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This not my own writing, but the work of a friend.  While reading Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace, Paul Earl was struck by the similarity between MacMillan's description of Kaiser Wilhelm II and a certain President of the United States.  Paul wrote this article, and gave me permission to publish it here. – Tony

A Reflection on the Lessons from History

There is something ludicrous in the spectacle of the President of the most powerful nation on earth trading childish insults and threats with the leader of one of the world’s smallest, poorest, and weakest countries.  Consider, by way of a parallel, a teacher trying to deal with preteen bullies brawling in the schoolyard by trading insults with the kids.  They would lose all their authority and respect, while doing nothing to resolve the problem.  But, like a schoolyard bully, Mr. Trump apparently cannot resist a fight.  “I fight back and it isn’t pretty,” he said in response to criticism from Senator McCain.  To much of the world, however, given the stakes in the game, it is not only ludicrous but also distressing.

It is even more distressing to realise that just such a drama played out on the world stage once before – and did so with catastrophic results.  Wilhelm II was Kaiser of Germany from 1888 to 1918, and historian Margret MacMillan gives us a portrait of this “complicated and bewildering character” in her book, The War That Ended Peace – an analysis of the events that led to the First World War.  Wilhelm, according to her account, displayed the same impulsiveness, unpredictability and scorn for accepted protocols as Trump.  A senior member of government compared him to a balloon.  “‘If you don’t keep fast hold of the string, you never know where he’ll be off to’.”  Said another contemporary: “The whole court used to worry when the Kaiser made a speech because they never knew what he was going to say.”  “The Kaiser,” MacMillan added, “was known for his indiscretions.  On more than one occasion the German authorities had been obliged to use their influence, even pay handsomely to suppress his potentially embarrassing effusions.”  Wilhelm, of course, was one of the key players whose behaviour led to the Great War of 1914-18.

There is much more about Wilhelm in MacMillan’s book.  The following are extracts, some in MacMillan’s words, and some being the words of Wilhelm’s contemporaries: colleagues, politicians, civil servants – some German and some not.  Each extract is verbatim and is in double quotation marks.  When MacMillan quoted directly from a second source, the words are contained in single quotation marks within the extract.  All of them bear a striking resemblance to comments about Trump that has emerged in the media for the last year or so.

The Kaiser, to begin with, was egotistical.  Said MacMillan, he “had a tendency, largely unchecked because of who he was, to know it all.”  Moreover, he “did not like being contradicted and did his best to avoid those who disagreed with.”  Said a contemporary, “‘H.M. [His Majesty] sees and judges all things and all men purely from his personal standpoint.  Objectivity is lost completely’.”  Said another: “‘He just talks himself into an opinion...  Anyone in favor of it is then quoted as an authority; anyone who differs from it is being fooled’.” 

He was also aggressive and blunt.  According to MacMillan, he “barked out orders and scribbled often terse and often rude comments – ‘stale fish,’ ‘rubbish,’ ‘nonsense’ – on documents,” and “was fond of saying he would ‘smash,’ ‘destroy,’ ‘annihilate’ those who stood in his or Germany’s way.”  According to one contemporary quoted indirectly by MacMillan, “he was well intentioned but that his violent language and outrageous statements gave observers the wrong impression.”  Said a second: “‘We ask ourselves, with a touch of anxiety, whether the man we have just seen is really convinced of what he says, or whether he is the most striking actor that appeared on the political stage of our day’.”  Yet a third observed: “‘Pale, ranting wildly, looking restlessly about him and piling lie on lie he made such a terrible impression on me that I still cannot get over it’.”

These characteristics might have been ignored or tolerated had Wilhelm provided clear and effective leadership.  But he did not.  According to MacMillan “he had no clear policies beyond a vague desire to make Germany, and himself, important and if possible, to avoid war,” while his “erratic behaviour, his changeable enthusiasms and his propensity to talk too much and without thinking first helped to create an impression of a dangerous Germany.” Moreover he “changed his opinion from moment to moment, yet always insisted he was right.”  To another, he was “‘like a battleship with steam up and screws going, but with no rudder, and he will run into something some day and cause a catastrophe’.” 

