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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Bismarck in the Reichstag

By George Washburn Smalley (1833–1916)

[The New-York Tribune, 15 April, 1888.]

BY half-past two some two hundred members have arrived and the public galleries are half full. They remain half full during all the proceedings, which seem to have no great interest for the people of Berlin. Possibly the people of Berlin are aware that this highly respectable Imperial Parliament is not the final arbiter of the destinies of the German Empire, whether for weal or woe. The centre of political power is not here, so the centre of political interest is elsewhere; whether at Charlottenberg with the dying Emperor, or in the Palais Radziwill in the Wilhelmstrasse where lives the Imperial Chancellor, may be a question. It is not here in the Reichstag, at any rate; not even when the Imperial Chancellor puts in a formal appearance. The members have, nevertheless, a business-like look. They are a stalwart body, with for the most part good gray heads on their bodies, and would be the more distinguished in aspect if they wore fewer spectacles. It may be the spectacles which stamp on them as a body a slightly pedantic air, as of a body of professors. The House of Commons looks, even in these degenerate days, like a gathering of men of the world; of men who spend their lives, whether in country or city, on a high level, and who take large views of affairs; with their eyes set well apart in their heads. They have not derived their opinions, Liberal or Tory, from books; they are not parochial. The German analogue for parochial is Particularist. A man who regards the concerns of his own province, or even kingdom, more than he regards the concerns of the Empire, is a Particularist. What business has he in an Imperial Parliament? Yet there are many such; nay, I thought I detected this provincial stamp on some men who would resent the application of such a name to them.

The defect of the Germans, if we are to believe Mr. Matthew Arnold, is a defect of civic courage. Perhaps, but I suspect an American would discover in them a want of practical politics. I do not use that phrase on this occasion as a synonym for machine, or anything like it. It is a colloquial way of saying that they are without that political training which comes from long and responsible connection with public affairs, beginning with municipal and ending with imperial affairs. They see the thing next to them with painful distinctness; beyond it, little or nothing. I speak of the average; the best of them belong to a totally different class. But I confess, as I looked upon the Reichstag and thought over the history of its contentions, and of the Prussian and other disputes that had preceded it, it seemed to me an assembly of amateurs. No German Parliament is comparable in efficiency to the House of Commons or to the Congress at Washington. What is here efficient is the Crown. It is the Kingly principle, the Imperial principle, by which fifty millions of Germans, though with universal suffrage, and triennial Parliaments, and the power of the purse in their hands, are really governed.

There is time enough for these and other reflections while the House assembles. Nobody seems to know whether Prince Bismarck is coming himself or not. But while the President, who has the air of a man about to deliver a sermon, is conversing sedately with a group of deputies on the steps of his pulpit, a dark young man enters at his right from a door in the rear, and lays a large red portfolio on the shelf in front of the ministerial seat nearest the tribune. Just beneath stands a tall man of slender build, in an undress uniform of dark blue and red, his smooth-shaven face scored all over with fine lines, the nose aquiline and thin, eyes sunken, forehead lofty and broad and deeply thoughtful, a palpable brown wig on his head; the whole figure slightly stooping; an air of refinement and delicate firmness marking him out among the sturdy personages near him. That is the first soldier of Europe, Count Von Moltke, and the seat below which he stands is that of Prince Bismarck, who enters a moment later.

It was all but two and twenty years since I had seen Prince Bismarck. In 1866 he was fifty-one; he is now seventy-three, wanting some days, and they are years that make a difference. They have left a mark even on this man of iron. He is grayer and stouter, and the lines in his face are as if burnt in; the scars that corroding time has left. They are visible even in his photographs; his scorn of insincerities is far too deep for such flatteries as artists in black and white are wont to practise. They are visible even from the box where I sit, as the light from the ceiling falls full on his upturned face. He strides heavily in; it is but a step from the door to the spot where the scarlet portfolio is waiting for him, but the weight of the step is what first strikes you. It is not lassitude; it is sheer physical bulk. He stands six feet two, and his frame is the frame of a giant. He is broad and square in the shoulders and deep-chested; the arms are big; the legs are big; and that part of the body which is intermediate between legs and chest is big, yet not gross. He is as heroic in his physical proportions as in his character. The head is set on the shoulders and almost into them with a singular solidity and closeness. The man is all of a piece; body and mind, as it were, fused and welded together. Faithful as are many of the photographs, I remember none which brings out strongly the helmet-shape of the head. It is the head of Pericles: dome-like in its amplitude as well as in its curve, with a breadth at the temples which its towering height cannot disguise; and far overhanging the steel-gray eyes, which look out as from caverns, deep fringed with gray eyebrows. There is no regularity of feature or of contour. The nose is short and carelessly moulded; the mouth you must imagine, for a gray mustache shades it; the jaw is the jaw—well, of Prince Bismarck, and of him alone. The stamp of power, of irresistible force, is on face and figure; into this one human form has Nature for once collected all her irrepressible energies, and subdued them to his overmastering will.

The impression I get as I gaze from a distance only recalls the impression of twenty years ago, when I sat in his study and listened to him till long past midnight, and mentally noted down features and the fleeting, flashing expressions that lighted them up. The changes are many and they are scathing: age has brought with it increase of strength; he looks more like a giant than he did then. He is in uniform, but not in the white of the cuirassiers, which is still, I believe, his favorite costume. He wears a single-breasted dark-blue frock, reaching halfway from the waist to the knees, silver-buttoned to the throat; collar and deep cuffs of what, from this distance, looks like tarnished silver lace, gray in tone, with broad edges of bright yellow. The star of the Black Eagle glitters on the blue coat, and a whole tier of other orders stretches clear across the breast. As he opens with his right hand the scarlet portfolio, which contains the royal message, the left rests on his sword-hilt; an attitude that gives rise to reflections. Never, that I heard of, did the Chancellor enter Reichstag or Landtag in any but a soldier’s dress; once, at least, I saw him arrive in jack-boots, and even to-day he wears spurs.

