Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire - J. W. Headlam

Birth and Parentage

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born at the manor-house of Schoenhausen, in the Mark of Brandenburg, on April 1, 1815. Just a month before, Napoleon had escaped from Elba; and, as the child lay in his cradle, the peasants of the village, who but half a year ago had returned from the great campaign in France, were once more called to arms. A few months passed by; again the King of Prussia returned at the head of his army; in the village churches the medals won at Waterloo were hung up by those of Grossbehren and Leipzig. One more victory had been added to the Prussian flags, and then a profound peace fell upon Europe; fifty years were to go by before a Prussian army again marched out to meet a foreign foe.

The name and family of Bismarck were among the oldest in the land. Many of the great Prussian statesmen have come from other countries: Stein was from Nassau, and Hardenberg was a subject of the Elector of Hanover; even Blücher and Schwerin were Mecklenburgers, and the Moltkes belong to Holstein. The Bismarcks are pure Brandenburgers; they belong to the old Mark, the district ruled over by the first Margraves who were sent by the Emperor to keep order on the northern frontier; they were there two hundred years before the first Hohenzollern came to the north.

The first of the name of whom we hear was Herbort von Bismarck, who, in 1270, was Master of the Guild of the Clothiers in the city of Stendal. The town had been founded about one hundred years before by Albert the Bear, and men had come in from the country around to enjoy the privileges and security of city life. Doubtless Herbort or his father had come from Bismarck, a village about twenty miles to the west, which takes its name either from the little stream, the Biese, which runs near it, or from the bishop in whose domain it lay. He was probably the first to bear the name, which would have no meaning so long as he remained in his native place, for the von was still a mark of origin and had not yet become the sign of nobility. Other emigrants from Bismarck seem also to have assumed it; in the neighbouring town of Prenzlau the name occurs, and it is still found among the peasants of the Mark; as the Wends were driven back and the German invasion spread, more adventurous colonists migrated beyond the Oder and founded a new Bismarck in Pomerania.

[Illustration] from Bismarck and German Empire by J. W. Headlam


Of the lineage of Herbort we know nothing; his ancestors must have been among the colonists who had been planted by the Emperors on the northern frontier to occupy the land conquered from the heathen. He seems himself to have been a man of substance and position; he already used the arms, the double trefoil, which are still borne by all the branches of his family. His descendants are often mentioned in the records of the Guild; his son or grandson, Rudolph or Rule, represented the town in a conflict with the neighbouring Dukes of Brunswick. It was his son Nicolas, or Claus as he is generally called, who founded the fortunes of the family; he attached himself closely to the cause of the Margrave, whom he supported in his troubles with the Duke of Brunswick, and whose interests he represented in the Town Council. He was amply rewarded for his fidelity. After a quarrel between the city and the Prince, Bismarck left his native home and permanently entered the service of the Margrave. Though probably hitherto only a simple citizen, he was enfiefed with the castle of Burgstall, an important post, for it was situated on the borders of the Mark and the bishopric of Magdeburg; he was thereby admitted into the privileged class of the Schlossgesessenen, under the Margrave, the highest order in the feudal hierarchy. From that day the Bismarcks have held their own among the nobility of Brandenburg. Claus eventually became Hofmeister of Brandenburg, the chief officer at the Court; he had his quarrels with the Church, or rather with the spiritual lords, the bishops of Havelburg and Magdeburg, and was once excommunicated, as his father had been before him, and as two of his sons were after him.

