Zurück Hoch Vorwärts

Chapter 15: The regency

IN the January of 1874 the Crown Princess went to Russia to be present at the marriage of her brother, the Duke of Edinburgh, with the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna. Unlike most Royal personages, many of whom regard such functions as weddings as duties to be endured, the Crown Princess thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The Emperor Alexander was charmed with her cleverness and enthusiasm, and gave her a ruby bracelet, which she was fond of wearing to the end of her life.

The Princess had the pleasure of entertaining the Prince and Princess of Wales on their way home from St. Petersburg. It was the first time the Princess of Wales had appeared at the Prussian Court since the War of the Duchies, and her wonderful beauty and charm of manner greatly impressed all those who were brought in contact with her.

The Crown Princess gave a splendid fancy dress ball at the New Palace in February, 1874. To some who were present it recalled the costume ball given by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace nearly thirty years before. The Crown Princess, who was devoted to Italy and to Italian art, decided that the entertainment should be known as the Venetian Féte. She herself wore a replica of the dress in which Leonora Gonzaga was painted by Titian. A portrait of the Crown Princess in this dress was afterwards painted by von Angeli.

The Crown Prince and Princess spent the spring of 1875 in Italy, including a long stay in Venice. There they entertained the painter Anton von Werner, who has left an enthusiastic account of their visit.

He records that the Princess drew and painted with real industry, now sketching the unequalled treasures of the past, now studying the effects of light or shade on the canals or in the square of St. Mark's. The painter was astonished, not only at the Princess's powers of technique, but also at her artistic sympathy and feeling. She seemed to know intuitively what would make a fine sketch. On the evening of her departure, he says, this artist Princess carried away with her an unforgettable picture. The Grand Canal was covered with a fleet of gondolas, each lighted with torches, while the full moon shed her radiance over the noble palaces and the Rialto Bridge.

Von Werner adds that the Princess, in spite of the many claims on her time, had since that time persevered in all her artistic studies, and he particularly mentions von Angeli, Wilberg, Lutteroth, and Albert Hertel as painters who helped and inspired her. She did life-sized portraits of her children, Prince William and the Hereditary Princess of Saxe-Meiningen, in addition to numerous pencil and water-colour sketches of really remarkable artistic merit.

In the October of that year the Crown Prince, in a long letter to his old friend, Prince Charles of Roumania, mentions that the Princess is more industrious and successful than ever in painting and drawing, and does marvels in the way of portraits. He also describes how his wife led her Hussar regiment past the King. She did it, he says, magnificently, and looked extremely well in her simple yet becoming uniform.

The Crown Princess was of great assistance to her husband in his scheme of adding a Royal Mausoleum to the Berlin Cathedral, which should be a kind of Pantheon of the House of Hohenzollern. There were to be statues of all the Electoral Princes and Kings, with inscriptions relating the history and exploits of each. This involved a great deal of historical research, of which the Princess took her share, as also in the composition of the more detailed historical memoirs or character sketches of his ancestors to which the Crown Prince also devoted himself.

A visit to Scheveningen in 1876 enabled the Crown Princess to study, much to her delight, the historical and artistic treasures of the old cities of Holland.

It will be remembered that the Crown Princess, many years before, had had scruples about her husband's association with Freemasonry. She was perhaps reassured by a speech which he delivered in July, 1876, when Prince Frederick of the Netherlands celebrated his sixtieth anniversary as Grand Master. Freemasonry, he declared, aimed at love, freedom, and tolerance, without regard to national divisions, and he hoped it might be victorious in the struggle for intellect and liberty. This speech is particularly interesting because, only two years before, the Crown Prince had resigned his office in Grand Lodge in Berlin owing to the opposition he encountered in striving to carry out certain reforms in the craft.

1877 was an eventful year in the Prussian Imperial family. In February, Prince William received his commission in the Foot Guards; Princess Charlotte was betrothed to the Hereditary Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen; and Prince Henry made his formal entry into the Navy.

In April of this year it became known that Bismarck had made one of his not infrequent threats to resign, and Bucher wrote to Busch to tell him the news: "It is not a question of leave of absence," he said, "but a peremptory demand to be allowed to retire. The reason: Augusta, who influences her ageing consort, and conspires with Victoria (the Crown Princess)."

The year 1878 opened brightly for the Crown Princess, for in February her eldest daughter, Princess Charlotte, was married to Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen. Prince Bismarck, however, excused himself from appearing at the ceremony on the pretext of ill-health.

