On an afternoon in early July 1914, a middle-aged man with restless, bright blue eyes and curly, iron-gray hair boarded his yacht in the German Baltic harbor of Kiel, and the following morning departed on his annual summer cruise to the fjords of Norway. Two unusual and striking features marked the vacationing traveler: one of these he was eager to display; the other he was even more anxious to conceal. The first was his famous brushy mustache with its extended, upturned points, the creation of a skillful barber who worked on it every morning with a can of wax. The other, hidden from sight, but all the more noticeable for that, was his left arm, three inches shorter than the right. This misfortune was the result of an extraordinarily difficult breech delivery performed without anesthesia on his eighteen-year-old mother, Princess Victoria of England. He was unable to raise his left arm, and the fingers on his left hand were paralyzed. Every doctor had been consulted, every treatment attempted; nothing worked. Now, the useless hand was gloved and carried in his pocket, or placed at rest on the hilt of a sword or a dagger. At meals, a special one-piece knife-and-fork set was always placed next to his plate. To compensate for the helplessness of his left arm, he had developed the right to an unusual degree. He always wore large jeweled rings on his right hand; sometimes, grasping a welcoming hand so hard that the rings bit and the owner winced, the hand shaker said merrily, “Ha ha! The mailed fist! What!”
There were two sides to the traveler’s behavior. He was a man of wide reading, impressive although shallow knowledge, a remarkable memory for facts, and, when he wished, amiability and charm. He had a strong, clear voice and spoke equally well in German and English although his English had the slightest trace of an accent and when he resorted to English slang, which he liked to do, he frequently got it wrong. He “talks with great energy,” said an Englishwoman who saw him often, “and has a habit of thrusting his face forward and wagging his finger when he wishes to be emphatic.” “If he laughs,” said an English statesman who knew him, “which he is sure to do a good many times, he will laugh with absolute abandonment, throwing back his head, opening his mouth to the fullest extent possible, shaking his whole body and often stamping with one foot to show his excessive enjoyment of any joke.” His moods changed quickly. He could be expansive and cheery one day, irritable and strident the next. His sensitivity to suspected slights was acute, and rejection turned him quickly to arrogance and menace. Remarkably, he could switch between personalities like an actor. He had complete control of his facial expressions. In public, he tightened his features into a glowering mask and presented himself as the lofty, monarchical figure his rank proclaimed. Other times, he allowed his face to relax and a softer, milder expression appeared, one indicating courtesy and affability—sometimes even gentleness.
This complicated, difficult, and afflicted person was Kaiser William II, the German emperor and Supreme War Lord of the most powerful military and industrial state in Europe.
The imperious side of William II’s character was the handiwork of Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor and creator of the German empire, who inflamed the young prince in his youth with the glory of monarchy. Astride a white horse, wearing the white cuirassier uniform of the Imperial Guard and a shining brass helmet crested with a golden Hohenzollern eagle, William saw himself as an embodiment of the divine right of kings. “We Hohenzollerns derive our crowns from Heaven alone and we are answerable only to Heaven,” he announced, adding that God was “our old ally who has taken so much trouble over our homeland and dynasty.” Ich und Gott were the two rulers of Germany, he declared, sometimes forgetting who was answerable to whom. “You have sworn loyalty to Me,” he once told a group of new army recruits. “That means, children of My guard, that you . . . have given yourself to Me, body and soul. . . . It may come to pass that I shall command you to shoot your own relatives, brothers, yes, parents—which God forbid—but even then you must follow My command without a murmur.” He drew surprising historical analogies. In 1900, sending a contingent of German troops to China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, he shouted to the departing soldiers, “There will be no quarter, no prisoners will be taken! As a thousand years ago, the Huns under King Attila gained for themselves a name which still stands for terror in tradition and story, so may the name of German be impressed by you for a thousand years on China.”
