While on our cruise to Norway I read 2 books both very different from one another. The first book was a shorter version of a 4000 page book on Kaiser Wilhelm II. The author John C.G. Rohl did what can only be described as an academic and scholarly study of the life of the last German Emperor, examining in detail his family, his relationship and his numerous health problems and the handicap of his lame left arm which caused him enormous pain all his life and very serious mental problems. Reading the book I did not have any sympathy for the man but certainly understood how Royal Families mixing dynastic ambitions, politics, family rivalries between the British Royal Family and the German Royal Family can be a recipe for disaster. His mother was the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and in turn the families are first cousins. Her marriage to Prince Frederick who will be Kaiser for 99 days in 1888 was arranged by Queen Victoria and British politicians to cement the alliance between Britain and Germany.
The author examines European politics of the time and the political actors who all have a responsibility to bear in what would happen. Personal political ambitions coming before the good of one’s country or people, failure to understand a changing world, rejection of a Constitutional Monarchy like Britain’s, the decline of colonial empires, trade wars, military competition between Britain and Germany and visions of world domination in both Britain and Germany lead us straight into the First World War. The author does not blame, he explain the toxic soup in which the world found itself between 1870 and 1919. On the margins we also see the weaker States like Russia, Austria and the Ottoman Empire and their role. Kaiser Wilhelm II saw himself as the personification of his famous ancestors and much of his political ideas would be championed later in the 1930’s by the Nazi Party. Germany did try during the Weimar Republic to become a democratic and constitutional State but events intervened.
Wilhelm II is a very interesting subject and a sad one, as a child he had a horrific upbringing, his mother wanting to have the perfect child for dynastic reasons and to please her difficult mother Victoria will submit Wilhelm to sadistic military and civilian tutors, weird medical experiment to try to heal is lame left arm, exposing the medical ignorance of the time. The mistakes of incompetent doctors, a breech birth, the authors gives a complete medical explanation of what happened causing irreparable neurological damage to Wilhelm’s left arm and other infirmities to his spine and neck. It is a fascinating read if only to get us to understand that part of world history we still speak about today and remember on November 11 each year. Wilhem II died in exiled in 1941 at his little castle in Doorn, The Netherlands.
Berlin view from the top of the Brandenburg Gate behind the quadriga of Peace looking down (Eastward) Unter den Linden towards the now reconstructed Imperial City Palace which will open as the Humboldt Forum in 2020.
The second book I read, though I found it interesting and certainly brought back many memories of my time in the Middle East was Beirut Hellfire Society by Canadian author Rawi Hage who was born in Beirut and lived the early years of the civil war in that city. It should be remembered that this vicious war with countless atrocities that defy the imagination started in 1973 and ended in 1990, without resolving the issues that still haunt Lebanon today. If you have not lived in the Levant or Middle East as the USA calls it. It is very difficult to understand / believe the story of this book and the actors. You may wonder why or is it possible for people to be so cruel and malicious, I would say yes it is possible human being have shown what they are capable of when organized society, Law and Order disappears. Chaos and brute force become the only rule of the game and anything goes.
Reading this book, thinking back to what I witnessed and the testimony of those who lived through it, I always think of our own society with its pre-conceived notions and petty prejudice, always quick to judge and offer simplistic solutions. I wonder what Canadians would do in such a situation, no better probably. Currently we are having a Federal Election Campaign, in a situation like that of Lebanon between 1973-1990 being a politician, one would have to be very brave, death stalks you and your family.
The author Rawi Hage also attacks in his book the various religions who stoked the hatred of others, be they muslims, (shia or sunny) Druze, Christians etc. Everyone belongs to a tribe and you pay the militia to protect your tribe against the other tribe. Unless someone in your family wants you dead. The events described in the book did happen, there are no embellishments. A powerful book on a country and a region so little understood.