ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Count Mactenburg" by Robert Wexelblatt


            As usual with what is called high diplomacy, the idea was straightforward and the details frightfully complicated.   The goal was to regulate the pillage, spare the colonizers unnecessary conflict with one another, and to cast over the brutal business a kind of magician’s veil of legality, even benevolence.  Portugal had summoned the conference but it was obvious who the real organizer and sponsor was, whose ambition and power had prompted all of Europe to dispatch half their foreign ministries to Berlin.  They were even meeting in his personal villa.
             During a break in the proceedings, two senior diplomats, men who had known one another professionally for decades, took a stroll around the grounds together.  Both felt relieved to get away from the stale air and Biedermeier furniture, the damask draperies and pompous insincerities of the conference table.  It was a fine afternoon and the Chancellor’s lawn was dotted with men in black frock coats.  There was not a woman to be seen.
            “Like bears in the zoological gardens,” observed Hauff dyspeptically.
            “That’s not very kind,” replied van Schlichtma.  “There’s going to be a scramble anyway.  Surely it’s better this way.”
            “An organized scramble?  Oh yes, better for the scramblers, to be sure.  You didn’t notice any Africans at the table, did you?”
            “We’ve agreed to outlaw the slave trade,” the other offered thinly.
            Hauff scoffed.  “A fig leaf, and a transparent one at that.  If you believe that—well. . .”
            “To be candid, I don’t.”  Van Schlichtma stroked his short beard.  “The Belgians.”
            “Leopold, you mean.”
            Having reached this accord, the two men walked quietly for a full minute before Schlichtma posed a question, or perhaps only wondered out loud, “Do you think it’s to the Americans’ credit, I mean refusing to participate?”
            “Oh, the Yankees don’t want a chunk of Africa.  It’s too far off and as good as bespoke.  They may posture as they wish—they’re good at it—but just have a word or two with the Mexicans or the Sioux.”
            The other smiled. 
            Hauff halted for a moment.  “You know what our host said about the Americans?  ‘There’s a providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.’”
            “The man’s a wit as well.”
            “Oh, better than a wit—a philosopher with arguments furnished by Krupp.”
            The two diplomats shared the impersonal intimacy of men who followed the same exacting vocation, one that bound them to a fraternity while it set them apart from their countrymen.  They had been encountering each other in one capital or another for almost thirty years, like sea captains running across one another in various ports. Hauff was the more cynical of the two and for a couple of reasons.  First, he had begun with more illusions and most cynics are disappointed idealists.  Second, he had witnessed close up the bullying and the wars by which their host had unified Germany.  Blood and Iron. Realpolitik.  “The real god of the nineteenth century is power,” was one of Hauff’s widely quoted apothegms.  Van Schlichtma was less cynical but equally without illusions. In his view, the sanctification of power was no great discovery; it was merely the natural order of things.  His task was not to deplore power but to tame it, as the fellow in the circus does the lions.  That way nobody gets killed and multitudes are entertained.  These differences notwithstanding, the two men understood and liked one another.
            Sentimental sympathies often have overlooked physical origins.  Their affinity may have had something to do with their height.  Though Hauff was broad in the chest and van Schlichtma lanky, both were uncommonly tall.  Their strides accorded more exactly than their views.
            “You have to admit Bismarck is impressive or at least imposing.  He thinks on a large-sale.”
            “That he does, but he thinks like a Prussian.”
            “I see.  You mean like a militarist.  Do you know where our title originated, Hauff?”
            Van Schlichtma raised a pedantic finger.  “Ambassador, Hauff.  The word.”
            Hauff waved his hand.  “French, I always supposed.”
            “In a way.  It comes from the Celts’ word for the close companions of their war chiefs.  War’s in our roots.”
            Hauff cocked his head.  “And the Romans took over the word, I suppose, the same as they did Gaul?”
            “It’s an old story, mon ami.”
            “You seem to think life is a perpetual war with an infinite number of truces. I’ve always thought war a failure—a failure on our part.”
            Van Schlichtma thought he would tease his friend and alluded to an epigram more famous than any of Hauff’s.  “War’s not the continuation of politics by other means, then?”
            “Ach, another Prussian, that Clausewitz.  It’s a seductive saying, of course, clever, certainly very much to our host’s taste.”
