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“Byzantinism”: The Courtier at his Court
The botched birth that left Wilhelm II with a withered left arm had almost certainly caused brain damage as well, which Röhl argued explains much of Wilhelm’s erratic personality. Wilhelm’s mother, the Crown Princess Victoria tried, but failed to hide her horror at her son’s withered arm when he was growing up, which Röhl argued explains much of Wilhelm’s narcissism as an attempt to make up for the love that he never received as a child and his damaged self-esteem caused by his withered arm. Wilhelm’s parents, the Crown Prince Friedrich and Crown Princess Victoria were both classical liberals who were strongly opposed to anti-Semitism; in 1880 when the anti-Semitic historian Heinrich von Treitschke was leading a popular campaign to disemancipate German Jews, the Crown Prince and Crown Princess pointedly attended a service at a synagogue to show their support for the threatened German Jewish community and to show their disapproval of Treitschke’s “disgraceful” attacks on those Germans who happened to be Jewish. In an act of rebellion, Wilhelm become an ardent anti-Semite and embraced everything that his parents hated, becoming, as Archduke Rudolf commented in 1883, “a dyed-in-the-wool Junker and reactionary” who hated democracy.
To compensate for feelings of inferiority caused by his withered arm, Wilhelm had in the words of Röhl a tendency to engage in “sadistic” behavior such as having the rings on his right hand inwards, squeezing especially hard when shaking hands (as result of having the use of only one arm, Wilhelm had an abnormally strong right arm), and watching with pleasure as the other party grimaced in pain. Other antics of the Kaiser included attacking his guests with his field marshal’s baton and making his elderly ministers do a vigorous round of physical exercises, sometimes cutting off their braces first so that they would have trouble keeping their pants up during the exercises. On board the royal yacht Hohenzollern on the annual North Sea summer cruise in 1894, Eulenburg was alarmed to be woken up at midnight by the “loud, laughing, shouting, pealing voice of the Kaiser outside my door; he was chasing the old excellencies Heintze, Kessel, Scholl, etc, through the corridors of the ship to bed!”. After one especially strenuous session of physical exercises under the midday sun on the deck of the Hohenzollern presided over by a laughing Wilhelm, Eulenburg wrote: “It is a curious sight: all those old military fogeys having to do their knee-jerks with strained faces! The Kaiser sometimes laughs out loud and eggs them on with a dig to the ribs. The old boys then pretend that they are particularly delighted over such a favour, but in fact they clench their fists in their pockets and afterwards grumble among themselves about the Kaiser like a lot of old women”. The system Wilhelm created around him was known at the time as “Byzantinism” as the strange atmosphere at his court full of material opulence, factionalism, sycophancy and intrigue was so redolent of the courts of the Eastern Roman Emperors. Wilhelm often made his courtiers dance before him and the rest of the court dressed as ballerinas or poodles while blowing kisses to him. Perhaps the most infamous case of “Byzantinism” occurred in 1908 when General Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler danced before the Kaiser and the court dressed while wearing a pink ballerina dress, and then felt so humiliated by what he had been forced to do that he promptly died of a heart attack. Others at the court rather enjoyed participating in these homo-erotic spectacles that Wilhelm enjoyed so much. In 1892, the courtier Georg von Hülsen wrote to Count Emil von Schlitz gennant von Görtz that:
“You must be paraded by me as a circus poodle!-that will be a ‘hit’ like nothing else. Just think: behind shaved (tights), in front long bangs out of black or white wool, at the back a genuine poodle tail a marked rectal opening and, when you ‘beg’, in front a fig-leaf. Just think how wonderful when you bark, howl to music, shoot off a pistol or do other tricks. It is simply splendid!…In my mind’s eye I can already see H.M [His Majesty] laughing with us…I am applying myself with real relish to this ‘work’ in order to forget that my beloved sister — the dearest thing I have on earth — is at this moment dying in Breslau…I feel like the clown in Knaus’s picture ‘Behind the Scenes’. No matter!-H.M shall be satisfied!”.
