PART II

FAMILY TIES, IMPERIAL CONTESTS

4

WILHELM EMPEROR

1888–90

By the spring of 1888 it was obvious that Wilhelm would soon be emperor. His grandfather had died in March of old age. By the time Fritz, crowned Kaiser Friedrich, came to the throne, he was dying of throat cancer, had had a tracheotomy and couldn’t speak, and no one expected him to live long. His orders, scribbled on little bits of paper, were simply ignored. “People in1 general consider us a mere passing shadow soon to be replaced by reality in the shape of William!!” Vicky wrote bitterly to her mother. She poured her displaced distress into her obsessive pursuit of the marriage between her daughter Moretta and Alexander of Battenberg, in which the groom had long since lost interest. Wilhelm, meanwhile, told Bismarck that Vicky “hated him more2 than anything else on earth,” and was killing his father with her hysterical scenes.

Wilhelm was avid to be emperor. He had honed his whole personality to project the heartily masculine, charismatic, can-do soldier-king he wanted to be: the brusquely jocular manner, the staccato vocal delivery, the purposeful physical stance, the deliberately fierce expression he wore in public. He liked to think of himself as another Frederick the Great: politician, soldier, strategist, philosopher, cultural arbiter; someone who, through sheer force of character, would render democracy obsolete. To emphasize his similarity to Frederick, he had even adopted his habit of scribbling marginalia on official memos and documents: “Lies!” “Nonsense!” “Stale fish.”

Some of those who had known him as a prince, however, worried a little about what kind of king he would make. “Good heavens,3 whatever will happen if Prince Wilhelm becomes Kaiser as early as this?” one senior general had remarked the year before. “He thinks he understands everything, even shipbuilding.” Bismarck, meanwhile, muttered about Wilhelm’s inflated opinion of his own abilities, the “aspiring toadies” who surrounded him, and his minuscule attention span: he would “take a little peek … learn nothing thoroughly and end up believing he knew everything.”4 The British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, thought he’d spotted something dangerously rash in the kaiser-to-be, and worried that he would take Germany into the arms of Russia. Bismarck’s most senior adviser at the German Foreign Office, Fritz Holstein, was concerned about Wilhelm’s hostility to Britain. Six weeks before Fritz had died the queen had visited Berlin, prepared to have a showdown with her intransigent and disloyal grandson. Salisbury had tried to restrain her. Both he and the German Foreign Office, he told her, were “afraid that, if5 any thorny subject came up in conversation, the Prince might say something that would not reflect credit on him; and that, if he acted so as to draw any reproof from Your Majesty, he might take it ill, and a feeling would rankle in his mind which might hinder the good relations between the two nations.” He reminded her that “All Prince William’s impulses, however blamable or unreasonable, will henceforth be political causes of enormous potency; and the two nations are so necessary to each other, that everything that is said to him must be carefully weighed.”

In the event, both Wilhelm and the queen behaved impeccably and anxieties were quietened. Wilhelm told the British ambassador that he’d been “delighted”6 by his grandmother. The sixty-nine-year-old queen had been, Fritz Holstein observed, “extraordinarily gracious”7 to her grandson, “and vice versa … This will somewhat lessen the Prince’s foolish hatred of England.” In a private audience with the queen, Bismarck assured her that Germany didn’t want a quarrel with England. Vicky reported that he had told her that despite Wilhelm’s inexperience “‘If you throw him8 in the water he’ll swim,’ for he was not devoid of cleverness.” At a state dinner that evening, the chancellor chose a large “bonbon”9 decorated with the queen’s portrait in icing, and very ostentatiously unbuttoned his frock coat and placed it close to his heart. Privately, Bismarck was confident that he could manage Wilhelm just as he’d managed his grandfather, by shameless manipulation, cajoling and, where necessary, a little light bullying.

Fritz succumbed to his throat cancer on 15 June. He had ruled for three months. Bertie telegraphed George, who wrote in his diary that “Poor dear Uncle10 Fritz has died … it is too terribly sad.” Wilhelm expressed no such tenderness. Moments after his father died, he ordered that the Neues Palais be cordoned off by soldiers and searched and no one, especially his mother, be allowed to leave. The soldiers were looking for documents—Vicky’s letters and Fritz’s war diaries—which Wilhelm had been told his mother was trying to smuggle out of the country. He was too late; she’d already got the boxes to England via the British embassy days before.* Wilhelm’s violent gesture was designed to humiliate and distress, “as though,”11 as his first biographer, Emil Ludwig, later wrote, “a monarch had been murdered, and his hostile successor, long prepared, had seized upon the newly acquired authority.” It was also an act of Oedipal rage. Fritz was buried three days later, with none of the traditional lying in state. No foreign dignitaries were invited to the funeral and Bismarck stayed away. In contravention of his father’s dying wishes Wilhelm ordered an autopsy to confirm he had died of cancer, and forbade the marriage of Moretta and Battenberg. Though the new kaiser would later protest his love and admiration for his dead hero-father and put up innumerable memorials to him, he didn’t mention Fritz in his first speech to the Reichstag at all, instead declaiming that he would “follow the same12 path by which my deceased grandfather won the confidence of his allies, the love of the German people and the good will of foreign countries.” Few people at court seemed to mind: the Hohenzollerns were famous for their inter-generational hatreds, the Empress Friedrich, as she now was known, had been regarded as a dangerous and unpredictable force whose eclipse was long overdue, and the kaiser at least looked forceful. After decades of doddery Wilhelm I and the uncertainties of the previous months, Germany was ready for a charismatic young ruler. Wilhelm seemed just that: modern, energetic, able to connect with his audience. When he rode through the poor areas of Berlin a few weeks after his accession, people cheered, “Hail to the13 workers’ king!” He seemed present and immediate and quickly showed a passion for making speeches full of resounding phrases, promising a new age of German greatness, expressing his purposefulness and lack of self-doubt.

Edward and Alexandra were two of the few who made it to Fritz’s funeral. The Prince of Wales, who had been a regular visitor to his brother-in-law’s sickbed, found his sister broken and isolated. She “cried and sobbed14 like a child,” he reported. Alexandra wrote to George that “instead of15 Wilhelm being a comfort and support to her, he has quite gone over to Bismarck and Co, who entirely overlook and crush her. Which is too infamous.” Bismarck’s son Herbert, now the German foreign minister, told Edward that Fritz had been “unfit to16 reign,” and the chancellor told him “that in fact17 the Emperor had never been competent, on account of his illness, to reign and that the country had been governed by the Empress but that the Salic law did not exist here.” The couple were angry and offended. At their audience with Bismarck they departed from the usual empty diplomatic pleasantries and started asking awkward questions. What was happening about the kingdom of Hanover, seized and annexed by Prussia during the wars of the 1860s? Its heir, the Duke of Cumberland, was Bertie’s cousin and his wife was Alexandra’s younger sister, Thyra, and he’d been fruitlessly demanding compensation for years. Was it true that Fritz had been considering handing back Alsace-Lorraine to the French, Edward asked—a question which Queen Victoria’s secretary later admitted was perhaps “more … than was18 prudent.”

