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George Makepeace Towle:

Bismarck in the Reichstag and at Home, 1880

[Tappan Introduction].

KARL OTTO EDUARD LEOPOLD VON BISMARCK-SCHÖNHAUSEN---to give his full quota of names---was born in 1815. He followed the traditions of his ancestors and entered the public service. At the accession of William I, he became the head of the Prussian Cabinet and Minister of Foreign Affairs. His aim was to drive Austria out of the Confederation, to unite Germany, and to bring it to the front rank among the nations of Europe. The Seven Weeks' War, in 1866, broke the union between Prussia and Austria, and made it plain that Prussia was the most powerful of the German states. Bismarck's next aim was to win the South German states, and in pursuit of this he was more than willing to push on a war with France. The success of the German army brought about an enthusiasm and strength of patriotism that resulted in the coronation of William in 187I as German Emperor.

Now that the empire was established, the great chancellor aimed at the victories of peace. He skillfully kept clear of international entanglements and formed such alliances as would best conduce to the greatness of the country. Between him and the Emperor William I there was a strong and sincere attachment; but when, after the short reign of Frederick, William II came to the throne, trouble arose. Bismarck had ruled the land for too many years to submit to an autocratic young man of twenty-nine. The result was the minister's resignation. He died in 1898. As has been well said, "He found Germany a group of jealous kingdoms and principalities, the shuttlecock of Austria and France. He left it a united nation, one of the world's great Powers, and the dominant force on the Continent of Europe.

It is interesting to observe Bismarck as, in the legislative palace at Berlin, he sits on the central bench of the Reichstag, which is set apart for the imperial ministers. He usually enters just before the house is called to order, and with a haughty nod here and there, sits plump down into his chair, apparently unconscious of the multitude of eyes that are fixed upon him. He begins at once his work of signing papers, glancing rapidly over dispatches, and giving orders to the secretaries who stand by. Now and then he throws a quick glance across the chamber; then settles down again, folds his arms across his breast, and seems to be carrying on a double process of listening to what is said, and of meanwhile thinking hard. But if Herr Lasker or Herr Haenel happens to be delivering an eloquent tirade against the Government, you can easily read upon the chancellor's grim face, and in his nervous, petulant movements, the emotion which is agitating him. He is not one of those nerveless men who can listen with a stolid face and contemptuously placid smile to the invectives of his antagonists. Irritable, imperious, yet thin-skinned and sensitive, Bismarck never seems to care to conceal the annoyance or anger so easily aroused in his breast by opposition. At such a time you will see him contract his bushy brows, look rapidly around the chamber as if to take stock of his enemies, and finally rise to his feet amid a sudden hush and breathless attention. In a delivery broken, abrupt; spasmodic, with a voice husky and apparently always finding its breath with difficulty,---except at certain moments of high passion, when it rings out strong, clear, and defiant,---with his big hands clutching the shining buttons of his military tunic, or savagely twirling and twisting a paper or a pencil, he proceeds to reply to the attack. His round gray eyes flash brightly and fiercely, his large frame sways to and fro, his face grows red, his legs are sometimes crossed, then suddenly drawn wide apart; and he goes on in the simplest, clearest, frankest language, to justify his acts and repel the assertions of his antagonist. Every one is astonished at his frankness; his blunt avowal of his motives; his unequivocal declarations of future policy; his merciless handling, not only of his immediate opponent, but of all his opponents, and of men and courts outside of Germany. It is a part of his adroitness to seem imprudently frank; his apparent imprudence and recklessness, are, we may be sure, calculated beforehand. But there can be no doubt that his wrath is genuine; or that the greatest difficulty he encounters in debate is that of keeping in check his most unruly temper.

When we follow Bismarck from the chancellerie and the Reichstag, from the palace and the council chamber, to his homes in the Friedrichstrasse and at Varzin, he appears to us under many fresh and more pleasing aspects. For this grim, iron-souled chief, whose courage, will, determination, and despotic temper are so irresistible on the public arena, is really one of the most human of men. He is still, though often oppressed by well-nigh insufferable neuralgic pains, as fond of a frolic as a boy.

