The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 561-562
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Wilhelm II. und die Religion: Facetten einer Persönlichkeit und ihres Umfelds. Edited by Stefan Samerski. [Forschungen zur Brandenburgischen und Preussischen Geschichte, neue Folge, Beiheft 5.] (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. 2001. Pp. 320. DM 138.00 paperback.)
Recent writings regarding the person, career, and reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) remain preoccupied with his autocratic pretensions, his unbridled and dangerous egotism, his role in the outbreak of World War I, even his putative responsibility for the disastrous turn in German politics that led to the Nazi regime in 1933. Arguing that little more is to be gained from this approach and seeking to produce a more balanced view of Germany's last monarch, the contributors to this volume instead call attention to the widely acknowledged but little analyzed role of religion in Wilhelm's thinking and behavior. The result is not a comprehensive synthesis of the Kaiser's life and work, but a series of ten essays that trace and interpret the development of his thought and conduct in relation to the religious currents of his era. This religious focus, as employed here, transcends the boundaries of a narrow church-bound piety to assess Wilhelm's [End Page 561] core religious values in an increasingly secular world and to emphasize the complexities and contradictions of his thinking.
Solidly based on both printed and archival sources, this collection is informed by a finely tuned appreciation for the relevant theological issues and sectarian controversies of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany. Since the conception of the volume is multidisciplinary, however, the topics are extraordinarily diverse. They range from the Kaiser's relationship with Adolf Stoecker's Christian-Social movement to an assessment of his early life, religious training, and intellectual formation, from his conflicted opinions regarding his Roman Catholic fellow countrymen and Catholic emancipation to the fate of Polish-speaking Protestants in Prussia's eastern districts, and from his personal contacts with the papacy in Rome or the church hierarchy in Germany itself to his use of religious instruction to combat revolutionary ideas and promote loyalty to the Crown. Nonetheless, much is left out, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the absence of an essay that confronts the Kaiser's "ambivalent" relationship with Germany's Jewish minority. (The editor admits he was unable to recruit anyone to examine this issue.) Especially informative, on the other hand, is an essay calling attention to the Kaiser's unusual interest in the biblical and ethnographical controversies of his day. So too is a contribution (complete with illustrations) exploring Wilhelm's architectural preferences regarding the design and construction of ecclesiastical buildings. As this essay makes clear, the Kaiser's conception of ecclesiastical architecture went much further than planning better churches and improved ecclesiastical buildings. It involved his conviction that these edifices could inspire awe through their monumental character and at the same time teach citizens, improve their morals, and develop greater respect for secular authority.
Taken together, these essays do in fact provide a more nuanced view of the Kaiser's person and political environment, making it clear that Wilhelm's contemporaries—admirers and critics alike—were not mistaken in calling attention to a strong religious trait in his character. For all that, however, it is difficult to see how a heightened awareness of the Kaiser's religious beliefs and interests substantially diminishes his responsibility for the German Empire's failings or compels a full reassessment of his person and career. Although the ability of the authors here to find their way through the intricacies and contortions of Wilhelm's religious thinking is impressive and not without interest, their analysis leaves too little room for the Kaiser's intemperate thirst for political power which he all too often believed was divinely inspired and linked in his mind to religious and moral concerns. Despite the personal religiosity and wide-ranging intellectual interests portrayed so well in this volume, Wilhelm II remains the unrepentant, emotionally unstable, and incapable ruler who undermined...