Only That I Were an Official Person!

Women in diplomacy during the Napoleonic wars.

By Glenda Sluga

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Caroline von Humboldt, 1808. Wikimedia Commons, National Museum in Warsaw.

Women born in Europe between 1763 and 1771 and who lived through the Napoleonic wars—even those who lacked a formal education—were liable to remark on the limits to their life choices. As the cultural, legal, and political profile of women’s difference sharpened, some persisted in wanting the same experiences as men (including joining the military) or to be even better than men at what they did. When sixteen-year-old Theodor von Humboldt volunteered with the Prussian army to fight against Bonaparte, his mother, the Prussian ambassadress Baroness Caroline von Humboldt, wished she were a man and could join him.

Female monarchs, whom we might imagine as having more scope to realize their ambitions, could be as frustrated. In the crucial first years of the Coalition campaign, 1812 and 1813, Austrian empress Maria Ludovica, third wife of Emperor Francis, announced her despair at the distance her neutral husband was keeping from the battlefields. She wrote to her son Archduke Johann lamenting, “Ah, would I were a man, to serve the State.”

Letters between the Russian grand duchess Ekaterina and her brother Tsar Alexander during this period overflow with her ambitions for political agency. Ekaterina discussed politics, military dispositions, and the Russian economy. She saw to the creation of a reserve army of a thousand men to be sent off to join the Coalition forces. When she wanted to do more for the Coalition campaign, Alexander directed her to help win over Emperor Francis and other smaller sovereignties, providing her with a budget of 1,700 ducats to spend on necessities such as bribes. By exercising conventional forms of female diplomatic influence, or “soft power” diplomacy, the grand duchess was able to bring the Kingdom of Württemberg over to the Coalition cause in November 1813—despite the kingdom’s long history of capitalizing on an alliance with France. Ekaterina also acquiesced to directing some of her energy to a newer form of female political agency. On the tsar’s request, she agreed to join the Ladies’ Philanthropic Society, established by her sister-in-law, Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna (née Louise of Baden).

Once the coalition against France began its campaign, and the inevitable battles wounded and killed hundreds of thousands of European men, bourgeois and aristocratic European women took up patriotic versions of philanthropy. Historian Karen Hagemann argues that in Prussia, patriotic philanthropy meant that for the first time “even middle-class women—like the men of their class—became an important part of wartime society.” Among those women was Rahel Levin, who had fled French-occupied Berlin for Prague. The philanthropy Levin practiced was akin to what later in the nineteenth century would be named humanitarianism. She drew on her meager resources to care for the soldiers who were otherwise left to die on the streets of the Bohemian town. “I am in touch with our [Prussian] commissariat and our staff surgeon,” Levin wrote to the man then courting her, the low-level (Christian) Prussian diplomat Karl Varnhagen:

I have a great number of charpie, bandages, rags, socks, shirts; I am having meals cooked in several quarters of the city; I personally see some thirty, forty riflemen and soldiers a day; I discuss and check on everything, and make the most of the sum entrusted to me!…The correspondence…the accounts, addresses, receipts, errands, consultations: in short, my undertaking is ramifying into a large enterprise.

The logistics of Levin’s efforts are impressive. As she recorded in her expense notebooks, she bought blankets, bandages, medicine, clothing, and food and managed 150 women throughout the city to cook and distribute meals and visit the wounded. With little money of her own, Levin turned to correspondence as a fundraising tool. Before leaving Berlin, she had accrued a reputation as a salonniére, and she now had those substantial salon-based networks to draw upon. These stretched to the men leading the political and military effort against France and to their families.

Levin soon approached Caroline von Humboldt in Vienna—where Wilhelm von Humboldt was ambassador—asking if she would start a collection among “the ladies of society” for the overwhelming numbers of abandoned and neglected soldiers of all the allied armies. Writing to her Christian compatriot, Levin reinforced her plea by describing her feelings whenever she encountered a soldier who would tell her, “I’m a Prussian.” At that moment, she explained, “I could die. Alas! You don’t know the feeling…I beg you, do send something!” Despite the Humboldt family’s financial difficulties, the baroness donated more than a thousand guldens. She also assured Levin that she completely understood her feelings, and then upped the ante. The (light) injuries the Humboldts’ son Theodore had sustained in battle inspired in her a patriotic epiphany of “beautiful, genuine/intrinsic and holy feelings,” reconciling her to the necessity of sacrificing one’s dearest.


In the shifting early nineteenth-century terrain of politics, patriotism or “the love of the fatherland” was one of a number of socially acceptable forms of being political available to women. Patriotism’s basis in “love” or personal feelings reflected a broader philosophy of thought that anchored political authenticity in emotions and made feeling the center of “civic identity.” Scottish philosopher David Hume evoked feelings as contagious passions that did not know “the boundaries of individuals.” For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the most heroic of all passions” were “capable of producing the greatest prodigies of virtue,” namely tying people to a patrie. In one of Germaine de Staël’s earliest essays on the “happiness of individuals and nations,” the French writer argued for a philosophical understanding of the passions—the desire for glory; greed; vanity; love; the inclination to friendship; filial, paternal, or conjugal tenderness; and religion. That understanding, she believed, could be the basis of a “political science,” a discipline which, of course, had not yet been invented.

