Modern European Imperialism
by Matthias Fuchs
When assessing the way in which the press
portrayed a figure like Wilhelm II, who stood in the center of the political
II. In November 1897 four German battleships left to
in the following months the tone towards
German Emperor [...] standing at Jerusalem surrounded by the representatives of
other protestant peoples [...] dedicating in the cradle of Christianity a new
Church [...] a spectacle such as this [...] is little less than an epitome of
the whole history of Christendom.”[iii] The journey was, apart from being a
touristical visit and “PR”-tour for Wilhelm, intended to secure German
influence in the
The Times decides to ignore the fact that Wilhelm declared himself the protector of all Muslims – an affront against England, French and Russia, as most Muslims lived within their colonies.
The New York times covered the events in the Turkish Empire in a relatively neutral way, but did not fail to remark Wilhelm’s exaggerated rhetoric. He stated that there would be a “black and white German shield over the Catholics in the Far East [...] and to protect them, my brother is now in the Far East with the mailed power of the imperial navy.”[v] But The New York Times also publishes on the next day a satirical poem by Arthur E. Hyde titled “William in the East.” It shows Wilhelm as a Germanic War Lord who seeks to take control of the Bosporus:
“The War Lord of the North goes down / to the thought embalming East / He has seen the Island Kingdom frown / And heard the curse of the priest. / “I will humble the Cossack yet,” he cries / “And laugh at his fine love feast!” / So he lifts his hammering arm of Thor / For his father Odin’s lance: / “We will knock at the Sultan’s reeking door, / and lead out his wifes in the dance. / Then on Judea’s holy hills! / ‘T’will my Christian fame enhance [...] I hold the key to the Bosporus now, / And the coveted Golden Horn. / I am the Lord of the East and the West;”[vi]
The reaction in the German press to the visit ranges from strong support to utter disapproval. The nationalistic “Alldeutsche Zeitung” sees the visit as the first step to the creation of a colonial Empire in the Middle East: “Full speed ahead now to the Euphrates and Tigris and to the Persian Sea so that the land way to India once again gets into the hands in which it belongs, into the pugnacious and industrious German hands!”[vii] Other, moderate papers avoided to refer to political and economic reasons and concentrated instead on covering the colorful “touristic” aspects of the journey. The Frankfurter Zeitung hints to the political implications of the visit only in a tiny remark citing an English source that said that the Russian ships were not flying their flags when the Kaiser arrived in Constantinople.[viii] Only the anti-colonial social-democratic “Vorwaerts” sees the German capitalists as the driving force behind the visit. It compares Wilhelm’s “crusade” to the crusades of the Middle Ages and points out that economic, not religious reasons had to be taken into account in both cases: “the occidental gold is craving for being invested into the properties that the sick man on the Bosporus still calls his own.”[ix] And really, the most important thing achieved by the visit was the permission to build the “Baghdad Railway”. The satirical magazine “Simplicissimus” publishes a caricature hinting at the obvious pointlessness of the whole visit.[x]
III. In June 1900 an uprising of native Chinese forces against foreign influence that came to be known as the Boxer Rebellion was answered by the European powers by sending troops to China. Wilhelm held a speech on July 27 in Bremerhaven in front of German troops embarking to China. This speech contained the following paragraph that aroused much attention:
“When you come upon the enemy, smite him. Pardon will not be given. Prisoners will not be taken. Whoever falls into your hands is forfeit. Once, a thousand years ago, the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one still potent in legend and tradition. May you in this way make the name German remembered in China for a thousand years so that no Chinaman will ever again dare to even squint at a German!”[xi]
This was by far the most chauvinistic speech ever delivered by Wilhelm. Once again megalomania had swept away all rational thinking that existed in Williams mind. Chancellor Buelow and other members of the government usually censored the Kaiser’s public utterances before they were given to the press, but in this case, a local reporter had taken down a shorthand version of the speech unnoticed by von Buelow. This version was printed by some papers while others printed the “official” versions in which the quoted paragraph was either omitted or altered.
