Monday, April 24, 2017

The Gray Eminence

‘Well, Bismarck’s foreign policy has suffered its first setback. We have meekly accepted a slap in the face from Spain and are retiring from the fray. Other people will be encouraged by this example.’ This is from the diary of Friedrich von Holstein, or the ‘Gray Eminence’ as he was sometimes known, born 180 years ago today. His career was nurtured by Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who dominated European affairs in the second half of the 19th century, but after Bismarck’s downfall, Holstein’s influence over Germany’s foreign policy grew, though he was unable to temper Emperor Wilhelm II’s impetuous policies.

Holstein was born on the family’s estate in Pomerania, in the Kingdom of Prussia, on 24 April 1837, the son of a military officer. He was a sickly child, tutored at home mostly, but the family travelled much, often to Berlin, and he became fluent in several languages. After studying at the Frederick William University of Berlin, he joined the diplomatic service. In 1860, he was assigned to the Prussian embassy in St. Petersburg where Otto von Bismarck, a family friend, was ambassador. Postings to Rio de Janeiro, London, Washington, Florence, and Copenhagen followed before Bismarck recalled him to Germany, during the Franco-German War, to help negotiate with the Italians.

After peace with France, and the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, Holstein served in Paris under the German ambassador, Harry von Arnim, who was opposed to Bismarck’s support of a republican France. When Arnim was disgraced, some claimed Holstein had been spying for Bismarck. Holstein was recalled to Berlin, where his experience and networks allowed him - as political secretary to the foreign office - to exert significant behind-the-scenes influence, not only over foreign policy but domestic policy too. He declined several diplomatic posts, which would have brought him advancement, and an offer to become head of the foreign office. Over time, he became increasingly opposed to Bismarck’s policies, especially his wish for alignment with Russia, believing in closer ties with Austria and Britain.

After 1890, following Bismarck’s dismissal, Holstein’s influence, under the inexperienced new chancellor Leo von Caprivi (to whom he advised against renewal of the Russian treaty), only increased, as it did under subsequent chancellors, Chlodwig von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst and Bernhard von Bülow. Indeed, Holstein, famously, became known as the ‘Gray Eminence’. pedalling his authority behind the scenes. However - as Encyclopædia Britannica points out - the most important policies in the years after Bismarck were largely inspired by Kaiser Wilhelm II without much consultation of the government, and Holstein, who saw folly in them, was powerless to oppose the sovereign. Holstein never married; he died, in relative poverty, in 1909. Further information can also be found at Wikipedia or by previewing a biography by Norman Rich at Googlebooks.

Cambridge University Press first published The Holstein Papers in English in the 1960s. Volume 2 of the series reproduces a substantial selection of  Holstein’s diaries as edited by Norman Rich and M. H. Fisher; this was republished most recently in 2011. The publisher states: ‘Friedrich von Holstein was Bismarck’s subordinate at the German Foreign Office. Since his death historians have combined to make him a monster of sinister and self-seeking policy. A selection of his Nachlass [literary remains], which was first published in volume form between 1955 and 1963, is presented here. The original effect of this publication prompted an entire re-judgement of Bismarck, of German foreign policy at that time and since, and of Holstein himself. Though he had been advised by Bismarck that it was indiscreet to keep a diary, Holstein began to do so in the 1880s, and passed the pages to a cousin as they were completed up to 1886, when they died out. This diary (Volume 2) gives an incomparable fresh and direct description of life in the German foreign ministry at the time as well as Holstein’s own mordant comments on the general trend of international politics.’

Here are several extracts.

28 March 1881
‘[…] The trouble about politics is that you can never be certain when your policy has been correct. Perhaps our policy after 1866 was in fact mistaken. The Federal Diet had greater means of checking revolutionary movements and tendencies to disaffection in individual states than the modern Reich with its Federal Council and its Reichstag. […]’

7 September 1885
‘Well, Bismarck’s foreign policy has suffered its first setback. We have meekly accepted a slap in the face from Spain and are retiring from the fray. Other people will be encouraged by this example.’

18 October 1885
‘[…] I had advised Hohenlohe to replace Hofmann, the State Secretary, by Puttkamer, the Under State Secretary, as soon as possible and in addition to appoint a vigorous senior Landrat as his Chef de Cabinet. I enclose his evasive reply. If he retains the present stick-in-the-mud he will do badly, but I wash my hands in innocence. […]’

24 October 1885
‘In the enclosed letter, Radolinski bids me state that the Crown Princess has expressed the wish to see Hatzfeldt before his departure for London. She wants to win him over to supporting Battenberg, and will probably promise to receive and reinstate Countess Hatzfeldt provided Hatzfeldt keeps Battenberg in Bulgaria. His official duty will more likely be the exact opposite. The Chancellor is perfectly prepared to oblige the Russians by supporting their policy in Bulgaria; on the other hand he will not be at all sorry if the English adopt a stiffer attitude which involves them in a quarrel with the Russians. Hatzfeldt can to that extent oblige both sides, however odd that may sound.

In my reply to Radolinski I said I was a man of too little account to pass on such a request, and anyway I thought it probable that Hatzfeldt would in any case be recalled to Berlin to receive his instructions. I shall take care not to get my finger crushed between these two millstones; I saw in the spring where that leads to. But the Crown Prince and Princess seem to have picked on me for that very purpose. Besides Radolinski, Sommerfeld also reproached me recently for not making any advances to the Crown Prince and Princess and said I owed it to my position. We shall see which side is the more obstinate.

