly Neues Palais, built by Frederick the Great as an aggressive assertion of Prussian power (having built it, he decided it was a piece of architectural showing off and refused to live in it). A palace of hundreds of huge, echoing rooms, it fronted on to a parade ground. When Willy reached ten, his grandfather, now King Wilhelm of Prussia, began to show an interest in the boy, demanding that Willy turn up at military events and inviting him to dinner in his ostentatiously austere apartments where he slept on his old army camp bed, ate off a card table, and marked the level of the wine on the bottle to make sure the servants didn’t steal it. The king, who could be extremely charming when he pleased,* would talk about his Napoleonic campaigns and the grandson would listen, rapt. The criticism and expectation at home made his grandfather’s world very attractive to Willy. The king had a very different view of the obligations of royalty: he was uncomplicatedly absorbed in the army, in being Prussian, and to him royalty didn’t need a fancy education to prove itself worthy—it just was.
The king was a hero to his grandson: he had presided—with a little help from Bismarck—over a series of astonishing military successes during the 1860s, Willy’s first decade. By 1871, through aggressive campaigns and political manoeuvring, Bismarck had dramatically increased Prussia’s size and influence. In 1864 Prussia took Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark. In 1866 it routed Austria out of Germany during the Austro-Prussian War, annexed more German states and turned Willy’s father, Fritz, into a bona fide military hero, at the battle of Königgrätz. In 1871 the Franco-Prussian War left France defeated and Prussia with the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine. It also prompted the unification of Germany under Prussia’s leadership in 1871—and made an enduring enemy of France. The tension between the countries would be a dominating fact of European history for the next eighty years; for the moment, though, the Prussians were clearly triumphant. Nine days before Willy’s twelfth birthday his grandfather was crowned kaiser of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, in a piece of terrifying theatre stage-managed by Bismarck. Naturally, Willy followed the campaign and its aftermath avidly. To his eternal43 pride, he was allowed to ride behind his father on his triumphal progress through the Brandenburg Gate. It was hardly surprising that, despite her efforts, Vicky found “a certain receptiveness for the crude, narrow-minded, views of the military” in her son. She worried that her father-in-law and the court were encouraging in Willy a “mistaken pride, in the idea that it was patriotic.”44 She worried about her son’s admiration for Bismarck. To her English family, however, she hotly defended the Prussian campaigns. As her brother Edward observed, in Germany there was no one more English and in England no one more German.
Vicky was determined her son wouldn’t grow up to be a stereotypical Prussian officer. Following her father’s example, she wanted him to be a new kind of prince: educated, self-aware, someone who would confound the forces of republicanism. She found him a group of playmates who came from backgrounds that were not exclusively Prussian aristocrat—ambassadors’ and businessmen’s children. At seven, when European princes traditionally left the nursery, Willy was handed over to George Hinzpeter, a very serious Calvinist liberal, who planned to implement the most contemporary ideas in education and to show Willy and his brother Heinrich some of the realities of modern life, so they would not “grow up in ignorance45 of the wants and interests of the lower classes.” Going to a real school was mooted. It’s hard to exaggerate how utterly unlike the average royal education this was: most European princes were handed over to a military governor to whom civilian tutors were subordinate; most were kept completely isolated from the world. It was an admirable plan in many ways, but the combination of Vicky’s expectations, her choice of Hinzpeter, and Willy’s emerging personality would be a damaging one. Perhaps also the contrast between the expectations of his mother and tutor and the fact that everyone else—the servants, the legendarily deferential Prussian court—treated him as a little god was confusing and unhelpful. Wilhelm would later claim that from the age of seven he had been forced into a regime of “perpetual renunciation.”46 In fact, the first few years were rather gentle: there was lots of travel, music and drawing, and unusual excursions to factories and working-class homes. Wilhelm liked to boast later that having seen “the grim poetry”47 of working-class life, “I thus learned to understand the German workman and to feel the warmest sympathy for his lot.”
