15/01/08 "Guardian' -- - The United States, with its claims of exceptionalism, is usually thought of as free of historical analogies. But comparisons with the fate of earlier empires are becoming more common.
I have recently been struck by an analogy from German history: the disaster of German leadership during the first world war, epitomised by Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1888, at just 29, Wilhelm became the leader of a country on the cusp of European mastery. Wilhelm flaunted his absolute power, believing it to be divinely ordained, was contemptuous of parliament, revelled in the trappings of power, and delighted in uniforms. He was given to bombastic speeches, detested liberal critics, and spoke disparagingly of foreign nations.
Worse, he supported ministers and military personnel who called for an ever-greater German army, including a navy strong enough to challenge
German foreign policy from 1890 to 1914, for which the kaiser bore formal and intermittently actual responsibility, comprised a series of failures and setbacks. But Wilhelm did not in fact rule, as
After the battle of the Marne (in September 1914) and the failure of the Schlieffen plan, some of Wilhelm's advisers realised that the chances for a military victory were slim, hence the need for a negotiated peace. But by that time, even the civilian chancellor had resolved on extravagant war aims that made hopes for a negotiated peace illusory.
From then on, the kaiser's mental state became a dominant issue in the war's conduct. Yet the most portentous decisions had to be taken: changes in the military and civilian leadership, and, in 1917, whether to declare unrestricted submarine warfare and thus ensure the
The fate of his country (and of
For a moment in the spring of 1918 - after the Bolsheviks signed a German-dictated Carthaginian peace - a German victory seemed possible. But by August, allied forces broke through German lines, and a stunned Ludendorff, fearing a sudden collapse of his army, demanded that the newly constituted civilian government send an immediate request for an armistice. But the allies wouldn't negotiate with the kaiser. Warweary Germans began to demand the kaiser's abdication.
The army forced Wilhelm into exile in the
Wilhelm had his terrifying flaws, and he operated at the head of a deeply flawed political system. But, ultimately, his chief failure had been to hand power to military and civilian hawks - wrongly called conservatives, for their vision was a radical reordering of
It took a worse catastrophe, a world-historical scourge, to teach these people a lesson. Let us hope that Americans learn their lesson about the dangers and follies of imperial hubris sooner.