Bismarck was not accustomed to being interrogated and he didn’t like it. The Waleses couldn’t have known it, but he was secretly using the Hanover revenues to fund his manipulation of the German press—including the articles that had so traduced Vicky. As for Alsace-Lorraine, its acquisition was inextricably bound, for Germany, with unification. But the dictates of diplomatic etiquette forced him to make polite, affirmative noises. The next day Edward sent a written19 version of Bismarck’s answers to his son Herbert, asking that the chancellor sign off on them—just to ensure they were correct. Bismarck was furious—as Edward meant him to be. The German government made a formal complaint to the British government about “the interview with Their Royal Highnesses when advantage had been taken of a visit of ceremony to put questions to him which it was difficult to answer on the spur of the moment.” Both sides exited angry.

The Germans were determined to get their own back. Berlin gossip soon had it that the Prince of Wales had demanded that Alsace-Lorraine be returned to the French—a rumour designed to embarrass Edward and to stir a new wave of antipathy for Vicky. And when Wilhelm, with whom Edward thought he’d parted on good terms, sent his representative to his grandmother to announce his accession, he deliberately chose an officer whose dislike of his mother and father was well known, and who neglected to mention Fritz’s name at all. The queen was chilly. Wilhelm complained. “The Queen is20 extremely glad to hear that General Winterfeldt says he was received coldly, though civilly; for such was her intention,” she replied.

“I do not like21 the look of things in Germany,” the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, sighed barely two weeks after Wilhelm had become kaiser. “It is evident that the Young Emperor hates us and loves Russia.” In her journal, the queen worried that Wilhelm was “leaning towards22Russia,” and bemoaned “how untrue and heartless” Bismarck had proved to be.

Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, nearing sixty, had been prime minister, foreign secretary and leader of the Conservative Party since 1885, with one brief interruption, and was the most important figure in British politics (with the exception of William Gladstone, who was coming to the end of his career). The queen trusted and respected him, inviting him to sit in her presence—his knees were starting to go—a privilege she allowed almost no one else. Six foot four, increasingly broad, bald and impressively bearded, he came from a long line of aristocratic statesmen; he was also a misanthropist, a depressive, an intellectual who enjoyed passing himself off as a philistine (he spent his spare time debating theology with his family and working in his laboratory at Hatfield House, where he installed the first electric light system in England) and so famously short-sighted and self-absorbed that he frequently failed to recognize his own family. He was an effective politician with a talent for foreign affairs, combining the prime ministership with the post of foreign secretary, a post invariably held by the grandest aristocrats. Though he presided over the world’s self-described great liberal democracy, his political views were not worlds away from those of Bismarck or Nicholas’s mentor Pobedonostsev. A conservative in the purest sense, he’d entered politics to defend the ruling propertied classes from the ravages of democracy and an expanding franchise. For him, the upper classes represented the best of human endeavour—birth, intelligence and culture—and they deserved to rule; inherited wealth, he believed, made a man less prone to corruption. It was no small irony—though not to him, he would have seen no contradiction—that Salisbury was shamelessly nepotistic, promoting his sons and nephews so liberally that his last administration was referred to as “Hotel Cecil.” He regarded the masses with withering scorn, hated socialism, the “insane passion23 for equality” and public opinion. He particularly disliked the whole idea of consultative government, claiming that “Until my own mind24 is made up, I find the intrusion of other men’s thoughts merely worrying,” and could be suffocatingly secretive—especially when it came to foreign affairs. He ran the Foreign Office as if it were his own feudal fiefdom. A natural pessimist, his political creed was: “Whatever happens25 will be for the worst and therefore it is in our interests that as little should happen as possible.” His cautious, delicate manoeuvres as the guardian of Britain’s world position through keeping the peace in Europe had been, not entirely accurately, dubbed “splendid isolation.”

Salisbury’s view of the queen seems to have been an ambivalent combination of respect, condescension and occasional exasperation. He came from the tiny group of very grand aristocratic families who, as one of Bertie’s cleverer mistresses observed, “believed they26 had the prescriptive right to rule England in the same way as they ruled their estates.” There was a hint of condescension in their attitude to the monarchy. But at the same time they gloried in the ritual obeisances they were obliged to make to it. Salisbury said that he respected the queen as a reliable barometer of public opinion. He coaxed, occasionally indulged and sometimes actively misled her to get his way. But at the same time he seemed to like talking to her—among the few people he did regularly discuss and debate with were the women in his close-knit family; they both shared a very similar political outlook and a certain world-weary experience. She was a useful ally in the maelstrom of European politics, with decades of experience behind her, and was a valuable source of intelligence through her cousinage. But on the subject of her European relatives (as opposed to European relations) they disagreed. When he was a journalist in the 1860s, Salisbury had written an article critical of her German sympathies, concluding, “the national will27 must necessarily be supreme in the last resort.” Personal relationships between monarchs could be useful, but they mustn’t be allowed to compromise foreign policy. He quietly deplored the fact that his queen was “very unmanageable28 about her conduct to her relations; she will persist in considering William only as her grandson.”

Salisbury urged the queen to try to normalize relations by writing to her grandson to congratulate him on his accession. Reluctantly, she agreed. “Let me also29 ask you to bear with poor Mama if she is sometimes irritated and excited,” she wrote. “She does not mean it so; think what broken and sleepless nights she has gone through, and don’t mind it.” Willy replied, “I am doing30 my utmost to fulfil [sic] her desires.” This wasn’t true. In public he called his mother “that fat, dumpy31 little person who seeks influence.” He was determined to get her away from Berlin and Potsdam and eventually settled a measly pension on her. He was far keener to tell the queen that he was about to go to St. Petersburg to meet the Russian emperor, “which will,”32 he told her, The letter was in English, though the two might just as comfortably have corresponded in German. But as Wilhelm had been writing to his grandmother in English since childhood, it seemed natural to continue and he was proud of his fluency. The contents, however, seemed to confirm all Salisbury’s and the queen’s worries about Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for Russia. The swiftness of the visit, barely a month after Wilhelm’s father was in the ground, also offended Victoria. Mourning the dead was almost a religion with her; forever in black, she kept the British court in an eternal state of “light mourning” for a constant stream of dying relatives, so that the most exciting colours ladies-in-waiting were allowed to wear were white, grey, purple and mauve. She wrote a reproving letter. In his not always reliable memoirs, Wilhelm claimed that Bismarck “gave way to a violent fit of rage” on reading it. He himself composed a calm reply which “laid stress upon the position and duty of the German Emperor, and that his grandmother must leave to him the question of deciding in what manner this was to be … From that day onward my relations with the Queen, who was feared even by her own children, were of the best imaginable.”33 This was not how it appeared to the queen. “How sickening34 it is to see Willy, not two months after his beloved and noble father’s death, going to banquets and reviews!” she wrote angrily to Edward. “Trust that we shall35 be very cool, though civil, in our communications with my grandson and Prince Bismarck, who are bent on returning to the oldest times of government,” she told Salisbury.

be of good effect for the peace of Europe and for the rest and quiet of my allies. I would have gone later if possible; but State interest goes before personal feelings, and the fate which sometimes hangs over nations does not wait till the etiquette of court mournings has been fulfilled. I hope and trust that much good will come of the proposed meeting, as I deem it necessary that monarchs should meet often and confer together to look out for dangers which threaten the monarchical principle from democratical and republican parties … It is far better that we Emperors keep firm together.