For women so often identified with their emotional life over their intellectual capacity—or even in relation to the “violence of their thought”—patriotism became a means of engaging politics as an emotional right. For a Jewish woman such as Levin, philanthropy—literally the love of humans or humanity—was a means of proving her patriotism toward a Prussia that, thanks in part to Wilhelm von Humboldt, had recently granted citizenship to Jews. Levin uniquely conceptualized her philanthropic attention to the suffering of all the soldiers on the battlefields as a patriotic act and identified her patriotism with Prussia’s defense of civil rights and peace. Writing to the poet Heinrich Heine, she described herself as a Prussian who abhorred wars and saw in any obsessively cultural “German” patriotism (such as that of Caroline von Humboldt) simply “a coincidence; and the puffed-up vanity of attaching prominence to this circumstance will end with this folly bursting asunder.” For pacifist reasons she conjured a European philanthropy: “I have such a plan in my heart,” Levin wrote in her diary in 1813, “to call upon all European women to refuse ever to go along with war; and jointly to help all sufferers; then, at least we could be tranquil on one side; we women, I mean. Wouldn’t something like that work?” Even when we consider the question of influence, Levin’s thinking matters. It expands our understanding of what women thought the politics between states should be, as well as how a woman might attempt to act politically—through philanthropy and through her writing. Levin’s words also carried weight.

Although Levin published her philosophical writings anonymously, her salon and networks garnered her a reputation for the clarity of her thought. It should already be apparent that in the early nineteenth century, in the midst of a Coalition military campaign against France, privileged or exceptional women could exercise unofficial, or soft, diplomacy through salons, letters, and networks, even publications. Alternatively, women found that philanthropy evoked as an emotional patriotism, or on behalf of humanity, was a respectable method of being political in the emerging forum of a shared European politics. They took up the paths of patriotism and philanthropy well aware that their participation in politics was subject to controversy. As a Jewish bourgeoise, Levin knew she could not control how her activities were interpreted. Any authority or influence she earned through her brilliance was ultimately delimited by the triple burden of being a woman, a Jew, and relatively poor—as she herself acknowledged.

After her marriage to Karl Varnhagen, and her conversion to Christianity, she bemoaned the social restrictions placed on her now as an ambassadress: “Ah, only that I were an official person! Only that I were a duchess!” Twenty years later, writing to Friedrich Gentz, Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich’s secretary, her lament had transformed to a more general sarcasm: “I should tell you about politics?…a mere woman!”


Masculinity and the interiority of men were as much at stake in the organization of political authority. In the context of war, and the rapidly changing military and political landscape, legitimate domains of action for women were closely tied to historically specific norms of masculinity. Historian of German nationalism George Mosse maintained that the wars in Europe against the French Revolution and Bonaparte “were waged on behalf of patriotism and morality, both of which determined the direction of the new national self-consciousness.”

In German-speaking regions hostile to the revolutionary aims of the French forces, the French were represented as essentially “loose living” in comparison with the German morality and masculinity on military display. We have some evidence that this conception of the masculinity of German military patriotism was readily internalized. When Ernst Moritz Arndt, the “prophet of German nationalism,” returned victoriously from a French-Coalition battle at Leipzig (known as the Battle of Nations) in 1813, he wrote of having engaged in “a bloody quarrel fought out among men.” Mosse argues that Arndt’s evocation of a masculine national cause had its corollary in the cultivation of a bourgeois respectability which, in the course of the nineteenth century, became definitive of a “German” national identity.

During the Coalition campaign, the Prussian government fostered “valorous manliness” as the calling card for a new generation of patriotically minded, combat-ready soldiers. This same language appears in contemporary British diplomatic correspondence, rendering the adjectives manly and manliness common terms of approbation. Manliness in turn was associated with specific emotional qualities; as British secretary of state Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, earned a reputation among his European peers as conciliatory, “intelligent and calm.” Metternich admired Castlereagh as “cold” and “a man,” the most gallant man he had ever met, carrying a calm head and a heart in the right place. When Staël wanted to defend the tsar against accusations of effeminacy, she described him as unaffected, calm, penetrating, judicious, wise, and consistent in his commitment to “the progress of social order” and “those rights which human reason at present calls for in all directions.” Tsar Alexander, she declared, was ruled by his opinions more than by his passions, interested not in conquest but in “representative government, religious toleration, the improvement of mankind by liberty and the Christian religion.”

Just as women could turn an emotional authenticity to some political advantage, in the same way, men’s political authority could be undermined by questioning their masculinity, their inclinations to femininity, or even a penchant for taking women seriously. Metternich damned the tsar as a peculiar mixture of masculine virtues and feminine weaknesses. Such depictions of Alexander were common among his critics, particularly those from rival states, who often took the tsar’s allegedly compromised masculinity as emblematic of his Russianness, or sourced his failure to live up to masculine norms to a preference for discussing politics with ladies.

From the perspective of non-Russians, the tsar’s Russianness made him particularly susceptible to accusations of deviance. By contrast, among Anglophone commentators and historians, characterizations of Prussianness or Englishness were enough to award some immunity from moral or political prosecution.

Historians have tended to characterize Castlereagh as a Briton bringing to bear a controlled, rational, even unemotional, masculine demeanor. This is despite the fact that Castlereagh took ether to quell his anxiety about public speaking, was lampooned within Britain for his feminized characteristics and “ostentatious uxoriousness,” and was exposed to blackmail for alleged homosexual activities (in a Britain that punished sodomy with the death sentence), and then, on the eve of the final congress in Verona, he slit his own throat.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, who has survived history with his reputation as a high-minded philosopher intact, regarded himself as serious and above gossip, above Metternich’s view of diplomacy as a social affair, above his own boss Prince Hardenberg’s inclination to take gifts and money from petitioners. Nevertheless, Humboldt’s sexual fetishes—pregnant maids on the military campaign trail and an account book for sexual expenses—made him a target for his contemporaries’ lampooning. Metternich spread rumors about Humboldt’s love life and mischievously opened his private letters (forcing Humboldt and his wife, Caroline, to write in code).


Excerpted from The Invention of International Order: Remaking Europe after Napoleon by Glenda Sluga. Copyright © 2021 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.