It was at this marriage, the first of the Crown Princess's family weddings, that her brother, the Duke of Connaught, made the acquaintance of his future wife.

In the month of May came the attempted assassination of the Emperor by a youth called Hodel. The Emperor then had a marvellous escape, but on June 2, which happened to be a Sunday, the aged Sovereign was driving down Unter den Linden when, from an upper window of an inn called "The Three Ravens," Nobeling, a Socialist, fired two charges of buckshot into the Emperor's head and shoulders. Violent hemorrhage set in, and for some hours it was said, first, that he was dead, and secondly, that if not dead he could not survive the day.

The Crown Prince and Princess were then in England, and the news reached them at Hatfield, where they were staying with Lord and Lady Salisbury. Within a very short time of the receipt of the telegram, they started for Berlin, finding on their arrival that the Emperor had recovered sufficiently to sign an order conferring the Regency on the Crown Prince.

The Regency was hardly more than titular, for the old Emperor stipulated that his son was only to "represent" him, and that the government was to be carried on as before in accordance with the Emperor's known views. As to that, Bismarck had his own ideas, and he succeeded in overcoming the Crown Prince's natural hesitation at accepting such a position.

Nevertheless, it was an extraordinarily sudden and dramatic change in the whole position of the Crown Prince and Princess. In the first place it absolutely put an end to the plan, which had been seriously discussed and on the whole approved by Bismarck, that the Crown Prince should become Governor-General or Lieutenant-Governor of Alsace-Lorraine. Obviously this scheme was no longer practical. The Emperor was old and his wound was serious; the accession of his son seemed imminent.

It is curious to recall that, so far back as January, 1862, Queen Augusta, speaking to Prince Hohenlohe, had observed: "The King and I are old people: we can hardly hope to do more than work for the future. But I wish we could look forward to a happier state of things for our son." She was destined to live thirty years longer, and to survive the son to whom she ever proved herself a loyal and devoted mother, while her husband, whom even then she described as old, was destined to live more than another quarter of a century - almost as long, in fact, as the son who succeeded him for so tragically brief a reign.

But now, in 1878, it seemed as if the Crown Prince, even in the unlikely event of his father's recovery from his wound, must become virtual ruler of the German Empire.

A very few days, however, made it clear that Bismarck was determined to allow the new Regent as little authority as possible beyond that conferred by the signing of State documents, and that he was to have no practical influence on foreign politics. But fortune, then as always, seemed to single out Bismarck for special favour, for in the all-important matter of Russo-German relations the Crown Prince was far easier to manage, in so far as any management of him was necessary, than the old Emperor, who was fondly attached to his nephew, the Tsar Alexander II.

Those months, during which the Crown Prince exercised in theory a power which he certainly did not possess in reality, were among the most trying of all the trying months the Crown Princess ever passed through, the more so that the Berlin Congress, which she and the Prince had gone to England to avoid, opened on June 13. Among those who sojourned in Berlin during those eventful days, and whose presence must have been a pleasure to the Princess, were Lord and Lady Salisbury.

But during the Congress the Crown Prince and Princess kept rigidly apart from even its social functions, the only exception being that the Crown Prince gave an official dinner in the King's name to the plenipotentiaries. The Crown Princess stayed out at Potsdam, while the Empress refused to appear in any official way; she treated her son entirely as if he were already Emperor.

Most serious was the sharp division caused between the father and son by the decisions of the Congress. The Crown Prince, who had a lifelong dislike and suspicion of Russia and of Russian statecraft, was supposed to have favoured England, and the old Emperor, to the very end of his life, considered that Germany had not done as well at the Congress as she should have done. He ascribed the fact - probably most unfairly - to the Crown Prince instead of to Bismarck.

Meanwhile, all kinds of gossip were rife as to the Crown Princess's efforts to influence her husband, for by the public at large the Regent was regarded as all-powerful.

To give an example of how the Princess was misunderstood and misjudged; when Hodel attacked the Emperor, the latter declared that he did not wish the full severity of the law to be exercised. But when Nobeling's far more serious attempt at assassination followed, public opinion demanded that Hodel should be condemned to death. The Crown Prince, as Regent, had to sign the death-warrant, and it became known that he had told a personal friend how very painful it was to him to sign it. It was widely believed that this over-scrupulousness, for so the good Berliners considered it, was due to the influence of the Crown Princess; yet as a matter of fact she had been, from the first, of opinion that Hodel, who had certainly meant to kill his Sovereign, should be executed.