Nor was Wilhelm feeling amiable. A month later in a speech, he rebuked “those people who have the audacity to maintain that my father was willing to part with what he … gained on the battlefield.” This was a reference to Edward’s suggestion at his father’s funeral that Fritz had been considering returning Alsace-Lorraine to the French. “We who knew him so well cannot quietly tolerate, even for a single moment, such an insult to his memory … we would rather sacrifice our 18 battle corps and our 42 millions of inhabitants on the field of battle than surrender a single stone.”36 Wilhelm was becoming famous for his forceful speeches.

From Berlin the British ambassador, Sir Edward Malet, reported that “the Emperor” was said to be increasingly “anti-English” and leaning “towards Russia”—though Bismarck was said to be entirely well disposed towards Britain. “I am anxious to place on record that I believe this assertion to be unfounded,”37 the ambassador added. He was entirely correct. It had been Bismarck who had suggested the visit to Russia. Wilhelm’s personal quarrels with his English relations might be the talk of the Berlin and London courts, but his attitude towards Russia was far more hostile. Barely six weeks before his accession he had sent the chancellor a memo proposing a pre-emptive strike on Russia. He had been listening to his old political ally General Waldersee—the chief proponent of an attack on Russia, who had been stirring with stories of Russian troop movements on the border and Russian attacks on Bulgaria—and had succumbed to the old Prussian fears of invasion. Bismarck’s long, exasperated reply warned Wilhelm that if anyone found out the soon-to-be kaiser was advocating war against the advice of his chancellor, international confidence in the German government would collapse. Somewhat abashed, Wilhelm had backed down. But when he became kaiser, he promoted Waldersee to chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Bismarck was soon receiving reports that the Russians considered the new kaiser worryingly anti-Russian.

Bismarck understood as almost no one else that Germany was caught in an awkward eternal triangle with Russia and Austria-Hungary, its other imperial neighbour. Those two empires were increasingly bitter rivals in eastern Europe; Bismarck was convinced that Germany needed to be on good terms with both. But it was like walking a tightrope. Austria-Hungary, ruled over by the Emperor Franz Joseph von Hapsburg, the latest scion of one of the longest-reigning royal dynasties in Europe, was territorially the dominant force in central Europe, a state comprising 50 million people from about a dozen nations and many different ethnic groups. But in power terms it was regarded as an empire on the way down. Within its borders a dozen nascent nationalist movements were threatening to pull it apart. Respect for the inscrutable, irreproachably correct, dutiful and patient emperor Franz Joseph, now in the fortieth year of his reign, was increasingly cited as the only thing holding the different groups—among them Croats, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians—together. Though he presented himself as an autocratic monarch with one of the most stiffly hierarchical courts in Europe, Franz Joseph had kept the empire together through a series of peaceful compromises which had turned him into a constitutional one.

The empire had been further weakened by the loss of Italy after 1848, and Bismarck himself had sent it into eclipse by kicking it out of Germany in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. But Bismarck—always sensitive to Germany’s geographical vulnerability—nevertheless saw Austria as an important bolster and ally against Russia and France, whose politicians made periodic demands for revenge for Alsace-Lorraine. In 1879 Germany and Austria had signed a defensive alliance. At the same time Germany needed to keep Russia friendly because of its proximity, its potential for causing chaos in eastern Europe, and the absolute need to keep it from going anywhere near France, which Bismarck was determined to keep isolated. The problem was, Austria and Russia had become implacable rivals over who had influence in the Balkans, and dealing with the two—allying with Austria, placating Russia, trying to keep peace in central Europe and not being caught doing either—had become increasingly difficult. Now talk in the German army of attacks on Russia was starting to be backed up by the Pan-German movement, whose traditional arguments for the unification of all Germanic peoples were beginning to take on an expansionist, racial dimension, insisting that Germans had a God-given right to dominate central Europe, and that the Slavs—of which Russia was the largest nation by far—were the Germans’ natural enemies, and degenerate to boot. In 1887, in an attempt to bring the two countries closer, Bismarck had signed an absolutely secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, by which each country promised benevolent neutrality should the other go to war, and Germany additionally pledged to back Russia’s claims in Bulgaria and to support it should it “need” to take Constantinople. Simultaneously, however, Bismarck had also secretly brokered an agreement between Austria, England and Italy, one of the consequences of which was that—with no visible signs of German encouragement—Britain agreed to bring its naval muscle to bear to prevent Russia from making any gains in the Balkans and the Ottoman empire.

Despite his hostility to Russia, Wilhelm was thrilled by the idea of visiting St. Petersburg. It was the site of his great diplomatic triumph four years before—he’d impressed the tsar and almost managed to bring Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary together. Diplomacy was regarded as the grandest and most senior of the political arts—the field of kings and the highest aristocracy—and carried out behind closed doors. Wilhelm believed that it should be conducted through personal relationships between monarchs. His mother had passed on his grandfather Albert’s notion that solidarity between monarchs was the way to preserve strong ties between countries, and he was convinced it would be a triumphant justification of the innate superiority of monarchs and the “monarchical principle,” a repudiation of the claims of democrats and republicans. Wilhelm liked to talk of a “magic tie uniting38 him with all other anointed heads. It was a supernatural, a mythic sacrament … the mystic fellowship of monarchs was heaven-ordained.” The problem was that more than ever before, monarchs—Wilhelm among them—were increasingly having to weigh the claims of their exclusive supra-national club against the demands of their countries’ national interests.

He arrived at St. Petersburg in the imperial yacht Hohenzollern at the end of July 1888, accompanied by Herbert von Bismarck, with strict instructions to avoid controversy: the visit must be “friendly, neighbourly,39 politically disinterested.” He attended a Romanov family dinner at which the tsar and Nicholas threw wet towels at each other; he toasted Alexander in Russian; the two emperors talked privately. The tsar told the German ambassador that Wilhelm’s “frank, guileless40 character” and “his mere presence dispelled much of the artificially created mistrust of him.” Even the tsarina, whom the German embassy regarded as indefatigably hostile to Germany, had been “enchantingly natural.”41 Herbert von Bismarck was delighted with his informal audience with the tsar, who wore an old grey jacket. Alexander proposed that the two countries collaborate to combat revolutionary tendencies, and told him how relieved he was that Wilhelm was on the throne rather than Fritz. He also asked how Wilhelm was getting on with his English grandmother—even the Russians knew they hadn’t been on good terms. Bismarck had made some pointedly42anti-British comments and the tsar had laughed uproariously.

