The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise. — Tacitus

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




Frankfort



1851-1857


Bismarck when he went to Frankfort was thirty-six years of age; he had had no experience in diplomacy and had long been unaccustomed to the routine of official life. He had distinguished himself by qualities which might seem very undiplomatic; as a Parliamentary debater he had been outspoken in a degree remarkable even during a revolution; he had a habit of tearing away the veil from those facts which everyone knows and which all wish to ignore; a careless good-fellowship which promised little of that reserve and discretion so necessary in a confidential agent; a personal and wilful independence which might easily lead him into disagreement with the Ministers and the King. He had not even the advantage of learning his work by apprenticeship under a more experienced official; during the first two months at Frankfort he held the position of First Secretary, but his chief did not attempt to introduce him to the more important negotiations and when, at the end of July, he received his definite appointment as envoy, he knew as little of the work as when he arrived at Frankfort.

He had, however, occupied his time in becoming acquainted with the social conditions. His first impressions were very unfavourable. Frankfort held a peculiar position. Though the centre of the German political system it was less German than any other town in the country. The society was very cosmopolitan. There were the envoys of the German States and the foreign Powers, but the diplomatic circle was not graced by the dignity of a Court nor by the neighbourhood of any great administrative Power. Side by side with the diplomatists were the citizens of Frankfort; but here again we find indeed a great money-market, the centre of the finance of the Continent, dissociated from any great productive activity. In the neighbourhood were the watering-places and gambling-tables; Homburg and Wiesbaden, Soden and Baden-Baden, were within an easy ride or short railway journey, and Frankfort was constantly visited by all the idle Princes of Germany. It was a city in which intrigue took the place of statesmanship, and never has intrigue played so large a part in the history of Europe as during the years 1850-1870. Half the small States who were represented at Frankfort had ambitions beyond their powers; they liked to play their part in the politics of Europe. Too weak to stand alone, they were also too weak to be quite honest, and attempted to gain by cunning a position which they could not maintain by other means. This was the city in which Bismarck was to serve his diplomatic apprenticeship.

Two extracts from letters to his wife give the best picture of his personal character at this time:

"On Saturday I drove with Rochow to Rüdesheim; there I took a boat and rowed out on the Rhine, and bathed in the moonlight—only nose and eyes above the water, and floated down to the Rat Tower at Bingen, where the wicked Bishop met his end. It is something strangely dreamlike to lie in the water in the quiet, warm light, gently carried along by the stream; to look at the sky with the moon and stars above one, and, on either side, to see the wooded mountain-tops and castle parapets in the moonlight, and to hear nothing but the gentle rippling of one's own motion. I should like a swim like this every evening. Then I drank some very good wine, and sat long talking with Lynar on the balcony, with the Rhine beneath us. My little Testament and the starry heavens brought us on Christian topics, and I long shook at the Rousseau-like virtue of his soul."

"Yesterday I was at Wiesbaden, and with a feeling of melancholy revisited the scenes of former folly. May it please God to fill with His clear and strong wine this vessel in which the champagne of twenty-one years foamed so uselessly.... I do not understand how a man who reflects on himself, and still knows, and will know, nothing of God, can endure his life for contempt and weariness. I do not know how I endured this in old days; if, as then, I were to live without God, thee, and the children, I do not know why I should not put life aside like a dirty shirt; and yet most of my acquaintances live thus."

Bismarck wife
PRINCESS BISMARCK.


Now let us see what he thinks of his new duties:

"Our intercourse here is at best nothing but a mutual suspicion and espionage; if only there was anything to spy out and to hide! It is pure trifles with which they worry themselves, and I find these diplomatists with their airs of confidence and their petty fussiness much more absurd than the member of the Second Chamber in his conscious dignity. Unless some external events take place, and we clever men of the Diet can neither direct nor foresee them, I know already what we shall bring about in one or two or three years, and will do it in twenty-four hours if the others will only be reasonable and truthful for a single day. I am making tremendous progress in the art of saying nothing in many words; I write reports many pages long, which are smooth and finished like leading articles, and if Manteuffel after reading them can say what they contain, he can do more than I. We all do as though we believed of each other that we are full of thoughts and plans, if only we would express them, and all the time we none of us know a hair's breadth more what will become of Germany."

Of the Austrian Envoy who was President of the Diet he writes:

"Thun in his outward appearance has something of a hearty good fellow mixed with a touch of the Vienna roué. Underneath this he hides, I will not say great political power and intellectual gifts, but an uncommon cleverness and cunning, which with great presence of mind appears from underneath the mask of harmless good-humour as soon as politics are concerned. I consider him as an opponent who is dangerous to anyone who honestly trusts him, instead of paying back in his own coin."

His judgment on his other colleagues is equally decisive; of the Austrian diplomatists he writes:

"one must never expect that they will make what is right the foundation of their policy for the simple reason that it is the right. Cautious dishonesty is the characteristic of their association with us. They have nothing which awakens confidence. They intrigue under the mask of good-fellowship."

It was impossible to look for open co-operation from them;

"their mouths are full of the necessity for common action, but when it is a question of furthering our wishes, then officially it is, 'We will not oppose,' and a secret pleasure in preparing obstacles."

It was just the same with the envoys of the other countries: with few exceptions there is none for whom right has any value in itself.

"They are caricatures of diplomatists who put on their official physiognomy if I ask them for a light, and select gestures and words with a truly Regensburg caution, if they ask for the key of the water-closet." Writing to Gerlach he speaks of "the lying, double-tongued policy of the Austrians. Of all the lies and intrigues that go on up and down the Rhine an honest man from the old Mark has no conception. These South German children of nature are very corrupt."

