By: Zayd Hamid, CARP Intern
After World War I, the German state transformed from an illiberal constitutional monarchy to a semi-liberal republic. That republic decayed into a fascist dictatorship approximately a decade later. That latter transformation also gave rise to one of history’s most brutal dictators: Adolf Hitler. Hitler established a hegemonic cult of personality to secure German approval; he took control of the media and other institutions to manufacture consent. This manifested in him receiving 90% voter approval to become Führer und Reichskanzler of Germany, a stronger, more consolidated political position than his former chancellorship. This article will examine a unique attack against the Führer by Germany’s previous wartime strongman: Kaiser Wilhelm II, the disgraced former monarch forced into exile in the Netherlands after the first world war.
His interview with Ken Magazine, an American niche left-wing political magazine, in 1938 included a scathing tirade against Hitler. Like many other character attackers since the 19th century, the Kaiser utilized newspapers as a medium. As written in our textbook Character Assassination and Reputation Management: Theory and Applications, that era was marked by the “rapidly increasing role of the media — mostly newspapers at first — in political campaigns and character attacks.” This article will explore the Kaiser’s character attack and analyze the effectual shortcomings of his rebuke.
Beginning the interview, Ken correspondent W. Burkhardt asked the exiled Kaiser what he thought of Hitler. The question caused an uproar in the deposed monarch, who declared that he thought “nothing” of Hitler. This is not to say that the Kaiser did not think of Hitler, but rather that he thought of Hitler as nothing. “There’s a man alone, without family, without children,” the Kaiser elaborated. He asked if Hitler should even be considered human. The Kaiser thereafter delved into mellowing, poignant imagery. “He builds legions, but he doesn’t build a nation. A nation is created by families, a religion, traditions: it is made up out of the hearts of mothers, the wisdom of fathers, the joy and the exuberance of children,” the Kaiser wistfully spoke.
The warm imagery utilized in this declaration contrasted starkly with how he described Hitler’s Germany: “an all-swallowing State, disdainful of human dignities and the ancient structure of our race.” His rhetoric expressly humanized pre-Hitler Germany to make the forceful stripping of those “human dignities” even sharper by contrast. It is within that inhuman, empty State that the Kaiser placed Hitler. He was called a man who “has neither a God to honor nor a dynasty to conserve nor a past to consult.” Throughout the passage, the Kaiser carefully utilized disparity within his rhetoric. Thus, Hitler was ascribed with the same qualities as his Germany: broken, soulless, and empty.
The Kaiser continued this rhetorical line by further establishing a German national character. “Our Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians, of artists and soldiers, he has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics,” he lamented. The attack against Hitlerites built upon an earlier attack against Hitler: that, due to Hitler’s killing of political opponents, he had “nothing left but a bunch of shirted gangsters!” Again, the Kaiser used contrasting language to demonstrate the disparity between German character and the “liars,” “fanatics,” and “shirted gangsters” that comprised Hitler’s loyalists.
That outcry finished his lament. After decrying Hitlerite “liars” and “fanatics,” he told Burkhardt that he was overwhelmed by “dark thoughts” and spoke no more. His speech ended mournfully: a complete change from its fierceness at the start. We expect character attacks to be dramatic, fiery statements. But the whole delivery of the Kaiser’s rebuke uniquely read like a eulogy for Germany. The problem, however, was in the readership; he failed to reach a German audience. Ken Magazine was an American magazine, so it published in English. That created a language barrier which further stymied the attack’s receptivity to Germans. For the magazine’s American readership, a niche appeal from the Kaiser about the character of the German nation fell on deaf ears.
Facing pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee for purported Communist leanings alongside financial problems, Ken Magazine ceased publication in 1939. Alongside the magazine’s failings as a medium, the Kaiser’s own failings as an attacker certainly contributed to the attack’s impotence. German historian Thomas Nipperdey wrote of him as “unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off.” Historians William Langer and Paul MacKendrick additionally noted that the Kaiser’s temperament and fickleness were “reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion.”
The Kaiser’s character attack failed at all five pillars essential to a character attack: attacker, target, medium, audience, and context. The disgraced, exiled Kaiser was stunted in his reach as an attacker. Ken Magazine was an unsuited platform for reaching the Kaiser’s desired audience. That audience was already made unreceptive due to media repression within Nazi Germany.
A perfect storm of impotence swept away the Kaiser’s character attack, consigning it to the dustbin of history. There is a moral to this story: if a character attacker does not properly consider character attacks’ essential pillars, their attack will surely be impotent and fail.