ONE by one the nations of the world come to their own, have free play for their faculties, express themselves, and eventually pass onward into silence. Our age has beheld the elevation of Prussia. Well may we ask, “ What has been her message ? What the path by which she climbed into preëminence ? ” That she would reach the summit, the work of Frederick the Great in the last century, and of Stein at the beginning of this, portended. It has been Bismarck’s mission to amplify and complete their task. Through him Prussia has come to her own. What, then, does she express ?
The Prussians have excelled even the Romans in the art of turning men into machines. Set a Yankee down before a heap of coal and another of iron, and he will not rest until he has changed them into an implement to save the labor of many hands; the Prussian takes flesh and blood, and the will-power latent therein, and converts them into a machine. Such soldiers, such government clerks, such administrators, have never been manufactured elsewhere. Methodical, punctilious, thorough, are those officers and officials. The government which makes them relies not on sudden spurts, but on the cumulative force of habit. It substitutes rule for whim; it suppresses individual spontaneity, unless this can be transformed into energy for the great machine to use. That Prussian system takes a turnip-fed peasant, and in a few months makes of him a military weapon, the length of whose stride is prescribed in centimetres, — a machine which presents arms to a passing lieutenant with as much gravity and precision as if the fate of Prussia hinged on that special act. It takes the average tradesman’s son, puts him into the educational mill, and brings him out a professor, — equipped even to the spectacles, — a nonpareil of knowledge, who fastens on some subject, great or small, timely or remote, with the dispassionate persistence of a leech ; and who, after many years, revolutionizes our theory of Greek roots, or of microbes, or of religion. Patient and noiseless as the earthworm, this scholar accomplishes a similarly incalculable work.
A spirit of obedience, which on its upper side passes into deference not always distinguishable from servility, and on its lower side is not always free from arrogance, lies at the bottom of the Prussian nature. Except in India, caste has nowhere had more power. The Prussian does not chafe at social inequality, but he cannot endure social uncertainty ; he must know where he stands, if it be only on the bootblack’s level. The satisfaction he gets from requiring from those below him every scrape and nod of deference proper to his position more than compensates him for the deference he must pay to those above him. Classification is carried to the fraction of an inch. Everybody, be he privy councilor or chimney-sweep, is known by his office. On a hotel register you will see such entries as “ Frau X, widow of a schoolinspector,” or “ Fräulein Y, niece of an apothecary.”
This excessive particularization, which amuses foreigners, enables the Prussian to lift his hat at the height appropriate to the position occupied by each person whom he meets. It naturally develops acuteness in detecting social grades, and a solicitude to show the proper degree of respect to superiors and to expect as much from inferiors, — a solicitude which a stranger might mistake for servility or arrogance, according as he looked up or down. Yet, amid a punctilio so stringent, fine-breeding — the true politeness which we associate with the word " gentleman ” —rarely exists ; for a gentleman cannot be made by the rank he holds, which is external, but only by qualities within himself.
Nevertheless, these Prussians —so unsympathetic and rude compared with their kinsmen in the south and along the Rhine, not to speak of races more amiable still — kept down to our own time a strength and tenacity of character that intercourse with Western Europeans scarcely affected. Frederick the Great tried to graft on them the polished arts and the grace of the French : he might as well have decorated the granite faces of his fortresses with dainty Parisian wall-paper. But when he touched the dominant chord of his race,—its aptitude for system, — he had a large response. The genuine Prussian nature embodied itself in the army, in the bureaucracy, in state education, through all of which its astonishing talent for rules found congenial exercise. One dissipation, indeed, the Prussians allowed themselves, earlier in this century, — they reveled in Hegelianism. But even here they were true to their instinct ; for the philosophy of Hegel commended itself to them because it assumed to reduce the universe to a system, and to pigeonhole God himself.
We see, then, the elements out of which Prussia grew to be a strong state, not yet large in population, but compact and carefully organized. Let us look now at Germany, of which she formed a part.
We are struck at once by the fact that until 1871 Germany had no political unity. During the centuries when France, England, and Spain were being welded into political units by their respective dynasties, the great Teutonic race in Central Europe escaped the unifying process. The Holy Roman Empire — at best a reminiscence — was too weak to prevent the rise of many petty princedoms and duchies and of a few large states, whose rulers were hereditary, whereas the emperor was elective. Thus particularism—what we might call states’ rights — flourished, to the detriment of national union. At the end of the last century, Germany had four hundred independent sovereigns: the most powerful being the King of Prussia ; the weakest, some knight whose realm embraced but a few hundred acres, or some free city whose jurisdiction was bounded by its walls. When Napoleon, the great simplifier, reduced the number of little German states, he had no idea of encouraging the formation of a strong, coherent German Empire. To guard against this, which might menace the supremacy of France, he created the kingdoms of Bavaria and Westphalia, and set up the Confederation of the Rhine. After his downfall the German Confederation was organized, — a weak institution, consisting of thirtynine members, whose common affairs were regulated by a Diet which sat at Frankfort. Representation in this Diet was so unequal that Austria and Prussia, with forty-two million inhabitants, had only one eighth of the votes, while the small states, with but twelve million inhabitants, had seven eighths. Four tiny principalities, with two hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants each, could exactly offset Prussia with eight millions. By a similar anomaly, Nevada and New York have an equal representation in the United States Senate.