Claus died about the year 1385. For two hundred years the Bismarcks continued to live at Burgstall, to which they added many other estates. When Conrad of Hohenzollern was appointed Margrave and Elector, he found sturdy supporters in the lords of Burgstall; he and his successors often came there to hunt the deer and wild boars, perhaps also the wolves and bears, with which the forests around the castle abounded; for the Hohenzollerns were keen sportsmen then as now, as their vassals found to their cost. In 1555, Hans George, son of the reigning Elector, Albert Achilles, bought the neighbouring estate of Letzlingen from the Alvenslebens; there he built a house which is still the chief hunting-lodge of the Kings of Prussia. Soon he cast envious eyes on the great woods and preserves which belong to Burgstall, and intimated that he wished to possess them. The Bismarcks resisted long. First they were compelled to surrender their hunting rights; this was not sufficient; the appetite of the Prince grew; in his own words he wished "to be rid of the Bismarcks from the moor and the Tanger altogether." He offered in exchange some of the monasteries which had lately been suppressed; the Bismarcks (the family was represented by two pairs of brothers, who all lived together in the great castle) long refused; they represented that their ancestors had been faithful vassals; they had served the Electors with blood and treasure; they wished "to remain in the pleasant place to which they had been assigned by God Almighty." It was all of no use; the Prince insisted, and his wrath was dangerous. The Bismarcks gave in; they surrendered Burgstall and received in exchange Schoenhausen and Crevisse, a confiscated nunnery, on condition that as long as the ejected nuns lived the new lords should support them; for which purpose the Bismarcks had annually to supply a certain quantity of food and eighteen barrels of beer.

Of the four co-proprietors, all died without issue, except Friedrich, called the Permutator, in whose hands the whole of the family property was again collected; he went to live at Schoenhausen, which since then has been the home of the family. No remains of the old castle exist, but the church, built in the thirteenth century, is one of the oldest and most beautiful in the land between the Havel and the Elbe. House and church stand side by side on a small rising overlooking the Elbe. Here they took up their abode; the family to some extent had come down in the world. The change had been a disadvantageous one; they had lost in wealth and importance. For two hundred years they played no very prominent part; they married with the neighbouring country gentry and fought in all the wars. Rudolph, Friedrich's son, fought in France in behalf of the Huguenots, and then under the Emperor against the Turks. His grandson, August, enlisted under Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar; afterwards he fought in the religious wars in France and Germany, always on the Protestant side; lastly, he took service under the Elector of Brandenburg.

It was in his lifetime that a great change began to take place which was to alter the whole life of his descendants. In 1640, Frederick William, known as the great Elector, succeeded his father. He it was who laid the foundations for that system of government by which a small German principality has grown to be the most powerful military monarchy in modern Europe. He held his own against the Emperor; he fought with the Poles and compelled their King to grant him East Prussia; he drove the Swedes out of the land. More than this, he enforced order in his own dominions; he laid the foundation for the prosperity of Berlin; he organised the administration and got together a small but efficient military force. The growing power of the Elector was gained to a great extent at the expense of the nobles; he took from them many of the privileges they had before enjoyed. The work he began was continued by his son, who took the title of King; and by his grandson, who invented the Prussian system of administration, and created the army with which Frederick the Great fought his battles.

Schonhausen Church


The result of the growth of the strong, organised monarchy was indeed completely to alter the position of the nobles. The German barons in the south had succeeded in throwing off the control of their territorial lords; they owned no authority but the vague control of the distant Emperor, and ruled their little estates with an almost royal independence; they had their own laws, their own coinage, their own army. In the north, the nobles of Mecklenburg Holstein, and Hanover formed a dominant class, and the whole government of the State was in their hands; but those barons whose homes fell within the dominion of the Kings of Prussia found themselves face to face with a will and a power stronger than their own; they lost in independence, but they gained far more than they lost. They were the basis on which the State was built up; they no longer wasted their military prowess in purposeless feuds or in mercenary service; in the Prussian army and administration they found full scope for their ambition, and when the victories of Frederick the Great had raised Prussia to the rank of a European Power, the nobles of Brandenburg were the most loyal of his subjects. They formed an exclusive caste; they seldom left their homes; they were little known in the south of Germany or in foreign countries; they seldom married outside their own ranks. Their chief amusement was the chase, and their chief occupation was war. And no king has ever had under his orders so fine a race of soldiers; they commanded the armies of Frederick and won his battles. Dearly did they pay for the greatness of Prussia; of one family alone, the Kleists, sixty-four fell on the field of battle during the Seven Years' War.

