The first time that I saw Prince Bismark—it was ten years ago—I had a singular illustration of the nervousness which may he bred in the strongest natures by the constant presence of known though invisible dangers. It was at the close of a session of the Reichstag. I happened to hurry down the stairs just before adjournment, and to shoot out somewhat abruptly through a public door, just as the chancellor emerged from an adjoining private entrance, alone and busy with his thoughts. As he saw me he gave an involuntary start, and seemed almost to shrink back within the passage; but recovered himself instantly, of course, and moved on. The incident was a trifling one, yet it was characteristic of the personal difficulties of statesmanship in Germany. Up to that time the prince had been the object of but one murderous attempt, and the reams of threatening letters received by him he doubtless regarded, in the spirit of the familiar adage, as an assurance of long life and a peaceful death. But to those radical enemies, of whom young Blind was the representative, he had since added the whole French nation, whom his arms and his diplomacy had crushed, and the Roman Catholics of his own country, on whom his ecclesiastical policy had begun to press; and although the French have not proved to be assassins, his instincts in regard to the church were correct, for Kullmann must be added to the glorious company of the Gerards, the Clements, and the Ravaillacs, — less famous only because less successful. Now, the recollection of past perils, and the apprehension of others, certain though hidden, would not make a brave man timid, but they would make him watchful and suspicious. They make wise precautions a duty as well as a right; and in Bismarck’s case these have grown more stringent with time, so that now he steps from his room in the Diet directly into a close carriage, and rarely walks abroad in public.
Happily the dispatch which announced the attempt of Kullmann announced also its failure, and despondency was not added to the indignation of the public. But the incident violently revived among the Germans the sense, sometimes dormant, never wholly extinct, of a cruel possibility—for they refuse to concede the necessity—that Bismarck, though he had twice escaped the assassin, was not invulnerable or immortal, and that his death, or even some cause less than death, would some day rob the empire of his services, and throw it upon its own copious but clumsy and untried resources. Since that time a series of events has repeatedly thrown the country into a state of agitation and alarm. The chancellor has been often ill, — several times gravely, once, at least, dangerously. He has twice resigned; and although both resignations were withdrawn, and certain audacious skeptics even pretend that neither was seriously meant, they gave a powerful stimulus to that element of pessimism which, in spite of an outward show of confidence and enthusiasm, is widely diffused among thinking German patriots. The prospect of an appalling calamity grows, therefore, more real from year to year. The nation is aware of this sinister possibility, and in its more resolute moments even treats as probable what seemed once only possible. When it makes one further advance, and recognizes the ultimate loss of Bismarck as a stern necessity, it may begin to make some provision for the future by reflection, by consultation, and by contingent measures, which at the proper time can be changed into acts and institutions. But of this ordinary prudence there is no sign at present. History affords, of course, other instances of this close relation between a single statesman and the fortunes of his country: that of Holland and William of Orange is one, strikingly similar in many respects. And what the brilliant historian of the Dutch republic says of William and the effects of his untimely death will not unfitly describe a crisis toward which Germany is approaching. Habit, necessity, and the natural gifts of the man had combined, says Motley, “to invest him with an authority which seemed more than human. There was such general confidence in his sagacity, courage, and purity that the nation had come to think with his brain and act with his hand.” It is certain, too, that in Germany, as in the Netherlands, there will be “a feeling as of absolute and helpless paralysis.”
Whether the parallel may be completed to the end, whether the character of Bismarck, too, has been “steadily expanding as the difficulties of his situation increased,” is a question which history and criticism will undertake to answer, and which can be answered with success, and without indecency, only after his career shall have been closed.
The presence of the man still among the living and his continued activity among the working prevent a complete and final judgment; the nearness of the point from which observations are taken may impair even the correctness of a mere portrait. My own acquaintance with the chancellor is indeed so very slight, that I have no right to feel or express the personal sympathy which becomes the friend and companion. But one cannot live for a number of years in the vicinity of so prominent a man, in an occupation which requires while it facilitates close, careful, and uninterrupted study of his character and work, and above all when the study is guided by a genuine regard for the cause and the people that he serves, without feeling admiration pass gradually into personal interest, and interest into a species of immediate affection. Few men have been, in fact, better fitted than Bismarck to encourage this development in the moods of the observer. He is admired or feared much more than he is loved; but he is loved, though perhaps with a vague romantic, rather than a rational attachment, to an extent which it is difficult to realize from a distance, and of which the victims of the passion are themselves not always proud. The most practical and realistic of statesmen, his measures are never wholly free from that veil of mystery which, by concealing ugly features to the sense, often beautifies them to the fancy. With a most robust personality, in which every thing is massive and real, he has yet produced finer dramatic effects, and won the attention of larger audiences, than any other statesman of modern times. He is serious, grave, and occasionally even despondent; is irritable and impetuous; hates to be forced to convince, though not unwilling to argue; can be cruel even to a fallen if still unrepentant foe; is in short defaced by many faults of temper and temperament: but his proportions are still so vast, and his energies so impressive, that he awes even while inviting the most hostile criticism. The Laocoon is painful and repulsive at first, but time and familiarity make its most cruel contortions lovely to the artistic eye.