His opinion of the diplomatists does not seem to have improved as he knew them better. Years later he wrote:

"There are few diplomatists who in the long run do not prefer to capitulate with their conscience and their patriotism, and to guard the interests of their country and their sovereign with somewhat less decision, rather than, incessantly and with danger to their personal position, to contend with the difficulties which are prepared for them by a powerful and unscrupulous enemy."

He does not think much better of his own Prussian colleagues; he often complains of the want of support which he received. "With us the official diplomacy," he writes, "is capable of playing under the same roof with strangers against their own countrymen."

These letters are chiefly interesting because of the light they throw on his own character at the beginning of his diplomatic career; we must not take them all too seriously. He was too good a raconteur not to make a good story better, and too good a letter-writer not to add something to the effect of his descriptions; besides, as he says elsewhere, he did not easily see the good side of people; his eyes were sharper for their faults than their good qualities. After the first few passages of arms he got on well enough with Thun; when he was recalled two years later Bismarck spoke of him with much warmth. "I like him personally, and should be glad to have him for a neighbour at Schönhausen."

It is however important to notice that the first impression made on him by diplomatic work was that of wanton and ineffective deceit. Those who accuse him, as is so often done, of lowering the standard of political morality which prevails in Europe, know little of politics as they were at the time when Schwarzenberg was the leading statesman.

It was his fate at once to be brought in close contact with the most disagreeable side of political life. In all diplomatic work there must be a good deal of espionage and underhand dealing. This was a part of his duties which Bismarck had soon to learn. He was entrusted with the management of the Press. This consisted of two parts: first of all, he had to procure the insertion of articles in influential papers in a sense agreeable to the plans of the Prussian Government; secondly, when hostile articles appeared, or inconvenient information was published, he had to trace the authors of it,—find out by whom the obnoxious paper had been inspired, or who had conveyed the secret information. This is a form of activity of which it is of course not possible to give any full account; it seems, however, clear that in a remarkably short time Bismarck shewed great aptitude for his new duties. His letters to Manteuffel are full of curious information as to the intrigues of those who are hostile to Prussia. He soon learns to distrust the information supplied by the police; all through his life he had little respect for this department of the Prussian State. He soon had agents of his own. We find him gaining secret information as to the plans of the Ultramontane party in Baden from a compositor at Freiburg who was in his pay. On other occasions, when a Court official at Berlin had conveyed to the newspapers private information, Bismarck was soon able to trace him out. We get the impression, both from his letters and from what other information we possess, that all the diplomatists of Germany were constantly occupied in calumniating one another through anonymous contributions to a venal Press.

It is characteristic of the customs of the time that he had to warn his wife that all her letters to him would be read in the post-office before he received them. It was not only the Austrians who used these methods; each of the Prussian Ministers would have his own organ which he would use for his own purposes, and only too probably to attack his own colleagues. It was at this time that a curious fact came to light with regard to Herr von Prokesch-Osten, the Austrian Ambassador at Berlin. He had been transferred from Berlin to Frankfort, and on leaving his house sold some of his furniture. In a chest of drawers was found a large bundle of papers consisting of newspaper articles in his handwriting, which had been communicated to different papers, attacking the Prussian Government, to which he at the time was accredited. Of Prokesch it is that Bismarck once writes: "As to his statements I do not know how much you will find to be Prokesch, and how much to be true." On another occasion, before many witnesses, Bismarck had disputed some statement he made. "If it is not true," cried Prokesch, "then I should have lied in the name of the Royal and Imperial Government." "Certainly," answered Bismarck. There was a dead pause in the conversation. Prokesch afterwards officially admitted that the statement had been incorrect.

This association with the Press formed in him a habit of mind which he never lost: the proper use of newspapers seemed to him, as to most German statesmen, to be not the expression of public opinion but the support of the Government; if a paper is opposed to the Government, the assumption seems to be that it is bribed by some other State.

"The whole country would rejoice if some of the papers which are supported by foreign sources were suppressed, with the express recognition of their unpatriotic attitude. There may be opposition in the internal affairs, but a paper which in Prussia takes part against the policy of the King on behalf of foreign countries, must be regarded as dishonoured and treated as such."

Politically his position was very difficult; the Diet had been restored by Austria against the will of Prussia; the very presence of a Prussian Envoy in Frankfort was a sign of her humiliation. He had indeed gone there full of friendly dispositions towards Austria; he was instructed to take up again the policy which had been pursued before 1848, when all questions of importance had been discussed by the two great Powers before they were laid before the Diet. Bismarck, however, quickly found that this was no longer the intention of Austria; the Austria which he had so chivalrously defended at Berlin did not exist; he had expected to find a warm and faithful friend—he found a cunning and arrogant enemy. Schwarzenberg had spared Prussia but he intended to humble her; he wished to use the Diet as a means of permanently asserting the supremacy of Austria, and he would not be content until Prussia had been forced like Saxony or Bavaria to acquiesce in the position of a vassal State. The task might not seem impossible, for Prussia appeared to be on the downward path.

Of course the Diet of Frankfort was the place where the plan had to be carried out; it seemed an admirable opportunity that Prussia was represented there by a young and untried man. Count Thun and his successors used every means to make it appear as though Prussia was a State not of equal rank with Austria. They carried the war into society and, as diplomatists always will, used the outward forms of social intercourse as a means for obtaining political ends. On this field, Bismarck was quite capable of meeting them. He has told many stories of their conflicts.

