Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (November 3, 1860)

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2673234Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III — Last week (November 3, 1860)
1860Alexander Andrew Knox



Can it be true that we are really back in those times when the Emperors of Russia and Austria, and the King of Prussia, were represented in old engravings as embracing each other, and vowing eternal fidelity to the sublime principle that the nations of the earth were created for the use of kings? Even so far back as the year 1815, either the free air of England or the prudence of Lord Castlereagh had sufficient force to prevent the Prince Regent from joining such an alliance as this. On the continent of Europe, Prince Metternich and Madame Krüdener, and the Prussian diplomatists, and the statesmen of the Restoration in Paris were allowed to have things their own way, and for fifteen long years the heavings of the great earthquake were checked. The constitutions promised to the German nations were withheld, and in their place the Diet at Frankfort—that last expression of German pedantry and ever-meddling tyranny—was established as an actual institution. The Russian Emperor carried out in practice his dream of universal freedom by rivetting the last links of the chains on the unfortunate Poles. Francis of Austria, acting no doubt under the advice of Metternich, deprived the estates of his various provinces of the last remains of self-government, and constituted himself the sole and irresponsible inquisitor and regulator of his empire. Recent events in Hungary, and in Lombardy more particularly, are the best illustrations of the value of this system of blind and elaborate tyranny. France was thrown back into the hands of the religious congregations, and that statesman best pleased his royal master who contrived to defraud the French nation of some portion of the liberty which had been promised to them upon the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte and the restoration of the old traditional dynasty. Old Marshal Soult might have been seen in those days walking in a religious procession, with a huge wax taper in his hand, and all but intoning those set forms of French adjuration, which are more in harmony with the energy of camps than with the solemnities of the church. Louis XVIII. was wheeled about from his chamber to his carriage in a chair of marvellous construction, and quoted scraps of Horace, now at his brother, and now at his people. The most French thing in France, in those times, was the immortal song of Béranger, who contrived that his countrymen should forget the edge, and remember only the glitter of the imperial sword. After all, expedition for expedition—one of Napoleon’s little promenades militaires to Berlin or Vienna, was at least more flattering to the French love of glory than the wretched saunter from the Bidassoa to Cadiz. Battle for battle, Austerlitz or Jena, was well worth the day of the Trocadero. However, thus it was that kings and princes went on in those Lethæan times, which passed away, in all appearance, so calmly between the last struggle at Waterloo, and the three days of Barricades, when the old Epicurean philosopher of Hartwell had passed away, and a king equally despotic at heart, but a far less shrewd observer of the times blundered in his stead.

But these fifteen years of pause and hesitation were intelligible after those other twenty-five years of fire and sword. The nations of Europe were weary of revolutions, and camp-life, and captured cities, and the misery, and the splendour of an epoch when war was looked upon as the predominant affair of human life. In no country did this feeling so strongly prevail as in France. In the year 1814, when Napoleon had concluded his last campaign but one at Fontainebleau, the exhaustion of the country was so great, that on Sunday evenings when the villagers of France collected under their trees for their usual sports, the young maidens were obliged to dance together for want of partners. The youths who should have courted them in country fashion, and have led them to the altar, were sleeping their last sleep under the snows of Russia, or their bones were bleaching under the strong sun of Spain. France was fairly wearied out with the effort of a quarter of a century, and before all things had to recover a male population strong enough to re-assert the prerogative of the French name. Throughout Germany the hatred against France had been so intense, and the joy at having driven the invader back to his own side of the Rhine so great, that the nations were willing enough to trust to the promises of their princes, and to bide their time. Our fathers in England had enough to do in those evil days. Our statesmen were but too well inclined to take a lesson from the great continental professors of the art of tyranny. Lords Eldon and Sidmouth were not very fervent partisans of the development of liberal ideas. The harvests were bad. Strange theories about making bread dear that poverty-stricken men might have plenty of it were afloat. There was a general and eager craving for a reform of our political institutions. There was antagonism between bigoted Attorneys-General and reckless pamphleteers, and a general astonishment at the magnitude of our public burdens. In those days men had not formed a just estimate of what the British people could accomplish, so their ingenuity and their industry were not obstructed by unwise laws. However, there was enough to be done at home without looking about for fresh causes of offence. The Holy Alliance might be sneered at and jeered at, but no Englishman of sound mind dreamt of raising fresh subsidies, and enlisting more soldiers to combat a principle which might very fairly be left to work out its own destruction. We had intervened in the affairs of the continent to our hearts’ content. Of Metternich and Eldon, and the ideas they represented, there is an end.