One secret of Bismarck’s power of fascination over the German people lies without doubt in the intellectual sympathy which was established between them after 1866. Up to that time he had been judged only by the outward, superficial, and transient aspects of his policy, without reference to—for the greater part even in ignorance of—its ultimate aims; and this is equally true of conservatives and of liberals. The conservatives saw him trampling the constitution of Prussia under his feet, and that act of destruction seemed so praiseworthy that they refused to search into his motives. The liberals saw only an arbitrary, violent, reckless course, which the laws did not permit, which no public programme made clear, and which no prospect of success encouraged; they condemned what they could not under stand. But Sadowa changed that as by a touch of magic. All parties hastened to embrace and applaud the successful man: the liberals because he had achieved their purpose; the conservatives because he had achieved it with their means. The greatest statesman of the age, he was also recognized as the most characteristic of Germans, — the type as well as hero of the nation; a combination of Luther, Goedtz von Berlichingen, and Marshal Vorwaerts; a brawny, swaggering giant, fond of eating, drinking, and fighting, gifted with a coarse, telling humor, ready with the Latin of a “corps” student, yet with a serious purpose beneath the noise of spurs and beer glasses, beneath billingsgate doggerel and insolence, and a will which admirably served his purpose. No such picturesque character has appeared in Germany since Frederick the Great, and in some respects he understands his countrymen better than ever the hero of Sans Souci did. He has never, for instance, shocked their religious sense by his own indifference. He is a blunt, stern, almost brutal rationalist, while Frederick, except in war, showed a strong taste for foppish, sentimental, and fantastic methods. It is impossible to imagine Bismarck playing an unskillful flute, or composing French ballads, like a love-sick school-boy. The deadly foe of everything like dilettanteism, he saw at once through the shallowness and insufficiency of the liberal plan; put Germany “in the saddle,” as he had promised; fought out the battles of his generation with “blood and iron, not with parliamentary speeches;” and restored the medieval brigands to the place which had so long been usurped by a race of dyspeptic philosophers. Nay, he even confirmed in a startling way one of the favorite theories of the philosophers themselves. They had long taught, some of them, that civilization was but an unsubstantial polish, beneath which was hidden the savage man in all his picturesque ugliness. Bismarck rubbed off this polish, and presented the original, uncorrupted German: a brawling trooper, equipped for desperate work; fighting with Barbarossa, robbing with Carl Moor, burning towns with Tilly, saying mass with the priest before sacking his church, and drinking with the land-lord before robbing his till; a strange compound of frankness and ferocity, of depravity and superstition, of barbarian morals and barbarian valor. This personage, little changed by time, with more decorum, indeed, but less humor, more method, but less generosity, he called forth to complete the task on which poets, pedagogues, and barristers had spent their feeble strength. It was a hazardous game, and, confident of success, the bold gambler did not neglect to provide for failure. A popular legend credits him with the intention of blowing out his brains on the battle-field, if Sadowa had been lost. The plan was worthy of him, and is not improbable; but it has been stated by the prince him self that his more reasonable purpose was to flee to America, in case of disaster, and found a new existence this side of the Atlantic. What a field of speculation is opened by the thought of so illustrious an exile! What a commotion would have been caused among the crude triflers of American politics if this martial figure had stalked upon the scene with helmet and sabre and cavalry boots!
But Sadowa was won, not lost; and the Treaty of Prague introduced the first of Germans to his own people. From an ethical point of view, the haste with which the liberals pardoned and embraced the audacious law-breaker was of course wholly wrong. His crime, though successful, was still crime. But if the prince’s profound knowledge of the German character gave him the assurance that a prompt indemnity would await his triumphant return from Bohemia, it is no less true that the act of indemnity was also the public recognition of a man whom the country had hitherto refused to know. Even his patriotism had been denied; but could he still be arraigned as a traitor before the delegates of universal suffrage assembled in a German parliament? The question was clearly absurd. The most astute became also the most patriotic of statesmen, and from this original discovery the Germans have made rapid progress in knowledge. They have learned not only to have implicit confidence in his judgment, but also, by a species of acquired sympathy, to anticipate his judgment, to predict his course in the most complex questions that arise, to understand and almost to enjoy the shadows which relieve without obscuring the greatness of his character.
As an illustration of this truth one might cite the species of intuition with which the people foresee and welcome his appearance in the debates. The chancellor is not a frequent attendant in the Diet, nor even a regular one. To a foreigner the motives which cause his appearance, or his absence, seem often incomprehensible. He seldom announces his purpose in advance even to his nearest friends, and inquiry of them proves invariably fruitless; yet with no apparent clew to guide them, except a vague opinion as to the course which discussion on any given day is likely to take, the public have an almost infallible instinct for the visit and participation of the prince. The society of the capital seems charged as by an electric current with a subtle prescience of the event. Unfaithful deputies, whose faces are seldom seen, slip into their seats at the sound of the president’s bell; an adjutant or secretary from the palace listens as proxy in the name of the emperor; the diplomatists finger their gold-headed canes while they await the most consummate master of their art; the reporters look nervous and important; and from the general galleries a thousand eager eyes concentrate their gaze upon the chancellor himself, or the place which he usually takes.
