Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire - J. W. Headlam
The circumstances under which Bismarck accepted office were such as to try the nerves of the strongest man. The King had not appealed to him so long as there was anyone else who would carry on the Government; he was the last resource, and had taken up a burden from which all others shrunk. He had pledged himself to support the King in a conflict against the whole nation; with the exception of the Upper House he had no friends or supporters. The opinion in Europe was as decisively against him as that in Prussia; he was scarcely looked on as a serious politician; everyone believed that in a few weeks he would have to retire, and the King to give up the useless conflict on which he was staking his throne. Bismarck was under no illusion as to his position; he had been summoned by the King, he depended for his office entirely on the King, but would the King have the strength of will and courage to resist? Only a few days after his appointment, the King had gone to Baden-Baden for a week, where he met the Queen. When he came back, he was completely disheartened. Bismarck, who had travelled part of the way to meet him, got into the train at a small roadside station. He found that the King, who was sitting alone in an ordinary first-class carriage, was prepared to surrender. "What will come of it?" he said. "Already I see the place before my castle on which your head will fall, and then mine will fall too." "Well, as far as I am concerned," answered Bismarck, "I cannot think of a finer death than one on the field of battle or the scaffold. I would fall like Lord Strafford; and your Majesty, not as Louis XVI., but as Charles I. That is a quite respectable historical figure."
For the moment the centre of interest lay in the House. The new Minister began by what he intended as an attempt at reconciliation: he announced that the Budget for 1863 would be withdrawn; the object of this was to limit as much as possible the immediate scope of difference; a fresh Budget for the next year would be laid before them as soon as possible. There would remain only the settlement of the Budget for the current year. This announcement was badly received; the House was distrustful, and they interpreted it as an attempt to return to the old practice of deferring consideration of the Budget until the beginning of the year to which it applied. The first discussion in which Bismarck took part was not in the House itself, but in the Budget Committee. The Committee proposed a resolution requiring the Government at once to lay before the House the Budget for 1863, and declaring that it was unconstitutional to spend any money which had been expressly and definitely refused by the House of Representatives. On this there took place a long discussion, in which Bismarck spoke repeatedly; for the discussions in Committee, which consisted only of about thirty members, were conversational in their nature. There was no verbatim report, but the room was crowded with members who had come to hear the new Minister. They were not disappointed. He spoke with a wit, incisiveness, and versatility to which, as one observer remarked, they were not accustomed from Prussian Ministers. He warned them not to exaggerate their powers. The Prussian Constitution did not give the House of Representatives the sole power of settling the Budget; it must be settled by arrangement with the other House and the Crown. There was a difference of opinion in the interpretation of the Constitution; all constitutional government required compromise; a constitution was not something dead, it must be enlivened; it was interpreted by custom and practice; it would be wiser not to hasten this practice too quickly; then the question of law might easily become one of power. It was not the fault of the Government that they had got into this position; people took the situation too tragically, especially in the press; they spoke as though the end of all things was come; "but," he added, "a constitutional struggle is not a disgrace, it is rather an honour; after all we are all children of the same country." A true note, but one which he was not always able to maintain in the struggle of the coming years. Then he expounded the view of the German character which we have learnt from his letters: it was customary to speak of the sobriety of the Prussian people; yes, but the great independence of the individual made it difficult in Prussia to govern with the Constitution; in France it was different; there this individual independence was wanting; "we are perhaps too educated to endure a constitution; we are too critical"; the capacity for judging measures of the Government and acts of the Representatives was too universal; there were in the country too many Catilinarian existences, which had an interest in revolutions. He reminded them that Germany did not care for the Liberalism of Prussia, but for its power; Bavaria, Wurtemberg, Baden, might indulge in Liberalism; Prussia must concentrate its power and hold itself ready for the favourable moment which had already been passed over more than once; Prussia's boundaries, as fixed by the Congress of Vienna, were not favourable to a sound political life; "not by speeches and majority votes are the great questions of the time decided—that was the great blunder of 1848 and 1849—but by blood and iron." He appealed for confidence: "Do not force a quarrel; we are honest people and you can trust us."
