Friedrich von Holstein

Friedrich August Karl Ferdinand Julius von Holstein (April 24, 1837 – May 8, 1909)[1] was a civil servant of the German Empire and served as the head of the political department of the German Foreign Office for more than thirty years. He played a major role in shaping foreign policy after Bismarck was dismissed in 1890.

Holstein at the Foreign Office, 1906


Holstein was born in Schwedt, Province of Brandenburg on April 24, 1837,[1] the son of a Prussian military officer August Friedrich Carl Ernst Leopold von Holstein (1800-1863) and Karoline von Brünnow (1791-1858). He studied jurisprudence at the Frederick William University of Berlin, from which he was graduated in 1856. Holstein joined the diplomatic service and in 1860 became an attaché at the Prussian embassy in Saint Petersburg under the authority of Otto von Bismarck and later served as a member of the legations at Rio de Janeiro, London, Washington, Florence, and Copenhagen. During his time at Washington, 1866–1867, his relationship with Alice Mason Hooper, wife of Senator Charles Sumner, led to Holstein's withdrawal and the divorce of the couple.

With the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, Holstein became secretary of the ambassador in Paris, Harry von Arnim. Von Arnim was a patroniser of the French royalists and a fierce opponent of Chancellor Bismarck, who finally enforced Arnim's discharge and conviction for breach of secrecy. Holstein returned to Berlin, where he assumed office as legation secretary in the Auswärtiges Amt in 1876, both an essential and a suspiciously eyed associate of Bismarck, who behind his back called him a "hyena". Holstein's career as an éminence grise was promoted by Bismarck's dismissal in 1890. The new chancellor, Leo von Caprivi, was ignorant of foreign affairs; and Holstein, as a repository of the Bismarckian tradition, became indispensable.

Holstein remained a bachelor all his life, regarded as a skillful though devious man. His reluctance to emerge into publicity has been ascribed to the part he had played under Bismarck in the Arnim scandal, which had made him powerful enemies; it was, however, possibly due to a shrinking from the responsibility of office. Yet the weakness of his position lay just in the fact that he was not ultimately responsible. He protested against the despatch of the Kruger telegram, but protested in vain. On the other hand, where his ideas were acceptable, he was generally able to realize them.

Thus it was as Political Secretary to the Foreign Office that he determined policy in the 1890s. It was almost entirely due to him that Germany acquired Tsingtao (now Qingdao) and asserted German interests in China; the acquisition of Samoa was also largely his work. If the skill and pertinacity with which Holstein carried through his plans in these matters was learned in the school of Bismarck, he had not acquired Bismarck's faculty for foreseeing their ultimate consequences. This is seen by blunders made on the abandonment of the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1890, his Chinese policy, and also of his part in the Moroccan crisis which led to the Algeciras Conference in 1906. The Kaiser's journey to Tangier was undertaken on his advice, as a protest against the supposed attempt at Germany's isolation. Holstein did not approve the later developments of German policy in the Morocco, on the ground that the result would merely be to strengthen the Anglo-French entente. From March 12, 1906, onward he took no active part in the matter and resigned one month later.

To the last he believed that Germany's position would remain unsafe until an understanding had been arrived at with Britain, and it was this belief that determined his attitude towards the expansion of the Imperial Navy: beside this, he wrote in February 1909, all other questions were of lesser account. His views on this question were summarized in a memorandum of December, 1907, of which Rath gives a résumé: Holstein objected to the programme of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and the Navy League on three main grounds: the ill-feeling likely to be aroused in South Germany, the inevitable dislocation of the finances through the huge additional charges involved, and the suspicion of Germany's motives in foreign countries, which would bind Britain still closer to France. As for the idea that Germany's power would be increased, he wrote in reply to a letter from Tirpitz's opponent Admiral Karl Galster, this was a simple question of arithmetic: for how would the sea-power of Germany be relatively increased if for every new German ship Britain built two?

Grave of Friedrich von Holstein on the Invalidenfriedhof Berlin

Holstein died on May 8, 1909, in Berlin and his body was buried in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery. His assets included extensive secret dossiers concerning German statesmen that were not published until 1956. Rumours that he may have been an informant of journalist Maximilian Harden in the Harden-Eulenburg Affair have never been conclusively established.

In popular cultureEdit

Friedrich von Holstein was portrayed by actor Frederick Jaeger in the 1974 TV-series Fall of Eagles.


  • Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War He is the subject of Chapter 6, "The Monster of the Labyrinth."
  • Norman Rich. Friedrich von Holstein, Politics and Diplomacy in the era of Bismarck and Wilhelm II (2 vol. Cambridge: 1965).
  • J. C. G. Röhl, "Friedrich von Holstein," Historical Journal, Sept 1966, Vol. 9 Issue 3, pp 379–388
  • T. G. Otte, "Great Britain, Germany, and the Far-Eastern Crisis of 1897-8," English Historical Review (1995) 110#439 pp. 1157–1179 in JSTOR

Primary sourcesEdit

  • The Holstein Papers. Vol. I. Memoirs and Political Observations, edited by Norman Rich and M. H. Fisher (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955); The Holstein Papers. Vol. 3 (1961)

See alsoEdit

  • Fall of Eagles; he is portrayed in the 3rd episode under the name "Holstein."


  •   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Holstein, Friedrich von". Encyclopædia Britannica. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 618.
  1. ^ a b (in German) Brockhaus Geschichte Second Edition

External linksEdit