Such an audience is very rarely disappointed. It may be early or late in the proceedings, the progress of which will have been faithfully reported to the prince at his house, but at the critical moment, — shortly before a vote, perhaps, or during the speech of some favorite adversary, — a door in the rear of the hall swings open, and from a room behind the president’s chair emerges a tall figure, wearing the undress uniform of a cavalry general, and resting his hand upon the hilt of a massive sabre. A quick glance over the hall, a bow to the president, and he strides forward to his place at the head of the elevated seats reserved for the members of the government. His entry seems to conform almost to a scheme of discipline, so loyal is he to his mannerisms. He settles himself in his chair; glances first over the notes taken by a subordinate; reads such letters as he finds on his desk; scans the latest telegrams, conveniently disposed for his use; and after these formalities he is ready to lean hack in his seat, throw one leg over the other, and examine the audience through his eye-glass. All this may take ten minutes, and the prince then begins serious work. If the debate is languid, and his intervention is not at once needed, he opens the portfolios, if any have been sent down from the foreign office, and looks at the dispatches and other original drafts, submitted for his correction or signature. Otherwise he listens closely to the speeches, and makes frequent notes, in a coarse, scrawling hand, with a pencil about twenty inches long. He is a singularly fair mark for the shafts of a malicious rival. In parliament, under the keen personal thrusts of men like Windthorst or Richter, the admirable self-command which makes him so accomplished a diplomatist seems entirely to desert him: he becomes nervous and restless; fumbles with his pen, his handkerchief, sometimes ominously even with his sword and betrays his irritation in many little ways that would be fatal to a man without other opportunities than those of the debater and the orator. Adulation would say that his is the weakness of the lion, which, vexed by the gnat, is condemned to resist only with the weapons and tactics of the gnat. Yet, when he is aroused, he can sting with a repartee equal to the best that the house produces. Unsparing of persons and prodigal of wit, he has one power not possessed in an equal measure by any of his foes, — the power of putting some impressive truth, some vivid national aspiration, into a terse, homely, yet picturesque form, which at once becomes a maxim, endowed with eternal life. Everybody is familiar with those sonorous phrases, but not everybody is aware how little they depend for effect upon oratorical art, and how much upon the sum of the prince’s personal and political opportunities.
Mr. Phillips is fond of describing an incident, reported by Lowell, from the later years of Daniel Webster. The young, vigorous, active republican party was growing up about the great veteran, threatening to leave him with only a small group of personal followers. Faneuil hall made a last effort to avert the catastrophe. A meeting was called Mr. Webster was the chief speaker; and at the close of his remarks he advanced to the front of the platform, drew his great figure up to its full height, and, with the old manner of the lion once more upon him, said, “You may dissolve the Whig party, gentlemen, indeed; but in that case what are you going to do with me?” The effect, continues Mr. Lowell, was overwhelming. We shuddered at the thought of finding another place large enough for such a Colossus. But if he had been only four feet six we should have laughed, and answered, “Who cares what becomes of you?”
In the same way Bismarck’s power in parliament depends not on his language or his thoughts, though both are excellent; nor on his manner, which is tame, weak, and vicious; nor even, in an oratorical sense, on his physical presence, noble and commanding as it is, or once was; but rather on the respect that he inspires, and the authority that he wields, through his talent, his courage, his fame, and his position. Thus, if Mr. Deputy Lasker had exclaimed, “We shall not go to Canossa!” the country would have retorted, “What do you know about it?” The chancellor could, however, make such a declaration, in a shuffling, indolent manner, with no rhetorical force whatever; and yet it thrilled the people like the tones of a mighty prophet, because, as repeated from mouth to mouth, and echoed by thousands of patriotic sheets, it was a pledge given alike to the meanest peas ant and the richest burgher by the man who had led Germany through fire, tem pest, and blood to Sadowa and Sedan, to unity, strength, and confidence, and had at his command the accumulated culture, the science, the moral and physical resources, of the nineteenth century. The aged patriot heard the words, and revived with a sense of new life. The young man looked abroad over the reunited fatherland, throbbing with ingenuous pride at the energy of its own organs, and in his fancy thousands and thousands of German soldiers were seen hurrying toward the south, scaling the Alps as they had scaled the Vosges, bridging the Po and the Tiber as they had bridged the Seine and the Loire, until that priestly insolence which for centuries had harassed the fortunes of the country was hunted, like the monster in the Faerie Queene, to its loath some den, and at last forever silenced.