As President of the Diet, Thun claimed privileges for himself which others did not dare to dispute.

"In the sittings of the military commission when Rochow was Prussian envoy, Austria alone smoked. Rochow, who was a passionate smoker, would also have gladly done so, but did not venture. When I came I did not see any reason against it; and asked for a light from the Presiding State; this seemed to be noticed with astonishment and displeasure by him and the other gentlemen; it was obviously an event for them. This time only Austria and Prussia smoked. But the others obviously held it so important that they sent home a report on it. Someone must have written about it to Berlin, as a question from the late King arrived; he did not smoke himself and probably did not find the affair to his taste. It required much consideration at the smaller Courts, and for quite half a year only the two great Powers smoked. Then Schrenk, the Bavarian envoy, began to maintain the dignity of his position by smoking. The Saxon Nostitz would doubtless have liked to begin too, but I suppose he had not yet received permission from his Minister. But when next time he saw that Bothmer, the Hanoverian, allowed himself a cigar, he must have come to an understanding with his neighbour (he was a good Austrian, and had sons in the Austrian army), for he brought out his pouch and lit up. There remained only the Würtemberger and the Darmstadter, and they did not smoke at all, but the honour and the importance of their States required it, and so on the following day the Würtemberger really brought out his cigar. I can see him with it now, a long, thin, yellow thing, the colour of rye-straw,—and with sulky determination, as a sacrifice for his Swabian fatherland, he smoked at least half of it. Hesse-Darmstadt alone refrained."

On another occasion Thun received Bismarck in his shirt sleeves: "You are quite right," said Bismarck, "it is very hot," and took off his own coat.

In the transaction of business he found the same thing. The plan seemed to be deliberately to adopt a policy disadvantageous to Prussia, to procure the votes of a majority of the States, thereby to cause Prussia to be outvoted, and to leave her in the dilemma of accepting a decision which was harmful to herself or of openly breaking with the Federation. On every matter which came up the same scenes repeated themselves; now it was the disposal of the fleet, which had to a great extent been provided for and maintained by Prussian money; Austria demanded that it should be regarded as the property of the Confederation even though most of the States had never paid their contribution. Then it was the question of the Customs' Union; a strong effort was made by the anti-Prussian party to overthrow the union which Prussia had established and thereby ruin the one great work which she had achieved. Against these and similar attempts Bismarck had constantly to be on the defensive. Another time it was the publication of the proceedings of the Diet which the Austrians tried to make a weapon against Prussia. The whole intercourse became nothing but a series of disputes, sometimes serious, sometimes trivial.

Bismarck was soon able to hold his own; poor Count Thun, whose nerves were not strong, after a serious discussion with him used to go to bed at five o'clock in the afternoon; he complained that his health would not allow him to hold his post if there were to be continuous quarrels. When his successor, Herr v. Prokesch, left Frankfort for Constantinople, he said that "it would be like an Eastern dream of the blessed to converse with the wise Ali instead of Bismarck."

As soon as the first strangeness had passed off Bismarck became reconciled to his position. His wife and children joined him, he made himself a comfortable home, and his house soon became one of the most popular in the town; he and his wife were genial and hospitable and he used his position to extend his own influence and that of his country. His old friend, Motley, visited him there in 1855 and wrote to his wife:

FRANKFORT,
"Monday, July 30, 1855.

" ... The Bismarcks are as kind as ever—nothing can be more frank and cordial than her manners. I am there all day long. It is one of those houses where everyone does what he likes. The show apartments where they receive formal company are on the front of the house. Their living rooms, however, are a salon and dining-room at the back, opening upon the garden. Here there are young and old, grandparents and children and dogs all at once, eating, drinking, smoking, piano-playing, and pistol-firing (in the garden), all going on at the same time. It is one of those establishments where every earthly thing that can be eaten or drunk is offered you; porter, soda water, small beer, champagne, burgundy, or claret are about all the time, and everybody is smoking the best Havana cigars every minute."

He had plenty of society, much of it congenial to him. He had given up playing since his marriage, and was one of the few diplomatists who was not found at the Homburg gaming-tables, but he had a sufficiency of sport and joined with the British envoy, Sir Alexander Malet, in taking some shooting. A couple of years later in contradicting one of the frequent newspaper reports, that he aimed at supplanting the Minister, he says:

"My castle in the air is to spend three to five years longer at Frankfort, then perhaps the same time in Vienna or Paris, then ten years with glory as Minister, then die as a country gentleman."

A prospect which has been more nearly fulfilled than such wishes generally are.

He was for the first year still a member of the Second Chamber and occasionally appeared in it; his interest in his diplomatic work had, however, begun to overshadow his pleasure in Parliamentary debate.

"I am thoroughly tired of my life here," he writes in May, 1853, to his wife from Berlin, "and long for the day of my departure. I find the intrigues of the House immeasurably shallow and undignified; if one always lives among them, one deceives oneself and considers them something wonderful. When I come here from Frankfort and see them as they really are, I feel like a sober man who has fallen among drunkards. There is something very demoralising in the air of the Chambers; it makes the best people vain without their knowing it."

So quickly has he outgrown his feelings of a year ago: then it was the intrigues of diplomatists that had seemed to him useless and demoralising. Now it was Parliamentary debates; in the opinion he formed at this time he never wavered.

