Thursday, August 22, 2019

Understanding Talleyrand

Talleyrand Portrait

This August I lost myself in Volume I of Talleyrand's Memoirs. One passage stood out and moved me to tears.

Whether are not you are familiar with the 19th century French statesman does not matter; this passage is worth knowing. It is a rare moment into the heart of the enigmatic Talleyrand who for years has baffled so many historians.

It took place in 1807. By then, as Napoleon's foreign minister, he had long been titled Prince of Benevento and gifted with the principality of Benevento, in southern Italy. He knew how to flatter and reason with the French emperor but there were limits to his influence of which the statesman was well aware.

In that year, Prussia had just been defeated by Napoleon's army. The Prince of Benevento attended deliberations at Tilsitt; these would decide the fate and treatment of fallen Prussia.

It so happens that there is another character in this story. It is Queen Louise of Prussia - that is, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Louise of Prussia

Queen Louise of Prussia deserves another post to herself. She was to die of a mysterious lung illness three years later, at the age of only 34. Centuries later, at the time of the Nazis, she would be revered as the epitome of all qualities that German women should aspire to. But it is 1807 and in this story, she is thirty-one years old and she is in a quandary.

Napoleon, famed for his misogyny wasted no time in alluding to the Queen of Prussia's infidelities - a gross slander given the Prussian King and Queen were very happy in their marriage. Meanwhile, Prussia faced potentially harsh economic sanctions after the war; it was up to the King to plead in favor of his country. But seeing that Louise was several months pregnant, he suggested that his wife should instead plead in favor of her people, in the hope that Napoleon, touched by this charming figure of maternity - one of the most beautiful women of the period - would soften somewhat and prove more conciliatory.

Louise hesitated. Why would she wish to appear before this emperor who had insulted her and placed public doubt on her virtue? She hoped that her husband was right. Perhaps if Napoleon saw first hand how kindly and honorable she truly was, he would retract his poor judgement of her character.

Recalling the events at Tilsitt, Talleyrand writes, "I was indignant of everything I saw and everything I heard but I was obliged to hide my indignation."

When she settled into her apartments at Tilsitt, Napoleon paid the Queen a visit. After flattering her beauty while she tried to pass on to other subjects, Napoleon turned to the King and said "How could you dare begin a war with me, I who had already conquered so many powerful nations?" The defeated King made no answer but looked upon Napoleon severely. It was Louise who replied on behalf of her husband. "Sire, it was permitted to the glory of Great Frederick II, to deceive us as to the extent of our powers; we were deceived; but it was so ordained."

Queen Louise of Prussia 
by Vigée Le Brun, 1801

Talleyrand writes that Louise's usage of the word 'glory' was, in his mind, fortunately placed. He found it superb. Evidently the word was not used to the glory of Napoleon, but rather to another Prussian king from a past century. Talleyrand, never shy of using wit to taunt Napoleon, reveals that he later repeated the Queen's phrase often times, until the piqued Napoleon told him one day, "I ignore what you find so pleasing about the Queen of Prussia's words; you would do well to speak of other things." Typical.

But returning to 1807.  All the efforts that Louise made to obtain concessions for her country were in vain. Napoleon remained inflexible. Losing half of her territory, Prussia was to enter many years of suffering, famine, and the state of things grew so severe that everywhere, women abandoned their children.

But it is Talleyrand's next revelation that moved me.
"I was indignant of everything I saw and everything I heard but I was obliged to hide my indignation. And so all my life, I will remain grateful that the Queen of Prussia, queen of another time, was willing to perceive this."
Willing to perceive - the phrase Talleyrand chooses is so important. One can readily perceive, that is one thing. But to permit oneself to perceive is, in Talleyrand's eyes, to take a step further. If one permits oneself to see, one is willing to go against one's convictions and to combat one's prejudices (in this case, prejudices against Napoleon's foreign minister; against the vanquishing French; against the enemy etc...) For Talleyrand, to be granted this understanding was a precious thing and he felt grateful for it.

He narrates the event at Tilsitt and the sentiments they evoked, in these terms,
"If upon reflecting on my life, many passages are tedious, I recall however with great sweetness the things she had the kindness to tell me, and those she almost confided in me, "Prince of Benevento," she said, the last time I had the honor of escorting her to her carriage, "there are only two people who regret that I came here: it is me and you. You are not upset, are you, that I shall take this opinion back with me?" The tears of tenderness and pride that I had in my eyes were my only response."
Louise had been unsuccessful in her quest and she knew that Napoleon would not help her country. She also still felt the emperor's insults. With those words, she admitted to Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, that she regretted having come to Tilsitt, and she confided also that she could see right through him: that he did not like what he had witnessed, and that he was filled with sorrow for her, and also wished she had not come at all.