From 1830 to 1848 the march of political affairs was different. Europe was taught practically that there might be revolution without anarchy. It had been the policy of the old statesmen who had reestablished order in Europe, in other words, who had worked out its liberation from the military despotism of France, to establish it as a recognised axiom, that any resistance to constituted authority was but the commencement of fresh troubles upon the model of 1790. When the intelligence reached London, now a little more than thirty years ago, that fresh barricades had been erected in Paris, and that the people had obtained a victory over the Court and the army, people talked of the inauguration of a fresh Reign of Terror. We were to have Danton, Marat, Robespierre over again, and Fouquier-Tinville, and the death-cart, and the guillotine, and the insane chorus of revolutionary tricoteuses, singing their ça-ira, ça-ira song, with dry lips, and eyes greedy of blood. Very wise old gentlemen in the clubs of St. James’s Street prophesied that what had been would be again, and that the “fell demon of revolution” once aroused, would run his course. Not much came of it. In place of the Committee of Public Safety and the Directory, and what not, we had that luxurious monarchy of July which began with one job and ended with another. Belgium followed the example of France, and certainly Europe has little cause to complain of troubles which have their origin in Brussels, save in so far as the circumspect and constitutional widower acts as the over-zealous tool of the German Courts in their negotiations with Great Britain. Unconsciously, King Leopold, hackneyed as he is in the ways of courts and diplomatists, may very possibly have been helping forward a great calamity. He has ruled his own little kingdom to admiration, but out of Belgium he has been the dynastic agent of the German sovereigns. Were it not that even now the German nations have but a scant idea of political liberty, we might contrast their conduct in 1848-49, very unfavourably with that of the Italians in the years 1859-60. The Italians have proved that they are more ready to make sacrifices of life and property than the Germans were twelve years ago, and yet the Germans affect to look down upon them as an inferior race. Italy will yet be a nation, and will occupy a grand place at the council table of Europe, before Germany has arrived at the conclusion that a union of despotism and pedantry is not the best possible form of government. But even in Germany what a change since 1830; and since 1815! From the-Baltic to the Alps, and from the Rhine to the Russian borders it is no longer possible that men can be ruled upon the old system. In those lands the thinkers are a patient, metaphysical race enough, but even they can scarcely be stirred again to do battle for the old war-cries. They have been tricked and derided by their rulers too often; matchless as their forbearance is, it is worn thread-bare. It is not possible that they could be induced to make any fresh sacrifices for the perpetuation of principles which, however sacred in the eyes of their rulers, can scarcely be said to affect their own interests in any other than an injurious sense.