In the German papers the speech caused an outcry. The vast majority of the papers uttered harsh criticism for the contents of the speech. The social-democratic Vorwaerts devotes its whole first page to present under the headline “Three Versions!” the three different versions of the speech next to each other to clearly present to its readers the censoring measures of the government.[xii] It continues by citing historical facts about the Huns, characterizing them as a barbaric, primitive race that brought devastation and unbelievable suffering over Europe. Thereby they implicitly attack Wilhelm’s reverence for the Huns and their actions. The paper also gives a lengthy account of the status of “giving pardon” in the international laws, claiming that it is one of the most sacred elements of modern warfare. It also quotes university professors who say that giving no pardon would be incompatible with modern attitudes.[xiii] Again, a hardly concealed criticism of Wilhelm. Two days later the paper reminds its readers, that this was not the only faux pas of Wilhelm and quotes speeches from the past 10 years in which Wilhelm also demands bitter vengeance, fierce punishment, eradication and suppression on all sorts of occasions, coming to the conclusion that his “no pardon” speech perfectly fits into that pattern.[xiv]
The satirical socialist journal “Der wahre Jakob” publishes a cartoon envisaging German pastimes in China as being “A.M.: Disembowelling, P.M.: Ceremonial Parade.”[xv]
Even the more moderate German papers do not restrain their criticism. The Frankfurter Zeitung points out that all papers, liberal or conservative, have reacted with “the gravest misgiving” to the speech. It states that they all agree that a barbaric kind of warfare by the German troops is not desired. The paper quotes the “Nationalzeitung” which concedes that the Chinese atrocities could have led to a “natural explosion of the anxiety” of the Kaiser.[xvi] But they also say that “that does not release us from the duty that is not only the duty of a civilized man, but also the duty of a Christian.” Thereby they also criticize the Kaiser, who usually seeks to portray himself as the defender of Christendom in the world. In contrast to that, the conservative “Kreuzzeitung”, also quoted by the Frankfurter Zeitung, struggles to construct a different explanation for the outrageous utterances of Wilhelm. It states that these utterances had been misinterpreted and that the Kaiser had intended them as a warning to the troops that the Chinese would give no pardon and take no prisoners.[xvii] This interpretation could be justified from the first official version of the speech, but the second official version (which was still censored) makes it clear that this interpretation is incorrect.
On the next day, the Frankfurter Zeitung tries to explain the chauvinistic outburst by referring to the fact that Wilhelm speaks without any notes and only prepares his speeches on his own “Because of that, and because of the general nature of the Kaiser, who is said to be his own Chancellor, any advisory or warning influence is impossible.”[xviii] It also expresses its worries about the perception of the speech in foreign countries.
But that perception was not so bad as might have been assumed. The New York and the London Times both publish the speech of the Kaiser in their editions of July 28, without further comment. But two days later The Times quotes the German press comments and the confusion about the different versions of the speech. It also sardonically describes the futile attempts of German papers to explain the utterances away.[xix] The New York Times also lets the German opinion speak for itself: “It is no exaggeration to say that nine-tenths of the nation disapproved of the Emperor’s “no pardon” speech, which Count Buelow vainly endeavored to ‘correct’, i.e. nullify.”[xx] But there are also other opinions in the anglophone press. The Daily Telegraph said that the order to give no pardon was perhaps the only formula which Asiatics understood and one to which the British had had recourse during the Indian Mutiny.[xxi] Much later, in the propaganda of the First World War, the “hun” speech will be frequently used against the Germans.
