Reviews and Short Notices
Monarchy, Myth and Material Culture in Germany 1750–1950. By Eva Giloi. Cambridge University Press. 2012. x + 422pp. £60.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 105–106, December 2012
How to Cite
Blanning, T. (2012), Monarchy, Myth and Material Culture in Germany 1750–1950. By Eva Giloi. Cambridge University Press. 2012. x + 422pp. £60.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 105–106. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8314.2012.01258.x
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
In pedestrian hands, the concept of ‘material culture’ can be a dreary instrument. Only the sharpest of intellects can make raw material often consisting of dross and ephemera into something exciting. In her recent book Dressing up (Oxford University Press, 2010), Ulinka Rublack showed that clothes can make history. Now Eva Giloi has shown for a later period that royal memorabilia, often of a very trivial kind, can tell us a lot about many aspects of monarchy. At the heart of her study is the formation of political myths, defined as ‘narratives explaining the historical events that gave shape to a particular political community … [and which] legitimise social practices and relationships, create a morally coherent world within which the individual's experiences make sense, and give guidelines for future action’. Frederick II of Prussia was first called ‘the Great’ in 1742 after only two years on the throne. It was a sobriquet invented by his fawning friend Voltaire, but it was soon taken up by the public and was firmly established by the end of the Second Silesian War in 1745. By the end of the Third Silesian War, better known outside Germany as the Seven Years War, there was a flood of Frederickian artefacts in circulation. His image could be found on spoons, medallions, tablecloths, snuffboxes, tobacco scissors, brass and copper boxes, handkerchiefs, rings, bracelets, as well as innumerable prints, woodcuts and pamphlets. Especially popular were the ‘Vivat-ribbons’ bearing patriotic slogans, motifs and poems, worn pinned to hat, dress or waistcoat ‘by everyone, high- and low-born, men and women’, according to one contemporary. At Iserlohn in Prussian Cleves, a regular industry developed for the mass production of souvenirs celebrating ‘Frederick the Unique’, as some insisted on calling him. There was also a ready market in Great Britain, where he was hailed as a Protestant hero despite his well-known contempt for Christianity and where scores of pubs were renamed ‘King of Prussia’. After his death in 1786, his successors found this colossal reputation something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a powerful source of monarchical legitimacy in a revolutionary age, on the other it was an act that was impossible to follow. Neither the free-spending voluptuary Frederick William II nor his dour and dull son encouraged a cult that could only make them suffer by comparison. As the ‘Young German’ writer Karl Gutzkow observed, ‘praise of the past is always a polemic against the present’. It was left to Frederick William III's beautiful, intelligent and charismatic Queen Luise to give the Hohenzollerns a fresh lease of life in the popular imagination. By standing up to Napoleon in the wake of the military disasters of 1806, by enduring stoically the privations of flight and exile and, last but not least, by dying young (in 1810 at the age of thirty-four), she created a myth as the ‘Prussian Madonna’ so powerful that it endured for a century and more. In fact, the Prussians had the best of both worlds, for the Frederick and Luise myths were not mutually exclusive but could be run in tandem. It was a process helped by the reinvention of Frederick by the liberals as an enlightened, tolerant, secularist enemy of feudalism in the 1840s and by the conservatives and nationalists as the heroic hard man of action. Leopold von Ledebur, who became director of the Kunstkammer in 1830, described the
seemingly unquenchable thirst of the multitudes who hurry hither to gain a greater knowledge of the great man … I am daily witness to the astounding effect that the sight of the precious mementoes of Prussia's Frederick, which are kept here, elicit from beholders of all ages, every class, every nation.
Yet it was precisely during the years of German unification that Queen Luise came into her own, for the good reason that her feminine virtues could be yoked to the masculine martial triumphs of her son Wilhelm, the first German emperor. In this way, Giloi argued, the Prussian middle classes could see the Franco-Prussian War as a war without guilt. Wilhelm himself was much more interested in the militaristic Historical Museum in the Zeughaus than in the Hohenzollern Museum at Schloss Monbijou, although he certainly benefited from the sacral aura surrounding his mother's memory. The public liked both, a special attraction at the latter being Luise's parrot, albeit now stuffed and unquestionably deceased. Especially potent was the myth of the cornflower garland woven for little Wilhelm by Luise in 1807 and watered by the tears she shed for Prussia's plight. A symbol of devotion to him, great swathes of the blue flower were delivered to the royal palace at moments of personal crisis such as recovery from serious illness. As Giloi rightly observes, most European monarchies survived the French Revolution surprisingly well and retained their popularity until the First World War, not least because they learned how to manage public relations. There is much else besides in this consistently well-argued and absorbing book. It has also been handsomely produced, although someone at Cambridge University Press should have told her that few people outside New York will know that ‘tschotschkes’ are gewgaws and that Tintern Abbey is not in the Lake District.