In the months after Bismarck’s dismissal it became clear that Wilhelm was not about to launch any cataclysmic wars and that he wanted England as an ally. Instead of appointing the alarmingly hawkish General Waldersee as his new chancellor, he chose a liberal army general. Leo von Caprivi was a surprisingly radical, well-regarded, if politically inexperienced, soldier who had done a good job of running the German Admiralty. The new regime, which was called “the New Course,” seemed to promise a more inclusive government, less reliant on Bismarck’s right-wing Junker elite, and a raft of social and education reforms based on Wilhelm’s ideas, alongside anti-protectionist measures to improve Germany’s fractious relations with its near neighbours. Hand in hand with this liberal turn was a new foreign policy orientation towards England. Wilhelm, it was said in the embassies of Berlin and Vienna, intended to be “his own Minister for Foreign Affairs,” though he’d appointed an Anglophile foreign minister, Adolf Baron Marschall von Bieberstein, who was also from Catholic Baden rather than Prussia, as “a sort of undersecretary to carry out the orders.”1

Within three months of Bismarck’s departure Britain and Germany had signed an agreement, the Heligoland Treaty, whereby Britain handed over the tiny rocky island of Heligoland in the North Sea and recognized German dominance in South-West Africa, while Germany recognized Zanzibar in East Africa as a British protectorate and renounced claims to other African territories that German and British would-be colonists had been arguing over, including Uganda. Wilhelm was delighted. He had decided that Heligoland was the perfect sea anchorage for a future German navy. He hoped that the new treaty would be the first step in a closer relationship between the two countries by which Britain would support Germany’s quest for colonies abroad and would eventually join the Triple Alliance with Germany, Italy and Austria. The treaty was far from popular in Germany, however. The increasingly voluble German colonial movement regarded any renunciation of claims to parts of Africa as a bad thing, and even neutral onlookers saw it as an indication of how far the new German regime was willing to go to buy British friendship. Within the Berlin court, moreover, and among the traditional ruling elite and the army, there were many who deplored Wilhelm’s liberal turn.

Still, the young kaiser was certainly a vibrant public force, and popular. He moved across the public stage in a blur of activity, constantly travelling, constantly seen—because constantly photographed. There he was at the head of a column of immaculate German soldiers, ever the army officer; or visiting a factory—daringly modern and energetic; or devotedly surrounded by his six tall, healthy sons—the father of the fatherland. Even his moustache—teased into the shape of a wide up-thrusting “w”—was so famous it acquired a name: Er ist erreicht! “It is achieved!” Manipulated through the miracle of pomade—its key ingredient the remarkable new product, petroleum jelly—it was the very model of a modern moustache, a controlled riposte to the great bushy, biblical patriarch beards and side-whiskers of the previous generation.*

The kaiser addressed the publics of Germany and beyond, constantly. The speeches, hundreds of them, were reported exhaustively in the press, reaching a larger audience than any monarch had before. Sometimes they were alarmingly bellicose, sometimes they claimed a divine mission, always they were full of confidence, revealing a man equally at home with tradition and the pulse of the new age. He was, he told an audience in Düsseldorf in May 1891, “an instrument of2 the Lord without regard for views and opinions of the day;” but, he told a teachers’ conference in 1890, “I believe I3 have rightly understood the aims of the new spirit and of the century which is now nearing to a close.” There was no other monarch in Europe with such an instinct for publicity, image and presentation. And the image promised much: that he might reinvent monarchy for the twentieth century; that, as one British magazine had it, he was “at least … a man4 of strong character, possibly with a touch of true genius;” that he would unite a country that had not resolved its many internal differences; that he would lead Germany to the very top of the world powers.

Prussia had a tradition of austerity and simplicity. Wilhelm wanted an end to all that. His monarchy would be lavish, large, extravagant and public. He, Dona and their children moved into the vast baroque Neues Palais in Potsdam and the 650-room Berlin Schloss. Millions of marks were spent on renovations and extensions; heating, electric lights and bathrooms were installed. More huge sums were spent on the new imperial train—eleven gilded carriages, one big enough to contain a table seating twenty-four; and a new royal yacht, Hohenzollern, in cream and gold. It was the biggest private royal vessel afloat, large enough to sleep eighty guests and staff. Then there were the no-expense-spared racing yachts, all called Meteor, designed to beat Bertie’s racers. Living on such a grand scale had drawbacks: at the Berlin Schloss the kitchens were so far from the dining rooms (a mile) that food was invariably cold before it got to the table, though Wilhelm didn’t really care about what he ate. The royal apartments, by contrast with the private rooms of the Russian and British royal families, were large, grand and full of gilt—as if Wilhelm had no interest in private life or family intimacy, as indeed, he did not really.

He didn’t spend much time with his family. Soon after his accession he established a habit of travelling almost incessantly, mostly without Dona. Even when he was at home, she often—to her own disappointment—saw him only for breakfast and perhaps a ride after lunch. Forced to stay in Berlin with her and his entourage, he would complain about the unutterable boredom, while she longed for his company. Nor did he have close relationships with his sons. They seemed to feature more as a photo opportunity than as part of a close family. Only his daughter Victoria, the youngest, as “Little Willy,” the crown prince, later wrote, “succeeded from childhood5 onwards to win a warm place in his heart.” From the boys he expected total obedience; in order to speak to him they had to apply first for permission from their tutors or military governors. Aged ten they entered either the army or the navy and were packed off to cadet school in Plön near the Danish border—there were none of the civilian influences his mother had visited upon him. The crown prince in particular resented his father’s distance and strictness. From his early twenties he would do his best to rebel against his father. It was Dona who provided the boys with their emotional nourishment—she was loving and devoted, but stultifyingly traditional—and their outlook. Deploring Wilhelm’s moments of Anglophilia, she had taken care, she told one of Wilhelm’s ministers years later, “that her sons6 would think differently.” Dona’s relationship with Vicky eased after Wilhelm became kaiser but she was careful never to leave her children on their own with her mother-in-law for fear they might absorb her dangerous liberal impulses. Three out of six would later flirt—or more—with Nazism.

The young “Siegfried” came to England for his first proper state visit in July 1891. The streets of London were decked out with garlands and banners carrying the words “England and Germany; the peace of Europe.” Crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace to get a glimpse of the glamorous young emperor and his world-famous moustache. The British press were almost unanimously enthusiastic about the visit. “The importance7 of the Emperor’s visit to England … is at once a solace in the present and a hope for the future,” noted the London Standard. “He will be able8 to judge for himself … how keen and strong is the sympathy that unites the two great European branches of the Teutonic race, and how little either branch can afford to part company with the other,” intoned The Times. (Only the left-wing paper Justice, which saw in Wilhelm’s assertive pronouncements “the old jackboot9 junkerism” and a dangerous appetite for autocracy, and satirical magazines such as Punch, which had from early on found the kaiser’s Wagnerian grandiosity too tempting not to ridicule, dissented.) He almost brought the house down at a huge banquet at the Guildhall when he told a cheering audience of the great and good, “I have always felt10 at home in this lovely country, being the grandson of a Queen whose name will ever be remembered as the most noble character … and whose reign has conferred lasting blessings on England. Moreover, the same blood runs in English and German veins … I shall always, as far as it is in my power, maintain the historical friendship between our two nations … My aim is above all the maintenance of peace.”