Englishman and German, yachtsman and medieval warlord, bumptious vulgarian and representative of the Deity: William never quite determined who he was. He changed his mind with bewildering frequency, but, in the opinion of his former chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, the kaiser was “not false but fickle. He was a weathercock whose direction at any given moment very largely depended on the people with whom he happened to associate.” Albert Ballin, who built the Hamburg-America Line into the largest steamship company in the world, would always say, “Whenever I have to go and see the emperor, I always try and find out whom he’s just been with, because then I know exactly what he’s thinking.”
Despite her gold and white paintwork (“gleaming swan plumage,” one passenger called it), the top-heavy Hohenzollern, with her ram bow and bell-mouthed funnels, was the unloveliest royal yacht in Europe. Her navigation officer, Erich Raeder,* described her as a “lumbering monstrosity . . . [that] rolled in rough weather to a point uncomfortable even for old sailors. Her watertight integrity would not have met the safety requirements of even an ordinary passenger ship.” None of this troubled the kaiser, who used her only in the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean, never in the heavier seas of the North Atlantic. In any case, his cruises to Norway were spent mostly at anchor in a spectacular fjord. There, surrounded by sparkling blue water, granite cliffs and dark green forests, plunging waterfalls wreathed in mist, and patches of sloping meadow dotted with farmhouses, William felt completely at ease. Some rules were always observed—no one ever spoke to the kaiser unless he had spoken first—but now, at fifty-five, he was more mature and composed than the youthful Prince Hal of a quarter century before. When he embarked on the first of his all-male yachting trips to Norway, taking with him a dozen friends whom he referred to as his “brother officers,” the atmosphere resembled that of a rowdy junior officers’ mess. By 1914, the atmosphere had become more correct, but the guest list remained all male. William’s wife, Empress Augusta, whom he called Dona, remained in Berlin. “I don’t care for women,” he said. “Women should stay home and look after their children.”
The kaiser’s day on the yacht was rigidly scheduled: mild exercises before breakfast; in good weather, an hour in his small sailboat; in the afternoons, shore excursions or rowing contests between the crews of the Hohenzollern and the escorting cruiser Rostock. These activities, however, were not allowed to interfere with the kaiser’s afternoon nap. To get the most from this hour and a half of rest, William always removed all of his clothing and got into
*Raeder would become a Grand Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the German navy in World War II. bed. “There’s nothing like getting in between two clean, cold sheets,” he declared. At seven, the company sat down to dinner, where the kaiser drank only orange juice sipped from a silver goblet. Every evening after dinner, the party gathered in the smoking room. This summer, along with songs and card games, William and his guests listened to lectures on the American Civil War.
William’s love of yachting—like his decision to build a powerful navy—had roots in his English heritage. His mother, who had married the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich, was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter; William was the queen’s eldest grandchild. He considered the British royal family to be his family; when he was angry at his British relatives, he described them as “the damned family.” He always held his grandmother in awe; Uncle Bertie, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, stirred mixed feelings. William sensed—correctly—that Bertie saw him as bothersome and looked down on him as a parvenu. This duality in William’s life—Prussia versus England, Bismarck versus Queen Victoria—warred within him constantly and affected the face he turned toward the public. Indeed, the split personality of Imperial Germany was almost perfectly mirrored by the personality of the kaiser: one moment, warm, sentimental, and outgoing; the next, blustering, threatening, and vengeful.
William measured culture, sophistication, and fashion by English yardsticks. His highest approbation was reserved for the Royal Navy. In his memoirs, he wrote, “I had a peculiar passion for the navy. It sprang to no small extent from my English blood.” For William, the appeal of Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s seaside palace on the Isle of Wight, was that Portsmouth, the premier base of the Royal Navy, was only five miles away across the Solent. “When as a little boy I was allowed to visit Portsmouth and Plymouth hand in hand with kind aunts and friendly admirals, I admired the proud English ships in those two superb harbors. Then there awoke in me the wish to build ships of my own like these someday and when I was grown up to possess as fine a navy as the English.” When he was ten, William boarded the new Prussian armored frigate König Wilhelm.