The effect of these speeches was very unfavourable; the very quickness of thought and originality of expression produced a bad impression; even the free indulgence in long foreign words offended patriotic journalists. They seemed to his audience reckless; what was this reference to the Treaties of Vienna but an imitation of Napoleonic statesmanship? They had the consciousness that they were making history, that they were involved in a great and tragic conflict, and they expected the Minister to play his part seriously and solemnly; instead of that they had listened to a series of epigrams with no apparent logical connection. We know how dangerous it is, even in England, for a responsible statesman to allow himself to be epigrammatic in dealing with serious affairs. Much more was it in Germany, where the Ministers were nearly always officials by training. Bismarck had the dangerous gift of framing pregnant and pithy sentences which would give a ready handle to his opponents: Macht geht vor Recht; he had not said these words, but he had said something very much like them, and they undoubtedly represented what seemed to his audience the pith of his speeches. And then these words, blood and iron. He has told us in later years what he really meant:
"Put the strongest possible military power, in other words, as much blood and iron as you can, into the hands of the King of Prussia, then he will be able to carry out the policy you wish; it cannot be done with speeches and celebrations and songs, it can only be done by blood and iron."
What everyone thought he meant was that blood must be shed and iron used; and perhaps they were not so far wrong.
The attempt at conciliation failed; the report of the Committee was adopted, and an amendment proposed by Vincke, which Bismarck was prepared to accept, was rejected. Bismarck warned the House not to push the conflict too far; the time would come when the prospect of a peaceful solution would have disappeared; then the Government too would be prepared to oppose theory to theory and interpretation to interpretation.
He showed to the President of the House a twig of olive. "I gathered this in Avignon to bring it to the House; it does not seem to be time yet."
The Budget was sent up to the House of Lords in the amended form in which the House of Representatives had passed it; the Lords unanimously threw it out, as they were legally justified in doing; not content with that, they altered it to the original form in which it had been proposed by the Government and sent it down again to the Lower House. This was clearly illegal. Their action, however, was most useful to the Government. A conflict had now arisen between the two Houses, and technically the responsibility for the failure to bring the conciliation about was taken away from the Government; they could entrench themselves behind the impregnable position that the law required the Budget to be passed by both Houses; until this was done they could do nothing. The Houses would not agree; the Government was helpless. The House of Representatives at once passed a motion declaring the vote of the Upper House for altering the Budget null and void, as indeed it was; in the middle of the discussion a message was brought down by the President announcing that the House was to be prorogued that afternoon; they had just time to pass the resolution and to send it in a cab which was waiting at the door to the Upper House, where it was read out amidst the boisterous laughter of the Peers; then both Chambers were summoned to the Palace, and the session closed. The first round in the conflict was over.
The recess was short; the next session was by the Constitution obliged to begin not later than January 15th; there were many who expected that the Constitution would be ignored and the Parliament not summoned. This was not Bismarck's plan; he fulfilled all the technical requirements in the strictest way; he carefully abstained from any action which he could not justify by an appeal to the letter of the Constitution; the government of the country was carried on with vigour and success; he allowed no loophole by which his opponents might injure his influence with the King. It is true that they were spending money which had not been voted, but then, as he explained, that was not his fault; the provisions of the law were quite clear.
It was the duty of the Government to submit the Budget to the Lower House, who could amend it; it had then to be passed in the form of a law, and for this the assent of both Houses of Parliament and of the Crown was required. The Upper House had not the right of proposing amendments, but they had the right of rejecting them. In this case they had made use of their right; no law had been passed the two Houses had not agreed. What was to happen? The Constitution gave no help; there was a gap in it. The Government therefore had to act as best they could. They could not be expected to close the Government offices, cease to pay the troops, and let the government of the country come to an end; they must go on as best they could, taking all the responsibility until they could come to some agreement.