Unsurprisingly the British were extremely curious about this paragon. At a soirée given by the society hostess Lady Londonderry, the Liberal politician and intellectual John Morley observed him closely:

He is rather short;11 pale, but sunburnt; carries himself well; walks into a room with the stiff stride of the Prussian soldier; speaks with a good deal of intense energetic gesture, not like a Frenchman, but staccato: his voice strong but pleasant, his eyes bright, clear, and full; mouth resolute, the cast of face grave or almost stern in repose, but as he sat between those two pretty women … he lighted up with gaiety, and a genial laugh. Energy, rapidity, restlessness in every movement from his short, quick inclinations of the head to the planting of the foot.

Everything bespoke purpose, but the perceptive Morley also mused, “I should be disposed strongly to doubt whether it is all sound, steady and the result of a … right coordinated organization.” Lord Salisbury’s clever, elegant nephew, Arthur Balfour, was impressed by Wilhelm’s “extraordinary energy,12 self-confidence and interest in detail,” and his conviction that “he has a mission from Heaven.” This, Balfour mused, might send him and his country “ultimately to Hell,” but also, “may in the meanwhile make him do considerable deeds on the way there.”

Wilhelm’s visit was not so joyously anticipated at court. “They are all13 very much bored at the Emperor of Germany’s visit and are dreading what he will say and do,” the queen’s new lady-in-waiting, Marie Mallet, wrote in her diary. “The more I hear of him the more I dislike him, he must be such a despot and so terribly vain. However, poor man, he has a most insipid and boring wife who he does not care for and from whom he escapes by prancing to the four corners of the world.” The queen had been inflamed by regular letters from Vicky complaining about Wilhelm’s latest exploit, banning his sister Sophie from Germany because she had converted to the Greek Orthodox Church. She was also irritated that he had ignored her request to delay his visit by several weeks, while she hosted the wedding (which she’d masterminded) of another grandchild, Mary Louise,* to Prince Aribert of the small German duchy of Anhalt. She’d told him his presence would upstage the bridegroom’s parents, but he’d insisted on coming anyway. Edward was disgruntled because barely a month before the kaiser had sent him a scolding letter about his involvement in the Tranby Croft affair, the gambling scandal in which Edward had been caught up and which had exposed him to sheaves of criticism in the British press. Wilhelm told Edward he was unsure whether he could continue to associate with him. The letter was really an aggressively timed reminder that the kaiser could pull rank whenever he wanted.

But, as Victoria’s Russian daughter-in-law Marie observed to Wilhelm’s sister Charlotte, however much in his absence the queen might denounce “that dreadful tyrant14 Wilhelm who always takes things so badly and makes rows about anything,” when he arrived it would “all disappear.” He seemed able to charm her every time—but then his admiration for her was always palpable: he told his friend Philipp zu Eulenburg, “How I love15 my Grandmother, I cannot describe for you. She is the sum total of all that is noble, good and intelligent. With her and my feelings for her, England is inextricably connected.” Sure enough, when the kaiser arrived, the queen relented—at least a little. He was on his best behaviour and took such pleasure in being in England. She was, she wrote16 in her journal, pleased at his enthusiastic welcome in London, but she found his visits wearing, not least because he always brought such an enormous entourage—100 this time—who were squeezed into the inns and hotels of Windsor. (Everyone found Wilhelm exhausting, even Eulenburg, who spent most of the time away from Berlin on diplomatic postings.)

Rather, it was Dona who made a bad impression. Unable to hide her Anglophobia, or indeed her suspicion of all foreigners, she had what George’s cousin Missy called a “stereotyped graciousness17 which too much resembled condescension to be quite pleasant.” She behaved with what one German diplomat described as “stiffness, rudeness18 and arrogance.” Wilhelm may have chided her privately. He often spoke slightingly in public about what he called her provinciality, and said that you could always tell “she was not brought up19 at Windsor but rather in Primkenau.” She would take care afterwards to be courteous on foreign trips, though occasionally her hostility would seep out.

From Windsor Wilhelm went on to the Isle of Wight. The kaiser made a great thing of loving Osborne, his grandmother’s home there. “I shall count20 [the hours] until the moment when I can again sight dear Osborne rising out of the blue waters of the Solent,” he told his grandmother in January 1893. His childhood memories of it, and the two large portraits of himself which hung in the house, gave him a reassuring sense of inclusion in the English family, a feeling he sometimes had to struggle to keep hold of. But his very enthusiasm for it was a reminder of how unlike the rest of the family he was. Osborne might once have been fun for children, but by the 1890s no one but the queen liked it. It had become a mausoleum to the dead, from Albert to the queen’s latest dog, and Victoria presided over it with an increasingly selfish hand. “Even as a child21 I was struck by the ugliness,” George’s eldest son would later recall. An odd combination of Italianate palazzo and English stately home on the outside, lined inside with Stuart tartan and filled with antler-horn furniture, it was cold, oppressive and deathly silent because the queen insisted on absolute quiet. She would also spend days in her rooms, the royal servants hanging around whispering in corridors, not allowed to go out until she did. When she did leave the building, the entire household rushed out too, but would flee in all directions because “it was a great crime to meet her in the grounds.” When this happened, one private secretary recalled, “we hid behind bushes.”22 These rules, of course, did not apply to the kaiser.

To Wilhelm, Osborne was especially alluring in July because of Cowes Week, the most glamorous international social and sporting event of the year, when the super-rich and English high society—not always the same thing—gathered on their yachts and raced each other. It was an event which confirmed England’s place as glamour and lifestyle capital of the world. So fashionable was it that the Russians liked to call Yalta, the resort on the Black Sea, the “Cowes of the Crimea.” After Wilhelm’s first visit in 1889, to the horror of austere Prussian traditionalists such as Waldersee, he had spent 4.5 million marks on buying and refitting his racing yacht, Meteor. In 1895 he even created his own version of Cowes, Kiel regatta, complete with its Imperial Yacht Club. Cowes brought together all the things that Wilhelm admired about England: not the cultural and democratic traditions his mother had pressed on him, but the luxury, the sense of a country on top and at ease with itself, its upper echelons confident and cosmopolitan. He was fascinated by the English upper classes, and he especially liked, one of his naval entourage observed, “unrestrained conversation23 with distinguished English society which he finds he values most and searches for in Germany in vain, because the great majority here bend before the Kaiser like a grainfield before the approaching storm; he finds at Cowes an unselfish exchange of opinion with independent, strongly formed characters and personalities.” At home, “unrestrained conversation” wasn’t much to the kaiser’s taste; he didn’t expect contradiction, and Prussian aristocracy was accustomed to solemn deference. But for a few days the insouciance of British society was rather thrilling, though this wasn’t quite how the kaiser put it himself. “The old and strong24 monarchical principle showed itself in all its vigour in the bearing of the people whenever one met them,” he told the queen afterwards. “It showed the … wish to make me feel quite at home among them, as I am a good deal of an Englishman myself.”