Heavy on the water lay the ironclad hull of this colossus from whose gun ports a row of massive guns looked menacingly forth. I gazed speechless on this mighty ship towering far above us. Suddenly shrill whistles resounded from her and immediately hundreds of sailors swarmed up the sky-high rigging. Three cheers greeted my father [Crown Prince Friedrich, heir to the Prussian throne]. . . . The tour of the ship . . . revealed to me an entirely new world . . . massive rigging . . . the long tier of guns with their heavy polished muzzles . . . tea and all sorts of rich cakes in the admiral’s cabin.
Once he became kaiser and long before he had a significant navy of his own, William took up yachting. Every August between 1889 and 1895, he appeared at Cowes on the Isle of Wight for Regatta Week, for which hundreds of large sailing yachts gathered from all over the world. Moored before the esplanade of the Royal Yacht Squadron, they stretched into the distance, their varnished masts gleaming in the sunlight. William loved the elegance and excitement he found at Cowes. When his own steam yacht entered the harbor, Royal Navy vessels offered a twenty-one-gun salute, and hundreds of private yachts and other anchored craft dipped their pennants. The queen always gave a banquet at Osborne House; the Prince of Wales entertained at the Royal Yacht Club. William began to race, commissioning one after another huge sailing yachts all named Meteor, the later versions specifically designed to defeat Uncle Bertie’s Britannia. When they succeeded and their owner loudly trumpeted his victories, the Prince of Wales abandoned the sport. “The Regatta used to be a pleasant relaxation for me,” he told a German diplomat in London, “but now, since the kaiser takes command, it is a vexation.” Sadly, whatever William said or did to make himself agreeable in England, Britons from the top down instinctively disliked him. William was aware of the low esteem in which he was held; once, when the South African empire builder Cecil Rhodes was visiting Berlin, William said to him, “Now, Rhodes, tell me why is it that I am not popular in England? What can I do to make myself popular?” Rhodes replied, “Suppose you just try doing nothing.” The kaiser frowned, then burst out laughing and slapped Rhodes on the back.
William had outlived two British monarchs: his grandmother and his uncle. His attitude toward their successor, his younger cousin King George V, was patronizing. “[George] is a very nice boy and a thorough Englishman who hates all foreigners,” he said to Theodore Roosevelt. “But I don’t mind as long as he does not hate Germans worse than other foreigners.” Toward George’s look-alike cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, the kaiser’s patronizing took on a domineering tone. William liked to remind Nicholas that it had been “my good fortune to be able to help you secure that charming angel who is your wife.” (Empress Alexandra of Russia was born in the Rhineland grand duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt.) The kaiser addressed his letters to “Dearest Nicky,” closing them “Your affectionate Willy.” Behind Nicholas’s back, the kaiser was writing that “the tsar is only fit to live in a country house and grow turnips.”
For most of its history, the military kingdom of Prussia had shown no interest in the sea. It possessed no major commercial harbor, and most of its seacoast was a stretch of shallow bays and dunes on the Baltic. This deficiency was partially rectified in 1854, when Prussia persuaded the Grand Duke of Oldenburg to sell a five-square-mile plot on Jade Bay; there, over the next fifteen years, the North Sea naval base of Wilhelmshaven was constructed. In 1869, the Prussian navy acquired the 9,700-ton ironclad König Wilhelm, then one of the largest warships in the world. This ship, built in England at the Thames Iron Works, remained Prussia’s and Germany’s largest warship for twenty-five years. During the Franco-Prussian War, however, the König Wilhelm, along with Germany’s other three ironclads, remained at anchor, forbidden to fight against the overwhelming strength of the French naval squadrons blockading the German coast. Even so, French supremacy at sea did nothing to save France and Napoleon III from swift defeat by the Prussian army. The fact that sea power had made no difference confirmed a traditional belief of the German General Staff; therefore, during the first sixteen years of Bismarck’s newly proclaimed German empire, the German navy was commanded by generals who considered warships useful only for coastal defense.
