The Kaiser's Psychosis

By Allan McLane Hamilton, M.D., LL.D.

[The North American Review, June 1915]

The study of this picturesque figure—the German Kaiser—has for years engaged the attention of a host of observers, many of whom did not think him insane. In 1891 the great Portuguese essayist and critic, Ecu de Queirez, wrote an exceedingly bitter but amusing analysis, picturing the Emperor's extreme vanity and conceit, and his love of "drawing the long bow," saying at this early date:

It is my opinion, however, that he is nothing but a dilettante of activities—I mean a man strongly enamoured of activity, comprehending and feeling with unusual intensity the infinite delight it offers, and desiring, therefore, to experience and enjoy it in every form permissible in our state of civilization.

And again:

To him nothing is impossible, for he commands two millions of soldiers and a people who seek liberty—only in the regions of philosophy, ethics, and exegesis, and who, when their Emperor orders them to march, silently obey.

But this critic did not suspect insanity. Renan regretted dying only because he could not live to watch the development of this interesting but eccentric character. The doings of William the Second have certainly obsessed the entire world. Victor Hugo, when writing his Les voix intérieurs, could not escape the dominating insistent idea of the presence of the great Napoleon, and exclaimed, "Lui, toujours lui," when his best thoughts, despite his attempt to escape, were dominated by this all-pervading impression. So, too, the name of William the Second and his pyrotechnic doings have rung constantly in our ears, and the extreme uncertainty of what he is to do next has ceased to surprise us. It is another case of "Lui, toujours lui."

Eleven years ago I wrote the following words in THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW [1 October 1904]. They seem to have been prophetic, but at the time they represented not only my own views; but those of other students of mental disorder who were at all familiar with the mental peculiarities of the German Kaiser and his strange conduct:

In other lands, where the will of the people has so little to do with the choice of a ruler, we are furnished with numerous historical examples of the danger of hereditary mental defects. The lines of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern illustrate what is meant; and, though in both houses notable exceptions exist, there being immunes, like the first Emperor William, it is not difficult to find a distinct insane trace, which in times more remote found expression in cruelty, oppression and unmistakable insanity of other kinds, or, in recent times, by a mental degeneration which is strikingly exemplified in the present German sovereign. Though brilliant and vigorous in certain directions, as are many paranoiacs, his conduct is erratic and impetuous; and no one can possibly predict what form his latest explosion may take. Possessed of an idea of his own power and almost godlike supremacy, a characteristic which more closely resembles that of the arbitrary rulers of less civilized ages, his delusional sense of greatness leads him to indulge in all sorts of eccentric and disorderly forms of the exercise of power. Though his attempts to regulate the art of Germany and to teach sculptors, artists, actors, musicians, and even ballet-girls, are evidences of mild insane conceit, and do no great harm, his power for mischief is really dangerous when he becomes, as he does at times, the subject of a species of semi-religious exaltation. This was his condition when he addressed his troops previous to their departure for China, urging them "to kill." Again, his exaggerated sense of personal importance has led him to direct or bring about punishments for lèse-majesté which are not only extreme, but at times ridiculous. It has been said that the interfering criticism of this monarch is not due to an exaggerated estimate of his own capacity only, but to his own conception of his duty as an Emperor; and in this connection one of his critics has recently said: "It is a conception too apt to lead a man into an endeavor to set up a Napoleonic despotism over his subjects' feelings and tastes, and it is not surprising that the German artists, no less than the public, have resented such interference."

The determination of the complex problem of the Kaiser's irresponsibility, plus the extraordinary condition of what passes for higher civilization in his empire—and the estimation of how much his own mental disorder is evolutional—requires us to analyze all of Ms sayings and doings; for while in other times it has not been unusual to find large bodies of people participating in an epidemic of madness; it seems incredible that one nation, surrounded by sensible and logical neighbors, should be obsessed with the ideas that are so closely allied to insanity. Is his conduct, therefore, something for which he is alone responsible, or does he merely reflect the philosophy adopted by his people?

