Press Releases: Historiography Edition
Hoffman- Dr. Röhl’s “Concise Life of Kaiser Wilhelm II”
“Inevitability”: Critique of Framing In Biography
Biography, Political History, Social History
Central Europe, particularly those areas frequented by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Citation For First Edition/Printing
Röhl, John C. G.. Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
German Historian Dr. John Röhl has spent over fifty years of his life studying Wilhelm II. He has compiled a biography published in multiple volumes, which numbers in at about 4,000 pages. Published in 2014, this book serves as a heavily, heavily compressed version of his more extensive biography of the Kaiser.
The book covers Wilhelm II’s entire life, beginning from his difficult birth, which caused deformities in his left arm that ultimately cost Wilhelm a healthy relationship with his mother. Röhl continues to quote primary sources that provide insight into Wilhelm’s reign as Kaiser, and to his death in exile in the Netherlands. Of particular interest is Röhl’s detailing of his evidence for the various events in the final Hohenzollern monarch’s early life to which he attributes Wilhelm’s actions during his reign.
This book is a culmination of over fifty years of research into the last Kaiser of Germany. Röhl cites numerous letters, archival records, journals, and official documents to construct a record of Wilhelm’s life and development as a person. However, this is not just a collection of quotations or primary sources, but a biography. Dr. Rohl provides his own interpretations of these sources, through which he expresses his resoundingly negative opinion of Wilhelm II.
While Dr. Rohl’s work in compiling this wealth of information into an easily digested format is commendable, he often frames his assessment of the meaning behind the documents in a way that seems to imply a belief that the Kaiser was doomed to become, in my own words, “a wretched guy who was just really pissed off all the time”. This teleology is perhaps a little more justified than some other examples- the doctor traces the Kaiser’s psychological problems back to his childhood in a convincing manner. But even within the first fifty pages, I noticed several choices of phrasing that raised an eyebrow. While discussing the deterioration of Wilhelm’s relationship with his mother, for example, this is likened to “the inevitability of a Greek tragedy”. And in the preface to the book, Wilhelm is ultimately declared a “forerunner to Hitler”. The funny thing about calling Wilhelm’s life a “tragedy”, yet behaving as if only one outcome was possible, is that a tragedy is tragic because it was preventable.