IN 1928 while I was preparing a volume on the origins of the First World War I was a guest in Berlin at a luncheon given by one of the numerous societies interested in relieving Germany of responsibility for the war. In a brief speech, I remarked that I was making the rounds of the different countries involved in the war, and stated that I had seen Grey, Poincaré, etc. After the luncheon, a former general asked if I was going to visit the Kaiser. I replied that I did not have the entrée to His Majesty. The general, who, I learned later, was a personal friend of the fallen monarch, said that he could arrange it, and took my address. About three weeks later I received, in London, a letter from the Hofmarschall at Haus Doorn, saying that His Majesty would be pleased to receive me and that if I would telegraph the hour of my arrival at Utrecht, the nearest station, "ein kaiserliches Auto" would be sent to fetch me to Haus Doorn.

So on Tuesday, August 28, 1928, I arrived at Utrecht, and there, sure enough, I found a handsome gray limousine awaiting me. It bore no coat of arms and the chauffeur did not wear livery -- a quiet turnout such as any successful American might maintain. A half-hour's drive brought us to the porter's lodge of Haus Doorn. This was a new structure built by the exile to house the officials of his tiny court and his guests, who were seemingly rather numerous. Only the presence of a Dutch policeman suggested that it was not the property of a private person. I was ushered into a suite of rooms decorated with paintings, photographs, and other memorials of the old régime, and was served the usual Dutch breakfast. After an hour the adjutant on duty appeared, in plus fours, to notify me of the arrangements for the day. I would be received by the Empress at eleven and by the Emperor at noon, after which luncheon would be served, and for the rest, whatever circumstances might suggest; I was asked to wear a dark suit.

Shortly before eleven the house doctor came to escort me to the imperial residence, which was a house of fourteen rooms built something more than a century ago by a prosperous merchant. Since the Empress's five children by her former marriage had to be accommodated, the house was none too large; it impressed me as being more comfortable than the palaces inhabited in the days of power. The fittings were elegant, most of them brought from Germany, but in keeping with an unpretentious establishment. The servants wore dark blue uniforms, and there were no guards about.

The Empress -- as she was called, though she had no right to the title -- received me in her sitting-room. She was rather a plump woman, motherly and devoted to her husband. She talked first of Woodrow Wilson, toward whom she seemed to feel rather bitter and about whom she believed the scandals which were once current. She then denounced the Dawes Plan which, she insisted, was driving Germany toward Bolshevism and ruin. Finally she came to speak of the Emperor. She explained that he kept himself from growing morose and despondent by omnivorous reading and that, in talking with him, I should find him prone to discourse on many topics. But since I had come to speak of particular things, I should not hesitate to interrupt and bring him back to what I wished to know. By this time an hour had passed, and the servant entered to say that His Majesty was now ready to see me. So I withdrew, descended to the ground floor, and was taken into the Emperor's study by the adjutant.

It was hard to believe that I was about to face the person who had probably been the most excoriated man of our time. But before I could give myself over to meditation, the door opened and in walked William II of Hohenzollern, once German Emperor and King of Prussia. Dressed in a gray suit with a pink tie adorned with a pin of the Prussian order pour le Mérite, brown shoes, white spats, and a straw hat, his eyes flashed as he came forward with outstretched hand to say, "How do you do, professor? I am very glad to see you." I bowed slightly, and he invited me to be seated. Then, "What can I do for you?" I explained that I was investigating the origins of the war and had talked with many of the survivors of 1914.

"Well," he said, "the answer is very simple. Cecil Rhodes made the war." Whereupon he descanted for a quarter of an hour on the iniquity of Rhodes, who as far back as 1895 -- the time of the Jameson raid -- had planned to destroy Germany, because Germany stood in the way of his African ambitions. Whether His Majesty knew that I had been a Rhodes Scholar did not come out. He declared that Edward VII (his own uncle) and Edward Grey were merely the instruments of Rhodes, and when I remarked that most German writers were now disposed to absolve England of deliberately plotting the war and laid the blame on Poincaré and Izvolsky, he waived these suggestions airily aside and repeated his original proposition. He seemed also to attach credence to the tale circulated years ago by R. G. Usher of an Anglo-Franco-American alliance directed against Germany; and to prove this he produced a sensational pamphlet by an American woman whose name I have forgotten. To these astonishing theories I really had no answer. But when I remembered that several years ago, in speaking with another American, he was said to have laid the blame for the war on the Jews, I realized that William II possessed the capacity to believe at any moment what pleased or suited him, that he was a highly emotional personality whose reflexes could not be gauged by ordinary standards, and that I was not likely to secure from him any positive or satisfactory information. I also appreciated that he must have been an exceedingly difficult problem for his ministers and advisers, who, it is well known, were sometimes greatly inconvenienced by his sudden actions and consequently did not scruple to conceal from him information which might have a disconcerting effect on him. Later His Majesty essayed to prove that the Russians had been secretly mobilizing for months before the July crisis and that the British army had secret stores of supplies in Belgium. But I should add that there was no bitterness in what he said. Finally, he presented me with an autographed picture, on which is written: "Nothing is too improbable to be true. Every once in a while all the circumstantial evidence in the world seems to get mobilized to down an innocent man." I supposed then that the inscription was his own composition, but I have since learned that it is taken from a book by the late C. E. Montague.