Those at court during the year 1859 were of one mind regarding the pitiable nervous state of Princess Frederick William at the time of the birth of the delicate baby who to-day is such a physical wonder. The young mother, then scarcely eighteen, had been for some time a patient of Dr. Martin, who assisted the Court physician at the accouchement. For a time it was supposed that the child was still-born, and it breathed only when vigorous and prolonged measures were undertaken in the way of artificial respiration. A few days after, according to Fisher [Secret History of the Court of Berlin], evidences of bodily defect were noticed, the left forearm and hand being found paralyzed; in fact, the young prince evidently presented a form of hemiplegia not uncommon in very young children. Whether this was due to some injury during labor, or was the consequence of some cerebral anomaly, does not appear. There is so much gossip as to the existence of what is known as a rudimentary hand, that it may seriously be questioned whether this was not an hereditary deformity.

His childhood and youth were characterized by peculiarities of conduct that may safely be said to be psychopathic, while his early manhood was punctuated with frequent instances of decidedly insane behavior, which have since become more conspicuous and continuous.

When little more than a youth, there were indications of the grandiose state that has grown with years. An apparent quasi-delusional condition existed even as early as his visit to the Dardanelles, when he not only referred to the beauties of scenery which were forbidden to "mortal eyes" but visible to himself, but in a letter to the Imperial Chancellor signed himself "Imperator Rex."

This same religious elation is common in some early forms of dementia, and seems to have been constantly manifested by the Kaiser, although the influence of the German belief in divine investiture is not of necessity a symptom of disease. Great weight must be attached to his consuming conceit, and his really delusional idea of the close relation he holds with a far greater Ruler. Of course, some of this is due to the Teutonic belief that the German people are under the special guidance of the Almighty. Frederick Wilhelm the Fourth had some such idea, but he was unquestionably insane. The good Emperor Wilhelm I amplified his brother's claim when he said that "the Prussian Crown had the Divine Right." This may have been a mere façon de parler, but the Kaiser is more in earnest and goes further. He it is who receives such promptings, suggestions, and orders from God that lead him to make ridiculous proclamations and to direct his army to violate all the rules of civilized warfare.

All of us who see much of mental disease recognize the tendency of certain déséquilibres to ally themselves with God. He enters into their delusions, and their impulsive and other murderous acts often spring from such alleged direction. While it goes without saying that the mere belief in divine help and so-called inspiration is one of the elementary forms of religious belief, it is not at all difficult to detect the dividing-line between sanity and real mental disorder in this connection, especially when we have been familiar with, the previous history of the person who manifests these morbid traits. One of the most caustic of the many critics of the German Emperor said:

This it is that makes the German Emperor so prodigiously interesting a figure; in him we have among us in this philosophical century a man, a mortal, who, more than any other expert, prophet, or saint, lays claim and appears to be the ally and intimate friend of God. The world has never seen, since the days of Moses on Sinai, such intimacy, such an alliance between the creature and the Creator. The reign of William II seems to be, as it were, an unexpected resurrection of the Mosaism of the Pentateuch. He is the favorite of God in the burning bush in his Berlin Schloss, and at the instigation of God he is leading his people to the joys of Canaan. Truly he is Moses II. Like Moses, too, he never tires of proclaiming (daily and loudly, so that none may ignore the fact and through ignorance contravene it) his spiritual and temporal relationship to God, which makes him infallible and therefore irresistible.

This exaltation—or euphoria, as it is called by psychiatrists—is no new thing. It has attended the career of every religious reformer since the world began, and up to recent times the claims of such people were never free from extravagant espousal of divine guidance of an extreme kind. When we consider the case in hand, we are sometimes reminded that as the Kaiser is the head of the German Church—the summus episcopatus—there is nothing strange about his assumption of power and divine alliance; but while this view of the matter is undoubtedly true; we cannot forget that it is his irrational adoption of his relations with things religious that suggests that he is unsound. He manifests what is known to alienists as the delirium of interpretation. This exists in people who are ordinarily lucid, though constitutionally psychopathic.

Unlike some other paranoid conditions; the false interpretations take their origin in actual facts. The patient, because of his constitutional peculiarities, lack of critique, and egocentricity, arrives at false interpretations by giving a personal meaning to everything that occurs.