Incidents like these seem to raise Bismarck, at long intervals, to the height of real oratory. But in general he hates phrases, even patriotic phrases; and, rightly shunning a style of address in which hundreds of paltry rhetoricians, ancient and modern, are his rivals, prefers a grotesque and caustic humor, which is more natural and not less effective. In this he has never had a superior. All his speeches are seasoned with it, and never fail, accordingly, to be entertaining, in spite of the exasperating sophisms which they now and then offer to the specialist. Thus, when interrogated once in the Diet about the part which Germany was taking in the negotiations for a congress on the Eastern question, he made a long explanatory reply; but the substance of the whole was condensed in a significant figure taken from the language of the exchange. He was nothing more, he said, than the “honest broker” in the transaction, the intermediary who carries out the orders of his principals. The country was at once reassured. Germany’s interests could not be very deeply engaged in the business if Bismarck was willing to be a mere agent of the Beaconsfields and Gortschakows, of the Turk, the Briton, and the Muscovite. This gift of quaint drollery the prince uses impartially for the gravest and the humblest objects. I remember an occasion when the Diet seemed inclined to grumble over a proposed appropriation for improving the spacious garden which belongs to his official residence; but he turned all such scruples into ridicule by observing, dryly, that he asked for the money only as the guardian of state property; that if the garden was to be kept at all it ought to be improved; that he, personally, cared nothing whatever about it; and that, so far as he was concerned, the house might, if it chose, “turn it into a turnip patch.” The house was of course convulsed, and an appropriation voted, in which the chancellor really had a most vivid interest. For the garden so contemptuously disowned plays no small part in the economy of his life. Under its massive trees, along its salubrious paths, he enjoys all of nature that in latter years Berlin seems to offer him. With no other company than his faithful dog, he there composes his speeches, meditates on the future of his country, and makes and unmakes the map of Europe. It was there that he received the first official visit of Bayard Taylor, and, walking up and down with him under the great oaks, discussed like a poet the secrets of the poetic art. The garden was therefore not only agreeable, but even indispensable to him; and his droll show of indifference covered its enemies with fatal derision.
With all his pugnacity, his temper, and his wit, he is nevertheless very unskillful in the use of invective. He lacks the power of pathetic and indignant declamation; and the outbursts of childish petulance with which he answers hostile criticism pain the house by their contrast with his vast proportions, physical and political. His passion finds too easy expression in unmanly sneers, which defeat their own purpose. Justly sensible of the difficulties of his place, and knowing that he en joys the confidence of the country, he resents even the proper suggestions of the country’s deputed counselors as fresh obstacles ungratefully thrown in his way. To escape the speeches of Eugene Richter, a persistent but perfectly decorous critic, he had nothing better than the silly expedient of running out of the hall. Lasker and Schorlemer invariably put him into a furious passion. Yet when most angry he is least eloquent in manner and in matter; so that his more judicious friends never fail to be uneasy when, with trembling voice and twitching hands, and a frame swaying with fierce emotion, he strives to answer the personal attacks of cool and practiced debaters. It is likely that he will shock by coarseness of speech, and yet fail through weakness of style. Titanic wrath finds Lilliputian utterance. An Achilles in courage, he is a Thersites in debate, as often as the can did censure of friends or the vicious taunts of foes goad him into the loss of his temper.
The strictures of the editors are borne by the prince with even less patience than those of the deputies. Parliament, though an evil, is a qualified, or at least a necessary evil, while the press is neither the one nor the other, nor anything but an illegitimate and mischievous concern; a vagabond in politics and society; full of idle curiosity which scruples at no means; a beggar by trade, yet stealing where it cannot beg; dull without decorum, impudent without wit, officious without zeal for the public good, and critical without a sense of responsibility. He tolerates it, therefore, only within the most rigorous limitations. A certain freedom in the discussion of measures, being necessary to its existence, is grudgingly conceded; but personal criticism is made difficult by a variety of ingenious and annoying restrictions, which no other public official enforces so often and so vindictively as Prince Bismarck. It is dangerous for a newspaper to treat him with offensive levity. Skepticism in regard to his political ability is no less criminal than imputations upon his personal honor. There is, in fact, almost no disrespectful newspaper paragraph which does not find the prince ready with a denunciation, the public prosecutor with an indictment, the court with a sentence, and the jailer finally with a cell for the audacious author. It used even to be said that the sensitive statesman kept a sup ply of blank forms to facilitate his part in this system of justice.
Hatred of the press is a feeling which Bismarck neither controls nor conceals. Of his many prejudices, this is perhaps the strongest; and it is certainly the one of which the gratification most often places him in an unworthy and ridiculous light. To arraign an editor for writing, say, that his highness is but an indifferent horseman makes his irritability public, and therefore absurd. But this form of vengeance can less easily be taken upon personal enemies. Count von Arnim was indeed hunted from court to court, and from prison to prison, until exile became his only relief from the implacable chancellor; and there have been other victims, less exalted, but scarcely less unfortunate. They may all, like Arnim, have deserved punishment, and the tribunals are doubtless just. With the trials of journalism constantly before them, the minister, and the diplomatist had no excuse for being ignorant of the truth that whenever a statesman makes traitors to the commonwealth out of critics of his person or policy, and has power equal to his disposition, the courts of law may easily become agents of torture, and the penalties of crime seem as cruel as the judgments of the Inquisition. But at length a point is reached beyond which even this system fails to work. To abbreviate the path and hasten the triumph of the prince’s vengeance is the delight of zealous courts; but an awkward prejudice still requires some formal offense, some tangible misdemeanor, to be proved against the victims. For a large class of obnoxious persons a new method, independent of judge or jury, has therefore been devised.