But when Willy reached eleven, it all began to go wrong. Vicky’s criticisms took on an extra intensity. “He is very arrogant, extremely smug and quite taken with himself,” she wrote to Fritz a month before his twelfth birthday in December 1870, “is offended at the slightest comment, plays the injured party, and more than occasionally gives an impudent answer; furthermore he is unbelievably lazy and slovenly … On the other hand he is more alert and animated than all of his playmates, and is more caring and pleasant than all of the rest of them.” He was, she noted—as others would—quick and curious, but had no staying power. Hinzpeter was dissatisfied too. His teaching, he announced, particularly his attempts to mould the “inner development of mind and heart,” had thus far utterly failed. Rather than rethink the plan, they decided to ratchet up the pressure and the discipline. The regime became stricter and harsher. Hinzpeter described fourteen-year-old Willy’s “ill-omened self-adulation” and “the unpleasant trait of arrogance … [which] bolsters the indolence which nature has so generously conferred on him.” He called him lazy and conceited. “Evidence of positive goodwill towards anyone at all is nevertheless as rare as instances of heartless egoism are frequent … his almost crystal-hard egoism … forms the innermost core of his being.”48 It’s impossible to say whether Willy’s shortcomings were innate or an angry adolescent’s response to his mother’s and his tutor’s impossibly high standards, but these traits would gradually manifest themselves in the adult Wilhelm. Even so, his English uncle Bertie, seeing the nineteen-year-old Willy and his brother for the first time in several years in 1878, recorded, “It is impossible49 to find two nicer boys than William and Henry.”
Whatever the truth, the pressure that Hinzpeter and his mother put Willy under horribly backfired, and even Vicky had to admit that Hinzpeter might not have been the best person to have entrusted with the development of a sensitive, tricky teenage boy. A depressive, he seems to have become convinced that he was locked in a Manichean battle to mould Willy’s character, without being able to see that everything he was doing was making it worse. The plan was, as Wilhelm later wrote, to “grasp hold of the soul of the pupil … to ‘wrench’ it into shape.” Rather than realizing that at least part of Willy’s arrogance was an attempt to hold on to some shreds of self-confidence in the face of constant character demolition, Hinzpeter believed that what his charge needed was “humiliation.”50 It was decided in 1874 that Willy, aged fifteen, should be sent to a gymnasium—a boys’ secondary school. Ostensibly this was an unprecedentedly modern attempt to give the boy a chance to mix with his contemporaries. Its initiators had ulterior motives: Vicky saw it as a way of keeping Willy away from the kaiser’s influence; Hinzpeter, as a way of crushing his spirit as much as possible. Being with other boys would squash his “false estimation51 of his own ability.” At the same time Hinzpeter played a manipulative game, criticizing Vicky in front of Willy, while telling her and Fritz they were not sufficiently supporting him. Vicky worried, but having taken such a step into the unknown, she was fearful of sacking the navigator.
How Willy felt about all this is evident from his memoirs, written nearly fifty years later, which contain his famous description of being taught to ride—hampered, of course, by having only one usable hand. Hinzpeter put him on a horse and watched him fall off, despite the boy’s tears and pleadings, over and over, until he got his balance. “When nobody looked,52 I cried,” Wilhelm wrote. It seems likely that this never actually happened,* but clearly the emotions it described were real enough. “The impossible was53 expected of the pupil in order to force him to the nearest degree of perfection. Naturally the impossible goal could never be achieved; logically, therefore, the praise which registers approval was also excluded.” It could have been a description of his whole childhood. He began to retreat into an alternative reality when real life didn’t measure up—a habit that would become pronounced in adult life. And yet, in some respects he had succeeded spectacularly: by the time he reached adolescence, he was so adept with his withered arm that people often ceased to notice it. He could ride and shoot, he was physically robust. He couldn’t dress or cut his food without help, but then plenty of European royals were almost ludicrously dependent on their servants. One Russian grand duchess admitted that before the revolution she couldn’t button her own boots.54
Willy did not enjoy his two and a half years at the Lyceum Fredericianum, the gymnasium in the small, picturesque German town of Kassel which he attended with his brother Heinrich—who, regarded by all as nice but dim, was there mainly for company—supervised by Hinzpeter. The tutor worked him well beyond the normal school day, starting at 5 a.m. and finishing at 8 p.m., six days a week, while simultaneously letting everyone including Willy know that he didn’t think he was up to it. In fact, Wilhelm performed quite well in class and he got on with the other boys, but he was discouraged from getting too close to them. Hinzpeter insisted he should be addressed by the formal Sie, muttering all the while about the “poor boy’s55 isolation.” And royal etiquette meant that every time Wilhelm entered a room, one of his tutors noted, everyone was obliged to fall silent and stand still, then follow him around at a respectful distance. Despite the strains, Wilhelm was still most at ease and happy with his family. If anything, he seemed rather fixated on his mother—he sent her intense letters describing dreams in which her hands caressed him, and wrote of “what we will do56 in reality when we are alone in your rooms without any witnesses.” The letters were clearly deeply sexual, but they were also pleas for love and support. Vicky, flattered and confused, deflected them with jokes about being his “poor old Mama,” and she never came to rescue him.
