Historical Precedent

A Kaiser in the White House

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    President Donald Trump has alienated most of his Western allies and isolated the US the same way as Germany’s last monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, did a century ago.

  • Facts


    • There are a multitude of parallels between Donald Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ruled the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 1888 until 1918.
    • Wilhelm II had a reputation for speaking off the cuff, which often got him into trouble. Besides insulting important dignitaries, his jingoistic rhetoric landed his country in more than one armed conflict.
    • Wilhelm II is perhaps best known for his role in the First World War, a conflict that ended in disaster for Germany and Europe.
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Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he comes onstage to rally with supporters in Tampa, Florida
A man like Donald Trump doesn’t want to cooperate. He wants to dominate. Source: Reuters

It is dawning on many Americans that they have never experienced a character like Donald Trump wielding the joysticks of power. The Germans might have some advice for that, for they know how it feels when a man rises to power who combines clownishness, narcissism and nefariousness.

That man is Kaiser Wilhelm II, the political oaf with delusions of grandeur who ruled Germany a century ago. Granted, the Germans never elected their emperor. In the end, however, Wilhelm II, who reigned over the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Reich for three momentous decades until the debacle of 1918, was the nation’s political guardian, its ruler and, ultimately, its destiny.

Like Mr. Trump, the Kaiser loathed political correctness. He once called the Prussian statesman and renowned diplomat Otto von Bismarck a “pygmy” — which was actually an improvement over what he called another of his most senior ministers, Bernhard von Bülow — “a slut”.

The eldest grandson of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Kaiser Wilhelm II also had, like Mr. Trump, a caustic relationship with the press. He infamously referred to journalists — along with Jews and mosquitoes, incidentally — as a “plague from which we will have to free ourselves one way or another.”

The then-leader of some 60 million Germans believed his people were not only special, but exceptional, which was why he ordered his army to expand his dominion. “There is no one else but the Germans to guard our great ideals, to cultivate them and to carry them forward,” he said. Germany deserved “a place in the sun,” as the saying went at the time. Today, this sentiment would roughly translate to “Germany first.”

Like Mr. Trump, who has accused the Washington establishment as being “all talk, no action”, the Kaiser preferred to be lots of talk followed by lots of action. The emperor was constantly commanding his army into one place or another, sending German troops to south-west Africa, eastern Africa and China. He tried to sound formidable and ruthless: “Pardons will not be given and prisoners not made,” he bellowed once, bungling the German grammar in the process, in an aristocratic version of Mr. Trump’s “covfefe.”

Questionable syntax notwithstanding, the Kaiser was convinced that “we are still destined for greatness.” But that certitude quickly turned into self-pity when he complained of a “lack of gratitude” from the public.

Kaiser Wilhelm II., Kaiserin Auguste Viktoria
Kaiser Wilhelm II and Germany’s then-First Lady, Empress Augusta Victoria. Source: Picture Alliance.

Donald Trump is a Kaiser Wilhelm II in an embryonic stage. Mr. Trump believes that he too can dispense with the niceties of diplomacy and the customs of bourgeois decency. Like a monarch he briefly placed his daughter at his chair during the G20 meeting in Hamburg. He skipped negotiations about the climate treaty, allowing America to be isolated among its peers (19 to 1) as Wilhelmine Germany became.

Even in  trade policy, once the trademark of US foreign politics, the 20 nations managed to put only a weak compromise on paper. In his weekly address Mr. Trump again claimed the he would bring manufacturing jobs home to America. “Foreign nations get rich at America’s expense,” he said. The inconvenient result of free trade, American trade deficits, he denounced bluntly as a “great global theft.” In his mind, that is why he has resorted to  “a new philosophy: America first”. The G20 communique, as Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, put it, “merrily masked deeper fissures that would inevitably lead to more trade disputes”.

All the while, the 45th president is whittling away at America’s soft power. All of the ambassadors installed during the Obama years are gone, and in 55 nations the White House has still not even nominated successors. Germany, one of the United States’ closest allies, is one of the countries that have been without a US ambassador for half a year.

A world order — with the emphasis on “order” — only seems desirable for a person like Donald Trump, as for the Kaiser in his day, if his own country gets to occupy its predestined “place in the sun.” The notion of peaceful negotiations to reconcile different countries’ interests is counterintuitive to him; dialogue and compromise are a waste of time. A man like Donald Trump doesn’t want to cooperate. He wants to dominate.

“The most powerful country in the world has begun to sabotage the order that it itself established.”

Gilford John Ikenberry, professor of international relations, Princeton University

The cornerstones of American post-war politics — a rules-based global trading system, support for international law, the promotion of European integration, multilateralism and human rights — don’t mean much to the current American president. In Hamburg Trump presented himself as a sales rep keen on hawking a good deal or two, but otherwise lacking empathy and curiosity for others.

America has not experienced such a fundamental shift in its underlying principles since the days of the Marshall Plan. As Gilford John Ikenberry, a professor of international relations at Princeton University put it: “The most powerful country in the world has begun to sabotage the order that it itself established.”

It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Trump as someone prone to juvenile obstinacy. But this not only makes him difficult, it also makes him easy to underestimate. With Mr. Trump, as with Kaiser Wilhelm II, it’s not what he thinks that’s dangerous, it’s what he doesn’t understand. Everything is so great, so sad, so stupid. He lacks any sense of the myriad feedback loops around the world that are triggered by his impulsiveness and unpredictability. It’s likely that Mr. Trump still does not appreciate where his temperament and the power of his office could lead. Anything is possible, but it seems almost silly to hope that he will moderate, modernize and de-radicalize himself.

