ON the morning of March 9, 1888, the Crown Prince was walking in the
gardens of the Villa Zirio, when a telegram was brought to him. He
took it up with languid interest, but when he read the address, "His
Imperial Majesty the Emperor Frederick William," there was no need to
open the envelope, and it is said that his habitual self-control
deserted him, and he burst into tears.
A pathetic, and yet in its way a magnificent, scene followed in the great drawing-room on the ground floor of the villa. The Households of the new Emperor and Empress had assembled there and stood in a circle waiting...
Suddenly the Emperor appeared, and we have the following striking description from one who claims to have been a witness of what occurred:
"He had become handsome again, as in the radiant days of his youth. His beard, with a few silver streaks, glowed in the brilliant light cast by the chandelier. Tall and well built, he dominated the entire company. His blue eyes were slightly misty. His delicate complexion, now heightened with a little colour, seemed to show the real tranquillity which had taken possession of his soul; and his mouth with the red lips had now that fascinating smile which characterised him. With a firm step he walked straight to a small table in the middle of the drawing-room and wrote - for the tube in his throat prevented him from speaking - few lines, which he signed. An officer read out the paper aloud - it was the announcement of the death of the Emperor William I and of his own accession as Frederick III. The Emperor then walked towards the Empress, made a long and reverent bow, paying full homage to his wife's devotion, and with a grave and tender gesture passed round her neck the Ribbon of the Black Eagle."
It is also recorded that the Emperor walked up to Dr. Morell Mackenzie and, after shaking him warmly by the hand, wrote for him the following words: "I thank you for having made me live long enough to recompense the valiant courage of my wife."
The Emperor Frederick, with the Empress and their daughters, set out for Berlin on March 10, making what was then the swiftest journey in the records of Continental travel. The only interruption, and that was very short, was to enable the Emperor to receive the greetings of his old friend, King Humbert of Italy, who had himself travelled by forced marches for the purpose.
Amid a terrible storm of sleet and snow, on the night of March 11, the Imperial party entered Berlin.
Those who then saw the Emperor, whatever their political predilections, were amazed at his look of health and strength. For months past a thick veil of secrecy had been drawn over the life at the Villa Zirio. Naturally, therefore, rumour had had it all her own way, and in Germany the general pessimism was undoubtedly fostered by the medical profession. They had persuaded themselves that the Emperor was already in articulo mortis, and the Empress was openly censured for bringing him back at all. It was even believed by many that he might very well die on the journey owing to the sudden transition from the warm, equable climate of San Remo to the biting cold of Berlin.
The one certain fact which had been published was that he had undergone the operation of tracheotomy, and that he could not speak owing to the tube in his throat. But, apart from that, to the general astonishment, the Emperor was, or seemed to be, not very different from his normal condition. At once he took up the reins of power, granting audiences, and dealing for many hours every day with State affairs.
Though the joy with which the friends of the new Emperor and Empress hailed their accession was dashed by the thought of how brief must be the new reign, yet it is abundantly evident that no such idea occurred to the Empress herself, and that very fact seems to enhance the poignancy of the whole tragedy.
At the beginning of the Emperor Frederick's reign, a distinguished German wrote to a friend: "The Empress, as you have rightly judged, is making her way among the people. However brief her tenure of power will be, the more will the public at large perceive the truly astounding richness and resource, the practised leadership, and the affectionate disposition of that rare creature. She is indefatigable, and gives a fresh indication of the grand aims she has in view each day."
It is significant to note how all those who knew the Empress even slightly welcomed the fact of the Emperor's accession. Thus Mrs. Augustus Craven: "Somehow I hope the present Emperor will live. Anyhow I am thankful that he is still alive, and that she is Empress of Germany, also that perhaps after all the very great deal there is in her is not to be lost for Germany and for Europe."
The feeling in the Court and political world is clearly shown in the memoirs of Prince Hohenlohe. He was received by the Empress a week after her return to Berlin, and he says that he found her unchanged: "her frank and cheerful manner filled me with astonishment."