They might well consider that the State which they had helped to make, and which they had saved by their blood, belonged to them. But if they had become Prussians, they did not cease to be Brandenburgers; their loyalty to their king never swerved, for they knew that he belonged to them as he did to no other of his subjects. He might go to distant Königsberg to assume the crown, but his home was amongst them; other provinces might be gained or lost with the chances of war, but while a single Hohenzollern lived he could not desert his subjects of the Mark. They had the intense local patriotism so characteristic of the German nation, which is the surest foundation for political greatness; but while in other parts the Particularists, as the Germans called them, aimed only at independence, the Brandenburger who had become a Prussian desired domination.

Among them the Bismarcks lived. The family again divided into two branches: one, which became extinct about 1780, dwelling at Crevisse, gave several high officials to the Prussian Civil Service; the other branch, which continued at Schoenhausen, generally chose a military career. August's son, who had the same name as his father, rebuilt the house, which had been entirely destroyed by the Swedes during the Thirty Years' War; he held the position of Landrath, that is, he was the head of the administration of the district in which he lived. He married a Fräulein von Katte, of a well-known family whose estates adjoined those of the Bismarcks. Frau von Bismarck was the aunt of the unfortunate young man who was put to death for helping Frederick the Great in his attempt to escape. His tomb is still to be seen at Wust, which lies across the river a few miles from Schoenhausen; and at the new house, which arose at Schoenhausen and still stands, the arms of the Kattes are joined to the Bismarck trefoil. The successor to the estates, August Friedrich, was a thorough soldier; he married a Fräulein von Diebwitz and acquired fresh estates in Pomerania, where he generally lived.

He rose to the rank of colonel, and fell fighting against the Austrians at Chotusitz in 1742. "Ein ganzer Kerl" (a fine fellow), said the King, as he stood by the dying officer. His son, Carl Alexander, succeeded to Schoenhausen; the next generation kept up the military traditions of the family; of four brothers, all but one became professional officers and fought against France in the wars of liberation. One fell at Möckern in 1813; another rose to the rank of lieutenant-general; the third also fought in the war; his son, the later Count Bismarck-Bohlen, was wounded at Grossbehren, and the father at once came to take his place during his convalescence, in order that the Prussian army might not have fewer Bismarcks. When the young Otto was born two years later, he would often hear of the adventures of his three uncles and his cousin in the great war. The latter, Bismarck-Bohlen, rose to very high honours and was to die when over eighty years of age, after he had witnessed the next great war with France. It is a curious instance of the divisions of Germany in those days that there were Bismarcks fighting on the French side throughout the war. One branch of the family had settled in South Germany; the head of it, Friedrich Wilhelm, had taken service in the Wurtemburg army; he had become a celebrated leader of cavalry and was passionately devoted to Napoleon. He served with distinction in the Russian campaign and was eventually taken prisoner by the Germans in the battle of Leipzig.

The youngest of the four brothers, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich v. Bismarck, had retired from the army at an early age: he was a quiet, kindly man of domestic tastes; on the division of the estates, Schoenhausen fell to his lot, and he settled down there to a quiet country life. He took a step which must have caused much discussion among all his friends and relations, for he chose as wife not one of his own rank, not a Kleist, or a Katte, or a Bredow, or an Arnim, or an Alvensleben, or any other of the neighbouring nobility; he married a simple Fräulein Mencken. She was, however, of no undistinguished origin. Her father, the son of a professor at the University of Leipzig, had entered the Prussian Civil Service; there he had risen to the highest rank and had been Cabinet Secretary to both Frederick William II. and Frederick III. He was a man of high character and of considerable ability; as was not uncommon among the officials of those days, he was strongly affected by the liberal and even revolutionary doctrines of France.

