A deep shock must have seized those attending the party at Donaueschingen Castle on the night of November 14, 1908. There, in the middle of the ballroom, in the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm II, lay the body of a high-ranking German Empire general, Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler, who had just suffered a heart attack. This might seem like the beginning of a detective novel, but there was something in the scene that stood out conspicuously: the general’s body was dressed in a pink tutu, with a garland of flowers adorning his head, having collapsed just after offering a bizarre dance spectacle that included provocative kisses to the audience.

Rumors circulated about the relationship between the Kaiser and Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, a personal friend from his youth and one of the most influential people during his reign, to the extent that he was the one who convinced him to appoint Bernhard von Bülow as Chancellor in 1900, whom the ruler called “my own Bismarck” and was particularly attracted to because his goal was to build a large war fleet to dominate the seas (von Bülow is credited with the famous phrase: To the meaningless French idealisms of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, we oppose the three German realities: infantry, cavalry, and artillery).

Eulenburg was married to the Swedish princess Augusta Sandels since 1875, and together they had eight children. However, in the political realm, he was part of what the opposition dubbed the Kamarilla der Kinäden or the Liebenberg Circle, a courtier camarilla whose members called themselves the Liebenberg Round Table (in reference to Eulenburg’s fiefdom). One of them was Count Kuno von Moltke, a lieutenant general in the army, commander of the city of Berlin, and aide-de-camp to Wilhelm II.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1908, in navy uniform
Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1908, in navy uniform. Credit: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons

In November 1906, a journalist named Maximilian Harden published an article titled Praeludium in his magazine Die Zukunft (“The Future”), where he blamed the weakness of German politics on the personal contacts maintained by the Liebenberg Circle, especially targeting the effeminate Moltke and Eulenburg (whom he euphemistically referred to as “sickly late romantic”), despite von Bülow’s bellicosity.

The subtlety of those words did not prevent their double meaning from catching the attention of the power circles, and within a few months, it would trigger what is known as the Harden-Eulenburg Scandal. It should be noted that Bismarck himself, who had already passed away in 1898, had noticed the close relationship between Eulenburg and Wilhelm II, ordering discretion to the press. However, the old Chancellor detested the Liebenberg Circle for the liberal tendencies shown by its members and seems to have not only named it but also informed Harden about the nature of the prevailing tastes within the camarilla.

Harden was the son of a Jewish businessman—though he had converted to Protestantism—and brother of an influential banker involved in politics, so he was not just any ordinary reporter; he knew he had some protection from his surroundings and was known to be a recognized Bismarck sympathizer. Although he had a great passion for theater and worked in that field—both as an actor and as a critic and businessman—he later turned to journalism and began his political chronicles in the magazine Die Gegenwart under the pseudonym Apostata, then moving on to various liberal-oriented newspapers before founding his own magazine, the aforementioned Die Zukunft.

Philipp zu Eulenburg in 1906
Philipp zu Eulenburg in 1906. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

He was not an easy person to get along with. In 1898, the magazine Berliner Leben described him as the most hated and, in any case, the most famous of all German writers. He had fierce disagreements with intellectuals like the playwrights Hermann Sudermann and Gerhart Hauptmann (who would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912), despite the second being his colleague in the Gesellschaft der Zwanglosen (“Society of the Free”), along with other important literary figures and philosophers. As we will see, his animosity was a constant throughout his life.

In any case, his visceral nature led him to develop a deep aversion to the Circle, which he called Entourage, and he considered it responsible for distorting the political legacy of Bismarck. This was not exclusive to him, as there was an entire opposition movement against it, and an anonymous book circulated, titled Unser Kaiser und sein Volk! Deutsche Sorgen. Von einem Schwarzseher (“Our Emperor and His People! German Worries. By a Detractor”), suggesting that the camarilla lived in a bubble, detached from popular sentiment, and was willing to compromise with France and Great Britain to the extent of being willing to return Alsace and Lorraine.

The mediation by Alfred von Berger, director of the Hamburg theater, prevented further publications in the press for the time being. However, after retrieving an old leak from Bismarck—according to his account, he received a letter accompanied by a bottle of wine—the journalist blackmailed Eulenburg, demanding his resignation from the position of ambassador in Vienna in 1902 and from his role as a delegate at the Algeciras Conference in 1906. Both times he got his way, although some historians believe that the scandalous intimate behavior of the prince was already a topic of conversation among his friends and even among his family.