Three days later Prince Hohenlohe noted in his diary that already officials were complaining of the interference of the Empress in public business. Bötticher told him that she had induced the Emperor to refuse his signature to the Anti-Socialist Bill, and that he had only given way after Bismarck had explained the matter to the Empress. The Minister added that the Emperor had little power of resistance to the influence of the Empress, and that she, again, was under the influence of "certain advanced ladies." If the Emperor's illness, he went on, was of long duration, all kinds of things might happen, but if the Emperor were well, or should become so, the influence of the Empress would diminish.
A few days later Prince Hohenlohe was himself able to judge how far this was true about the Empress, for he went out to call on his Sovereign at Charlottenburg, and found him with his wife. The Empress excused her presence by pleading the necessity of supporting the Emperor during the audience. The whole of the conversation had to be carried on, so far as the Emperor was concerned, by means of writing-tablets. Hohenlohe observed that the Emperor would benefit by the amount of work he had to do, at which the Sovereign nodded approvingly. At the end of the interview:
"The Emperor placed his hand on my shoulder and smiled sadly, so that I could hardly restrain my tears. He gave me the impression of a martyr; and, indeed; no martyrdom in the world is comparable with this slow death. Everyone who comes near him is full of admiration for his courageous and quiet resignation to a fate which is inevitable, and which he fully realises."
But it is plain that the Empress had not yet resigned herself to consider his death as in any way imminent. Later in the same month, Hohenlohe had an audience of the Empress, and during their conversation she said something which made it clear to her old friend that she still entertained illusions as to her husband's real condition - indeed, he was himself so shaken by what she said that he wrote in his diary: "It is perhaps possible that the illness will be of long duration. The expectation of a speedy end has not yet been confirmed."
There can be no doubt that the accession of the Emperor Frederick was expected in not a few quarters to mean the almost immediate fall of Bismarck, but this expectation left out of account various important factors of the situation. Both the new Emperor and his Empress, though, as we have seen, they profoundly disapproved of Bismarck's policy as a whole, nevertheless fully realised the Chancellor's patriotism and the unparalleled services which he had been able to render to the German people. Bismarck, in his own account of his relations with the Emperor, recalls that they began as far back as 1848, when Prince Frederick William was only seventeen, and he had since received from him various proofs of personal confidence, notably on the occasion of the Dantzig episode in 1863. This confidence was, Bismarck declares, quite independent of political principles and differences of opinion, and though many attempts to shake it were made from interested quarters, they had no permanent success.
Later Bismarck also asserted roundly that the Emperor Frederick made it easy for him, by his amiability and confidence, to transfer to him the affection he had cherished for his father. He was both more open than his father had been to the constitutional idea of Ministerial responsibility, and also less hampered by family traditions in adjusting himself to political necessities. And Bismarck goes on to state that "all assertions of lasting discord in our relations are unfounded."
On the subject of the Crown Princess's influence Bismarck said:
"I could not assume that his wife had the same kindly feeling for me; her natural innate sympathy for her home had, from the beginning, shown itself in the attempt to turn the weight of Prusso-German influence in the groupings of European power into the scale of her native land; and she never ceased to regard England as her country. In the differences of interest between the two Asiatic Powers, England and Russia, she wished to see the German power applied in the interests of England if it came to a breach. This difference of opinion, which rested on the difference of nationality, caused many a discussion between her Royal Highness and me on the Eastern question, including the Battenberg question. Her influence on her husband was at all times great, and it increased with years, to culminate at the time when he was Emperor. She also, however, shared with him the conviction that in the interests of the dynasty it was necessary that I should be maintained in office at the change of reign."
It is interesting here to recall that on August 31, 1870, after the battle of Beaumont, Busch obtained from Bismarck the following opinion of the then Crown Prince:
"He will be reasonable later on, and allow his Ministers to govern more, and not put himself too much forward, and in general he will get rid of many bad habits that render old gentlemen of his trade sometimes rather troublesome. [It is to be feared that this uncomplimentary allusion is to the old Emperor.] For the rest, he is unaffected and straightforward; but he does not care to work much, and is quite happy if he has plenty of money and amusements, and if the newspapers praise him."
