Friedrich von Holstein (1837 to 1909) was seen even by some of his own contemporaries within Germany as the man who had to bear a great deal of responsibility for the state Europe was in as it drifted towards World War One. While Holstein never held any post of great importance within foreign affairs, it was generally believed by his contemporaries that he was a major mover with regards to European foreign affairs. While this is an exaggerated view as to the part Holstein played in the build-up to World War One and his influence on European foreign affairs, many at the time believed it and Holstein himself enjoyed the recognition of his importance whether it existed or not.
“Holstein was one of those rare men whose sense of self-esteem is more than adequately gratified by the knowledge that in reality, whatever appearance might seem, they were at the centre of power.” (D C Watts)
Holstein was born in Schwedt in 1837. His father was a minor official within the Prussian court but rose to be Prussian Court Chamberlain. Holstein joined the diplomatic service in 1863 and served in a number of capitals throughout Europe. In 1876 Holstein was appointed to the political division in the foreign ministry. To start with Holstein was an ardent supporter of Bismarck but the two fell out over the whole structure of alliances that Bismarck seemed to have tied Germany to. Holstein did not like alliances if only that they tied Germany to action the country might not want to take as and when a situation arose. He preferred to see Germany have freedom of action with regards to diplomatic connections with the ability to drop such connections when it was useful for Germany to do so. After the dismissal of Bismarck, Holstein did what he could to untie Germany from the diplomatic connections Germany had developed with Russia. He also did what he could to avoid antagonisms within Europe and was against an adventurous colonial policy as he knew that it would bring Germany into conflict with amongst others, Great Britain. Holstein believed that Russia was potentially Germany’s most dangerous enemy whereas he believed that the connections between the German and British royal families would play its part in keeping both countries friendly.
Holstein’s influence waned when Wilhelm II ascended the throne in Germany. Wilhelm believed that the only way for Germany to be seen by other nations as a great power was to have a modern and powerful navy and overseas possessions. Both of these were at odds with what Holstein believed. In 1906 Holstein was dismissed from the foreign ministry as he was blamed for what was seen as Germany’s humiliation at the first Moroccan Crisis. The one thing that Wilhelm could not tolerate was Germany being seemingly humiliated by other nations and Holstein had to pay the price.
Friedrich von Holstein died in 1909.