But since this method is used chiefly against subordinate officials, hardened to bear pain with the fortitude of the savage, and works as an ordinary process of the bureaucratic machine, it escapes the public eye in all except the most notorious cases. Its effects are known through conjecture rather than observation. Certain officials are recognized and pitied as objects of the prince’s displeasure, and as exposed to an endless series of personal and professional indignities, which they are expected to endure without complaint. Age, length of service, even transcendent ability, are no guarantee of good treatment. Men who had been writing for the state while Bismarck was still in his cradle, who have loyally and efficiently served three kings, and whose record for official conduct is pure as the untrodden snow have only the alternative of at least outward compliance with every whim and opinion of the despotic minister, or of breaking down under a coarse system of petty and malignant persecution. The best safeguard of official tenure is obscurity; after that, employment in a branch of the service more remote from the prince’s observation. Such a department is, for instance, that of justice. In its technical duties he has little interest; and so long as the public prosecutors arraign all the scribblers who lampoon him in the press, and the judges duly punish the miscreants who throw treasonable beer glasses at his portrait in the restaurants, he allows Dr. Fried berg considerable freedom of action in the conduct of his office. Finance is another subject with which Bismarck once troubled himself but little. In Delbrtick and Camphausen he had two specialists fully competent to manage the revenues of the country; and, repeatedly confessing his own ignorance, he deferred implicitly for many years to their better judgment. But in this field his original diffidence was at length overcome. He began to dabble in finance, to have economical opinions of his own, which were quite unlike those of his two experts; and, as a natural result, both of them retired from office. This is a species of independence which ministers of state owe to themselves. Their dignity requires, and their means commonly allow them to resent the affronts which timid, obscure, and penniless subordinates have to bear with equanimity, or ward off by abject sub mission.
Not all, however, even of the ministers are ready to assert their manhood against the master’s imperious will. After Delbrtick, for example, had resigned, because he put some value upon the opinions of a lifetime, Bismarck looked about for an assistant who could rise above any such fantastic regard for consistency; and he tried Hofmann, the present incumbent. his judgment of character did not deceive him. Never was there an official who sacrificed his own convictions as well as his own self respect so freely for the interests of the service. I was once present in the Reichstag when Bismarck felt it necessary to explain his own more direct interference in the details of administration; and, with Hofmann sitting by his side, he deliberately observed that when Delbrtick was president of the chancelry he could leave everything with confidence to him, but that under his successor he was obliged to look more sharply after things himself. The house shuddered, and Hofmann attempted a genial smile. But he is still president of the chancelry, and draws his salary to this day. The late minister of commerce, Dr. Achenbach, is another official equally meek, though he was not rewarded for his meekness in an equal degree. He is a dull, plodding, prosaic bureaucrat, ready to surrender every thing except his salary, which he needs, to the real or the supposed exigencies of his chief. But the time came when the chancellor required brains as well as docility in the holder of the portfolio; and, instead of asking Dr. Achenbach politely for his resignation, he openly denounced him in the Prussian Diet for incompetency, and in this cruel style literally drove him out of office. Even then the doctor did not scruple to accept a minor post, better adapted to his capacity. A third case was in the Reichstag. The management of the Imperial Railway Bureau had been criticised; the head of that bureau was on the ministerial bench; and yet, in the most jaunty and cold-blooded manner, the chancellor declared that the management was bad because the place was not sufficiently paid to enable him to engage an efficient man!
To explain this strange heartlessness the Germans are accustomed to say that it is part of a system of government, and is required in each case by urgent reasons of state. It is political cruelty, but not personal, — a distinction which has, perhaps, a certain basis of truth. For it is no infrequent thing to see the prince calmly and benevolently stroking the back of some colleague whom, be fore an assembled Diet, he has just chastised in the most cruel and relentless manner; while the victim himself receives the caresses as if, in submitting to the lash, he had performed a meritorious public action. Absence of malice on the part of the stern teacher is repaid by absence of resentment on the part of the suffering pupil, — a relation which carries one into a novel scheme of practical politics. But a delicate person would hardly be encouraged to seek employment in such a state. If he be unfortunate enough to arouse the hostility of Bismarck, he is likely to be tortured, day by day, with unfeeling persistence; yet not even the most complete self-abnegation, the most correct deportment, can give him the assurance that the public whipping-post will not be the ultimate test and reward of his patriotism. Friends feel themselves, therefore, but one degree safer than enemies. The sport of antipathies which are surprisingly keen and eager, and sway his judgment in the most trifling matters, the prince wants the corresponding faculty of strong affections, and never sacrifices a public interest to a personal friendship. He is best served by men who know how to avoid his hatred, and are willing to dispense with his love.
