Was medical negligence responsible for WW1?

Perhaps it is just as well that medical indemnity insurance site piihub.co.uk didn't exist in the 19th Century!

It is a well known fact that severe trauma in early childhood can result in significant emotional and psychological difficulties in later life. Kaiser Wilhelm the Second was born with a physical difficulty due to a traumatic birth that left him with a withered arm and hand. How did this effect Wilhelm’s emotional and psychological development? And could any difficulties he did suffer have influenced his behaviour and decision-making, leading to World War I?

The Facts of Wilhelm’s Birth

Wilhelm – or William – the Second was born on January 27 1859 in Berlin, Germany. Wilhelm was the son of Prince Frederick William of Prussia, to be Frederick the Third, and Victoria, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of England’s Queen Victoria. Wilhelm’s birth was traumatic in nature, being what is commonly termed a ‘breech birth’; this meant that he was born bottom, rather than head, first. It is estimated that between 3-5% of women will be at risk of breech birth at term, and the most common form of delivery in such circumstances is now by Caesarean Section.

Wilhelm’s Medical Condition

The difficult nature of Wilhelm’s birth – attended by English physicians at his mother’s insistence – resulted in his suffering an Erb’s Palsy, also known as Erb-Duchenne Palsy. This condition results in paralysis of the arm affected. Normal delivery in the breech position leads to damage and severing of the main nerves in the upper arm. The condition is known as Erb’s Palsy as it involves lesions in the nerves at Erb’s point, near the neck, where the fifth and sixth cranial nerves meet. This point is known as the brachial plexus.

Wilhelm’s Erb’s Palsy left him with a left arm that was withered, paralysed and six inches shorter than his right. It presented him with difficulties that would have been significant in the early years of his physical and psychological development.

Wilhelm’s Emotional and Psychological Development

Being born into royalty places additional pressures on any child’s development. Children need to have their emotional, as well as physical, needs met. In upper class families, it would be traditional for children to be largely raised by a nanny, and in royalty this would be even more the case. Coupled with Wilhelm’s parents’ position and the daily demands upon them, it can be expected that he was dependent more upon a nanny, and other adults, to have his emotional and psychological needs met than by his parents. This could result in emotional difficulties for any child, but given a severe physical problem such as Wilhelm’s, he must have found his early years a struggle. Did this plant the seeds of hatred and resentment that led to World War I?

Not surprisingly, Wilhelm’s mother felt responsible for his condition, and her subsequent feelings of guilt drove her to push Wilhelm into achieving what would have been normally expected, despite his physical difficulties. A prime example of this was her driving him to learn to ride when he was eight years old. His physical difficulties made riding extremely hazardous and difficult for him, but his mother insisted. Wilhelm fell many times, and the whole process was extremely painful and traumatic.

In addition to the other pressures of his childhood, Wilhelm was subjected to a number of so called ‘treatments’ for his paralysed and withered left arm. Among other things he was subjected to electroshock treatment and dead hares were wrapped around his arm. He was also forced to place it in the carcases of dead animals. The atmosphere created by his English mother’s guilt and desperate attempts to drive him to achieve in a ‘normal’ manner, must have been unbearable. Any resentment and blame Wilhelm felt about his birth, bearing in mind the doctors were English and he held them responsible for his condition, could well have laid the seeds of anger that would blossom into a hatred of England and a lust for vengeance and war.

The Viability of a Claim and Who is to Pay?

Did the physicians attending Wilhelm’s birth do all they should have done? Would they be liable to be found negligent following investigation, and if so, would they be open to a claim for compensation? If the answers to these questions are yes, then a far more wide-reaching and enormous one needs to be asked: If Wilhelm’s birth and resultant difficulties created the personality that drove the start of World War I, should those physicians be liable for compensation to offset the costs of the entire War? Reparations were made after the War, but should Germany seek a claim against individuals who created Wilhelm, the man who drove it forward?

Wilhelm’s mother refused to allow anyone but English physicians to treat her or her family. The doctors attending Wilhelm’s birth were clearly not up to the task. True, they were hampered in their practice by having to work beneath the mother’s skirts, but nonetheless Wilhelm was born with his left arm around his neck. After the birth it took three days before anyone spotted anything was wrong with the arm. A further failure was the loss of a message summoning Berlin’s most eminent obstetrician, who might have helped.

There are time limits on making claims for medical negligence, and this is usually three years. There are exceptions: if someone has suffered and was under 21 at the time, they can wait until they are 18 years old. Another exception is if the sufferer has mental health difficulties. The last exception is for descendents of those who have died as a result of medical error; they can wait until they are 21 years old to claim.

Given the time frame involved, it is unlikely that any claim by anyone regarding World War I and its cause through Kaiser Wilhelm’s mental state as a result of medical trauma as a child would be successful. It is a chilling thought that medical negligence could ultimately have been responsible for ultimately causing World War I.