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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Munroe Smith (1854–1926)

By Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898)

OTTO EDWARD LEOPOLD, fourth child of Charles and Wilhelmina von Bismarck, was born at Schönhausen in Prussia, April 1, 1815. The family was one of the oldest in the “Old Mark” (now a part of the province of Saxony), and not a few of its members had held important military or diplomatic positions under the Prussian crown. The young Otto passed his school years in Berlin, and pursued university studies in law (1832–5) at Göttingen and at Berlin. At Göttingen he was rarely seen at lectures, but was a prominent figure in the social life of the student body: the old university town is full of traditions of his prowess in duels and drinking bouts, and of his difficulties with the authorities. In 1835 he passed the State examination in law, and was occupied for three years, first in the judicial and then in the administrative service of the State, at Berlin, Aix-la-Chapelle, and Potsdam. In 1838 he left the governmental service and studied agriculture at the Eldena Academy. From his twenty-fourth to his thirty-sixth year (1839–51) his life was that of a country squire. He took charge at first of property held by his father in Pomerania; upon his father’s death in 1845 he assumed the management of the family estate of Schönhausen. Here he held the local offices of captain of dikes and of deputy in the provincial Diet. The latter position proved a stepping-stone into Prussian and German politics; for when Frederick William IV. summoned the “United Diet” of the kingdom (1847), Bismarck was sent to Berlin as an alternate delegate from his province.

The next three years were full of events. The revolution of 1848 forced all the German sovereigns who had thus far retained absolute power, among them the King of Prussia, to grant representative constitutions to their people. The same year witnessed the initiation of a great popular movement for the unification of Germany. A national Parliament was assembled at Frankfort, and in 1849 it offered to the King of Prussia the German imperial crown; but the constitution it had drafted was so democratic, and the opposition of the German princes so great, that Frederick William felt obliged to refuse the offer. An attempt was then made, at a Parliament held in Erfurt, to establish a “narrower Germany” under Prussian leadership; but this movement also came to nothing. The Austrian government, paralyzed for a time by revolts in its own territories, had re-established its power and threatened Prussia with war. Russia supported Austria, and Prussia submitted at Olmütz (1850). In these stirring years, Bismarck—first as a member of the United Diet and then as a representative in the new Prussian Chamber of Deputies—made himself prominent by hostility to the constitutional movement and championship of royal prerogative. He defended the King’s refusal of the imperial crown, because “all the real gold in it would be gotten by melting up the Prussian crown”; and he compared the pact which the King, by accepting the Frankfort constitution, would make with the democracy, to the pact between the huntsman and the devil in the ‘Freischütz’: sooner or later, he declared, the people would come to the Emperor, and pointing to the Imperial arms, would say, “Do you fancy this eagle was given you for nothing?” He sat in the Erfurt Parliament, but had no faith in its success. He opposed the constitution which it adopted, although this was far more conservative than that drafted at Frankfort, because he deemed it still too revolutionary. During the Austro-Prussian disputes of 1850 he expressed himself, like the rest of the Prussian Conservatives, in favor of reconciliation with Austria, and he even defended the convention of Olmütz.

After Olmütz, the German Federal Diet, which had disappeared in 1848, was reconstituted at Frankfort, and to Frankfort Bismarck was sent, in 1857, as representative of Prussia. This position, which he held for more than seven years, was essentially diplomatic, since the Federal Diet was merely a permanent congress of German ambassadors; and Bismarck, who had enjoyed no diplomatic training, owed his appointment partly to the fact that his record made him persona grata to the “presidential power,” Austria. He soon forfeited the favor of that State by the steadfastness with which he resisted its pretensions to superior authority, and the energy with which he defended the constitutional parity of Prussia and the smaller States; but he won the confidence of the home government, and was consulted by the King and his ministers with increasing frequency on the most important questions of European diplomacy. He strove to inspire them with greater jealousy of Austria. He favored closer relations with Napoleon III., as a make-weight against the Austrian influence, and was charged by some of his opponents with an undue leaning toward France; but as he explained in a letter to a friend, if he had sold himself, it was “to a Teutonic and not to a Gallic devil.”