The Crown Princess told Radolinski that Battenberg could perfectly well become King of Bulgaria now, which would make things easier for the marriage. Had he not behaved magnificently and heroically? And the young Princess had confessed to her mother in Venice that if anything happened to him she would jump into a canal. ‘Fancy my poor child jumping into a canal’, said her mother to Radolinski, with tears in her eyes.

The whole thing is rather amusing. Far more serious is Herbert’s increasingly apparent inclination towards Russia and aversion to Austria. The son is not a trapeze artist like his father, who constantly kept the balance between them. Whereas the father’s preferences may privately lie with Russia, the son makes no attempt to conceal his feelings. If this is not changed we shall in a couple of years have not a Three Emperors’ Alliance, but a Two Emperors’ Alliance, and Austria will seek support elsewhere. That will certainly not accord with the Crown Prince’s policy.

I fail to understand the Chancellor at the moment. Three months ago, when the Kaiser was so feeble. His Highness spoke of the need for a political volte-face, and consequently dropped France and turned to England. But if we now consistently ill-treat Austria to please Russia, that will hardly be a change of policy which will suit the next Kaiser.

I heard again yesterday how completely out of favour Herbert is with the Crown Prince and Princess. Two days ago they gave a dance for Princess Wilhelm. When Their Imperial Highnesses saw Herbert’s name on the list of guests, they said: ‘Oh no, we don’t want him; we’d better just invite people from Potsdam.’ ’

1 December 1885
‘No one could say that our foreign service is now being efficiently run. To-day, for example, we are still without news of the terms laid down by Bulgaria for the conclusion of peace. The terms are printed in the newspapers already. Our representatives abroad are cowed, and yet it occurs to no one at this end to tell them occasionally which problem or which object should occupy their attention.

The Chancellor’s ideas have lost all coherence - he changes his mind overnight. During the recent colonial debate he began by saying it was legalistic casuistry to regard the German colonies as foreign territory. But the previous day he had written with his own hand in the margin of a document: ‘The colonies are foreign territory.’

The trouble is not that he sometimes confuses or forgets things - any one else would do the same - but that no one dares to point out his mistakes.

The Chancellor told Bleichröder that it would be our duty to collaborate more with England now. And yet Salisbury tells Hatzfeldt that the two proposals at the conference which England finds unacceptable were introduced not by the Russian delegate but by Radowitz. I think, indeed I know, that Radowitz is vain, and easy game for the shrewder Nelidov; even so R. would not go so far unless he had secret instructions from Herbert, who pursues a policy of his own behind his father’s back.

We are now entering upon a critical phase: Russia and Austria are extremely incensed against each other. I wonder how the Chancellor will extricate himself from the difficulty. If he entrusts the affair too much to his son, it may turn out badly.’

1 December 1886
‘Herb. Bismarck recently told me Prince Wilhelm would soon be working in the Foreign Ministry. Herbert said that whenever he was too busy to give the Prince instruction he would send him to me. I replied: ‘Since this is an official request I cannot refuse, but I should find such association with the Prince highly undesirable. In the first place, he gossips about everything he hears - we have had examples of this very recently.’ (I cited several instances.) ‘But in addition my love of the truth would get me into trouble. You see, if he asks me my opinion I shall have to tell him; and my opinion differs from yours in quite a few essentials.’ ’

13 February 1888
‘When Radolinski informed the Kaiser on Thursday that the Crown Prince was to be operated on, the old gentleman wept a good deal, said ‘my poor, poor son’, but slept well all night. In all three generations of that family warmth of feeling is very under-developed.

When the Kaiser celebrated his birthday recently the Crown Prince arrived a quarter of an hour before he was expected. The Kaiserin asked him in a hectoring tone: ‘What are you doing here? Why, the Kaiser is not ready yet’ - and the Crown Prince had to wait outside.

The Crown Prince, although he is the only man of sensibility in the whole family, did not refrain from making waspish remarks about his parents’ longevity. ‘You’ll see’, he said in great irritation to someone the day the corner-stone of the Reichstag building was laid, ‘my father will live to see the building dedicated.’ On another occasion he said: ‘I was standing in the White Room yesterday evening’ - a ball had been held - ‘when I heard something behind me rattling. I looked round, it was my mother. She’s so skinny now that her old bones fairly rattle. But that does not keep her at home. She must put in an appearance even though she’s got one foot in the grave.’

Prince Wilhelm’s attitude to his father’s illness is purely businesslike. Between him and his mother there is fierce hatred. Recently on her son’s birthday she refused to drink to his health.

Except for a few fanatics no one now imagines that the Crown Prince has anything but cancer. And if it is cancer, then, so the doctors think, it will probably be all over by the 1st of April. His strength has declined very rapidly during the past four weeks.

The Chancellor’s speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric. Its contents are admittedly open to criticism in places by the specialist, whether he is a soldier or a diplomatist. The Chancellor felt that himself, which explains why he flattered the officers, the noncommissioned officers, the muscular stalwarts of the reserves, the whole nation in fact. As a result his speech has been a great success at home, and has done less harm abroad than I had feared.

It has made no difference to the general situation. The hatred and mistrust in certain quarters remain as strong as ever. Perhaps we shall keep the peace this year, during which we shall be exposed to the danger of seeing our alliances dissolved.’

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