The visit seemed to go so well that it was widely assumed England must be considering joining the Triple Alliance. The thought did not reassure either the French or the Russians. Barely a week after Wilhelm returned from England in August 1891, the French navy visited the Russian naval base at Kronstadt, just outside St. Petersburg, and the great autocrat Alexander III stood bareheaded for the republican anthem, the “Marseillaise”—a song which had previously been banned in Russia. Europe was amazed. The republic and the autocracy were clearly preparing to draw closer.

Though tirelessly polite to the Germans and keen to seem friendly, Lord Salisbury could see no reason to make a formal alliance and forfeit Britain’s long-maintained detachment from Europe, a detachment which he believed gave it important room for manoeuvre. Nor could Germany help Britain where it was vulnerable, in Asia; and he saw no reason to make any concessions to the Germans in the colonies—he thought they made brutal colonists.25 In any case, he distrusted Wilhelm. Neither Wilhelm nor his Foreign Office took the hint. The kaiser, who constantly failed to differentiate between the queen and the British government, continued to write flattering letters to his grandmother, telling her she was the “Nestor” and the “Sybilla” of Europe—“revered by all;26 feared only by the bad.” He tried to please her by returning to the dukes of Cumberland—the claimants to the kingdom of Hanover—money sequestered by Bismarck. He even kept his temper when she unveiled a statue to his father and failed to ask him to the ceremony. In March 1892 he asked “to visit you quite27 privately at Osborne this summer,” a request to which she reluctantly agreed even though the timing was bad—Eddy had just died. It may well have been because she’d heard that Wilhelm had been unwell. The official version was that he’d had an ear infection. In London there were rumours that he’d suffered some kind of “nervous breakdown.”28 At the German court there were more alarming rumours that members of the medical profession had suggested that Wilhelm might be mad.29

The kaiser had taken to his bed for two weeks. He told his grandmother he’d been “too much overworked,”30 a description which would have raised a snigger among his ministers. The truth was that, having laid claim to being Germany’s saviour and the most brilliant man in Europe, Wilhelm had proved quite unable to live up to his promise, and Bismarck’s retirement had left him exposed. Although he’d told Caprivi that the chancellor’s job was just a temporary role until he himself was ready to take the reins of government, he had no staying power at all. “Distractions,”31 Waldersee had observed increasingly bitterly, “—whether they are little games with his army or navy, travelling or hunting—are everything to him … He reads very little apart from newspaper cuttings, hardly writes anything himself apart from marginalia on reports and considers those talks best which are quickly over and done with.” Wilhelm was all front. He’d filled his first years as kaiser with a round of pageants, processions, parades and elaborate memorials celebrating long-forgotten Hohenzollerns and historical events. He showed himself off to his people constantly and travelled incessantly—indeed he was so seldom in Berlin that he’d been nicknamed der Reisekaiser, “the travelling kaiser.” After four years, he was still rushing around, the pageants were quite as frequent but there seemed precious little otherwise to show for it all. Wilhelm appeared unable to distinguish the trivial from the important—he’d spend hours looking at photographs of warships or moving the position of the smoke stacks on a new cruiser, rather than read government reports. He had no idea how he was going to accomplish all the great things he had promised. For him kingship had been a rather vague notion of having power, being great and beloved. Worse, he was an appalling vacillator, changing his mind—he was too often influenced by the last person he’d talked to, and constantly in quest of popularity—with such frequency that it drove his ministers mad and made the government look irresolute and confused. Chancellor Caprivi praised Wilhelm’s habit of “continually talking32 to all kinds of people,” but observed wearily that “he often contradicted his official announcements and misunderstandings arose in consequence.” His colleague Marschall, the foreign minister, was more forthright: “It is unendurable.33 Today one thing and tomorrow the next and after a few days something completely different.”

Although the government passed its social legislation, Wilhelm’s liberal leanings and appetite for being the “King of the Workers” hadn’t lasted long, just as long, in fact, as it took him to realize that the German workers were not going to forsake the Socialist Party for him. He took the working classes’ “betrayal” personally, and denounced their “ingratitude.” He longed to gather the nation around him, and at the same time worried about incurring the displeasure of his traditional constituency, the court, his military entourage, the right-wing parties in the Reichstag on whom the government relied to pass their bills. Then there was his habit of making sudden rogue interventions, getting overexcited during speeches and announcing a new law that completely contradicted agreed government policy, or writing to foreign monarchs without telling the Foreign Office, or appointing someone completely inappropriate to a government position—he particularly prized his power to choose and dismiss ministers. (Caprivi once received a Captain Natzmer who said that the kaiser had made him governor of the Cameroons the previous night, having met him at an imperial reception.) He was also quick to resent anyone he felt wasn’t sufficiently supportive. He was soon complaining of Caprivi, he “never thinks of doing34 something simply because I ask him to … I cannot call such behaviour having confidence in me.

Around Wilhelm there was a force field of approval. Few members of his entourage—his civil and military cabinets, his ministers, his friends even—could bring themselves to contradict him. People around him found themselves agreeing with his version of reality rather than the one that actually existed outside his head, partly out of a traditional deference to the dynasty, obsequiousness and to stay in favour, but also because it was so exhausting not to. Anne Topham, an English governess who later taught the kaiser’s daughter, described how his entourage lived

in a state of35 constant self-suppression, for the one thing their master could not bear was for anyone to disagree with him, to have an opinion apart from his own. What he seemed to seek in his surroundings was a chorus of approval from persons who had sunk their own personalities, submerged them for the time, while they themselves played the role of listeners. At first I rather despised this complaisant [sic] courtier-like attitude, yet insensibly I too fell into it, found myself searching for points of agreement with the Emperor, rather than risk displeasing him by any form of polite argument.

Even Philipp zu Eulenburg, who repeatedly tried to make him understand his mistakes, wrapped his criticisms up in elaborate flattery. “Wilhelm II wants36 to shine … to decide everything himself,” he would tell a rising politician. “But what he wants to do often goes wrong. He loves glory; he is ambitious and jealous. In order to get him to accept an idea, you must act as if the idea were his.” When dealing with the kaiser, he advised above all, “Don’t forget the sugar.” The professional costs of failing to do this were obvious. In 1890 General Waldersee—unable, after nearly a decade of toadying, to bite his tongue any longer—had told the kaiser that his participation in military manoeuvres and insistence on winning, despite making hopeless mistakes, was wrecking the entire point of the exercise. Wilhelm demoted him.