IV. When Wilhelm paid a visit to Tangier in Morocco on March 31, 1905, the coverage of that event was rather neutral in the New York Times and the London Times. Only a week ago, both had reported a speech delivered by Wilhelm in Bremen, in which he vowed that if Germany were to become a world power, it would never use military conquest to achieve that aim.[xxii] So their predisposition was rather positive, although they clearly saw the visit as a political demonstration, because the Kaiser guaranteed Morocco’s sovereignty and said he would protect the German economic interests there. This was a move that was clearly directed against France, which considered Morocco to be in their sphere of influence. “The Kaiser spent only two hours in Tangier, but those two hours may prove to have marked an epoch in the history of Morocco.”[xxiii] Naturally the reaction in the French newspapers was quite negative, as the New York Times points out on the next day. The paper also quotes the German “Vorwaerts” which recalls the Krueger Telegram from 1896[xxiv] and says “The Moors had better not expect to much of it [Wilhelm’s assurance of sovereignty].”[xxv] On April 15, the New York Times publishes an article in which the German Charge d’Affairs in Morocco, Count v. Tattenbach-Ashold says that Germany had the right to preserve its interests and would protect Morocco’s sovereignty. The little question mark in the title of the article, “To Protect Morocco?” hints at the fact that the New York Times does not fully believe in the selfless motives of Germany and rather suspects other goals to be dominant here. Also, the article ends with a quote of Tattenbach, “The watchword of Germany is ‘dauntlessly forward’.[xxvi]”
As it turned out, it was not Wilhelm who wanted this demonstration, rather Count von Buelow, the German chancellor, tricked him into doing it, in an attempt to damage the “entente cordiale” between France and England. The German economic interests in Morocco were also exaggerated by the German government.[xxvii]
V. To the Silver Wedding of Wilhelm on February 27, 1906 an article appears in the New York Times which is probably the sharpest attack on the German sovereign up to that point in this paper. Here are some quotes to illustrate the position the author takes towards Wilhelm’s personality and his domestic and foreign policy:
“Prince William became King of Prussia and German Emperor. What did Germans know of the new ruler? Very little. What did he know of them? Even less.” “Naturally mistakes were made [in Wilhelm’s policy]. If experience were the sole criterion of knowledge, the German Emperor would be the wisest and most learned man alive.” “His naval experiences in China, the Philippines, and Venezuelan waters have covered his Ministry of Marine with the ridicule of the world.” The author also quotes a French biographer of Wilhelm: “’As soon as he shall have disappeared, the fatality of his work of self-advertising and noise will be revealed, and his people will detest him just as much as they now admire him.’”[xxviii]
VI. On October 8, 1908 an interview with Wilhelm was published in the London Daily Telegraph and by accident passed the censors of the German foreign office. Wilhelm calls the English “mad, mad as March hares,” that they do not understand that he is their friend. The Germans in turn were hostile against England. He tries to give examples of his goodwill against England and reveals the secret proposal of France and Russia to put pressure on England to end the Boer war, which he declined. He demands that he had made the English victory possible by refusing to support the Boers. He even says that he had submitted a campaign plan to Queen Victoria that had then been used by the English army. He also says that the German naval buildup was not directed against England but rather against Japan.[xxix] The New York Times calls the revelations important but doubts the authenticity of the interview: “Without his [Wilhelm’s] authorization the story must remain in the crowded limbo of things ‘important if true.’”[xxx] The London Times devotes a longer article to the interview and criticizes Wilhelm’s attempt at dissipating the English distrust towards his policy as “singularly ill-adapted to accomplish this end.” It also questions the truth of his statement that the purpose of Germany’s navy would be to defend its interests in the Far East, as the ships of the navy are all concentrated in the North and the Baltic Sea and most of them lack the coal capacity to make lengthy cruises. But then again, the Times also has reservations concerning the authenticity of the interview.[xxxi] In another article on the next day an interesting excerpt from an anglophobe German newspaper, the “Westfaelische Zeitung”, is given.
