On 18 October 1881, Crown Prince Frederick William of Germany and Prussia marked his 50th birthday with a gloomy entry in his diary. He had been waiting to succeed to the throne for twenty years and his indomitable father refused to do the decent thing. At 84, the old man simply would not die. Worse, his ‘over-mighty subject’ Otto von Bismarck, in spite of constant illness and breakdowns, continued to exercise his power over the old emperor. The crown prince felt utterly useless: ‘fifty years, life therefore behind me, idle observer in daily self-denial, discipline practised over a lifetime, condemned passively to while away the final years.’
On 9 March 1888, two weeks before his 91st birthday, William I, German Emperor and King of Prussia finally died and Frederick III ascended the throne, but he was by now a dying man. His throat cancer would give him only 99 days as emperor, for most of which he could communicate only in writing: a tracheotomy had eased his breathing but immobilised his vocal chords. On 15 June, Frederick III died and his flamboyant and impulsive son, William II, succeeded to the throne. Almost at once, the crowd outside the palace heard ‘the clatter of horses’ hoofs and on looking up they beheld a squadron of the Hussars of the Guard in their scarlet jackets rapidly dispersing like the leaves of a fan to take possession of all the points of access to the huge palace.’ This wasn’t a gesture of homage but a vindictive move on the part of the new kaiser to prevent his hated mother from secretly removing his father’s papers. The Empress Victoria, eldest child and favourite daughter of Queen Victoria, knew her first-born too well. On 2 May 1888, she secretly sent a chest containing two volumes of her husband’s diaries as well as several important documents to Windsor and asked her mother to place it with three chests her husband had deposited there the year before.
William II rejected everything his parents represented, especially their liberalism, and with his theatricality, intemperate speeches and romantic conception of imperial rights and powers, he created an image of the German Reich as a militaristic, feudal and irresponsible actor in international affairs. The most modern and technologically advanced state in the world, with the most productive industries, the finest engineers and scientists, the highest standards of craftsmanship and production, had at its head a reactionary representative of the Prussian Junker aristocracy, always in uniform and full of contempt for any sign of compromise. That much of this was a façade only made the image of the imperial German super-state more frightening. It took the new emperor less than two years to get rid of Bismarck. A famous Punch cartoon by Tenniel showed William leaning over the railing of a ship watching Bismarck descend from the deck. The caption read ‘Dropping the Pilot’.
With the death of Frederick III the men of the 1820s and 1830s, a whole generation, lost their moment of power; the German Empire would not now evolve towards an English-style parliamentary monarchy. At the pinnacle of his career, after his great victories with the Third Army in the Franco-Prussian War, Crown Prince Frederick William had continued to reject Bismarck’s policies. On 31 December 1870, when the war council determined to break the siege of Paris by bombarding the city, a move the crown prince strenuously resisted, he wrote in his war diary:
We are deemed capable of every wickedness and the distrust of us grows more and more pronounced. Nor is this the consequence of this War only – so far has the theory, initiated by Bismarck and for years holding the stage, of ‘Blood and Iron’ brought us! What good to us is all power, all martial glory and renown, if hatred and mistrust meet us at every turn, if every step we advance in our development is a subject for suspicion and grudging? Bismarck has made us great and powerful but he has robbed us of our friends, the sympathies of the world and – our conscience.
It would be hard not to feel a pang of regret that such a courageous figure didn’t come to power while he had the youth and energy to make a difference.
But regrets of that sort, at lost opportunities, what A.J.P. Taylor called turning points where Germany ‘failed to turn’, afflict every student of the country. Every spring, no matter how eloquent my lectures, Hitler comes to power and doom follows. How many times have I told a class that if only William I had died earlier, the history of Europe would have been different? Frank Lorenz Müller has made me less certain of that. His excellent biography of Frederick William – one part biography, one part revisionism and one part cultural history – offers a subtler, more nuanced and less emotional account of ‘Our Fritz’. In a bold move, Müller abandons the standard chronology of the protagonist’s life, ‘considerable stretches of which were characterised by inaction’. In an original chapter called ‘A National Treasure’ he looks at the complex relationship between the figure of the crown prince and the media. Frederick William had a flair for publicity and in his prime he had star quality. His fine beard, his handsome face and military bearing, his victories as a general, his natural way with people, his loving relationship with his wife and above all his nationalist fervour made him the perfect image of the new Germany. In the Franco-Prussian War he had been given command of the one army group which included southern German contingents – Bavarians, Württembergers and Badeners – who came from states that hated Prussia and had remained independent after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 had unified Germany above the Main River. He won the hearts of his Catholic troops and the Kingdom of Bavaria mourned his passing with every sign of sincerity.