In his domestic and family attachments a gradual decline from extreme warmth to apparent indifference may be traced. The earlier and not the least trying years of his public career present him as a model of the fireside virtues: a faithful husband in the midst of unusual temptations; a father fond without folly, and just without rigor; a brother whose fraternal devotion has been not injudiciously revealed to the world in a most charming and instructive volume of letters. But the infirmities, moral and physical, of his advancing age, his growing absorption in the cares of state, and deepening hostility to all the seductions of repose and recreation have, combined to dim the glow, if not the fervor, of his domestic affections. They may continue to burn with the same warmth, but they throw out a weak and ineffectual light. It would be neither unjust to Bismarck nor dangerous to truth to assume that his private correspondence of the past decade contains few letters to “Maiwine” on the proper cut of a lady’s boot, and still fewer to his “liebes Herz” on the etiquette and ceremony of court balls.
This would be a safe assumption, if only for the reason that, shunning festivities of every sort, as he has done in recent years, the prince has few opportunities to observe and describe the piquant details of social life. His diplomacy never relied greatly, even in his militant days, on the dinner table. He seemed always indifferent to the charms as to the uses of the salon, and, for so accomplished a cavalier, little attracted, if not actually repelled, by the society of the fair sex. Nor is it probable that this is wholly, though it may be partly, due to the aversion which he early conceived, and has never lost, to the crown princess, and to the knowledge that the two most determined enemies, both of his person and of his policy, were the empress herself and her surviving predecessor, the widowed Queen Elizabeth. These antipathies were long a scandal of the capital; but Bismarck could hardly condemn an entire sex, and its favorite sphere of action and influence, on account of the faults of three, even when they were its most exalted representatives. This would have been illogical and unjust. The more probable supposition is rather that he has no very deep feeling either for or against society, but, being strong or bold enough to dispense with its aids and neglect its demands, simply devotes his time to more important work. During the congress of 1878 he attended but two entertainments, both at the palace, and even those, perhaps, because the invitations were equivalent to commands. The ambassadors all gave weekly receptions, and nearly every evening during the month had its appointed feast; yet the president of the congress, who, according to etiquette, was also its representative host, shut himself up at home and toiled far into the night, while his colleagues supped and danced and flirted. I fear it must be added, too, that the prince is not hospitable, either in a diplomatic or a more general sense. Such an opinion may be heard, at least, timidly whispered about at Berlin. Even the obligatory entertainments which us age almost as stern as law puts upon a man in his position are reduced by him to the single annual dinner, which, on the emperor’s birthday, the heads of foreign missions are permitted to enjoy; beyond this only the more favored can call themselves his guests; while the ladies of the corps never see the inside of his house. Thus he keeps his social accounts always severely balanced. Accepting no invitations, and giving none, he escapes the duty of gratitude, and gains the right to practice a noble frugality. The school-boy will re call in this connection the case of Pericles, who—in the text-books at least—avoided all the festivities of Athens, and found no relief from public cares except in what Mr. Grote calls his “tender domestic attachment” for Aspasia; but the belles of diplomatic society in Berlin, little awed by the prince’s great ness, and using the privilege of the sex to resent neglect, accuse him of deliberate meanness, and cannonade his burly frame with volleys of spiteful epithets.
Nor are the ladies wholly propitiated by the series of receptions which for the last two or three winters the chancellor has been in the habit of giving, and which, perhaps because they serve a practical end, he seems fairly to enjoy. For even at those gatherings the sex, though permitted, is not enthusiastically welcomed, or largely represented. I refer to the so-called parliamentary soirees.
As the term implies, these soirees are held during the session, and always in direct aid of some pending scheme of leg isolation, or in connection with the general policy for which the prince desires to enlist the sympathy of the Diet. It is natural, therefore, that they should have an easy, democratic character, in the German sense. The guests are selected, formal invitations are issued, and black dress coats are de rigueur; so much is due to prejudice. But they are not huff parties or blue, High Church or Low, patrician or plebeian, radical or conservative, free trade or protectionist; are not a collection of either personal or political friends; are not the result of any partiality which could give them a marked partisan color or shape. It is not enough that the aspirant to an invitation be a deputy, nor necessary that he be. favorable to some particular measure. Friends are of course preferred to enemies; but, in addition to the converts whom the prince wishes to reward, one may also see among the guests the men who are still doubting, though open to conviction; others whom it is impossible to convince, but impolitic to affront; and some even who are not members, not officials, and not connected at all, except by the tie of general interest, with political affairs. Journalists will be found hobnobbing with grave professors from the university. Art may have a representative in a painter who is about finishing the host’s portrait, or an architect who has just won the contract for building improvements at Varzin. The family doctor, a general or two in stiff uniform, attaches of the foreign office, the cabinet ministers, bank presidents, country gentlemen, these and other varieties are to be met; but the greater number are deputies, and the political interests of the session form, as already observed, the purpose and the key of all the proceedings. With a glass of Klosterbrau one seems to swallow indigestible pamphlets on the railway project. The wine is flavored with the tariff controversy, and persistent liberals choke over the fish salad as they choked over the socialist bill, or other measures which were forced down their throat. The hospitality of the chancellor and his family is nevertheless perfectly frank, generous, and undiscriminating. In so large a number of guests it is of course impossible that each one can be specially noticed, and, the entertainment being of a stern political character, time host is bound to make the most judicious use of his time. But the rooms are free, and the etiquette unconstrained. Excellencies are easy of approach, and converse affably on the political situation with obscure men who neither cast nor control a vote. The great buffet, temporarily set up in one of the principal rooms, is supplied with cask after cask of salubrious beer from Bavaria, and is visited with growing frequency as the evening wears away. A long table will be spread with a cold collation, and Germans have good appetites. Such of them, finally, as desire more gentle pleasures, and are not above the weakness of gallantry, can stroll into the great salle, made famous by the sittings of the congress, and pay court to the princess or the few scraggy dowagers about her.