It is for the Chancellor that the House had been waiting. As soon as he was in his place the President rang his bell; some brief formalities were briefly got through, and Prince Bismarck was at once on his feet. A murmur of cheers greeted him. With a bow to his audience and another to the President, he began reading, holding the message on a folio sheet in his hand. He read in a strong voice, audible everywhere, I judged, throughout the hall; deliberately, with marked emphasis on some sentences. It was the Emperor’s first message to the Imperial Parliament; the hand of the Chancellor who countersigned and now delivered it to its destination, visible in every line. What could be more like him than these thanks—“imperial thanks”—offered in the name of the late Emperor to the Reichstag, which had voted those last millions of money and men while the Emperor was still living? The voice rang out clearest of all in the final words, “Trusting in the tried love of the whole people and their representatives for the Fatherland, we leave the Empire’s future in God’s hand.” Cromwellian hypocrisy? Cromwellian if you like, but hypocrisy, no. For if anything be true of this stern statesman, as of his dead master, it is that both of them ever had a simple faith in the God of whom they avowedly stand in fear. “We Germans fear God, and nothing else in the world beside.” The confession, and perhaps also the boast, seem to belong to a past age, but of the genuineness of both I, for my part, have no doubt.

The message ended, the scene changed. Prince Bismarck sat down, and the President rose; the Deputies still all upstanding as while the Imperial message was reading. The Prince sprang up too, and the President spoke briefly. All at once, in the middle of his speech, as he mentioned the Emperor, there came a cry from the body of the hall which seemed like a signal. The President took it up and called, German fashion, for cheers. The whole assembly, raising each man his right arm to its full length, shouted out the deep, guttural “hoch” which does duty for our hurrah. “Again,” cried the President, and then, “again,” so that the three cheers were duly given, and given with a solid heartiness of voice and manner that befitted the place and occasion—German to the core. I cannot remember to have looked down ever before on a Parliament thus expressing itself in cheers; still less with these strange but fine salutes.

As this scene and the President’s brief harangue ended, once more Prince Bismarck rose, and, to everybody’s delight, began to speak. To everybody’s astonishment, also, this Minister of the German Empire appeared all at once as a mouth-piece of Parliaments. He asked leave, in quiet tones, to consider himself charged by the House to communicate the thanks of the Reichstag to foreign Parliaments who had expressed their sorrow and sympathies in the grief that had fallen upon the German nation. He spoke for not more than three or four minutes, but it was a very different business from the mere reading of the message. Orator, perhaps, he is not, but no man excels him in the faculty of so saying what he wishes as to impress his thought and his will—there is the real point—on his audience. Words are to him weapons. In great crises, they are words which three millions of soldiers are ready to enforce. On an occasion like this, hardly more than ceremonious, there is still the trace of the manner of the master of many legions. Nothing can be said or done at such a time in an ordinary manner. The blackness of death still hangs over Berlin—her streets and the hearts of her people still in mourning; the shadow of a coming tragedy blending with that which is not yet past.

As before, the voice easily filled the hall, and it had that vibration which comes from the direct appeal of one man to many before him. There are hard tones, as you might guess, in Prince Bismarck’s register, but it is a full, deep voice, rising and falling not too abruptly, capable of expressing emotion. I have heard it when it sounded like a command for a cavalry charge. When he used to speak to a hostile Parliament, as often befell in old days, it was the hoarse summons of an angry sovereign to his rebellious subjects. To-day, of course, everything goes smoothly. The Prince concerns himself little about gesture or any purely oratorical act. He stands erect behind his closed portfolio. The right hand swings carelessly, almost continually, by his side, the arm at full length, the fingers sometimes contracted, more often loose, and the hand quite open. The left again, all unconsciously, finds its way to the sword-hilt. The head is thrown well back. The face is in profile from where I sit, and he looks for the most part straight forward, but turns once or twice to our box, and then the light from his eye, with the light from above glancing on it, is opalescent. Of fatigue or illness I could see no trace. I heard afterward that the Prince was really ill, and that his doctors had given him tonics, or whatever it may have been, to brace him up for this afternoon’s work.

He is cheered from time to time. When he sits down a few Deputies go up, some of them timidly, to congratulate him. He shakes hands with some of them. One who comes from near the door bows almost to the ground. With him the Prince, who bows in return rather stiffly, omits to shake hands. He tarries a moment in his seat. As he rises the group about him divides swiftly and leaves him an open road to the door. He bows again; one rapid inclination of the head to either side in response to all the salutes, and strides off, still erect, the step firm, but not less heavy than when he came; the steel scabbard of his long cavalry sword ringing sharp against the brown oak. The door opens, as a door opens on the stage, wide before him, with invisible hands. He fills it as he passes through; the broad shoulders, the towering form, the kingly head of this king of men are set in a frame for one instant, then vanish. He has done what he came to do; done it in that rapid, workmanlike, decisive way of his; with energy, with authority; done it, though no great matter, once for all, and with the dignity befitting the occasion. Every one feels that in this first message from an Emperor, so soon to be an Emperor no more, there is something solemn, and it has been solemnly delivered. In all, Prince Bismarck has not been twenty minutes in the chamber, but as he passes out it is as if another chapter in history had been transacted—another leaf turned in the book of fate.