An Imperially F****d Up Birth Defect

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If ever a physical deformity had a thoroughly f****d up impact on the formation of an historical world leader’s character, it was the withered left arm of Kaiser Wilhelm ll of Germany. Measuring a full 6 inches shorter than his right arm by the time he reached adulthood, he spent the whole of his life physically, and especially psychologically, overcompensating for it. Much of the assholishness for which he was particularly notorious can be traced back to his inferiority complex owing to this physical deformity. In all fairness to Willy, his psychological dysfunction wasn’t entirely his fault. For it was his unique misfortune to be born the heir to the throne of an empire with easily the most extreme military culture in Europe. It’s no exaggeration to state that Prussian kings, and later German emperors, were expected by their subjects, or at least their courts, to be the living embodiment of the Nietzschian concept of the superman long before the philosopher Friederich Nietchze was even born.

To that end, Wilhelm was subjected to an upbringing of physical torture designed to strengthen his arm and limit his need for physical assistance from others. Robert K. Massie writes in Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, that, aside from being strapped to a chair as a little boy and being administered electric shocks to his arm in the hope it might grow, he was also forced at the age of 8 to learn how to ride a horse on his own. This meant he was placed atop a pony who’d then trot until the prince lost his balance an fell off. Despite his tears of pain, he’d then be placed back on the pony and forced to endure the lesson, falling off several more times in the process, until the day came that he maintained his balance. In his own memoirs published shortly before his death he specifically blamed his mother for these horseback riding lessons from hell. According to Henry Fischer in his memoir Private Lives of Wilhelm ll and His Court, published at the turn of the century and based upon the private diaries and letters of one of Wilhelm’s wife’s chief ladies-in-waiting, Willy blamed his mother for his birth defect in general.

The then Crown Princess Friederich, later Empress Friederich of Germany, née Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal and oldest child of Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, also blamed herself, according to Massie, for her son’s malformation. While, according to the official story of his birth, this blame game seems entirely unfair, due to the official cause of the kaiser’s deformity being the misuse of a pair of forceps by one of the attending physicians, Fisher writes in Private Lives that the truth of the matter, according to the attending midwife at Wilhelm’s birth, Fräulein Stahl, was far more complicated than any member of the German Imperial family or court was willing to admit.

Written in the first person narrative of “Ursula, Countess von Eppinghoven,” the apocryphal name given to the courtier whose diaries and correspondence Henry Fischer’s book was based upon, this account prefaces the story of the Kaiser’s delivery into this world by clarifying that in Imperial Germany obstetricians, particularly the most esteemed among them, never physically assisted in the birth of their patients’ children, rather they stood to the side and supervised while the midwives did all the actual work. This circumstance made the task of assisting blame for the prince’s birth mishap especially easy for the Imperial Court, since by blaming the court physician meant that in reality they were blaming the midwife. But if Fräulein Stahl was indeed responsible for nearly yanking the heir presumptive’s left arm out of its socket, why did she continue to be employed by the Imperial Court, and further assist in the subsequent births of various other babies born to the House of Hohenzollern, which she’d undoubtedly done by the time she spoke with the book’s author?

The reality, according to Private Lives was that neither of the two physicians, nor the midwife, were to blame for Wilhelm ll birth defect, which affected far more than just his left arm, but his entire left side. Years later, while he was to achieve a normal balance while striding in public, it would be noted by courtiers that in private the Kaiser’s left side often slouched, and his left leg would noticeably lag behind his right when walking. Simply put, and to paraphrase a once popular Lady Gaga song, he was born that way. More importantly, he was born dead. Upon noticing he wasn’t breathing or moving, Fräulein Stahl wrapped him in a cloth and began beating him rigorously. After a few terrifying minutes, he began breathing, moving and crying. His malformation wasn’t at all apparent at first, and in fact didn’t become noticeable until he was at least four days old.

While the doctors might’ve attempted to set the arm correctly in its joint had he been born healthy and while he was still an infant, Fräulein Stahl told the “countess” that, given Willy was stillborn, they deemed his health too fragile to subject him to such treatment while still a baby. This was the real reason why corrective measures weren’t taken to fix his arm until he at least 8 years old. Needless to write, according to this account, there were no forceps involved at all during his birth.

The midwife blamed the stress the Crown Princess was under during her first pregnancy for her son’s birth mishap. Only 17 when she married, and having only recently turned 18 at the time of Willy’s birth, traumatized both by her separation from her parents, especially the father she hero worshipped, and the coldness with which she was received into the Prussian Court, Crown Princess Friederich developed a case of what would now be characterized as prenatal depression that became so severe that, once again according to the midwife, her Victorian equivalent of a psychiatrist, a Dr. Allen, was present at the birth.

While most modern obstetricians would likely doubt Empress Frederich’s state of mind played a decisive role in her eldest son’s birth defect, one factor concerning her son’s maternal biological inheritance can’t so easily be dismissed when assessing the cause of his malformation, and that’s the simple matter of his maternal grandparents having been first cousins. Furthermore, Queen Victoria’s paternal grandparents, Britain’s King George lll and Queen Charlotte, were first cousins as well. Henry Fischer writes that Kaiser Wilhelm ll absolutely blamed the consanguinity on his mother’s side as being solely responsible for his physical problems, and never let her forget it. While the House of Hohenzollern, like virtually all other royal and imperial families in Europe, wasn’t without a history of intermarriage, one must admit that by the mid 19th century the English reigning, German originated Hanoverians were only surpassed in the royal inbreeding sweepstakes on the continent by the Austrian Hapsburgs and Spanish Bourbons. Under such genetic circumstances, it’s not at all improbable that at least one descendant born to such an inbred family would enter this world with a birth defect, such as a malformed left side.

Nonetheless, it was decided early on by all parties involved at the Imperial Court in Berlin and Potsdam that the best way to hide the truth about the Kaiser’s likely genetic birth defect was to blame his misshapen arm on an incompetent doctor’s usage of forceps which, as the author has already explained, was a polite way of blaming the attending midwife. The tale was concocted sometime during the turn of the century and fed to Wilhelm ll’s first official biographer. All subsequent biographers have repeated the story since. This story isn’t only ironic because the very woman who saved the Kaiser’s life was, among court circles at least, blamed for having crippled him, but is also disheartening when one considers that the Empress Freidrich, whom this tale was fabricated to protect, and who was privately an unapologetically liberal feminist, nonetheless complacently watched a diligent, professional woman retainer of the imperial household take the blame for a mishap that was no mishap at all, and wasn’t her fault. Then again, Kaiser Wilhelm ll was notorious for his lack of gratitude toward his servants. Perhaps, like his deformity, this was a character trait inherited from his mother.