A very superficial judgment of the Emperor Frederick, and the suggestion that he was too fond of money is particularly gratuitous. As a matter of fact, only the year before his accession, in 1887, a certain Frenchman, Ballardin by name, died, leaving the whole of his fortune, valued at several million francs, to the then Crown Prince. M. Ballardin appeared to have been so embittered by disputes with the French authorities that he determined to show his hatred and contempt for his native country by the novel method of bequeathing his property to the German Crown Prince, who, however, absolutely refused to accept even the smallest portion of the legacy. That is certainly not the action of a man who could be accused of a love of money.
It may here be stated, on this subject of money, that when the Emperor Frederick succeeded to the throne, there was in the hands of Baron Kohn, the private banker of the old Emperor William, a sum of fifty-four million marks (£ 2,700,000), which was bequeathed to the Emperor Frederick as a kind of family treasure, to be controlled by the head of the House of Hohenzollern for the time being. When the Emperor Frederick died, however, it was found that the great bulk of this money had been invested abroad by his orders in the name of his widow; her uncle, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and her cousin, King Leopold of Belgium, being the trustees. It is even asserted that the late Prince Stolberg resigned at the time his office of Minister of the Imperial Household in consequence of what he considered the diversion of this sum of money from the Hohenzollern family. According to another version, however, only a portion of this money became the absolute property of the Empress, the remainder being hers for life, with power of appointment among her younger children.
To return to Busch; he also obtained from Bismarck a curious anecdote of the Empress:
"I took the liberty to ask further what sort of woman the Crown Princess was, and whether she had much influence over her husband. 'I think not,' the Count said; 'and as to her intelligence, she is a clever woman; clever in a womanly way. She is not able to disguise her feelings, or at least not always. I have cost her many tears, and she could not conceal how angry she was with me after the annexations (that is to say of Schleswig and Hanover). She could hardly bear the sight of me, but that feeling has now somewhat subsided. She once asked me to bring her a glass of water, and as I handed it to her she said to a lady-in-waiting who sat near and whose name I forget, 'He has cost me as many tears as there is water in this glass.' But that is all over now."
This incident about the glass of water evidently much impressed Bismarck, for he told it to Busch again some months later, when he said of the Crown Princess, "She is in general a very clever person, and really agreeable in her way, but she should not interfere in politics."
The Empress's relations with Bismarck after her husband's accession were more pleasant than they had ever been before. The Emperor naturally leaned upon his wife, and her influence perhaps appeared greater than it was. But, whatever its precise extent, Bismarck, with his intensely practical mind, saw that it was at any rate a factor in the situation, and he made use of it accordingly. It was, indeed, as natural for him to cultivate her good will now, as it was for him a little later to heap contumely and insult on her head. Such conduct was utterly incomprehensible to the Empress, with her upright, loyal nature; she would have suffered less from the Chancellor had she been able to find the key to both his greatness and his littleness.
But, even at this time, when Bismarck had the strongest reasons for conciliating the Empress, there was one question, that of the Battenberg marriage, on which he felt compelled to do battle with her, and in which he vanquished her in fair fight.
The Empress, different as she was in many respects from her mother, was absolutely at one with Queen Victoria in her views of everything which should regulate family life. Thus, she was as firm a believer in the importance of securing happy marriages for her sons and daughters as the Queen had proved herself to be. That the union of two human beings should be guided by State considerations was to her abhorrent. She had welcomed with eager delight her niece, Princess Irene of Hesse, as a daughter-in-law; she knew that the latter's sister, Princess Victoria, had formed a happy marriage with Prince Louis of Battenberg. Now it was Prince Louis's brother, Alexander of Bulgaria, who had been from boyhood a favourite with her sister, Princess Alice, whom the Empress desired to see married to her second daughter, Princess Victoria. The alliance had been mooted some four years before, but was then considered, by Bismarck especially, as quite out of the question, if only because the hero of Slivnitza had earned the intense hostility of the Tsar Alexander.
In July, 1885, Bismarck told Hohenlohe that, whereas the Emperor and the Crown Prince were in favour of the marriage of Princess Victoria with the King of Portugal, the Crown Princess and the young Princess herself preferred the Prince of Bulgaria, and that there was "great skirmishing" going on over the business.
More than a year later, in October, 1886, the old Emperor himself spoke to Hohenlohe of the matter, and with some bitterness, declaring that the Crown Princess and Princess Victoria still entertained the idea of this alliance. He said he had questioned the Crown Prince, who had denied it, and he further observed that in politics his son was ruled by his wife.