“The soul of the German nation will be most deeply wounded by the knowledge that its Kaiser worked out a war plan with which to annihilate the valiant Boers [...] The German emperor as an unbidden strategist against a Low German people is a spectacle which centuries cannot erase. [...] If the interview is authentic, we must confess we not only no longer understand the Emperor but we also must deeply regret and deplore his conduct.”[xxxii]
The satirical “Simplicissimus takes a more relaxed stand on the issue in a cartoon in which the ghosts of Queen Victoria and Krueger meet in the graveyard. “Krueger”, she says, “Now I can tell you: the plan of campaign was his,” to which Krueger tellingly replies, “Yes, Queen, and now we also know why you took such a beating.”[xxxiii]
VII. Finally, it is interesting to take a look at the obituaries that were published in the London Times, the New York Times and the Time Magazine after Wilhelm’s death in his Dutch exile in 1941. All three texts leave little doubt how they value Wilhelm’s personality in retrospective, views that have never been expressed in such clarity in the times of his reign and can be explained by the greater distance from which they were written. “Few men in history have cast so great a spell over the world with so small a foundation of personal merit as William II,” writes the London Times,[xxxiv] while the Time Magazine says “Throughout his life his brilliance was marred by mental shallowness and arrogance.”[xxxv] The New York Times recalls the prophecy of the old chancellor Bismarck: “’The young Emperor will either destroy the empire or die in a madhouse.”[xxxvi] The New York Times also relates Wilhelm’s erratic actions throughout his political career to his innate diseases, saying that symptoms of his ear disease were nervous irritability and brain trouble. Concerning his imperialist actions, the London Times now claims that his “hun” speech of 1900 would be responsible for German atrocities in China (which were not reported so prominently at that time, as England was also involved in the military expedition). The paper also refers to the Daily Telegraph affair (the truth of which it would not believe at that time) and calls it an “extraordinarily clumsy bid for British good will.” The London Times also shows the dispatch of the “Panther” to Agadir as a purely imperialistic action, as the German lives and property that were claimed to be protected there, were “almost imaginary.”
The New York Times fails to mention the “hun” speech, and takes a slightly different stand in the second Morocco crisis, implying that the German action was not totally unjustified, because the French had assimilated Morocco at a pace that appeared to the Germans as unwarranted by the agreements of the Algeciras Conference. Also, the New York Times takes a different position on the question whether Wilhelm was guilty of causing the First World War. They portray his actions to be leading almost directly to the outbreak of hostilities. The London Times rather blames the Admirals, including Tirpitz, for forcing Germany into the War, and the Time Magazine states that “Wilhelm did not want World War I.”
The most striking revelation that is presented in the obituaries is an Interview that Wilhelm gave to William Hale onboard the yacht Hohenzollern in 1908. Interestingly enough, no account of it can be found in the London Times. Hale said after the interview that “Germany is expecting to fight England” and that the Emperor “poured a stream of insult upon the English for two hours.” This interview shows the real feelings of Wilhelm, who had always portrayed himself as a friend of England. The New York Times gives itself credit for preventing a war between England and Germany by not publishing the interview at the time it was given. Other passages of the interview are highlighted as well, due to the fact that the obituaries were written in 1941. They show Wilhelm as a racist, giving a warning against the “yellow peril”. In the words of the New York Times, “this prophecy has become a leading part of the Nazi philosophy under Hitler.” This is what Wilhelm said: “The future belongs to the white race, never fear! [...] There is no other power in any other civilization or any other religion that can save humanity; and the future – belongs – to – us.” After quoting that, the Time Magazine remarks: “The echo returned a generation later.”[xxxvii]
Having given an outline of the portrayal of Wilhelm II in the anglo-saxon press it can be said that his imperialist actions were viewed mostly in a neutral or critical way by his contemporaries. Surprisingly, many German papers sometimes sharply criticize his behavior as well, even the moderate press that is generally pro-monarchy.[xxxviii] In the articles and books published after his death, virtually all authors agree that his whole political career was marked by ignorance and clumsiness, that he was often only an instrument in the hands of Count Buelow, Admiral Tirpitz or the German generals in World War I.. As a person, they characterize him as a tactless megalomaniac.
a) Biographies of Wilhelm II
Balfour, Michael. The Kaiser and his Times, London: The Cresset Press, 1964
Balfour expresses the view generally held about Wilhelm: a man far removed from the real world, overly self confident and with little political skill. The author also makes the point that Wilhelm is not alone guilty of the outbreak of the first World War, but that the generals and certain forces in the German public were also to be held responsible in part.
