Saturday, June 25

The Kaiser and the Paperweight: How Cecil Rhodes Helped Inspire World War I | Colonialism

It was discovered, dusty and damaged, on a warehouse shelf.

Listed simply as a “paperweight” in the warehouse inventory, it was just one small piece among 30,000 personal items salvaged from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s palaces more than a century ago, and shipped to him in a convoy of 64 railroad cars when he abdicated. and fled to the Netherlands after the defeat of Germany in World War I.

But Cornelis Van der Bas, curator of the Huis Doorn museum, a mansion where Wilhelm reluctantly spent the last two decades of his life in exile, had recognized the trinket in the archive, inscribed “From the grave of Cecil Rhodes, December 1905(From the grave of Cecil Rhodes), as something else. “It had a special meaning for him,” Van der Bas said.

Cecil rhodes
Cecil Rhodes. Photograph: Mills / Getty Images

For Van der Bas, based on his later research and the earlier work of scholars such as Wilhelm biographer John CG Röhl, the relic, rediscovered in April, offers a vital insight into the relationship between the kaiser, a quixotic and vainglorious man, and Cecil. Rhodes, the British imperialist and one of the richest men in the world at the end of the 19th century, who would soon have seismic repercussions around the world.

The story surrounding the gift of the paperweight to the kaiser reveals that Rhodes was a key figure in creating a violent rift between the German emperor and his grandmother, Queen Victoria, and later a co-conspirator in the quest for conquest and territorial expansion of Wilhelm.

Rhodes’s little-told role in helping foster the conditions that led to World War I, in which 40 million died, may even offer more cause and power to those seeking to tear down the statues, remove the plaques, and end the scholarships that bear his name.

The rediscovered paperweight, which will be on display for the first time at Huis Doorn next month, has a silver base with a glass lid to which two pieces of granite are attached, taken from the tomb of Rhodes in Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe. , once known as Rhodesia, the territory it had claimed for the British crown.

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II. Photograph: Print Collector / Getty Images

It was delivered to the Kaiser on December 28, 1905 in his New palace in Potsdam by Alfred Beit, a Hamburg-born British-South African diamond millionaire who was a close friend of Rhodes. The paperweight was considered by Beit as a perfect gift for the Kaiser due to the depth of his deep personal appreciation for the colonialist pioneer who had died three years earlier.

Beit will have known that the strength of the relationship between the two men was due in part to the fact that it was forged out of a common longing for glory and power. But the first act of its history was marked by hostility and, indeed, murderous intent on the part of the German monarch.

In 1890, Rhodes was Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony, today part of modern South Africa. But he had greater ambitions: Rhodes wanted to bring all of southern and eastern Africa under British rule. The first step was to help overthrow the gold and diamond rich Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, encouraging a revolt of British immigrant workers there, known as the Uitlan people.

In December 1895, Rhodes’s friend Leander Starr Jameson led a private army of 500 men, including three British officers in service, in the Transvaal, a territory where 5,000 citizens of the German Reich lived.

The kaiser, always ready to feel slighted by Britain, whose imperial greatness he coveted, was incandescent. He condemned Rhodes as a “monstrous villain”. Such was his fury that Wilhelm spoke of sending German troops to the Transvaal. “That would mean war with England,” said his foreign secretary. The emperor replied, “Yes, but only on land.”

They rejected it, but Wilhelm sent a catastrophic congratulatory telegram to Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, in which he applauded the success in repelling the overthrow attempt “without asking for the help of friendly powers to protect the independence of his country against attacks by outside”.

The emperor’s intervention was a public relations disaster. The British press attacked the kaiser for his thinly veiled threat, and Victoria reprimanded her eldest grandson. “Our great wish has always been to stay on the best terms with Germany, trying to act together, but I fear that its agents in the colonies do exactly the opposite, which deeply distresses us,” he said.

The Boer War in 1899 only cemented distrust and enmity. Even at the time of Victoria’s death in 1901, Wilhelm’s deathbed presence was resented by his heir, Edward.

Huis Doorn, The Netherlands
After the defeat of Germany in World War I, Wilhelm spent his last years in exile at Huis Doorn in the Netherlands, which is now a museum. Photograph: Judith Jockel / The Observer

And yet Wilhelm loved flattery. When, in 1899, Rhodes sent the Kaiser two books with a letter lamenting the lack of recognition among the German population of the monarch’s genius, his head turned and a meeting was scheduled. “Good! It will create a splendid scandal among my foolish subjects, but I don’t care,” Wilhelm said. “If I could, I would hang Cecil Rhodes, but since that is not possible, I will make use of it.”

The reality, as Wilhelm’s biographer recounts it, is that the two got along very well during their meeting in March 1899. Over dinner, Rhodes apologized for the Transvaal transgression, before filling Wilhelm’s head with ideas. He wondered why the kaiser did not “go to Mesopotamia [modern day Iraq] as a colonizing terrain to which [His Majesty] He responded that this was a project he had had for years, ”the records show.

Wilhelm would later tell his ministers that Rhodes had advised him to regard “the acquisition and opening of Mesopotamia” as his “task”, and that he should “build the railway through Asia Minor to the Euphrates, the overland route to the India, “which delighted the kaiser but dismayed the British, who did not want German control of the trade routes to the Raj.

Wilhelm would describe Rhodes, to whom he gave a signed portrait of himself, as “an energetic man and wonderful organizer … and that with a man like Rhodes as minister (he) would do anything.”

He nurtured Wilhelm’s belief that his reich had a historical role to play in the world and should not live in the shadow of Great Britain. Rhodes’s legacy was then perhaps even more toxic than previously thought. The paperweight that bears witness to the unfortunate meeting of minds will be on display at the Huis Doorn museum from October 1 as part of an exhibition on the royal mourning that marks the 80th anniversary of the kaiser’s death.

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