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Kaiser Wilhelm and the Cartoonists

Given the stereotype of the Germans as humourless and unpolitical people, it comes as a surprise to most Britons to learn that Germany has a tradition of graphic satire far older than our own. This tradition derives from the use of the newly invented printed-press for the production of pictorial moral satire in the late fifteenth century. During the Reformation Luther and his opponents adapted this tradition for polemical purposes, while the Thirty Years' War (1618 ff.) saw it applied to politics. In the struggle against Napoleon (1812 ff.) and the 1848 Revolution pictorial satire emerged as the articulator of German national aspirations and entered on a new golden age in the later nineteenth century with the outstanding popularity of the many illustrated satirical journals of the period (Kladderadatsch, Lustige Blaetter, Der wahre Jacob, Uulk, Simplicissimus). Nowhere did this tradition manifest itself more strikingly than in the opposition to the last German emperor, Wilhelm II (1888 - 1918).

British readers will recall the remarkable series of cartoons in which Punch sought to alert its public to the dangers posed by Wilhelm's posturing vanity, Caesarism, and sabre rattling (Tenniel's Dropping the Pilot is the most famous one), but such criticisms were not a British monopoly. Certainly, from his early attempts to discredit Bismarck by playing down his role in German unification right up to the outbreak of the First World War, he was the target of sustained, though initially oblique, attacks by German cartoonists.

Inevitably, given his tendency to let his tongue run away with him, it was Wilhelm's love of making speeches and his frequent 'rhetorical derailments' that provided a springboard for his critics. Thus in a speech in Berlin in 1897, he returned to a favourite theme that had already given offence, and attacked the 'grousers' ('Noergler') who were eternally criticising German conditions and policies, and suggested that they should shake the German dust from their feet and betake themselves elsewhere, so as to be free of those things that disturbed them. The outrage this suggestion called forth was compounded when, almost simultaneously, it became known that he had described opponents of his naval policy as 'fellows without a Fatherland' ('Vaterlandslose Gesellen'). The response of Kladderadatsch, the principal Prussian journal, was to publish a cartoon entitled Platform Closed - All Seats Taken. It showed a double stairway totally blocked by masses of struggling would-be emigrants, who strive in vain to get to the platform. The waiting train is already full of victims of earlier Wilhelmine outbursts, form Bismarck in a fourth class compartment, via the 'grousers' under the presidency of the liberal M.P., Eugen Richter, in a third class compartment, to the 'six grousers or forty broken men' in an open horse truck at the rear. (Wilhelm had famously once declared that all who would work with him were welcome. But that he would 'smash' ('zerschmettern') all who sought to hinder him). Ulk's comment was more succinct. It simply drew a vast multitude or citizens in the shadow of a battleship above the caption 'Without a Fatherland'.

Such criticism was not without its dangers, of course. In 1898 Wilhelm visited the Holy Land, accompanied by the usual posturings, including a ceremonial dip in the Jordan. The trip was incongruously conceived as a manifestation of his Christian piety and as a diplomatic ploy that would give Germany great influence in the Islamic world. In fact, it simply enraged other colonial powers, while exposing Wilhelm to ridicule in every European satirical journal. In Munich Simplicissimus's contribution was a cartoon by T.T. Heine which showed the leader of the first crusade, Geoffroi de Bouillon, talking to Barbarossa', the leading spirit in the third crusade, who holds a pith helmet and laughs uproariously. 'There is no need for such a dirty laugh, Barbarossa', says Geoffroi, 'Our crusades didn't have much point either'. The authorities immediately seized copies of the journal and launched a prosecution against those responsible. Harden, the publisher, fled the country and returned only years later on payment of a heavy fine; Heine spent the next six months in gaol.