Müller also shows that Frederick William and his son William II shared many vices: vanity, showiness, preoccupation with public monuments and an exalted idea of the Hohenzollern inheritance. ‘I know pretty much all the princes in Europe but I do not know a single one whose view of his princely vocation is as exalted as that of our crown prince Frederick William,’ Bismarck observed in March 1883. A less hostile observer, the novelist Gustav Freytag, a liberal and an opponent of Bismarck, wrote that the crown prince was ‘alive with a princely pride that covets the highest for itself and the highest earthly position was for him that beneath the imperial crown’.
Müller does a very good job of undermining the crown prince’s liberalism by showing how much of it was wishful thinking on the part of leaders of the left wing of German liberal politics. He devotes an entire chapter to the ‘politics of succession’ and in another chapter, ‘Contested Memory’, follows what he sees as the myth-making of disappointed liberals after Frederick William’s death. He demolishes the ‘lost generation’ idea and shows that the men of the 1820s and 1830s in fact had respectable careers. Here he is less persuasive. Bismarck, a more reliable witness, kept lists of those figures whom he expected to see in a Frederick III cabinet and with characteristic misogyny believed that the ‘English woman’ would make the decisions anyway. In a conversation with his neighbour on the Wilhelmstrasse, Hildegard Freifrau Hugo von Spitzemberg in April 1888, he let out all his violent feelings:
My old Master was aware of his dependence. He used to say, ‘Help me, you know how hen-pecked I am,’ and so we operated together. For that this one [Emperor Frederick William III] is too proud but he is dependent and submissive to an extent that is not to be believed, like a dog. The painful thing is that one has to remain in spite of it perfectly polite instead of intervening with a ‘damn it all!’ This battle wears me down and the emperor. He is a brave soldier but on the other hand he is like those old moustached sergeants whom I have seen creep into their mouseholes in fear of their wives.
Müller notes that by the end of the 1870s, Frederick had begun to show signs of what we would now call clinical depression. General Albrecht von Stosch, a member of his circle, went to see him in May 1886. The crown prince, von Stosch wrote to a friend,
began to unburden his heart. Bismarck, father and son, treat him simply with scorn. He feels so isolated; only Albedyll has taken up with him, because he is in bad relations with Prince William – What could I reply? I have sympathy for the prince in the depths of my soul. You must have attended the Good Friday Lamentations in a Catholic cathedral. They have always deeply moved me. I had exactly the same feelings at the unending laments of this poor weak soul. I do not know any help for it.
What had happened to the confident and successful soldier of 1870? That Frederick had energy and curiosity. On his free days he went off with his guidebook to look at French cathedrals and châteaux. He intervened vigorously in debates and confronted Bismarck. He was not then ‘this poor weak soul’. Müller does not ask whether the bouts of depression had political consequences; I suspect they did.
However, Müller spends no time on what must have been Frederick William’s greatest moments: as a highly successful field commander in the Wars of Unification of 1864, 1866 and 1870. Nor does he consider the relationship between Frederick William, who was, after all, a Prussian prince, and the ruling Junker class in Prussia. As Georg Heinrich Berenhorst, an adjutant to Frederick the Great, declared, ‘the Prussian monarchy is not a country which has an army, but an army which has a country, in which – as it were – it is just stationed.’ By the time of Frederick the Great’s death in 1786, Prussia had turned into a military state. It had no defensible borders and enemies all around it: the king had to be first and foremost a general. The Hohenzollern kings spent modest sums on palaces, fancy clothes and royal display; Prussia put its money into its army.