Willy graduated from Kassel aged eighteen in 1877—he came tenth out of sixteen. Released from Hinzpeter and school, he immediately got as far from his mother’s influence as he could. Encouraged by his grandfather, he joined the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, the grandest and most aristocratic regiment in Germany, and moved out of the family home. The officer corps was as much a social club as a training ground: duties were light and amusements were many. Willy found himself surrounded by young men of similar age and class, of right-wing nationalist views and a strong sense of comfortable entitlement, and within a culture in which, as one Berlin observer wrote, “He was the acknowledged57 idol of the younger military set, and the easy tool of Bismarck … and surrounded by flatterers.” Willy’s head was turned. He loved the 1st Foot: the all-embracingness, the male company, the constant activity, the practical jokes, standing at the head of a company feeling splendid—and he especially loved that his peers deferred to and flattered him. Potsdam, he said, was his “El Dorado.”58 After years of fourteen-hour workdays, he soon lost any interest in applying himself to anything for long, to his parents’ disappointment. At Bonn University, where he then spent two years, he dabbled in economics, physics, chemistry, history, philosophy and government, but mainly spent time at the Borussia, the university’s grandest duelling and drinking club, peopled by the sons of grand dukes. One of his university tutors commented, “Like all59 royalty who had been over-flattered in youth, the prince believed he knew everything without having learnt anything.” Hinzpeter concluded that his entire programme had been a “complete failure”60—though it was often said that it was from him that Willy had acquired a “coldness”61 of manner. Fifty years later Wilhelm still couldn’t decide whether he was grateful to his tutor, or hated him.
Unsurprisingly, Vicky saw his identification with the army as a pointed rejection, as indeed it was. “Before I entered62 the regiment,” he told a friend, “I had lived through such fearful years of unappreciation of my nature, of ridicule of that which was to me highest and most holy: Prussia, the Army and all of the fulfilling duties that I first encountered in this officer corps and that have provided me with joy and happiness and contentment on earth.” When his younger brother Waldemar died of diphtheria the following year, 1878, the family were extremely upset that Wilhelm seemed largely unconcerned. Vicky, he told an interviewer decades later, now looked at him with “bitter disappointment63 mingled with maternal solicitude.” The irony was that, having avoided—courtesy of his mother—the years of strict military training that a normal Hohenzollern might expect, Wilhelm had none of the disciplined mental habits or experience of a real Prussian officer. Or rather, he looked and played the part—perfectly turned out, moderate if not ascetic in his eating and drinking—but he had no habit of application. Just as he had been a dilettante student, so he was a dilettante soldier. His military adjutant,64 Adolf von Bülow, the experienced soldier seconded to see him through his army life, admitted that after five years in the 1st Foot, Wilhelm had completely failed to learn the true values of soldiery.
Vicky’s attempt to challenge the stereotypes of royal upbringing and Prussian militarism had produced a strange hybrid. “A high spirited,65 sensitive boy who had a ready brain and a quick but not profound intelligence,” the glamorous English aristocrat Daisy Cornwallis, who married into the German aristocracy, wrote of Wilhelm. “… He always thought he knew everything and no one dared to tell him he was sometimes wrong. He hated to be told the truth and seldom, perhaps never, forgave those who insisted on telling him.” Obsessive dislike of any criticism would become one of Wilhelm’s most marked characteristics. Those who wanted his favour quickly discovered that the way to gain influence with him was to flatter him.
