The Kaiser's Brooch
© Copyright 2019 by Helene Munson
On September 12th, 1887, an unexpected late summer rainstorm dumped barrels of water on the hapless citizens of Stettin. A group of dignitaries, some in uniforms, men in top hats and ladies in sweeping, festive gowns huddled closer under the canopy of the tented, grand stand, as another blast of wind drove rain, like pinpricks into their faces. Gust after gust wreaked havoc among the rows of the gallant Ulanen, the dashing cavalry regiment of the Pomeranian corps. They rode down the Paradeplatz, their well-bred horses no longer in perfect unison. Their distinct Tschapka helmets, offered no protection from the downpour. The tall poplars on both sides of the Avenue swayed precariously in a ghoulish dance.
Among them sixteen-year-old, Marie Sophie Schmiede was wrapping herself in her flaring, sheer dress that gave her little protection from the elements. She noticed that the hem of her cream-white, silk-chiffon dress was clinging to her ankles like a wet sheet. She had gone to the dressmaker for way to many fittings, to get the flow of the folds, that were sheathing her young figure, just right. Now the humidity was threatening to spoil the biggest day of her life. Panicked she turned to her mother.
“How can I appear in front of His Majesty like this?”
“You just have to stand up very straight, stop complaining and make the best of it”, her mother advised sternly, with a tenderness that lingered just beneath the surface of her face framed by a dark bonnet. Ehrenreich Wilhelmine Schmiede was well aware that her first name meant ‘Rich in Honors’. Her daughter singing in front of the Kaiser would be the culmination of all her efforts to raise the girl to a marriageable age. For a moment she fantasized that Marie might marry above her station. An aristocrat like a Freiherr or even a Graf might hear Marie sing, be enchanted and ask for her hand in marriage. Ehrenreich adjusted the laurel reef on her daughter’s head. Taking a hairpin out of her own hair, she attached the fresh green reef more securely to her daughter’s chestnut brown hair. Marie’s father, Herbert Theodor Schmiede was absorbed in watching the parade, oblivious to his daughter’s plight.
Marie remembered how proud she had been when her music teacher Fräulein Friedman, had announced in front of the whole class that the great honor of singing as a soloist in front of his Imperial Majesty Wilhelm I, was all hers. Having practiced for months, she worried she would forget some of the words. Sometimes she had slipped up between the fourth and the fifth, the last verse. She was mortified that it could happen again. But Fräulein Friedman shot her a reassuring smile. Marie imagined that the girls from her class were snickering behind her back, hoping for her to slip up, which made her even more nervous.
With no improvement in the weather Feld Marshall Moltke decided to cut the parade short. He did not want to expose his beloved emperor to these adverse weather conditions longer than necessary. After the last regiments of the Reichsheer marched by in water soaked, woolen uniforms, the representatives of Stettin’s upper echelon made their speeches. It had been a heady decade for Stettin, which after Germany’s reunification in 1871 had grown to a port city of international importance. Dr. Heinemann Vogelstein the Rabbi of the local synagogue was the last speaker, after that it would be Marie’s turn to sing. The Rabbi held a speech, praising the progress that the Jewish merchant community had made under the new, relaxed imperial laws. But his soft voice was half drowned out by the rat-tat of the drops of yet another rain shower. After the Rabbi finished, Marie, tall, skinny and with the long, gracious neck of a swan anxiously stepped forward. But she pulled herself together, as she walked erect and gracefully towards the Kaiser’s throne.