Expanded and exaggerated ideas, which have an abnormal value in the consciousness of the individual, are common enough in persons of the class to which the Kaiser belongs, and account for much of his extravagance of action and speech. These "hyper-quantivalent" ideas are quite often found in individuals who nurse grievances, or have erroneous ideas, not amounting to actual delusions of persecution and conspiracy. It is not difficult, therefore, in the complaints of the German ruler—especially in regard to the conduct of his mother's people—to detect a morbid and illogical estimate of his alleged wrongs, and a strong, though erroneous, sense of personal injury. In expressing this view of what may be called a religious psychosis, the question is often asked: "If the Kaiser's religious exaltation were shared by the German people, would you say they were all insane?" One has only to refer to the history of widespread religious movements in which a leader or false Messiah has been a paranoid, or actually insane person, to understand how easy it is for a large following, if not an entire community, to undergo a suggestive or imitative influence which leads them to indulge in excesses quite beyond anything they may have witnessed.

Not only have the German people, with few exceptions, adopted the suggestions of the Emperor, as has been said, but they have indorsed and put in operation the extreme methods of warfare which are justified as the Heaven-sent mandate of extermination that herald the march of Kultur and progress.

The deliberate inculcation of hate by song and verse, the adoption of the methods of the bloodthirsty Barbarossa, and all the strange morbid religious utterances, show that the entire German nation at the present time suffers from an epidemic psychosis of an unmistakable significance, and probably inseparable from real involution. Dr. Réné Cruchet, of the medical faculty of Bordeaux, who has studied German educational methods, deplores the narrow teaching that springs from the "Germanomegalomanic" obsession, sketches its part in the creation of actual mental disorder, and instances the autodelusional condition of the large number of university professors who recently prepared a manifesto. These men certainly had not the excuse of actual ignorance, or even lack of intelligence.

This religious exaltation is attended by exaggerated ideas of personal fitness, which is shown in other things. The Kaiser's emotional instability is said to be indicated in a variety of ways. His actions and gestures are at times those of a person in a condition of hypomania, and he is rarely composed and quiet.

Those who have seen much of him describe his fondness for striking dramatic attitudes, and his facial expression impresses one with the idea that he lacks control of the histrionic muscles. Like all other unstable subjects of this kind, there is a versatility which gives unthinking persons the idea of the existence of great talent, if not genius. One of his "accomplishments" is painting. In the gallery of Frau Lenbach, the widow of the great Bavarian artist, is a curious example of this monumental conceit and vanity. A recent visitor describes what he saw:

Last September I was taken round the house formerly occupied by Lenbach. I was instructed by a privileged lady, who, in the circumstances, it were unfair to name. She showed us many splendid portraits, including a number of Bismarck, and some charming studies of Lenbach's own children; and then she took us into a tiny room, where, hung above the window, in the worst light available, was a frightful daub which, purported to represent a naval battle. Aside from the first canvass of a school-boy with his first box of paints, you never saw its like. It was boldly signed "Wilhelm," and the august artist had presented it to Lenbach to be exhibited in the company of his own masterpieces.

Other works of art seriously produced and shown by him are extant. The artist evidently has no idea of the weakness of his efforts or the impression that he was likely to make. One of these is the celebrated picture of the "Yellow Peril," sent by the Kaiser to the Czar of Russia at the beginning of the war in the Far East. This is not only exceedingly bad, but suggestive of insane art at its worst. The London Sketch has recently collected other productions which are equally curious. What I said in 1904 is true to-day, and in the interim he has meddled with all the art in Germany, altering plans of architects, and busying himself everywhere, meanwhile showing that restless activity so inseparable from psychopathic elation. Berlin shows his inconsiderate hand in the atrocious statues that line one of the avenues in the Thiergarten.