What Wilhelm did have was an identity—or perhaps a disguise. He especially loved the look of the army: the ceremonial, the drilling, the clicking heels, the medals and most of all the uniforms. After the age of twenty he almost never wore anything else. He turned himself into a caricature Prussian officer, with a puffed-up, heel-clicking, hearty manner, an apparent boundless confidence in his own abilities that seemed entirely impervious to doubt or criticism, a new handlebar moustache and views—the opposite of his mother’s—to match.
In 1881, at the age of twenty-two, Willy married Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg-Augustenburg, known as Dona, a woman as unthreatening, conventional and obedient as Vicky wasn’t, and was granted his own premises, the charmingly intimate—by Prussian standards—Marble Palace in Potsdam. Submissive, devout and fertile, Dona would prove an irreproachably correct daughter of the German empire: she was, and remained, in awe of her husband, agreeing with everything he said, obeying his every stipulation (including taking diet pills to stay thin and wearing outfits he designed for her) and providing constant, unquestioning support. She also, however, shared some of the limitations of the new Germany. She was narrow-minded and xenophobic: she hated Catholics, atheists, liberals and foreigners—the English most of all. Within months of the marriage she was barely speaking to Vicky, who, with her nose for disaster, had picked Dona out as a bride for Wilhelm (even though the Prussian family thought she wasn’t well-born enough), in the hope that she might heal the rift between herself and her son.
Within a year Dona had borne an heir, “Little Willy,” and followed this with five more strapping sons, the splendidly named Eitel-Friedrich, Adalbert, Augustus-Wilhelm, Oskar and Joachim, and a daughter, Victoria. Wilhelm, however, spent as little time with his wife as possible because he found her deadly dull and provincial. He was faithful to her, more or less. In the first years of their marriage he kept a couple of mistresses in Vienna and Strasbourg, who had to be bought off by the Bismarcks after he was notably ungenerous over recompensing them for services rendered. It was noticeable, however, that he preferred the company of men, and soldiers most of all, picking himself an entourage of virulently Anglophobic Prussian army officers, and spending as much time as possible at his regiment.
There was more to Wilhelm’s keenness on the army than just politics and manliness. As kaiser he would surround himself with tall, handsome, ramrod-backed young ADCs, a predilection which would prompt one member of his entourage to note twenty years later that it was “nothing short of66 a religious relationship.” There was definitely a homoerotic edge to Wilhelm’s military passion, and it was almost certainly noticed by Bismarck. In 1886 Wilhelm was introduced to Count Philipp zu Eulenburg, a diplomat and amateur composer twelve years his senior. Eulenburg was famously charming, had a gift for informality, and was the leader of a small group of politically reactionary, Anglophobic, “artistic” and homosexual German aristocrats, called the Liebenberg Circle after the estate where they met. They wrote endlessly to each other about the dreadfulness of modern life, and how it forced them to hide their “real selves,” their Eigenart. Bismarck, to whom Eulenburg reported after the meeting, seems to have thought the staunchly conservative Eulenburg would be a useful influence on Wilhelm. In 1888 his son Herbert von Bismarck wrote: “I have known67 for a long time that HM loves Phili Eulenburg more than any other living person.”
Eulenburg completely fell for Wilhelm, or at least an idealized version of him, and Wilhelm responded to his palpable affection and admiration. Dona seems to have alternated between viewing Eulenburg as a family friend and feeling deeply jealous. The relationship was carried on through letters and a series of house parties and trips each year, where Eulenburg and his friends laughed approvingly at everything Wilhelm said. They also seem to have been extraordinarily careful never to state their homosexuality explicitly around Wilhelm (whom they privately and devotedly called “der Liebchen,”68 the “darling”), though the undercurrents obviously ran not very deeply at all. In twenty years Wilhelm never allowed himself to acknowledge Eulenburg’s homosexuality directly.