Portrait of Maximilian Harden, 1913
Portrait of Maximilian Harden, 1913. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, it was not just him; between 1906 and 1907, six officers took their own lives after being extorted in the same way, and more than twenty were put on trial by military tribunals. The situation might have stopped with Eulenburg if he hadn’t returned to Germany after retiring to Switzerland to be awarded the Verdienstorden vom Deutschen Adler (Order of the German Eagle), a recognition given by the Reich to foreign diplomats—he was Prussian. This angered Harden, who in April 1907 published a new article, Wilhelm der Friedliche (“Wilhelm the Peaceful”), which apparently dealt with a purely political matter.

Specifically, it was a sharp critique of the national government for its failure at the mentioned Algeciras Conference, where the colonial division of Africa denied Germany its aspirations to establish a protectorate in Morocco. Harden believed this disappointment was the result of persistent promises of peace made to the international community to avoid the risk of war with France (which, in the end, divided Morocco with Spain), as evidenced by a diplomatic encounter between the Kaiser and the French ambassador, where both displayed good harmony.

But the immediate target of the scandalous journalist was Eulenburg, and in a new article, he openly explained that the two portly and mature cupids depicted flanking a Bavarian crest in a previously published cartoon represented Eulenburg and “his girlfriend,” Moltke (whom Harden nicknamed “Tütü”). Such explicitness unleashed a storm, and Wilhelm II demanded that Eulenburg sue the journalist or leave the country discreetly. The latter complied, disappointed with the Kaiser’s reaction, and sued, counting on the fact that the prosecutor was his friend (indeed, he was acquitted).

Albert Weisberger's cartoon published in Jugend magazine that sparked the scandal
Albert Weisberger’s cartoon published in Jugend magazine that sparked the scandal. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Wilhelm also demanded a list of the accused, which turned out to be quite similar to one previously given to him by Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, the chief of the Berlin police, which he hadn’t paid much attention to at the time. Apart from the two mentioned, the list included Count Georg von Hülsen (director general of the royal theaters of Prussia) and the aforementioned Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow. Also, his uncle Wilhelm Graf von Hohenau (a lieutenant general in the army, not to be confused with his nephew of the same name, an Olympic equestrian medalist) and Major Johannes Graf zu Lynar. These last two were tried for sodomy but were acquitted due to lack of evidence, though an honor court expelled them from their military posts for not fully proving their innocence, causing them to go abroad.

Wilhelm also forced Moltke to resign. However, he filed a defamation lawsuit against Harden after the journalist rejected his challenge to a duel. The trial was a spectacle: Lili von Elbe, the ex-wife of the military officer, stated that he had only fulfilled his conjugal duties the first two nights, and parties at Major Lynar’s house, which also involved Eulenburg and Hohenau, came to light. As a result, Harden was declared innocent.

However, the appeal by the plaintiff and the discontent with the court by the Kaiser caused the trial to be repeated two months later. This time, there were contradictions in Lili von Elbe’s testimony, and she was discredited as hysterical, dragging Hirschfeld down because his diagnosis was based on her previous statements. In short, now the judges considered the journalist guilty and sentenced him to four months in prison and a 600-mark fine, which pleased Wilhelm II, and the liberal newspaper Tageblatt applauded the verdict as a warning against sensationalism that mixed politics with private life. But the courts would still be the stage of ongoing events.

Photograph of Kuno von Moltke in 1907
Photograph of Kuno von Moltke in 1907. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In March 1908, the recalcitrant Harden convinced a fellow journalist, Anton Städele, to tell the Bavarian newspaper Neue Freie Volkszeitung how Eulenburg had paid him a million marks to keep his sexual orientation a secret. Subsequently, Harden himself filed a complaint against the newspaper’s editor in Munich. It was a clever plot arranged between them so that in a trial, two supposed witnesses, a milkman and a fishmonger, would testify that they had relations with Eulenburg during his youth. This was the culmination of the scandal, which had worldwide media repercussions.

Städele was fined a hundred marks, which Harden happily returned to him while Eulenburg was charged with perjury. In June 1908, after half a hundred witnesses testified, Eulenburg had to endure the humiliation of being arrested and watching the Kaiser demand the return of his decoration. The trial, held behind closed doors, had to be interrupted because the accused, emotionally overwhelmed, fainted and had to be taken to a hospital. And so things were when winter arrived, and Prince Maximilian Egon II of Fürstenberg had an idea that would prove disastrous.