As soon as the House met it began to vote an address to the King. They adopted the obvious fiction, which, in fact, they could not well avoid, that he was being misled by his Ministers, and the attitude of the country misrepresented to him; even had they known as well as we do that the Ministers were only carrying out the orders of the King, they could not well have said so. Bismarck, however, did not attempt to conceal the truth; the address, he said, touched the King; the acts complained of were done in the name of the King; they were setting themselves against him. The contest was, who was to rule in Prussia, the House of Hohenzollern or the House of Parliament. He was at once accused of disloyalty; he was, they said, protecting himself behind the person of the sovereign, but, of course, it was impossible for him not to do so. The whole justification for his action was that he was carrying out the King's orders. What was at the root of the conflict but the question, whether in the last resort the will of the King or the majority of the House should prevail? To have adopted the English practice, to have refrained from mentioning the King's name, would have been to adopt the very theory of the Constitution for which the House was contending, the English theory that the sovereign has neither the right of deciding nor responsibility; it would have been to undermine the monarchical side of the Constitution which Bismarck was expressly defending. The King himself never attempted to avoid the responsibility; in a public speech he had already said that the army organisation was his own work: "It is my own and I am proud of it; I will hold firmly to it and carry it through with all my energy." In his answer to the address from the House, both on this and on later occasions, he expressly withdrew the assumption that he was not well informed or that he did not approve of his Ministers' action.
The address was carried by a majority of 255 to 68; the King refused to receive it in person. The House then proceeded to throw out a Bill for military reorganisation which was laid before them; they adopted a resolution that they reserved for later discussion the question, for what part of the money illegally spent in 1862 they would hold the Ministry personally responsible. They then proceeded to the Budget of 1863, and again rejected the army estimates; they refused the money asked for raising the salaries of the ambassadors (Bismarck himself, while at St. Petersburg, had suffered much owing to the insufficiency of his salary, and he wished to spare his successors a similar inconvenience); and they brought in Bills for the responsibility of Ministers. The public attention, however was soon directed from these internal matters to even more serious questions of foreign policy.
At the beginning of February the Poles had once more risen in revolt against the Russian Government. Much sympathy was felt for them in Western Europe. England, France, and Austria joined in representations and remonstrances to the Czar; they expected that Prussia would join them.
Nothing could have been more inconvenient to Bismarck; he was at the time fully occupied in negotiations about German affairs, and he was probably anxious to bring to a speedy issue the questions between Prussia and Austria; it was therefore most important to him to be on good terms with France and England, for he would not challenge Austria unless he was sure that Austria would have no allies; now he must quarrel with either Russia or with France. An insurrection in Poland was, however, a danger to which everything else must be postponed; on this his opinion never varied, here there could be no compromise. He was perfectly open: "The Polish question is to us a question of life and death," he said to Sir Andrew Buchanan. There were two parties among the Poles; the one, the extreme Republican, wished for the institution of an independent republic; the other would be content with self-government and national institutions under the Russian Crown; they were supported by a considerable party in Russia itself. Either party if successful would not be content with Russian Poland; they would demand Posen, they would never rest until they had gained again the coast of the Baltic and deprived Prussia of her eastern provinces. The danger to Prussia would be greatest, as Bismarck well knew, if the Poles became reconciled to the Russians; an independent republic on their eastern frontier would have been dangerous, but Polish aspirations supported by the Panslavonic party and the Russian army would have been fatal. Russia and Poland might be reconciled, Prussia and Poland never can be. Prussia therefore was obliged to separate itself from the other Powers; instead of sending remonstrances to the Czar, the King wrote an autograph letter proposing that the two Governments should take common steps to meet the common danger; General von Alvensleben, who took the letter, at once concluded a convention in which it was agreed that Prussian and Russian troops should be allowed to cross the frontier in pursuit of the insurgents; at the same time two of the Prussian army corps were mobilised and drawn up along the Polish frontier.
The convention soon became known and it is easy to imagine the indignation with which the Prussian people and the House of Representatives heard of what their Government had done. The feeling was akin to that which would have prevailed in America had the President offered his help to the Spanish Government to suppress the insurrection in Cuba. The answers to questions were unsatisfactory, and on February 26th Heinrich von Sybel rose to move that the interests of Prussia required absolute neutrality. It was indeed evident that Bismarck's action had completely isolated Prussia; except the Czar, she had now not a single friend in Europe and scarcely a friend in Germany. Bismarck began his answer by the taunt that the tendency to enthusiasm for foreign nationalities, even when their objects could only be realised at the cost of one's own country, was a political disease unfortunately limited to Germany. It was, however, an unjust taunt, for no one had done more than Sybel himself in his historical work to point out the necessity, though he recognised the injustice, of the part Prussia had taken in the partition of Poland; nobody had painted so convincingly as he had, the political and social demoralisation of Poland. Bismarck then dwelt on the want of patriotism in the House, which in the middle of complicated negotiations did not scruple to embarrass their own Government. "No English House of Commons," he said, "would have acted as they did," a statement to which we cannot assent; an English Opposition would have acted exactly as the majority of the Prussian Parliament did. When a Minister is in agreement with the House on the general principles of policy, then indeed there rests on them the obligation not to embarrass the Government by constant interpolation with regard to each diplomatic step; self-restraint must be exercised, confidence shewn. This was not the case here; the House had every reason to believe that the objects of Bismarck were completely opposed to what they wished; they could not be expected to repose confidence in him. They used this, as every other opportunity, to attempt to get rid of him.
