Kaiser Wilhelm II is a central figure in 20th century European history. Many view him as the man most responsible for the outbreak of the First World War, and it is undoubted that he played a major role in the some of the most important events of the century.
Unsurprisingly, historians have spent much of the past 100 years trying to understand Wilhelm but invariably this enigmatic character seems elusive. One indication as to why this might be is hidden in records of the BritishÂ Foreign Office on which we are currently running a major cataloguing project.
Sir Frank Lascelles was British Ambassador to Berlin between 1895 and 1908 and as such knew Wilhelm well. The private letters he wrote back to his friends and colleagues in London offer a clear insight into the difficulties contemporaries had in understanding the Kaiser and his motives. In 1900 in a letter to the Foreign Secretary (and Prime Minister), Lord Salisbury, Lascelles revealed part of the problem:
âHe [Kaiser Wilhelm II] is certainly a wonderful and most interesting personality, but I cannot help thinking that his subjects may be somewhat perplexed by the variety of characters which His Majesty assumes. Attila, Moses and Alexander Severus seem now to be his models, and I am told that he will personally appear in the character of the last named Monarch in a dramatic representation at Saalburg towards the end of the month.â (FO 800/17)
His subjects were far from alone in being perplexed by the Kaiserâs behaviour. Lascelles regularly reported that not only were he and his fellow diplomats equally bemused, but this feeling was shared by Wilhelmâs own ministers. The difficulties in understanding the Kaiserâs behaviour and moods posed real problems in explaining what was going on in Berlin. As Lascelles wrote to Salisbury:
âIt is not an easy matter to report a conversation with The Emperor. On the one hand I want to give you a full account of all he said, on the other I am anxious to avoid conveying the impression that His Majesty may be a little mad. I am sure He is not, and I am told that it is a mark of high favour if He deigns to indulge in jokes with the person with whom he is speaking. I presume therefore that I ought to feel gratified.’ (FO 800/17)