His distaste for Parliamentary life was probably increased by an event which took place about this time. As so often before in the course of debate he had a sharp passage of words with Vincke; the latter referred contemptuously to Bismarck's diplomatic achievements. "All I know of them is the famous lighted cigar."

Bismarck answered with some angry words and at the close of the sitting sent a challenge. Four days later a duel with pistols took place—the only one he ever fought. Neither was injured. It seems that Vincke, who had the first shot, seeing that Bismarck (who had received the sacrament the night before) was praying, missed on purpose; Bismarck then shot into the air.

For these reasons he did not stand for re-election when the Chamber was dissolved in 1852, although the King was very much displeased with his determination. He was shortly afterwards appointed member of the newly constituted House of Lords, but though he occasionally voted, as in duty bound, for Government measures, he never spoke; he was not to be heard again in the Parliament until he appeared there as President of the Ministry. He was glad to be freed from a tie which had interfered with his duties at Frankfort; to these he devoted himself with an extraordinary energy; all his old repugnance to official life had disappeared; he did not confine himself to the mere routine of his duties, or to carrying out the instructions sent to him from Berlin.

His power of work was marvellous: there passed through his hands a constant series of most important and complicated negotiations; up to this time he had no experience or practice in sedentary literary work, now he seems to go out of the way to make fresh labours for himself. He writes long and careful despatches to his Minister on matters of general policy; some of them so carefully thought out and so clearly expressed that they may still be looked on as models. He is entirely free from that circumlocution and involved style which makes so much diplomatic correspondence almost worthless. His arguments are always clear, complete, concise. He used to work long into the night, and then, when in the early morning the post to Berlin had gone, he would mount his horse and ride out into the country. It was in these years that he formed those habits to which the breakdown of his health in later years was due; but now his physical and intellectual vigour seemed inexhaustible.

He never feared to press his own views as to the policy which should be pursued. He also kept up a constant correspondence with Gerlach, and many of these letters were laid before the King, so that even when absent he continued as before to influence both the official and unofficial advisers. He soon became the chief adviser on German affairs and was often summoned to Berlin that his advice might be taken; within two years after his appointment he was sent on a special mission to Vienna to try and bring about an agreement as to the rivalry concerning the Customs' Union. He failed, but he had gained a knowledge of persons and opinions at the Austrian Court which was to be of much use to him.

During these years, indeed, he acquired a most remarkable knowledge of Germany; before, he had lived entirely in Prussia, now he was at the centre of the German political system, continually engaged in important negotiations with the other Courts; after a few years there was not a man of importance in German public life whose character and opinions he had not gauged.

Further experience only confirmed in him the observations he had made at the beginning, that it was impossible to maintain a good understanding with Austria. The tone of his letters soon changes from doubt and disappointment to settled and determined hostility. In other matters also he found that the world was not the same place it had seemed to him; he had been accustomed to regard the Revolution as the chief danger to be met; at Frankfort he was in the home of it; here for nearly a year the German Assembly had held its meetings; in the neighbouring States of Baden, Hesse, and in the Palatinate, the Republican element was strong; he found them as revolutionary as ever, but he soon learnt to despise rather than fear them:

"The population here would be a political volcano if revolutions were made with the mouth; so long as it requires blood and strength they will obey anyone who has courage to command and, if necessary, to draw the sword; they would be dangerous only under cowardly governments.

"I have never seen two men fighting in all the two years I have been here. This cowardice does not prevent the people, who are completely devoid of all inner Christianity and all respect for authority, from sympathising with the Revolution."

His observations on the character of the South Germans only increased his admiration for the Prussian people and his confidence in the Prussian State.

He had not been at Frankfort a year before he had learnt to look on this hostility of Austria as unsurmountable. As soon as he had convinced himself of this, he did not bewail and bemoan the desertion of their ally; he at once accustomed himself to the new position and considered in what way the Government ought to act. His argument was simple. Austria is now our enemy; we must be prepared to meet this enmity either by diplomacy or war; we are not strong enough to do so alone; therefore we must have allies. There was no sure alliance to be had in Germany; he despised the other German States. If there were to be a war he would rather have them against him than on his side. He must find help abroad; Austria had overcome Prussia by the alliance with Russia. Surely the only thing to be done was to seek support where it could be got, either with Russia or with France, if possible with both. In this he was only reverting to the old policy of Prussia; the alliance with Austria had only begun in 1813. From now until 1866 his whole policy was ceaselessly devoted to bringing about such a disposition of the forces of Europe that Austria might be left without allies and Prussia be able to regain the upper hand in German affairs.

The change was in his circumstances, not in his character; as before he was moved by a consuming passion of patriotism; something there was too of personal feeling,—his own pride, his own ambitions were engaged, though this was as nothing compared to love of his country and loyalty to the King. He was a soldier of the Prussian Crown: at Berlin he had to defend it against internal enemies; now the danger had shifted, the power of the Government was established, why waste time in fighting with Liberalism? Other enemies were pressing on. When Jellachich and Windischgätz had stood victorious by the blood-stained altar of St. Stephen's, the Austrian army had destroyed the common foe; now it was the same Austrian army and Austrian statesmen who desired to put a limit to Prussian ambition. Bismarck threw himself into the conflict of diplomacy with the same courage and relentless persistence that he had shewn in Parliamentary debates. He had already begun to divine that the time might come when the Prussian Crown would find an ally in Italian patriots and Hungarian rebels.