From 1816 to 1848 Austria ruled the Diet. Yet Austria was herself an interloper in any combination of German states, for her German subjects, through whom she gained admission to the Diet, numbered only four millions; but her prestige was augmented by the backing of her thirty million non-German subjects besides. Prussia fretted at this Austrian supremacy, fretted, and could not counteract it. Beside the Confederation, which so loosely bound the German particularists together, there was a Customs Union, which, though simply commercial, fostered among the Germans the idea of common interests. The spirit of nationality, potent everywhere, awakened also in the Germans a vision of political unity, but for the most part those who beheld the vision were unpractical; the men of action, the rulers, opposed a scheme which enfolded among its possibilities the curtailing of their autocracy through the adoption of constitutional government. No state held more rigidly than Prussia the tenets of absolutism.
Great, therefore, was the general surprise, and among Liberals the joy, at the announcement, in February, 1847, that the King of Prussia had consented to the creation of a Prussian Parliament. He granted to it hardly more power than would suffice for it to assemble and adjourn; but even this, to the Liberals, thirsty for a constitution, was as the first premonitory raindrops after a long drought. Among the members of this Parliament, or Diet, was a tall, slim, blond-bearded, massive-headed Brandenburger, thirty-two years old, who sat as proxy for a country gentleman. A few of his colleagues recognized him as Otto von Bismarck; the majority had never heard of him.
Bismarck was born at Schönhausen, Prussia, April 1, 1815. His paternal ancestors had been soldiers back to the time when they helped to defend the Brandenburg March against the inroads of Slav barbarians. His mother was the daughter of an employee in Frederick the Great’s War Office. Thus, on both sides his roots were struck in true Prussian soil. At the age of six he was placed in a Berlin boarding - school, of which he afterward ridiculed the “ spurious Spartanism ; ” at twelve he entered a gymnasium, where for five years he pursued the usual course of studies, — an average scholar, but already noteworthy for his fine physique ; at seventeen he went up to the University at Göttingen. In the life of a Prussian, there is but one period between the cradle and the grave during which he escapes the restraints of irongrooved routine: that period comprises the years he spends at the university. There a strange license is accorded him. By day he swaggers through the streets, leering at the women and affronting the men ; by night he carouses. And from time to time he varies the monotony of drinking-bouts by a duel. Such, at least, was the life of the university student in Bismarck’s time. At Göttingen, and subsequently at Berlin, he had the reputation of being the greatest beer-drinker and the fiercest fighter; yet he must also have studied somewhat, for in due time he received his degree in law, and became official reporter in one of the Berlin courts. Then he served as referendary at Aix-la-Chapelle, and passed a year in military service.
At twenty-four he set about recuperating the family fortunes, which had suffered through his father’s incompetence. He took charge of the estates, devoted himself to agriculture, and was known for many miles round as the “mad squire.” Tales of his revels at his country house, of his wild pranks and practical jokes, horrified the neighborhood. Yet here, again, his recklessness did not preclude good results. He made the lands pay, and he tamed into usefulness that restless animal, his body, which was to serve as mount for his mighty soul. Some biographers, referring to his bucolic apprenticeship, have compared him to Cromwell ; in his youthful roistering he reminds us of Mirabeau.
To the Diet of 1847 the mad squire came, and during several sittings he held his peace. At last, however, when a Liberal deputy declared that Prussia had risen in arms in 1813, in the hope of getting a constitution quite as much as of expelling the French, the blond Brandenburger got leave to speak. In a voice which seemed incongruously small for his stature, but which carried far and produced the effect of being the utterance of an indexible will, he deprecated the assertions just made, and declared that the desire to shake off foreign tyranny was a sufficient motive for the uprising in 1813. These words set the House in confusion. Liberal deputies hissed and shouted so that Bismarck could not go on; but, nothing daunted, he took a newspaper out of his pocket and read it, there in the tribune, till order was restored. Then, having added that whoever deemed that motive inadequate held Prussia’s honor cheap, he strode haughtily to his seat, amid renewed jeers and clamor. Such was Bismarck’s parliamentary baptism of fire.
Before the session adjourned, the deputies had come to know him well. They discovered that the mad squire, the blunt “ captain of the dykes,” was doubly redoubtable ; he had strong opinions, and utter fearlessness in proclaiming them.
His political creed , was short, — it comprised but two clauses : “ I believe in the supremacy of Prussia, and in absolute monarchy.” More royalist than the King, he opposed every concession which might diminish by a hair’s breadth the royal prerogative. Constitutional government, popular representation, whatever Liberals had been struggling and dying for since 1789, be detested. Democracy, and especially German democracy, he scoffed at. For sixty years reformers had been railing at the absurdities of the old régime ; they had denounced the injustice of the privileged classes ; they had made odious the tyranny of paternalism. Bismarck entered the lists as the champion of “ divine right,” and first proved his strength by exposing the defects of democracy.