The question of Poland is one on which Bismarck never altered his attitude. His first public expression of opinion on foreign affairs was an attack on the Polish policy of the Prussian Government in 1848.
"No one then," he wrote, "could doubt that an independent Poland would be the irreconcilable enemy of Prussia and would remain so till they had conquered the mouth of the Vistula and every Polish-speaking village in West and East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia."
Forty years later one of the last of his great speeches in the Reichstag was devoted to attacking the Polish sympathies of the Catholic party in Prussia. He was never tired of laughing at the characteristic German romanticism which was so enthusiastic for the welfare of other nations. He recalled the memories of his boyhood when, after the rebellion of 1831, Polish refugees were received in every German town with honours and enthusiasm greater than those paid to the men who had fought for Germany, when German children would sing Polish national airs as though they were their own.
Nothing shews the change which he has been able to bring about in German thought better than the attitude of the nation towards Poland. In the old days the Germans recollected only that the partition of Poland had been a great crime; it was their hope and determination that they might be able to make amends for it. In those days the Poles were to be found in every country in Europe, foremost in fighting on the barricades; they helped the Germans to fight for their liberty, and the Germans were to help them to recover independence. In 1848, Mieroslawski had been carried like a triumphant hero through the streets of Berlin; the Baden rebels put themselves under the leadership of a Pole, and it was a Pole who commanded the Viennese in their resistance to the Austrian army; a Pole led the Italians to disaster on the field of Novara. At a time when poets still were political leaders, and the memory and influence of Byron had not been effaced, there was scarcely a German poet, Platen, Uhland, Heine, who had not stirred up the enthusiasm for Poland. It was against this attitude of mind that Bismarck had to struggle and he has done so successfully. He has taught that it is the duty of Germany to use all the power of the State for crushing and destroying the Polish language and nationality; the Poles in Prussia are to become Prussian, as those in Russia have to become Russian. A hundred years ago the Polish State was destroyed; now the language and the nation must cease to exist.
It is a natural result of the predominance of Prussia in Germany. The enthusiasm for Poland was not unnatural when the centre of gravity of Germany was still far towards the West. Germany could be great, prosperous, and happy, even if a revived Poland spread to the shores of the Baltic, but Prussia would then cease to exist and Bismarck has taught the Germans to feel as Prussians.
The danger during these weeks was real; Napoleon proposed that Austria, England, and France should present identical notes to Prussia remonstrating with and threatening her. Lord Russell refused; it was, as Bismarck said in later years, only the friendly disposition of Lord Russell to Germany which saved Prussia from this danger. Bismarck's own position was very insecure; but he withstood this attack as he did all others, though few knew at what expense to his nerves and health; he used to attribute the frequent illnesses of his later years to the constant anxiety of these months; he had a very nervous temperament, self-control was difficult to him, and we must remember that all the time when he was defending the King's Government against this public criticism he had to maintain himself against those who at Court were attempting to undermine his influence with the King.
He had, however, secured the firm friendship of Russia. When he was in St. Petersburg he had gained the regard of the Czar; now to this personal feeling was added a great debt of gratitude. What a contrast between the action of Austria and Prussia! The late Czar had saved Austria from dissolution, and what had been the reward? Opposition in the East, and now Austria in the Polish affair was again supporting the Western Powers. On the other hand Prussia, and Prussia alone, it was which had saved Russia from the active intervention of France and England. Napoleon had proposed that a landing should he made in Lithuania in order to effect a junction with the Poles; Bismarck had immediately declared that if this were done he should regard it as a declaration of war against Prussia. So deep was the indignation of Alexander that he wrote himself to the King of Prussia, proposing an alliance and a joint attack on France and Austria. It must have been a great temptation to Bismarck, but he now shewed the prudence which was his great characteristic as a diplomatist; he feared that in a war of this kind the brunt would fall upon Prussia, and that when peace was made the control of negotiations would be with the Czar. He wished for war with Austria, but he was determined that when war came he should have the arrangement of the terms of peace. On his advice the King refused the offer.
