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The Abominable Emperor

An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick, Daughter of Queen Victoria, Wife of the Crown Prince of Russia, Mother of Kaiser Wilhelm

by Hannah Pakula
Simon and Schuster, 700 pp., $35.00

Blood and Iron: From Bismarck to Hitler: The von Moltke Family’s Impact on German History

by Otto Friedrich
Harper Collins, 434 pp., $30.00

The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany

by John C.G. Röhl, translated by Terence F. Cole
Cambridge University Press, 304 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Stauffenberg: A Family History 1950-1944

by Peter Hoffmann
Cambridge University Press, 424 pp., $39.95

1.

After 1919 dispossessed royalty and their courtiers deluged the public with memoirs whose absurdity was matched by their banality. Cecil Beaton decided to write a spoof that was illustrated with sumptuous photographs and drawings. It purported to be by a penniless exile in New York called Baroness von Bülop. Beaton got his friend Tony Gandarillas to pose in drag as the Baroness and the beautiful Tilly Losch to pose as her aunt, the Grand Duchess, whose confidante the Baroness became. To von Bülop’s dismay she found that her aunt had a penchant for stout guardsmen, midnight escapades, intrigue, and had been “coquetting with the Revolutionary Party.” The Grand Duchess tired of the dull, homely creature and married her off to a vieille tante. Later, to cover her tracks at the time of an insurrection, she let slip that it was the Baroness who had sold an incriminating locket to the Communists, and she dismissed von Bülop from the court.

The effect of this camp masterpiece is to make any account of pre-1914 European royalty inescapably comical. Hannah Pakula’s excellent life of “little Vicky,” Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, who married Frederick, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and was the mother of Kaiser William II, is no lightweight book. Its copious footnotes and flowing index flank a “selected” bibliography of some 302 items—though why some were selected is a bit puzzling. Even so, one has the sensation, as in Beaton’s satire, of stepping into a bizarre world where bushels of jewels are showered on royal brides; where etiquette and the number of quarterings on a coat-of-arms are obsessions; where ladies change their dresses four times a day and a reigning monarch paying courtesy calls on another first changes into the uniform of one of his host’s regiments. Patriotism is expressed in interminable parades, and entertainment consists of battues of thousands of birds and of balls that last in asphyxiating heat until three in the morning. Operas are endured, books unknown, and for light relief there are always practical jokes. Still one sympathizes with little Vicky for laughing, as Baroness von Bülop would have done, when the train on which she was traveling gave a sudden jolt and old Field Marshal Wrangel fell onto the seat opposite her and sat in an enormous meringue apple tart that loyal burghers had just presented her. (Things don’t seem to have changed much. In the Grand Duchess’s manipulation of public opinion and her financial extravagance she reminds one strangely of a pair of royal highnesses today.)

Vicky had all too little to laugh at. From the moment she arrived in Prussia she was regarded with suspicion. The wife and sister of her father-in-law, King William I, snubbed and insulted her. When her father, Prince Albert, died, she was forbidden to attend his funeral on the grounds that she was two months pregnant. Queen Victoria’s court was hardly sociable or easygoing but by comparison with the Prussian court of the Hohenzollern dynasty it was a gas. Great was the rage there when it was announced that a Battenberg was to marry Vicky’s niece. The Hohenzollerns considered that this mésalliance had contaminated German royalty: in Prussia only royals could marry royals. But the root of the trouble was politics. Vicky, plain but charming, was the favorite child of the Prince Consort, who had educated her well and gave her a mission to convert Prussia to the principles of constitutional monarchy. The trouble was that in 1848 there had been an experiment of a kind in parliamentary government in Prussia. It had been defeated and Prussia had reverted to autocracy.

Frederick was known to follow the Prince Consort’s line, and therefore from the start his wife was suspected of intriguing to impose alien English ways upon Prussia. Perhaps Hannah Pakula overlooks how much Queen Victoria’s overpowering sense of rectitude grated upon her German cousins. In the early days of Vicky’s marriage Victoria battered her with letters reminding her of her duty to enlighten the Prussians—so much so that the Prince Consort had to intervene. (Vicky wrote to her mother every day, sometimes three times a day.) In Prussia she came up against her father-in-law, a die-hard who had fled to London in 1848 when the windows of his Berlin palace were stoned. Then in 1862 the worst occurred. The King became so embroiled with the elected assembly over military expenditure that he appointed Bismarck prime minister against his better judgment. Bismarck told the assembly that great matters of state would be solved not by speeches and votes but by iron and blood. From that time on the King was in his thrall, and little Vicky faced in Bismarck an implacable enemy.

For thirty years Bismarck dominated European politics, and many of Pakula’s pages describe the way in which he imposed his will upon the King; upon the Crown Prince; upon Denmark, Austria, and France through war; and upon the German political parties in what became after 1871 the Reichstag. Cunning, mendacious, devious, and imperious, Bismarck revenged himself on anyone who opposed him. He invented crises for himself to solve. This passionate man, emerging from an audience with the King, whom he had forced to accept his advice, would smash china and burst into a fit of sobbing. He sacked a thousand civil servants, judges, and deputies, never forgave an opponent, and despised most of his supporters. Yet his charming voice and manner enabled him to play the courtier and disarm even Queen Victoria when they met.