It was the Eastern complications which first enabled him to shew his diplomatic abilities in the larger field of European politics. The plans for the dismemberment of the Turkish Empire which were entertained by the Czar were opposed by England, France, and Austria; Prussia, though not immediately concerned, also at first gave her assent to the various notes and protests of the Powers; so that the ambition of the Czar was confronted by the unanimous voice of Europe.

Bismarck from the beginning regarded the situation with apprehension; he saw that Prussia was being entangled in a struggle in which she had much to lose and nothing to gain. If she continued to support the Western Powers she would incur the hatred of Russia; then, perhaps, by a sudden change of policy on the part of Napoleon, she would be left helpless and exposed to Russian vengeance. If war were to break out, and Prussia took part in the war, then the struggle between France and Russia would be fought out on German soil, and, whoever was victorious, Germany would be the loser. What interests of theirs were at stake that they should incur this danger? why should Prussia sacrifice herself to preserve English influence in the Mediterranean, or the interests of Austria on the Danube? He wished for exactly the opposite policy; the embarrassment of Austria must be the opportunity of Prussia; now was the time to recover the lost position in Germany. The dangerous friendship of Austria and Russia was dissolved; if Prussia came to an understanding with the Czar, it was now Austria that would be isolated. The other German States would not desire to be dragged into a war to support Austrian dominion in the East. Let Prussia be firm and they would turn to her for support, and she would once more be able to command a majority of the Diet.

For these reasons he recommended his Government to preserve an armed neutrality, in union, if possible, with the other German States. If they were to take sides, he preferred it should not be with the Western Powers, for, as he said,—

"We must look abroad for allies, and among the European Powers Russia is to be had on the cheapest terms; it wishes only to grow in the East, the two others at our expense."

It shews the advance he had made in diplomacy that throughout his correspondence he never refers to the actual cause of dispute; others might discuss the condition of the Christians in Turkey or the Holy Places of Jerusalem; he thinks only of the strength and weakness of his own State. The opening of the Black Sea, the dismemberment of Turkey, the control of the Mediterranean, the fate of the Danubian Principalities—for all this he cared nothing, for in them Prussia had no interests; they only existed for him so far as the new combinations among the Powers might for good or evil affect Prussia.

The crisis came in 1854: a Russian army occupied Moldavia and Wallachia; England and France sent their fleets to the Black Sea; they determined on war and they wished for the alliance of Austria. Austria was inclined to join, for the presence of Russian troops on the Danube was a menace to her; she did not dare to move unless supported by Prussia and Germany; she appealed to the Confederacy and urged that her demands might be supported by the armies of her allies; but the German States were little inclined to send the levies of their men for the Eastern interests of the Emperor. If they were encouraged by Prussia, they would refuse; the result in Germany, as in Europe, depended on the action of Prussia, and the decision lay with the King.

Was Prussia to take part with Russia or the Western Powers? That was the question which for many months was debated at Berlin.

The public opinion of the nation was strong for the Western Powers; they feared the influence of Russia on the internal affairs of Germany; they had not forgotten or forgiven the part which the Czar had taken in 1849; the choice seemed to lie between Russia and England, between liberty and despotism, between civilisation and barbarism. On this side also were those who wished to maintain the alliance with Austria. Russia had few friends except at the Court and in the army, but the party of the Kreuz Zeitung, the Court Camarilla, the princes and nobles who commanded the Garde Corps, wished for nothing better than a close alliance with the great Emperor who had saved Europe from the Revolution. "Let us draw our sword openly in defence of Russia," they said, "then we may bring Austria with us; the old alliance of the three monarchies will be restored, and then will be the time for a new crusade against France, the natural enemy of Germany, and the upstart Emperor."

The conflict of parties was keenest in the precincts of the Court; society in Berlin was divided between the Russian and the English; the Queen was hot for Russia, but the English party rallied round the Prince of Prussia and met in the salons of his wife. Between the two the King wavered; he was, as always, more influenced by feeling than by calculation, but his feelings were divided. How could he decide between Austria and Russia, the two ancient allies of his house? He loved and reverenced the Czar; he feared and distrusted Napoleon; alliance with infidels against Christians was to him a horrible thought, but he knew how violent were the actions and lawless the desires of Nicholas. He could not ignore the opinions of Western Europe and he wished to stand well with England. The men by whose advice he was guided stood on opposite sides: Bunsen was for England, Gerlach for Russia; the Ministry also was divided. No efforts were spared to influence him; the Czar and Napoleon each sent special envoys to his Court; the Queen of England and her husband warned him not to forget his duty to Europe and humanity; if he would join the allies there would be no war. Still he wavered; "he goes to bed an Englishman and gets up a Russian," said the Czar, who despised his brother-in-law as much as he was honoured by him.

While the struggle was at its height, Bismarck was summoned to Berlin, that his opinion might also be heard. At Berlin and at Letzlingen he had frequent interviews with the King. In later years he described the situation he found there:

"It was nothing strange, according to the custom of those days, that half a dozen ambassadors should be living in hotels intriguing against the policy of the Minister."

He found Berlin divided into two parties: the one looked to the Czar as their patron and protector, the other wished to win the approval of England; he missed a reasonable conviction as to what was the interest of Prussia. His own advice was against alliance with the Western Powers or Austria; better join Russia than England; better still, preserve neutrality and hold the balance of Europe. He had the reputation of being very Russian, but he protested against the term. "I am not Russian," he said, "but Prussian." He spoke with great decision against the personal adherents of the King, men who looked to the Czar rather than to their own sovereign, and carried their subservience even to treason. As in former days, courage he preached and resolution. Some talked of the danger of isolation; "With 400,000 men we cannot be isolated," he said. The French envoy warned him that his policy might lead to another Jena; "Why not to Waterloo?" he answered. Others talked of the danger of an English blockade of their coasts; he pointed out that this would injure England more than Prussia.