“Rarely before43 have the hosts and the visitors enjoyed each other’s company more,” the German ambassador, von Schweinitz, wrote breathlessly to Bismarck. The emperors’ parting had been an “unforgettably sad moment for everyone.” “The Russians were44 never so conciliatory, so humble, so compliant,” another German diplomat wrote to Fritz Holstein, Bismarck’s senior adviser at the Foreign Office.

Within a few weeks more sober—and realistic—evaluations emerged. It was quietly acknowledged by both sides’ foreign ministers that personally the tsar and the kaiser were “still not very close,”45 and seemed not to have much to say to each other. But at least peace was in the air.

In early October Edward discovered that he and Wilhelm would be visiting Vienna simultaneously. He wrote to tell Wilhelm and to propose they meet. He received no reply, and when he arrived in Vienna—bringing his spectacularly unflattering German Pomeranian Hussars uniform, in honour of his nephew—it was to be told by an exceptionally embarrassed Austrian foreign minister that he must leave the city, as the kaiser had just informed Emperor Franz Joseph that he would rather there were no other royals46 present during his visit. It was painfully obvious that the gesture was aimed at Edward—a piece of fantastically calibrated rudeness emphasizing that Wilhelm was now the senior royal, and hitting at Bertie’s sense of himself as popular guest and family conciliator. He thought he understood his nephew and had been sending his sister advice on how to handle him. “Nothing could have been47 nicer than his manner towards me …” he recalled incredulously of seeing Wilhelm at Fritz’s funeral in Berlin. “We parted the best of friends.” Edward was so astonished that he couldn’t believe it and wrote to his nephew again, arranging for the British military attaché in Berlin, Colonel Swaine—the man whom two years before Wilhelm had flattered into revealing British military secrets which he had then passed on to the Russians—to deliver it. The kaiser refused to receive Swaine, and when the military attaché came upon Wilhelm the next day by chance, the emperor turned his back on him. Swaine was so upset that he immediately requested a transfer from Berlin. Edward was taken shooting in Romania by Archduke Rudolf, Franz Joseph’s son and heir, who detested Wilhelm’s brash manner, his autocratic views and his brusque way of expressing them, and was probably jealous of him too. It is his unflattering reports in the Austrian government archives that tell us of Wilhelm’s Viennese sexual dalliances in the early 1880s.* The kaiser arrived in Vienna, and was soon—Rudolf was pleased to pass on to Edward—laughingly telling his friends that he much preferred his uncle’s rooms (i.e., the city he’d vacated) to his company.48

Queen Victoria immediately demanded an explanation from the German government. Bismarck replied with a long point-by-point letter to Salisbury, accusing the Prince of Wales of a series of rudenesses and faux pas: principally that he had claimed49 that Fritz had planned to return Schleswig-Holstein and Alsace-Lorraine, that he had taken advantage of the chancellor’s “amiability” to “force” him to agree to recompensing the Duke of Cumberland, and that he treated Wilhelm “as an uncle treats a nephew, instead of recognizing that he was an Emperor.” He added it had not been appropriate for the two men to meet in Vienna because Germany was in the midst of delicate negotiations with Russia, whose tsar would have been “irritated.”

Evidently Wilhelm still harboured angry feelings towards the British royal family, and that anger resonated with wider German sensitivities about English superiority and lack of respect: the English family’s mistreatment of the kaiser quickly became a mantra. “The Germans all say50 that the English royal family never treat the Emperor Wilhelm as a sovereign, but like a little boy,” the wife of the British ambassador in Vienna wrote in her diary. Bismarck was happy to air these grievances—they kept Wilhelm’s mother Vicky unpopular in Germany and they reminded Wilhelm he needed to be on good terms with Russia.

“As regarding51 the Prince’s not treating his nephew as Emperor,” the queen spluttered, “this really is too vulgar and too absurd, as well as untrue, almost to be believed … To pretend that he is to be treated in private as well as in public as ‘His Imperial Majesty’ is perfect madness! … If he has such notions, he better never come here. The Queen will not swallow this affront.” She added that her own sources had confirmed that Wilhelm had set out to provoke and humiliate Bertie deliberately, telling Crown Prince Rudolf that if his uncle wrote him a very kind letter “he might perhaps answer it! … All this shows a very unhealthy and unnatural state of mind; and he must be made to feel that his grandmother and uncle will not stand such insolence.” Relations between the respective governments should not be affected, she conceded, but “with such a hotheaded, conceited, and wrong-headed young man, devoid of all feeling, this may at ANY moment become impossible.”

Salisbury was increasingly exasperated by what he saw as a family squabble getting out of hand. He told the German ambassador, Count Hatzfeldt, that Wilhelm would not be welcome in England—though he added emphatically that “discussions of this kind52 on personal questions, whatever we might feel upon them, would not affect the general policy of the two nations.” Hatzfeldt, an experienced and respected diplomat—Bismarck called him “the best horse in the diplomatic stable”—simply did not dare to pass the first part of the message on to his German masters. This was less unusual than it sounds, especially in Germany, where everyone was scared of Bismarck. “From the hints53 he let drop,” Lord Salisbury told the queen, with some relish, “… the young Emperor was very difficult to manage, that Prince Bismarck was in a great perplexity, and his temper had consequently become more than usually unbearable.” But he also asked the queen to cancel Vicky’s upcoming visit to England as a gesture of peace. “It would be54 impossible, heartless and cruel to stop my poor broken-hearted daughter from coming to her mother for peace, protection and comfort,” she protested. Politically, it would have been a sensible move; personally, it was unkind. Vicky was desperately unhappy, abandoned by former allies now looking to Wilhelm for favour, and the continuing victim of the Bismarcks’ vicious whispering campaign.* The queen, however, couldn’t resist turning her daughter’s visit into an ostentatious retaliatory snub to the kaiser. She treated her like a visiting head of state: Edward met her in the royal yacht; the English court and the entire German embassy staff, including Hatzfeldt, were summoned and presented to her. The queen let Salisbury know that she wanted no communications on this or any other royal matter to be sent to Wilhelm and the German court.

This was not good news for Salisbury. Politically, Britain needed Germany’s goodwill. Germany was a key supporter of Britain’s controversial occupation of Egypt—at a time when France was trying to harness international opposition against it. In an attempt to counter the potential political fallout of the family feud, he sent British warships to support a German blockade of the Sultanate of Zanzibar on the East African coast.* The alleged reason for the blockade was to stop an illegal trade of slaves and arms. In reality, it was to pressure the sultan into taking back the German East Africa Company, which had been kicked out of Zanzibar after a local revolt against its heavy-handed treatment of the natives. The German Foreign Office had asked for support, hinting that if it wasn’t forthcoming, Germany might rethink its position on Egypt. Salisbury saw it as an inexpensive gesture of friendliness at a moment when it was needed. The reasons he gave to the queen were a little different, though. Britain must send ships, he told her, because of the “extreme untrustworthiness” of the governments in Berlin and Rome (which also had interests in Zanzibar). He felt sorry for the sultan, he told her, because German colonialists were famously “brutal.”55 As the first year of Wilhelm’s reign drew to a close, the hint of a threat and the marked hostility of Wilhelm made Salisbury feel distinctly pessimistic about the future of Anglo-German relations.

