19th Century Europe, 19th Century Germany, Barry Foster, BBC, Empress Victoria, Fall of Eagles, Frederick III, Gemma Jones, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Otto von Bismarck
In the BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles, Kaiser Wilhelm II looms large, and is probably the closest thing it has to a main character, figuring at some point in the stories of both Austria and Russia as well as Germany. So let’s look at him briefly.
The show devotes its second and third episodes, “The English Princess” and “the Honest Broker”, to the lives of Frederick III (Denis Lill) and his wife Victoria (Gemma Jones). They get along poorly with Frederick’s father Wilhelm I (Maurice Denham), who dislikes the couple’s Liberal political views, which contrast sharply with Wilhelm’s Conservatism. Bismarck (Curt Jürgens) convinces Wilhelm to exclude Frederick from all function in government in the second episode, and then in the third episode invites the young Wilhelm II (Barry Foster) to attend the Foreign Office. Frederick finds this insulting, but his son cannot understand why. The third episode focuses on Frederick’s growing incapacity due to his cancer of the larynx. Wilhelm I’s long life (he died at age 90), combined with Frederick’s cancer, meant that when Frederick finally became emperor in 1888, he only reigned for 99 days, during which his cancer left him almost speechless, and his long exclusion from government meant that he left almost no chance to shape government before it passed into the hands of Wilhelm II, who like his grandfather was essentially a Conservative.
The series emphasizes the poor relationship Frederick and Victoria had with their son. When his grandfather dies, he tentatively talks to Bismarck about a supposed law that says that a man who cannot speak cannot reign, but Bismarck slaps him down. When told that his father is dying, he suspects a plot by his mother. When Frederick dies a few hours later, Wilhelm enters the royal apartments with soldiers and tries to confiscate all of his father’s papers, a concern more important to him than paying his respects to his father. She laments that she feels like the ship of the nation is sinking at sea with all its hopes, and he contemptuously orders her to “go to your room!” This attempt to seize his parents’ papers did in fact happen, but Frederick and Victoria had already sent all of their papers to Windsor Castle the previous year.
The series presents Wilhelm in almost entirely negative terms. He is vain, self-important, militaristic, foolish, and basically incapable of appreciating anyone else’s needs. He seems to just disrespect his parents for no particular reason, other than one line in which he angrily says she had no tenderness for him as a child.
This depiction is probably unfair to Wilhelm in some respects. Far from the cold relationship with his father the series offers, Wilhelm had great respect for his father, regarding him as a hero of the German Unification. It was his relationship with his mother that was poor. When she went into labor while carrying him, complications resulted in Wilhelm’s left arm being damaged. It never healed, so his arm was crippled his whole life.
This was a difficult issue between mother and son. Both of them blamed her for the injury, and Victoria seems to have considered his handicap an embarrassment. Victoria insisted that Wilhelm learn to ride at a very young age, even though his bad arm made this difficult, and when he fell off, as he did frequently, he was forced to get back on, even when he was crying not to. Later he wrote longingly to her of his desire for her affection, but instead she coldly corrected his grammar. So Wilhelm came to view his mother as harsh and domineering, and consequently he resisted her attempts to give him an more Liberal English-style education, and in later life he came to view his father as having been somewhat emasculated by his mother. So the poor relationship came from both sides, not simply from Wilhelm.
The series provides only hints of this dynamic. In the second episode, the young Wilhelm is shown struggling to learn to ride in one scene, but it’s not clear that his mother was demanding it. That and his comment that she had no tenderness for him (a comment that comes while he is treating her remarkably poorly) are the only hints that there was a more complex dynamic at work, and it’s clear that the series takes Victoria’s side at Wilhelm’s expense. So rather than trying to understand the man, the series simply wants to show why he was such a problematic ruler.
The show perhaps betrays a distinctly British view of German history. Bismarck treats Frederick and Victoria poorly and forces them into an isolated position because he wants more power than Frederick’s Liberalism will allow him. He encourages young Wilhelm’s aspirations as a way to remain in power, even though he privately disdains Wilhelm. So he supports Wilhelm against his parents. Then, at the end of the episode, the young Kaiser Wilhelm turns on Bismarck, whom he considers old-fashioned and not aggressive enough in his foreign policy. Bismarck throws one of his tantrums, which had always previously gotten him way with Wilhelm I, only to discover that it weakens his position with the young kaiser even further. Bismarck goes to the Dowager Empress Victoria seeking her help, but she points out that he’s already destroyed her political influence, so she cannot help him. So the show traces the slow growth of Conservatism, the emperor’s dominance of the government, and German aggression through the inability of Frederick and Victoria to influence the political events around them and through Bismarck’s toxic influence on Wilhelm II. If only, the show suggests, Victoria had been allowed more influence, then maybe the Great War would never have happened.
Later episodes continue this portrait of Wilhelm. He insists on commissioning bad allegorical paintings and sending them to his cousin Nicholas II of Russia, even though Nicholas doesn’t particularly want them. He thinks poorly of his relations but imagines that they respect him a great deal. He sees himself as a master statesman, despite being almost totally out of touch with popular opinion and having rather unrealistic ideas of renewing the League of the Three Emperors. None of this is untrue, but the show makes no effort to show any of Wilhelm’s more positive traits such as his intelligence, his preference for modernism over tradition, and his support for science. Contrary to his current reputation as a hawk, in 1913, the New York Times was celebrating him as one of the most important peacemakers of the previous quarter-century. Nor does the series really explore the idea that his crippled arm might have psychologically led him to embrace militarism as a way to compensate for his lack of traditional manliness. Wilhelm was a profoundly erratic and inconsistent man in some ways, but he was probably not quite the boob the series presents him as.
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Want to Know More?
Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats. If you’d like to know more about Wilhelm II, John CG Röhl’s Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life is a condensed version of Röhl’s prize-winning three-volume biography of the man and would be a good short (262 pages) introduction to him.