In spite, however, of Bismarck's determination to make him a cypher, the Crown Prince did not allow himself to be put wholly in the background. To the Minister's great annoyance, he opened a personal correspondence with the new Pope, Leo XIII, in the hope of putting an end to the Kulturkampf. Though at the time it did not seem as though the Prince had succeeded, it laid the foundations for the ultimate solution of the problem.

The Regent also appointed a certain Dr. Friedberg, a distinguished Jewish jurist, who belonged to the Liberal party, to a very high judicial post. Curiously enough, this was the only appointment the Crown Prince made which was not afterwards revoked. The Emperor William I retained Friedberg, but refused to bestow on him the Black Eagle even after he had served for nine years in office. Ten years later, when the Emperor Frederick was on his way home from San Remo after his father's death, he received a Ministerial delegation at Leipzig, and, on seeing Friedberg, he took the Black Eagle from his own neck and placed it about that of his old friend.

By the end of the year, the Emperor was quite himself again. On a certain memorable evening in December, he appeared at the Opera and was the object of an extraordinary popular demonstration. The next day he wrote an open letter to the Crown Prince, thanking him in the warmest terms for the way in which, he had fulfilled his duties as Regent.

It was rumoured at the time - it is difficult to know with what truth - that the Crown Princess would have liked, after the recovery of her father-in-law, that a special post should be created for her husband. But on his side the Crown Prince said to an English friend that he had no wish to find himself the fifth wheel of the coach, and that he hated having only a semblance of authority.

During that visit to England which was so suddenly interrupted by Nobeling's attempt on the Emperor, Mr. Goschen, the statesman whom Lord Randolph Churchill afterwards "forgot" at the time of his dramatic resignation, was asked to arrange a meeting between the Crown Prince and Princess and George Eliot. The novelist thus describes the party in a letter to a friend:

"The Royalties did themselves much credit. The Crown Prince is really a grand-looking man, whose name you would ask for with expectation if you imagined him no royalty. He is like a grand antique bust - cordial and simple in manners withal, shaking hands, and insisting that I should let him know when next we came to Berlin, just as if he had been a Professor Gruppe, living au troisième. She is equally good-natured and unpretending, liking best to talk of nursing soldiers, and of what her father's taste was in literature. We had a picked party to dinner - the Dean of Westminster, the Bishop of Peterborough, Lord and Lady Ripon, Dr. Lyon Playfair, Kinglake, Froude, Mrs. Ponsonby (Lord Grey's granddaughter), and two or three more 'illustrations'; then a small detachment coming in after dinner. It was really an interesting occasion."

This was the kind of party which the Crown Princess thoroughly enjoyed, though even then her shyness always struck those who met her for the first time. On this occasion she opened her conversation with George Eliot by saying, "You know my sister Louise?" - and George Eliot's comment is "just as any other slightly embarrassed mortal might have done."

On December 14, the anniversary of the Prince Consort's death, the Crown Princess suffered another, and a hardly less terrible bereavement.

Her beloved sister, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, after losing one child from diphtheria and devotedly nursing her husband and her other children, herself fell a victim to the malady, the treatment of which was not then so well understood as it is now. The sisters had been fondly attached to one another from childhood, and after Princess Alice's marriage the tie was drawn even closer. They had been inseparable during the Franco-Prussian War, and for many years the happiest days spent each year by the Crown Princess were those when she was able to pay a flying visit to the Grand Duchess, or when the Grand Duchess was able to spend a few days at Berlin or Potsdam.

But there was yet another and an even more bitter sorrow in store for the Crown Princess. In March, 1879, her third son, Prince Waldemar, died in his eleventh year. He was a clever, affectionate, merry-hearted boy, and would have been his mother's favourite child, if she had allowed herself to make differences between her children. Like the Princess herself, he had been intellectually far in advance of his years, and he had had as tutor a distinguished professor, Herr Delbrück, who succeeded Treitschke in the Chair of History at the Berlin University, and afterwards played a considerable part in German thought and even in German politics.

