Since 1862, Prince Otto von "Bismarck had been Prussian Premier and Minister for Foreign Affairs. After a trio of Wars of Unification---with Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870---he succeeded in 1871 in the establishment of the new German Empire, becoming himself the first Imperial Chancellor of the Second Reich of his Imperial master, Kaiser Wilhelm I, German Emperor and King of Prussia.
In March 1888, the “Old Kaiser” died at age 90, succeeded by his already fatally ill son and successor, Kaiser Frederick III, a military hero of all three wars, who wanted to liberalize Germany along the lines of the English Constitutional monarchy from which his own wife was born. Dying of throat cancer, the new Kaiser was already speechless. Politically, he was opposed not only by his Chancellor, Prince Bismarck, but also by his own son and Heir, Prince Wilhelm, 29.
The Prince has come down in history as vain, spoiled, jealous, willful, proud, and over-ambitious for power, but so were his parents, a fact often overlooked in rival biographies of this historic trio. The day of his father’s death and his own immediate ascension to the throne---June 15, 1888, after a reign of but 99 days---it is true that the new Kaiser had his parents’ home surrounded by guards. No one was let in or out until the palace was searched for papers against him that he was sure existed. He was right, but they’d already been smuggled out to England, as were more before the death of his mother from cancer in 1901, and all of these were duly published worldwide after the loss of the First World War and his own abdication in 1918. His reputation was left in tatters, not least as a bad son who couldn’t wait for his father to die so that he could take his throne.
Then the ex-Kaiser had his own turn, publishing himself two volumes of personal memoirs, as well as a monarch-by-monarch history of the members of his ruling dynasty, the House of Hohenzollern, including his father, in which his love and respect for him clearly emerges. Almost all of the subsequent biographies of Wilhelm II have been against him, with the exception of that of his own court historian, Joachim von Kurenburg, in which his side of the story was finally given.
Wilhelm II’s place in history is that of the man who started the Great War that sounded the death knell of all the major Continental European ruling houses, especially his own. The millions of dead from that conflict have been firmly laid at his door, and the debate still goes on concerning whether he alone or all Europe was responsible.
Bismarck, however, has emerged as the wise statesman, who not only created the German Empire, but also kept it at peace afterwards. What is overlooked, however, is that---during 1888-90, the period of the struggle for power between these two strong-willed men---it was the new ruler, and not the elder statesman, who represented the hopes and aspirations of the New Germany’s young generation of people. They, like their Kaiser, saw the Iron Chancellor not as a man of the present, but as an historical figure of the past only. They were all ready for a grand, golden, new age, much like America in 1961.
Indeed, by 1890, Bismarck had spent so much time away from his own capital at his country estates that he was no longer recognized and cheered when he took horseback rides in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. People simply didn’t recognize him!
Issues both foreign and domestic also divided the two men, the older born during the Napoleonic Wars, the younger just before Bismarck’s own wars.
Abroad, the Kaiser and his future Chief of the German General Staff---as well as some of Bismarck’s own men in the Foreign Office---believed that a preventive war with Russia was inevitable, and that Germany should strike first. Bismarck saw Germany’s continued alliance with Tsarist Russia as the only sure way of keeping her out of an alliance with Republican France, thus dooming the Reich to a two-front war that she could not win. Two later World Wars proved him right. This struggle is shown in the film.
At home, the combative Chancellor wanted an all-out political smashing of the rising anti-monarchical party, the German Social Democrats, while the new ruler instead wanted to work with the Socis toward mutually achievable goals, and not to begin his reign by shedding the blood of his own people. At the very next national election, the Kaiser’s own conservative parties were soundly defeated by the Socis at the polls, who doubled their votes. This, too, is shown in this remarkable film.
Ironically, after Bismarck’s death in 1898, the Kaiser in the final 20 years of his reign switched positions, and adopted instead the dead Chancellor’s stands as his own: alliance with Russia, and destruction of the Social Democrats, but by then it was too late.
The period so well covered by the film---March 1888-March 1890---shows how their relationship was initially one of mutual admiration and profound respect. By 1889, however, the Kaiser was champing at the bit to rule himself, while Bismarck wanted the earth to stand still, perpetuating his great work. An irresistible force collided with an immovable object, and only one could win.
While the monarch could demand the governmental portfolio of hi most famous and chief minister, the Chancellor could not demand the Crown of the ruler. As the aged, deposed Kaiser himself later wrote in exile, “Now it was simply, ‘Emperor or Chancellor on top!’” The legal outcome was always a foregone conclusion, as Bismarck himself well knew. Both men’s vanity also got in the way of what was really best for Germany.
As the aged Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke correctly noted of Bismarck, “He wants to be master all round, and is no longer fit to be so.” As shown in the film, the rumors of his addiction to alcohol gave way to those that he was also a morphine addict, which, apparently, the young Kaiser himself also believed.
All of the new master’s advisors were also anti-Bismarck, several of them seeking to replace him themselves. One of these was Gen. Alfred Count von Waldersee, who whispered in Wilhelm’s ear that, “Frederick the Great would never have become the great
if---on his accession---he had found, and retained in power, a minister of Bismarck’s authority and prestige.” This, too, is shown in the film.
For his part, the young Kaiser, “Wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral,”---the perpetual center of all attention---as one court wag so aptly phrased it. It was true.
Wilhelm II saw his grandfather---and not Bismarck---as the true founder of the German Empire. More, he saw himself as the creator of the new German overseas colonial imperium, this to be buttressed by his own new Imperial German Highs Seas Fleet to rival that of Great Britain. In both of these goals, His Majesty saw his own Chancellor standing in his way. He had to go, and did.
Here, too, however, Bismarck’s stance proved to be the right one---a German Empire only in Europe itself, where its unrivalled Army was supreme. Both the colonies and the Navy put Germany at odds with England, also leading to the First World War that doomed the Hohenzollern Dynasty and destroyed the empire as well, followed by a republic led by the hated Social Democrats. They won in the end.
Finally, Bismarck wished that his Empire might never go to war again, while the Kaiser’s course guaranteed that a new and far greater war would, indeed, occur someday.
The film was made under the aegis of the Nazis, the party led by the man who succeeded them all: Adolf Hitler. The latter revered Bismarck, and despised Wilhelm. He did, however, set aside the Iron Chancellor’s peaceful foreign policy in favor of a Greater Germany that brought under one roof all German speaking peoples in Europe, uniting Austria to the Reich.
Under him, too, the German Navy---scuttled in defeat in 1919---was partially rebuilt, destined to challenge the United States by 1955. In this respect, Hitler proved himself to be a Wilhelminian. He also secretly desired the return of Germany’s overseas colonies, seized by the victorious Allies in 1919. A Nazi victory by 1950 and its subsequent New Order peace treaty would’ve demanded back the lost colonies.
But that wasn’t all, for Hitler, too---again like the hated Wilhelm---meant to crush Russia, and occupy it as a vast new German colony to the East, as a sort of German India. None of that was to be, however, and today Germany is once again a Federal Republic, at peace with the world after the two lost world wars.
It very nearly did, come to pass, however, during 1888-1945, and this outstanding film reveals in historical accuracy how it all began!
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