Those who believe most firmly in democracy acknowledge, nevertheless, that it has many objections, both in theory and in practice. Universal suffrage — the abandoning of the state to the caprice of millions of voters, among whom the proportion of intelligence to ignorance is as one to ten — seems a process worthy of Bedlam. The ballot-box is hardly more accurate than the dice-box, as a test of the fitness of candidates. Popular government means party government, and parties are dogmatic, overbearing, insincere, and corrupt. The men who legislate and administer, chosen by this method, avowedly serve their party, and not the state ; and though, by chance, they should be both skillful and honest, they may be overturned by a sudden revulsion of the popular will. Such a system breeds a class of professional politicians, — men who make a business of getting into office, and whose only recommendation is their proficiency in the art of cajoling voters. A government should be managed as a great business corporation is managed: it has to deal with the weightiest problems of finance, and with delicate diplomatic questions, for which the trained efforts of judicious experts are needed; but instead of being entrusted to them, it is given over to politicians elected by multitudes who cannot even conduct their private business successfully, much less entertain large and patriotic views of the common welfare. To decide an election by a show of hands seems not a whit less absurd than to decide it by the aggregate weight or the color of the hair of the voters. We speak of the will of the majority as if it were infallibly right. The vast majority of men to-day would vote that the sun revolves round the earth : should this belief of a million ignoramuses countervail the knowledge of one astronomer ? Shall knowledge be the test of fitness in all concerns except government, the most critical, the most far reaching and responsible of all ? Majority rule substitutes mere numbers, bulk, and quantity for quality. Putting a saddle on Intelligence, it bids Ignorance mount and ride whither it will, — even to the devil. It is the dupe of its own folly ; for the politicians whom it chooses turn out to be, not the representatives of the people, but the attorneys of some mill or mine or railway.
These and similar objections to democracy Bismarck urged with a sarcasm and directness hitherto unknown in German politics. When half the world was repeating the words “ Liberalism,” “ Constitution,” “ Equality,” — as if the words themselves possessed magic to regenerate society, —he insisted that firm nations must be based upon facts, not phrases. He had the twofold advantage of invariably separating the actual from the apparent, and of being opposed by the most incompetent Liberals in Europe. However noble the ideals of the German reformers, the men themselves were singularly incapable of dealing with realities. Nor should this surprise us ; for they had but recently broken away from the machine we have described, and they had not yet a new machine to work in ; so they whirled to and fro in vehement confusion, the very rigidity of their previous restraint increasing their dogmatism and their discord.
The revolution of 1848 soon put them to the ordeal. The German Liberals aimed at national unity under a constitution. Like their brothers in Austria and Italy, they enjoyed a temporary triumph; but they could not construct. Their Parliament became a cave of the winds. Their schemes clashed. By the beginning of 1850 the old order was restored.
During this stormy crisis, Bismarck, as deputy in two successive Diets, had resolutely withstood the popular tide. He regarded the revolutionists as men in whom the qualities of knave, fool, and maniac alternately ruled ; the revolution itself, he said, had no other motive than “ a lust of theft.” One of its leaders he dismissed as a " phrase-watering-pot.” The right of assemblages he ridiculed as furnishing democracy with bellows ; a free press he Stigmatized as a blood-poisoner. When the imperial crown was offered to the King of Prussia, Bismarck argued against accepting it; he would not see his King degraded to the level of a mere “ paper president.”
Such opposition would have made the speaker conspicuous, if only for its audacity. His enemies had learned, however, that it required a strong character to support that audacity continuously. They tried to silence him with abuse; but their abuse, like tar, added fuel to his fire. They tried ridicule ; but their ridicule had too much of the German dullness to wound him. They called him a bigoted Junker, or squire. “ Remember,” he retorted, “ that the names Whig and Tory were first used opprobriously, and be assured that we will yet bring the name Junker into respect and honor.” Many anecdotes are told illustrating his quick repulse of intended insult or his disregard of formality. He was not unwilling that his enemies should remember that he held his superior physical strength in reserve, if his arguments failed. Yet on a hunting-party, or at a dinner, or in familiar conversation, he was the best of companions. Germany has not produced another, unless it were Goethe, so variedly entertaining; and Goethe had no trace of one of Bismarck’s characteristics, —humor. He possessed also tact and a sort of Homeric geniality which, coupled with unbending tenacity, fitted him to succeed as a diplomatist.
In 1851 the King appointed him to represent Prussia at the German Diet, which sat at Frankfort. The outlook was gloomy. Prussia had quelled the revolution, but she had lost prestige. Unable to break asunder the German Confederation or to dominate it, she had signed, at Olmütz, in the previous autumn, a compact which acknowledged the supremacy of her old rival, Austria. While the humiliation still rankled, Bismarck entered upon his career. Hitherto not unfriendly to Austria, because he had looked upon her as the extinguisher of the revolution, which he hated most of all, he began, now that the danger was over, to give a free rein to his jealousy of his country’s hereditary competitor. In the Diet, the Austrian representative presided, the rulings were always in Austria’s favor, the majority of the smaller states allowed Austria to guide them. Bismarck at once showed his colleagues that humility was not his rôle. Finding that the Austrian president alone smoked at the sittings, he took out his own cigar and lighted it, — a trifle, but significant. He resisted every encroachment, and demanded the strictest observance of the letter of the law. Gradually he extended Prussia’s influence among the confederates. He unmasked Austria’s insincerity; he showed how honestly Prussia walked in the path of legality ; until he slowly created the impression that wickedness was to be expected from one, and virtue from the other.