He is far happiest in his home, surrounded by a family than which there never was a family more tenderly and chivalrously beloved. He has a great, affectionate, generous heart; his ardent devotion to those who have won his love is in the mouths of all Germany. His home, too, is a temple, in which the household gods are many. In speaking of his quiet, domestic, sweet-tempered wife, he once said, "She it is who has made me what I am." At one of the most brilliant periods of his life he wrote to this congenial partner: "I long for the moment when, established in our winter quarters, we sit once more around the cheerful tea-table, let the Neva be frozen as thick as it will." These winter quarters were the massive, three-story house, No. 76 Friedrichstrasse, the chancellor's official residence. A sentry's box at the front gate indicates its public nature; within, liveried attendants moving to and fro betray that this great man, simple and robust as are his tastes, must still maintain some show of state. The broad stairway is adorned by two stone sphinxes, which seem to symbolize Bismarck's policy, if not his character. Beyond, are the larger apartments of the house,---the drawing and reception rooms; while still more remote, and only accessible to those especially honored by Bismarck's friendship, is the large, plain, curiously furnished library, where he at once performs the burden of his labors and takes his chief comfort. The windows of the library overlook an umbrageous park; the room itself is garnished with suits of armor, boxing gloves, foils, swords, and other paraphernalia of war and the "manly arts." Time was when Bismarck used to sit there, drinking big draughts of mixed porter and champagne, smoking a bottomless student pipe, and working like a giant, till far into the earlier hours of the morning. Latterly, tortured by neuralgia, he has given up these midnight indulgences and labors, and sits with his family in the common sitting-room.

It is not here in the Friedrichstrasse, however, amid the bustle of the crowded city and swarms of officials and satellites, that Bismarck takes his chief delight. It is only at Varzin, nearby his ancestral home, among the scenes of his mad and rollicking youth, that he most fully enjoys the luxury of living. When away, he is constantly longing for Varzin. He once said: "I often dream that I see Varzin---all the trees that I know so well, and the blue sky; and I fancy that I am enjoying it all."

Ample acres and all the appurtenances of a prosperous and well-kept landed estate surround the spacious Pomeranian mansion of the chancellor. The stables shelter many thoroughbreds, the kennels are crowded with Bismarck's favorite dogs. The conservatories teem with rare fruits and flowers; and in all these things the master takes a keen and watchful interest. But he is most often found at Varzin, as at Berlin, in his study. This is a six-sided apartment, furnished with rugged simplicity. An enormous chimney and open fireplace fill in one of the corners; on either side of which rises a column bearing a coat-of-arms on an emblazoned shield. Bismarck is proud of his blood and his ancestry. After the French war, he added to his coat-of-arms the banners of Alsace and Lorraine, and chose as his motto, "Trinitate Robur," --- "My strength in trinity,"---an old family device. "And," suggested a friend, "it may also signify >My strength in the three-in-one God.'" "Quite so," replied the prince, gravely. "That was what I meant." A bust of the Emperor surmounts the chimney; while before it there are placed two stiff, high-backed chairs. The walls are adorned, as Bismarck everywhere is fond of adorning them, with many curiosities; there are Tunisian sabers and Japanese swords, Russian hunting knives and braces of pistols, military caps and quaint bits of armor. The furniture of the room comprises sofas, divans, and the chancellor's writing-desk covered with green cloth, and having upon it a white porcelain inkstand and a two-armed student lamp; on a small table at one side is a large Bible, evidently much used; everything is solid, plain, and substantial, like Bismarck himself. This feature of simple comfort is discernible, indeed, throughout the house. Nor is it without its mysterious staircase. Such a one leads from a corridor into unknown regions. "The castle keep?" once asked a friend, pointing to the door. "That is my sally-port," said Bismarck; and he went on to explain that it led to a path in the woods, whither the great man was fain incontinently to retreat when threatened by a raid of unwelcome guests.