It’s hard to locate the precise source of Wilhelm’s dislike of Edward. He was more than just a proxy for the queen—whom it is true Wilhelm could not have directly insulted. The kaiser’s feelings went back at least to 1884, when he had accused his “false and intriguing”56 uncle of nefarious plots and double-dealing in his letters to Tsar Alexander III. At the time, Edward had come to Berlin to convince the old kaiser to allow Wilhelm’s sister Moretta to marry Sandro of Battenberg, the match Wilhelm so angrily opposed. A year later he’d summoned a furious Wilhelm to Hungary to inform him Queen Victoria refused to invite him to England. It may well have dated back further. Edward’s slightly louche, relaxed, hedonistic, civilian lifestyle seemed degenerate compared to the austere, puritanical, martial identity Wilhelm wanted to project. And yet he was jealous of his uncle, wanted his approval and resented the fact. He saw Edward, who was so obviously imperfect, effortlessly receiving his mother’s approval. He envied—though he would never have admitted it—Edward’s great popularity in Europe. It wasn’t just in Paris that Edward cut a dash—even in Berlin fashionable young men wanted to copy the Prince of Wales’s suits. Wilhelm craved and aspired to the kind of approval that Bertie seemed to attract effortlessly. Although the world talked about his masterfulness, his authority, his promise, he envied Bertie’s easiness. It scratched at him. It was all tied up, of course, with Edward being British, which brought out confused feelings of inferiority, desire and anger. He longed for Bertie to show approval of him—years later his best friend Philipp zu Eulenburg would observe crossly that he fluttered “round fat King Edward57like a leaf in the wind round a tower.” All royals minded about their status, but Wilhelm seemed to mind more than most. Slights—real or imagined—touched a nerve that sent him into violent retaliation. He complained that at his father’s sickbed his mother had treated him like a dog; that Edward didn’t treat him like an emperor; and a few months later he would moan that Bismarck treated him like a schoolboy.

Edward might well have been subtly denigrating of his nephew. He had been disgusted by Wilhelm’s unfilial behaviour, and it seems possible he knew about his letters58 to the Russian tsar. Now his amour propre had been dented. Given licence to acknowledge their rift, he was quick to show his hostility, ridiculing Wilhelm’s grand new imperial manner. “My illustrious nephew,” and “William the Great,” he called him. He told Vicky, “his conduct towards you is simply revolting,” and that he lacked “the feelings and usages of a gentleman … the time may come quicker than he expects when he will be taught that neither Germany nor Russia will stand an autocrat at the end of the 19th century.”59 The antipathy was fed by both men’s wives. Alexandra regarded Wilhelm as the epitome of a bumptious Prussian. “Oh he is a60 mad and conceited ass,” she wrote to George a few days after the Vienna incident, “who also says that Papa and Grandmama don’t treat him with proper respect as the Emperor of old and mighty Germany. But my hope is that pride will have a fall some day and won’t we rejoice then.” Dona found Bertie disgusting and immoral. The women didn’t like each other either: both their families had claims to the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein but had been on opposite sides during the Prussian-Danish stand-off over it in 1864, and the old rivalry still stirred.

In the New Year of 1889 the Germans were suddenly all friendliness. First Bismarck suggested a formal alliance against France, their mutual enemy.

Then a few weeks later the kaiser sent a message that he was very much hoping to visit his dear Grandmama—for whom, as Herbert Bismarck told the British ambassador, he felt such “great affection and61 veneration”—later in the year.

There were several reasons for the volte-face. Bismarck was again feeling uncomfortably sandwiched between France and Russia. The Russian press was in the grip of a new wave of anti-Germanism. In France, General Boulanger, the prophet of revanche against Germany, seemed about to launch a coup d’état. Salisbury refused the alliance—as Bismarck must have expected him to. The prime minister could see little reason for European entanglements. He neither felt particularly threatened by France, nor trusted Germany not to drag him into some European conflict. He was, however, deeply relieved by the overture and emphasized he wanted Britain and Germany to be “as friendly62 as possible short of an alliance.” Bismarck might well have suggested it as a way of nudging Russia into a more amenable mood. Wilhelm’s dramatic change of heart, however, seemed to be the result of his mother moving away from Berlin. Accepting her political eclipse, she moved to Frankfurt, where she built a house. Wilhelm’s Anglophobia seemed to disappear almost overnight. Herbert von Bismarck, for one, felt almost betrayed that Wilhelm had cursed “everything English,63 simply in order to annoy his mother: there was no other reason for his Anglophobia.”

The queen refused to have him. “William must not64 come this year,” she wrote to Bertie. “You could not meet him, and I could not after all he has said and done.” But the pressure for the British family to take Wilhelm back was insistent from both Berlin and Lord Salisbury, and by the end of February Victoria had reluctantly agreed that Willy might come to stay at Osborne for the week of the Cowes regatta—as long as he made “some sort of apology” to Bertie for his behaviour in Vienna. Willy refused to apologize. At a dinner at the embassy in March 1889, in the course of a long paean in praise of his grandmother, he looked the British ambassador, Malet, in the eye and said emphatically that like his mother he had “That good65 stubborn English blood which will not give way.” More than this, he now denied the Vienna episode had ever happened: “The assertion66 that the Emperor had no wish to see the Prince of Wales is an invention. Proposal. To enquire of Sir Augustus Paget [British ambassador in Vienna] where he got his news.”

He claimed he had never received the letter Edward had entrusted to Colonel Swaine and when pressed to write “a friendly message” expressing regret that Edward had thought he’d been snubbed, he told his uncle-in-law Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, who also happened to be Edward’s brother-in-law and who had come to Berlin to try to resolve the quarrel, that “he could not do67 anything more, and that as he had never uttered the alleged wish he could not express regret for something that he had never said.” The matter was, as far he was concerned, closed.

It was a flat denial of the truth, and everyone else knew it. The queen, who felt she couldn’t withdraw her invitation, made her own attempt to extract an apology. At Salisbury’s prompting she offered Wilhelm a carrot if he would write to say how glad he would be to see Bertie, and how sorry he was about the misunderstanding: she would make him an honorary admiral of the Royal Navy, complete with white and gold uniform, on his arrival at Cowes. Privately, the queen regarded the continental habit of conferring honorary military titles on fellow royals as vulgar. In the past she had prevented Bertie from accepting them.