During seven years Bismarck held this outpost, winning no outward victory, but storing a vast amount of knowledge about all the states of the Confederation, their rulers and public men, which was subsequently invaluable to him. His dispatches to the Prussian Secretary of State, his reports to the King, form a body of diplomatic correspondence unmatched in fullness, vigor, directness, and insight. With him, there was no ambiguity, no diplomatic circumlocution, no German prolixity. He sketched in indelible outlines the portraits, corporal or mental, of his colleagues. He criticised the policy of Prussia with a brusqueness which must have startled his superior. He reviewed at longer range the political tendencies of Europe. Officially, he kept strictly within the limits of his instructions ; but his own personality represented more than he could yet Officially declare, — Prussia’s ambition to become the leader of Germany. In all his dispatches, and in all places where caution did not prescribe silence, he reiterated his Cato warning, “ Austria must be ousted from Germany.”
Do not suppose, however, that Bismarck’s political greatness was then discerned. Probably, had you inquired of Germans forty years ago, “ Who among you is the coming statesman ?” not one would have replied, “ Bismarck.” At the opera, we cannot mistake the hero, because the moonlight obligingly follows him over the stage; in real life, the hero passes for the most part unrecognized, until his appointed hour ; but the historian’s duty is to show how the heroic qualities were indubitably latent in him long before the world perceived them.
In 1859 Bismarck was appointed ambassador at St. Petersburg, where he stayed three years, when he was transferred to Paris. This completed his apprenticeship, for in September, 1862, he was recalled to Berlin to be ministerpresident.
His promotion had long been mooted. The new King William — a practical, rigid monarch, with no Liberal visions, no desire to please everybody — had been for eighteen months in conflict with his Parliament. He had determined to reorganize the Prussian army ; the Liberals insisted that, as Parliament was expected to vote appropriations, it should know how they were spent. William at last turned to Bismarck to help him subjugate the unruly deputies, and Bismarck, with a true vassal’s loyalty, declared his readiness to serve as “ lid to the saucepan.” Very soon the Liberals began to compare him with Stafford, and the King with Charles I., but neither of them quailed. “ Death on the scaffold, under certain circumstances, is as honorable,” Bismarck said, “ as death on the battlefield. I can imagine worse modes of death than the axe.” Hitherto be had strenuously maintained the first article of his creed, — " I believe in the supremacy of Prussia ; ” henceforth he upheld with equal vigor the second, — “ I believe in the autocracy of the King.”
The narrow Constitution limited the King’s authority, making it coequal with that of the Upper and Lower Chambers, but Bismarck quickly taught the deputies that he would not allow “ a sheet of paper” to intervene between the royal will and its fulfillment. Year after year the Lower House refused to vote the army budget; year after year Bismarck and his master pushed forward the military organization, in spite of the deputies. Noah was not more unmoved by those who came and scoffed at his huge, expensive, apparently useless ark than were the Prussian minister and his King by their critics, who did not see the purpose of the ark the two were building. Bismarck merely insisted that the army, on which depended the integrity of the nation, could not be subjected to the caprice of parties; it was an institution above parties, above polities, he said, which the King alone must control.
At the same time, the minister-president actively pursued his other project, — the expulsion of Austria from Germany. When the King of Denmark died, in December, 1863, the succession to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein was disputed. Bismarck seized the occasion for occupying the disputed territory, in partnership with Austria. England protested, France muttered, but neither cared to risk a war with the allied robbers. When it came to dividing the spoils, Bismarck, who had recently gauged Austria’s strength, struck for the lion’s share. Austria resisted. Bismarck then approved himself a master of diplomacy. Never was he more clever or more unscrupulous, shifting from argument to argument, delaying the open rupture till Prussia was quite ready, feigning willingness to submit the dispute to European arbitration while secretly stipulating conditions which foredoomed arbitration to failure, and invariably giving the impression that Austria refused to be conciliated. As the juggler lets you see the card be wishes you to see, and no other, so Bismarck always kept in full view, amid whatever shuffling of the pack, the apparent legality of Prussia. In the end he drove Austria to desperation.
In June, 1866, war came, with fury. One Prussian army crushed with a single blow the German states which had promised to support Austria; another marched into Bohemia and, in seven days, confronted the imperial forces at Sadowa. There was fought a great battle, in which the Prussian crown prince repeated the master stroke of Blücher at Waterloo, and then Austria, hopelessly beaten, sued for peace.