Cecil, Lamar. Wilhelm II - Prince and Emperor 1859-1900, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989
Cecil uses a wide range of original sources to demonstrate convincingly that at an early age Wilhelm II developed the disturbing character traits and habits that remained constant throughout his life. The general emphasis is clearly on politics, and much of the narrative analyzes the innumerable difficulties German leaders encountered in trying to govern under such a volatile sovereign. Cecil's well-balanced and lively account substantiates the commonly accepted assessment of the Kaiser.
Liman, Paul. Der Kaiser, 1888-1909. Ein Charakterbild Kaiser Wilhelms II. Leipzig: T. Thomas, 1909 (The Kaiser, 1888-1909. An analysis of the character of Kaiser Wilhelm II)
Liman utters severe critcism against Wilhelm and sees his foreign policy as a total failure. His view is surprising, as the book was published in 1909, when the Kaiser was still in power. But of course, the author is not anti-colonial, the reason for his critique is that the “mailed fist” of the Emperor is merely rhetorical in its character and that Wilhelm failed to secure for Germany the portion of the world that it, in Liman’s view, rightly deserves.
Roehl, John C. G. (ed.). Der Ort Kaiser Wilhelms II in der deutschen Geschichte. Munich: R. Oldenburg, 1991 (Kaiser Wilhelm’s place in German history)
A collection of essays in German and English covering a wide range of research topics concerning Wilhelm. His way of governing, the emergence of the “Weltpolitik”, his naval policy and the question whether he facilitated the rise of Nazism are, among others, addressed.
b) German imperial politics in general
Fesser, Gerd. Der Traum vom Platz an der Sonne: deutsche Weltpolitik 1897-1914. Bremen: Donat, 1996 (The dream of the “place in the sun”: German “Weltpolitik” 1897-1914)
A well written analysis of the “Weltpolitik”. The author portrays Wilhelm as a ridiculous figure among the European kings and also stresses the leading role of Chancellor Buelow in Wilhelm’s imperialist “adventures”.
Nowak, Karl Friedrich. Germany’s Road to Ruin. The Middle Years in the Reign of the Emperor William II. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1932
Another German source, clearly in the spirit of the time in which it was written, it blames the advisers of the Kaiser, like Buelow and Holstein, for the failure of the German foreign policy rather than Wilhelm himself. Nowak claims that Wilhelm II had always adhered to the constitution and was the only one who had seen the right course for Germany, but personal flaws and incompetent advisers had prevented him from following it.
Stoecker, Helmut (ed.). German Imperialism in Africa. From the Beginnings until the Second World War. London: C. Hurst&Co., 1986
A good source for every aspect of German colonialism on the African continent. Various authors focus on the developments of the German colonies in Togo, Cameroon, South-West and East Africa, on the economic and military strategies that were employed, but also on questions of racism and education in the colonies. Other attempts for colonial expansion, for example in Morocco or South Africa are also dealt with, as well as the colonial aims in the Nazi-Era.
c) British press’ reactions on German politics
Herkenberg, Karl Otto. The Times und das deutsch-englische Verhaltnis im Jahre 1898. Berlin, Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft fur Politik und Geschichte m.b.H., 1925
(The Times and the German-English relations in 1898)
A book that deals with the reflection of the German politics in 1898 in The Times (London). It is useful only as a primary source, because the conclusions the author draws are mostly anti-British and aim on showing The Times as a paper with a generally hostile stand towards Germany that is obviously controlled by the British government.