"Let us be bold and depend on our own strength; let us frighten Austria by threatening an alliance with Russia, frighten Russia by letting her think we may join the Western Powers; if it were true that we could never side with Russia, at least we must retain the possibility of threatening to do so."

The result was what we might expect from the character of the King; unable to decide for either of the contending factors, he alternated between the two, and gave his support now to one, now to the other. In March, when Bismarck was still in Berlin, sudden disgrace fell upon the English party; Bunsen was recalled from London, Bonin, their chief advocate in the Ministry, was dismissed; when the Prince of Prussia, the chief patron of the Western alliance, protested, he was included in the act of disfavour, and had to leave Berlin, threatened with the loss of his offices and even with arrest. All danger of war with Russia seemed to have passed; Bismarck returned content to Frankfort. Scarcely had he gone when the old affection for Austria gained the upper hand, and by a separate treaty Prussia bound herself to support the Austrian demands, if necessary by arms. Bismarck heard nothing of the treaty till it was completed; the Ministers had purposely refrained from asking his advice on a policy which they knew he would disapprove. He overcame his feelings of disgust so far as to send a cold letter of congratulation to Manteuffel; to Gerlach he wrote:

"His Majesty should really see to it that his Ministers should drink more champagne; none of the gentry ought to enter his Council without half a bottle under his belt. Our policy would soon get a respectable colour."

The real weakness lay, as he well knew, in the character of the King. "If here I say to one of my colleagues, 'We remain firm even if Austria drives matters to a breach,' he laughs in my face and says, 'As long as the King lives it will not come to a war between Austria and Prussia.'" And again, "The King has as much leniency for the sins of Austria as I hope to have from the Lord in Heaven."

It was a severe strain on his loyalty, but he withstood it; he has, I believe, never expressed his opinion about the King; we can guess what it must have been. It was a melancholy picture: a King violent and timid, obstinate and irresolute; his will dragged now this way, now that, by his favourites, his wife and his brother; his own Ministers intriguing against each other; ambassadors recommending a policy instead of carrying out their instructions; and the Minister-President standing calmly by, as best he could, patching up the appearance of a Consistent policy.

It was probably the experience which he gained at this time which in later years, when he himself had become Minister, made Bismarck so jealous of outside and irresponsible advisers; he did not choose to occupy the position of Manteuffel, he laid down the rule that none of his own subordinates should communicate with the King except through himself; a Bismarck as Foreign Minister would not allow a Gerlach at Court, nor a Bismarck among his envoys. He had indeed been careful not to intrigue against his chief, but it was impossible to observe that complete appearance of acquiescence which a strong and efficient Minister must demand. Bismarck was often asked his opinion by the King directly; he was obliged to say what he believed to be the truth, and he often disapproved of that which Manteuffel advised. In order to avoid the appearance of disloyalty, he asked Gerlach that his letters should be shewn to Manteuffel; not all of them could be shewn, still less would it be possible to repeat all he said. If they were in conflict, his duty to the King must override his loyalty to the Minister, and the two could not always be reconciled. To Englishmen indeed it appears most improper that the King should continually call for the advice of other politicians without the intervention or the knowledge of his Ministers, but this is just one of those points on which it is impossible to apply to Prussian practice English constitutional theory. In England it is a maxim of the Constitution that the sovereign should never consult anyone on political matters except the responsible Ministry; this is possible only because the final decision rests with Parliament and the Cabinet and not with the sovereign. It was, however, always the contention of Bismarck that the effective decision in Prussia was with the King. This was undoubtedly the true interpretation of the Prussian Constitution; but it followed from this that the King must have absolute freedom to ask the advice of everyone whose opinions would be of help to him; he must be able to command the envoys to foreign countries to communicate with him directly, and if occasion required it, to consult with the political opponents of his own Ministers. To forbid this and to require that all requests should come to him by the hands of the Ministers would be in truth to substitute ministerial autocracy for monarchical government.

Something of this kind did happen in later years when the German Emperor had grown old, and when Bismarck, supported by his immense experience and success, guided the policy of the country alone, independent of Parliament, and scarcely allowing any independent adviser to approach the Emperor. This was exceptional; normally a Prussian Minister had to meet his opponents and critics not so much in public debate as in private discussion. Under a weak sovereign the policy of the country must always be distracted by palace intrigue, just as in England under a weak Cabinet it will be distracted by party faction. The Ministers must always be prepared to find their best-laid schemes overthrown by the influence exerted upon the royal mind by his private friends or even by his family. It may be said that tenure of office under these conditions would be impossible to a man of spirit; it was certainly very difficult; an able and determined Minister was as much hampered by this private opposition as by Parliamentary discussion. It is often the fashion to say that Parliamentary government is difficult to reconcile with a strong foreign policy; the experiences of Prussia from the year 1815 to 1863 seem to shew that under monarchical government it is equally difficult.

Meanwhile he had been maturing in his mind a bolder plan: Why should not Prussia gain the support she required by alliance with Napoleon?