Bismarck now showed himself astute in victory. Having ousted Austria from Germany, he had no wish to wreak a vengeance that she could not forgive. Taking none of her provinces, he exacted only a small indemnity. With the German states he was equally discriminating : those which had been inveterately hostile he annexed to Prussia; the others he let off with a fine. He set up the North German Confederation, embracing all the states north of the river Main, in place of the old German Confederation ; and thus Prussia, which had now two thirds of the population of Germany, was undisputed master. The four South German states, Bavaria, Würtemberg, Hesse, and Baden, signed a secret treaty, by which they gave the Prussian King the command of their troops in case of war.
Europe, which had witnessed with astonishment these swift proceedings, understood now that a great reality had arisen, and that Bismarck was its heart. In France, surprise gave way to indignation. Were not the French the arbiters of Europe ? How had it happened that their Emperor had permitted a first-rate power to organize without their consent? Napoleon III., who knew that his sham empire could last only so long as he furnished his restless subjects food for their vanity, strove to convince them that he had not been outwitted ; that he still could dictate terms. He demanded a share of Rhineland to offset Prussia’s aggrandizement; Bismarck refused to cede a single inch. Napoleon bullied ; Bismarck published the secret compact with the South Germans. Napoleon forthwith decided that it was not worth while to go to war.
We have all heard of the sportsman who boasted of always catching big strings of fish. But one day, after whipping every pool and getting never a trout, he was fain, on his way home, to stop at the market and buy him a salt herring for supper. Not otherwise did Napoleon, who had been very forward in announcing that he would take land wherever he chose, now stoop to offer to buy enough to appease his greedy countrymen. He would pay ninety million francs for Luxemburg, and the King of Holland, to whom it belonged, was willing to sell at that price ; but Bismarck would consent only to withdraw the Prussian garrison from the grand duchy, after destroying the fortifications, and to its conversion into a neutral state. That was the sum of the satisfaction Napoleon and his presumptuous Frenchmen got from their first encounter. A few years before, Napoleon, who had had frequent interviews with Bismarck, and liked his joviality, set him down as “ a not serious man ; ” whence we infer that the Emperor was a dull reader of character.
Although, by this arrangement, the Luxemburg affair blew over, neither France nor Prussia believed that their quarrel was settled. Deep in the heart of each, instinct whispered that a lifeand-death struggle was inevitable. Bismarck, amid vast labor on the internal organization of the kingdom, held Prussia ready for war. He would not be the aggressor, but he would decline no challenge.
In July, 1870, France threw down the glove. When the Spaniards elected Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern to their vacant throne, France demanded that King William should compel Leopold to resign. William replied that, as he had not influenced his kinsman’s acceptance, he should not interfere. The prince, who was not a Prussian, withdrew of his own accord. But the French Secretary of State, the Due de Gramont, had blustered too loudly to let the matter end without achieving his purpose of humbling the Prussian King. He therefore telegraphed Benedetti, the French ambassador, to force King William to promise that at no future time should Leopold be a candidate for the Spanish crown. Benedetti delivered his message to William in the public garden at Ems ; and William, naturally refusing to bind himself, announced that further negotiations on the subject would be referred to the foreign minister.
The following morning Bismarck published a dispatch containing a brief report of the interview ; adding, however, that the King “ declined to receive the French ambassador again, and had him told by the adjutant in attendance that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the ambassador.” This deceitful addition produced exactly the effect which Bismarck intended : every German, whether Prussian or not, was incensed to learn that the representative German King had been hectored by the French emissary, and every Frenchman was enraged that the Prussian King had insulted the envoy of the “grand nation.” Bismarck, who had feared that another favorable moment for war was passing, now exulted, and Moltke, who had for years been carrying the future campaign in his head, and whose face grew sombre when peace seemed probable, now smiled a grim, contented smile. In Paris, the ministers, the deputies, the newspapers, and the populace clamored for war. Apparently, Napoleon alone felt a slight hesitation ; but he could hesitate no longer when the popular demand became overwhelming. On July 19 France made a formal declaration of war, and the Parisians laid bets that their victorious troops would celebrate the Fête Napoléon—August 15 — in Berlin. Had not their war minister, Leb339;uf, assured them that everything was ready, down to the last button on the last gaiter of the last soldier ?
We cannot describe here the terrible campaign which followed. In numbers, in equipment, in discipline, in generalship, in everything but bravery, the French were quickly outmatched. When Napoleon groped madly for some friendly hand to stay his fall, he found that Bismarck had cut off succor from him. The South Germans, whom the French had hoped to win over, fought loyally under the command of Prussia; Austria, who might have been persuaded to Strike back at her late conqueror, dared not move for fear of Russia, whose friendship Bismarck had secured ; and Italy, instead of aiding France, lost no time in completing her own unification by entering Rome when the French garrison was withdrawn. Forsaken and outwitted, the French Empire sank without even an expiring flash of that tinsel glory which had so long bedizened its corruption. And when the French people, lashed to desperation, continued the war winch the empire had brought upon them, they but suffered a long agony of losses before accepting the inevitable defeat. They paid the penalty of their former arrogance in every coin known to the vanquished, — in military ruin, in an enormous indemnity, in the occupation of their land by the victorious Prussians, and in the cession of two rich provinces. Nor was that enough : they had to submit to a humiliation which, to the imagination at least, seems the worst of all, — the proclamation of the Prussian King William as German Emperor in their palace at Versailles, the shrine of French pomp, where two centuries before Louis XIV. had embodied the ambition, the glory, and the pride of Franee. The German cannon bombarding beleaguered Paris paused, while the sovereigns of the German states hailed William as their Emperor.