            “Actually, I feel the same as you.  For veterans like us war isn’t continuous with politics; war is the collapse of politics.”
             “You know, you really ought to write that down.”
            Van Schlichtma patted his companion’s shoulder.  “Before you steal it?”     
            “Precisely!”  Hauff laughed, then turned another epigram.  “We diplomats are the world’s only practical cosmopolites.”
            “So, we’re careerists rather than nationalists?  Is that what you mean?”
            Hauff pretended to be affronted.  “Certainly not.  We’re a loyal guild, with a few exceptions, of course.  I meant that we’re capable of views broader than those of our superiors because we’re more accustomed to appreciating the interests of others.”
            “By others you mean rivals?”
            “Yes, but more—even of all of humanity, if I might be forgiven a bit of sentimental hyperbole.”
            “Well, there’s something in what you say,” Schlichtma conceded.  “Still, we’re mostly like those boys who deliver the telegrams, aren’t we?  We don’t write the messages.”
            “Once in a while we do.”
            “Well, I suppose sometimes we are listened to.”
            “Especially when things get out of hand.  But sometimes a diplomat offers more than advice.”
            “It’s rare, I agree, but sometimes we can act.  I could tell you a story.”
            “About yourself?”
            Hauff clicked his heels and made an ironic half-bow.  “Hardly.  But thank you, Schlichtma.  You do me honor.”
            “Well, you said we’re a loyal guild.  Once in a while, we’re even loyal to each other.”
            “As regards loyalty, my story is the non plus ultra.”
            “You interest me.”  Van Schlichtma reached into his vest and consulted his watch.  “We have another twenty minutes. Can you tell me your story that quickly?  Won’t do to keep the Herr Chancellor waiting.”
            “Twenty minutes will be enough.”
            “Pre-Bismarck gossip, then?”
            “From the days of Oldenburg and Hanover, Baden and Württemberg, Woldeck and Lippe-Detmold—when sovereignty was as common in Germany as pickled herring.”
            “It was a seller’s market in diplomatic talent, but so very confusing,” joked Schlichtma.
            “My story dates from the fifties.”
            “Back when we were really alive.”
            “Speak for yourself, Schlichtma.  Don’t you remember?  I have a young wife.  I introduced her to you in Paris just last year.”
            “My apologies.  That city is so crowded with beautiful things it’s difficult to recall them all.  So now, if you please—the story?”
            “Since your memory’s so poor, you probably won’t recall the Nassau-Hessen crisis.”
            “No, though it wasn’t in Paris and I suppose it wasn’t beautiful.  Oh, wait.  I do remember something.  Nearly came to blows, right?”
            “On the cusp of war, yes.  The Duke of Nassau, Adolf, had reigned for fifteen years but was still an intemperate baby and, between us, not the most intelligent of dukes.  He needed managing.”
            “Backed a loser in 1866, didn’t he?”
            “In fairness, so did many others.”
            “As you say.  So what faux-pas did Duke Adolf commit?”
            “He composed a memorandum commanding his generals to prepare to occupy certain fertile borderlands he imagined belonged to him and not, as everybody else agreed, Hessen-Darmstadt.  Worse, he ordered his secretary to draw up twenty copies of the thing, one for each general plus two for his uncle, the field-marshal.”
            “That was an imprudence.”
            “Yes.  Within a week one of the copies found its way to Darmstadt and Hessen began to mobilize.”
            “Yes, I remember now. But then it all fizzled and no harm done, correct?”        
            “Thanks to Count Mactenburg, yes.”
            “Mactenburg?  He was foreign minister?”
            “Yes, and a true patriot.  Yet I might advance him in support of my claims that we diplomats can take a broad view of humanity’s interests, that war ought always to be regarded as a failure—the celebrated policies of our triumphant host notwithstanding—and finally that our guild can do more than hand over telegrams.”
            “You knew Mactenburg?”
            “I met him once towards the end of his life and only briefly.”
            “What sort of fellow was he?”
            Hauff shrugged.  “As honest as a diplomat can be without ceasing to be a diplomat.  Physically, he was a good deal like you, actually.  Bit of a beanpole, but very dignified, with a chin just as strong as your own.  When I met him he was in ill heath and quite poor.  He was living with his daughter and her husband in a wretched apartment in Koblenz.”
