Published 19th October 1936
(First read 26/02/2015)
[…] ingenious […] The book is a very skilful mosaic of the vast amount written or spoken by William, his majestic grandmother Queen Victoria, and his brilliant mother the Empress Frederick, largely made possible by the fact that the letters and papers of the Empress and of her husband, the unlucky Frederick, Emperor for but ninety-eight days, were smuggled out of Germany and deposited safely in this country. [The remainder of this very long review is basically nothing but quotations from the book.]
~Aberdeen Press and Journal, 19/10/1936
|Before he was kaiser|
Mr Benson is brilliant and finished. Also, he has found the key to the tortuosities of the Kaiser's foreign policy. That monarch's ultimate intention ~ as is pretty generally admitted to-day ~ were pacific. But, like Polonius, he preferred with indirections to find directions out. If he wished for friendly relations with B, a straightforward advance was not enough: it was necessary first to embroil B with C, then to point out to the former how ill he stood with the latter, and thus to let him reach the conclusion that to meet the German advances would be best for 'wretched, meritorious B'.
[Unlike his subject, Mr Benson is a realist: he has] attempted, successfully, to pronounce a just verdict. [He] has resisted the temptation of making the ex-Kaiser into a blundering buffoon, a monster of tactlessness; and has shown that his uncle, for example, contributed his share to the friction between these two kinsmen.
~W H Johnston in an article titled Kaiser and Field-Marshal, which was a joint review of EFB's book and of Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan by J W Wheeler-Bennett. Published in The Yorkshire Post, 21/10/1936
Mr. E. F. BENSON, who thoroughly knows his way about the many volumes of royal correspondence published since the War, has used them, together with a few other familiar sources, to put together this slight but agreeable study of relations between the ex-Kaiser William II and our own royal family. The volume begins with the marriage of Queen Victoria's eldest daughter to the Crown Prince Frederick, heir to the Prussian throne; and it leaves the eldest son of that marriage in his house of exile to Doom, preparing to read the Sunday morning service to his attenuated suite, and wondering (Mr. Benson, be it said to his credit, does not often indulge in these tricks of fictionised biography) "why it had all happened like this."
So dramatic a story, told by a practised craftsman like Mr. Benson, cannot fail to interest and entertain, even though the facts on which it is based are well enough known to every reader of pre-War history. But the story would have been better still if Mr. Benson had been able to conjure up a little human interest in his central figure. William II was not a great or a wise monarch. He was impulsive where caution was needed, bombastic in utterance, tactless and sometimes sly in his dealings with foreign monarchs and Governments, and easily rattled in moments of crisis. But constant insistence on these defects of his hero's character makes Mr. Benson's book smack a little too much of the atmosphere of war propaganda. Mr. Benson is well aware, as many passages show, that the Princess Frederick was a difficult mother. But this is not allowed to mitigate by one jot the indictment of William as a difficult son. The relations between Edward VII as Prince of Wales and William II show both of them in anything but a favourable light. The fact that the Prince was the uncle and the Emperor the nephew obviously made the relationship delicate and embarrassing and is, in itself, almost sufficient to account for the chronic antipathy between them. But here again Mr. Benson, while not particularly flattering to the Prince, loses no opportunity of pressing home the case against, the Kaiser.
More important, however, than these petty personal issues is the question how far the course of history was affected by the constant correspondence and the frequent family meetings between royal personages which were characteristic of the half century before the War. Much has been written and talked in the past few years about the foreign peregrinations of British politicians. It is not generally remembered that the place of these personal discussions between Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries was in part taken before the War by the regular intercourse between crowned heads of States (who, for important meetings, were often accompanied by Ministers). These meetings were, of course, habitually used for the transaction of political business. But were they a governing factor of policy or merely its instrument? Was the notable falling off in such meetings in the few years immediately before the War a cause, or a symptom, of the impending
catastrophe? Mr. Benson's
book, in so far as it makes any contribution to this historical
problem, confirms the impression that all this personal intercourse
between royal relations, despite the immense importance attached to
it by its participants, had little decisive influence on the course
of events. Neither Willy nor Nicky deflected the policy of his
country by a single inch in the interest of friendship or cousinship
with the other; and it would be fantastic to attribute to the
temperamental incompatibility of William II and Edward VII any
determining rôle in the deterioration of Anglo-German
relations. There is no ground for suggesting that French interests
were penalised because France had no crowned head to hobnob with
royal cousins from other leading European countries. The Tsar of all
the Russias found no difficulty about allying his country with a
republic, and receiving on equal terms a President in a silk hat and
boiled shirt; and the picture of Queen Victoria consenting, albeit
with reluctance, to stand while the Marseillaise was played suggests
an irreverent comparison with M. Litvinov proposing the health of
King George V. When important interests of foreign policy were at
stake, the principles of the International of Monarchs went by the
board as easily as the principles of the Third International.
|The newish kaiser (1890)|
~E. H. Carr in The Spectator, 30/10/1936
The Benson name will stimulate interest in this though it is unlikely to achieve the sales of his English subjects. But for anyone interested in the international picture, the psychological aspects of the German-English relations, this is important, and a story that bears close reading, as written by an author whose integrity in stating problems and facts differs openly on many points with previous writers. [He] Covers the Kaiser's life, from a sensitive, tragic boyhood, to his present retirement in Holland. [He] Stresses the atmosphere of hostility between England and America at his birth, fostered by the unpopularity of his English mother. Essential for public libraries and colleges.