This consummation of German unity was the logical outcome of an international war, in which all the Germans had been impelled, by mutual interests quite as much as by kinship, to join forces against an alien foe. Twenty years before, Bismarck had opposed German unity, because it would then have made Prussia the plaything of her confederates ; in this later scheme he was the chief agent, if not the originator, for he knew that the primacy of Prussia ran no more risk.
Let us pause a moment and look back. Only a decade earlier, in 1861, when Bismarck became minister, Prussia was but a second-rate power, Germany was a medley of miscellaneous states, Austria still held her traditional supremacy, the French Emperor seemed firmly established. Now, in 1871, Austria has been humbled, France crushed, Napoleon whiffed off into outer darkness, and Prussia stands unchallenged at the head of United Germany. Many men —the narrow, patient King, the taciturn Moltke, the energetic von Roon — have contributed to this result ; but to Bismarck rightly belongs the highest credit. Slow to prepare and swift to strike, he it was who measured the full capacity of that great machine, the Prussian army, and let it do its work the moment Fortune signaled ; he it was who knew that needle guns and discipline would overcome in the end the long prestige of Austria and the wordy insolence of France. Looking back, we are amazed at his achievements, — many a step seems audacious ; but if we investigate, we find that Bismarck had never threatened, never dared, more than his strength at the time warranted. The gods love men of the positive degree, and reward them by converting their words into facts.
Of the German Empire thus formed Bismarck was Chancellor for twenty years. His foreign policy hinged on one necessity, — the isolation of France. To that end he made a Triple Alliance, in which Russia and Austria were his partners first, and afterward Italy took Russia’s place. He prevented the Franco-Russian coalition, which would place Germany between the hammer and the anvil. From 1871 to 1890 he was not less the arbiter of Europe than the autocrat of Germany.
Nevertheless, although in the management of home affairs Bismarck usually prevailed, he prevailed to the detriment of Germany’s progress in self-government. The Empire, like Prussia herself, is based on constitutionalism : what hope is there for constitutionalism, when at any moment the vote of a majority of the people’s representatives can be nullified by an arbitrary prime minister? Bismarck carried his measures in one of two ways : he either formed a temporary combination with mutually discordant parliamentary groups, and thereby secured a majority vote, or, when unable to do this, by threatening to resign he gave the Emperor an excuse for vetoing an objectionable bill. Despising representative government, with its interminable chatter, its red tape, its indiscreet meddling, and its whimsical revulsions, Bismarck never concealed his scorn. If he believed a measure to be needed, he went down into the parliamentary market-place, and by inducements, not of money, but of concessions, he won over votes. At one time or another, every group has voted against him and every group has voted for him. When he was fighting the Vatican, for instance, he conciliated the Jews ; when Jew-baiting was his purpose, he promised the Catholics favor in return for their support. Being amenable to the Emperor alone, and not, like the British Premier, the head of a party, he dwelt above the caprice of parties. Men thought, at first, to stagger him by charges of inconsistency, and quoted his past utterances against his present policy. He laughed at them. Consistency, he held, is the clog of men who do not advance ; for himself, he had no hesitation in altering his policy as fast as circumstances required. With characteristic bluntness, he did not disguise his intentions. “ I need your support,” he would say to a hostile group, “ and I will stand by your bill if you will vote for mine.” “ Do ut des ” was his motto ; " an honest broker ” his self-given nickname.
Such a government cannot properly be called representative; it dangles between the two incompatibles, constitutionalism and autocracy. Doubtless Bismarck knew better than the herd of deputies what would best serve at a given moment the interests of Germany ; but his methods were demoralizing, and so personal that they made no provision for the future. His system could not be permanent unless in every generation an autocrat as powerful and disinterested as himself should arise to wield it; but nature does not repeat her Bismarcks and her Cromwells. At the end of his career, Germany has still to undergo her apprenticeship in self-government.
Two important struggles, in which he engaged with all his might, call for especial mention.
The first is the Culturkampf, or contest with the Pope over the appointment of Catholic bishops and clergy in Prussia. Bismarck insisted that the Pope should submit his nominations to the approval of the King ; Pius IX. maintained that in spiritual matters he could be bound by no temporal lord. Bismarck passed stern laws ; he withheld the stipend paid to the Catholic clergy; he imprisoned some of them; he broke up the parishes of others. It was the mediæval war of investitures over again, and again the Pope won. Bismarck discovered that against the intangible resistance of Rome his Krupp guns were powerless. After fifteen years of ineffectual battling, the Chancellor surrendered.