His attempts at playwriting and his poetry have, by reason of their insane weakness, excited much ridicule—this is especially true of the "Song of Aegir," which he caused to be sung and played upon every occasion, while he often led the orchestra in person. The doubtful credit of having composed this piece has been given to Herrn von Moltke and Philip Eulenburg, but the Kaiser did his part. This led to rather free and not altogether respectful criticism, and it is said that the aggregate sentences for lèse-majesté during the years from 1893 to 1896 amounted to three hundred and eleven years, while fines amounting to nine thousand marks were imposed.

In 1896-7 he wrote, in collaboration, a festival play known as "Willehalm" to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of William I. This, too, was feeble. In the sensational production of these his conduct in some ways resembled that of his cousin Ludwig of Bavaria, whose mental ailment, however, was of a much more serious nature.

It is in his speeches and addresses that he most clearly shows his psychosis; for these reflect his theistic delusions, which are highly characteristic of paranoids. Upon a recent occasion the Gazetta, which was published by the Germans, on October 30th at Gezenstochowa, Russian Poland, printed the following proclamation:

Poles: You of course remember how once at night the bell of the holy Swiatogorsky Monastery began to ring without human aid, and when all the pious people understood that this great and important event had been signalized by a miracle.

That event was my signal to wage war with Russia and restore Poland her saints and annex her most cultured land to Germany. I had a wondrous dream. To me appeared the Virgin Mary and commanded me to save her holy convent, which danger threatened.

She gazed at me with tears, and I proceeded to fulfil her divine behest. Know you this, Poles, and meet my troops like brothers, saviors. Know ye, Poles, that all who are with us will be liberally rewarded; and those against me will perish. With me are God and the Holy Virgin. She lifted the sword of Germany to succor Poland.

There are many instances of cruelty for which he is undoubtedly responsible—including the use of poisonous gas in the western battlefields, and well-poisoning in Southwest Africa—that show his belief in the power of extermination given him by God, which he delusively holds. A more practical reaction to an insane idea cannot be found than the above, and it is only one of many. His uncertain mental state is in some measure an inheritance. Woods in his Heredity in Royalty, a clever and interesting book, points out that though for five hundred years the Hohenzollerns were a great family, the study of the career of certain members shows a lamentable evidence at least of instability, if not something else; but as a whole their history is impressive and interesting. This great royal family dates back to the first Frederick, the Elector of Brandenburg., who was its real founder (1371-1440); but we are more concerned with the later Frederick, the first king of Prussia, who was in power from 1657 to 1713, and his descendants. From all that can be learned this Frederick was vain and extravagant, loved pomp unduly, and had a fear of being poisoned, for which there seems to have been no basis. He, by his wastefulness of public money, and by unjust taxation, imposed great hardships upon the nation. His son, Frederick Wilhelm the First, who succeeded him, was noted for his eccentricities, but was a great soldier, and in many ways an able ruler. He was erratic and foolishly cruel; his extreme prejudice was shown in the treatment of his son (who afterward became Frederick the Great), whom he grossly insulted and assaulted in public when the latter attempted to escape to England with two young lieutenants, Katte and Keith. Frederick was put in prison and one of his companions was sentenced to two years' confinement, the other having fled. The father, however, determined to teach his son a terrible lesson, and changed the sentence so that the unfortunate Katte was actually beheaded in front of the window of the Crown Prince. From all available accounts, the conduct of the father upon this and other occasions suggested insanity.

This young man, who was Frederick the Great, need be referred to but briefly. He was many-sided, and had some of the attributes of the present German ruler; but he liked and admired the French as much as the latter pretend to dislike them, and it is said that he characterized German "as the language of boors." The successor of the great Frederick was Frederick Wilhelm the Second, whose indolence and lack of political sagacity resulted for a time in Prussia's decline. It is said that he was a dilettante in the arts; and patronized Mozart and Beethoven. He possessed no mental qualities of a high order. His religious orthodoxy was most extreme and peculiar and approached fanaticism; it is not difficult; therefore, to trace much of the present Kaiser's religious exaltation to this ancestor. His successor unfortunately; however, "had all the Hohenzollern tenacity of personal power, without the Hohenzollern genius for using it." He was a man of weak mind, although possessing many good qualities that endeared him to his subjects.