From 1882 tales began to circulate round the Berlin court that Wilhelm was taking every opportunity to express his aversion to everything English, especially his mother, and that he was politically anti-democratic. “Prince Wilhelm is,69 despite his youth, a dyed-in-the-wool Junker and reactionary,” the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Rudolf, reported in 1883. “He never speaks of the parliament except as ‘that pig-sty’ or of the opposition deputies other than as those ‘dogs who must be handled with a whip.’” One of Wilhelm’s new friends, the arch-conservative General Waldersee, wrote, “The Prince is70 strongly biased against England, to a great extent this is a wholly natural reaction to his mother’s efforts to make anglomaniacs out of the children.” In February 1883 he had himself photographed in Highland costume and sent out the prints to a select group of admirers, with the moustache-twirling phrase, “I bide my time,” written—sinisterly or hilariously depending on your point of view—along the bottom. The doyen of Berlin gossip, Fritz Holstein, a senior figure at the German Foreign Office, noted that the prince was said to be “self-willed,71 devoid of all tenderness; an ardent soldier, anti-democratic, and anti-English. He shared the Kaiser’s views on everything and had the greatest admiration for the Chancellor.” Bismarck, who still viewed Vicky and Fritz as a potential threat, was all too happy to exploit the growing rift between Wilhelm and his parents. He offered the prince chairs on government committees and found him a desk in the Foreign Office—all things denied to Fritz. His son Herbert, his closest political operative, ingratiated himself with Wilhelm. “Willy and Henry72 are quite devoted to the Bismarck policy and think it sublime. So there we are, alone and sad,” Vicky wrote to her mother.
In a particularly flattering move, Bismarck sent Wilhelm to Russia in 1884 to attend the sixteenth birthday and coming-of-age of Tsarevitch Nicholas, his second cousin,* as the kaiser’s representative. Diplomacy was regarded as the highest form of government, the preserve of monarchs and aristocrats. Willy brought a personal letter from Bismarck to Tsar Alexander III, proposing a renewal of the old Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, the Dreikaiserbund, against the rising forces of liberal democracy and anarchy. The visit was73 an astonishing success. Alexander, legendarily suspicious of foreigners, took to the twenty-five-year-old Willy’s upfront manner and frankness. The prince could be very charming. He had a liveliness and energy that cut through the etiquette and form that swaddled most royals and made him impressive and surprising on first meeting. Willy in turn succumbed to hero-worship—huge, bearded Alexander seemed to him the epitome of monarchical power. Foreign ministers on both sides commented excitedly about the chemistry between the two; the tsar agreed to consider the Dreikaiserbund, though nothing actually came of it because Austria-Hungary and Russia had too many unresolved rivalries to be able to work together. Wilhelm returned to Germany bathed in glory, with a high opinion of his own diplomatic skills and a new taste for the pomp, display and fuss of state visits—he’d adored being met at the station by the entire complement of grand dukes in uniform. More dangerously, he had also acquired a completely unrealistic idea of what they could accomplish.
On his return to Berlin, Willy decided to extend his diplomatic success by starting up a correspondence with the tsar. He told no one, not even the Bismarcks. In his first letter, in which he described himself as “a blunt soldier unversed in the arts of diplomacy,” he promised to devote himself to defending Russia against English plots. “Can I ask you a favour?” he added. “Don’t trust the English Uncle,” meaning his uncle Bertie, the future Edward VII and Alexander’s brother-in-law. In the letters he sent over the following year, Wilhelm described a series of English conspiracies against Russia in the Balkans, all headed by Uncle Bertie, “owing to his false and intriguing nature.” He repeatedly denounced his parents, who were “directed by the Queen of England.” In 1885, as war between Russia and Britain seemed inevitable, Wilhelm sent the tsar a series of notes74 he had made on English troop deployments on the Northern Indian frontier—information which he had extracted from the British military attaché in Berlin whom he had flatteringly befriended. Wilhelm still admired the tsar, but he also thought it would be useful for Germany if her two biggest rivals were at each other’s throats, and the intended aim of the letters, he eventually confessed to Herbert von Bismarck, was to provoke a war between Russia and Britain: “It would be such a75 pity if there was not war.” In fact war was avoided, as the tsar told Wilhelm two weeks later in a letter in which he thanked him for his information, “as interesting76 as it was useful,” and for the “lively interest” he took in Russian affairs, adding that he believed that the “traditional bonds which linked their two countries [Germany and Russia] together would always be the best guarantee of their success and prosperity.” Was there just the hint that Alexander thought the prince was laying it on a bit thick, that the old straightforward relationship was better? If there was, it did nothing to dislodge Wilhelm’s growing liking for using personal correspondence to both ingratiate himself with, and manipulate, other monarchs, and his conviction that he had a particular talent for it.