Kaiser Wilhelm I, was slumped against the brocade pillows of his makeshift throne under the canopy of the tented tribune. He had turned 90 years old in March and these outdoor events were taking its toll on him. Observing the miserably soaked parade and his wet, loyal subjects, the Kaiser felt sorry for them. Now limp flags in the imperial colors were hanging from cast iron, street lamp posts. Lavish bouquets of expensive, hot house flowers, gracing every balustrade, were defending their fragile beauty against the elements. The Stettiners had spared no expense to deck out their city in splendor, just to find that neither the sun nor the Tsar had made an appearance. The Tsar of Russia, Alexander III, had promised to attend this impressive show of military might. But he had the audacity to cancel at the last moment. The Tsar had remained with his family in Copenhagen apologizing for his absence because his children had contracted measles. A lame excuse indeed! Especially since Alexander recently had made a visit to England. When the Kaiser had heard about it, he had had the uneasy feeling that his cousin, the Tsar was up to some, no doubt, unholy new alliances.
The Kaiser was accompanied by his grandson Prince Wilhelm. He wished that his son, Crown Prince Frederick had accompanied him. He always enjoyed his presence. Frederick was the opposite of him. He himself was a Haudegen, an old war horse who had ridden into may battles. The Crown Prince was wise and held measured viewpoints on subjects of national and international importance. But his son Frederick was ill and the Kaiser worried that the doctors were not telling him the whole truth. Not too long ago, his chancellor Bismarck, a most practical man, had suggested that he take young Prince Wilhelm along whenever he could, to teach him about the Empire. One day he might ascend the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm the Second. But the Kaiser was no longer sure, if taking him to all those military parades had been a good idea. His impressionable 28 years old, grandson with the crippled arm, had developed a penchant for fancy dress uniforms, and seemed oblivious the realities of the rigorous demands of Realpolitik, the practical, sometime unpalatable politics that were needed to keep this empire together. The Kaiser was disappointed in his grandson Prince Wilhelm and was hoping that his son, Crown Prince Frederick would recover to take over from him, which contemplating his own mortality, would be quite soon.
Marie unaware of the Kaiser’s musings, remained in a deep curtsy in front of the throne, waiting, her kit leather gloved hands holding out the two sides of her humid skirt. In between two coughs the Kaiser, motioned her to get up. She took her position next the military band and looked expectantly at the conductor. Upon his clue the musicians started to play a melody that in England was known as ‘God Safe the King’ but in Germany the lyrics started with:
‘Heil Dir im Siegeskranz’ - Hail to Thee in the Victor's Crown. The Kaiser was very fond of it because the song’s original version had been the national anthem of Prussia when he was still King which was before he had taken on the heavy burden of becoming the Kaiser in a unified country that had been separated into principalities for a thousand years. Life had been so much easier when he had only been responsible for Prussia. But this was a day of celebration and he never tired of hearing his personal hymn.
The conductor gave her a sign. Marie straightened herself, drawing in air with her diaphragm as Fräulein Friedman had taught her and started to sing. Her first notes were tentative, but then she regained her confidence and her crystal-clear soprano filled the space:
“Heil Kaiser, Dir - Hail to thee Emperor…ruler of the fatherland…hail to thee Emperor
Feel the splendor of the Throne…in the highest happiness…to be the darling of the people...Heil Kaiser, Dir “
As her confidence grew, Marie’s voice was soaring:
“…Love the fatherland…with the love of the free man…maintain the regent’s throne like a rock in the sea.”
In the next verse her voice trembled a bit as she saw everybody’s eyes expectantly pinned on her:
“ …Holy flame aglow…will glow and never expire, for the fatherland…we will all resist… courageously for one man…we will gladly be fighting and bleeding…for throne and empire…”
By now the Stettiners were feeling as though they were in church. Their hearts swelled in pride as they thought of their town, their country, their empire and their Kaiser. For a thousand years, to be precise since the death of Karl der Grosse, the great Charlemagne in 814 A.D. Germans had watched powerlessly while empires like Spain, England, France and Russia had gorged themselves on the spoils of imperial riches, feasting off the resources of conquered countries, while German fiefdoms were busily fighting each other. Drunken on words and their newfound national sense of belonging, it seemed to them that the words Marie was singing were the blueprint for a new world order. The next thousand years belonged to Germany! They were sure of it.