This might not have mattered so much if Wilhelm hadn’t believed his own publicity, and been so possessive of his personal power, refusing to turn the government over to professionals. As it was, it put him right in the firing line when things went wrong. In early 1892 there was a hysterical Protestant backlash within the government and the liberal and conservative press to a bill to liberalize religious teaching and specifically to allow Catholics to set up and administer their own schools. Catholics were a large minority in Germany, especially in the South, and they were represented politically by the Centre Party, a liberalish party on whom Caprivi had had to call to pass much of his social legislation. Suspicion of Catholicism, and Catholic allegiance to Rome, however, was still a deep-seated prejudice among the traditional Prussian elite who ran the government and headed the right-wing Conservative and (confusingly named) Liberal (who weren’t actually liberal at all) parties. Wilhelm, who regarded himself as enlightened about Catholicism, panicked, first publicly supporting the bill, next seeming to denounce it, then condemning “grumblers,” and finally killing it with the insistence that it be amended to meet Protestant criticism. Caprivi, a decent man who was struggling to juggle all the different interest groups and felt publicly abandoned by Wilhelm, tendered his resignation. It would not be the last time: he would resign ten times in four years, usually because it was the only way to bring Wilhelm into line. The crisis was a stark illustration of just how politically cracked, even broken, Germany was, and how hard it was for anybody to make a popular appeal across partisan loyalties. It also demonstrated that to make the kind of popular appeal to the nation that Wilhelm wanted, he would have to be seen to extricate himself from politics as Emperor Franz Joseph had done in Austria. But that would involve renouncing the exercise of personal power, and this was something he refused to do.

Criticism of Wilhelm and his regime was coming from all sides. From retirement Bismarck had begun to take revenge by orchestrating a cleverly pitched press campaign consistently attacking the government’s policies. One of its effects had been to encourage criticism from other parts of the Right, for example from the newly formed Pan-German League, which—inspired by anger over the Heligoland Treaty, by which “The hope of a37 great German colonial Empire was ruined!”—had been set up to campaign against government policy which “weakened” Germany. Wilhelm himself had begun to attract a torrent of personal criticism for a series of public gaffes. In 1891, on a visit to Munich, he’d offended the whole of South Germany by inscribing Suprema lex regis voluntas, “The will of the King is the supreme law,” in the town hall “golden” book. It might have been a joke, but it was interpreted as a crass assertion of Prussian might. He’d shocked the nation in a speech to a group of new army recruits in which he said that, should he order it, they would have to “shoot down” their own families “without a murmur.” On another occasion, he’d denounced the German Socialist Party as the “enemy of the Fatherland” and said he intended to “crush”38 it. While this might play well in the Prussian heartland of rural Brandenburg, it was not acceptable in Germany’s sophisticated urban centres. August Bebel, the Socialist Party leader, said that every time the kaiser made a speech the party gained another 100,000 votes. A speech to the provincial Landtag in Brandenburg, in February 1892, had had a particularly bruising reception, and prompted suggestions that the kaiser was suffering from megalomania—or “Caesaromania” as contemporaries liked to call it. He’d spoken a little too emphatically about how he had “been appointed by an authority39 on high, to whom I shall later have to account for my actions,” and told his audience, “I shall lead you on to ever more splendid days. I am taking the right course and I shall continue full steam ahead.”

Four years before such words would have been greeted more sympathetically; now the honeymoon period was over. “The World,”40 the now-demoted Waldersee commented with more than a little schadenfreude in March 1892, “which was initially enthusiastic about him, is now completely disillusioned.” Couldn’t someone, his English grandmother wondered, “Altogether beg41 him not to make so many speeches”? The irony was, Wilhelm’s aggressive absolutist rhetoric was almost never matched by action. But as he knew all too well, in public affairs appearances counted.

The combination of the criticism and Caprivi’s resignation pushed Wilhelm over the edge. In March 1892 he took to his bed for two weeks in “nervous collapse.” It would not be the last time that he would have to acknowledge the gaping difference between how he wanted to see the world and how it actually was, and that he was not quite Siegfried and Bismarck rolled into one. Collapse was his response and his coping mechanism. It was his way of processing failure and disappointment without actually having to do anything about it. Behind his bedroom doors he recalibrated reality with his view of himself. Then he would bounce up, ready to conquer the world again.

The crisis was weathered. As would be future crises. Even though large sections of the country would continue to feel disconnected from the court and the government—industrial workers, the Left, progressive liberals, large swathes of the South, Catholics—and there would be periodic waves of criticism of government policy from across the political spectrum, the fact was Germany was rich, and wealth was a great political emollient. The boom that had started in the post-unification years continued and continued; money poured into the country. There was also a large mass from the rising lower-middle classes—in England their equivalent would have been the “clerks” who read the Daily Mail and embraced its patriotic imperialism—for whom Wilhelm would continue to be the heroic leader, despite his idiosyncrasies and gaffes. Extreme Pan-Germans might oppose government policy, but they still felt loyal to the kaiser. In some strange way, moreover, Wilhelm truly did embody Germany, a fact that even his decriers allowed. It was almost as if his personality—his touchiness, his unpredictability, his restlessness, his lack of resolve—resonated with the young country which, only seventeen years old when he had acceded, was in its own adolescent spasm: quick to detect a slight, overexcited by the idea of flexing its muscles, prey to sudden switches in mood, desperate not to appear weak, insistent on being acknowledged. This struck contemporaries. Wilhelm, the Jewish intellectual Egon Friedell would conclude in 1926, “almost always was42 the expression of the overwhelming majority of his subjects, the champion and executor of their ideas, the representative of their outlook on life. Most Germans were nothing more than pocket editions, smaller versions or miniature copies of Kaiser Wilhelm.” Heinrich Mann would write a novel, Der Untertan (The Man of Straw), about just such a figure, a slavish admirer of the kaiser.

So in April 1892, a month after his nervous breakdown, Wilhelm Tiggerishly waylaid the queen on her return journey from a visit to Italy, and tried to persuade her to come to Berlin. Lord Salisbury, who regarded the queen as one of the few people who could manage the kaiser, suggested “it would be43 a very good thing if your Majesty would see him and calm him.” The queen couldn’t face the idea: “No no I really44 cannot go about keeping everyone in order,” she protested, and took the opportunity to complain to her private secretary about his forthcoming summer visit. “The Queen never45 invited the Emperor … she wd. be very thankful if he did not come.” She asked that Sir Edward Malet, the English ambassador in Berlin, might “hint that these46 regular annual visits are not quite desirable,” a message that Malet—like so many of those who had dealings with Wilhelm—never quite got round to delivering.