The Kaiser very much enjoyed seeing Count Görtz dance before him wearing the poodle’s costume with the “marked rectal opening”. In this court, Eulenburg found his place as a sycophantic courtier always singing the praises of his master, a role he played very well since in his case the praise was sincere. Eulenburg was an absolute believer in the Führerprinzip and believed in unconditional loyalty to Wilhelm. Eulenburg was one of the few friends of the Kaiser not forced to cross-dress or wear ridiculous costumes at his parties as Wilhelm did not wish to humiliate him; instead Eulenburg—an accomplished piano player with an excellent singing voice—would play the piano and sing one of the songs he had written while Wilhelm would turn the pages of the music sheet in front of Eulenburg. Eulenburg always affectionately called Wilhelm Liebchen (“Darling”) and was one of the few who did not address Wilhelm as “Your Majesty”.
The exact nature of the relationship between Eulenburg and Wilhelm has been the subject of much speculation.
Wilhelm often called Eulenburg “my bosom friend, the only one I have”. There is no evidence that Wilhelm and Eulenburg were anything other than best friends. Since Eulenburg was quite open about being gay in the company of his closest friends, and he had been Wilhelm’s best friend for twenty-two years, Röhl argued that it is extremely unlikely that Wilhelm knew nothing of Eulenburg’s homosexuality as he later claimed. In 2005, Röhl wrote “This view of Wilhelm II as a repressed homosexual is gathering growing support as the Eulenburg correspondence and similar new evidence is studied and digested.” The American historian Isabel V. Hull wrote: “Wilhelm never resolved his feelings for Eulenburg, never understood them, and certainly never labelled them…He seems to have remained unconscious of the homoerotic basis of his closest friendship, and, by extension of the homosexual aspects of his own character.” After coming to the throne, Wilhelm largely avoided female company and had a marked preference for surrounding himself with handsome young soldiers, which led the British historian Alan Sked to conclude that Wilhelm had at very least homosexual tendencies. In a letter written in slightly broken English (despite having a British mother, the Kaiser never quite entirely mastered English), Wilhelm told Eulenburg how he detested women, and that: “I never feel happy, really happy in Berlin…Only Potsdam is ‘my el dorado’…where one feels free with the beautiful nature around you and soldiers as much you like, for I love my dear Regiment very much, those such nice young men in it”. Wilhelm went on to tell Eulenburg that he preferred the company of soldiers to his family for only in the all-male world of the Potsdam garrison could he really be himself. Eulenburg himself speculated on these lines, writing in an essay for the benefit of the “Liebenberg Round Table” as his social circle came to be known that a disproportionate number of the men of the House of Hohenzollern over the centuries had been gay, and there was something within Wilhelm’s blood that made him inclined to same-sex relationships.
Eulenburg’s own sexuality has been the subject of debate as well, with many asking if a man who was married with eight children and had affairs with women could really be a homosexual. Eulenburg was close to his children whom he adored, but was extremely cold to his wife. Eulenburg’s major emotional bonds were with the “Liebenberg Round Table”, which celebrated intimately close male friendship as the ideal basis for a perfect society; there was far more warmth to Eulenburg’s letters to Moltke and Varnbüler than ever was in his letters to his wife. Röhl wrote that Eulenburg was not a homosexual in the sense that most people would understand the term—namely someone who has relationships only with people of the same sex—but was rather a bisexual with a strong preference for men over women. In this regard, it is noteworthy that shortly before his death, Eulenburg wrote that the only woman he ever really loved was his mother. Röhl wrote: “It is now generally recognised that people cannot be classified as either hetero- or homosexual…Instead there were various intermediate stages between these extremes into which Philipp Eulenburg and some of his friends surely fitted…Such fine distinctions perished, however in an intellectual climate in which, following the teachings of the Heidelberg psychiatry professor, Emil Kraepelin, ‘contrary sexual proclivities’ were classified along with ‘idiocy’, ‘cretinism’, and ‘congenital feeblemindedness’ as a form of ‘lunacy'”.
Michael Novakhov – SharedNewsLinks℠