The bitterness of the feeling created by these debates on Poland threatened to make it impossible for Ministers any longer to attend in the House; Bismarck did his part in increasing it.
"You ask me," he said, "why, if we disagree with you, we do not dissolve; it is that we wish the country to have an opportunity of becoming thoroughly acquainted with you."
He was tired and angry when during one of these sittings he writes to Motley:
"I am obliged to listen to particularly tasteless speeches out of the mouths of uncommonly childish and excited politicians, and I have therefore a moment of unwilling leisure which I cannot use better than in giving you news of my welfare. I never thought that in my riper years I should be obliged to carry on such an unworthy trade as that of a Parliamentary Minister. As envoy, although an official, I still had the feeling of being a gentleman; as [Parliamentary] Minister one is a helot. I have come down in the world, and hardly know how.
"April 18th. I wrote as far as this yesterday, then the sitting came to an end; five hours' Chamber until three o'clock; one hour's report to his Majesty; three hours at an incredibly dull dinner, old important Whigs; then two hours' work; finally, a supper with a colleague, who would have been hurt if I had slighted his fish. This morning, I had hardly breakfasted, before Karolyi was sitting opposite to me; he was followed without interruption by Denmark, England, Portugal, Russia, France, whose Ambassador I was obliged to remind at one o'clock that it was time for me to go to the House of phrases. I am sitting again in the latter; hear people talk nonsense, and end my letter. All these people have agreed to approve our treaties with Belgium, in spite of which twenty speakers scold each other with the greatest vehemence, as if each wished to make an end of the other; they are not agreed about the motives which make them unanimous, hence, alas! a regular German squabble about the Emperor's beard; querelle d'Allemand. You Anglo-Saxon Yankees have something of the same kind also.... Your battles are bloody; ours wordy; these chatterers really cannot govern Prussia. I must bring some opposition to bear against them; they have too little wit and too much self-complacency—stupid and audacious. Stupid, in all its meanings, is not the right word; considered individually, these people are sometimes very clever, generally educated—the regulation German university culture; but of politics, beyond the interests of their own church tower, they know as little as we knew as students, and even less; as far as external politics go, they are also, taken separately, like children. In all other questions they become childish as soon as they stand together in corpore. In the mass stupid, individually intelligent."
Recalling these days, Bismarck said in later years:
"I shall never forget how I had every morning to receive the visit of Sir Andrew Buchanan, the English Ambassador, and Talleyrand, the representative of France, who made hell hot for me over the inexcusable leanings of Prussian policy towards Russia, and held threatening language towards us, and then at midday I had the pleasure of hearing in the Prussian Parliament pretty much the same arguments and attacks which in the morning the foreign Ambassadors had made against me."
Of course the language used in the House weakened his influence abroad, and the foreign Governments shewed more insistence when they found out that the Prussian Parliament supported their demands. It was noticed with satisfaction in the English Parliament that the nation had dissociated itself from the mean and disgraceful policy of the Government.