In the winter of 1858–9, as the Franco-Austrian war drew nearer, Bismarck’s anti-Austrian attitude became so pronounced that his government, by no means ready to break with Austria, but rather disposed to support that power against France, felt it necessary to put him, as he himself expressed it, “on ice on the Neva.” From 1859 to 1862 he held the position of Prussian ambassador at St. Petersburg. In 1862 he was appointed ambassador at Paris. In the autumn of the same year he became Minister-President of Prussia.

The new Prussian King, William I., had become involved in a controversy with the Prussian Chamber of Deputies over the reorganization of the army; his previous ministers were unwilling to press the reform against a hostile majority; and Bismarck, who was ready to assume the responsibility, was charged with the premiership of the new cabinet. “Under some circumstances,” he said later, “death upon the scaffold is as glorious as upon the battlefield.” From 1862 to 1866 he governed Prussia without the support of the lower chamber and without a regular budget. He informed a committee of the Deputies that the questions of the time were not to be settled by debates, but by “blood and iron.”

In the diplomatic field it was his effort to secure a position of advantage for the struggle with Austria for the control of Germany,—a struggle which, six years before, he had declared to be inevitable. During his stay in St. Petersburg he had strengthened the friendly feeling already subsisting between Prussia and Russia; and in 1863 he gave the Russian government useful support in crushing a Polish insurrection. To a remonstrance from the English ambassador, somewhat arrogantly delivered in the name of Europe, Bismarck responded, “Who is Europe?” While in Paris he had convinced himself that no serious interference was to be apprehended from Napoleon. That monarch overrated Austria; regarded Bismarck’s plans, which appear to have been explained with extraordinary frankness, as chimerical; and pronounced Bismarck “not a serious person.” Bismarck, on the other hand, privately expressed the opinion that Napoleon was “a great unrecognized incapacity.” When, in 1863, the death of Frederick VII. of Denmark without direct heirs raised again the ancient Schleswig-Holstein problem, Bismarck saw that the opportunity had come for the solution of the German question.

The events of the next seven years are familiar history. In 1864 Prussia and Austria made war on Denmark, and obtained a joint sovereignty over the duchies of Holstein and Schleswig. In 1866, with Italy as her ally, Prussia drove Austria out of the German Confederation; annexed Schleswig, Holstein, Hanover, Electoral Hesse, and Frankfort; and brought all the German States north of the Main, except Luxemburg, into the North German Confederation, of which the King of Prussia was President and Bismarck Chancellor. When war was declared by France in 1870, the South German States also placed their forces at the King of Prussia’s disposal; and before the war was over they joined the newly established German Empire, which thus included all the territories of the old Confederation except German Austria and Luxemburg. The old Confederation was a mere league of sovereign States; the new Empire was a nation. To this Empire, at the close of the war, the French Republic paid an indemnity of five milliards of francs, and ceded Alsace and Lorraine.

In giving the German people political unity Bismarck realized their strongest and deepest desire; and the feeling entertained toward him underwent a sudden revulsion. From 1862 to 1866 he had been the best hated man in Germany. The partial union of 1867—when, as he expressed it, Germany was “put in the saddle”—made him a national hero. The reconciliation with the people was the more complete because, at Bismarck’s suggestion, a German Parliament was created, elected by universal suffrage, and because the Prussian ministers (to the great indignation of their conservative supporters) asked the Prussian Deputies to grant them indemnity for their unconstitutional conduct of the government during the preceding four years. For the next ten years Bismarck had behind him, in Prussian and in German affairs, a substantial nationalist majority. At times, indeed, he had to restrain their zeal. In 1867, for instance, when they desired to take Baden alone into the new union,—the rest of South Germany being averse to entrance,—Bismarck was obliged to tell them that it would be a poor policy “to skim off the cream and let the rest of the milk turn sour.”