Bismarck Mother


Fräulein Mencken, who was married at the age of sixteen, was a clever and ambitious woman. From her her son inherited his intellect; from his father he derived what the Germans call Gemüth, geniality, kindliness, humour. By his two parents he was thus connected with the double foundation on which Prussia had been built: on his father's side he had sprung from the fighting nobles; on his mother's, from the scholars and officials. In later life we shall find that while his prejudices and affections are all enlisted on the side of the noble, the keen and critical intellect he had inherited from his mother enabled him to overcome the prejudices of his order.

The early life of the young pair was not altogether fortunate. Several children died at a very early age; the defeat of Prussia brought foreign occupation; Schoenhausen was seized by French troopers; the marks of their swords are still to be seen in a beam over one of the doors, and Rittmeister v. Bismarck had to take his wife away into the woods in order to escape their violence.

Of all the children of the marriage only three lived: Bernhard, who was born in 1810, Otto, and one sister, Malvina, born in 1827.

Otto did not live at Schoenhausen long; when he was only a year old, his father moved to Pomerania and settled on the estates Kniephof and Kulz, which had come into the family on his grandfather's marriage. Pomerania was at that time a favourite residence among the Prussian nobility; the country was better wooded than the Mark, and game more plentiful; the rich meadows, the wide heaths and forests were more attractive than the heavy corn-lands and the sandy wastes of the older province. Here, in the deep seclusion of country life, the boy passed his first years; it was far removed from the bustle and turmoil of civilisation. Naugard, the nearest town, was five miles distant; communication was bad, for it was not till after 1815 that the Prussian Government began to construct highroads. In this distant province, life went on as in the olden days, little altered by the changes which had transformed the State. The greater portion of the land belonged to large proprietors; the noble as in old days was still all-powerful on his own estate; in his hands was the administration of the law, and it was at his manorial court that men had to seek for justice, a court where justice was dealt not in the name of the King but of the Lord of the Manor. He lived among his people and generally he farmed his own lands. There was little of the luxury of an English country-house or the refinement of the French noblesse; he would be up at daybreak to superintend the work in the fields, his wife and daughters that of the household, talking to the peasants the pleasant Platt Deutsch of the countryside. Then there would be long rides or drives to the neighbours' houses; shooting, for there was plenty of deer and hares; and occasionally in the winter a visit to Berlin; farther away, few of them went. Most of the country gentlemen had been to Paris, but only as conquerors at the end of the great war.

Bismarck Father


They were little disturbed by modern political theories, but were contented, as in old days, to be governed by the King. It was a religious society; among the peasants and the nobles, if not among the clergy, there still lingered something of the simple but profound faith of German Protestantism; they were scarcely touched by the rationalism of the eighteenth or by the liberalism of the nineteenth century; there was little pomp and ceremony of worship in the village church, but the natural periods of human life—birth, marriage, death—called for the blessing of the Church, and once or twice a year came the solemn confession and the sacrament. Religious belief and political faith were closely joined, for the Church was but a department of the State; the King was chief bishop, as he was general of the army, and the sanctity of the Church was transferred to the Crown; to the nobles and peasants, criticism of, or opposition to, the King had in it something of sacrilege; the words "by the Grace of God" added to the royal title were more than an empty phrase. Society was still organised on the old patriarchal basis: at the bottom was the peasant; above him was the gnädiger Herr; above him, Unser allergnädigste Herr, the King, who lived in Berlin; and above him, the Herr Gott in Heaven.

To the inhabitants of South Germany, and the men of the towns, these nobles of Further Pomerania, the Junker as they were called, with their feudal life, their medieval beliefs, their simple monarchism, were the incarnation of political folly; to them liberalism seemed another form of atheism, but in this solitude and fresh air of the great plain was reared a race of men who would always be ready, as their fathers had been, to draw their sword and go out to conquer new provinces for their King to govern.