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The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 10 / Prince Otto Von Bismarck, Count Helmuth Von Moltke, Ferdinand Lassalle

Prince Otto Von Bismarck


BY KUNO FRANCKE, PH.D., LL.D., Litt.D. Professor of the History of German Culture, Harvard University.

No man since Luther has been a more complete embodiment of German nationality than Otto von Bismarck. None has been closer to the German heart. None has stood more conspicuously for racial aspirations, passions, ideals.

It is the purpose of the present sketch to bring out a few of these affinities between Bismarck and the German people.


Perhaps the most obviously Teutonic trait in Bismarck's character is its martial quality. It would be preposterous, surely, to claim warlike distinction as a prerogative of the German race. Russians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, undoubtedly, make as good fighters as Germans. But it is not an exaggeration to say that there is no country in the world where the army is as enlightened or as popular an institution as it is in Germany.

The German army is not composed of hirelings of professional fighters whose business it is to pick quarrels, no matter with whom. It is, in the strictest sense of the word, the people in arms. Among its officers there is a large percentage of the intellectual élite of the country; its rank and file embrace every occupation and every class of society, from the scion of royal blood down to the son of the seamstress. Although it is based upon the unconditional acceptance of the monarchical creed, nothing is farther removed from it than the spirit of servility. On the contrary, one of the very first teachings which are inculcated upon the German recruit is that, in wearing the "king's coat," he is performing a public duty, and that by performing this duty he is honoring himself. Nor can it be said that it is the aim of German military drill to reduce the soldier to a mere machine, at will to be set in motion or be brought to a standstill by his superior. The aim of this drill is rather to give each soldier increased self-control, mentally no less than bodily; to develop his self-respect; to enlarge his sense of responsibility, as well as to teach him the absolute necessity of the subordination of the individual to the needs of the whole. The German army, then, is by no means a lifeless tool that might be used by an unscrupulous and adventurous despot to gratify his own whims or to wreak his private vengeance. The German army is, in principle at least, a national school of manly virtues, of discipline, of comradeship, of self-sacrifice, of promptness of action, of tenacity of purpose. Although, probably, the most powerful armament which the world has ever seen, it makes for peace rather than for war. Although called upon to defend the standard of the most imperious dynasty of western Europe, it contains more of the spirit of true democracy than many a city government on this side of the Atlantic.

All this has to be borne in mind if we wish to judge correctly of Bismarck's military propensities. He has never concealed the fact that he felt himself, above all, a soldier. One of his earliest public utterances was a defense of the Prussian army against the sympathizers with the revolution of 1848. His first great political achievement was the carrying through, in the early sixties, of King William's army reform in the face of the most stubborn and virulent opposition of a parliamentary majority. Never, in the years following the formation of the Empire, did his speech in the German Parliament rise to a higher pathos than when he was asserting the military supremacy of the Emperor, or calling upon the parties to forget their dissensions in maintaining the defensive strength of the nation, or showering contempt upon liberal deputies who seemed to think that questions of national existence could be solved by effusions of academic oratory. Over and over, during the last decade of his official career, did he declare that the only thing which kept him from throwing aside the worry and vexation of governmental duties and retiring to the much coveted leisure of home and hearth, was the oath of vassal loyalty constraining him to stand at his post until his imperial master released him of his own accord. And at the very height of his political triumphs he wrote to his sovereign: "I have always regretted that my talents did not allow me to testify my attachment to the royal house and my enthusiasm for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland in the front rank of a regiment rather than behind a writing-desk. And even now, after having been raised by your Majesty to the highest honors of a statesman, I cannot altogether repress a feeling of regret at not having been similarly able to carve out a career for myself as a soldier. Perhaps I should have made a poor general, but if I had been free to follow the bent of my own inclination I would rather have won battles for your Majesty than diplomatic campaigns."

It seems clear that both the defects and the greatness of Bismarck's character are intimately associated with these military leanings of his. He certainly was overbearing; he could tolerate no opposition; he was revengeful and unforgiving; he took pleasure in the appeal to violence; he easily resorted to measures of repression; he requited insults with counter-insults; he had something of that blind furor Teutonicus which was the terror of the Italian republics in the Middle Ages. These are defects of temper which will probably prevent his name from ever shining with that serene lustre of international veneration that has surrounded the memory of a Joseph II. or a Washington with a kind of impersonal immaculateness. But his countrymen, at least, have every reason to condone these defects; for they are concomitant results of the military bent of German character, and they are offset by such transcendent military virtues that we would almost welcome them as bringing this colossal figure within the reach of our own frailties and shortcomings.

Three of the military qualities that made Bismarck great seem to me to stand out with particular distinctness: his readiness to take the most tremendous responsibilities, if he could justify his action by the worth of the cause for which he made himself responsible; his moderation after success was assured; his unflinching submission to the dictates of monarchical discipline.

Moritz Busch has recorded an occurrence, belonging to the autumn of 1877, which most impressively brings before us the tragic grandeur and the portentous issues of Bismarck's career. It was twilight at Varzin, and the Chancellor, as was his wont after dinner, was sitting by the stove in the large back drawing-room. After having sat silent for a while, gazing straight before him, and feeding the fire now and anon with fir-cones, he suddenly began to complain that his political activity had brought him but little satisfaction and few friends. Nobody loved him for what he had done. He had never made anybody happy thereby, he said, not himself, nor his family, nor any one else. Some of those present would not admit this, and suggested "that he had made a great nation happy." "But," he retorted, "how many have I made unhappy! But for me three great wars would not have been fought; eighty thousand men would not have perished; parents, brothers, sisters, and wives would not have been bereaved and plunged into mourning…. That matter, however, I have settled with God." "Settled with God!"—an amazing statement, a statement which would seem the height of blasphemy if it were not an expression of noblest manliness, if it did not reveal the soul of a warrior dauntlessly fighting for a great cause, risking for it the existence of a whole country as well as his own happiness, peace, and salvation, and being ready to submit the consequences, whatever they might be, to the tribunal of eternity. To say that a man who is willing to take such responsibilities as these makes himself thereby an offender against morality appears to me tantamount to condemning the Alps as obstructions to traffic. A people, at any rate, that glories in the achievements of a Luther has no right to cast a slur upon the motives of a Bismarck.

Whatever one may think of the worth of the cause for which Bismarck battled all his life—the unity and greatness of Germany—it is impossible not to admire the policy of moderation and self-restraint pursued by him after every one of his most decisive victories. And here again we note in him the peculiarly German military temper. German war-songs do not glorify foreign conquest and brilliant adventure; they glorify dogged resistance and bitter fight for house and home, for kith and kin. The German army, composed as it is of millions of peaceful citizens, is essentially a weapon of defense. And it can truly be said that Bismarck, with all his natural aggressiveness and ferocity, was in the main a defender, not a conqueror. He defended Prussia against the intolerable arrogance and un-German policy of Austria; he defended Germany against French interference in the work of national consolidation; he defended the principle of State sovereignty against the encroachments of the Papacy; he defended the monarchy against the republicanism of the Liberals and Socialists; and the supreme aim of his foreign policy after the establishment of the German Empire was to guard the peace of Europe.

The third predominant trait of Bismarck's character that stamps him as a soldier—his unquestioning obedience to monarchical discipline—is so closely bound up with the peculiarly German conceptions of the functions and the Purpose of the State, that it will be better to approach this Part of his nature from the political instead of the military side.


In no other of the leading countries of the world has the laissez faire

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The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 10

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