~Kirkus Reviews, 10/11/1936
Mr. E. F. Benson's biographical study of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII has well fitted him for writing on The Kaiser and English Relations, for the story of William's relations with England is largely the story of attempts by his English relatives, wiser than he, to keep him in check. William, the grandson of Victoria, is a sort of Richard III of Germany ~ a deformed, ambitious, unbalanced schemer, who lived to be cursed by his own mother and to be morally execrated by his own countrymen. These freaks occur in history. There was nothing in William's parentage to suggest such a creature. His father was an eminently upright man, without any egotism or desire for self-advancement; his mother an amiable woman, who did her best to promote the friendship of England and Germany. Yet their eldest son grew up to trample on them and exult at his father's death, to ally himself with Bismarck, who systematically humiliated them while the old Emperor lived, and to overthrow all their good works. Mr. Benson explains this degeneration from type as due to the accidents of William's childhood ~ the paralysed arm and consequent physical weakness, his harsh schooling that set up in him an inferiority complex, and so led him to assert himself at all costs. At heart, Mr. Benson maintains, he was a sheer coward, and even in his most grandiose and blatantly truculent moments trembled inwardly for
consequences of his words and actions. Then, too, he had no judgment,
no common sense, no self-restraint. He would commit the silliest
errors, and endeavour to escape responsibility by denying them. Time
and again Mr. Benson catches him out on his own words. By setting a
passage from an authentic letter alongside a passage from the
Kaiser's own memoirs, adding the testimony of others, he is able to
show what a pitiful liar the man was. Altogether, Victoria, and after
her, Edward, had a bad time of it holding in this blustering,
irresponsible kinsman. Several times ~ over the Boer War, at Tangier,
at Agadir ~ he nearly precipitated a crisis; luckily, the wise
monarch of England never lost his or her head over it.
|A bit later ...|
William's grand delusion ~ again to be attributed to that ingrained conviction of personal inferiority ~ was the 'encirclement' of Germany by the other European Powers, so he was constantly intriguing ~ you never knew where to have him. He would write warning Victoria against the designs of Russia; at the same time he would be showering his blandishments on the Csar. He never really hated England, Mr. Benson shows how deep-seated his love of that country was, and how genuinely he longed for a permanent alliance with her. He was inordinately proud of the tincture of Stuart blood in his veins, swelled in glory when Victoria made him an Admiral of the Fleet, touched the sky when she bestowed on him a colonelcy in an English regiment. All this strengthened his position in England, but his personal behaviour at the same time made it impossible. He was persistently rude to Edward, as Prince and King ~ he even flouted Victoria. When the armaments competition began, through his mad ambition to control the Atlantic, the inevitable conflict was definitely envisaged, and when it came it was a relief to the Kaiser, as it must have been to English statesmen who had long despaired of holding such a trouble-maker in check. It was then that his many wild utterances began to be remembered against him ~ the 'mailed fist,' the adjuration to Germans to be Huns, etc. He found himself regarded as a dangerous lunatic.
Mr. Benson is more impartial, even ~ for all his gentle but crushing irony ~ sympathetic with William in some of his moods. In spite of his bloodthirstiness, William had genuine artistic taste and ability, and to his friends he was a pleasant companion. The final verdict is, however, quite just. "Destiny had been cruel in ordaining that a man of his temper and temperament should be emperor of a great nation. Throughout his reign he had never shown any grasp of the serious responsibilities of kingship, never once, for all his sincere patriotism, had he rendered any true service to his country, nor ever had he failed to use his great abilities in the cause of European disquiet. Save for those moments of hysterical exaltation when some impetuous and imprudent impromptu had satiated his craving for imperial gestures, he had been the prey of fear and jealousy and deep-seated self-mistrust. . . . If only Providence had consecrated him to be a squire of ample means and estate, just outside some county town in England, what a pleasant and useful existence might have been his! ... " As it is, the Squire of Doorn has found almost his right level.
~The Sydney Morning Herald, 28/11/1936
|After the invention of colour|
Kaiser William possessed in a high degree all those characteristics which least recommend themselves to the British. He manifested on every occasion tendencies which in English preparatory and public schools are given disobliging names and systematically extirpated. Sneaking, swanking and bullying, that triple anathema of the Lower Fourth, figured strongly in his repertoire. When thwarted, he bit no bullets, but shouted and stamped and swore. When pleased, he gave way to extravagant displays of emotion. Really, thought grandmama Victoria, looking round on the family circle of crowned and coroneted Coburgers, Willy was the naughtiest boy in Europe.Much of the bitterness has passed from the minds of those who in the strained atmosphere of 1918 were ready to shout "Hang the Kaiser ! " But the impression remains that William was something of an ass and something of a cad ; there is an unpleasant edge to the laughter which greets his appearance in back numbers of Punch—a journal for the suppression of which he once pleaded, eagerly but in vain. It is therefore the more satisfactory that a writer such as Mr. Benson should have undertaken to present the Kaiser in his most difficult, most pathetic aspect. For there is no malice in Mr. Benson's pen, nor is he liable to sentimental extenuations. Using the best and sanest method of psychological approach, he has substituted a human being for the pompous and fantastic lay-figure. The Kaiser and English Relations leaves no room for ens.