King Wilhelm the Fourth died actually insane; and the first Emperor Wilhelm; who was his brother; became the regent several years before his death. In the former were seen evidences of various forms of mental blight, which are so dominant in Wilhelm the Second, but in other ways he was different. While he was brave to a degree, he hated war and was a dreamer with a leaning to mysticism, ill-balanced, infirm of purpose, and the subject of a deepening psychosis; he was, after 1857, quite incompetent. Of the succeeding monarchs there is nothing to be said except that the old Emperor Wilhelm the First was a remarkably sound-minded person, and his son, Frederick the Third, an amiable and mediocre character; though, had he lived, he might have done much good because of his conservatism, good sense, and freedom from the impulsive and disorderly proclivities of his family.

It would appear from this brief account that the house of Hohenzollern, great as it is, has not been free from mental disorder. There is only one history of actually reported downright insanity, but there are many allied instances. What would have occurred had no good Dutch blood changed the strain it is difficult to say, but the alliance of the first Frederick with Louise Henrietta, daughter of Frederick Henry of Orange, has clearly had its beneficent effect.

A study of the life of the immediate family of the Kaiser shows many traits that he himself actually possessed, or has imitated—for he is not above posing to the greatest advantage. The notion that he is a lover of peace is ridiculous, and is refuted by all he has said and done. How different are his pretensions and advocacy of this measure; as compared with those of the younger Pitt; and referred to by Admiral Mahan! [From Sail to Steam, p. 306]. That he is responsible for the present war is now a matter of general belief with the unprejudiced; and if militarism is its cause, there is no doubt that it has been built up by frequent suggestion and the personal influence of the dominating psychopathic Kaiser. For years the conquest of England, as we know, has been the dream of Germany, notwithstanding the disclaimer of the Berlin professors.

There are many persons who look upon the Kaiser as simply exceedingly bad and malevolent. They apply epithets, and declare that he is solely responsible for the present contest; others think, as does the editor of the London Spectator, [The Spectator, October 10, 1914] that from the stage point of view he plays the part of Emperor to perfection; he is always in the lime-light, always on parade, and if great nations could be successfully governed by skilful actors, Kaiser Wilhelm would have been an ideal Emperor.

Neither of these views is a proper one; no matter whether he is incompetent or not, or whether his General Staff is said to mistrust him; or whether "he behaves not like a man, but a foolish boy," there is something behind all this. It is this: Kaiser Wilhelm the Second is mentally constituted like many others who at different times in the history of the world have led vast bodies of obsessed men, and who have been idealized and invested with exaggerated attributes, both heroic and religious. Some men of little force and small knowledge fall by the wayside as soon as the "magnetism" of their personal influence wanes, or the excitement connected with a common cause diminishes. Others continue to impress their fellows, indefinitely winning the ignorant by their picturesque claims, and often "doing things."

Need more be said? While it is common report that he is an amiable, amusing person, and is not at all cruel, as it has been represented, it cannot be gainsaid that in inheriting many of the weaknesses of his ancestors—though not a few of their good gifts—he is a menace to the world for the reason that he not only has shown the exceedingly bad judgment that belongs to those who are mentally inferior, but has delusive ideas of grandeur and consequent power, of persecution and of conspiracy. His enmity toward England is especially unbounded and morbid, and quite uncalled for. This is not a matter of the past few months, but of years, and he has always sneered at his cousin, King George; but all his likes and dislikes are as a rule impulsive and often vicious. He and his advisers are shrewd and sharp, but so far as he is concerned this is not strange, for some of the worst paranoids are above the average in certain intellectual directions, and are capable and resourceful.

It is not difficult to see that the present German Emperor is acting according to his lights—glaring though they may be. All his training, all his family tradition, all his mental imperfections, make him what he is, and he in turn brings up his children in the same way, and impresses his personality upon all those about him. Is there any wonder that all official Germans are militarists, and that they live only to fight and conquer?

That the mental make-up of the Kaiser may be his undoing is evident to most people. In these civilized days, theatrical display and the warlike methods of Attila, "The Scourge of God," may for a time succeed, but when a madman directs the conduct of war it can end only in defeat.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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