When Wilhelm did come, however, he was on his best behaviour, respectful of the family’s terrible recent loss of Eddy. “Not in the least47 grand, and very quiet, and most amiable in every respect,” Edward wrote to George. The queen had stipulated that he must lodge on his own boat, and refused his enthusiastically proffered brass bands. Nevertheless Wilhelm enjoyed himself “immensely,”48 Bertie’s private secretary, Sir Francis Knollys, wrote. “So much indeed, that I am afraid it will tempt him to repeat his visit very frequently.”

There was no movement, however, on the diplomatic front. By 1893 there was palpable disappointment in the German Foreign Office that there seemed to be nothing to show for three years of explicit friendliness to Britain—no alliance, no colonies. A Liberal victory in the British general elections of 1892 brought no change of attitude. Though the two countries were supposed to be on excellent terms, the German Foreign Office began to feel intense irritation towards what it felt was British condescension and obstructionism. It was aggrieved and upset by the British reluctance to talk about an alliance, because Russia—spurned by Germany—and France had now done the unthinkable and made a secret defensive alliance (of which every politician in Europe was aware), sandwiching Germany between two potential enemies—Bismarck’s worst nightmare. At the same time, Britain and Germany found themselves in disputes over colonial claims in Fiji, New Guinea, Congo, South-West Africa and Samoa.

The crucial change was that the German government had begun eagerly to pursue a colonial empire. Bismarck had regarded colonies as an expensive distraction. Realizing that Germany’s wealth came largely from its manufactured goods sold to other developed countries, he’d only occasionally encouraged would-be German colonizers as a sop to the German Right, and otherwise viewed the imperial scramble as a way to sow dissension between France and Britain. This he’d done very successfully, particularly with the Berlin Conference of 1884, which ordained that Africa should be carved up into the spheres of influence, the divisions decided by who occupied a piece of territory more convincingly, or aggressively, than anyone else—a recipe for constant clashes. After Bismarck’s departure, however, Wilhelm had seized on the notion of creating a great colonial empire as the achievement that would demonstrate how he had surpassed the chancellor, and unite Germany around him. After all, throughout his childhood his mother had drilled into him the greatness of the British empire as a uniting, civilizing force that had brought the country lasting riches and status.

An empire seemed to offer many attractions: wealth, trade and, perhaps more importantly, status. Increasingly it seemed incomprehensible to many educated Germans that a country as dynamic and powerful as their own should have only a few colonies. Moreover, there were many like Philipp zu Eulenburg, who believed that imperial expansion might be a good way of displacing domestic discontent among the masses, getting them to identify with the state in an exciting imperial project abroad. Having lost his enthusiasm for social reform, Wilhelm seemed to regard this as a particularly attractive proposition. The German political Right—a group the government felt increasingly keen to please—moreover, had within it a well-organized and assertive colonial lobby. The problem was that the Germans were late to the imperial scramble. Wherever they went, they found Britain there first. The British opposed every German incursion. This looked particularly ungenerous to the Germans since the British empire was now heading in size for one-quarter of the world’s49 landmass. What were a few thousand African square miles or a small archipelago in the Pacific to it? There was angry criticism of Britain in the German press and from the German government’s traditional supporters in the National Liberal Party, where colonial enthusiasm was strongest. Fritz Holstein, a senior adviser in the German Foreign Office, who had enthusiastically advocated the German pursuit of England, commented resentfully, “We assist England50 every day—even by sitting still—simply by being there. England assists us damned little up to now … it is always non possumus.”

Fritz Holstein was the most influential political operator in the German Foreign Office, despite the fact that in his whole time there—he would retire in 1906—it was said he met Wilhelm only once. Whether or not this was literally true, it was certainly the case that he had an instinctive dislike of the limelight, and was already wryly unimpressed by Wilhelm, deliberately keeping out of the kaiser’s way, and relying on others, notably Philipp zu Eulenburg, to sell his policies. This skulking in the shadows, combined with a lack of interest in the diplomatic social whirl, and his unkemptness—in Berlin he was famous for his shabby hat, threadbare coat, shaggy beard and bent, short-sighted, purposeful gait—helped to fuel a myth of sinister and aggressive ubiquity, secrecy and conspiracy. In reality, Holstein was an able, acerbic, workaholic bureaucrat, committed to his work in the Foreign Office, with a dry sense of humour and an omnivorous appetite for gossip and foreign affairs, fuelled by an obsessive letter-writing habit. Little else occupied him—except perhaps the schnitzel with a fried egg on top to which he gave his name. He also had, however, a dangerous weakness for taking offence too quickly and political setbacks too personally. And with Eulenburg he had become involved in backroom manipulations to, as they regarded it, keep the kaiser on track, and to maintain some consistency in German policy. The alliance, such as it was, was a marriage of convenience. Holstein knew Eulenburg had the emperor’s ear; Eulenburg disliked the pro-British policy. While Holstein was beginning to think that Wilhelm needed to be reined in, Eulenburg persisted in believing the opposite—but he valued Holstein’s grasp of politics and foreign affairs and his influence, so tailored his words to him accordingly.

Holstein still wanted an alliance, but he concluded that Britain needed to be taught a lesson about German support and that Germany should be more robust in pursuing its own interests. So in early 1893 the German Foreign Office told the British government that it must step aside to give Germany a railway concession the two countries had been competing for in Turkey. If it failed to, Germany would withdraw its—vital—support for the British occupation of Egypt. The British were startled by the brusqueness of the demand, but acquiesced. At that precise moment they found themselves in need of German support—more than they had done in decades. The expanding borders of the empire had finally brought them into conflict with every other imperial power at the same moment: the Americans in Venezuela, the French in Africa, the Russians in Asia. The new Liberal foreign secretary, Lord Rosebery, began to wonder whether Britain might need a genuine ally.

In July 1893, when the kaiser came to Cowes, Rosebery went out of his way to demonstrate that Britain was interested in getting much closer to Germany. On the kaiser’s first evening on the Isle of Wight, an overnight crisis arose between Britain and France over a long-running rivalry for dominance in the kingdom of Siam. For a few hours war seemed possible. Rosebery telegraphed the queen, requesting that the kaiser be informed and sounded out about whether he would be willing to support Britain if war broke out. Wilhelm was at that moment dressed in his British admiral’s uniform, giving a dinner for Edward and his younger brother, Arthur of Connaught, on his yacht. He “expressed satisfaction”51 at the turn of events, announced himself delighted to help, and spent the rest of the evening aggressively teasing his uncle Bertie that he might soon see active service in India—a sore point as the prince had always felt embarrassed by his mother’s refusal to let him serve in the British army.