Bismarck remained Chancellor of the Empire as well as Minister-President of Prussia until 1890, when William II. demanded his resignation. During these years the military strength of the Empire was greatly increased; its finances were placed upon an independent footing; its authority was extended in legislative matters, and its administrative system was developed and consolidated. Conflicts with the Roman Catholic hierarchy (1873–87), and with the Social Democracy (1878–90) resulted indecisively; though Bismarck’s desire to alleviate the misery which in his opinion caused the socialistic movement gave rise to a series of remarkable laws for the insurance of the laboring classes against accident, disease, and old age. With a return to the protective system, which Bismarck advocated for fiscal reasons, he combined the attempt to enlarge Germany’s foreign market by the establishment of imperial colonies in Africa and in the Pacific Ocean. In other respects his foreign policy, after 1870, was controlled by the desire to preserve peace. “Germany,” he said, “belongs to the satisfied nations.” When the Russian friendship cooled, he secured an alliance with Austria (1879), which Italy also joined (1882); and the “triple alliance” thus formed continued to dominate European politics until 1914, the year that the Great War broke out upon the world.

Of Bismarck’s State papers, the greater portion are still buried in the Prussian archives. The most important series that has been published consists of his dispatches from Frankfort (Poschinger, Preussen im Bundestag, 1851–8, 4 vols.). These are marked by clearness of statement, force of argument, and felicity of illustration. The style, although less direct and simple than that of his unofficial writings, is still excellent. A large part of the interest attaching to these early papers lies in their acute characterization of the diplomatists with whom he had to deal. His analysis of their motives reveals from the outset that thorough insight into human nature which was to count for so much in his subsequent diplomatic triumphs. Of his later notes and dispatches, such as have seen the light may be found in Hahn’s documentary biography (‘Fürst Bismarck,’ 5 vols.). His reports and memorials on economic and fiscal questions have been collected by Poschinger in ‘Bismarck als Volkswirth.’

Of Bismarck’s parliamentary speeches there exists a full collection (reproduced without revision from the stenographic reports) in fifteen volumes. Bismarck was not an orator in the ordinary acceptation of the word. His mode of address was conversational; his delivery was monotonous and halting. He often hesitated, searching for a word; but when it came, it usually seemed the only word that could have expressed his meaning, and the hesitation that preceded it gave it a singular emphasis. It seemed to be his aim to convince his hearers, not to win them; his appeal was regularly to their intelligence, not to their emotions. When the energy and warmth of his own feelings had carried him into something like a flight of oratory, there was apt to follow, at the next moment, some plain matter-of-fact statement that brought the discussion back at once to its ordinary level. Such an anti-climax was often very effective: the obvious effort of the speaker to keep his emotions under restraint vouched for the sincerity of the preceding outburst. It should be added that he appreciated as few Germans do the rhetorical value of understatement.

He was undoubtedly at his literary best in conversation and in his letters. We have several volumes of Bismarck anecdotes, Bismarck table-talk, etc. The best known are those of Busch, which have been translated into English—and in spite of the fact that his sayings come to us at second hand and colored by the personality of the transmitter, we recognize the qualities which, by the universal testimony of those who knew him, made him one of the most fascinating of talkers. These qualities, however, come out most clearly in a little volume of letters (‘Bismarck briefe’), chiefly addressed to his wife. (These letters have been excellently translated into English by F. Maxse.) They are characterized throughout by vivid and graphic descriptions, a subtle sense of humor, and real wit; and they have in the highest degree—far more than his State papers or speeches—the literary quality, and that indescribable something which we call style.

Bismarck furnishes, once for all, the answer to the old French question, whether a German can possibly have esprit—witness his response to the German prince who desired his advice regarding the offer of the crown of one of the Balkan States:—“Accept, by all means: it will be a charming recollection for you.” He possessed also to a high degree the power of summing up a situation or characterizing a movement in a single phrase; and his sayings have enriched the German language with more quotations than the spoken words of any German since Luther.

After his retirement from office, and almost up to the time of his death (July 30th, 1898), Bismarck strove, and not without success, to influence German and European political opinion. Articles written or inspired by him appeared frequently in the Hamburger Nachrichten, known to be his organ. Of these a collection was published in 1913: Hofmann, ‘Fürst Bismarck, 1890–98,’ 2 vols. After his death appeared his ‘Gedanken und Erinnerungen,’ obviously written as his political testament. The authorized English translation is entitled: ‘Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman,’ 2 vols. In these articles and memoirs, as in his parliamentary speeches after 1871, there is an increasingly pacific note. He warns Germany against the temptation “to take the Napoleonic road,” and particularly and insistently against any breach with Russia.

On his tomb, in accordance with his instructions, he is described as “A faithful German servant of William the First.”