When that kingly old man, Emperor William, sank at last under the weight of years, the crown so brilliantly won at Versailles in 1871 rested on the head of Unser Fritz--no longer in the flush of victorious youth, but a poor, stricken man. The tardy honors had come too late.
In vain he struggled against the inevitable, striving to inaugurate the beneficent policy which had been the dream of his life. Unhappy Frederick! His death-chamber seemed the playground for every hateful human passion, and the Furies to have made it their abode, as his unfulfilled life slipped away from his loosening grasp! At last it was ended. The untarnished soul and the tortured body parted company, and William II. reigned in his stead.
The sensibilities of the world had been shocked by the unfilial conduct of this youth, and it was with little respect that he was seen restlessly flitting from one court to another, displaying his imperial trappings like a child with new toys. People laughed to think they had ever been afraid of this aimless boy. Upon one point only was he relentless. Man or newspaper breathing faintest whisper of praise for the dead Frederick came swift under the political guillotine! Did he wish to efface his father's memory from the hearts of his people?
Would he really, if he could, tear that brief, sad chapter from his nation's history? It seemed so. Europe watched him much as one does a headlong boy, who, with the confidence born of vanity and ignorance, plays with deadly weapons, and imperils his own and his neighbors'
safety. The peace of the continent lay more than ever in the hand of Bismarck, who alone had power to restrain this dangerous young ruler.
But when William II. posed as the friend of the workingman and ally of the socialist, the absurdity and the unexpectedness were amusing. What did he care for industrial problems and the condition of the laboring classes? The idea uppermost in his restless brain was that he was a predestined hero, not fitted for the _role_ of a Merovingian king, with a _maire du palais_. He would be the artificer of his own policy, and be enrolled among the great sovereigns of history.
There were rumors of dissension with his chancellor, whom finally he removed, and said practically, "_l'etat, c'est moi_." There was nothing now to restrain his restless vagaries, and a catastrophe seemed at hand.
This is the way it looked a few months ago. But writing current history is much like drawing pictures upon the sand, which the incoming tide effaces.
The man who had long held the destinies of Europe in his hand sat in the retirement of Schonhausen, complacently smoking and waiting for the catastrophe, and the recall which would surely come. But he was not needed. Was the _Zeit Geist_ penetrating the iron-encrusted empire?
William had forgotten his toys and was inaugurating reforms--industrial, educational, social, which touched the lowest stratum of his people.
We cannot yet forget those visits to San Remo, the cruel intriguing over his father's death-bed; but greatness lies in the path he has taken. His intelligence, quicker than his sympathies, sees, perhaps, that the forces of the future are industrial, not militant. His hand has grown less nervous, but steadier in its grasp, more human in its touch. The figure is filling out in stronger lines, with unexpected promise that it may become heroic.
He was not a pleasant youth, not a nice boy; but we can forgive much to a sovereign who desires to bring about a general disarmament of Europe!
The early chapters of his biography will never be pleasant reading, but we will not linger over them if the concluding ones tell of a Germany brought into line with the world's highest and best development.
Europe to-day is like a field closely packed with explosives, with a plentiful sprinkling throughout the mass of that giant powder, nihilism. People step carefully, lest they jar the hostile elements, and "let loose the dogs of war." The slightest change in position of the little package marked Bulgaria, and it may be too late.
This province, which ten or twelve years ago was set up by the Great Powers with an autonomy of its own, lying athwart the coveted pathway to the Mediterranean, has, like Schleswig-Holstein, greatness thrust upon it. The plaything of diplomacy, with only a semblance of self-government, its _role_ in European politics is both tragic and comic. Its king must await not alone confirmation by Turkey, but ratification by the Great Powers, and little care they who ascends its slippery little throne, except as he will further or obstruct the private political ends of each; and Russia, thinking only of expansion toward the sea, is especially paternal toward the forlorn little state.
While this diplomatic game is enacting, there is a pause. Is it the hush which precedes the storm?
All eyes are fixed upon the Russian bear, cautiously and stealthily prowling toward the south and east.--Austria hungrily watches the Balkan provinces, over which the paw of the bear already hovers.--Italy, with hate and suspicion, has eyes riveted upon her hereditary enemy, Austria.--France, never for a moment forgetting Alsace and Lorraine, watches her opportunity with Germany, and draws into closer affinity with Russia--England, with gaze fixed upon an open pathway to India, suspects them all--and Germany, conscious that disaster is always imminent while the French thirst for revenge, and the Russian thirst for the waters of the Mediterranean are unabated, strengthens her defences and sleeps with hand upon her sword.