Many of Bismarck's most attractive personal traits are hinted to us by his surroundings. Once within the serene atmosphere of Varzin, the stern chancellor becomes the devoted family man, the enthusiastic sportsman, the frank and talkative friend, and even the genial wit. Those who have been privileged to hear his conversation, declare it to be replete with brilliant sallies, humorous hits, and graphic descriptions. At his ease he is one of the frankest, most genial, most entertaining of men. Adamant as he seems in public, he has been known to feel so bitterly the stings of hostile sarcasm and criticism as to give way to fits of weeping. When, during the Austrian war, the German generals desired to push on and invade Hungary, Bismarck strenuously opposed the project; but his arguments were in vain. Chagrined at his failure to convince them, he suddenly left the room, went into the next, threw himself upon the bed, and wept and groaned aloud. "After a while," he says, "there was silence in the other room, and then the plan was abandoned." His tears had conquered where his arguments had failed. His mode of life is peculiar. Being often sleepless, his usual hour of rising is ten in the morning. His breakfast is simple, consisting generally of a cup of tea, two eggs, and a piece of bread. At dinner he eats and drinks, like a true Pomeranian, copiously and freely. His princely appetite, indeed, is described as being truly voracious. His table groans with a superabundance of rich and indigestible food, and dizzy concoctions of champagne and porter, sherry and tea. "The German people," said he on one occasion, alluding to the many hampers of his known favorite meats, fish, and fruits sent him from all quarters, "are resolved to have a fat chancellor."

Sometimes, like lesser folks, Bismarck has fits of the blues and of brooding; which can scarcely be wondered at when we consider his self-indulgence at table. On these occasions he distresses those around him by the most forlorn reflections. Once he declared that he had made nobody happy by his public acts---neither himself, nor his family, nor the country. "I have had," he went on gloomily, "little or no pleasure out of all I have done---on the contrary, much annoyance, care and trouble." In brighter moods he takes all this back, and revels, with almost boyish exultation, in the splendor of his state strokes, and the new face he has put upon the world's events.

"Where is my dog?" was Bismarck's first exclamation when, on a recent visit to Vienna, he alighted from the railway train. Never did a man cherish a fonder affection for the brute creation than this king-maker and world-mover. He watched by the side of his dying "Sultan" as he might have done over a favorite child, and begged to be left alone with him in the final hour. When the faithful old friend gasped his last breath, Bismarck, with tears in his eyes, turned to his son and said: "Our German forefathers had a kind belief that, after death, they would meet again, in the celestial hunting-grounds, all the good dogs that had been their faithful companions in life. I wish I could believe that!" For children Bismarck had an ardent fondness. His bright little grandchildren are the very joy of his old age. On every occasion, he seems to take delight in humoring and pleasing the young. Curiously commingled in his large nature are sentiment and satire, kindliness and humor. One day he was taking a walk with his wife at the famous watering-place of Kissingen. As they were about to turn down a side path, the chancellor saw just beyond a rustic family, evidently anxious to catch a good glimpse of him. The youngest daughter, a girl of ten, started forward, and with an expression half-timid, half-bold, approached, staring at him. Bismarck at once turned aside and sat down on a rustic bench by the road, until the girl had passed; when rising, he bowed his most stately bow to her, said gravely, "Good-morning, miss," and proceeded down the secluded path.

There can be no doubt of Bismarck's sturdy personal courage. One striking incident in his career has proved that to all time. One day in 1866, as he was returning home from the palace through the Unter den Linden, he was shot from behind by an assassin. He turned short, seized the miscreant, and though feeling himself wounded held the man with iron grasp until some soldiers came up. He then walked rapidly home, sat down with his family and ate a hearty dinner. After the meal was over, he walked up to his wife and said, "You see, I am quite well"; adding, "you must not be anxious, my child. Somebody has fired at me; but it is nothing, as you see." It was the first intimation she had had of the attempted tragedy.

These necessarily rapid glances at Bismarck's career and character may fitly be brought to a close by referring to the depth and sincerity of his religious faith and feelings. In an age when skepticism and atheism are especially rampant among his countrymen, Bismarck adhered stoutly to the sturdy creed of his fathers. "I do not understand," he once wrote to his wife, "how a man who thinks about himself, and yet knows and wishes to know nothing of God, can support his existence, out of very weariness and disgust. I do not know how I bore it formerly. If I were now to live without God as then, I would not know in very truth why I should not put away life like a soiled robe."

This simple fervor of humble and deep-rooted faith seems to me to shed greater luster on his full, troubled, but triumphant life, than the conquest of Austrian or Frank, the rebuilding of a fallen empire, the sway of a power which bends all Europe to its will, or even that lofty mastery over event and circumstances which must record his name the highest on the illustrious roll of the statesmen of our century.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VII: Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, pp. 253-262.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998

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