In 1888 the Empress still desired the marriage because she believed that the affections of her daughter were seriously engaged. But, changed as were all the conditions of her own and the new Emperor's life, she at once found arrayed against her the same powerful influences as before, with the addition of that of her eldest son, the new Crown Prince. The difference of opinion in the Imperial family became known to the whole of Europe, and was very frankly discussed in the English and Continental Press. Matters seemed at a deadlock. On the one side were ranged the Empress and all those Royal personages who by kinship or marriage were connected with the Battenberg family; on the other were the Crown Prince, Bismarck, and, it was whispered, the Emperor Frederick himself, who had a great dislike to any marriage that savoured of a mésalliance.
This was the position when Queen Victoria arrived at Charlottenburg to visit her stricken son-in-law. Bismarck, with his usual unerring eye for the potentialities of a situation, seized the opportunity. He sought an audience of the Queen, and succeeded in convincing her by his arguments that the Battenberg alliance was really extremely inadvisable. Not until she found her mother ranged among the opponents of the marriage did the Empress yield, and consent, to use her own phrase, "to sacrifice her daughter's happiness on the altar of the Fatherland."
We have a slightly different, and probably less accurate, account of the termination of the affair in Hohenlohe's journal of May 17, 1888:
The Empress had said that in the end it would be no misfortune if Bismarck did retire. This was at once retailed to him, whereupon the newspaper war. Malet reported to Queen Victoria at Florence that it was very disadvantageous for English interests that the Queen should appear to interest herself in the Battenberg match. It would be well, more particularly in view of her impending visit to Berlin, to prevent people from thinking she favoured the marriage. The English Ministry also concurred in this. Thereupon Queen Victoria wrote a severe letter to her daughter, the Empress; and during her stay also she expounded her views in an energetic fashion, which produced unhappy and tearful scenes. The relations between Queen Victoria and the Imperial Chancellor have shaped very well. They were enchanted with each other."
The Empress's belief that she had been fighting for her daughter's happiness added a special bitterness to her defeat at the hands of Bismarck. It may, however, be stated that the day came when the Empress Frederick acknowledged that she had been mistaken, at least to some extent, in the qualities which she had attributed to Alexander of Battenberg, and she lived to see her daughter make a happier marriage than the Battenberg alliance would probably have ever been.
Not the least pathetic feature of the Hundred Days' reign was the gallant persistence of the Empress in fulfilling the duties of her new station. She only held one Court, and one who was present has left a vivid description of the strange scene:
"The Empress was dressed in the deepest mourning, indeed wrapped in black from head to foot, her face hidden by a crape veil, while a long procession of women likewise veiled in crape filed past the throne, their black gowns high in the neck and skirts banded with crape a quarter of a yard wide, while long folds of double crape fell upon the floor in guise of Court trains."
On May 24, the marriage of Prince Henry, the second son of the Emperor and Empress, to his cousin, Princess Irene of Hesse, was celebrated at Charlottenburg. It was a bright and happy day in the midst of sadness, and everything was done to surround the ceremony with brilliance.
Death was now drawing very near to the doomed Emperor. On June 1 he was conveyed by boat from Charlottenburg to the New Palace, where he had been born, where he had spent the happiest days of his married life, and the name of which he now changed to "Friedrichskron." But he was not allowed to die in peace; his last days were disturbed by what is known as the Puttkamer incident.
Puttkamer, a typical Bismarckian, had been Minister of the Interior for seven years. In his official announcement of the old Emperor's death, he had actually made no allusion to the new Emperor; the latter in consequence insisted on the Minister's retirement as the condition of his signing the Bill prolonging the life of the Reichstag to five years. Puttkamer's resignation was gazetted on June 11, and on the same evening Prince Bismarck gave a dinner at which the fallen Minister was the guest of honour.
The Emperor Frederick died at Friedrichskron on June 15. The first message written by the widowed Empress was to the aged Empress Augusta:
"She whose one pride and happiness it was to be the wife of your son grieves with you, afflicted mother. No mother ever had so good a son. Be proud and strong in your sorrow."