“Ah, Doctor von Huffel. What a pleasure. Please come in, come in…”
The man so addressed – tiny, frail and aged – gaped up as he shuffled forward, for a moment too overwhelmed to speak. His host, an imposing martial figure, continued:
“Yes, Doctor von Huffel, it is I. Changed a little after forty years, I dare say. Forest of whiskers and a bare pate. But it is indeed I, Otto the Terrible! Ah, it’s just so good to see you still…still in Berlin.”
At last the little man found his voice:
“I think Your Excellency means still alive…and in Berlin.”
“Well, that’s two good things to be: alive and in Berlin. But I must not try to match words and wits with the greatest teacher of rhetoric in all German lands.”
“On the contrary, the world now knows of your own skills in that area, Excellency. I just hope our time together at the Kloster was of some use to you.”
“Use? You were my inspiration, doctor. I know, I know…I spent too much time fencing and rough-housing and bullying. Still bullying a bit, I’m told. But I have always been two Prussians in one: a scoundrel with scoundrels, but a gentleman with gentlemen. No, rest assured, Doctor von Huffel, your teaching was the mother’s milk which nurtured many a new career, mine included. You must believe that. But come and have some lunch…”
“Oh, please, Excellency, please don’t…”
“I insist. Anyway, as several dozen medical doctors have noted, I never miss a meal. Come, you must keep me company at least. We’ll drink, but we’ll stick to champagne, since it’s not past midday…”
“Come doctor, come. I have a little alcove here for dining and chatting.”
As his host devoured a half chicken while gulping champagne, the tiny man picked away at some shreds of flesh with boiled vegetables just soft enough for his frail dentition.
“Excellency, I…just wish to say how proud we all are…all of us from the school…that one of our old boys has risen not just to prominence but to national hero…”
“Ah, we all do our best in our respective spheres, doctor.”
“But to have defeated Denmark, and then Austria herself! Your victory at Konnigratz has stunned Europe. I had to pinch myself to believe that it was you, and none other than you…”
“Ta-rum-tee-tum, ta-rum-tee-tum…You know the march which was written for my…for our victory? Ta-rum-tee-tum, ta-rum-tee-tum…Ah, now that’s music!”
“The Konnigratz March is all one hears, or wants to hear lately. Such a victory it was. But…”
“But what, doctor?”
“But these French! Their impudence toward you and the king!”
“Really? What impudence was that?”
“Excellency, forgive an old patriot who speaks out of turn…”
“Oh, speak on, doctor. Aren’t we in one of those democracies or whatever now? No, say what is on your mind…You don’t object if I help myself to a slice or two of liverwurst as we chat? Supposed to be good for the blood or something. Now, you were saying?”
“Excellency, when the Spanish invite a member of the Prussian royal house to become their new monarch, and those French think they have the right to object…especially when you consider how they were thrown out of Spain, along with the first Napoleon…”
“Oh, that little matter. Don’t worry about it, doctor. Claiming unwieldy dago thrones and unmanageable dago empires…that’s not for the new Prussia. And getting tied up with Spain means getting tied up with Rome, don’t forget. Hohenzollerns don’t bend the knee to Popes and Cardinals. The French objections and suspicions merely gave us an excuse to say no to the Spaniards.”
“I am relieved to hear it, Excellency.”
“No, Doctor von Huffel, Prussia’s emerging empire is a lot closer to home. What would you say if even more German states joined with us to make a greater Germany? A Germany without Austrian bossing, without popery and Jesuits. How would you like that?”
“A greater and united Germany! The dream of ages, Excellency! The dream of Arminius! And I assume Prussia and His Majesty would dominate in such an arrangement?”
“You need to ask? Now, what about some red wine, since we’re not far short of midday? No? I hope you don’t mind if I take a slurp or two, for my stomach’s sake.”
A servant had just brought on the fourth large dish of meat, this one a braised joint with poached pears and juniper berries. By now the champagne had been replaced with Burgundy wine.
“Come, doctor, you must eat a little more…Are you sure you don’t want wine? This is a Richebourg, all violets and strawberries…No?”
“Oh, I eat like a bird at the best of times, Excellency. And if I drink I fall asleep. The penalties of age.”
“What a pity. We have a freshly shot partridge to come, and some well-oaked Egri Bikaver. No sissy French wine will do to wash down good strong game. Give me the real Hungarian Bull’s Blood of Eger with my partridge…Now, Doctor von Huffel, tell me about…please excuse if I eat while talking, but it’s a busy day…tell me about your career after I left Kloster.”
“Oh, little enough beyond what had already gone on. Much Latin, increasing amounts of Greek…My extended courses in rhetoric had to give way to more mathematics. Mathematics are a requirement in more fields than artillery these days. Even medicine, for some reason…”
As the little man spoke he could see that his greedily chomping and guzzling host was uninterested, or at least preoccupied.
“Indeed, indeed…and how does retirement sit with you, doctor?”
“Oh, one has little choice after the age of eighty. I have been working lately on a highly detailed commentary for Cicero’s essay on old age, De Senectute, an old favourite of mine…”
“O diem praeclarum! You see? I remember.”