07 p46 America’s Military Strength-01

The uncomfortable truth staring the global community in the face is this: As in 1913, there is war in the air. There are murmurs in Washington of a looming “large-scale conflict.” Such an outcome is not inevitable, but it’s conceivable. In a world as fragile as this one, it only takes a tremor to cause an earthquake. The world needs trust, but Mr. Trump only delivers tweets.

For what it’s worth, even Kaiser Wilhelm II, for all of his crudeness and oafishness, did not mean to trigger the First World War, though in the end he did exactly that. All he wanted to do was show off by using arrogant language, and by building a fleet of ships that would give his country a reason to be proud of itself and of him, the self-proclaimed “Admiral of the Atlantic.”

Donald Trump is pursuing a similar path. His goal is to increase America’s defense spending by 10 percent in 10 years, bringing the country’s budget for everything from drones to aircraft carriers to $687 billion (€602 billion) a year. This would make Mr. Trump by far the most powerful military commander the world has ever seen.

07 p46 Trump’s Global Flashpoints-01

But he should not forget the lessons history taught us. At least for the Kaiser, it didn’t take long for the force of his aggressive and arrogant foreign policy to spiral out of control. In the end, all of Europe was burning – and the German emperor couldn’t quite figure out why.

To be fair, the fact that Wilhelm II left Europe in ashes does not mean the 45th American president will necessarily set the world on fire, too. But anyone who hasn’t been in complete denial for the first six months of Mr. Trump’s presidency has to admit: Things aren’t looking good. If the world is a tinderbox, Mr. Trump is playing with matches in every corner. Whether in the South China Sea, on the Korean peninsula, in Russia or in the Middle East, Mr. Trump stokes hostilities rather than mollifying them. “There is a real danger that Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness and confrontational style could destroy the already fragile world order and lead us into open conflict,” said Philip Gordon, the former assistant secretary of state who also served as a special assistant to the president from 2013 to 2015.

A dispassionate observer must conclude that the American president, whose self-idolatry, megalomania and mercilessness are the stuff of legend, is more concerned about being right than ensuring peace. The hope shared by many Europeans that Mr. Trump would find his way back to a moderate foreign policy after his populist election campaign and his turbulent start in office has been disappointed.

His most dramatic rhetorical shift was vis-à-vis Iran, when he rejected the fragile detente and the nuclear deal that Barack Obama’s administration had hashed out with Tehran — something that played into the hands of Iranian hardliners. The day is approaching when Mr. Trump will have no other option than to invade the proud and oil-rich Islamic Republic, with a population 80 million and a gross domestic product worth €330 billion. And he will only have himself to blame for running straight into a wall that has the word “War” written all over it.

Mr. Trump seems to feel comfortable in his role as provocateur-in-chief. Thus far, there has been no evidence that he is capable of solving or even placating conflicts. There’s no evidence that he even means to do so. Aggression is in Mr. Trump’s nature. When he insults a cable news correspondent or shoves leaders of smaller countries out of a group picture, it’s not a one-off thing. He’s not acting out of character, he is acting in character.

There is one notable difference between Wilhelm II and Donald Trump. Whereas one could at least blame the rise of the Kaiser on a quasi-feudal system, Mr. Trump is undoubtedly the product of a democratic society. There were enough Americans who cheered him on and in the end even voted for him. He became the mascot for a swathe of society that felt duped and disregarded by the establishment.

07 p50 Approval Ratings-01

His political rise is an expression of American schizophrenia, a malady that cannot be healed quickly. Many voters simultaneously want to lead the world and not be affected by it. These are people who swear by the global capitalist system and free trade — as long as their own country doesn’t experience any adverse effects. They consider the rule of law to be the most sacrosanct of all constitutional principles — as long as no one threatens to take away the firearms of the roughly 55 million American gun owners. No one is above the law — unless they’re armed and angry.

Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is just as confusing and contradictory. It’s as if he were saying: Everyone is equal, but Americans are more equal.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the new French President Emmanuel Macron there is no alternative: The have to stay away from Mr. Trump. The European audience is expecting a European stance, not brown-nosing in Washington. To be anti-Trump is the new European normal. In that sense the criticisms from Brussels, Paris and Berlin are a European Declaration of Independence. Maybe the only way to save our transatlantic friendship is to hold it back from Mr. Trump.

Eventually, Wilhelm II’s pomposity didn’t serve him either. “I know no parties anymore, only Germans,” he said at the outbreak of the First World War. At the time, his words were met with cheers and adoration. But the clearer it became that he had led his people into a quagmire, the more even his most ardent followers turned their backs on him. In the end, the Kaiser, who was never a soldier and even had trouble riding a horse, was forced to relinquish control of the military to his generals, which only isolated him further. When asked how he spent his days, the embittered monarch replied, “I drink tea and cut wood.”

If only Donald Trump would busy himself with such harmless pastimes — without starting a war first, of course. The last thing the world needs is a Kaiser Wilhelm III.

07 p48 US Economy vs EU Economy 2-01

Gabor Steingart is the publisher of Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Global edition. To contact the author: steingart@handelsblatt.com

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