The other day the Emperor of Austria met his brother of Russia, and his brother of Prussia, at Warsaw; but what was the story which he had to tell? Of the two fairest provinces of his empire, one had just been torn from him by the fortune of war; the other was all but in open revolt. Such was the end of the policy of Metternich and Felix Schwarzenberg, and of the good old principles of “Thorough,” as applied to Austrian affairs. Even the sturdy mountaineers of the Tyrol, who had been a bye word in Europe for their blind attachment to the House of Hapsburgh, have at last given way. The discontent is universal—the finances of the empire well-nigh exhausted—the fresh conscriptions more and more intolerable from day to day. It is clear that Francis Joseph of Austria could not bring much strength to the confederacy. Then for the young Russian, the military might of his empire was exhausted in the Crimea, and in the weary death-marches of his regiments from one extremity of the Russian dominions to the other. Above all, the prestige of what our journalists used to call the Russian Colossus was quite overthrown. One of the most important—perhaps the most important result of the Crimean war—was to dispel all illusions upon that point. We can now tell accurately enough what force the Russians would be able to bring into the field beyond their own frontiers—what would be their resources for transport—how they would be armed—and how nourished—and, above all, upon what financial basis their operations must repose. Prussia, no doubt, remains intact, but she has suffered most grievously in character since her refusal to share in the honours and perils of the great European war of 1854—56. We cannot refuse to take into serious account the action of a Government which can bring so many disciplined troops into the field; but it may be said with perfect truth that, beyond the borders of that disjointed kingdom, not a single pulse in Europe throbs quicker, or harder, at the mention of the Prussian name. They have stood alone—so let them stand; if they are to fall alone, so let them fall. They would not stretch out a finger, nor risk a thaler, to help us in the hour of our need, so that henceforward in our dealings with them we shall only be guided by that prudent regard to our own interests, which, after all, is perhaps the basis of all wise action in human affairs. The Prussians have done much of late to make their name odious in the ears of Englishmen. One word upon this.

It is impossible to speak in terms of very high admiration of the conduct of many of our countrymen when they are taking their pleasure on the continent of Europe. Had it pleased any foreign gentleman—had it pleased the police of any foreign country to seize a peccant Briton who had been misconducting himself in any way during his European travels—Englishmen at home would have been the first to say, “By all means! The fellow is rightly served.”

Let our own countrymen, however, bear their fair share of blame; or rather, let others bear their burdens as well as they. But the insolence of your French or German tourist travelling upon the continent of Europe is to the full upon a par with that of the Englishman. He is as ^ aggressive upon the steamer or railway—as noisy and selfish at the hotel—more prying, more punctilious than your regular John Bull, with his plaid shooting-coat, and felt hat. However, to accuse others is not to free our own people from blame. If an English traveller had really misconducted himself in a railway carriage, we should have rejoiced to have seen him duly punished, even although all the French and German travellers of the same season had set him the example. But what was the truth of this wretched affair at Bonn, the other day? A railway train stops at the Bonn station; an English traveller leaves his place in a railway carriage for a moment, and when he returns he finds it occupied by a German. He asks as well as he can for his seat, but his remonstrances are treated with contempt. Finally, he proceeds to eject the intruder from his seat. Such is the story as it is related, and of course it is impossible in strictness to justify the act of a man who takes the law into his own hands, in place of calling in the aid of the railway officials either in Germany or elsewhere. Our countryman is dragged off to gaol; in point of fact from one gaol to another; he is silenced when he endeavours to justify himself, and to throw the blame upon the intruder. The magistrate, in deciding upon the affair, in place of confining himself to the circumstances of the case, indulges in a tirade of vulgar abuse against England and the English; the substance of which was, that we were distinguished above all other nations for “shamelessness and blackguardism.”

It is more than probable if any English magistrate had spoken in the same way from the justice-seat about the subjects of any foreign prince, that his dismissal from the office for which he had evinced his unfitness would have been the instant result. Not so in Prussia. Although the Englishman aggrieved was a gentleman by station, and therefore a very unlikely person to have misconducted himself upon a public railway; and although he was attached to the court of our Queen, and therefore, as one would hare supposed, he might have obtained a hearing at Berlin, all justice was denied. The act of the provincial magistrate was endorsed by his superiors, and the journals throughout the country were forbidden to speak of the transaction otherwise than by lending their assistance to abuse our countrymen. This, however, was not all. Even after this insult to a gentleman who was particularly attached to her service—and after this slur upon the nation of which she is the sovereign, Queen Victoria left our shores upon a visit to her daughter. Will it be believed, that when the Royal yacht which had been appointed to await the British Queen had reached Mayence, a parcel of raggamuffin custom-house and police officers actually offered to board her, in order to ascertain if there were any contraband goods in the boxes and cabins of the British Sovereign and her suite? The officer in command very properly refused to admit them on board—he would have deserved to have been pitched into the Rhine had he done otherwise—and told our Prussian friends that he was quite prepared to use force to resist their intrusion, if necessary. Whatever their true feeling may have been, the Prussian custom-house people shrank from absolutely attempting to board the Royal yacht by force, and telegraphed for orders to the upper powers. With unwonted courtesy, an order was sent back, granting immunity from search to the yacht which had conveyed the Queen of England upon a visit to the Prussian Court. Never in the history of nations -will a record be found of such a coarse and unprovoked outrage upon the proprieties and decencies of public life. Never perhaps, until the Prussians led the way, was one sovereign, upon a visit to another, made the subject of such an insult. Talk of the feelings of the French towards Englishmen! Louis Philippe, or Louis Napoleon, would have scorned to use the meanest servant in the suite of a Sovereign who was honouring his court with a visit, in the manner in which these Prussians have handled our Queen. It is only a nation committed to a selfish isolation which could make, to say the least, such a very great mistake.