After the guests left, however, Wilhelm’s blustery confidence collapsed. Alone—apart from a few of his entourage and Eulenburg—he became panicky and tearful, talking himself into a state about Germany’s (or perhaps his own) inability to prosecute a war. If there was a war, he said, Germany would have to be part of it in order to show its status as a world power; but what if Russia came in with France? The Royal Navy couldn’t beat the combined navies of France and Russia, and Germany would lose a war on two fronts. “If one is not a world power, one is nothing,” he said. “I really have never seen him so overcome,” Eulenburg wrote, “and I had to bring the whole force of my mind to bear upon finding reasonable arguments which would soothe him.”52 Under Wilhelm’s hearty Prussian warlord lurked a deeply vulnerable, fearful man, whose fragility was another reason why his entourage and coterie were so unwilling to trouble him with awkward news. The Jewish industrialist and intellectual Walter Rathenau, who met the kaiser perhaps once a year, remarked how visible the contrast was up close between the man Wilhelm wanted to be and the man he was—with his little white hands, his soft hair, his small white teeth. Rathenau found himself rather moved by a man “continuously fighting53 with himself, overcoming his nature in order to wrest from his bearing energy, mastery … a nature directed against itself, unsuspecting.” Wilhelm’s fragility lay at the heart of his friendship with Eulenburg, perhaps his only real friend.

In many respects Eulenburg was the anxious, indulgent, uncritical parent the kaiser had never had. He was also a hypochondriac, volubly emotional and “artistic,” and around him Wilhelm was able to be both masterful and in charge, but also to shrug off the exhausting hyper-macho persona he felt obliged to adopt so much of the time. Because of this, Eulenburg was one of the few people to whom Wilhelm would listen; he in turn had set himself to smooth over the many problems the emperor encountered. Inevitably, he had become enmeshed in the incessant intriguing endemic in the German government, his extreme monarchism causing him to encourage Wilhelm to ignore or dismiss ministers, and his influence gaining other members of the so-called Liebenberg Circle influential posts which made them deeply unpopular. But he was also a pragmatist and virtually the only person who could moderate Wilhelm’s more extreme and unreasonable behaviour.

By the next morning the crisis had blown over. Britain and France reached agreement, Wilhelm recovered his sang-froid and went out yachting, leaving Eulenburg with “the fat unwieldy”54 Edward, whom he watched disgustedly, “breakfasting steadily from ten till four.” Like most of Wilhelm’s entourage, the majority of them Prussian soldiers with an instinctive suspicion of the British, Eulenburg had no great liking for England (he complained that the beer tasted like “rubber Mackintoshes”55) and he dreaded its effect on the kaiser. He was highly suspicious of Edward, whom he regarded as “a capable, amiable, but very crafty man, with a remarkably sinister look in his eye—not our friend.” Bertie, he later wrote, passed amused, hostile comments about Wilhelm, professing confusion at his “colonial game,” and concern at his one-armed nephew’s interest in boats: “one can’t help being a little afraid he may do himself some damage.”56

Two days later there was a major family falling-out when Wilhelm refused to cut short a race between his yacht Meteor and Bertie’s Britannia, when it became clear that the race wouldn’t finish in time for a gala dinner which the queen had organized in his honour. Bertie, clearly irritated, felt he couldn’t refuse Wilhelm though he was fully aware of how angry the queen would be. “Much startled and57 put out at hearing only after 8 that William and Bertie could not be here for dinner,” she wrote irritatedly in her journal. “Georgie [who had just returned from his honeymoon] was in a great state and everything had to be rearranged. It was extremely vexatious.” Perhaps Edward secretly wanted to finish the race—he beat the kaiser, who had spent a fortune trying to get himself a yacht faster than his uncle’s. The two men didn’t arrive at Osborne until 10:30 p.m., just as the queen was sweeping furiously out of the dining room. One—not always entirely reliable—German onlooker described the scene: as Wilhelm apologized,58 Bertie stepped behind a pillar for a moment to compose himself and mop his brow, then came out to apologize to his hatchet-faced mother, retiring immediately afterwards behind his pillar.

The trip was generally agreed to have been a great success.

Over the autumn and winter of 1893 Lord Rosebery made ever-warmer overtures to Germany. In the New Year of 1894 he made it clear that he was willing to enter into real negotiations with the Triple Alliance. Wilhelm congratulated himself on Rosebery’s “new about-turn,”59 claiming that it stemmed “from my initiative”—he had, he claimed, sent the British foreign secretary a blunt message stating that only “complete honesty” would do.

But instead of meeting Britain halfway, the German government rejected the offer, even though it was exactly what they had been working for since 1890. Their frostiness was, as one historian has written, “almost incomprehensible.”60 It seems the Germans got themselves tied up in knots, caught between suspicion that the British were planning to ensnare them in some trick they hadn’t anticipated, and a belief that if the British needed them it was a good time to extract concessions. They took an aggressive line on a number of simmering colonial disputes. In April 1894, as Wilhelm and Queen Victoria celebrated Nicky and Alix’s engagement in Coburg, the German Foreign Office demanded sole possession of the Samoan islands, over which the countries had been arguing since 1889. The British, highly irritated, baulked. The German ambassador, Hatzfeldt, was urged by his masters to break the stalemate. Hatzfeldt was a conscientious servant of the state who had long seen his role as trying to coax Britain into the Triple Alliance. At the same time he had noticed that since 1890 his government had become more and more obsessed with the desire for colonies. He wrote a long memo to the chancellor in which he observed that if Germany applied pressure on Britain’s colonial empire it might both “demonstrate the disadvantages61 of our hostility” and force the British to be more amenable over the question of Samoa. The irony was, Hatzfeldt himself didn’t believe in pressure politics, he regarded them as counterproductive. He told a colleague wistfully that if the Germans could only be patient, “turtle doves62 would fly into their mouths, but their vacillations meant they defeated themselves all the time.”

The kaiser was extremely enthusiastic about the new idea. “Splendid, corresponds63 entirely with my views and our policy is to be conducted as recommended here.” He would tell one of his English cousins a few years later, “We must have64 an alliance with England and if she won’t agree we shall have to frighten her into it.” Hatzfeldt’s plan was almost eerily similar to his own semi-bullying attempts to force his English relatives to give him attention. Even though the relationship was supposed to be thriving, Wilhelm had pointedly failed to attend a memorial service for Eddy in Berlin, and had refused to let his brother Heinrich go to England for the funeral. When the queen had told him he wouldn’t be invited to George’s wedding, he had refused to let Heinrich, who was invited, go. Edward suspected ill feeling. He asked the queen to demand an explanation, whereupon Wilhelm pretended that he had always meant to let his brother attend. The kaiser suspected, and it pained him, that the British preferred Heinrich to him. He wasn’t entirely wrong. Heinrich was much more easygoing and friendly than he. Since marrying Irene of Hesse, one of Alix’s older sisters, he had become an enthusiastic and frequent visitor to England. He’d got to know George, to whom he sent occasional inconsequential letters notable for their kindly warmth, very different from Wilhelm’s own productions: his mother, he passed on to George in one letter, had praised George so highly that he was almost jealous. “Never you mind,65 Georgie,” he added. “I think you are fully entitled to a good name and character!”