It is shocking to have to record an example of the prejudice which was even then still felt in certain circles in Germany against the bereaved Crown Princess. A minister of the sect who called themselves the Orthodox Protestants, when he heard of the death of the young Prince, observed that he hoped it was a trial sent by God to humiliate her hard heart. This monstrous utterance must have found its way into print, or to the ears of some singularly ill-advised human being, for the Princess came to know of it, and in her then state of anguish it gave her more pain than perhaps even the minister himself would have wished to inflict.

It was natural that the mother's heart should at this moment turn with keen anxiety to her son, Prince Henry, who was then serving abroad in a German warship. She imagined him in the midst of all sorts of perils, and she begged the Emperor to allow him to return home at once. But the Sovereign, though expressing kindly sympathy, was obliged, in view of the rigid rules of the service, to refuse her petition, and the Princess had to bear as best she could this addition to her burden.

At this time the Crown Princess's relations with Bismarck had undergone some improvement. On February 23, 1879, Bismarck gave to Busch a most unflattering picture of the old Emperor, but he described the Crown Princess as unaffected and sincere, like her husband, "which her mother-in-law is not." He observed that it was only family considerations (the Coburger and the Augustenburger more than the uncle in Hanover) that made the Crown Princess troublesome, formerly more so than at present. "But she is honourable and has no pretensions."

It was thought that the Crown Princess was sadly in need of mental change and refreshment after the two terrible blows which had deprived her of her child and of her sister. She, therefore, went to stay in Rome incognito during the April of 1880, being only attended by a lady-in-waiting and her "chambellan." To those of her English friends whom she happened to meet she spoke constantly of her dead son, saying that he had been the most promising of her children, and that she felt as if she could never be resigned to her loss. In answer to a kindly suggestion that she had so many duties to perform that she would soon be taken out of herself, she said: "Ah, yes, there is much to do and one cannot sit down with one's sorrow, but the mother who has lost her child carries a heavy heart all her life."

During this stay in Rome, the Princess spent almost the whole of each day in the picture galleries, and in the evening she generally dined with some of her English friends and members of the diplomatic corps. As was always her wont, she managed to see all the more interesting strangers who were just then in Rome, many being asked to meet her at the British Embassy. One night, when Lady Paget asked her whom she would like to meet, she answered instantly "Cardinal Howard and Mr. Story" (the American sculptor). The Princess, however, could not stay as long in Rome as she would have liked, for she had to hurry back to be present at the Emperor's golden wedding festivities.

Fortunately for the Crown Princess, there came other thoughts to distract her from her grief. She welcomed her first grandchild, the Hereditary Princess of Saxe-Meiningen giving birth to a daughter, and in April, 1880, her eldest son Prince William was betrothed to Princess Victoria of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg, an alliance entirely approved by his parents. The Crown Prince, in a letter to Prince Charles of Roumania, said that it was really a love-match, and that the young Princess possessed remarkable gifts of heart, mind, and character, as well as a certain gracious dignity. It was also felt that the marriage would be a sort of compensation to the Augustenburg family for the loss of the Elbe Duchies.

In September, 1880, the Crown Princess had the joy of welcoming back Prince Henry from his voyage round the world, and the marriage of Prince William took place in February, 1881, amid universal rejoicings.

The Crown Princess's influence on the artistic life of Germany was shown by a little incident connected with her eldest son's marriage. On the occasion of the wedding the town of Berlin decorated the streets in a particularly original and beautiful way, and other Prussian towns gave the young people as a wedding present a really artistic table service. The Crown Prince exclaimed "And whom have we to thank that such things can be done by us in Germany to-day? Not least my wife!"

In the following March, when the Crown Prince was in Russia attending the funeral of Alexander II, who had been assassinated by Nihilists, the Princess received an anonymous threatening letter, informing her that her husband would also fall a victim to the Nihilists in the next few hours. She was in a dreadful state of agitation until reassuring telegrams arrived.

A son was born to Prince and Princess William on May 6, 1882, and the old Emperor William telegraphed to the Crown Prince: "Praise and thanks to God! Four generations of Kings living! What a rare event! May God shield the mother and child! "

In November of the same year, the Crown Princess had a curious conversation with Prince Hohenlohe, who thus records it:

"It may be that Christian consolation does not suffice one, but it is better to keep this to oneself and think it over. Plato's dialogues and the ancient tragedies she finds very consolatory. Much that she said was true. But she is too incautious and hasty in her verdicts upon things which are, after all, worthy of reverence."

Zurück Hoch Vorwärts