At last personal friction reached such a point that the session had to be closed. In order to understand the cause of this we must remember that in Prussia the Ministers are not necessarily members of either House; they enjoy, however, by the Constitution, the right of attending the debates and may at any time demand to be heard; they do not sit in the House among the other members, but on a raised bench to the right of the President, facing the members. They have not, therefore, any feeling of esprit de corps as members of the assembly; Bismarck and his colleagues when they addressed the House spoke not as members, not as the representatives of even a small minority, but as strangers, as the representatives of a rival and hostile authority; it is this which alone explains the almost unanimous opposition to him; he was the opponent not of one party in the House but of the Parliament itself and of every other Parliament. In the course of a debate he came into conflict with the Chair; the President pointed out that some of his remarks had nothing to do with the subject; Bismarck at once protested: "I cannot allow the President the right to a disciplinary interruption in my speech. I have not the honour of being a member of this assembly; I have not helped to vote your standing orders; I have not joined in electing the President; I am not subject to the disciplinary power of the Chamber. The authority of the President ends at this barrier. I have one superior only, his Majesty the King." This led to a sharp passage with the President, who maintained that his power extended as far as the four walls; he could not indeed withdraw the right of speech from a Minister, but could interrupt him. Bismarck at once repeated word for word the obnoxious passage of his speech. The President threatened, if he did so again, to close the sitting; Bismarck practically gave way; "I cannot," he said, "prevent the President adjourning the House; what I have said twice I need not repeat a third time"; and the debate continued without further interruption. A few weeks later a similar scene occurred, but this time it was not Bismarck but Roon, and Roon had not the same quick feeling for Parliamentary form; Bismarck had defied the President up to the extreme point where his legal powers went, Roon passed beyond them. The President wished to interrupt the Minister; Roon refused to stop speaking; the President rang his bell. "When I interrupt the Minister," he said, "he must be silent. For that purpose I use my bell, and, if the Minister does not obey, I must have my hat brought me." When the Chairman put on his hat the House would be adjourned. Roon answered, "I do not mind if the President has his hat brought; according to the Constitution I can speak if I wish, and no one has the right to interrupt me." After a few more angry words on either side, as Roon continued to dispute the right of the President, the latter rose from his seat and asked for his hat, which he placed on his head. All the members rose and the House was adjourned. Unfortunately the hat handed to him was not his own; it was much too large and completely covered his head and face, so that the strain of the situation was relieved by loud laughter. After this the Ministers refused to attend the House unless they received an assurance that the President no longer claimed disciplinary authority over them; a series of memoranda were exchanged between the House and the Ministry; the actual point in dispute was really a very small one; it is not even clear that there was any difference of opinion; everyone acknowledged that the Ministers might make as many speeches as they liked, and that the Chairman could not require them to stop speaking. The only question was whether he might interrupt them in order to make any remarks himself; but neither side was prepared to come to an understanding. The King, to whom the House appealed, supported the Ministry, and a few days later the House was prorogued. The second session was over.
Three days later, by Royal proclamation, a series of ordinances was published creating very stringent regulations for the control of the Press; they gave the police the right of forbidding a newspaper to appear for no other reason except disapproval of its general tendency. It was a power more extreme than in the worst days of the Carlsbad decrees had ever been claimed by any German Government. The ordinances were based on a clause in the Constitution which gave the Government at times of crisis, if Parliament were not sitting, the power of making special regulations for the government of the Press. The reference to the Constitution seemed almost an insult; the kind of crisis which was meant was obviously a period of civil war or invasion; it seemed as though the Government had taken the first pretext for proroguing Parliament to be able to avail themselves of this clause. The ordinances reminded men of those of Charles X.; surely, they said, this was the beginning of a reign of violence.
The struggle was now no longer confined to Parliament. Parliament indeed was clearly impotent; all that could be done by speeches and votes and addresses had been done and had failed; the King still supported the Ministry. It was now the time for the people at large; the natural leaders were the corporations of the large towns; the Liberal policy of the Prussian Government had given them considerable independence; they were elected by the people, and in nearly every town there was a large majority opposed to the Government. Headed by the capital, they began a series of addresses to the King; public meetings were organised; at Cologne a great festival was arranged to welcome Sybel and the other representatives from the Rhine. It was more serious that in so monarchical a country the discontent with the personal action of the King found public expression. The Crown Prince was at this time on a tour of military inspection in East Prussia; town after town refused the ordinary loyal addresses; they would not welcome him or take part in the usual ceremonies; the ordinary loyal addresses to the King and other members of the Royal Family were refused. It was no longer a conflict between the Ministry and the Parliament, but between the King and the country.
