The Trump/Kaiser parallels are quite unnerving…
by Gordon Campbell
The Passchendaele centenary commemorations were held last week. Amid the military rituals, there was a notable lack of commentary on the imperial platitudes that sent those young soldiers off to kill and be killed. That seems unacceptable, today. Even by October 1917 all of that King and Country, duty and honour stuff had worn desperately thin on the Western Front. At the very least, why doesn’t anyone ever read a few Wilfred Owen poems at these Passchendaele/Anzac Cove kind of events? Either this poem or this one would seem appropriate.
Meaning : if we want to remember the fallen, we could at least spend a memorial moment or two berating – on their behalf – the leaders who betrayed them and the community that pressured them to go. On such occasions however, you can rely on the military establishment to deck these endeavours in glory – and primarily for recruitment purposes, with the next killing ground in mind.
By and large, that is what we got at the commemoration rituals last week. Surprisingly, the chief of the NZ Defence Force chose to speak at the Passchendaele event about how absolutely awful it had all been for the commanders.
In his address on the “weight of command”, Lieutenant General Keating noted that New Zealand First World War battlefield commanders laboured under a burden that few can truly appreciate.
“They knew that in this dreadful war, no matter how well they planned and executed an attack, many of their men, often their friends and neighbours, would die.”
Hmmm. “ No matter how well they planned and executed an attack”? He’s talking about the central battle in a foolhardy Flanders offensive (led by Sir Douglas Haig) that was opposed by other commanders and by his own Prime Minister even at the time. Did First World War commanders truly labour under a burden ‘few can truly appreciate’ – or did they embrace deadly delusions that everyone should now roundly condemn? It would not be a case of modern peacenik revisionism to do so. In his memoirs in 1938, former Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote : “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war.. No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign ..”
Yet, last week, Keating seemed less intent on the cautionary lessons of history, and more inclined to treat similar sacrifices as being virtually inevitable in future :
“All that can be done is for the Defence Force to do our utmost to prepare them and those they command for the challenges they will face while serving our country, and ask their families to be courageous in the absence of their loved ones – sometimes forever.”
Thankfully, this is no longer “all that can be done.”
The Kaiser, and Trump
Talking of First World War lessons and parallels, who does this sound like?
“….Superficial, hasty, restless, unable to relax, without any deeper level of seriousness, without any desire for hard work or drive to see things through to the end, without any sense of sobriety, for balance and boundaries, or even for reality and real problems, uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience, desperate for applause and success — as Bismarck said early on in his life, he wanted every day to be his birthday.”
No, that’s not Donald Trump. This is Kaiser Wilhelm II – who led Germany into the Great War – as described by the historian Thomas Nipperdey, one of the sources for this fascinating recent article in Foreign Policy magazine .
Another distinguished historian, the late Gordon Craig of Stanford, offered a similar appraisal, writing that “[Wilhelm] had as much intelligence as any European sovereign and more than most, but his lack of discipline, self-indulgence, his overdeveloped sense of theatre, and his fundamental misreading of history prevented him from putting it to effective use.”
The Kaiser/Trump personality comparisons just keep on coming :
Craig also describes Wilhelm as “never having learned anything thoroughly” and “constantly on the move,” and German Army Chief of Staff Alfred von Waldersee described Wilhelm in the 1890s as having “a certain understanding of parade-ground movements, not, however, of real troop-leading.… He is extraordinarily restless, dashes back and forth, … intervenes in the leadership of the generals, gives countless and often contradictory orders, and scarcely listens to his advisers. He always wants to win and when the decision … is against him, takes it ill.”
Unfortunately for the world, the comparisons don’t stop at the mere personality foibles:
Berlin consistently exaggerated the actual dangers it faced…. Even worse, Germany repeatedly acted in ways that solidified the alliance that opposed them, instead of working assiduously to undermine it. When exaggerated German fears about a hypothetical future decline led its leaders to launch a preventive war in 1914, they were (as Bismarck might have put it), “committing suicide for fear of death.”
One sees a similar pattern in the United States today, where threat-inflation is endemic, the utility of force is exaggerated, and the role of diplomacy is neglected or denigrated. Professional militaries have powerful tendencies to inflate threats, because worrying about remote dangers is part of their job and doing so helps justify a bigger budget…. They are also prone to think that force can solve a multitude of problems, when it is in fact a crude instrument that always produces unintended consequences.
Consistent with this pattern, the United States routinely views third-rate powers like Serbia, Iraq, Iran, and others as if they were mortal dangers, treats problems like the Islamic State as if they were existential threats, and tends to assume these difficulties can be solved by blowing more stuff up or sending in another team of special forces. The results of these efforts have been mostly disappointing, yet hardly anyone in Washington is willing to question this approach or even ask our commanders why “the world’s best military” isn’t winning more often.
During the prelude to war, Kaiser Wilhelm professed himself to be the friend of all peace-loving nations, and of England in particular. Like Trump today, the Kaiser felt angry and aggrieved that his intentions just weren’t being appreciated by England’s leaders, by its media or by the general public. The Kaiser found this very vexing. His annoyance was evident in this fascinatingly petulant interview the Kaiser gave to the Daily Telegraph back in 1908.
What more can I do than I have done? I declared with all the emphasis at my command, in my speech at Guildhall, that my heart is set upon peace, and that it is one of my dearest wishes to live on the best of terms with England. Have I ever been false to my word? Falsehood and prevarication are alien to my nature. My actions ought to speak for themselves, but you listen not to them but to those who misinterpret and distort them. That is a personal insult which I feel and resent. To be forever misjudged, to have my repeated offers of friendship weighed and scrutinized with jealous, mistrustful eyes, taxes my patience severely. I have said time after time that I am a friend of England, and your press — at least, a considerable section of it — bids the people of England refuse my proffered hand and insinuates that the other holds a dagger. How can I convince a nation against its will?
Fake news! Especially when all Germany wanted to do was make the world safe for its commerce! As in :
….Germany is a young and growing empire. She has a worldwide commerce which is rapidly expanding, and to which the legitimate ambition of patriotic Germans refuses to assign any bounds. Germany must have a powerful fleet to protect that commerce and her manifold interests in even the most distant seas. She expects those interests to go on growing, and she must be able to champion them manfully in any quarter of the globe..”
And talking of Kaiser Bill…
Clearly, it wasn’t all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll back in the 1960s, though this video does its best with Whistling Jack Smith :