Similar discomfiture came to him from the Socialists. When he entered upon his ministerial career, they were but a gang of noisy fanatics ; when he quitted it, they were a great political party, holding the balance of power in the Reichstag, and infecting Germany with their doctrines. At first he thought to extirpate them by violence, but they throve under persecution ; then he propitiated them, and even strove to forestall them by adopting Socialistic measures in advance of their demands. If the next epoch is to witness the triumph of Socialism, as some predict, then Bismarck will surely merit a place in the Socialists’ Saints’ Calendar ; but if, as some of us hope, society revolts from Socialism before experience teaches how much insanity underlies this seductive theory, then Bismarck will scarcely be praised for coquetting with it. For Socialism is but despotism turned upside down ; it would substitute the tyranny of an abstraction — the state — for the tyranny of a personal autocrat. It rests on the fallacy that though in every individual citizen there is more or less imperfection, — one dishonest, another untruthful, another unjust, another greedy, another licentious, another willing to grasp money or power at the expense of his neighbor, — yet by adding up all these units, so imperfect, so selfish, and calling the sum “ the state,” you get a perfect and unselfish organism, which will manage without flaw or favor the whole business, public, private, and mixed, of mankind. By what miracle a coil of links, separately weak, can be converted into an unbreakable chain is a secret which the prophets of this Utopia have never condescended to reveal. Not more state interference, but less, is the warning of history.
The fact which is significant for us here is that Socialism has best thriven in Germany, where, through the innate tendency of the Germans to a rigid system, the machinery of despotism has been most carefully elaborated, and where the interference of the state in the most trivial affairs of life has bred in the masses the notion that the state can do everything, — even make the poor rich, if they can only control the lever of the huge machine.
Nevertheless, though Bismarck has been worsted in his contest with religious and social ideas, his great achievement remains. He has placed Germany at the head of Europe, and Prussia at the head of Germany. Will the German Empire created by him last ? Who can say ? The historian has no business with prophecy, but he may point out the existence in the German Empire to-day of conditions that have hitherto menaced the safety of nations. The common danger seems the strongest bond of union among the German states. Defeat by Russia on the east or by France on the west would mean disaster for the South Germans not less than for the Prussians ; and this peril is formidable enough to cause the Bavarians, for instance, to fight side by side with the Prussians. But there can be no homogeneous internal government, no compact nation, so long as twenty or more dynasties, coequal in dignity though not in power, flourish simultaneously. Historically speaking, Germany has never passed through that stage of development in which one dynasty swallows up its rivals, — the experience of England, France, and Spain, and even of polyglot Austria.
Again, Germany embraces three unwilling members, — Alsace - Lorraine, Schleswig, and Prussian Poland, — any of which may serve as a provocation for war, and must remain a constant source of racial antipathy. How grievous such political thorns may be, though small in bulk compared to the body they worry, England has learned from Ireland.
Finally, if popular government — the ideal of our century — is to prevail in Germany, the despotism extended and solidified by Bismarck will be swept away. Possibly, Germany could not have been united, could not have humbled Austria and crushed France, under a Liberal system ; but will the Germans forever submit to the direction of an iron Chancellor, or glow with exultation at the truculence of a strutting autocrat who flourishes his sword and proclaims, “ My will is law ” ? No other modern despotism has been so patriotic, honest, and successful as that of Bismarck; but will the Germans never awake to the truth that even the best despotism convicts those who bow to it of a certain ignoble servility ? Or will they, as we have suggested, transform the tyranny of an autocrat into the tyranny of Socialism? We will not predict, but we can plainly see that Germany, whether in her national or in her constitutional condition, has reached no stable plane of development.
And now what shall we conclude as to Bismarck himself ? The magnitude of his work no man can dispute. For centuries Europe awaited the unification of Germany, as a necessary step in the organic growth of both. Feudalism was the principle which bound Christendom together during the Middle Age; afterward, the dynastic principle operated to blend peoples into nations ; finally, in our time, the principle of nationality has accomplished what neither feudalism nor dynasties could accomplish, the attainment of German unity. In type, Bismarck belongs with the Charlemagnes, the Cromwells, the Napoleons; but, unlike them, he wrought to found no kingdom for himself ; from first to last he was content to be the servant of the monarch whom he ruled. As a statesman, he possessed in equal mixture the qualities of lion and of fox, which Machiavelli long ago declared indispensable to a prince. He had no scruples.
What benefited Prussia and his King was to him moral, lawful, desirable ; to them he was inflexibly loyal; for them he would suffer popular odium or incur personal danger. But whoever opposed them was to him an enemy, to be overcome by persuasion, craft, or force. We discern in his conduct toward enemies no more regard for morality than in that of a Mohawk sachem toward his Huron foe. He might spare them, but from motives of policy; he might persecute them, not to gratify a thirst for cruelty, but because he deemed persecution the proper instrument in that case. His justification would be that it was right that Prussia and Germany should hold the first rank In Europe. The world, as he saw it, was a field in which nations maintained a pitiless struggle for existence, and the strongest survived ; to make his nation the strongest was, he conceived, his highest duty. An army of punybodied saints might be beautiful to a pious imagination, but they would fare ill in an actual conflict with Pomeranian grenadiers.