But what is the meaning and what has been the result of this Warsaw meeting of the other day? What has come of this last attempt to replace the European system upon the basis of the old Holy Alliance of 1815? The question concerns us nearly, not only because such an alliance would infallibly lead to political complications in which England must be involved, but because it is said that Lord John Russell has in some measure given in his adhesion to Prussia. So great was the effect of the courtly solemnities recently enacted in Germany, even upon the mind of a man who has been matured in the free air of the British House of Commons. The fact seems incredible, yet it is certainly true, that the scolding letter of the Prussian Minister to the Sardinian Court was forwarded, if not composed, after the interview with the British Minister of Foreign Affairs. Now if there be one point in the political life of Great Britain in the year 1860 more clear than another, it is the total estrangement of ideas between ourselves and the rulers of Germany. They have failed us in the hour of our need, and their system of government—even granting that it is the wisest and best for the nations which dwell between the Rhine and the Russian Frontiers, the Baltic and the Alps—is so totally different from our own, that it cannot command our sympathy, nor even our adhesion. When we turn from the governments to the people, we find that we are cordially detested even by those whom we would gladly have assisted by all means in our power. When Felix Schwarzenberg was in power in Austria, and that is but twelve years ago, an Englishman was treated like a mad dog whenever he showed himself in the Austrian dominions. Not only was a chance traveller exposed to all the vexations and annoyances which could be inflicted upon him by the Custom House officers and the police, but he was even tabooed in the society of Vienna. English ladies, who were so unfortunate as to be engaged as governesses in that capital—aye, even English nurserymaids—were summarily discharged from their situations. Truly, when the apprehensions of Europe were recently aroused by the military ambition of the French Emperor, there was a slight renewal of familiarity—not of cordial relations—between the statesmen of Austria and Great Britain; but even of this there is an end. As soon as it was clear that the dislocation of the Austrian empire in the Italian peninsula was regarded in these islands with universal complacency, the Austrian Court turned from us once more, and, so far naturally enough, sought for sympathy and assistance in more congenial quarters. Hence the attempt to renew the old relations with the Cabinet of St. Petersburgh. The instincts of despotism have re-united those whom the pressure of actual warfare had separated for the moment. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the name of England is acceptable even to the Austrian people. Oppressed, and dissatisfied with their rulers as they are, they have ever a bad word and an unkindly thought for us. To a certain extent this is intelligible in South Germany, inasmuch as the loss of the Italian provinces must be a subject of deep mortification even to those who wish ill to the Government. Had the Rebellion of 1798 been successful in Ireland, and had meetings been held at Vienna at the time for the purpose of expressing the sympathy of the Austrian people with the heroic efforts of the Irish people—had there been a shilling subscription for Arthur O’Connor or Lord Edward Fitzgerald, we should not have liked it ourselves. This consideration, however it explains, does not do away with the fact. “Idem velle, idem nolle, ea demum firma amicitia,”—the maxim is as true in political, as in private life. As long as the necessities, real or supposed, of Austrian statemanship involve the oppression of Venetia and Hungary, and a renewal of the attempts against the independence of the Italian Peninsula, Austria and Great Britain must remain asunder. In days to come, this unhappy state of affairs may be changed,—for your Southern German, unlike his Northern brother, is a good fellow. The pulses of human life beat strong in him. He is not that hybrid mixture of a military martinet and a small college Don which constitutes the Prussian ideal of a man. His mind is not muddled and emasculated with bad beer, and worse metaphysics. He dwells in Vienna, not in Laputa. In South Germany you find men and women who can dance, and sing, hunt and shoot—make love, and amuse themselves like human beings. Given “a man,” as the basis of sound calculation, you may look for a result—but what can be expected from a formula in uniform? If the Italian affairs were settled; if a certain degree of liberty were granted to the various provinces of the Austrian empire; and if the ambition of Austrian statesmen were directed to the Danubian banks, in place of the Italian Peninsula, we might still hope for a renewal of the old cordiality. Many a day, however, must pass ere we can look for such a result as this, and until then we must be content to remain under the ban of the Empire. With the northern Germans, however, we have nothing but a cold Protestantism in common. In the absence of political sympathies we have no personal attraction towards them—nor they towards us. It is indeed true that, in this country, we do not trouble our heads much about them, but whenever we do cast a glance at Berlin, we find these worthy Prussian friends and allies of ours hotly engaged in the abuse of England and things English. You will find there even amongst statesmen and writers, who should be a little more enlightened than the mass of their countrymen—a profound ignorance of political economy, and a firm belief that England is carrying out a deep design against the independence of Europe by means of her Manchester calicoes and Birmingham tea-trays. Much as they dread France they dislike England even more. The recent occurrences on the Rhine are straws to show which way the wind blows. Now, why should we trouble ourselves further, save upon grounds connected with our own security about such people? What is it to us if Germany is mortified at the loss of her Italian provinces? All bugbears and mere shadow-dance apart, which one of all the continental sovereigns has been the truest ally to us? Have we received sympathy and assistance from Germany, from Russia, or from France? All nations must take it as a fact that their real consideration and weight in the political scale depends upon themselves, not upon a momentary alliance here, or a chance friendship there. We cannot escape the common fate. Let us then give up, once for all, the visionary and ridiculous idea of backing-up either the military ambition of France or the Holy Alliance of the Three Powers.