He organized a grand hunting party to which he invited Wilhelm II, as he was one of his trusted men, held on the grounds of his castle in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest (in the current federal state of Baden-Württemberg). At the end of the day on November 14, a nighttime party was held, the highlight of which, as we mentioned at the beginning, was Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler. A 46-year-old Berliner, the eldest son of court theater director Botho von Hülsen and writer Helene von Hülsen (from whom they inherited the title of count and took their surname), he had been friends with Wilhelm II since adolescence.

General Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler photographed in the year of his death
General Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler photographed in the year of his death. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In fact, having chosen a military career and served as aide-de-camp to Wilhelm II since 1889, he held various important posts—chief of staff in 1899, chief of the Kaiser’s military cabinet in 1902, for example—before achieving the rank of general of infantry in 1906. This was the man who that night presented himself to the other guests as an unheard-of ballerina: he wore a pink tutu with peacock feathers that had been lent to him by the hostess, the wife of Egon II; he also adorned himself with a floral garland and performed grotesque ballet moves to the sound of a waltz, blowing kisses and making provocative gestures to the laughing audience.

Clearly, no one missed that he was satirizing the judicial situation facing the country’s political and military spheres; what they didn’t anticipate was the tragic ending the show would have. Shortly after his performance, Hülsen-Haeseler began to feel unwell due to the unusual exertion, and a heart attack stopped his heart; in a matter of minutes, he lay dead, and the doctors present could not revive him. Another blow to the dignity and credibility of the German ruling class at the worst possible time.

Or it would have been had it not been for the strict secrecy imposed, especially since Wilhelm II had a nervous breakdown right there. The general was buried in Berlin’s Invalidenfriedhof (a historic military cemetery), and indeed, the pathetic incident did not reach the public or the media. The most ironic thing was that the deceased had been the great cover-up of the Harden-Eulenburg Scandal, responsible for covering up the matter to avoid it leading to an institutional crisis.

Aerial view of Donaueschingen Castle and its gardens, former hunting grounds
Aerial view of Donaueschingen Castle and its gardens, former hunting grounds. Credit: Carsten Steger / Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, as we saw, Moltke, Hohenau, and Lynar retired in disgrace. Bernhard von Bülow didn’t fare too badly in the affair, but he lost his position after he authorized the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph to conduct an interview with the Kaiser, in which he came close to ridiculing himself by alternating grandiloquent and fake love for the British with vehement, sometimes delusional insults (You English are crazy, crazy, crazy, like March hares). The image he presented of himself as disturbed, leaving German diplomacy in tatters across Europe, caused von Bülow to be replaced as chancellor by Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who favored détente.

And what happened to the main characters in this tragicomedy? Maximilian Harden lost friendships like that of journalist Karl Kraus, who wrote a harsh pamphlet against his sensationalism. However, he continued gaining enemies, and in 1922, after having radically changed ideologies, becoming a socialist, opposing World War I, and considering Germany guilty, he received a severe beating from some Freikorps (a volunteer militia formed by veterans). He took refuge in Switzerland, and when he died of pneumonia in 1927, Der Angriff, the NSDAP’s (the Nazi party) official bulletin , celebrated the death of one of the most wicked and despicable individuals who led Germany to the brink of the abyss.

As for Eulenburg, his trial resumed in 1909, and within barely an hour, the accused fainted again, so he was granted provisional freedom with a 100,000-mark bail. During this time, the entire aristocracy avoided him like the plague, and he secluded himself in his Liebenberg Castle. This indefinite situation continued, year after year, prolonged by the outbreak of World War I. At its conclusion, no verdict was reached, and Eulenburg died in 1921, without being able to be either convicted or exonerated.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 29, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en El general alemán que murió vestido con tutú y corona de rosas bailando para el Káiser


Norman Domeler, The Eulenbeurg Affair. A cultural history of politics in the German Empire | Isabel W. Hull, The Entourage of Kaiser Wilhelm II 1888-1918 | Anton Pelinka, Sexuality in Austria | Malte Goebel, The Eulenburg Affair (en nomediakings.org) | Harry F. Young, Maximilian Harden. Censor Germaniae | Wikipedia

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