“Excellency, I am delighted…and flattered. Well, apart from my commentary…”
“Ah, doctor, while I think of it…I have a question or two. About rhetoric. About some matters of phrasing. By sheer chance the matter has popped into my mind when I am dining with the very man best qualified to help.”
“Anything I can do, Excellency. Whether on a personal or public level…anything at all.”
“Let me think now…let us a suppose a young Prussian of the right sort, from a junker family which is very dear to me, has been invited to marry a Catholic girl from a wealthy family, descendants of dago immigrants. Let us say the young man’s father is none too happy about the arrangement but can see material advantages in it for his family. Are you following me, doctor?”
“Now, let us say that the young girl’s Catholic uncle and family head, not wishing to see his relative’s property merged with that of a Protestant junker, makes such stern objections that the whole marriage is called off. It’s a loss of face for the Protestant family…but its head is not particularly disappointed. Following me still, doctor?”
“Now let us assume the two family heads detest each other and each would like to provoke the other to a duel without being the initiator or challenger. Both now have the opportunity, but neither can move first.”
“A tricky affair…”
“It is, is it not? And we must hope our good Protestant junkers win out.”
“And…is that all, Excellency?”
“Not quite. This is where you come into it. The Catholic family head sends a representative to the holiday home of the other, demanding that he commit to no further overtures of marriage at any time in the future. Our Protestant finds this interruption of his holiday importunate, suspects a provocation, and explains that he can do no more than give his consent to the cancellation of the marriage, which has, in fact been cancelled. He asks that the representative not confront him in his holiday home in the future but offers to communicate with him by messenger, if there is anything to communicate…Getting too involved, doctor?”
“No, not at all. The Catholics are being petty, it seems to me. Out to provoke, as always. Their demands have been met, and still they demand. Reminds one of the French.”
“Just so. But this is not about the French…Now, our good Protestant has a telegram sent back home to his trusted secretary explaining what has happened. If this secretary were to make the telegram somewhat public what would happen?”
“Happen? Well…very little, I suppose. It might bring a little sympathy to the cause of your Protestant friend, but such a reasonable approach is hardly going to enrage the Catholics and make their family head the initiator of a duel. Unless…”
“As you may remember from your studies of Tacitus, Excellency, a true account can be made different but still be a true account, yet a more striking account also, by the use of different language. Avoidance of passive, subjunctive and indefinite constructions, concentration, concision…”
“So, Doctor von Huffel…if one were to rephrase the original telegram, giving it more of the natural concision of a telegram, and also a little Tacitan flavour?”
“That’s what I had in mind.”
“And would you be prepared to scribble down a version more suitable to our goal…or rather, to the goal of my friend who is seeking a duel but may not be seen to provoke that duel?”
“Why, I suppose so. Now?”
“Now. Just write down what might be suitable. Here, take my pen and some paper.”
“But…may I not see the original telegram?”
“Oh, no need. I don’t have it about me. Look, I’ll jot down a summary of what I just told you. Confidential, of course. Just do your best with this. It’s all merely academic for the moment, but since you are here and no man could advise me better…provided you are in no hurry or have no objections.”
“Of course, I have time, Excellency. And to be of service to you and to a coreligionist from one of our finest junker families would delight me. I hope your friend is a good duellist…”
“The best. He will win. And with choix d’armes on home ground he will win easily. So please, do write it. Take your time, doctor. My friend, you may call him X. I’ll sketch some notes for you, then amuse myself with this sweetened chestnut puree while I wait. I’m told that chestnut puree helps with…well, with something or other.”
His host was engulfing a mound of soft cheese on rye bread as the little scholar read:
After the news of the marriage’s cancellation had been officially communicated to her uncle by the young lady herself, the uncle’s representative further demanded of X that he would authorize him to telegraph to the lady’s father that X bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if his son should renew his pursuit of the lady. X thereupon decided not to receive the Catholic family’s representative again, and informed him through an employee that X had nothing further to communicate to him.
“Why, Doctor von Huffel, this is splendid! Did I say merely academic? By a simple change of tone you have forced the hand of this brash Catholic. Without the slightest departure from truth, with nothing but phrasing, you have turned the matter on its head. This fellow will have to fight now, once your words have been circulated. He will be forced by his own people to initiate, to play the aggressor: my friend just needs to wait innocently for his challenge.
“Oh, my thanks to you, and to Publius Cornelius Tacitus, of course…But look at the time! It’s so late! Doctor, you must bewitch me no longer, though I would rather you did for the whole day. I am supposed to be running a Prussian state and here I am indulging myself at your expense, keeping you from your Cicero.”
“But it has been my pleasure…”
“Now, I do hope to see you again, when I have greater leisure – though I don’t know when that will ever be. Where is your coat? In the lobby? You haven’t forgotten anything? Spectacles? No? Here, let me get the door for you. It’s hard enough for me to wrench the thing open. Still, slows down the rioters and the Polish envoys…Now remember our tune, Doctor von Huffel…Ta-rum-tee-tum, ta-rum-tee-tum…”
Before the little scholar could hum the first bars of the Konnigratz March, the massive door of iron and oak had shut behind him.