From the beginning of his reign, William II was determined that this would change and that Germany would have a navy commensurate with its new military and industrial power. Beginning in the 1890s, the German population and industrial base exploded upward. Between 1891 and 1914, the Reich’s population soared from 49 million to 67 million. In 1890, German coal production was half of Britain’s; by 1913, the two were equal. In 1890, German steel production was two-thirds of Britain’s; in 1896, it first exceeded Britain’s; in 1914, Germany produced more than twice as much steel as Great Britain. It was the same in almost every field. Rapid urbanization; the growth of railways; the proliferation of blast furnaces, rolling mills, and factory chimneys; the development of chemical, electrical, and textile industries; the rise of the world’s second largest merchant fleet; and booming foreign trade and overseas investments—these combined to create a state that economically as well as militarily dominated the European continent. William was not content. He was embarrassed by the mediocrity of Germany’s small, scattered colonial empire; he wanted to expand German influence around the globe, to achieve world power, Weltmacht. For this purpose, he needed a navy—not just a few ships to defend Germany’s coast, but a world navy. “Our future is on the seas,” he told his people. “We must seize the trident.” This was William’s obsession, but it took him nine years to find the man who could give him what he wanted.
In time, the massive figure of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, with his bald, domed head and his famous forked beard, became instantly recognizable in Germany. The creator of the German navy, Tirpitz was its State Secretary (cabinet minister) for twenty years; after Bismarck, he was the most influential government official in Imperial Germany. Like William II, he admired and envied the Royal Navy. During his years as a cadet, Prussia’s small fleet had spent as much time in Britain as at home. “Between 1864 and 1870,” Tirpitz wrote, “our real supply base was Plymouth. Here we felt ourselves almost more at home than in peaceful and idyllic Kiel. In the Navy Hotel at Plymouth we were treated like British midshipmen. We preferred to get our supplies from England and in those days we could not imagine that German guns could be equal to British.” Tirpitz’s admiration extended to English education and the English language. He spoke English, read English newspapers and English novels, and enrolled his two daughters at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Tirpitz believed that sea power was a critical factor in national prosperity and greatness. In this, he was a disciple of the American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan, who, in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, published in 1890, had traced the rise and fall of maritime powers in the past and demonstrated that in every case, the state that controlled the seas controlled its own fate; states deficient in naval power were doomed to decline. Britain now had a world empire because she was the preeminent sea power; the lesson for Tirpitz was that if Germany wished to pursue Weltmacht, only possession of a powerful navy, with a strong force of battleships at its core, could make it possible. When the kaiser appointed Tirpitz state secretary in 1897, “the German navy,” the admiral wrote later, “was a collection of experiments in shipbuilding surpassed in exoticism only by the Russian Navy.” He worked quickly; on March 26, 1898, the Reichstag passed the First Navy Bill, authorizing construction of nineteen battleships and eight armored cruisers. On June 14, 1901, the Second Navy Bill was approved, doubling the projected size of the fleet to thirty-eight battleships and twenty armored cruisers. This achievement so delighted the kaiser that he raised the state secretary into the hereditary Prussian nobility: Alfred Tirpitz became Alfred von Tirpitz. Subsequent amendments to the Navy Laws increased the planned size of the fleet to forty-one battleships.
As the new German battleships slid down the ways, and his fleet became the second largest in the world, William’s pride soared. He had always loved uniforms; now he had a closet filled only with naval uniforms. When his grandmother made him an honorary admiral in the Royal Navy, his delight was transcendent. “Fancy wearing the same uniform as St. Vincent and Nelson,” he burbled to the British ambassador, and to the queen he wrote, “I now am able to feel and take an interest in your fleet as if it were my own and with keenest sympathy shall I watch every phase of its further development.” By 1914, he had become not only a Grand Admiral of the Imperial German Navy, but also an admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy, in the British Royal Navy, and in the royal navies of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Once he received the British ambassador in the uniform of an English Admiral of the Fleet; another time, he attended a performance of The Flying Dutchman in his uniform as an admiral. Frivolous, even ludicrous, as these episodes seem, they provide a key to the purpose of the building of the German navy. It was designed not only to project German power and influence overseas, but also to reinforce William’s confidence and ego in the presence of his English relatives. “It never even occurred to William II to go to war against England,” said Bernhard von Bülow, who was chancellor of Germany for nine years of William’s reign.