When I read this passage, I was astounded by Talleyrand's sensitivity to having been understood. It seemed to him that this understanding, arising from another, especially in this extreme post-war moment, was a rare event, one he deemed important enough to feel grateful for.

But he felt much more than grateful. He was moved by Louise. I absolutely had to write about it and give it the attention it deserved because little or no emotion has ever been reported as having come from Talleyrand.

When trying to understand a person it is often insightful to know what it is that moves them, or brings tears to their eyes. I noted that during the entirety of Volume I, Talleyrand remains mostly unemotional. He is overwhelmingly cerebral. He displays warmth during only two instances: when he relates his relationship with the unfortunate Spanish princes sequestered at his chateau of Valençay, and when he narrates his encounter with Queen Louise of Prussia. The latter is the only time he mentions tears.

For Talleyrand, a man of mystery, a man so reserved and elusive that he would often be maligned, nothing would seem so precious than to be perceived kindly despite all appearances. For he was proud, that is certain.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Review: Silent Water by P.K. Adams

Set in the depths of winter, during the Polish Golden Age at the time of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Silent Water is a deeply satisfying and engrossing historical mystery.

Often stellar plots are those that are simple, but richly executed, with penetrating human insights and unforgettable sets. Silent Water falls in this category. The narration is in first person with a tone that often borders on the melancholic, hinting to the tragedies that will soon be revealed.

Newly arrived in Poland, Contessa Caterina Sanseverino is part of Queen Bona Sforza's entourage.  Bringing with her the fashions and social mores of her native Italy, Queen Bona has married King Zygmont I, ruler of Poland and Lithuania.

Wawel Royal Palace, Kraków

Through Caterina's eyes and voice, we are transported to 16th century Kraków in the Wawel Royal Castle.  As Lady of the Queen's Chamber, to her falls the overwhelming responsibility of safeguarding the honour and righteousness of the other ladies of the court - ladies of both Italian and Polish origin. Not an easy task when Lucrezia Alifio is an inveterate flirt, Magdalena Górka is no better, and who knows what the flamed-head Helena Lipińska is up to.

Through Caterina, we learn of the fascinating political climate of the period, and meet wonderfully described characters including the womanising diplomat, Jan Dantyszek. The intrigues at court make for great entertainment and the author has deftly incorporated her knowledge of the culture into the narrative.  One highlight for me was the grand sleigh rides or sanna, on the day before New Year's Eve.

Sanna by Wasilewski Czesław

But over the course of feasting and the traditional celebrations that unravel during Christmas, New Year and the Epiphany, one by one, a series of grizzly murders will rock the royal palace.  Suspicions fly, political conspiracies are on the rise, gossip is ever rampant, a suspect is arrested, and more and more, Caterina is convinced that the imprisoned suspect is innocent. She has her own ideas.

A natural sleuth, Caterina finds herself the primary detective in this series of murders that soon reaches its chilling climax with a suspenseful, Gothic sequence.  For many readers who may guess the 'who' along the way, the conclusion offers satisfaction around the 'how' and the 'why', while posing new and haunting moral questions. 

The female gaze dominates this novel. It is a gaze imbued with the morality and social concerns of the period. Caterina is an observant woman who misses nothing of her charges' flirtations and social games. At least, she believes she has missed nothing. And that is her tragedy.

The author vividly paints the Kraków courtiers together with their costumes and clubs; there is mention of Italian artists invited by the Queen,  Polish writers and academics, including the now famous physicist, Nicolaus Copernicus. It was fascinating to learn just how much influence Italian art and architecture had on Poland at the time of Bona Sforza.

Bona Sforza

The book's portrait of a determined queen was faithful to history. I enjoyed learning about her proposed agricultural reforms and was astounded by her willpower in taking on the remnant Teutonic Order.

The Jagiellonian dynasty is not as well known as the English Tudors or the French Bourbons. Its first ruler, Władysław II Jagiełło - Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland by marriage - defeated the German Teutonic Knights in the 1410 Battle of Grunwald. It is a pity that there are not many authors with the courage to create stories in this unexplored landscape. We are thankful to P.K. Adams.

Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko  (1878)

What is worth noting is that Poland is not just underrepresented in historical fiction; its recent economic growth (it is now the 7th largest economy in the EU) has gone unreported despite it being touted by the World Bank as a new "Golden Age".  Personally upon reading Silent Water, I was eager to visit Poland if only to step back in time to that first Golden Age.

I will be looking forward to that, and to the other two books in this series.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Immigrant Tales: From Prussia to Australia

The Charles Dickens

It is mid-July 1877. Henriette Krause is at least seven months pregnant when the Charles Dickens, the three-masted steamer that left Hamburg on April 5 arrives near Brisbane. The ship's 510 passengers have now been traveling for three and a half months. They should be rejoicing upon nearing Australia's shores were it not that many are ill, plagued by typhus and measles. The stench is unbearable.