The Germans had watched the rise of Napoleon with suspicion and alarm; they had long been taught that France was their natural enemy. When Napoleon seized the power and assumed the name of Emperor, the old distrust was revived; his very name recalled memories of hostility; they feared he would pursue an ambitious and warlike policy; that he would withdraw the agreements on which the peace of Europe and the security of the weaker States depended, and that he would extend to the Rhine the borders of France. He was the first ruler of France whose internal policy awoke no sympathy in Germany; his natural allies, the Liberals, he had alienated by the overthrow of the Republic, and he gained no credit for it in the eyes of the Conservatives. The monarchical party in Prussia could only have admiration for the man who had imprisoned a Parliament and restored absolute government; they could not repudiate an act which they would gladly imitate, but they could not forgive him that he was an usurper. According to their creed the suppression of liberty was the privilege of the legitimate King.

It was the last remnant of the doctrine of legitimacy, the belief that it was the duty of the European monarchs that no State should change its form of government or the dynasty by which it was ruled; the doctrine of the Holy Alliance that kings must make common cause against the Revolution. How changed were the times from the days when Metternich had used this as a strong support for the ascendancy of the House of Austria! Austria herself was no longer sound; the old faith lingered only in St. Petersburg and Berlin; but how weak and ineffective it had become! There was no talk now of interference, there would not be another campaign of Waterloo or of Valmy; there was only a prudish reserve; they could not, they did not dare, refuse diplomatic dealings with the new Emperor, but they were determined there should be no cordiality: the virgin purity of the Prussian Court should not be deflowered by intimacy with the man of sin. If there could not be a fresh crusade against Buonapartism, at least, there should be no alliance with it.

From the beginning Bismarck had little sympathy with this point of view; he regarded the coup d'état as necessary in a nation which had left the firm ground of legitimacy; France could not be governed except by an iron hand. As a Prussian, however, he could not be pleased, for he saw an enemy who had been weak strengthened, but he did not believe in Napoleon's warlike desires. In one way it was an advantage,—the overthrow of the Republic had broken the bond which joined the German revolutionists to France. He did not much mind what happened in other countries so long as Prussia was safe.

There is no ground for surprise that he soon began to go farther; he warned his friends not to irritate the Emperor; on the occasion of the Emperor's marriage the Kreuz Zeitung published a violent article, speaking of it as an insult and threat to Prussia. Bismarck's feelings as a gentleman were offended by this useless scolding; it seemed, moreover, dangerous. If Prussia were to quarrel with France, they would be obliged to seek the support of the Eastern Powers: if Russia and Austria should know this, Prussia would be in their hands. The only effect of this attitude would be to cut off the possibility of a useful move in the game of diplomacy:

"There is no good in giving our opposition to France the stamp of irrevocability; it would be no doubt a great misfortune if we were to unite ourselves with France, but why proclaim this to all the world? We should do wiser to act so that Austria and Russia would have to court our friendship against France than treat us as an ally who is presented to them."

It is a topic to which he often refers:

"We cannot make an alliance with France without a certain degree of meanness, but very admirable people, even German princes, in the Middle Ages have used a sewer to make their escape, rather than be beaten or throttled."

An alliance with Napoleon was, however, according to the code of honour professed, if not followed, in every German State, the sin for which there was no forgiveness. It was but a generation ago that half the German princes had hurried to the Court of the first Napoleon to receive at his hands the estates of their neighbours and the liberties of their subjects. No one doubted that the new Napoleon would be willing to use similar means to ensure the power of France; would he meet with willing confederates? The Germans, at least, do not seem to have trusted one another; no prince dared show ordinary courtesy to the ruling family of France, no statesman could visit Paris but voices would be heard crying that he had sold himself and his country. An accusation of this kind was the stock-in-trade which the Nationalist press was always ready to bring against every ruler who was obnoxious to them. It required moral courage, if it also shewed political astuteness, when Bismarck proposed deliberately to encourage a suspicion from which most men were anxious that their country should be free. He had already plenty of enemies, and reports were soon heard that he was in favour of a French alliance; they did not cease for ten years; he often protests in his private letters against these unworthy accusations; the protests seem rather absurd, for if he did not really wish for an alliance between Prussia and France, he at least wished that people should dread such an alliance. A man cannot frighten his friends by the fear he will rob them, and at the same time enjoy the reputation for strict probity.

He explains with absolute clearness the benefits which will come from a French alliance:

"The German States are attentive and attracted to us in the same degree in which they believe we are befriended by France. Confidence in us they will never have, every glance at the map prevents that; and they know that their separate interests and the misuse of their sovereignty always stand in the way of the whole tendency of Prussian policy. They clearly recognise the danger which lies in this; it is one against which the unselfishness of our Most Gracious Master alone gives them a temporary security. The opinions of the King, which ought at least for a time to weaken their mistrust, will gain his Majesty no thanks; they will only be used and exploited. In the hour of necessity gratitude and confidence will not bring a single man into the field. Fear, if it is used with foresight and clearness, can place the whole Confederacy at our feet, and in order to instil fear into them we must give clear signs of our good relations with France."

He objected to Prussia following what was called a German policy, for, as he said, by a national and patriotic policy is meant that Prussia should do what was for the interest, not of herself, but of the smaller States.

It was not till after the Crimean War that he was able to press this policy. Napoleon had now won his position in Europe; Gerlach had seen with pain and disgust that the Queen of England had visited his Court. The Emperor himself desired a union with Prussia. In this, sympathy and interest combined: he had much affection for Germany; his mind, as his education, was more German than French; he was a man of ideas; he was the only ruler of France who has sincerely desired and deliberately furthered the interests of other countries; he believed that the nation should be the basis of the State; his revolutionary antecedents made him naturally opposed to the House of Austria; and he was ready to help Prussia in resuming her old ambitious policy.