Marie started on the fourth verse:
“Commerce and science…grow with courage and strength…hold their head high…warrior and hero’s deeds…find their laurel leaves… preserved loyally at thy throne…”
Marie’s father Herbert in an uncommon display of public tenderness took Ehrenreich’s gloved hand and squeezed it gently. They had both been through so much. Herbert had fought in the German-Danish war and in 1864 had lost the use of one eye at the battle for the Düppeler Schanzen. But Germany had won that war and that was all that mattered. Seeing their beautiful daughter sing for the Kaiser, was the culmination of all they had worked for.
But at that moment their daughter Marie was less happy. What she had feared had just happened. At the beginning of the fifth verse she missed a few notes. Her mind had gone blank and she could no longer remember any of the words. In panic she looked towards the conductor, who sensing her distress, turned around and extended his arms, waiving for the audience to join in, making it look as though their participation for the last verse had been planned all along. Marie shot him a thankful glance and followed his example by raising her outstretched arms. In her flowing dress, crowned by a laurel reef she looked like the apparition of the goddess of victory. The spectators did not need much encouragement. It seemed like everybody had just been waiting to join in. Dignitaries and spectators alike rose from their seats and sang at the top of their lungs:
“…Emperor Wilhelm be here…the eternal treasure of your people… the pride of mankind…feel the splendor of the throne, with the most complete happiness…”
In a towering crescendo they finished with the refrain and salute:
“Heil Kaiser Dir!”
The first one to respond from the royal tribune was Prince William, jumping up excitedly, clapping vigorously and shouting:
Marie blushed down to her toes. The whole audience joined in clapping, but more in celebration of the Kaiser and themselves than for Marie. She approached the throne respectfully and remained in a low curtsy. When the Kaiser gestured her to rise and approach him, she noticed that he had tears in his milky, old eyes. For a moment Marie felt sorry for him. From the portraits and postcards, she knew him as the statuesque, invincible hero of the fatherland but he was a frail looking, old man whose oversized, long, white sideburns where threatening to overgrow his sunken in cheeks. A thought crossed her mind:
‘Maybe this had been the last time that he has heard his beloved tune’.
It seemed like he had read her mind, because he said:
“That was beautiful, my child. You have made me so very happy. Who knows how many more times I will be able to listen to this magnificent song?’ A mischievous smile played around his lips, obscured by a bushy mustache. For a moment he thought of all the beautiful women he had loved during his long life, and he added:
“At least not sung by such a beautiful girl!” He raised a heavily veined, gnarled hand and gently touched her soft, pink cheek as she blushed again, modestly casting her eyes downwards.
has been such an honor, your Imperial Majesty”, she said trying
hard not to stutter. The Kaiser looked up and said a few words to an
aid who disappeared briefly, just to reappear carrying a purple
velvet tray with a small maroon colored jewelry box on it. A servant
opened the box and showed it to the Kaiser who gave a pleased nod.
child you have all your life in front of you, but I present you with
this brooch to remember me and this special day. It is precious, made
of pure gold by the Hof Juwelier Wagner. Marie
looked at the
little box that had a gold image of the crown of Charlemagne embossed
on its lid.
“Yes, your Imperial Majesty,” Marie promised earnestly.” I will never forget you. I will take very good care of it and one day I will give it to my daughter and she will pass it on to her daughter”.
“That is what I wanted to hear. You are a good girl” he said with a satisfied smile as he sank back into his pillows in exhaustion.
My great-grandmother, Marie Sophie Schmiede kept her promise to the Kaiser. The brooch was handed from generation to generation until in the 2005, it came into my possession. But the Kaiser could not keep his promise of ‘maintaining the regent’s throne like a rock in the sea’, as Marie had sung. His beloved son, Kaiser Frederick IIII would only survive him by 99 days. From this 12th of September 1887 it would be another 177 days before his grandson would ascend the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Events would be set into motion that would erase the name of the proud city of Stettin from the maps forever. Millions of people would die and Germany would be devastated, once more broken up into pieces. And my family would be scattered all around the world.