Nothing so dangerous, or so fatal to ourselves could happen as to be involved in hostilities on the continent of Europe. We may be very sure that 60,000,000 of Germans, and 35,000,000 of Frenchmen can scarcely carry out serious plans for cutting each other’s throats for a period of years without so weakening themselves, as to leave that power which abstains from taking a share in the conflict, in a very formidable position when all is done. If we are to have war sooner or later, as the Old Duke used to say, by all means let it be later. In any case let us keep clear of political entanglements which would involve us in difficulties with the sovereign who stood by us in the Crimea for the sake of the Three Sovereigns, one of whom was our actual enemy, another our cold friend, the third,—how shall we describe the relation between Prussia and England during the struggle in the Baltic and the Black Sea?

Garibaldi, who has done such great things gave to the world last week a short letter, in which he seemed to shadow out the idea of a great European confederation with France at the head of it. It is needless to say that to such a system, as far as England is concerned, Englishmen would never subscribe. Most probably the great Italian leader looks at the policy of Europe, for the moment, under the influence of his strong detestation of the German name. Hatred of Germany lies at the bottom of the idea. As far as he, or indeed any Italian is concerned, it is not to be wonders at if such be the predominant thought.

The oppression exercised under the First Empire by the French is clean forgotten, because half a century or thereabouts has intervened since it was swept away. Read the historians, however, and the liberal writers of the period, and you will find that the name of France found as little favour with the Italians of that day as the name of Germany now. With such suggestions Englishmen have nothing to do. Taught by the experience of many years, we are but too painfully aware that from actual intervention in favour of any people little advantage is to be expected: but, on the other hand, an annual obligation to pay 28,000,000l. is the cost of our past interference in favour of crowned heads. Finally, if ever we could be brought to act once more in concert with any of the European sovereigns, we altogether decline to become members of the new—Holy Alliance.