Princely Pride

Jonathan Steinberg

  • Our Fritz: Emperor Frederick III and the Political Culture of Imperial Germany by Frank Lorenz Müller
    Harvard, 340 pp, £33.95, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 04838 6

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.

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