It was now one o'clock, and luncheon was announced. The company was assembled when the Emperor and myself came out of his study -- about twenty persons in all. There were the Empress and her five children, a couple of tutors, the court officials -- that is, the marshal, the adjutant, and the doctor -- three generals of the old army who had come to present His Majesty with a silver cup from members of the regiment in which he had performed his first military service, and two or three others whom I can no longer identify. All were somewhat dressed up, the generals in morning coats to which they did not seem accustomed. The Emperor made the round of the company and presented me to each, after which we went to table. The two royalties sat at the center of a long table facing each other; one general was on the Emperor's right, myself on his left, and he conversed alternately with us. The glassware bore the monogram of Frederick II and dated from his time, so the Emperor said. The meal was simple: soup, main course, dessert, followed by coffee in the Emperor's study. There seemed to be no constraint, and I had ample time to observe two large portraits of William and Hermine at either end of the dining-room. The Emperor's portrait was evidently made at Doorn, for he was represented with the Van Dyck beard he affected after the war; none the less, he was painted in the full uniform of a field-marshal of the German army. I may say that this was the only visible sign of unrepentance anywhere about the place. As we were taking our coffee, the Emperor came up to me and asked if I would care to walk with him in the late afternoon, to which, as they say in the House of Commons, the answer was in the affirmative.

Before this little expedition, the Emperor's doctor took me over the estate, which consists of only twenty-two acres, and talked about his patient, if one may so describe a man of nearly seventy whose health was obviously excellent. By dint of wood-sawing and work in his garden, His Majesty really kept himself quite fit, and by entertaining a constant stream of guests avoided being utterly bored. There were no legal restrictions on his movements, and he did a certain amount of motoring; but, said the doctor in order not to arouse excitement, he did not often visit the larger towns and avoided going toward the German frontier. The marshal, the doctor and the adjutant were all friends of the old days; they changed every few months, so that the exile did not have to see the same faces for too long a period. The settlement with the Prussian government left the Emperor in comfortable financial circumstances, though for a while just after the war there was a real shortage of cash. But when all was said, one could not doubt that life at Haus Doorn was rather dull, and that the punishment thus meted out to William II was far more effective than anything which the Allied and Associated Powers might have decreed if they had succeeded in bringing him to trial "for a supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties," as they were pleased to express it in Article 227 of the Treaty of Versailles.

At 5:30 p.m. I joined the Emperor again for our walk. He showed me the beautiful rose garden which he had presented to the town of Doorn, and then we strolled along some country lanes. Passers-by saluted him respectfully, and their greetings were scrupulously returned. I endeavored to interrogate His Majesty, whom I addressed as "You," about the war. He said that he had been most unwilling to go to Norway early in July 1914, but that the Chancellor had insisted on it, in order not to disturb the European bourses. As to the famous conferences at Potsdam, he declared that he had understood that "the Austrians intended to give the Serbs a good hiding," and that they would do so promptly; but I could not pin him down to a more exact statement. And when I tried to speak of mobilization and the details of the July crisis, he referred me to his books, copies of which he had sent around to my room. So I came to the conclusion that I was not likely to get much information from him, partly because he could not remember specific points, partly because he had formed his own picture of events. I therefore let him take his own line.

He proceeded to talk with great animation about the politics of the moment -- Russia, China, the League of Nations, and his own beloved Germany. In his opinion, there was no prospect of overthrowing the Bolshevist régime by force, and the situation would have to work itself out. As for China, he was greatly pleased by the American treaty just negotiated, which had put a spoke in the wheel of the British -- whom he disliked as much as ever. For the League of Nations he showed a rather amused contempt. But most of his talk had to do with Germany. The Germans, he argued, are not a western but an eastern people; that is to say, they require an autocracy or a dictatorship. The current rulers were all reds, or at least pinks, and were ruining the country, driving it steadily toward Bolshevism. I ventured to ask if he did not think that Dr. Stresemann had been conspicuously successful in the conduct of German foreign policy. "Stresemann," he exclaimed, "Stresemann! He's the greatest scoundrel unhung!" In his opinion, the time would come when the United States would appreciate the help of Germany against Great Britain, and if he were back in Berlin he would see to it that this support was given. We would yet regret the day when we insisted on his abdication. For, he said, shaking his fist in my face, "You -- meaning the United States -- are responsible for my being here, and it is your duty to see that justice is done." To which there was nothing I could say.

The Emperor spoke excellent English, with a keen appreciation of idiom, and his language was always vigorous, not to say picturesque. In spite of everything, I could understand how it was that for thirty years he captivated all who knew him. Convinced as he was of the rightness of his course and conduct, he no doubt went to his grave thoroughly unable to understand why, after long years of hate, he was repudiated by his own people and forgotten by the rest of the world.

The hour drew near for my departure. His Majesty graciously accompanied me to the lodge, where the gray limousine was waiting. My bags had already been loaded. The Emperor asked for my address, so that he might send me any subsequent writings of his about the war, and I gave the adjutant my card. The Emperor himself opened the door. I took my seat. The great car got slowly under way, and as it rolled under the gateway, I beheld William II, hat in hand, bowing low to a citizen of the country which he had declared was chiefly responsible for his presence there that day.

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  • BERNADOTTE E. SCHMITT, Professor of Modern History in the University of Chicago; author of "The Coming of the War, 1914" and other works
  • More By Bernadotte E. Schmitt