What William II most desired and imagined for the future was to see himself, at the head of a glorious German fleet, starting out on a peaceful visit to England. The English sovereign, with his fleet, would meet the German kaiser in Portsmouth. The two fleets would file past each other; the two monarchs, each wearing the naval uniform of the other’s country, would then stand on the bridges of their flagships. Then, after they had embraced in the prescribed manner, a gala dinner with lovely speeches would be held in Cowes.
This was not how the new German navy was seen in Great Britain. To Britons, sea power was life and death. When the world’s strongest military power began building a battle fleet rivaling that of the greatest sea power, the British government and people asked themselves the reason. Arthur Balfour, a former prime minister, writing for German readers, tried to explain: “Without a superior fleet, Britain would no longer count as a power. Without any fleet at all, Germany would remain the greatest power in Europe.” His words made no difference and, with more and more German dreadnoughts accumulating every year and a formidable German fleet now concentrated only a few hours’ steaming time from England’s North Sea coast, the British government began to shift away from a century of “Splendid Isolation.” As the apparent danger across the North Sea mounted, old enmities and rivalries were composed, old frictions smoothed, and new arrangements made. Between 1904 and 1908, Britain became, if not a full-fledged ally, at least a partner of her erstwhile enemies France and Russia. And with the birth of the Entente, the kaiser and Tirpitz discovered that they had achieved the opposite of what they had intended. Instead of expanding German power, the rise of the new navy had pushed Great Britain into the camp of Germany’s antagonists. Germany had a shaky partner in Italy, a member of the creaking Triple Alliance (which also included Austria), but this did not prevent the kaiser from complaining that the fatherland was encircled by enemies. To face this threat, he believed, Germany could count on only a single loyal ally.
Loyal, but on the verge of disintegration. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, a multiethnic empire ruled by Austrians and Hungarians but whose population was three-fifths Slav, was crumbling. The emperor Franz Josef was too old to arrest this decomposition; a bald little gentleman with bushy muttonchop whiskers, he was eighty-four in 1914 and already had sat on the Hapsburg throne for sixty-eight years. During that time, his wife, Empress Elizabeth, had been assassinated; his brother, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, had been executed by a firing squad; his only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, had committed suicide; and now his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the new heir to the throne, had also been assassinated. Politically, the most flagrant cause of his current troubles was the small, independent Slav kingdom of Serbia, which acted as a magnet on the restless populations of Austria’s South Slav provinces. Many in the Austrian government and army believed that the polyglot empire could save itself only by crushing the “dangerous little Serbian viper.” But a preventive war against Slav Orthodox Serbia meant confronting Serbia’s protector and ally, Slav Orthodox Russia. And Austria, in 1914, was too weak to confront Russia without German support.
Fortunately for Vienna, by 1914 the German government considered the continued existence of the creaking Hapsburg empire vital to Germany’s position. Not every German was convinced; as late as May 1914, Heinrich von Tschirschky, the kaiser’s ambassador in Vienna, cried out, “I constantly wonder whether it really pays to bind ourselves so tightly to this phantasm of a state which is cracking in every direction.” But then the specter of encirclement rose up: if Austria disintegrated, Germany would face France and Russia alone. This mutual dependence—of Austria on Germany and Germany on Austria—was well understood in Vienna, and the Hapsburg monarchy was thoroughly prepared to exploit the German predicament. In fact, Vienna was not required to beg for German support. For months, the kaiser, at his strutting, bellicose worst, had encouraged Austria to take action against Serbia. “The Slavs were born to serve and not to rule,” William told the Austrian foreign minister during a visit to Vienna in October 1913. “If His Majesty the Emperor Franz Joseph makes a demand, the Serbian government must obey. If not, Belgrade must be bombarded and occupied until his will is fulfilled. And you may rest assured that I stand behind you and am ready to draw the sword.” As he spoke, the kaiser placed his right hand on the hilt of his sword.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Castles of Steel by Robert K. Massie. Copyright © 2003 by Robert K. Massie. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.