AFTER the death of Prince Albert, the relations between the Crown
Princess and Bismarck become of absorbing interest to the student both
of politics and of human nature.
Bismarck seems to have first met Prince Albert in the summer of 1855, when Queen Victoria and the Prince paid their state visit to Paris. In his Reminiscences, Bismarck says that in the Prince's manner to him there was a kind of "malevolent curiosity," and he convinced himself - not so much at the time as from subsequent events - that the Prince regarded him as a reactionary party man, who took up sides for Russia in order to further an Absolutist and "Junker " policy. Bismarck goes on to say that it was not to be wondered at that this view of the Prince's and of the then partisans of the Duke of Coburg descended to the Prince's daughter.
"Even soon after her arrival in Germany, in February, 1858, I became convinced, through members of the Royal House and from my own observations, that the Princess was prejudiced against me personally. The fact did not surprise me so much as the form in which her prejudice against me had been expressed in the narrow family circle - 'she did not trust me.' I was prepared for antipathy on account of my alleged anti-English feelings and by reason of my refusal to obey English influences; but, from a conversation which I had with the Princess after the war of 1866, while sitting next to her at table, I was obliged to conclude that she had subsequently allowed herself to be influenced in her judgment of my character by further-reaching calumnies.
"I was ambitious, she said, in a half-jesting tone, to be a king or at least president of a republic. I replied in the same semi-jocular tone that I was personally spoilt for a Republican; that I had grown up in the Royalist traditions of the family, and had need of a monarchical institution for my earthly well-being: I thanked God, however, I was not destined to live like a king, constantly on show, but to be until death the king's faithful subject. I added that no guarantee could, however, be given that this conviction of mine would be universally inherited, and this not because Royalists would give out, but because perhaps kings might. 'Pour faire un civet, il faut un lièvre, et pour faire une monarchie, il faut un roi.' I could not answer for it that, for want of such, the next generation might not be Republican. I further remarked that, in thus expressing myself, I was not free from anxiety at the idea of a change in the occupancy of the throne without a transference of the monarchical traditions to the successor. But the Princess avoided every serious turn and kept up the jocular tone, as amiable and entertaining as ever; she rather gave me the impression that she wished to tease a political opponent.
"During the first years of my Ministry, I frequently remarked in the course of similar conversation that the Princess took pleasure in provoking my patriotic susceptibility by playful criticism of persons and matters."
In this passage we have evidently a perfectly frank expression of Bismarck's real feeling, and it gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of these two remarkable personalities, facing one another with watchful, guarded, measuring glance, like two duellists awaiting the signal for combat.
That Bismarck to a great extent misunderstood the Princess is plain enough, and indeed it would have been extraordinary if he had understood her, so different was she from any normal type of German lady. But there is abundant evidence that he did not underrate her intellectual ability, though it must have been a perpetual astonishment to him to find such mental powers in a woman, and there were even moments when the aims of the two, generally so wide apart, seemed actually to converge. It is curious to speculate how different the course of history might have been if the Princess had added to her other qualities that tact, prudence, and power of judging human character, which were surely alone wanting to make her one of the most remarkable women who have ever held her exalted rank.
The greatest injustice which Bismarck did the Princess lay in his suspicion - to use a mild term - of her German patriotism. The Prince Consort had consistently pursued the ideal of a union of the German States under the leadership of Prussia as the champion of German Liberalism. Such a new-born Germany might, or might not, have become the ally of England, but the Prince Consort must certainly be acquitted of any Machiavellian designs for the benefit of his adopted country; the supreme end he had in view was undoubtedly the happiness and greatness of Germany, and both his wife and his daughter knew and shared his aims.
From 1858 to 1861 the Prince Consort's influence in Prussian politics may almost be described as paramount; but the happy relations between England and Prussia were broken, partly by the inability of King William to share the liberalism of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which seemed to him positively anti-monarchical, partly by anti-Prussian feeling in England, and partly by the claim of the Prussian Liberals to dictate to the Crown on the question of army reorganisation.
