The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

My employer, The Economist, is 170 years old. Another British publication, the Financial Times, turned 125 today.

It turns out that we are

  1. loosely affiliated in some complicated corporate way and
  2. very dearly affiliated in a personal way, because I, for instance, share an office space with them in Berlin.

By pure coincidence, their Berlin Bureau Chief, Quentin Peel, has exactly the same deep, sophisticated British voice and accent that one of our editors in London (Xan Smiley, if you must know) has, so I keep doing double takes whenever Quentin is on the phone, expecting Xan to come waltzing in. I digress.

The first of my points, if this post has any, is that the FT is a spring chicken by our standards. I mean, we were friggin’ middle-aged when they were born. But what’s a half-century or so among friends?

The second point is that it can be strangely revealing to go back in time to what journalism back then was like. And so I indulged myself during my coffee break today by reading their first front page, the one from February 13, 1888.

As was the custom at the time, the articles were listed (no pictures, it goes without saying) in unadorned columns. And so my eyes alit, after the headline on “Russia and Finance” and before the one on “Speculation in Copper,” on an article that began as follows:

The Crown Prince

What is to be the result of the very serious operation which has been performed on the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia? This is not a mere question of ordinary politics, but one which vitally affects the peace and prosperity of Europe. It is not merely that the Crown Prince is the son of our ally, the Emperor of Germany, and the husband of England’s eldest daughter, but he is a Prince of pacific tendencies, though not less a soldier than the rest of the Brandenburgers. The operation only took ten minutes to perform…..

For those among you who are, or are related to, hacks, let’s just savor such themes as:

  • lede
  • context and history
  • grammar (=> passive tense, hyperbole, …)
  • presentation

Is this not a gem? Happy birthday, FT.


PS: As far as I can discern, the Crown Prince (never named in the article) is Frederick III, and “England’s eldest daughter” is Victoria Adelaide Mary Lousia.

Frederick III Vicky

20 thoughts on “The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

  1. I received a large stack of The Economist recently from a friend. He informed me that they are written in historical perspectives and “right up my alley.” I will have to keep an eye out for your name…

  2. I think that your Victorian FT writer could find a lucrative career writing online today. Despite (or because of) my frustration, I did click on the link to find Wikipedia’s answer: “Frederick was suffering from cancer of the larynx when he died on 15 June 1888, aged 56, following unsuccessful medical treatments for his condition.” I’d rather have 19th century journalist than a 19th century surgeon!

    • Yes, I disovered that too as I read down into the Wikipedia piece. That explains the article. Though it is still remarkable that the journalist/FT did not find it necessary to explain. THAT’s the difference, or one of them, aside from the style.

    • Speaking of stylistic changes, would it be wrong to model one’s appearance on that of Frederick III? Journalism may have improved in 125 years, but Men’s fashion has definitely lost its panache…

  3. Actually, our friends at the FT couldn’t have known all of this, but that “peace and prosperity” bit may not have been hyperbole. Frederick III was commonly admired as brave and thoughtful, and his successor Wilhelm II thin-skinned and unstable. For what might have happened had Fred3 not died of cancer of the larynx, take it away, Wikipedia:

    Frederick believed a state should not act against the popular opinion of its inhabitants.[40][64] He had a long history of liberalism, and had discussed his ideas and intentions with Victoria and others before his reign. Admiring Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the British parliamentary system,[39][65] Frederick and his wife planned to rule as consorts and liberalize Germany through the appointment of more liberal ministers.[66] They intended to severely limit the office of Chancellor,[57] and reorganize Germany to include many elements of British liberalism. Many historians, including William Harbutt Dawson and Erich Eyck, consider that Frederick’s early death put an end to the development of liberalism within the German empire.[8] They believe that, given a longer reign and better health, Frederick might indeed have transformed Germany into a more liberal democratic country, and prevented its militaristic path toward war.

    • So, if the FT editors knew all that, isn’t it amazing that they kept it so, shall we say, well hidden in the article? That’s what amused me, mainly: the totally different attitude the press had toward its audience.
      But yes, sad to think what might have been if the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia had healed.

  4. About “lede”, that I hadn’t before encountered in English.

    I’ve just learned it crops up in Beowulf, where “Lede” means “…..persons collectively…….one’s own people, race, nation, or countrymen; vassals….”.

    Both “Lede” in Afrikaans and “Leden” in Nederlands, mean “members”, which, come to think of it, is another way of saying “one’s own people”. Could the German, “Leute”, be too far off?

    Is there no end of the enlightenment to be stumbled upon in this blog?

  5. The British parliamentary system was far from democratic in Victoria’s reign and hardly an example to follow. Her interference or attempted interference in the process of government was a deluded remnant of the divine right to rule, as were the earlier rotten boroughs and restricted suffrage. It was only the fear of revolution, the rise of the the trade union movement and its Labour Party and the tenacious insistence on equality before the Law that led to our current demockracy, Edward VII, the former playboy Prince of Wales, encouraged the process, George V moulded the new constitutional monarchy, which just survived the abdication crisis, thanks to George VI’s conduct in WW2, and it was secured brilliantly by our present queen. Prospects are good for its continuance.

    Ever since the Norman Conquest, England has been ruled by foreigners or their descendants, with the exception of Cromwell, even if by invitation. It is that, maybe, that fostered the restlessness under authority and provided the necessary continuity over a thousand years. The only reason the principle cannot be carried back before the Conquest is that England itself was created under Saxon kings.

    Whether wars are waged by the people or by their rulers, democratic or otherwise, is an unanswerable question. Suffice it to say that rulers should always be made to feel uneasy and insecure if tempted to misbehave or stifle dissent. In that regard, Parliament itself has been moderately successful over the centuries. It has established its supremacy in a harsh and bitter struggle, but still has a long way to go.

    Let us hope our European friends will afford us the vital flexibility and help us and not hinder us on that path. Angela Merkel has shown that she herself can be such a friend.

    Economic issues are a facade behind which the age-old tensions and rivalries are played out.

  6. And to think the lede was opened (passive voice) with a question! 🙂
    A junior high ploy to create interest maybe?
    (Please note my question comes second.)
    As for hyperbole, well! We all know the British take that crumpet. (Think the recently unearthed Richard III and his Hy-per-bowl.

  7. I read with interest the Wiki entry on Friedrich lll. I noted this:

    “……James J. Sheehan states that the political climate and party system of Germany during that period were too steeped in the old ways for Frederick to overcome with liberalization…….”

    How difficult it is for a so-called liberal to overcome the power of the established order is seen no better than when observing the current American president, whose policies are remarkably similar to those of his predecessors.

    And this:

    ”……Dorpalen…..observes that Frederick’s liberal persona may have been exaggerated after his death, to keep the liberal movement strong in Germany, and he points out that the many mistakes made by William II helped to paint his father in a more favorable light……”

    This rings very true in view of the human propensity for myth-making. The mythologising always begins shortly after the battle ends, or the hero (or villain) dies, and becomes ever more embellished with time. This should be remembered whenever reading history.

    Had Friedrich lll not died when he did, he likely would have before 1914. Hence Wilhelm would have ascended the throne anyway, and his reign would likely have turned out largely the way it did.

    It appears Wilhelm had Daddy issues. Not surprising really, given his withered left arm, and that, unlike his father, he’d never been in battle. His swaggering and braggadocio, then, would have come out of an inferiority complex, born of a wish to outdo his father.

    Funny thing, history………..

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