Much importance is given to the deformity which handicapped William from birth, the torn left shoulder which made riding so difficult for him, though he strove so pluckily and so successfully to overcome the disability. To this can be traced the overwhelming sense of inferiority for which his tasteless and fatuous arrogance and sabre-rattling were a perpetual compensation. This mental condition of insecurity and instability in turn gave rise to suspicion and jealousy, to dread of "encirclement," to a conviction that only in the unassailable superiority of German arms could he place his trust.
Such was the man who sent the Kruger telegram, who landed—' 'a reluctant and timorous Mephistopheles"—at Tangier, and sanctioned the despatch of the Panther to Agadir. They are singularly futile, singularly irresponsible gestures. The whole of William's foreign policy was of the same order ; it seemed to have been conceived by a destructive child. His ambition was to break down the mutual confidence of other nations rather than to construct alliances for his own. Herein lay the difference between William and Edward VII. He always hated Uncle Bertie, whose genial friendliness revealed a poise which his own twisted nature could never hope to achieve. Mr. Benson ably contrasts the manner and method of the two sovereigns : "Each of them claimed exclusive rights of political cruising, and regarded the other as invariably engaged, under the pretext of a recuperative holiday, with sinister designs. The King's method on these excursions was very different from his nephew's ; his visits to any country were intended to promote cordial relations by his jollity and geniality ; the Emperor's, by a display of majesty and giants, to typify the might of Germany and to sow suspicions in his host's mind as to the sincerity of some country with which he had friendly relations."
William always had a sincere affection for his grandmother, Queen Victoria. She understood him. "William's faults," she told Edward, "come from impetuousness (as well as conceit) ; and calmness and firmness are the most powerful weapons in such a case." Calmly and firmly she dealt with his most outrageous actions, writing to him after the Kruger incident the famous letter which ends : "I hope you will take my remarks in good part, as they are entirely dictated by my desire for your good. Victoria R.I." ; and to the Tsar the letter which, in the same level tones, shattered the intrigue known as the Willy-Nicky correspondence.
As he loved the Queen, so William loved England. It was a love which England could neither understand nor repay, but years later, at Doorn, when the tragedy of the War had separated him from England for ever, it was still alive. In a penetrating and sympathetic epilogue, Mr. Benson makes us aware of this. "Hate without such furnace of underlying longing can never remain molten," he writes. If hate is the feeling with which Kaiser William's name is most readily associated in English minds, we should remember it is hate based on rejection.
~The Tablet, 12/12/1936
|An emperor in exile|
There is a charming picture, at the beginning of this vivid new biography, of Victoria, Princess Royal of England, receiving ~ by the management of her parents ~ a proposal of marriage from Prince Frederick William of Prussia, before she was fifteen. The desire of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort for a growing friendliness between Germany and England, however, received small help from the union, for the young bride ~ English in Prussia and Prussian in England ~ was not liked by Bismarck. To that stern Chancellor her eldest son, William ~ psychologically as well as physically injured at birth ~ was strongly drawn. William's nature was hardened but not strengthened by his disability. The inferiority complex which it caused grew into a love, as extravagant as any Oriental's, of the superficial trappings of power. Greedy for uniforms and spectacles, self-deluding, screwing himself to dismiss Bismarck because that mighty shadow dwarfed his own, his lact act at the outbreak of the Great War is entirely in character ~ the resigning of his English military and naval rank. A grand study of the man, his relations, and his surroundings, which cannot but enhance Mr Benson's already high reputation.
~Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror, 02/01/1937
The interesting thing to note in this book is that the biographer of Queen Victoria and Edward VII writes critically not only of the kaiser but of the kaiser's English relations, his mother who was Victoria's daughter, and his uncle Edward VII. There is an apparent disillusioned note in this new book by the former apologist for royalty.
~The New Masses, 12/01/1937
A chatty, superficial and inaccurate record.
~Dr. G. P. Gooch in Notes on New Books, 1937? [Haha ~ don't dress it up, mate!]
The Kaiser and English Relations caused [Benson] some bother, as he had originally had 'William II' in the title, and referred throughout the text to 'the Emperor'. His publishers maintained that the reader would be confused into thinking that 'William II' referred to a different emperor from the one everybody referred to as the Kaiser. Fred did not think this at all reasonable. “The mentality of anyone who maintains that the title 'The Kaiser' connotes William II, but that the title 'William II' connotes somebody else, is, frankly, outside my comprehension.” Nevertheless, he was overruled and his title amended.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991