Prince Albert did not live to see how completely his hopes had been shattered, and his premature death deprived his daughter of his counsel at the very moment when Bismarck came into office in the full tide of Russophil reaction and Anglophobia.
It is difficult to realise, in view of later events, how strong was the distrust which Bismarck inspired at the beginning of his accession to power. It was known that he desired an alliance with Napoleon III, and it was even believed that he would be capable of ceding German territory to France.
The trend of popular opinion was significantly shown on March 17, 1863, when the fiftieth anniversary of the Proclamation "To my People" was celebrated, and the foundation-stone of a memorial to Frederick William III was laid in Berlin.
Nothing that the authorities could do to give distinction to the occasion was omitted. The Crown Prince, who had just been appointed to a high post on the staff, commanded the military parade, and was present with his father at the festivities in honour of the survivors of the War of Liberation and the Knights of the Iron Cross. The citizens of Berlin, however, were conspicuous by their absence, and the popular feeling was expressed by the great writer, Freytag, who said in an article in a Liberal newspaper: "All good Prussians will pass this day quietly, seriously, and will consider the means by which they may best preserve the illustrious House of Hohenzollern for the future welfare of the State."
The first real efforts made by Bismarck to alienate the King from the Crown Prince and Princess date from the year 1863, just when the Princess was beginning to recover her spirits and normal state of mental health.
"Every kind of calumny was spread," wrote Morier, "respecting the persons supposed to be the Prince's friends. Spies were placed over him in the shape of aides-de-camp and chamberlains; conversations were distorted and imagined, till the Dantzig episode brought matters to a climax, and very nearly led to the transfer of the Prince to a fortress."
This episode, a speech delivered by the Crown Prince at Dantzig, possessed all the importance that Morier attributes to it, and it must be admitted that it was in the circumstances a highly imprudent utterance, for it dragged the differences between the Crown Prince and his father into the light of day.
The speech was delivered to the municipality of Dantzig on June 5, 1863. In it the Crown Prince referred to the variance which had occurred between the Government and the people, by which he meant a new ordinance restricting the freedom of the Press. This variance, he said, had occasioned him no small degree of surprise; and he added:
"Of the proceedings which have brought it about I know nothing. I was absent. I have had no part in the deliberations which have produced this result."
Although the Crown Prince went on to pay tribute to the noble and fatherly intentions and magnanimous sentiments of the King, nevertheless the speech naturally created a great sensation, not only in Germany, but in other countries too. A correspondence followed between the Prince and his father, in which the former, while asking pardon for his action, offered to resign all his offices. Bismarck professes to have himself succeeded in making peace between the two, quoting to the King the text, "Deal tenderly with the boy Absalom," and urging that it was not advisable to make his Heir Apparent a martyr.
Bismarck's own account of the circumstances which led up to the speech is significant for its emphasis on the dates. He says that the Royal ordinance on the subject of the Press appeared on June 1; that on June 2 the Crown Princess followed the Prince to Graudenz; and that on June 4 the Prince wrote to the King expressing disapproval of the decree, complaining that he had not been summoned to the councils in which the step had been discussed, and enlarging on his view of his position as Heir Apparent. This obviously suggests, without exactly saying so in plain words, that the Crown Prince's speech on June 5 was inspired by his wife. But behind both the Crown Prince and the Crown Princess, Bismarck thought that he detected the hand of Morier. And yet it is on record that Morier had not seen the Crown Prince or had any kind of communication with him at the time, before, or after, the Dantzig episode; in fact, it is quite clear, from letters Morier wrote to Ernest von Stockmar, that both he and his German correspondent sincerely regretted the Crown Prince's action.
The Crown Princess, however, seemed doomed to be associated with this unlucky speech. Not long after the affair was apparently settled, a remarkable and obviously inspired statement appeared in the Times to the following effect:
"While travelling on military duty, the Prince allowed himself to assume an attitude antagonistic to the policy of the Sovereign, and to call in question his measures. The least that he could do to atone for this grave offence was to retract his statements. This the King demanded of him by letter, adding that, if he refused, he would be deprived of his honours and offices. The Prince, in concert, it is said, with her Royal Highness the Princess, met this demand with a firm answer. He refused to retract anything, offered to resign his honours and commands, and craved leave to withdraw with his wife and family to some place where he would be free from suspicion of the least connection with the affairs of State.
