Imperial Hubris

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 World War I, epitomized by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm assumed the throne in 1888 at age 29, his liberal father having reigned for 88 days before succumbing to throat cancer. His grandfather, Wilhelm I, had presided over Prussia’s military victories, which enabled Bismarck to create the unified Reich in 1871. Within two years, Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck.

Wilhelm II became the leader of a country on the cusp of European mastery. By the 1890’s, Germany was the strongest power on the continent. But power generates opposition, and Germany’s alarmed neighbors began to form defensive alliances.

Wilhelm flaunted his absolute power, believing it to be divinely ordained. He was contemptuous of parliament, whose circumscribed powers were set forth in a constitution that he boasted of never having read. He was intelligent, impressed by technological progress, perhaps even gifted, but untutored and impulsive; he reveled in the trappings of power and delighted in uniforms. His ostentation and extravagance were deeply un-Prussian.