This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
In the Old Graveyard at Bonn stands a long-obscure tomb. It bears a strange, haunting design: the scales of justice, not righteously level but weighed down and crossed with a curving sabre. In a curious spin on the Bible, the inscription reads: “Lord forgive him, for he knew not what he did.”
It is the grave of Daniel Ott, who is now forgotten. Yet in August to September 1865, his fate so obsessed the world’s first modern, national media – the newly cheap, mass-read and entirely free British press – that his name made The New York Times and even the infant journals of distant Australasia. The tale of his death can cast new light on a defining tragedy of modern history: the Anglo-German antagonism of the later 19th century.
At or about 1am on the night of 4 August 1865, the young bloods of Bonn’s most exclusive student society, the Corps Borussia, downed their last drinks, left their flag-and-sword bedecked fraternity house, and sallied forth into the darkness. Many of these students were also one-year volunteers in the Bonn Royal Hussars, armed not only with the ironclad conviction of their social superiority, but also with cavalry sabres. And on the night of 4 August they were angry young men.
The Borussia’s great rival was the liberal, middle-class Bonn student society Franconia, who wanted a united Germany, run from Frankfurt by a British-style parliament. A few days before, on 29 July, it had turned an anodyne celebration in memory of Ernst Moritz Arndt, author of the unofficial anthem of German Unity, What is the German’s Fatherland?, into a loud and public demonstration in favour of that liberal Greater Germany that would spell the end of Royal Prussia.
A mysterious well
The club managed seriously to annoy their aristocratic rivals, for on 5 August the Borussia posted a letter to the press in Cologne, distancing themselves from the liberal, and socially inferior, students who had felt “obliged to celebrate Arndt with the volk” (liberal nationalists thought the volk a deep, if mysterious, well of German spirituality; to the Borussian, the volk simply meant the great unwashed). Since the letter was postmarked 5 August, it seems reasonable to assume that the Borussians agreed it on the evening of 4 August, and that when they left their frat-house that night, be-spurred and toasted-up, these young bloods were in the mood to rub the certainty of exactly who ran the Prussian Rhineland into the nose of anyone who crossed their path. Unfortunately for him, that man was Daniel Ott.
Ott was 38 years of age, chef-de-cuisine or Küchenmeister to a German prince who had just offered him an even greater post – the sort of job that would make you for life. The happy cook gave a dinner to his friends by way of celebration but as they made their way home they had the misfortune to meet the Prussian toffs. The Standard gave the most detailed account of what happened:
“A one-year volunteer and two students belonging to the Borussen Club left their tavern near the railway at 1am and had already entered the town by the little gate when they heard loud voices in the Hofgarten. ‘Stop!’ said the volunteer, ‘there’s a row to be got up’… The two repeatedly stepped in the way of the persons coming in, notwithstanding that the latter said to them – ‘if you want to quarrel go to healthy people. We are invalids.’ For the party consisted, besides the cook Ott, who was unsteady on his legs, of a second man, having a broken arm but just healed, and a third, who had recently been laid up with a fractured leg.
“The volunteer, named Count Eulenburg, several times got in front of the cook to bar his progress; the cook as often begged the assailants to go home quietly and leave them in peace, till, finally losing patience, he said, ‘What do you damned boys really want?’” No one on Earth could call a young Prussian aristocrat and a member of the Bonn Royal Hussars, a “damned boy” and expect to get away with it…
“He immediately received a blow upon the head, sat down upon the ground, and remained sitting while the others tussled. One of the cook’s friends got hold of the sabre and hid it under his coat; it was given up the next morning.
“One of Ott’s friends was badly beaten, and, as the whole party of the Borussen came rushing out of the tavern to the spot, they would undoubtedly have been still worse treated if a certain Herr von Witzleben had not recognised the groom of the chambers of Prince Alfred in one of Ott’s party who just came up. He called out, ‘Why, these are Prince Alfred’s people!’ whereupon the whole band of some 20 Borussen took to their heels, and poor Ott was carried home, where he died a few days afterwards in most dreadful anguish.”