"This letter is described as a remarkable performance, and it is added that the Prince is to be congratulated on having a consort who not only shares his liberal views, but is also able to render him so much assistance in a momentous and critical juncture. It is not easy to conceive a more difficult position than that of the princely pair placed, without a single adviser, between a self-willed Sovereign and a mischievous Cabinet on the one hand, and an incensed people on the other."
Naturally this version of the affair, with its open reference to the influence of the Crown Princess, aroused fresh excitement. Ernest von Stockmar, the private secretary of the Crown Princess, was said to have communicated the substance of the statement to the Times. Who really did so has never been revealed.
The unfortunate Stockmar, in any case, knew nothing of the matter; he would have given much to find out who was responsible. Indeed, this new complication to an already painful and suspicious affair so distressed Stockmar that he fell ill, and had to resign his position as secretary to the Crown Princess. This was for her a real misfortune, as even the most spiteful and prejudiced of her critics could not accuse the old Baron's son and pupil of being anything but a sound and patriotic German.
Bismarck was good enough to accept the Crown Prince's assertion that the statement was inserted in the Times entirely without his cognizance, and he thought it was inspired by Geffcken; in fact, he attributed it to the same quarter to which, as he believed, the Crown Prince owed the bent of his political views, namely, the school of writers who extolled the English constitution as a model to be imitated by other nations, without thoroughly comprehending it.
What wonder, then, observed Bismarck, that the Crown Princess and her mother overlooked that peculiar character of the Prussian State which renders its administration by means of shifting Parliamentary groups a sheer impossibility? The party of progress were then daily anticipating victory in their struggle with prerogative, and naturally took every opportunity to place the situation "in the light best calculated to influence female minds."
In the following August, Bismarck says, the Crown Prince visited him at Gastein, and there, "less under the sway of English influences," "used the unreserved language of one who sees that he has done wrong and seeks to excuse himself on the score of the influences under which he had lain."
This attitude, however, if it was ever really adopted, was certainly short-lived. A fresh difference broke out between the Crown Prince and the King on the subject of the former's attendance at Cabinet Councils, and on this point the Crown Prince undoubtedly held firm. Bismarck prints his marginal notes on a memorandum sent by the Crown Prince to his father. In these notes the whole constitutional position of the Crown Prince is discussed, but we are here only concerned with the following references to the Crown Princess
"Especially necessary is it that the intermediary advisers, with whose aid alone his Royal Highness can be authorised to busy himself with the consideration of pending affairs of State, should be adherents, not of the Opposition, but of the Government, or at least impartial critics without intimate relations with the Opposition in the Diet or the Press. The question of discretion is that which presents most difficulty, especially in regard to our foreign relations, and must continue to do so until his Royal Highness, and her Royal Highness the Crown Princess, have fully realised that in ruling Houses the nearest of kin may yet be aliens, and of necessity, and as in duty bound, represent other interests than the Prussian. It is hard that a frontier line should also be the line of demarcation between the interests of mother and daughter, of brother and sister; but to forget the fact is always perilous to the State."
In the autumn of 1863 Queen Victoria was staying at Coburg. She sent for Morier and had a long talk with him on the growing difficulties which seemed to encompass the Crown Prince and Princess. The fact that Morier ventured to hint that any appearance of interference on the part of England would be very prejudicial to the interests of their Royal Highnesses, and that a suspicion that the Crown Prince was being prompted from over the water would materially diminish in the eyes of the Liberal party the value of his opposition, shows that there was something, even then, to be said for the feeling which Bismarck so sedulously fostered.
During the summer of 1863, the Crown Princess accompanied her husband on a long tour of military inspections in the provinces of Prussia and Pomerania, and her Royal Highness performed the ceremony of naming a warship, the Vineta, at Dantzig.