The next time Wilhelm saw the tsar, however, in September 1886 at Russian army manoeuvres, Alexander was just a touch cooler than he had been, and Willy’s flattering admiration for him, one of the tsar’s ministers observed, seemed a little strained, even obsequious.77 During their private audience Wilhelm told the tsar several times that Russia had a “right” to Constantinople and the Straits, and virtually urged him to invade Turkey—a hotspot where Russia and Britain clashed. The tsar told him,78 a little curtly maybe, that if Russia wanted Constantinople it wouldn’t need Germany’s permission to take it. Perhaps Wilhelm’s clumsy attempts to prod him into military action had begun to arouse Alexander’s suspicions.
Back in Germany the family’s increasingly bitter split had spilled into the public arena. In 1884 Vicky had become determined to marry one of her younger daughters, Moretta, to Alexander (Sandro) of Battenberg, a minor German royal who had recently been installed as King of Bulgaria by the Russian government. Sandro had promptly bitten the hand that had put him there and positioned himself at the head of the Bulgarian independence movement, and now the Russians hated him, and looked upon all support of him as a deliberate attempt to undermine them in the Balkans, which they regarded as their backyard. The kaiser and Bismarck opposed the match, claiming it would endanger Germany’s relations with Russia. In England, Queen Victoria was enthusiastically for it—Sandro’s two brothers had married one of her daughters and one of her granddaughters, and she loathed Russia. Publicly, Vicky refused to acknowledge the political aspects of the match; privately, she had grandiose visions of ridding the Balkans of Russian influence. Wilhelm weighed in on Bismarck’s side. He convinced himself that his mother and grandmother were masterminding an English conspiracy to gain influence in the Balkans; he insisted that Sandro was not sufficiently well-born to marry royalty—his great-grandfather had been a valet. He was certainly jealous of his mother’s very public approval of the dashingly handsome Sandro.
This enraged his English grandmother. “That very foolish,79 undutiful and—I must add—unfeeling boy … I wish he could get a good ‘skelping’* as the Scots say,” Queen Victoria wrote furiously in 1885. She was also angry because Wilhelm had so blithely crossed the line from public to private. The queen believed in the mystique of royalty, she had kept her subjects at arms’ length for fifty years. They knew very little about her and that was how she liked it. But Wilhelm had brought a family feud glaringly into the public gaze. This was not done. Even Bertie, whose foibles were periodically, if obliquely, aired in the press, never discussed or acknowledged his behaviour in public. The matter ground on for four years before Vicky finally let it go. (The now-deposed Sandro finally married an actress; Moretta eventually married Adolf of Schaumberg-Lippe.) By then, Vicky’s insistence on pushing the match through in the teeth of such resistance looked slightly unstable, as did Wilhelm’s opposition—he said he would “club the Battenberger80 to death” if he married his sister. “The dream of my81 life,” Vicky wrote in 1887, just before her mother’s Golden Jubilee, “was to have a son who should be something of what our beloved Papa was—a real grandson of his in soul and intellect, a grandson of yours! … But one must guard against the fault of being annoyed with one’s children for not being what one wished and hoped, what one wanted them to be!” She couldn’t bear, however, to give up on Wilhelm entirely, and persisted in seeing him as a tool of Bismarck. “He is a card82 here in the hands of the Chancellor’s party … he means no harm …,” Vicky told her mother. “He hates her83 [Vicky] dreadfully,” one Berlin insider told another. “His bitterness knows no bounds. What will become of all this?”
Wilhelm’s feelings for Britain seemed no less violent but they were contradictory. He engineered an invitation to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations in June 1887—getting himself made his grandfather’s official representative in Vicky and Fritz’s place—“to prove to84 my mother and all the English relations that I do not need them in order to be popular in England.” When his grandmother implied she would not be pleased to see him, he whipped himself into a fury. “It was high time85 that the old woman died … One cannot have enough hatred for England,” he told Eulenburg. “Well, England should look out when I have something to say about things …” After the Jubilee he complained bitterly that he had been treated with “exquisite coldness.” The passion of his complaints caused unease in both British and German diplomatic circles. In November 1887 unease turned to anxiety when it became clear that not only was Willy’s ninety-year-old grandfather finally failing, but his father, the crown prince, now diagnosed with throat cancer after months of confusion and misdiagnosis, was dying too. It wouldn’t be long before the prince was kaiser.
