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

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
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II; drawing by David Levine


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…

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