The policy was soon put into action. In the spring of 1894 the British were trying to negotiate agreements with various imperial parties over the Congo, as part of a long-running rivalry with France in North Africa. The German government refused to come to an agreement. The refusal backfired because the British negotiated a treaty with the more obliging Belgians. The German Foreign Office, working itself up into a great rage, denounced the treaty as “shameless,”66 because it ignored German claims in the area. Then, when the British offered to amend the treaty, the Germans insisted it be abandoned.

Wilhelm was in an awkward position. In Germany he professed himself furious at the Congo Treaty and British trickery. Almost simultaneously, however, the queen had just made him colonel-in-chief of the 1st Royal Dragoons. It was quite a gesture: the first time a foreign monarch had appeared on the British army list. Wilhelm had been begging for a rank in the British army—preferably with a Scottish regiment; he liked the kilts—for months, and had cunningly got Edward campaigning on his behalf by offering him in return an honorary title à la suite in the queen’s German regiment. Victoria disapproved: “This fishing67 for uniforms on both sides is regrettable,” and besides, “The Queen thinks he is far too much spoilt already.” What if he started to interfere with army policy? Rosebery had initially agreed with her. He was beginning to find the Germans’ abrupt tone “thoroughly insufferable,”68 and he thought the title would seem like an endorsement of their rudeness. Lord Salisbury, from whom Rosebery occasionally took advice, pointed out, however, that it was a cheap way to keep the kaiser sweet. The queen gave way and Wilhelm was characteristically fulsome: “overwhelmed,”69 and “moved, deeply moved, at the idea that I now too can wear beside the Naval uniform the traditional British ‘redcoat.’” He told the British70 ambassador that he utterly deplored the German Foreign Office’s regrettable attitude in the Congo and implied that he had nothing to do with it. At Cowes that summer he was all smiles, wearing his new Royal Dragoons uniform, as he “graciously acknowledged71 the hearty cheers.” What a shame it was that the usually impeccably organized British somehow forgot to remind his new regiment to send a detachment to greet him.

Germany’s threats so alarmed its Austrian and Italian allies, who felt their security depended on the Royal Navy’s commitment to defend the eastern Mediterranean from Russia, that they quietly insisted the German government accept the amended Congo Treaty. The damage was done though, and to no one’s advantage. And over the autumn and winter of 1894 there were more imperial clashes between the two nations in Morocco, the Sudan, the Transvaal and, once again, Samoa, where by the end of the year the two countries so distrusted each other that they had stationed warships there despite the onset of the hurricane season. The Prince of Wales’s success in St. Petersburg occasioned angry complaints72 in the German press and even the usually phlegmatic ambassador Hatzfeldt complained that after years of being rebuffed by England, his government viewed Britain’s cosying up to Russia with extreme disappointment. The next time England73 wanted anything from Germany, it would have to pay a very high price for it.

The plan to bully the British into closer friendship often looked indistinguishable from plain hostility. “The abrupt74 and rough peremptoriness of the German action,” wrote one British junior foreign official, “… gave me an unpleasant impression … the method adopted by Germany in this instance was not that of a friend.” Thirteen years later this man, Sir Edward Grey, would be foreign secretary himself, one with a deep-rooted mistrust of German power politics. As for Rosebery, the one British statesman who might have considered an alliance, he was an enthusiastic imperialist, very sensitive to accusations that the Liberal Party was not as committed to the empire and its defence as the Conservatives. The harder the Germans pushed on colonial issues, the more obstructive he became. By the end of 1894 he had concluded that an alliance was impossible. What the British Foreign Office couldn’t make out was why the Germans were being so gratuitously aggressive. “It is difficult75 to understand what advantage they expect to gain by such a policy,” the new foreign secretary, Lord Kimberley (Rosebery having become prime minister), wrote. “… I can’t pretend to read the riddle.”

The fact was, the German government wasn’t quite sure what its goals were either; or at least different people had different ideas. Marschall, the foreign minister, had become convinced that Samoa was the key issue and that Germany must take control of it by any means in order to demonstrate to a critical domestic audience that the government’s foreign policy was effective. Holstein, angry with the British uncooperative attitude, continued to be committed to bullying England into an alliance. “England would only be76 a reliable ally for us,” he told a friend in 1896, “… if we left her in no doubt that we would simply abandon her to her fate unless she concluded a formal alliance with us.” Eulenburg, who represented the feelings of many of the Prussian elite, had always felt Germany’s pursuit of Britain was a mistake. “I cannot deny77 that this new turn against Albion warms my heart. The centre of our future lies in world trade, and our deadly enemy in this field is England.” As for Wilhelm, he contained all the contradictions: he wanted an alliance, he wanted to trounce Britain, he wanted an empire, he wanted to be popular at home.

One thing that seemed to appeal to almost everyone in the German Foreign Ministry, however, was the notion of plain speaking, of cutting through the flowery nonsense of international diplomatic language, of pursuing an explicitly self-interested aggressive foreign policy, and being entirely honest about it—unlike the British, who dressed their acquisitiveness up in myths about the white man’s burden. It seemed in the blunt, realpolitik tradition of Bismarck, for whom, after four years, the German Foreign Office was starting to feel a little nostalgia. Salisbury told the incoming British ambassador to Berlin in 1895 that “The rudeness of78 German communications [had] much increased since Bismarck’s time,” and attributed it “to the wish for smaller men to keep up the traditions of the Great Chancellor.” Perhaps it was also a subconscious attempt to mimic the admired military values of the German army, aggressively pursuing one’s goals with no distraction or mitigation. In fact the policy was clumsy and muddle-headed and more to do with relieving feelings and striking poses than getting results. The British were far from the only ones to observe this. A British diplomat in Vienna reported in November 1894 that the Austrians were complaining that German foreign policy was ruled by “the sudden impulse.”79 There was “an absolute want of a guiding hand in Berlin in Foreign Affairs,” and “thorough confusion in the Ministry.”

This lack of focus, even chaos, was becoming characteristic of German politics. Even those embedded in the system could see it. Holstein privately complained that sometimes he seemed to be working in an “operetta-style government.”

The problem was that when he had drawn up the German constitution in 1871, Bismarck had left great holes and contradictions, deliberately failing to define the precise powers of and relationships between the offices and institutions at the top of government. This allowed him to exercise unprecedented control over every part of it. For example, the precise balance of power between the emperor, chancellor and council of princes had never been defined; and there were effectively two central governments—the German, with its unbiddable representative assembly, the Reichstag, and the Prussian, dominated by a conservative Junker clique, with its own assembly, the Landtag, whose franchise was weighted dramatically towards the Junkers themselves. What was missing was a systematized, overarching, professional body or process at the top to coordinate policy and decision-making, such as existed in Britain. Bismarck had done this job himself, and Wilhelm was simply not competent to fill his shoes. “In view of the80 absence of an overwhelming personality under whom the department heads … might be absolutely subordinated, the most contradictory opinions are now urged at high and all-highest level,” one German diplomat observed a year after Bismarck had gone. Probably no one could have done the job—each year government business increased and became more complicated—but Wilhelm, with his insistence that he was in charge, his erraticness, his susceptibility to flattery and dislike of criticism, made it worse. With Bismarck’s departure, a “Hobbesian war81 of all agents within government against all other agents” was taking hold.