One can imagine the consternation of young von Witzleben. Their victim was a senior household servant of a young fellow-aristocrat who had, earlier that very year, been personally received by King William into Prussia’s highest rank of chivalry, the Order of the Black Eagle. This is possibly because his royal mother had recently shown herself to be a friend to Prussia even at the risk of unpopularity among her own people. The British people, that is. For Prince Alfred was, of course, the second son of Queen Victoria, and Her Majesty would now be seeking a new personal chef.
The queen, who had newly arrived at Coburg to unveil yet another statue to the memory of her beloved Albert and to introduce to his future subjects her second son – who was to be formally accepted as heir apparent to the throne of Saxe-Coburg – was informed of the event. She immediately made her feelings known in a letter sent from the Liberal statesman Lord Granville to Lord Napier, the British ambassador, and presented to the Prussian minister-president: Otto von Bismarck-Schönhausen.
“My previous telegram of this day contains information which has caused the greatest concern to the queen. Her Majesty had temporarily engaged as a servant a poor German for whose violent death Her Majesty now grieves. Her Majesty feels confident that a searching enquiry will be made by the Prussian government with the circumstances of this sad event so much to be deplored, and that everything will be done which is required of justice and of the law.”
On 19 August, The Times gave British readers the first report of the event, expressing in different words the same hope as Her Majesty. That, however, was simply not going to happen, for reasons that take us to the very engine-room of German history.
Bismarck was at this very moment hatching one of the most extraordinary and far-reaching plots in the story of modern Europe. The arch-conservative planned to make Germany safe for Prussia by outflanking liberalism on the radical side. He would adopt, and actually deliver, the great liberal causes of the European Revolution of 1848: national unity, universal suffrage, free trade and a navy.
To read the annals of the Prussian Crown Council in the summer of 1865 is to get an unforgettable feeling of the steam-hammers of history at work. Bismarck spoke of deliberately seeking war with Austria, of outmaneuvering the liberals by enfranchising the loyal ‘Residuum’ (the lower orders – or what Karl Marx would have called the ‘Lumpenproleteriat’).
Bismarck was playing for high stakes. Both the king and the crown prince were openly nervous, and only rock-solid backing from his two most powerful colleagues let Bismarck get his way in these epochal meetings: war minster Roon and interior minister Eulenburg. The latter was Bismarck’s most important ally at this time, the man to whom he wrote more letters than to anyone else in July and August 1865. He was also the uncle of the man who had just killed Ott.
It was politically impossible for Bismarck to deliver up to civilian justice a young military Prussian Junker and the nephew of his most important ally. Yet he could not ignore the desperate need to keep British and French opinion neutral in the war that he planned against Austria. (A war that, when it was fought in 1866, left Bismarck’s Prussia the dominant force in German political affairs, free of Austrian interference).
Bismarck corresponded urgently about the murder. Assurances of justice were publicly made in the official press. Letters to The Times tried to explain to Britons how a Prussian officer was duty-bound to defend his honour. The Prussian ambassador in London personally sent Bismarck cuttings from the British press. When an alternative witness was conveniently found to dispute the original account of the brawl, this was deemed important enough for Prussia’s leader himself to be sent the material, which would counter, its sender said, “the rash and hateful attacks in the English press against Prussia and its legal system which have been occasioned by the event”.
But it was to no avail. And to understand why, we have to return to 1864, when Prussia – aided by Austria – had seized the Danish-ruled duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in the so-called Prusso-Danish War.
What so confused Britons at the time was that the Germans who invaded Denmark were not Prussian militarists at all, but liberal nationalists, who thoroughly hated, and were hated by, Bismarck. They were modernisers and radicals who wanted to do away with feudal relics like Bismarck’s Prussia, and to make the political borders of Germany accord with the supposedly natural laws of culture and language.