Henriette is near tears. The stoic endurance that has carried her through the last months is almost exhausted. She longs for space and fresh air, away from the cramped conditions of the ship. She is tired of having to sleep in a 1,8m by 45 cm space alongside hundreds. Her husband, Gustav, is as ignorant as she is about why they cannot disembark. Surely they have not come all the way from their homeland in East Prussia to be barred from setting foot on Australian soil? 
What is taking so long?

Soon the rumours circulate. The captain addresses them. They will be sheltered on nearby Peel Island. The health officer has inspected the ship. He has ordered them to be quarantined.

It will be seven more weeks until Henriette disembarks in Brisbane. Finally. She is now almost due to give birth.  Her bones strain under the weight of her swollen belly. Everything is surreal, here, at the Ipswich Depot where her husband enlists for work. The last five and a half months suddenly overwhelm Henriette and she reaches for her belly, gripping onto Gustav. It all comes back to her. What they have just lived. The unrelenting nausea. The monotony mingled with anxiety. She recalls those long stormy days and nights when the ship moaned dreadfully, while her and her companions were cramped in the damp darkness below deck. Their unwashed clothing, long imbued with sweat, dirt and salt, clung to their bodies giving off an inescapable odor that she would always remember; an odor that invited vermin and illness.  Some of their clothes had to be burned at Peel Island because they posed a contamination risk.

But then, a ray of light, a dash of hope. Gustav is smiling at her.  She hasn't seen him smile for months. He tells her that he has found an employment already. How efficient it all is now that they are finally arrived, here, in Brisbane. He is to go west of Toowoomba with his family where he will work as a labourer. The pay is low but he will be given some land to start anew. Their own land.

Their own land. It is a dream.

Henriette is relieved. It is just as well, she sighs.
Only a week later, she will give birth to the child that has journeyed with her all the way from Hamburg to Australia. It is a healthy boy.

Why would anyone go through this? Why? 

It is the question I asked myself. I am both relieved and horrified at this amazing feat. The human capacity to endure astounds me.

Krause family tree

Henriette had several children. The Krause seemed to have kept in touch with the German and Polish immigrant community in Queensland. One of Henriette's sons, Hermann Edward Krause, married Maria Martha Tewes who was herself born of German immigrants.

In turn their son, Allan Krause - my husband's grandfather - would marry a Polish immigrant.  When he died at 65, Allan was a true Aussie. He had enlisted to fight for Australia in WWII and was made a prisoner of the Japanese toward the end of the war. He would be marked by that experience.

My husband's father, Peter Krause, is effectively a mix of German and Polish. Like his ancestors, he is not averse to hard labor, honoring land and its produce, much like generations before him have done. His Australian wife is a tough cookie with an amazing open spirit and an endless curiosity. As a child, daughter of a long-distance drover, she rode to school on her large horse every day. Decades later, she has since travelled to China.

In Tara, in the year my husband was born, the townsfolk are not afraid to confront the tyrannical cops. Even if that means a fighting match. On the night of 19 August 1969,  Peter's wife feels the first pangs of labour. But Peter is not home. He has gone off to fight a cop. They send for him urgently; they come running to the ring and tell him to bloody hurry and that his son is being born. He has to get a friend to replace him in the boxing ring. And that's the climate into which Shane Krause makes his first appearance, some time before midnight.

Peter doesn't know it yet, but that little boy who interrupted his fighting match will grow up to be a screenwriter. 

In the early years of our relationship, Shane Krause would tell me that his last name was Prussian. By Prussian, he meant 'from the German-Prussian Empire' because Krause is a German name after all and one needs to distinguish the German-ruled Prussian Empire from authentic Old Prussia.

Old Prussia and its tribal regions
The region of Pomesania (left) is where the Krause family lived.
At the time they emigrated, it was part of the German-Prussian Empire.
Today it lies in Poland.

The Old Prussians were an ancient Baltic people. Fierce pagan tribes, they were likely extinguished by the evangelising medieval Teutonic Knights and, in later centuries, their numbers would have waned under the wave of migration that swept from Germany into Old Prussian land.

So the last name, Krause, is German. Alas, my wild fantasy of Shane being a direct descendant of some ancient oceanside clan that worshipped pagan deities, and sang deep-throated spiritual melodies like the one in this video, had to be tossed aside.

But my imagination was running wild, fueled by medieval scenes of sword-wielding knights riding from the West into Old Prussia, intent on ridding the land of these detested pagans, with the blessing of the Polish neighbours.  I had a vision that perhaps Krause had been the last name of some Teutonic Knight.