The problem was not just confined to the government, it was also an issue in the army. Virtually Wilhelm’s first act as kaiser had been to address his army. “The army and I82 were born for one another,” he announced in his first proclamation, “and will stick together forever, be it, by God’s will, through peace or war.” He constantly expressed his passion and admiration for the armed forces, and had identified himself closely with them, spending a good part of every week in Potsdam inspecting his regiments, redesigning their uniforms, taking part in war games—which he was invariably allowed to win. By the terms of the German constitution he was the army’s supreme warlord, and it reported exclusively to him—not to the nation or the government. It was a power Wilhelm hugged to himself. When he was angry, he would mutter about using the army to launch a coup d’état to get rid of the Reichstag. When he was feeling martial, he would describe how he would lead it into battle. Behind their hands, the chiefs of staff expressed their exasperation and laughed at his postures. No one in the officer corps was under any illusions that Wilhelm could “lead three83 soldiers over a gutter,” as his disgruntled former mentor General Waldersee liked to say. And just as with the government, he was incapable of providing a consistent focus and overview of military planning and policy, and wouldn’t allow anyone else to do it either, deflecting any attempts—Caprivi, himself a general, made several—to bring the army under government control and scrutiny. No one outside the army, not even the chancellor, had the authority to be informed of the chiefs of staff’s plans and intentions. Rather than sapping its effectiveness—as it had the government—the effect was to make the German military more independent and more assertive. It also encouraged an inward-looking, solipsistic culture not sufficiently mediated by contact with civilian Germany, along with a set of assumptions not outlandishly different from other armies, but more extreme. Within the German officer corps war would be increasingly regarded as inevitable and necessary, and plans would be made without any consideration for political or diplomatic realities. The threads of these tendencies had existed long before Wilhelm. The army was one of the most visible and impressive symbols of the new Germany and the central part it had played in its creation had spawned an uncritical cult of admiration for its manners and methods in all regions and classes that would have its own damaging effects. But Wilhelm’s public identification with it, his encouragement of its independence, his refusal to allow that this might be unwise, would exacerbate these tendencies. The end of 1894 marked the end of Wilhelm’s liberal phase, and of Germany’s explicit pursuit of Britain as an ally. Caprivi resigned for the last time in October 1894, exhausted. The government lurched back to the Right. Wilhelm ordered legislation for the suppression of the Social Democratic Party—just as Bismarck had done four years before—as well as demanding big increases in military spending and military service. Caprivi’s replacement, found by Eulenburg, was the seventy-five-year-old Prince Chlodwig Hohenlohe von Schillingfurst, a grand former diplomat and distant relative of Wilhelm’s with Russian estates and sympathies, chosen because Eulenburg reckoned he was old, tired and would do as he was told. The Reichstag, however, remained as unbiddable as ever. The centre and Left parties, with whom Wilhelm (and his advisers) refused to treat, voted against the government. The main parties of the Right, the Conservatives and National Liberals, whom Wilhelm had hoped to rally with his moves against the Left, demanded concessions for their own agendas, particularly the privileges and protectionism that kept the Junker class so influential. The government was now often forced to go further than it actually wanted—its ministers making aggressive speeches against whichever country the parties currently hated most, and keeping tariffs high on imported grain, which made food expensive for the poor, to keep them on-side. And all the time, support for the Socialist Party had been growing. In the 1893 Reichstag elections it had won 25 percent of the vote. The old divisions seemed more entrenched than ever, and Wilhelm’s government both unable and unwilling to try to resolve them.

At Wilhelm’s Cowes visit of 1895 it was all too evident that Anglo-German relations had passed their honeymoon phase. Edward grumbled that Wilhelm now sashayed around as if he was “the Boss of84 Cowes,” and when Wilhelm’s Meteor finally beat Britannia the following year, he sold his yacht. Wilhelm, meanwhile, was smarting because the English family had been unenthusiastic about his first regatta week at Kiel. Eventually George had reluctantly attended the madly lavish celebrations (a whole island was built in the middle of a lake outside Hamburg, for a week only, for Wilhelm’s gala dinner for 600), but bluntly announced that he couldn’t accept any honorary titles. Wilhelm had taken this as a slight85 and blamed it on Alexandra’s plotting.

At Cowes his entourage saw British insults everywhere. “Fat old Wales86 has again been inconceivably rude to HM,” one member wrote to Holstein. Wilhelm himself was far from a model of tact. At a drinks party on board the Hohenzollern, crammed with grand English guests, he allegedly called Bertie “the Old Peacock.”87 He brought a thirty-strong brass band which performed, without invitation, at every possible opportunity, and two new flashy German gunships, which blocked the yacht’s course and fired a twenty-one-gun salute—giving the visit an official status it was not supposed to have. On the anniversary of the Prussian victory over the French in 1870 he gave a speech praising the supremacy of the German army. The British press were scaldingly critical. The hitherto pro-German Standard suggested the kaiser go home before he insulted anyone else, a comment Wilhelm still recalled five months later when he told the queen that the newspaper had been “very unkind”88 to him.

To make matters worse Lord Salisbury, lately re-elected prime minister, failed to take his own advice that the kaiser should be treated “like a 89jealous woman who insists on the undivided devotion of all her admirers.” He was two hours late for a meeting with him. The audience had been arranged to discuss the Eastern Question—the apparent imminent collapse of the Ottoman empire and how to stop it causing chaos in eastern Europe. Salisbury had a plan to partition its territories. Wilhelm—between furious little jokes about the prime minister’s91 tardiness—was dismissive. Salisbury was taciturn and impenetrable. The next day the kaiser decided he wanted to talk it over once more. Salisbury failed to show. He claimed afterwards with profuse apologies that he had had a simultaneous meeting with the queen, had not received the message, and had been caught in the rain. Wilhelm summoned him again. This time he didn’t turn up because he said he had to be in London early. No one entirely believed him, especially the kaiser.90 One of the less devoted members of Wilhelm’s entourage told Holstein that he thought the prime minister simply couldn’t bear to see the kaiser again.

Even so, Wilhelm’s entourage and ministers continued to worry about their master’s susceptibility to England. “I very much92 hope that his Majesty will soon return … because I very much fear the English influence,” one member wrote to Holstein.

* It was so famous that a species of South American monkey with luxuriant whiskers was named “Emperor Tamarin” after him, although confusingly its whiskers curl—impressively—downwards.

* Daughter of Victoria’s second youngest daughter, Helena, and Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. The marriage was a disaster: Aribert treated her appallingly and was almost certainly homosexual. They separated in 1900.

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