Rather than bringing the family together, the terrible blow simply exposed the Oedipal struggle to more public scrutiny. Wilhelm more or less accused his mother of conniving to murder his father by delaying the diagnosis of the cancer and persuading him not to have the potentially life-saving—but also very dangerous—operation to remove it. He showed an unseemly keenness to get to the throne himself, arranging for close allies to suggest in public that his sick father renounce his claim so that he could succeed his grandfather directly. Fritz was said to be “in deep grief86that his son could hardly wait for his end.” Vicky, in denial and exasperatingly upbeat, alienated potential sympathizers, and Bismarck used his newspapers to show her in the worst possible light.
Shortly after Fritz’s diagnosis, the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, alarmed by reports of Wilhelm’s Anglophobia and admiration for Russia, told the German Foreign Office that he feared that the prince’s moods might dictate German foreign policy. Bismarck wrote personally to reassure him of the contrary. What Salisbury didn’t realize was that Wilhelm was now as hostile to Russia as he was to England, and that his special relationship with Alexander was in shreds. Over the autumn of 1887 the most astonishing turn-about had taken place between Russia and Germany—and in Wilhelm’s head. By the winter the two countries were in the grip of a war scare. The Russians threatened to march into rebellious Bulgaria, an act which would inevitably draw in Austria-Hungary, its rival in the Balkans and Germany’s ally. The circumstances were not dissimilar from those that would lead to the First World War, thirty years later.
Despite years of amicable relations, the Russians had become convinced that Germany was somehow colluding with Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary. This belief was subconsciously an acknowledgement that Germany was now a rival to Russia, no longer a junior ally. Though there was no substantial cause—as the German ambassador to St. Petersburg observed, there was not “the slightest possible87 reason” for war—Germany, especially Prussia, succumbed to a war scare. With the old emperor dying and his son mortally ill, the country felt vulnerable, and Russia’s aggression revived old fears about the country’s geographic vulnerability. Hysterical anti-Russian articles appeared in the press. Members of the army began talking about the need for a pre-emptive strike against Russia. Wilhelm agreed with them, convinced by the ambitious General Alfred von Waldersee, his would-be new mentor, who was obsessed with fighting a “preventive war” against Russia. Bismarck had no desire for a war—though he was as responsible as anyone for the hysterical atmosphere in Germany, having for decades assiduously fanned fears of foreign invasion for his own political ends. To make it hard for the Russians to act, he closed the German stock market to Russian investment (though in such a way that it didn’t look as if the initiative had come from him). This was a disaster for the Russian government which relied on the German markets for massive loans, and brought the tsar, along with his son Nicholas, on an emergency visit to Berlin in mid-November 1887. Bismarck said he couldn’t reopen the German markets, but the visit cleared the air. The chancellor gave the Reichstag a dressing-down, talked tough but accommodatingly to Russia, and the scare subsided. Wilhelm, however, failed to get the tête-à-tête he’d expected with the tsar, and spent two hours on a train platform in full dress uniform, waiting for him. Alexander’s coolness rankled with him. “HM did not speak a word to me about politics, and therefore I remained silent,” he reported huffily to Bismarck.
Within weeks, the gossip in St. Petersburg was that Prince Wilhelm wanted “war with Russia and was generally very anti-Russian.” “In England,” Bismarck noted wearily, “the opposite!”88
* “It is very hard7 to convey to English readers the medieval conditions in which people in our state of life lived in Germany,” Vicky’s niece Mary Louise would write about living in Germany twenty years later.
* There seems no consensus on whether this was Leopold or Arthur.
* Wilhelm’s English cousin Princess Mary Louise was one of many women to be charmed by his German grandfather, though she was bemused by his attempts to disguise his baldness by securing his comb-over to his left ear with a piece of dirty old cotton.
* Wilhelm’s painstaking biographer John Röhl has shown that he could ride years before he met Hinzpeter.
* Wilhelm and the tsarevitch were third cousins through their shared great-great-grandfather, Tsar Paul the Mad. Wilhelm’s great-aunt Charlotte, sister of his grandfather the kaiser, had married Tsar Nicholas I, Nicholas’s great-grandfather, making them also second cousins once removed.
* A flogging.