Suddenly the country learned that the Crown Prince himself, the Heir Apparent to the throne, was on their side. He had always disliked Bismarck; he was offended by the brusqueness of his manner. He disliked the genial and careless bonhommie with which Bismarck, who hated affectation, discussed the most serious subjects; he had opposed his appointment, and he now held a position towards his father's Government similar to that which ten years before his father had held towards his own brother. He was much influenced by his English relations, and the opinion of the English Court was strongly unfavourable to Bismarck. Hitherto the Crown Prince had refrained from any public active opposition; he had, however, not been asked his opinion concerning the Press ordinances, nor had he even received an invitation to the council at which they were passed. Bitterly offended at this slight upon himself, seriously alarmed lest the action of the Government might even endanger the dynasty, on his entry into Danzig he took occasion to dissociate himself from the action of the Government. He had not, he said, been asked; he had known nothing about it; he was not responsible. The words were few and they were moderate, but they served to shew the whole of Germany what hitherto only those about the Court had known, that the Crown Prince was to be counted among the opponents of the Government.
An incident followed a few days later which could only serve to increase the breach. After his speech at Danzig, the Crown Prince had offered to surrender all his official positions; the King had not required this of him, but had strictly ordered him not again to come into opposition to his Government. The Crown Prince had promised obedience, but continued his private protests against "these rude and insolent Ministers." The letters on both sides had been affectionate and dignified. A few days later, however, the Berlin correspondent of the Times was enabled to publish the contents of them. It is not known who was to blame for this very serious breach of confidence; but the publication must have been brought about by someone very closely connected with the Crown Prince; suspicion was naturally directed towards the Court of Coburg. It was not the last time that the confidence of the Crown Prince was to be abused in a similar manner.
The event naturally much increased Bismarck's dislike to the entourage of the Prince. There was indeed a considerable number of men, half men of letters, half politicians, who were glad to play a part by attaching themselves to a Liberal Prince; they did not scruple to call in the help of the Press of the foreign countries, especially of England, and use its influence for the decision of Prussian affairs. Unfortunately their connections were largely with England; they had a great admiration for English liberty, and they were often known as the English party. This want of discretion, which afterwards caused a strong prejudice against them in Germany, was used to create a prejudice also against England. People in Germany confused with the English nation, which was supremely indifferent to Continental affairs, the opinions of a few writers who were nearly always German. For many years after this, the relations between Bismarck and the Crown Prince were very distant, and the breach was to be increased by the very decided line which the Crown Prince afterwards took with regard to the Schleswig-Holstein affair.
The event shewed that Bismarck knew well the country with which he was dealing; the Press ordinances were not actually illegal, they were strictly enforced; many papers were warned, others were suppressed; the majority at once changed their tone and moderated their expression of hostility to the Government. In England, under similar circumstances, a host of scurrilous pamphlets have always appeared; the Prussian police were too prompt for this to be possible. The King refused to receive the addresses; an order from the Home Office forbade town councils to discuss political matters; a Bürgermeister who disregarded the order was suspended from his office; public meetings were suppressed. These measures were successful; the discontent remained and increased, but there was no disorder and there were no riots. Great courage was required to defy public opinion, but with courage it could be defied with as much impunity as that of the Parliament. Englishmen at the time asked why the people did not refuse to pay the taxes; the answer is easy: there would have been no legal justification for this, for though, until the estimates had been passed, the Ministers were not legally enabled to spend a farthing of public money, the taxes could still be levied; they were not voted annually; once imposed, they continued until a law was passed withdrawing them. The situation, in fact, was this, that the Ministry were obliged to collect the money though they were not authorised in spending it. To this we must add that the country was very prosperous; the revenue was constantly increasing; there was no distress. The socialist agitation which was just beginning was directed not against the Government but against society; Lassalle found more sympathy in Bismarck than he did with the Liberal leaders. He publicly exhorted his followers to support the Monarchy against these miserable Bourgeois, as he called the Liberals. Except on the one ground of the constitutional conflict, the country was well governed; there was no other interference with liberty of thought or action.
Moreover, there was a general feeling that things could not last long; the Liberals believed that the future was with them; time itself would bring revenge. At the worst they would wait till the death of the King; he was already nearly seventy years of age; the political difficulties had much injured his health. When he was gone, then with the Crown Prince the constitutional cause would triumph.
How different was the future to be! Year after year the conflict continued. Each year the House was summoned and the Budget laid before it; each year the House rejected the Budget; they threw out Government measures, they refused the loans, and they addressed the King to dismiss his Ministers. The sessions, however, were very short; that of 1864 lasted only a few weeks.