Dynamic, therefore, and not moral, were Bismarck’s ideals and methods. To make every citizen a soldier, and to make every soldier a most effective fighting machine by the scientific application of diet, drill, discipline, and leadership, was Prussia’s achievement, whereby she prepared for Bismarck an irresistible weapon. In this application of science to control with greater exactness than ever before the movements of large masses of men in war, and to regulate their actions in peace, consists Prussia’s contribution to government ; in knowing how to use the engine thus constructed lies Bismarck’s fame. When Germans were building air-castles, and, conscious of their irresolution, were asking themselves, “Is Germany Hamlet ? ” Bismarck saw both a definite goal and the road that led to it. The sentimentalism which has characterized so much of the action of our time never diluted his tremendous will. He held that by blood and iron empires are welded, and that this stern means causes in the end less suffering than the indecisive compromises of the sentimentalists. Better, he would say, for ninety-nine men to be directed by the hundredth man who knows than for them to be left a prey to their own chaotic, ignorant, and internecine passions. Thus he is the latest representative of a type which flourished in the age when the modern ideal of popular government had not yet risen. How much of his power was due to his unerring perception of the defects in popular government as it has thus far been exploited, we have already remarked.
The Germans have not yet perceived that one, perhaps the chief source of his success was his un-German characteristics. He would have all Germany bound by rigid laws, but he would not be bound by them himself. He encouraged his countrymen’s passion for conventionality and tradition, but remained the most unconventional of men. Whatever might complete the conversion of Germany into a vast machine he fostered by every art; but he, the engineer who held the throttle, was no machine. In a land where everything was done by prescription, the spectacle of one man doing whatever his will prompted produced an effect not easily computed. Such characteristics are un - German, we repeat, and Bismarck displayed them at all times and in all places. His smoking a cigar in the Frankfort Diet; his opposition to democracy, when democracy was the fashion ; his resistance to the Prussian Landtag; his arbitrary methods in the German Parliament, — these are but instances, great or small, of his un-German nature. And his relations for thirty years with the King and Emperor whom he seemed to serve show a similar masterfulness. A single anecdote, told by himself, gives the key to that service.
At the battle of Sadowa King William persisted in exposing himself at short range to the enemy’s fire. Bismarck urged him back, but William was obstinate. “ If not for yourself, at least for the sake of your minister, whom the nation will hold responsible, retire,” pleaded Bismarck. “ Well, then, Bismarck, let us ride on a little,” the King at last replied. But he rode very slowly. Edging his horse alongside of the King’s mare, Bismarck gave her a stout kick in the haunch. She bounded forward, and the King looked round in astonishment. “ I think he saw what I had done,” Bismarck added, in telling the story, “ but he said nothing.”
On Bismarck’s private character I find no imputed stain. He did not enrich himself by his office, that hideous vice of our time. He did not, like both Napoleons, convert his palace into a harem ; neither did he tolerate nepotism, nor the putting of incompetent parasites into responsible positions as a reward for party service. That he remorselessly crushed his rivals let his obliteration of Count von Arnim witness. That he subsidized a “ reptile press,” or employed spies, or hounded his assailants, came from his belief that a statesman too squeamish to fight fire with fire would deserve to be burnt. Many orators have excelled him in grace, few in effectiveness. Regarding public speaking as one of the chief perils of the modern state, because it enables demagogues to dupe the easily swayed masses, he despised rhetorical artifice. His own speech was un-German in its directness, un-German in its humor, and it clove to the heart of a question with the might of a battle-axe, — as, indeed, he would have used a battle-axe itself to persuade his opponents, five hundred years ago. Since Napoleon, no other European statesman has coined so many political proverbs and apt phrases. His letters to his family are delightfully natural, and reveal a man of keen observation, capable of enjoying the wholesome pleasures of life, and brimful of common sense, which a rich gift of humor keeps from the dullness of Philistines and the pedantry of doctrinaires. His intercourse with friends seems to have been in a high degree jovial.
A great man we may surely pronounce him, long to be the wonder of a world in which greatness of any kind is rare. If you ask, “ How does he stand beside Washington and Lincoln ? ” it must be admitted that his methods would have made them blush, but that his patriotism was not less enduring than theirs. With the materials at hand he fashioned an empire ; it is futile to speculate whether another, by using different tools, could have achieved the same result. Bismarck knew that though his countrymen might talk eloquently about liberty, they loved to be governed ; he knew that their genius was mechanical, and he triumphed by directing them along the line of their genius. He would have failed had he appealed to the love of liberty, by appealing to which Cavour freed Italy ; or to the love of glory, by appealing to which Napoleon was able to convert half of Europe into a French province. Bismarck knew that his Prussians must be roused in a different way.
It may be that the empire he created will not last; it is certain that it cannot escape modifications which will change the aspect he stamped upon it; but we may be sure that, whatever happens, the recollection of his Titanic personality will remain. He belongs among the giants, among the few in whom has been stored for a lifetime a stupendous energy, — kinsmen of the whirlwind and the volcano, — whose purpose seems to be to amaze us that the limits of the human include such as they. At the thought of him, there rises the vision of mythic Thor with his hammer, and of Odin with his spear ; the legend of Zeus, who at pleasure held or hurled the thunderbolt, becomes credible.
William Roscoe Thayer.