Frederick the Great had relied on the aristocracy to provide officers for the army and reserved commissions for them. The Prussian nobility, he wrote in his Political Testament of 1752,
has sacrificed its life and goods for the service of the state; its loyalty and merit have earned it the protection of all its rulers, and it is one of the duties [of the ruler] to aid those noble families which have become impoverished in order to keep them in possession of their lands; for they are to be regarded as the pedestals and the pillars of the state. In such a state no factions or rebellions need be feared … it is one goal of the policy of this state to preserve the nobility.
The armies which Crown Prince Frederick William commanded in 1866 and 1870 fulfilled Frederick the Great’s instructions. In Moltke’s order of battle for the Franco-Prussian War the famous names of Prussian history show up: von Kleist (3), von der Goltz (2), Neidhart von Gneisenau, von Below (2), von der Osten, Senfft von Pilsach, von Manteuffel, von Bülow (2), von Wedell, von Brandenburg (2), a colonel von Bismarck, von Wartensleben, von Alvensleben etc. With the exception of Leonhard Count von Blumenthal, who was Frederick’s chief of staff in 1866 and 1870, none of the Junker ruling class gets a mention in Müller’s book.
In which regiment had the young Frederick William served? Regimental identity, like English public school, marked men for life. Bismarck called the First Foot Guards ‘a military monastery. Esprit de corps to the point of madness. One should forbid these gentlemen to marry.’ How did Frederick William as young officer and a royal prince cope with that world? ‘Our Fritz’ commanded large forces full of Junker officers who would have noticed any slackness or self-indulgence, and in 1866 at the Battle of Königgrätz his generalship saved Prussia and changed history. It is odd that Müller, so attentive to the public personality of his subject, misses some of its most important features.
Whether ten years of a healthy Emperor Frederick III would have made a difference on the ‘German path to modernity’ can never be known, but the fate of German liberalism would not have been any happier. That liberalism reflected the wishes and hopes of the bourgeoisie and especially of the German Jews. As long as the Junker class still had export markets, they voted liberal and supported free trade (like the Southern slave-owners in the US before 1860). The great railway boom in Europe had produced an era of very rapid economic growth. Economists and bankers, then as now, praised their liberal policies and their own sagacity for the prosperity. Then on 9 May 1873, the Vienna stock market crashed and ushered in the first modern globalised financial crisis. Within a week, Bismarck reported to William I that the Austrian emperor had enabled the State Bank to issue a larger volume of banknotes than had been previously authorised. His experts argued that the crisis arose because ‘the Vienna Stock Exchange had been the arena in which speculation had called forth a lot of companies, mainly joint stock limited companies, for which the existing capital proved insufficient.’ As in 2008, lenders had simply withdrawn capital from good as well as speculative investments, which in turn worsened the crisis. The next day, Bismarck wrote to the emperor to reassure him that a similar crisis would not occur in Berlin because ‘the stock of metal is greater here and fraudulent business has not reached in our case the same dimensions as in Vienna.’ That reassurance proved to be as false as similar reassurances by governments in 2008, certain it could not happen to them. London and Paris followed and on 18 September the leading Philadelphia banking firm, Jay Cooke and Company, went bankrupt. The worldwide crisis ushered in a period of slow growth and falling prices which continued from 1873 to 1896-97.
The depression fell into two distinct parts: an agricultural depression and the first modern industrial depression, in which the heavy industrial sector suffered badly and revealed vulnerabilities that were again evident from 1929 to 1938. The agricultural depression arose because from 1869, with the completion of the first transcontinental railway in the United States, very good American and then Canadian grain began to flood the European markets. Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, a wealthy speculator, complained bitterly to Bismarck’s personal assistant about the sixfold increase in American exports of grain, flour and meat: ‘for German agriculture, there must be a grain, flour and meat tariff as an unconditional necessity if we are not to expose it to the same fluctuations as industry.’ It took two generations for agricultural prices to return anywhere near the level they had reached by 1873. The fact that the European upper classes, including the Russells of Woburn Abbey and the Bismarcks of Schönhausen, depended on agriculture made these price falls a matter of survival. Hence Bismarck’s class faced a crisis by 1878 and remained in it until their estates disappeared under Russian tanks in 1945. The Junkers could not – even with a heavy application of fertiliser – compete with the vast riches of the American and Canadian Great Plains, the Argentinian pampas or the Russian Black Earth regions.