The most characteristic part of the feast is reserved, however, until late in the evening, after the ladies have been dismissed. Cigars are then handed around, but the chancellor prefers a long Turkish pipe, which a discerning lackey will bring him at the right moment, filled and ready for use. The tobacco parliament is opened. Debate there is, indeed, none; for, although suggestions and inquiries may now and then be thrown out timidly by the listeners, the proceedings consist practically of a sustained monologue, which the prince ad dresses to the group sitting near him in chairs, or standing farther away in a semicircular fringe a bout the chairs nor are any formal conclusions adopted. There is nevertheless a well-considered method in the programme. Unable to speak without entertaining, the prince has the art and the privilege of blending instruction with entertainment, the useful with the pleasant; and thus compels the most frivolous guest to pause at some grave practical truth, while laughing at incomparable jokes. Indeed, the kernel of the discourse is perhaps to be found, only half concealed, in the jokes themselves, or the stories. With him these are something besides a mere rhetorical device. He not only puts his hearers in good humor by pleasantries; thus gaining a favorable ear for his cause, but he actually combines precept and illustration with such art and in such proportions that his hearers are already convinced, while they think they are only amused. That anecdote was not the setting of his proposition; it was the proposition itself. This pun is not an insignificant jeu d’esprit, but a vital truth, or a sophism which the prince wishes to see accepted as a truth. And thus the last hour of the evening passes away. A score or more of admiring guests, in full evening costume, dimly visible through the smoke, listening to the words of a very unmilitary-looking giant in military clothes, who discourses of the tariff or the currency in a delight fully varied stream of humor, wit, and story; of illustrations from history and incidents from his own experience; of shrewd common sense, lofty political reason, and fallacies made attractive and almost respectable, until the morning hours begin to strike, the lackeys dare to yawn, and with a parting joke, washed down with a final libation, the circle is broken up and the lights extinguished, — scenes like these can never be forgotten by one privileged to witness them, hut become rather the more firmly fixed in the memory by the approach of that inevitable catastrophe which must put an end to them forever.
At the time when the tobacco parliament began to flourish in full vigor the prince had long been struggling with the distemper which hard work, sedentary habits, a villainous diet, and sleep less nights bad planted in his originally robust system. His form has already lost the symmetry that once dazzled the salons of Paris and St. Petersburg. The frame is indeed there, but age and suffering have reduced its impressive height, and corpulency has destroyed its noble and impressive proportions. With out the firm and stately carriage of his early years, he moves clumsily under the weight of superfluous flesh and consuming disease; the glare of his eye, though still fierce, is unnatural and unwholesome; his mustache has grown gray and thin; his face is scarred with the fatal marks which betray the secret of his regimen; his whole appearance, though striking and at times still commanding, is unmistakably that of a man broken in health, and condemned by the inflexible laws of nature. Nobody except the doctor ever knows, indeed, how ill the prince actually is. Whether in Berlin, or at the baths of Kissingen, or at his rustic estate of Varzin, he suffers no public diagnosis to alarm the world by an unfavorable, or to reassure it by a favorable report. He is sensitive upon this as upon so many other points of personal concern; and the mysteries of the foreign office are not more jealously guarded than those of his physical condition. Reduced, therefore, to speculation, the country snatches eagerly at every sign or symptom. Incidents often trivial in themselves are magnified into sombre omens, which foretell the death of the chancellor, or at least his retirement, and all the appalling consequences of such an event, — political paralysis, civil rebellion, foreign war, the disruption of the empire, the ruin of the fatherland. The enemies of Bismarck are accustomed to say that he himself encourages these sinister rumors, so that he may enjoy the consternation of the people. It is also said that he flies, when possible, to Varzin, in order to escape from the bores of the capital, — a much more reasonable theory, for the bores are many. But though the prince is not unwilling to learn his own importance through the public solicitude about his health, and is less patient than Job with intrusive counselors, his suspicious aversion to Berlin has finally confirmed, to all except the blind, the melancholy truth which his shattered system reveals as often as he appears in public.