Britain was, of course, the great home of liberal universalism, and this had fatally hampered the British response. Victoria herself, who clove to Albert’s vision of a liberal, united Germany, was vociferously against intervention.
Britain had come close to intervening on the side of the Danes. But, in the end, the only help it gave to Denmark (despite solemn treaty obligations) was hot air – Disraeli scornfully called it “menaces never accomplished and promises never fulfilled”. In Germany, 1864 became a keystone in the German nationalist myth of a Britain at once unnaturally hostile to Germany, yet rendered powerless by decadence. That myth would culminate in the miscalculations of German diplomacy and naval policy after 1896.
Most Britons were vaguely certain that they should have done more to help Denmark in 1864. The murder of Ott in 1865 provided the catalyst, the personal tale, the angle that the media always needs to focus a story. Throughout late summer, there appeared dozens of articles, like this from The Penny Illustrated Paper of 9 September:
“Prussia is likely to become the bête noir of Europe, and that, singularly enough, not only in consequence of her faithless and unjustifiable conduct with regard to the duchies, but through a private case of assault, which in this country would probably have resulted in a charge of murder.”
The dual blow of seeing a small German state – Schleswig – assimilated by Prussia and losing her cook to a Prussian sabre seems to have permanently changed Victoria’s mind about Prussia.
In 1864, Prime Minister Palmerston had been ready for war but had been blocked by Victoria herself. Now, on 13 September 1865, he wrote to the foreign secretary, John Russell, with undisguised gloating: “The fact is, as far as the queen is concerned, that so long as the injustice committed appeared calculated to benefit Germany and the Germans, it was all right and proper: but now that an example is about to be set of extinguishing petty states like Coburg, her sense of right and wrong has become wonderfully keen.”
By the spring of 1866, Russell was warning that Victoria “proposes clearly an intervention by force against Prussian designs”. Now it was the ministers restraining Her Majesty, not the other way around.
The confusing fact that it was the all-German liberals who had originally invaded Schleswig-Holstein was now conveniently forgotten by all, replaced by that far simpler and more media-friendly image of all that was culturally foreign to Britons: ‘Prussian Militarism!’ The long trail of misunderstanding which led to Britain lining up against Germany in 1914 had started.
As for young Eulenburg, he was quietly sentenced by military tribunal to several months’ fortress arrest, a peculiar form of honourable imprisonment reserved for gentlemen-officers deemed somehow above the normal law. Quietly released after three months, his standing within his own caste had suffered so little that he later became engaged to no less than the daughter of Bismarck himself, and only failed to become the great man’s son-in-law by dying suddenly, of typhus, in October 1875.
In Context: Prussia in 1865
Royalist reactionaries were heading for a showdown with liberal parliamentarians
Thanks to Britain, in 1815, Prussia – one of the strongest states in the German Confederation, (an association of states in central Europe) – was given large parts of the Rhineland to create a bulwark against France.
No one had yet considered that wars of the future might be won by industrial production – right up to 1914, the military planners of all lands simply counted each other’s divisions. Yet, handing over Germany’s most advanced industrial region to her most militaristic monarchy was to have far-reaching consequences.
By the summer of 1865, the tension between the largely Catholic, commercial Rhineland and the royal Prussian government was immense, with a struggle between liberal MPs and the Royal Prussian regime led by Bismarck. Would Prussia lead the way to a British-style parliamentary democracy in a United Germany (as Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, had hoped and planned)? Or would it remain a royalist, reactionary power dedicated to the preservation of rule by King William of Prussia and his Junker elite?
For years, Bismarck had been collecting taxes on behalf of King William and expanding the Prussian army, despite the refusal of his parliament to ratify his budgets. Things now seem to have reached a head, and British commentators in the summer of 1865 thought Germany looked to be on the verge of civil war or revolution.
James Hawes is the author of Englanders and Huns (Simon & Schuster, 2014).