Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Kaiser Rules

"I charge thee, fling away ambition:

By that sin fell the angels."

—Shakespeare(Henry VIII.).

For the first few months the Kaiser worked with his Chancellor—Bismarck—without friction. But it was not long before he realised that the man who had made Prussia supreme in Germany and Germany supreme in Europe, was—in the eyes of the world—the uncrowned King of the new Germany.

"I discovered that my ministers regarded themselves as Bismarck's officials," complained the Kaiser.

Again and again the strong wills of Kaiser and Chancellor carne into collision, and relations between the yet untried ruler and the experienced leader became strained.

Inspired by self-confidence and a firm belief in his own ability to rule, the young Emperor had fiercely asserted: "There is only one master in this country and I am he. I will tolerate no other beside me. Those who will help me, I heartily welcome; those who oppose me, I shall dash to pieces."

In 1890, the crisis came. The two men met to discuss a matter on which they failed to agree. The Kaiser insisted that his will should be obeyed, if not by Bismarck, then by another.

"Then am I to understand, your Majesty," said Bismarck, "that I stand in your way "Yes," was the tragic reply.

This was the end. Count Bismarck at once sent in his resignation and retired from public life. Thus did he fall from his high estate. The event was of world-wide interest. The importance of it was illustrated by a historic picture in 'Punch' called "Dropping the Pilot." The Kaiser stands alone on the deck of the Ship of State sternly looking down the companion-ladder at the pathetic yet dignified figure of his fallen minister leaving for ever the ship he had piloted for forty-three great years!

"Great Pilot, whom so many storms have tried,

To see thee quit the helm at last, at last,

And slow descend that vessel's stately side,

Whilst yet waves surge and skies are overcast,

Wakes wandering memories of that mighty past

Shaped by a guiding hand.

Strong to direct as strenuous to command,

When did a great ship on a great sea

Drop Pilot like to thee?"

A stern Hohenzollern, with tremendous energy, personal charm and dominating will, William II. now set himself to the colossal task of making Germany a world power.

The fever of expansion had already been at work. The rapid growth of the German population during years of prosperity had stimulated large numbers to emigrate, and many had settled abroad under foreign flags.

"A German who can put off his Fatherland like an overcoat is no longer a German for me," Bismarck had exclaimed with wrath.

It seemed as though Germany was too late to secure a "place in the sun." At a time when Great Britain and France were building up their Empires overseas, Germany was but achieving her national unity.

Up to 1884 there was no German flag flying over German colonies, but in the course of the next few years, she shouldered her way into the colonial world, until she had carved out for herself an immense Empire beyond the seas.

One of the Kaiser's first acts was to frame an agreement with Great Britain, whereby Germany should secure possession over those "vast spaces washed by sun," known to history, for a brief period, as German East Africa and German South-West Africa. But when these African colonies were taken from her in the Great War, it was realised that the Germans were no colonists, that they had brought to the hapless African nations not peace, but a sword, not freedom and happiness, but misery, bloodshed, and oppression.

In other directions, too, Germany cast her eyes for fresh lands to conquer. For many a long year she had yearned for the possession of a little scrap of British territory called Heligoland. It was little more than a windswept rock and practically of little value to England. But it was of immense importance to Germany, as it lay at the mouth of the Kiel Canal, connecting the North Sea with the Baltic. In exchange for the island of Zanzibar, Great Britain ceded Heligoland to the triumphant Kaiser.

"Without a battle this beautiful island has passed into my possession," he said at a banquet given on the occasion. "It is with satisfaction that I receive Heligoland into the fringe of Erman islands which skirt the coast of the Fatherland. The island will be a bulwark in the sea, a port for the supply for my warships and a place of refuge and protection in the German ocean against all the enemies who may venture to show themselves upon it."

From this moment, the Kaiser pushed on the cutting of the Kiel Canal with untiring energy. As Crown Prince he had made himself a first-rate naval expert. The German navy still contained many old and obsolete ships. His was the vision of a strong German navy, worthy of the World Empire of his dreams.

"As my grandfather reorganised his army, so I shall reorganise my navy. The ocean is indispensable to the greatness of Germany," he was wont to repeat.

The great Kiel Canal was formally opened in 1895. Each of the Powers of Europe was invited to send a squadron to share in the festivities, and no less than twenty-three ships, assembled from countries including Great Britain, Russia, France, Austria, and Italy, steamed through the canal on that summer evening in June.

It was "perhaps the happiest moment in the reign of William II." when he and his sons on board the Hohenzollern  looked on the fine array of ships assembled at his invitation.

It could not be overlooked that the French and Russian ships had steamed together into the canal, and that the French ships alone were not illuminated on that fateful night. After the fall of Bismarck, some coolness had arisen between Germany and Russia, with the result that a dual alliance had been arranged between Russia and France, which had been proclaimed but a few months since.

"It is not the friendship of France and Russia that makes me uneasy," the Kaiser had explained, "but the danger to our principle of monarchism through the lifting up of the Republic on a pedestal."

Nevertheless the opening of the Kiel Canal to the "peaceful intercourse of nations" was an event of great importance in the growth of the German navy.

"Ever since our fleet was established," the Kaiser declared later, as he stood on board a British battleship, "we have tried to form our ideas in accordance with yours, and in every way to learn from you. I am not only an admiral of your fleet, but a grandson of your mighty Queen."

This was in the summer.

The new year 1896 had hardly dawned when there was trouble in South Africa.

When a clash of German and British interests took place in the Transvaal, the old Boer President, Paul Kruger, had looked to Germany rather than England to stand by him. He had visited Berlin himself. "If a child is ill," he said in his simple way, "it looks round for help. This child begs the Kaiser to help the Boers if they are ever ill. Now the time has come," he asserted when troubles dawned, "to knit ties of the closest friendship between Germany and the South African Republic—ties as between father and child."

The Jameson Raid of 1896 having failed, the Kaiser at once telegraphed congratulations to President Kruger: "I heartily congratulate you," ran the historic telegram, "on the fact that you and your people, without appealing to the aid of friendly Powers, have succeeded by your unaided efforts in restoring peace and preserving the independence of the country against the armed bands which broke into your land."

It is said that the "whole German nation stood behind the telegram."

Be this as it may, a storm of indignation was aroused in Great Britain, and though the Kaiser tried to dismiss the ugly incident as a "lovers' quarrel," England could not forget the indiscretion.

"The raid was folly," observed the English Prime Minister, "but the telegram was even more foolish."

Inability to help the Boers convinced the Kaiser that a larger navy was more than ever necessary. The appointment of Tirpitz as Admiral gave a new zest to ship-building, and the dream of a High Sea Fleet began to be realised. "A new spirit had entered the Admiralty, and a new spirit was soon to dominate the nation."

A Navy League was founded, and in 1898 the raiser uttered those fateful words: "Our future lies on the water."

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