Wilhelm fell upon his new title as if nothing had ever given him so much pleasure in his whole life. “Fancy wearing68 the same uniform as St. Vincent and Nelson. It is enough to make me quite giddy,” he wrote to Malet, the British ambassador, who had presented him with the news. “I feel something like Macbeth must have felt when he was suddenly received by the witches.” Not that, he added, he saw the ambassador as a witch. No, he was more of a good fairy … But he completely ignored the queen’s quid pro quo. “Her Majesty wrote69 to me ten days or so ago that she … considered the whole [Vienna affair] as closed and finished to her satisfaction … So you see all is right.” Again, this simply wasn’t true. But the queen, worn down by Wilhelm’s stubbornness and pressed by Salisbury, let the subject drop. Bertie, who felt that the kaiser was implying that he was the rude one and had made it all up, grumpily complained that he had been “sacrificed70 by Lord Salisbury to political expediency,” but was persuaded to accept the inevitable. The incident was tacitly blamed on the Austrians.

Wilhelm arrived at Cowes on 2 August 1889 in a splendid mood in his new admiral’s outfit on the royal yacht Hohenzollern, with an escort of twelve German battleships. Arriving on your own large private yacht was the equivalent of arriving in your own Lear jet—most major royal families in Europe had two, though royal yachts weren’t quite what most would understand by the word: they were often the size of a warship. The British Victoria and Albert had a crew of 120 and could carry fifty guests. Under the gold leaf, Hohenzollern, the biggest and most powerful royal vessel afloat, was all too identifiable as the warship it had once been.

The British family was gracious. Bertie met Wilhelm off the boat, accompanied by both his sons: Eddy, who was at Cambridge, and George, who—in stark contrast to his cousin’s sudden elevation to the admiralty—had just become a captain after six years in the navy. Neither boy had seen Wilhelm since the Jubilee of 1887 (and before that not since the early 1880s), when he had held himself aloof from the English relations. Since Wilhelm had become kaiser, George had taken to making little barbed comments about him in letters to his mother, calling him “William the Fidgety,” and affecting to laugh at his endless moving about: “He must have been71 to nearly every capital in Europe by this time except London … Whatever he may think of himself, he is much too frightened to do that.” The queen was prepared to be chilly. She had assured72 Vicky that she would not speak to those around Wilhelm who had been deliberately horrible to her—a difficult promise to keep since the kaiser’s entire entourage had more or less been hand-picked for their dislike of his mother. But in her grandson’s company, she thawed. He “kissed me affectionately,” she noted, and “made a very pretty speech.” He joined her each day for breakfast, which at Osborne she took outside in a little white tent whatever the weather, and dinner. With Edward he attended a naval review and inspected the warships, making a stream of suggestions about how they might improve their guns. He watched the yacht races at Cowes, instantly conceiving a passion for yacht-racing, and Bertie put him up for membership of the Royal Yacht Squadron. When his entourage marched past—demonstrating the goose step, or Stechschritt, as it was known in Prussia—they did so “beautifully,” the queen wrote, “though in that peculiar Prussian way, throwing up their legs.”73 He invested his two cousins with the Order of the Black Eagle, told everyone how fond he was of Uncle Bertie, appointed his grandmother colonel-in-chief of his 1st Dragoon Guards, and presented her with a portrait of himself in a pointed Prussian helmet. Encouraged by Salisbury, the queen presented Willy’s younger brother Heinrich, a genial plodder whom the English relations liked, with the Order of the Garter, and sent Bismarck her self-portrait.

The family disagreements seemed forgotten. The Bismarcks boasted that “no Sovereign74 was ever so fêted.” The queen quietly reassured her daughter, “It was not in the least75 for William’s sake that he was so well received … It was as your and dear Fritz’s son, my grandson, and the sovereign of a great country with whom it is ever more important we should be on friendly terms.”

Back home, Wilhelm was seized with a new and voluble Anglophilia. The Bismarcks were in no doubt about its source: the kaiser, the chancellor remarked disgustedly, had been enslaved by a British admiral’s uniform. Even Philipp zu Eulenburg noted disappointedly that he was “like a child” over it. Wilhelm told Herbert von Bismarck that his British naval title meant that “he would have the right, as Admiral of the Fleet, to have a say in English naval affairs and to give the Queen his expert advice. I looked up in surprise, but HM was perfectly serious in what he said.”76This was a little odd, to say the least. Honorary titles were flashy trinkets traded between monarchs as symbols of friendship. It meant your picture went up in the officers’ mess and they drank to your health and celebrated your birthday. No one took them seriously; but Wilhelm had. “It really gave77 me such an immense pleasure that I now am able to feel and take [an] interest in your fleet as if it were my own,” he told the queen after his visit. “And with keenest sympathy shall I watch every phase of its further development, knowing that the British ironclads, coupled with mine and my army are the strongest guarantees of peace …”

In October, arriving on the Hohenzollern off the Greek coast for his sister Sophie’s wedding to the heir to the Greek throne, Wilhelm put on his admiral’s uniform, flew the pennant of a British navy admiral, and invited himself—as a real admiral would—to inspect the British squadron anchored there. The officers were a bit startled, but impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge of British warships. It was, he told his grandmother, “a great treat78 for me and also a source of unqualified satisfaction to me.” In December he sent her a plan for the reorganization of the Royal Navy, along with what he claimed was the on dit about the Mediterranean fleet: “‘The French look79 down upon the British Mediterranean Squadron with disdain and are sure of doing away with it in short time after the opening of hostilities!’ Fancy! What would Lord Nelson say!” The number of battleships in the Mediterranean must, he insisted, “be reinforced as soon as is deemed expedient,” from five to twelve. In 1891 he would send more “humble suggestions”80—which he claimed other officers of the Royal Navy were too respectful to raise—the chief of which was that if the navy didn’t replace its heavy guns now, it would “seriously jeopardize the ‘moral’ of the men.” The Admiralty’s tight-lipped reply was that the guns were already being replaced and the kaiser’s other suggestions “would not be81 improvements.”

It’s hard to know what Wilhelm thought he was doing with these kinds of letters, but they would become a cornerstone of his “personal diplomacy”: letters in which friendliness was combined with unintentional hilarity, presumptuous advice and stories about another country’s malignity, which were often clumsy and sometimes even made up. What part was sincere, what part lurking ill will, he probably couldn’t have said himself. He was capable of two precisely opposite wishes at the same time—a desire to be politically close to England combined with a desire to see it at war with France—without feeling there was any contradiction. This may have been a function of his own unresolved personality. It also demonstrated the fundamental conflict between the way all leaders of European nation-states saw themselves as in competition with their neighbours, and the notion that friendships between royal dynasties could cross national divides. The culture of German diplomacy, which regarded Bismarck’s extremely successful, ruthlessly manipulative diplomacy and the Hobbesian view of the world that informed it as admirable realism, encouraged this. But it also raised the question of whether the young kaiser, who showed not only an ability to flatly deny something that everyone else knew to be true, but a determination to see the world rather too much the way he wanted it to be, might be, perhaps, a bit mad and even dangerous.