To pass from effect to cause, the chancellor’s diet and habits are now a fair subject of discussion. If there ever was any impertinence in prying into the method of his private life, a long course of unrebuked gossip, and even his own somewhat extravagant frankness, have legitimized the practice, and raised it almost to a privilege of state. The newspapers are never suppressed for taking liberties with the dinner table of the great man. M. Klaczko’s description of his style as “champagne and porter rhetoric” was incorrect, like so many other of that ingenious gentle man’s figures; but the prince himself was in no haste to disclaim the beverages from which the figure was taken. It must be accepted, therefore, as a fact, and one, probably, of which he is even proud. The capacity of the Germans for drink was noticed by Montesquieu over a century ago. He was a keen observer of national traits, and has told us how he adapted himself to the tastes of different peoples: how he passed his time in England, France, Italy; how in Germany he drank with all the world, — a practice which must have tried the fastidious Gaul more severely than any other. With such modifications as one hundred and fifty years of progress have made, the fatherland is still the classic land of drink, in respect at least to quantity. The popular songs continue to celebrate the pleasures of the cup. An English student trains his muscle by boating and football; a Frenchman fondles a grisette on his knee; but the German quaffs his beer, night after night, until the stars disappear before the morning sun, and only a hurried interval of sleep separates him from the academic task. Policy alone would therefore have taught Bismarck, as a typical German, to adopt the leading characteristic of his countrymen. But the measure was so far from requiring a struggle on his part that from his boyhood, when he was the wildest youth of the county, through his university years, which were made illustrious by feats of debauchery, and down far into his public career, until stimulants be came an alleged necessity of his nervous system, he has been notorious both for the strange compounds that he mixes and the vast quantities that he consumes. In this way he came finally to champagne and porter, and adheres to them with a devotion worthy of a better object. They are the inseparable companions of his evening work, which has always been the most successful; and, aided by other eccentricities of diet, scarcely less noxious, they have gradually undermined his vigorous constitution, and made him a physical wreck. It was a mournful spectacle, the decay of that massive frame, the decline of that Teutonic Hercules! The warnings of the doctor, the advice of friends, the prayers of his family, were unable to alter a course of diet in which the prince himself at length recognized a mortal enemy. The very admirers who had most exulted over the discovery of his prowess at the bowl were the first to take alarm when the result of that superiority began to appear.
But of Bismarck’s food and drink there are no very prominent traces in his literary style. I have ventured to dispute M. Klaczko, without indeed understanding just what sort of rhetoric lie means to describe; but if champagne makes a writer light, frothy, and delectable, and porter makes him coarse and heavy, a mixture of the two ought, it would seem, to produce a species of tedious bombast, of turgid and superficial dullness. Who would say, how ever, that any such product is realized in Bismarck? Neither his speeches nor his writings are models of choice language or correct taste, but their vices are not those of the dramshop. He has too little leisure, perhaps too little affability, for the courteous formalism of the ancient, or the sweetness and light of the modern school of dilettantes; his is a serious and difficult work; his cares are many, his responsibilities great; he lives in a state of constant intellectual tension. Opposition makes him petulant, and he falls into excesses which would grieve the gentle heart of Montaigne. He has had to fight his way through gigantic obstacles, which could not be removed by genial and tender apothegms, or by polished antitheses. His career is a paradox, but he speaks and writes the language of unadorned truth. The style is, in short, the man. It is exact, though not elegant or finished, ready without being careless, powerful rather than incisive, affluent and discursive but not diffuse, better seasoned with humor than with wit, and when free from passion highly agreeable to the most cultivated literary taste. In his conversations with Dr. Busch the prince describes the failure of his first attempt to write for the press, but he would nevertheless have made an excel lent journalist. Many of his endowments would have distinctly pointed out that profession for him, if diplomacy had not made a better claim. His career in the press would doubtless have been less eminent than the one which he actually adopted, because journalism holds relatively a low rank in Germany, and is not, as in other countries, notably in France, a preparation for politics and statesmanship. But the man who became the first diplomatist might easily have become, in other circumstances, the first editor of the country.
As remarked at the outset, it is not the purpose of this article to estimate or even to discuss the statesmanship of Bismarck. About that, opinion will long be divided, even in the father land itself. One class of patriots, more sanguine, perhaps, than discerning, will see in the unity, strength, and influence of Germany the fulfillment of the chief duty which fell upon this age, and will bestow unmixed praise and gratitude upon the leader in the great work. Others, who may be despondent by nature, will think rather of the cost of the new institutions, and their prospects of endurance. An empire achieved by the sword; a country slowly sinking under the weight of an enormous army; frontiers surrounded by jealous neighbors; an intolerable and yet growing burden of taxation; a quarter of the population alienated by ecclesiastical strife; and uncertainty both as to men and to measures for the future, — such are the shadows in the picture which the more prudent Germans regard with alarm. Of the two classes, Bismarck has seemed in recent years to belong rather to the latter. Mr. Emerson justly says that “there is a profound melancholy at the base of men of active and powerful talent, seldom suspected.” I am sure that this is the case with Prince Bismarck. Under that occasional buoyancy of spirits, which can make him such an entertaining speaker, such an agreeable raconteur; below the coarse cynicism, which people, finding it in his manner and measures, ascribe also to his nature, there has formed gradually an element of morbid and consuming melancholy which his friends are privileged to deplore, but not to disclose. His political testament, if he has made one, will not prove to be a cheerful document. He has learned to doubt the permanence of his own work.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.