This tour caused a good deal of discomfort to the Crown Prince and Princess, for in most of the towns they visited the municipal authorities ostentatiously refrained from celebrating the occasion; on the other hand, the populace as a rule received the Royal pair with abundant loyalty.
We have a curious glimpse of the sort of impression made in East Prussia by the Crown Princess in a private letter written by a member of the Progressive party, who afterwards became a confidential friend of the Crown Prince. This gentleman says that everyone was pleased with the Crown Princess, for she showed that she had a mind of her own. She informed a certain official that she read the Volkszeitung, the Nationalzeitung, and the Times every day, and that she agreed entirely with those newspapers - in the circumstances an amazingly imprudent statement. It was, indeed, such a shock to the official that it reduced him to blank silence.
The breach between the Crown and Parliament was not the only question with which Prussia was troubled at this time. The summer of 1863 was also marked by the attempt of Austria to take the solution of the German question into her own hands by initiating a scheme for reforming the Federal Constitution.
The Emperor Francis Joseph invited the Princes and the free cities of Germany to a conference at Frankfort to discuss the reorganisation of the Germanic Confederation. King William was inclined to accept this proposal, but Bismarck held other views; and a further invitation from the Emperor that the King should send the Crown Prince to the Congress of Princes, was also declined.
Nevertheless the Congress was held, and there was also held a sort of family gathering of what Bismarck would have designated "the Coburgers" at Coburg. Queen Victoria was there, and in August the Crown Princess joined her, quickly followed by the Crown Prince.
Lord Granville, who was a close observer of the complicated intrigues of the Congress, wrote to Lord Stanley of Alderley: "The Princess Royal is very Prussian on this Confederation question."
The Crown Prince's views on the subject were expressed in a letter which he sent to his wife's uncle, Duke Ernest, early in September. From this letter it seems clear that, whereas at first he had been inclined to favour the Austrian move, he altered his views when Austria showed her hand by demanding from the Congress a simple vote of assent or dissent to her project of reform. He mentioned that he had asked the King for permission to be absent from the meetings of the Cabinet, and indeed he paid with his family a long visit to Italy.
From Italy the Crown Prince and Princess proceeded to England, and that, with visits to Brussels and Karlsruhe, took up the rest of the year.
It must not, however, be thought that during this absence from Germany the Crown Prince and Princess ceased to take an interest in politics; on the contrary, they followed with the closest attention what was indeed a serious constitutional crisis in the autumn of 1863.
In October, after they had started for Italy, the Crown Prince wrote to Bismarck:
"I hope that, to use your own words, your efforts in the present difficult position of the constitutional life of our country may be successful, and may accomplish that which you yourself describe as the urgent and essential understanding with the national representatives. I am following the course of events with the deepest interest."
The constitutional crisis turned on the rejection, by the Upper House and the Crown, of the Budget which had been adopted by the Lower House. The King, as advised by Bismarck, was for governing without a constitution, but the Crown Prince, with his strong predisposition in favour of the English constitutional system, which had by this time been developed by Queen Victoria, could not help regarding his father's attitude as jeopardising the security of the Crown.
The Crown Prince's position was particularly difficult because he was appealed to by all parties - by the Liberals, who looked forward to the day when he would be King of Prussia as perhaps not very far distant; and by the Conservatives, who adjured him to support the Government on dynastic grounds.
Of the two parties, the Liberals appeared to have the best of it, for the prolonged absence of the Crown Prince and Crown Princess was naturally interpreted in Germany as indicating, if not their sympathy with the Liberal party, at any rate their dislike of the existing Government.
But events were shaping themselves in such a way that the Dantzig affair, with all that had led up to it and had followed it, was soon to be forgotten in a crisis of much greater moment, and one which brought to the Crown Prince his baptism aof fire.
It was during the visit of the Crown Prince and his family to England that King Frederick VII of Denmark, the last of his dynasty, died, and the question of the succession to the Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein immediately became acute.