Wilhelm manifested many symptoms of “narcissistic personality disorder”: arrogance, grandiose self-importance, a mammoth sense of entitlement, fantasies about unlimited success and power; a belief in his own uniqueness and brilliance; a need for endless admiration and reinforcement and a hatred of criticism; proneness to envy; a tendency to regard other people as purely instrumental—in terms of what they could do for him, along with a dispiriting lack of empathy. On the other hand, plenty of royals shared these attributes. It was hard not to have an inflated sense of uniqueness and self-importance, an expectation of constant deference, a certain blind selfishness and assumption that others were there only to serve if you had been brought up amidst constant deference. Queen Victoria was immensely selfish. Plenty more royals were actively eccentric. The Hapsburg family, for example, had its fair share of odd-balls (though this owed quite a lot to endemic syphilis and in-breeding): one archduke was so obsessively religious that he killed himself by drinking water from the river Jordan; several were enthusiastic cross-dressers. Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Joseph, sister of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, devoted her entire existence to the maintenance of her eighteen-inch waist with a regime of obsessive exercise, leather corsets and a diet of raw steak and milk. She insisted on being sewn into her clothes rather than bear the imperfection of creases. It is hard to say for certain whether Wilhelm’s problems stemmed from pathology or the eccentricities of the European royal production line.

If the queen received her grandson’s cheerily presumptuous missives with gritted teeth, there was always Lord Salisbury to remind her how much better things now were than they had been. “The Emperor’s attitude82 towards Your Majesty is now very satisfactory. He is a changed man from what he was twelve months ago,” he reassured her. In some ways she and the navy got off lightly. Wilhelm considered himself an expert on many things and was not shy about saying so. In subsequent years, he would personally inform the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg that he was conducting Peer Gynt all wrong; tell Richard Strauss that modern composition was “detestable” and he was “one of the worst;”83 and, against the wishes of its judges, withdraw the Schiller Prize from the Nobel Prize–winning German dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann, whose downbeat Ibsen-esque social realism he didn’t like. A hundred years before, when courts had still been centres of cultural patronage, such decisions might have been accepted without comment; now, however, even in Germany the emperor’s taste was frequently the subject of hilarity.

Bismarck was not pleased with Wilhelm’s new-found passion for England, not least because it was accompanied by a fresh wave of hostility to Russia. Since Wilhelm’s trip to St. Petersburg in 1888, the tsar had shown no84 inclination to make a return visit to Berlin. Wilhelm felt spurned, and by early 1889 he was back in General Waldersee’s anti-Russian camp, a fact Bismarck also didn’t like—he knew that Waldersee had his eye on the chancellorship himself. For his part the tsar had decided he disliked Wilhelm too. In the New Year of 1889, when his ministers pressed him about going to Berlin, he lost his temper and called Wilhelm a German “pipsqueak” and “a rascally young fop, who throws his weight around, thinks too much of himself and fancies that others worship him.”85

The chancellor and the kaiser were also disagreeing over domestic policy. In the spring of 1889 a miners’ strike over reduced wages and twelve-hour days had spread across industrial Germany, had politicized large swathes of the urban working classes, and threatened to become a general strike. It was a manifestation of some of the unresolved contradictions in the new Germany. Bismarck had made no attempt to address the tensions and differences; in fact he’d more often used them to play political factions off against each other, and gradually to close off political power from liberal groups, leaving it in the hands of the old Prussian Junker elite. But Germany also had the largest and best organized Socialist Party in Europe and the disenfranchisement of the emerging lower-middle and working classes only fed it. Bismarck, who regarded the working classes as greedy children who needed to be managed and coerced, wanted to send the army in to smash the strikes and then destroy the Socialist Party with strenuously repressive legislation. The kaiser, however, had different ideas. Encouraged by his old tutor Hinzpeter, he’d decided that the government must try to woo the workers away from socialism by demonstrating the monarchy could be sympathetic to their needs and that he was critical of exploitative and unscrupulous employers. He invited a strikers’ deputation to meet him, an unprecedented event in German politics, then a group of mine owners, lecturing them on the welfare of their workers. He proposed legislation to regulate Sunday work and shorten working hours for women and children. Bismarck was utterly horrified—as were the tsar and Queen Victoria.

What was really at stake was who was in charge. Wilhelm had come to the throne determined to rule himself, convinced he could make as good a job of it as Bismarck. The chancellor had been effective master of Germany for nearly thirty years and was not ready to give it up. Wilhelm was not interested in the day-to-day work of government, but he had been far from easy to manage. In May 1889 he had told a group of anti-Russian generals, “If Bismarck won’t86 go along against Russia, then our ways must part.” He had told Emperor Franz Joseph that should Austria find itself at war with Russia, Germany would come to its aid, whether Bismarck liked it or not. When Bismarck announced his intention of reopening the German markets to Russian securities as a gesture of goodwill, Wilhelm ordered him not to do it. The chancellor went ahead without telling him. When he discovered this, Wilhelm was incandescently angry. He complained that the Bismarcks were high-handed and demeaned the throne, but he convinced himself he could deal with them.

Alexander III finally came to Berlin in October 1889. To Bismarck’s relief Wilhelm set aside his enmity and with the chancellor reassured the tsar that Germany had no desire for conflict with Russia. In reply, the tsar gave his word of honour that Russia would not attack Germany. As proof of their new intimacy, Wilhelm leapt onto the tsar’s train as it departed for “another short and lively conversation.” He told Waldersee that he had been “very satisfied with the visit,”87 and when a few weeks later twenty Russian divisions were moved closer to the German border—one more feint in the shadow-boxing that the eastern European states indulged in—Bismarck was able to persuade him not to be alarmed.

The real story of the visit, however, was the conspicuous attention the tsar showed Bismarck, who had been distrusted in St. Petersburg for years. He was now being hailed as Russia’s best friend in Berlin. “I certainly have88 full trust in you,” the tsar was reported as saying, “but unfortunately your Kaiser gives others his ear, especially General Waldersee, who wants war. That we are very certain of.”

•  •  •

With talk of war widespread in Europe, it was an auspicious moment for monarchs to meet and test Albert’s theory that close relations between royal dynasties promoted peace. European royalty converged on Athens for the wedding of Wilhelm’s sister Sophie to the heir to the Greek throne, the slightly dim Constantine (“A good heart89 and good character,” Queen Victoria had said of him, “… go far beyond great cleverness”), who was first cousin to both George and Nicholas and had spent summers with them in Denmark. It was one of only two occasions in their lives when Wilhelm, George and Nicholas would all be in the same place. George, his brother Eddy and Nicholas spent the time talking90 and teasing each other in each other’s rooms with their boisterous cousin “Greek Georgie.” Wilhelm had no time for his younger cousins; he and Dona were too busy offending the Greek royal family. (The kaiser, famous for travelling with a vast suite, had “brought 6791 gentlemen with him. A pity he didn’t bring a few more,” George observed sarcastically.) They’d publicly expressed their horror that Sophie might convert to the Orthodox Church, and threatened to exile her from Germany if she did. They’d also brought a strict Lutheran pastor to the wedding to perform a Protestant service, without consulting the Greek monarch. King George of the Hellenes was so angry he refused to meet Wilhelm off the boat—a slight for which Wilhelm never forgave him.*

By December 1889 Wilhelm’s antipathy to Russia had returned. Waldersee had told him that the Russians regarded his friendliness as a sign of weakness, and that the tsar had said of his Berlin visit, “Everyone laid93 flat on their bellies before us.” In the first months of 1890 the relationship between Wilhelm and Bismarck disintegrated entirely. In January at a crown council—a meeting of Prussian government ministers—Wilhelm was astounded when Bismarck energetically deprecated his new social legislation in front of the other ministers, who then backed the chancellor. The performance was supposed to show the kaiser who was boss. But Bismarck was not quite as light on his feet and as omniscient as he once had been. He was seventy-five and now spent months on his country estates, eating vast quantities of foie gras for his indigestion.