d) Other Sources
Coupe, W.A., Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Cartoonists, in: History Today (Great Britain) 1980, 30 (Nov): 16-22
Frankfurter Zeitung (Germany)
The New York Times
The Times (London)
[i] The Times (London), December 17, 1897, quoted after: Herkenberg, Karl Otto. The Times und das deutsch-englische Verhaltnis im Jahre 1898. Berlin, Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft fur Politik und Geschichte m.b.H., 1925, p. 109
[ii] The Times (London), December 17, 1897, quoted after: Herkenberg, p. 109
[iii] The Times (London), November 8, 1898, quoted after: Herkenberg, p. 140
[iv] Herkenberg, p. 95
[v] The New York Times, November 5, 1898, p. 6, 7
[vi] The New York Times, November 6, 1898, p. 18, 7
[vii] Alldeutsche Blaetter, November 6, 1898, quoted after Fesser, Gerd. Der Traum vom Platz an der Sonne: deutsche Weltpolitik 1897-1914. Bremen: Donat, 1996, p. 23
[viii] Frankfurter Zeitung, October 22, 1898, p. 1, 1
[ix] Vorwaerts, October 26, 1898, p.1, 1
[x] Coupe, W.A., Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Cartoonists, in: History Today (Great Britain) 1980, 30 (Nov): 16-22, p.18; The cartoon showed Geffroi de Boullion, leader of the first Crusade talking to Barbarossa who is holding an empty pith helmet. “There is no need for such a dirty laugh, Barbarossa,” he says, “Our Crusades did not really have any point either.”
[xi] Ernst, Johann (ed.). Reden des Kaisers: Ansprachen, Predigten und Trinksprueche Wilhelms II. Munich 1966, p. 86, quoted after: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~german/gtext/kaiserreich/china.html
[xii] Vorwaerts, July 29, 1900, p.1, 1
[xiii] Vorwaerts, July 28, 1900, p.3, 2
[xiv] Vorwaerts, July 31, 1900, p.3, 1
[xv] Coupe, W.A., p. 19
[xvi] Frankfurter Zeitung, July 29, p.1, 3
[xviii] Frankfurter Zeitung, July 30, 1900, p.1, 4
[xix] The Times (London), July 30, 1900;
This kind of press review is frequently done by The Times. It is interesting, though, that most of the time liberal and moderate German newspapers are being quoted rather than conservative or chauvinistic papers. Maybe one can read a certain bias in that, because the liberal papers were generally more critical against Kaiser and government.
[xx] The New York Times, August 26, 1900
[xxi] Balfour, Michael. The Kaiser and his Times, London: The Cresset Press, 1964, p. 227
[xxii] The New York Times, March 23, 1905, p. 7, 1
[xxiii] The Times (London), April 1, 1905
[xxiv] In that telegram Wilhelm had expressed his congratulations to the Boer leader Krueger for putting down the Jameson Raid, a Putsch against his government initiated by the British. The telegram had infuriated the English and sowed hope in circles in Germany that Germany would come to help the Boers against England – but in the end, that never happened.
[xxv] The New York Times, April 2, 1905, p. 4, 2
[xxvi] The New York Times, April 15, 1905, p. 5, 1
[xxvii] Stoecker, Helmut (ed.). German Imperialism in Africa. From the Beginnings until the Second World War. London: C.Hurst&Co., 1986, p. 239 ff.
[xxviii] The New York Times, February 25, 1906, pt. 3, p. 6, 1
[xxix] Trenches on the Web: The Daily Telegraph Affair, http://www.worldwar1.com/tldts.htm
[xxx] The New York Times October 29, 1908
[xxxi] The Times (London), October 29, 1908
[xxxii] The Times (London), October 30, 1908
[xxxiii] Coupe, W.A., p. 20
[xxxiv] The Times (London), June 5, 1941, p. 4, f
[xxxv] TIME, June 16, 1941, p. 30
[xxxvi] The New York Times, June 5, 1941, p. 8, 1
[xxxvii] A detailed study of the realtionship Wilhelm – Hitler can be found in
[xxxviii] Frequently, editors of magazines and newspapers had been arrested when they criticized the government. But as popular dissatisfaction with the Kaiser grew at the start of the 20th century, the German press enjoyed a greater amount of freedom, especially compared to the situation they should find themselves in later, from 1933 on.