He was full of bravado and yet simultaneously insecure.  Said MacMillan, he “was an actor and one who secretly suspected that he was not up to the demanding role he had to play.”  While “he admired toughness in others and sought it in himself, Wilhelm was emotionally fragile.  He was ‘torn with doubts and self-condemnation’,” she added, quoting a contemporary.  Despite these self-doubts, “Wilhelm thought of himself, though, as a master of diplomacy and insisted in dealing directly with his fellow monarchs, often with unfortunate results.”  To one observer: “‘He is a child and will always remain one – but a child who has power to make everything difficult if not impossible’.”  To MacMillan he “wanted the power and the glory and the applause without the hard work,” but “was both lazy and incapable of concentrating on anything for very long.”

His immaturity revealed itself in various ways.  In what he found amusing: “Wilhelm’s sense of humor remained that of an adolescent.  He made fun of physical oddities.”  In his vanity: “his famous mustaches with their aggressive tilt were fixed into place every morning by his personal barber.”  In his need to demonstrate his dominance: “He composed his features into a stern mask and his eyes were cold,” and on greeting people: “He deliberately shook hands too hard with his strong right hand.”

MacMillan’s book was published two years before the 2016 presidential election in the United States so it is difficult to imagine that she was trying to draw a parallel between Wilhelm and Donald Trump. 

The chapter from which all but two of these extracts are taken is entitled “Woe to the Country Which Has a Child for King,” which is from the book of Ecclesiastes.  MacMillan picked up on this theme with a droll analogy.  Putting Germany into “in the hands of someone like Wilhelm … was rather like giving a powerful motor car to Toad in the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows.”  Anyone who knows that book will appreciate the comparison. 

Further distressing is to appreciate that there are also parallels between the circumstances that prevailed among nations prior to the Great War and those that obtain today.  Germany challenged British hegemony; China challenges America’s.  Serbia, a small and weak nation, posed difficulties for its powerful neighbours, Russian and Austria-Hungary; North Korea poses difficulties for China and, more notably, the U.S.A.  Germany built a navy to match Britain’s; North Korea builds nuclear capacity against America – navies being “a sign of being a major power just as nuclear weapons are today,” as MacMillan pointed out.  Bellicose threats were made among the nations of Europe; bellicose threats are being made between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

At the start of the 20th century, the adversaries in the European disputes used these threats to bluff each other, anticipating that their opponents would back down and be humiliated.  And it worked – until 1914 when their sense of honour (“we might say prestige today,” MacMillan remarked) made it impossible to back down without losing credibility.  Are Trump and Kim playing the same game?  And might it lead to the same outcome?

What does history teach us?  To begin with, the results of the 1914 to 1918 conflict seem to confirm the truth of Ecclesiastes’s observation: Germany, led by a man with the emotional maturity and belligerent character of a schoolyard bully, did indeed experience untold woe.  Does the history of the First World War also lend credence to Senator Corker’s recent comments about the White House being “an adult day care,” and Trump putting the United States on a path to World War III?  History, of course, is not a predictive science, and all the parallels in the world do not prove that the world is on the way to conflict – nuclear or otherwise.  Given the historical precedents, however, Corker’s prognostication is ominous.

So what is to be done?  When preteen bullies brawl in the schoolyard, the adults must step in.  Adult behaviour triumphed during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when John F. Kennedy chose diplomacy over war – interestingly, as MacMillan pointed out, just after Kennedy had read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August and saw how “Europe had blundered into the Great War.”  But where are the adults today?  Who is trying to control these two men, each with his finger on a nuclear button, trading childish insults (“rocket man”; “dotard”) across the Pacific Ocean.

MacMillan did not blame any one person or country for starting the First World War.  Rather, she accused “those who took Europe into war of two things.  A failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war.”

One thing remains certain.  If the adults in the United States’ government lack “the courage to stand up,” and suffer from their own “failure of imagination,” then the chances of “blundering” into war – nuclear or otherwise – will be immeasurably enhanced.  As one panelist on CNN recently remarked, “The madness must stop.”

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