Each year Bismarck's open contempt for the Parliament and their unqualified hatred of him increased. The people still continued to support their representatives. The cities still continued to withhold their loyal addresses to the King. With each year, however, the Government gained confidence. It was easy to see that the final result would depend on the success of the Government in external affairs. To these we must now turn.
English opinion at that time was unanimously opposed to the King; it is difficult even now to judge the issue. It was natural for Englishmen to sympathise with those who wished to imitate them. Their pride was pleased when they found the ablest Parliamentary leaders, the most learned historians and keenest jurists desirous to assimilate the institutions of Prussia to those which existed in England. It is just this which ought to make us pause. What do we think of politicians who try to introduce among us the institutions and the faults of foreign countries? "Why will not the King of Prussia be content with the position which the Queen of England holds, or the King of the Belgians,—then all his unpopularity would be gone?" was a question asked at the time by an English writer. We may ask, on the other hand, why should the King of Prussia sacrifice his power and prerogative? The question is really as absurd as it would be to ask, why is not an English Parliament content with the power enjoyed by the Prussian Parliament? It was a commonplace of the time, that the continued conflict shewed a want of statesmanship; so it did, if it is statesmanship always to court popularity and always to surrender one's cause when one believes it to be right, even at the risk of ruining one's country. It must be remembered that through all these years the existence of Prussia was at stake. If the Prussian Government insisted on the necessity for a large and efficient army, they were accused of reckless militarism. People forgot that the Prussian Monarchy could no more maintain itself without a large army than the British Empire could without a large navy. In all the secret diplomatic negotiations of the time, the dismemberment of Prussia was a policy to be considered. France wished to acquire part of the left bank of the Rhine, Austria had never quite given up hope of regaining part of Silesia; it was not fifty years since Prussia had acquired half the kingdom of Saxony; might not a hostile coalition restore this territory? And then the philanthropy of England and the intrigues of France were still considering the possibility of a revived Poland, but in Poland would have to be included part of the territory which Prussia had acquired.
It is often said that from this conflict must be dated the great growth of militarism in Europe; it is to the victory of the King and Bismarck that we are to attribute the wars which followed and the immense armaments which since then have been built up in Europe. To a certain extent, of course, this is true, though it is not clear that the presence of these immense armies is an unmixed evil. It is, however, only half the truth; the Prussian Government was not solely responsible. It was not they who began arming, it was not they who first broke the peace which had been maintained in Europe since 1815. Their fault seems to have been, not that they armed first, but that when they put their hand to the work, they did it better than other nations. If they are exposed to any criticism in the matter, it must rather be this, that the Government of the late King had unduly neglected the army; they began to prepare not too soon but almost too late. It was in Austria in 1848 that the new military dominion began; Austria was supported by Russia and imitated by France; Prussia, surrounded by these empires, each at least double herself in population, was compelled to arm in self-defence. By not doing so sooner she had incurred the disgrace of Olmütz; her whole policy had been weak and vacillating, because the Government was frightened at stirring up a conflict in which they would almost certainly be defeated.
There is one other matter with regard to the conflict so far as regards Bismarck personally. We must always remember that he was not responsible for it. It had originated at a time when he was absent from Germany, and had very little influence on the conduct of affairs. Had he been Minister two years before, there probably would have been no conflict at all. The responsibility for it lies partly with the leaders of the Liberal party, who, as we know from memoirs that have since been published, were acting against their own convictions, in opposing the military demands of the Government, for they feared that otherwise the party would not follow them. Much of the responsibility also rests with the Ministry of the new era; they had mismanaged affairs; the mismanagement arose from the want of union among them, for the Liberal majority were in many matters opposed to the King and the throne. It was this want of cordial co-operation in the Ministry which led to the great blunder by which the Minister of War acted in a way which seemed to be, and in fact was, a breach of an engagement made by the Minister of Finance. Had Bismarck been in authority at the time, we can hardly doubt that he would have found some way of effecting a compromise between the Government and the leaders of the Moderate Liberal party. At least no blame attached to him for what had happened. Still less can we afford him anything but the highest commendation, that, when the King had got into an absolutely untenable position, he came forward, and at the risk of his reputation, his future, perhaps his life, stood by his side.