In his absence, opposition had begun to spring up in the corners of government: courtiers, princes, officials sick of his insistence on dominating everything; disgruntled Foreign Office bureaucrats who opposed his Russian policy; army officers who fancied a war; ambitious politicians; Reichstag members who felt his anti-Socialist legislation went too far; and not least Eulenburg, who had come to disapprove of Bismarck’s attempts to dominate Wilhelm. The anti-Socialist laws were defeated in the Reichstag and in February Bismarck’s bloc of support, the Kartell, was smashed in the elections, while the Socialists logged their biggest vote ever, nearly 1.5 million. Without a working majority in the Reichstag to pass his policies a chancellor was lost. Wilhelm grabbed his opportunity. Bismarck held on grumpily for a few more weeks, trying to bully Wilhelm into submitting to him, until in mid-March the kaiser came to visit him and demanded his resignation. There was an ugly wrangle in the course of which Bismarck showed the kaiser a letter from the tsar which described him as “mad, an untrustworthy, badly brought-up boy,” an insult that hit its mark. “Tsar Alexander speaks of me in the most dismissive terms,” Wilhelm told Waldersee. “He’s supposed to have said that I am mad.”94

A few days later Bertie and George arrived in Berlin for a state visit. Wilhelm—all smiles and dressed in his British admiral’s uniform—had arranged celebrations on a grand scale with gala banquets and military inspections. Bertie couldn’t help but enjoy being treated “like a sovereign,” and he listened when Wilhelm talked of his desire to be “on good terms with this country.”95 But the air was full of ambivalence. When Wilhelm wanted to make Bertie an admiral in the German navy, he declined—Alexandra had insisted he turn it down—though George accepted an honorary commission of colonel in a Prussian dragoon regiment. “So my Georgie boy96 has become a real live filthy blue-coated Picklehaube German soldier!!!” Alexandra wrote to her son. “Well, I never thought to have lived to see that! But never mind; as you say, it could not have been helped—it was your misfortune and not your fault—and anything was better—even my two boys being sacrificed!!!—than Papa being made a German Admiral—that I could not have survived—you would have had to look for your poor old Motherdear at the bottom of the sea.” Father and son watched Bismarck make his final departure from the Berlin Schloss. Edward said of the chancellor who had maligned and offended his family, “‘That’s a brave97 man. I like his spirit. We will call upon him.’ Which was just what I wanted to say,” George said later. “I don’t think the Emperor ever forgave us.” Wilhelm had told the queen that the chancellor had been having crying fits, and would “infallibly have died98 of apoplexy” if he hadn’t let him go. They’d parted, he insisted, “under tears after a warm embrace.” “We talked99 to him for sometime,” George wrote in his diary. “He speaks English perfectly.” Bismarck told them that he had always thought he would only last three years with Wilhelm; he was out by only a year.

The rest of Europe watched Bismarck’s fall with fascination. For all his ruthlessness, the chancellor, as Malet reminded Lord Salisbury, had been universally regarded as “a guarantee100 of the maintenance of peace in Europe.” The continent was split on whether the impetuous, energetic young kaiser was splendid, ridiculous or frightening. Some months later the British Daily Chronicle would hail him as “the most conspicuous101 figure in Europe,” a man who projected “indomitable resolution and inexhaustible energy.” But the British satirical magazine Punch mocked his grandiose speechifying, and seized on his liking for naval metaphors, running a cartoon of him, “Dropping the Pilot,” in which he stood on deck having sacked Bismarck, declaiming pompously “the office of watch on the ship of state has fallen to me.” The Russians, extremely alarmed, were suddenly almost fawning. The tsar summoned the German ambassador to explain how much they wanted the Reinsurance Treaty, which was up for renewal, to continue, and how he had “absolute confidence102 in our Kaiser, particularly as a representative of the monarchical principle.”

The German Foreign Office allowed the Reinsurance Treaty to lapse in June. Bismarck’s subordinates there, to whom he hadn’t bothered to explain his policy, had never seen the point of it. As far as they were concerned it had failed to improve relations with Russia and was a betrayal of Germany’s treaty with Austria. Wilhelm, gratified by Alexander’s apparent desperation to be friends, decided that his own diplomatic advances would be enough to keep the Russians on the boil. No one seemed to understand the huge symbolic significance of the treaty in Russia as a sign of the German government’s fundamental goodwill. It was a decision they would come to utterly regret.

Lord Salisbury saw the ironies of Bismarck’s fall: “It is a curious103 Nemesis on Bismarck. The very qualities which he fostered in order to strengthen himself … have been the qualities by which he was overthrown.” Wilhelm, however, worried him. A few months before the kaiser’s accession in 1888, the prime minister had been informed by the British surgeon general, John Erichsen, that some fifteen years before, when Wilhelm was fourteen, a group of German doctors had sent him detailed medical notes about the heir, asking for his opinion of the young man’s condition. Erichsen, who admitted he was breaching medical etiquette but felt “the circumstances were so104 serious that they justified the breach,” had concluded that Wilhelm would never be “normal.” He would be subject to “sudden accesses of anger,” during which time he would be “incapable of forming a reasonable or temperate judgement on the subject under consideration,” and while “it was not probable that he would actually become insane, some of his actions would probably be those of a man not wholly sane.”

Salisbury’s private secretary would tell George years later that whenever the prime minister encountered some particularly odd piece of behaviour from Wilhelm, he could be heard to mutter “Erichsen” under his breath.

* Her justification of this by no means legal act was that she was saving the documents from Bismarck, who had already conspired to minimize the important role Fritz had played in persuading his initially reluctant father and other German princes to accept unification.

* Barely three months later Rudolf would commit suicide with his mistress at Mayerling, the deaths initially presented as an accident.

* It was claimed that she had passed state secrets to foreign powers, and that she’d had an affair with her court chamberlain while Fritz was alive.

* Present-day Tanzania.

* When Sophie did convert in April 1891, Wilhelm banned her from Germany for three years. “Another fine92 specimen of a domestic tyrant!” Queen Victoria expostulated.

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