Bismarck rarely lost an opportunity to humiliate Vicky. Like the Baroness von Bülop, she was victim of one intrigue after another. She found an ally in Count Seckendorff, so Bismarck arranged for Count Radolinski to tell Queen Victoria that her daughter was rumored to be having an affair with Seckendorff. Could she not advise her daughter to dismiss him? The Queen was not fooled, but Bismarck’s story was accepted by the German Foreign Office.

As those who have read editions of Victoria and Vicky’s letters will know, they are full of good sense, affection, and vitality, and the wail of misery in the extracts Pakula quotes is dispiriting. Nevertheless Vicky had other miseries in store. The birth of her first child, the future Kaiser William II, was a nightmare. As soon as her labor pains began a note was sent to the obstetrician; but a servant posted it and the doctor did not arrive until eleven hours later to find his patient exhausted by what was a breech birth. He managed to extract the child and after some minutes’ delay get it to breathe, but the left arm was damaged for life. The future Kaiser was to hold this injury against his mother.

Meanwhile his father, Crown Prince Frederick, who had commanded the Second and Third Armies with distinction in the wars against Austria and France, was stricken with cancer of the throat. By the time Frederick became Emperor on William I’s death, in March 1888, he could barely speak, and he reigned for only three months. An English doctor who had already operated on Frederick resisted a Berlin surgeon’s advice to remove the larynx, so when Frederick died after months of suffering, more stories were spread of the Crown Princess’s malign influence. (The Berlin surgeon subsequently removed another patient’s larynx to prove that the English surgeon had bungled; the patient died.) Finally Vicky herself three months after Bismarck’s death contracted breast cancer. Within two years she was in agony: the sentinels assigned to her asked to mount guard further away so as not to hear her screams. Her English doctor brought morphine but the German doctors, under orders from her son, the Kaiser, administered it only in minute quantities.

The Kaiser behaved abominably toward her. Was it partly her fault? When Willy was fifteen he told his mother how in his dreams he kissed her hands and felt her warm embrace. Her letter in reply was affectionate but distant. Like Queen Victoria she was not one to hug her children. Besides, his father had engaged a fault-finding petty tyrant as a tutor. Then in Willy’s first year in university came the adolescent revolt not only against his mother but against anything that did not go his way. Defeated in tennis, he threw down his racket. Defeated in love by a cousin who rejected him, he married a dull girl who reinforced his hatreds and prejudices. And so began the disastrous career that earned him the reputation of being the silliest, the most preposterous, the most vain, ambitious, unstable—and therefore the most dangerous—of all the European monarchs. For years William spread stories, concocted by Bismarck and courtiers, of his mother’s disloyalty to Prussia. When he became Kaiser he banished her to a castle near Frankfurt. He rarely saw her until, of course, she was on her deathbed, when he appeared—as he had with Queen Victoria, when he arrived uninvited to see her die—and put on a great show of affection and sorrow. In doing so he had a special purpose in mind.

That purpose was to seize her papers and fabricate evidence of her disloyalty to Germany. As she lay dying in her castle her brother, by now King Edward VII, came to bid her farewell. She asked his secretary, Frederick Ponsonby, to stay behind and told him that that night he would receive her letters to Queen Victoria (which had been returned to her on the Queen’s death). She asked him to take them back to England. At one in the morning four grooms from her stables (not from her entourage, which was riddled with spies) staggered into the bedroom bearing two enormous cases. Ponsonby labeled them “China” and “Books with care” and, while the Kaiser was as usual claiming everyone’s attention, the boxes were loaded up and got safely to Ponsonby’s house in England.

When Vicky died, there was consternation that none of her correspondence was to be found. Enraged, the Kaiser then put it about that she had given instructions to be buried at Windsor wrapped in a Union Jack and at once enquired whether her papers were in the archives at Windsor Castle. The librarian could truthfully say they were not; and in 1928 Ponsonby edited and published the letters so that at last Vicky’s side of her story could be told and the Kaiser’s memoirs discredited.

This was, says Pakula, “her one and only triumph over Bismarck and her son.” Hannah Pakula does not analyze the political system under which nearly the whole of Europe lived. Under that system the sovereign ruled, and on foreign affairs often exchanged letters with his fellow monarchs. By his side stood a chancellor or prime minister whom the sovereign chose. He too communicated with the ministers of foreign states, not infrequently on a different wavelength from his sovereign. (Just how disastrous this could be became clear in 1914, when monarchs sent frantic messages to each other while their ministers were sending signals of a very different kind.) The elected assembly could usually be persuaded to vote the necessary funds for the army and for government. If its members turned ugly, it could be cajoled, subverted, or ignored. The police took care of independent critics. Prussia boasted of being a Rechtstaat, but the rule of law was twisted whenever its rulers pleaded that the security of the State or the honor of the army was at stake.

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