            “The man was a count.  What about his lands?”
            “Lost them all.  Lost them on purpose.”
            “On purpose?  You mean he forfeited them?”
            “A little patience, Schlichtma.  We have to go back to the feast in fifteen minutes.”
            “Very well.  Tell on.”
            “Count Mactenburg went to the Duke as soon as he learned of his blunder.  He expostulated with Adolf who was already in a state.  The fact is that he was terrified.  He hadn’t reckoned on war, you see, just a crafty fait accompli to be followed by quiet acquiescence from Hessen.  Mactenburg persuaded the Duke that his claim to the marches was pure fantasy and would certainly not be supported by any other state, neither duchy nor republic.  Fix it, Mactenburg, said his Lordship if you please—the sort of imperative with which we’re both familiar. But in this instance, I imagine it sounded more like a desperate plea than a command.”
            “A tricky predicament,” Schlichtma remarked.  “And the contents of the memorandum had been made public?”
            “Public enough.”
            “That would have added to the difficulty. So, the Count had to find a way of forestalling war without his Duke losing face.”
            “Exactement.  And he managed it too, and more.   He detached the Duke from his folly.  The young men of Nassau and Hessen weren’t slaughtered, the fertile borderlands weren’t blown up by artillery or despoiled by foragers.  In fact, everything quickly returned to the status quo ante, save for Mactenburg himself.”
            “Did he do some deal with Darmstadt?”
            “No.  He returned to the Duke and told him how he saw a way the crisis could be ended.  The Duke was overjoyed.   ‘But, my dear Mactenburg, how?’ said the dull duke.  And the good Count replied bravely, ‘We blame me.’”
            “Ah, I think I see.”
            “Heroic self-sacrifice, Schlichtma.  We diplomats really ought to subscribe to erect a statue of Mactenburg on the frontier of Nassau and Hessen.”
            Pairs of men were heading back toward the villa, as if summoned by Noah.  Van Schlichtma hauled out his watch.  “Time to go, Hauff.  What exactly did Mactenburg do?”
            “Just as I said, took it all on himself.  Said the Duke must inform Hessen that the memorandum was written by his foreign minister without his authorization, that his signature was forged.  Had to say that Mactenburg wanted to provoke a war because he personally planned to profit from it, forsooth.  The Duke must inform Darmstadt that he had naturally demanded Mactenburg’s resignation and express profound regret that the Count’s title, being hereditary, could not be revoked, but that his estates had been confiscated and the disgraced man sent into exile.”
            “That is terrible story indeed. Did anybody in Darmstadt believe it?”
            Hauff coughed twice.  “Come now, van Schlichtma, you know as well as I that doesn’t matter in the least.  Statesmen aren’t historians; only the official story matters.” 
            Van Schlichtma made a bitter face.  “Just as the upshot of this damnable conference will be officially presented as an act of benevolence?  Spheres of influence established, Leopold given a free hand, all land-grabs sanctified.”
            “More or less.”
            They made their way up the terrace to the French doors then paused, peering into the impenetrable darkness of the interior.  Van Schlichtma said, “It’s ironic.  A decade later Hessen and Nassau were merged, weren’t they?”
            “And promptly annexed by our gracious host.”
            “So, when you saw him in Koblenz, he told you the tale?”
            “Not exactly.  The Count was not a man to divulge even dead state secrets, or secrets of dead states.  No, I told him.  You see, I’d pieced it together and he didn’t deny it.  He thanked me for visiting then spoke about Bismarck, whom he professed to admire—to a certain degree.”
            “As I was getting up to leave, he quoted the Chancellor at me.  ‘Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.’  How’s that for irony?”
            “Sad, sad.  And poor Count Mactenburg has been forgotten.”
            “How many of us are not forgotten?” said Hauff adding, as he opened the door for his colleague, “Gird up your loins, Schlichtma, and your conscience.”

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.  His most recent book is a short novel, Losses.

His work in Offcourse: "Luciana da Parma" in #50, "Egon Gleicher", in #46, "The Story", in #41, "Inter Scoti et Scuti" in #39, "Ostbrück" in #35 and "The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik" in #34.

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