Falling prices in industries with heavy fixed investment (railways, steel plants, iron foundries and the like) raised the cost of the interest they paid to investors and banks at the very moment revenues fell below marginal costs and approached fixed costs. Competition among heavy industrial enterprises ended in a zero-sum game and bankruptcy for some. It made sense to limit production, cut wages or fire workers, and to combine in cartels or trusts, so by the 1880s big industry had tightened its cost bases, employed accountancy to manage its outgoings and worked out anti-competitive policies of all sorts. For them, liberalism was yesterday’s wisdom. The crash of 1873 thus ushered in a new era, one which nobody had experienced before: an international crisis of capitalism. The full impact took several years to work its way through society and into the priorities of Otto von Bismarck, a landowner, a timber merchant and a tight-fisted country squire.
These events doomed the liberals whether or not Frederick III came to the throne. The wealthy manufacturers abandoned free trade and so did the large landowners. By 1878, Bismarck had become convinced that he could destroy the liberals with a new economic policy. On 31 March, Wilhelm von Kardorff, a wealthy industrialist and landlord, had an audience with Bismarck, who startled him by saying that he now wanted ‘moderate protective and finance tariffs’. ‘Earlier,’ he continued, ‘I was myself a free trader, being an estate owner, but now I am a complete convert and want to make good my earlier errors… I want tariffs on tobacco, spirits, possibly sugar, certainly petroleum, perhaps coffee, and I am not afraid of grain tariffs which could be very useful to us against Russia and also Austria.’
In April, Bismarck began to work on new legislation for the era in which he could dispense with the liberals. High on his agenda was a plan to crush the Social Democratic Party, which had gained votes and benefited from the long depression. By the end of 1879, a new conservative majority in the Reichstag, composed of the large landlords, big business interests and the Catholic Centre Party had passed tariff legislation and a bill to suppress the SDP. The leaders of the liberal parties knew they were finished. On 19 January 1880, Max von Forckenbeck, Liberal president of the Reichstag, wrote to Franz Freiherr Schenk von Stauffenberg, the leader of the Bavarian Liberals:
The Bismarck system is developing with fearsome speed just as I always feared. Universal military conscription, unlimited and excessive indirect taxes, a disciplined and degraded Reichstag, and a public opinion ruined and made powerless by the struggle between all material interests – that is certainly the politics of popular impotence, the end of any possible development towards constitutional freedom, and at the same time a terrible danger for the entire Reich and the new imperial monarchy. Is the National Liberal Party a suitable instrument to combat such dangers with its present politics, its present programme and its present composition? Will we not be led deeper and deeper into the quagmire? Has pure opposition not become a duty?
Had Frederick III been emperor in the 1870s, he would have been forced to recognise the change in the socio-economic conditions and the swing to the right. If Müller’s reading of his character is right, he would not have minded that much. Bismarck would have been banished to his estates and Forckenbeck and Stauffenberg might well have been ministers – but only until the next Reichstag election after the crash. As long as the Prusso-German monarchy operated according to its 1870 institutions, it would have faced the same political constellation that Bismarck did in 1878, an anti-liberal majority in the Reichstag, the Prussian House of Lords and the Prussian Chamber of Deputies.
Had Frederick III lived and reigned for ten years and had he – as was likely had he been healthy – been forced to dismiss Bismarck, German liberalism beyond its party political manifestations might have lived on in the institutions themselves: a more civil treatment of opposition, a willingness to compromise, a gradual acceptance of the fact that ordinary men could govern, and a deeper respect for electoral politics and the rule of law. None of that happened. What really matters is that had Frederick III come to the throne healthy and ruled for ten years – a modest expectation in a dynasty whose kings between 1640 and 1918 reigned for an average of 33 years – William II’s reign would have been ten years shorter. Every year without him would have been a blessing for Germany and everyone else.