Teutonic Knight
by Andre Mazzocchetti

Picture this. He was a brutal man with noble convictions and let nothing cross what he believed was an honorable crusade. He was there, for sure, when the Teutonic Order defeated the Old Prussian tribe of the Pomesanians, and  when the Monastic State constructed the fortified castle that gave birth to the city of Christburg.

Reconstituted Christburg castle, now in ruins

Oh, it was all so believable and delicious. After all, Gustav Krause who came to Australia in 1877 with his heavily pregnant wife was in fact born in Christburg, today's Dzierzgoń. Surely that was a sign that his family had always been there for centuries? Ever since the time of the knights...

I pleased myself in this titillating fantasy. The idea that my very own Shane Krause was directly related to a Teutonic Knight was a historical novelist's porn.


Who knows the truth. What is certain, is that some German family, perhaps several families, with the last name, Krause, did migrate to the region at any time between the 13th to the 18th century. Over this period, Christburg would be part of Poland for an extended time, hence the Polish name, Dzierzgoń.

By the time Gustav Krause was born in 1847, as far as he knew, his city was part the Kingdom of Prussia.  In this context, Christburg was part of West Prussia. But by 1871, when the German emperor, Bismarck, ruled and the German Empire was formed with Prussia as its leading state, Christburg eventually became part of East Prussia.
[Note: This is the reason why I found genealogical sources contradictory - some sources assert he was from West Prussia while some say he was born in East Prussia. It's all a matter of politics.]

And that's where I dug a little deeper and found the reason why Henriette Krause put up with being pregnant for an excruciatingly long journey.

In his essay on The Prussian-Polish Situation: An Experiment in Assimilation, William I. Thomas delves into Bismarck's policies, and the relationship between the Prussian-Germans and the Prussian-Poles.

After many centuries of Germans living side by side with Poles, one would expect intermarriage. And that is observable in my husband's ancestors.  Gustav Krause is a fine example of this multi-cultural situation. While his father was a Krause, his own mother with a last name of Reikowski, was Polish. Gustav had also wed Henriette Pukallus, also Polish. It is arguable that while the family spoke German, they most likely spoke Polish and felt partly Polish.

Having established that the family was as Polish as it was German, it really helped to explain why they would wish to leave at this time.

According to Thomas,
"as long as the peasant felt that the [German] government was friendly to him, he paid little attention to agitators. But in 1873 he was attacked by the government. At this point, Bismarck took a hand and decided to force the process of Germanization. He said he was not afraid of the Polish man, but of the Polish woman. She produced so many children. He undertook the task with apparent confidence, but he was profoundly deceived in his judgment of the peasant. He said that the peasant who had shed his blood so generously for Germany was at heart a true German [alluding to the recent Franco-Polish war]. The fact is, the peasant had been gradually losing sight of the fact that he was a Pole and the policy of Bismarck restored to him that consciousness."

Otto von Bismarck

Despite being part of the most powerful empire in Europe, one that had demonstrated its superior military might by recently defeating the French, Gustav and Henriette Krause were not enthused about their new German ruler, and with reason.

During the process of Germanisation, the German language became a substitute of the Polish tongue in the schools. Teachers who had no knowledge of Polish were favoured for employment by the education system. According to Thomas, "at this point the peasant knew that the government was his enemy."

There would be other reforms too, like the systematic purchasing of Polish land by the German government with the intent of settling it with Germans. Construction was also prohibited without a permit, which effectively denied Poles the right to build on newly acquired land, nor build further on the land they already owned.

It is no coincidence that when in 1877, Gustav and Henriette boarded the Charles Dickens, Henriette's brother, his wife and children - all Prussian Poles - were also on board.

Henriette's niece, Ottilie Ward, née Pukallus.
Ottilie Pukallus came to Australia on the Charles Dickens. 
She was then 2 years old.

They were all Prussian Poles who faced oppression by the German government. As a mixed blood person, Gustav Krause had not one culture, but two. With his Polish background and through his Polish wife's eyes, he could see the Polish perspective and identify with it. He could see the writing on the wall. He would have been supportive of leaving.

As for Henriette, pregnant or not, she was getting on that ship. If Bismarck had said that the Polish woman produced too many children, then Prussia was no place for a Polish woman to be making babies.

It was just as well, for in 1907 the German government passed an expropriation act, allowing it to seize any land which the colonisation commission desired but could not purchase. If you were a Pole and refused to sell your land, you were in for a horrid time.

So there you have it. After much research, my Teutonic and pagan fantasies have now long vanished. In their stead, reality - the tyranny of an imperial government intent on Germanisation; the desperate plight of a German-Polish family dissatisfied with their poor treatment and dreaming of a better world. All these things brought me my husband.

After all that, Shane Krause has kept his German name and most people do not know how complex his family's story truly is. On the face of it, he is descended from a “German immigrant". And so in a sense, Bismarck has had his way.