He stepped into his office.
Two men in general’s uniforms were waiting in seats there. They rose on his entry, addressing him in their different ways.
He nodded to both, a sign to resume their seats. He himself began to pace, his mind obviously in a ferment. At last:
“General Von Moltke…how ready are you?”
Moltke, an old man, clean shaven with shrewd features, answered in his usual placid way:
“Training has been thorough…”
“It always is with Prussians…But are your officers thinking, Moltke? Do they know which century we are in, what has been learned through the Americans’ civil war?”
“Minister-President, in one word, yes.”
“Good! And you Albrecht – War Minister von Roon – are you ready?”
The second general was also old, the model of a sturdy-featured Prussian.
“I would say that reforms are complete, Otto. We are a modern force, the most modern in Europe. Just not the biggest.”
“That can be remedied.”
“Otto, are you saying…”
“I’m saying get ready for war, gentlemen!”
“But we can’t attack, Otto! You say so yourself. And we are not being attacked.”
“That also can be remedied.”
“But, Minister-President, should not the king be here, so that we are all…”
“The king will go along, Moltke.”
“But if he should hesitate…”
“Then I will rant, break things, resign…the usual petulance which appeals to us childish Prussians. The king will go along! But I need a drink. A brisk Armagnac after a light lunch…nothing better for the liver…Now, I presume you gentlemen have read the telegram from Ems?”
“Minister-President, the French Ambassador may have been very forward in confronting King William at his spa…but the telegram offers no argument or provocation. If we make known its contents and send them on to Paris the French will merely feel smug.”
“On the contrary, Moltke, if we publish the telegram it will make the French feel smug. But if we publish its contents…the French will mobilise and attack us. We will then have the war we want and the French want…but on our terms.”
The two generals exchanged looks of bewilderment. Then Roon:
“Otto, I think we both lost you there. You said we can’t publish the telegram…but can publish its contents. Really, I…”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen…this has to do with something called rhetoric, and Publius Cornelius Tacitus, and silly old fogies of schoolmasters we ignore at our peril. You have both read the telegram?”
“And you find to be a mish-mash of dithering and whining and downright timidity?”
“Definitely. A national shame, in fact.”
“In fact. But let me now read you the contents of the telegram, as opposed to the telegram.”
The minister-president drew a piece of paper from his coat and read:
After the news of the renunciation of the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially communicated to the imperial government of France by the royal government of Spain, the French ambassador at Ems further demanded of his Majesty the King that he would authorize him to telegraph to Paris that his Majesty the King bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. His Majesty the King thereupon decided not to receive the French ambassador again, and sent to tell him through the aide-de-camp on duty that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the ambassador.
“Now, gentlemen, there you have the contents of the telegram. As opposed to the telegram. What do you think?”
Moltke raised a glass of wine he had by his chair.
“Minister-President, I drink to the success of a Franco-Prussian War.”
Roon raised his glass.
“And to old fogie schoolmasters.”
The minister-president slumped into a chair, with a satisfied groan.
“Gentlemen, I know you will want to grab slices of France for your trouble. As you wanted to grab Austria. I suppose I won’t be able to restrain you this time, though I should. But remember what this war is for. We seek no enemies from it, though we are always going to acquire enemies, placed where we are. Remember the real purpose of all this. When Prussia is attacked, the southern German states will join us. And they will stay joined to us. At last we will be Germany, but a proper Germany: a Prussian Germany.”
“Minister-President, everybody likes territory. Why not keep Alsace for our trouble, for strategy, if nothing else?”
“Alsatians look like us but their hearts are French. God, man, will you also want south sea empires to embroil us with the English and Dutch and god knows who else? Americans even? No, this will be my last war. After this, pax germanica.
“As for when I am gone…people may well miss this crabby reactionary. Consider the king’s grandson, little William. A charming boy, but he thinks every day is his birthday. Imagine him with a modern and triumphant military and a head full of his parent’s liberal ideas? As we know from the turn of the century, nobody colonises and rampages more wildly than a good liberal with a copy of Voltaire or Rousseau in his back pocket, sanctified in all things by his good intentions. And that little boy won’t be just King William. He’ll be Kaiser William, thanks to what we three are about to do.
“Well. there’s nothing I can do about the future. Or, if there is, I won’t be doing it. What would you say to a few decades of peace and a united Germany? Good enough? No, of course not. There’s only one real moderate in all Europe, and he’s the man nobody will ever call moderate: me!”
The minister-president sat back in his chair, cradling his Armagnac and looking upward.
“Once there was a Frenchman called Talleyrand, a fine, conniving rascal who succeeded in the end because all he really wanted was an integral France.”
The minister-president held out the sheet of paper on which Doctor von Huffel had written the amended telegram.
“Well, it is the turn of Louis-Napoleon to play the part of Fritz, the crass, bumbling, undiplomatic German…
“And the part of Talleyrand is about to be played by me, Otto von Bismarck.”