1857

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There is Saxe-Meiningen-Hildburghausen (pencils, marbles, wooden toys), a one-piece duchy which is notable chiefly for being eighty miles long and only ten miles wide, shaped in a graceful crescent like a French breakfast roll. And there is Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (honey, poultry, more toys), whose two main sections are fourteen miles apart, the government operating first in one part, then in the other. As usual, there is a legislature called a diet, partly elected but mostly appointed by the duke. Duke Ernst is the older brother of Prince Albert of England, and since he is childless, one of Victoria’s sons will be able to add this duchy to his inheritance some day, just as her uncle has inherited the old Hanoverian properties of Hanover and Brunswick. Duke Ernst is rich, too, having sold still another duchy to ever-acquisitive Prussia.

Besides all these Saxon duchies, there is a Prussian province called Saxony and an independent kingdom of Saxony as well, whose king spends his time in the palace at Dresden making very fine translations of Dante. What makes things stranger is the fact that the Saxon states, which used to be in the west of Germany a few centuries ago, have now moved to the east, as though the United States had moved, say, to Chile, and the Chileans had come up to North America.

Pride and eccentricity, in various mixtures, seem to be the distinguishing characteristics of these comic-opera courts. The last ruler of Hesse-Cassel (one of half a dozen Hessian duchies) was so reactionary that he put all his soldiers in eighteenth-century uniforms. The present one refuses to have railroads or factories within his state and once grew so angry with his subjects, who were slow with their taxes, that he went on strike, refusing to transact any public business until they paid up. In tiny Reuss-Greiz and Reuss-Schleiz-Gera, where the burghers make cheese and musical instruments, there are related houses in which all the sons are named Henry. Their current rulers, who are, respectively, Prince Henry the Twentieth and Prince Henry the Sixty-Seventh, are given to referring to themselves, each without any conscious humor, as “My all-highest self.” Bavaria, the lightest-hearted part of Germany, has a strange young prince named Ludwig. Within a decade he will be its “Mad King,” floating in a shell-like gondola drawn by swans in the grotto of Linderhof, listening the while to the music of his protégé Richard Wagner. The protégé, as demanding in his eccentricities as the patron, will compose only in a room hung all about with blood-red draperies, pounding out the eerie harmonies that capture the German soul.

But while this preposterous ruling class idles and dreams away its last days of feckless absolutism and Germany nibbles late at the Industrial Revolution, a man with a clear and burning ambition is preparing a new Germany. At the weak federal diet in Frankfurt, which (together with a customs union) is the only central organization in this checkerboard of states, young Otto von Bismarck represents the King of Prussia. He is watching this assemblage, feebly dominated by Austria, make its mistakes. This year Bismarck’s elderly king has gone mad and has been replaced, as regent, by his brother, a prince unstained by liberalism, determined to build a Prussia, and later a Germany, that is militarily strong. Austria will be brushed aside, and so will the nonsense of liberal government. If anything amuses Bismarck, it is what he calls “the English catchwords, humanity and civilization.” The electors and margraves, the little dukes, the proud princelings, the high-numbered Henrys? If they surrender their substance, they may keep their shadows, but there will be only one real all-highest, and he in Berlin.

If they think about the Old World at all, the Americans are glad they have left Europe, its kings, its class system, its hierarchies, its sleepy ways, behind. A few southerners may dream of a fancied romantic past found in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, but the Yankee, the westerner, and, indeed, most southerners are bound up in the bustling present and tantalizing future.

Even though wild land speculation and a shaky system of money and banking bring on a financial crash near the end of August (some 1,400 state banks, not the federal government, issue paper money, and every business keeps a “Counterfeit Guide”), 1857 marks the peak of a period of prosperity. There has never been such investment in shipping, telegraph lines, factories, and railroads. A cable is being laid all the way to England.