Such savage repression naturally served to popularize the journal and did nothing to stem the tide of criticism. The celebrated speech of Wilhelm in 1900 to troops departing to put down the Boxer rebellion, for instance, in which he called on them to emulate Attila and his Huns and give no quarter to the insolent Chinese, prompted Kladderadatsch to publish a cartoon of the court barber in Berlin giving Attila a turned-up moustache reminiscent of that sported by Wilhelm himself above a text explaining that the Huns were now acceptable for presentation at the Imperial Court. (The speech was, of course, the source of the equation German = Hun).

Indirect reference to the Emperor diminished sharply after 1905, when Wilhelm, finding perhaps that even negative caricatures can flatter one's vanity, responded positively to a fulsome appeal from Grand-Cartaret to allow his publication Les celebrites vues par les images to be distributed in the Empire. Almost immediately personal caricatures of Wilhelm became commonplace, whether it was criticism of the ambivalent stance of the 'Emperor of Peace' at the second Hague disarmament conference by showing him dancing with Peace, who complains bitterly that his mailed fist (another of Wilhelm's metaphors) is crushing her ribs (Der wahre Jacob) or the mockery his endless peregrinations in a fruitless search for allies by showing him as a companion of Ahasverus, the wandering Jew (ibid.).

It was, however, the Daily Telegraph interview that finally removed any remaining inhibitions about the dignity that allegedly 'doth hedge a king'. In this 'interview', published with his permission, Wilhelm asserted his natural sympathy with England, in spite of being misunderstood there. (He was, after all, a grandson of Queen Victoria). Far from being a threat, England might well be grateful for the support of his fleet in the war he anticipated the English would have to fight against Japan. As proof of his pro-English attitude, he recalled how during the Boer War he had refused to join France and Russia in an anti-British coalition. Indeed, he had actually worked out a plan aimed at solving the British military difficulties in Africa, had had it vetted by his General Staff, and sent it to his grandmother in Windsor. Lord Robert's successful strategy had subsequently shown similarities to his suggestions.

Wilhelm could scarcely have touched on a more delicate topic. German public opinion during the Boer War had been characterised by intense sympathy for the Boers and corresponding hostility to the British. Not surprisingly, Wilhelm's readiness to override the deepest feelings of his people for dynastic reasons, together with the sheer fatuity of what he said and the unparalleled disregard for any sense of diplomatic tact and honour caused a storm of outrage that for a time seemed to threaten the continued survival of the monarchy. In the midst of the bitter recriminations, humorists had a field day. Drawing on Wilhelm's conceit that he was a military genius, and recalling that he commonly ruined manoeuvres by insisting that his own plans take precedence over those of his generals, it was widely suggested that the British had own, because they left his plan safely in Windsor! Heine in Simplicissimus inverted this concept. He drew a graveyard with the ghost of Queen Victoria talking to that of the Boer President Kruger. 'Now I can tell you Kruger', she says. 'The plan of campaign was his'. To this Kruger replies, 'Well then, Queen, now we also know why you took such a beating'.

Wilhelm never recovered from the loss of dignity and respect that was the price of his fatuity. Henceforth his role was that of a sort of constitutional Aunt Sally and on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his accession Lustige Blaetter could publish a cheeky letter in Berlin dialect to 'Dear Bill', testifying that over a quarter of a century he was the one contributor that had never let the journal down. Naturally, the outbreak of war put an end to that collaboration, but it is significant that as late as the summer of 1914, Wilhelm's gaffes continued to be recorded and used as a stick to beat him with. During a visit to Munich on the very eve of the war, for instance, Wilhelm had apparently complained of the length of time it took to train an artist. Drawing on the well known inadequacies of the dynasty, including Wilhelm's own son, Heine puts the answer in the mouth of his painter: 'The reason, Your Majesty, is that in art genius is not so hereditary as it is on the throne'. Wilhelm's face here tells us all that we need to know about his relationship with vast numbers of his subjects. Given time and more favourable circumstances, that strained relationship might well have produced a more democratic, liberal constitution in the German Empire. It is Europe's hard luck story, as well as that of Germany, that time was the one thing Wilhelm's critics did not have.