The affair of Neuchâtel gave him an opportunity of earning the personal gratitude of the King, and he did not neglect it, for he knew that in the royal prejudice was the strongest impediment to an alliance. In 1857 Bismarck was sent to Paris to discuss this and other matters. Two years before he had been presented to the Emperor, but it had been at the time when he was opposed to the French policy. Now for the first time the two men who were for ten years to be the leaders, now friends, then rivals, in the realm of diplomacy, were brought into close connection. Bismarck was not impressed by the Emperor's ability. He wrote:

"People exaggerate his intellect, but underrate his heart." Napoleon was very friendly; his wish to help the King went farther than his duty to follow French policy. He said: "Why should we not be friends; let us forget the past; if everyone were to attach himself to a policy of memories, two nations that have once been at war must be at war to all eternity; statesmen must occupy themselves with the future."

This was just Bismarck's opinion; he wrote home suggesting that he might prepare the way for a visit of the Emperor to Prussia; he would like to come and it would have a good effect. This was going farther than the King, grateful though he was, would allow; he told Gerlach not to answer this part of the letter at all while Bismarck was in Paris. Bismarck, however, continued in his official reports and private letters to urge again and again the political advantages of an understanding with France; it is Austria that is the natural enemy, for it is Austria whose interests are opposed to Prussia. If they repel the advance of Napoleon, they will oblige him to seek an alliance with Russia, and this was a danger which even in those days Bismarck never ceased to fear. Prince Napoleon, cousin of the Emperor, was at that time on a visit to Berlin; on his way through Frankfort he had singled out Bismarck, and (no doubt under instructions) had shown great friendliness to him; the Kreuz Zeitung again took the opportunity of insulting the ruler of France; Bismarck again remonstrated against the danger of provoking hostility by these acts of petty rancour, disguised though they might be under the name of principle. He did not succeed in persuading the King or his confidant; he was always met by the same answer: "France is the natural enemy of Germany; Napoleon is the representative of the Revolution; there can be no union between the King of Prussia and the Revolution." "How can a man of your intelligence sacrifice your principles to a single individual?" asks Gerlach, who aimed not at shewing that an alliance with France would be foolish, but that it would be wrong. Five years before, Bismarck would have spoken as Gerlach did; but in these years he had seen and learnt much; he had freed himself from the influence of his early friends; he had outgrown their theoretic formalism; he had learned to look at the world with his own eyes, and to him, defending his country against the intrigues of weaker and the pressure of more powerful States, the world was a different place from what it was to those who passed their time in the shadow of the Court. He remembered that it was not by strict obedience to general principles that Prussia had grown great. Frederick the Second had not allowed himself to be stopped by these narrow searchings of heart; his successor had not scrupled to ally himself with revolutionary France. This rigid insistence on a rule of right, this nice determining of questions of conscience, seemed better suited to the confessor's chair than to the advisers of a great monarch. And the principle to which he was asked to sacrifice the future of his country,—was it after all a true principle? Why should Prussia trouble herself about the internal constitution of other States, what did it concern her whether France was ruled by a Bourbon or an Orleans or a Bonaparte? How could Prussia continue the policy of the Holy Alliance when the close union of the three Eastern monarchies no longer existed? If France were to attack Germany, Prussia could not expect the support of Russia, she could not even be sure of that of Austria. An understanding with France was required, not by ambition, but by the simplest grounds of self-preservation.

These and other considerations he advanced in a long and elaborate memorandum addressed to Manteuffel, which was supplemented by letters to the Minister and Gerlach. For closeness of reasoning, for clearness of expression, for the wealth of knowledge and cogency of argument these are the most remarkable of his political writings. In them he sums up the results of his apprenticeship to political life, he lays down the principles on which the policy of the State ought to be conducted, the principles on which in future years he was himself to act.

"What," he asks, "are the reasons against an alliance with France? The chief ground is the belief that the Emperor is the chief representative of the Revolution and identical with it, and that a compromise with the Revolution is as inadmissible in internal as in external policy." Both statements he triumphantly overthrows. "Why should we look at Napoleon as the representative of the Revolution? there is scarcely a government in Europe which has not a revolutionary origin."

"What is there now existing in the world of politics which has a complete legal basis? Spain, Portugal, Brazil, all the American Republics, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Greece, Sweden, England, which State with full consciousness is based on the Revolution of 1688, are all unable to trace back their legal systems to a legitimate origin. Even as to the German princes we cannot find any completely legitimate title for the ground which they have won partly from the Emperor and the Empire, partly from their fellow-princes, partly from the Estates."

He goes farther: the Revolution is not peculiar to France; it did not even originate there:

"It is much older than the historical appearance of Napoleon's family and far wider in its extent than France, if we are to assign it an origin in this world, we must look for it, not in France, but in England, or go back even earlier, even to Germany or Rome, according as we regard the exaggerations of the Reformation or of the Roman Church as responsible."

But if Napoleon is not the sole representative of revolutions, why make opposition to him a matter of principle? He shews no desire of propagandism.

"To threaten other States by means of the Revolution has been for years the trade of England, and this principle of not associating with a revolutionary power is itself quite modern: it is not to be found in the last century. Cromwell was addressed as Brother by European potentates and they sought his friendship when it appeared useful. The most honourable Princes joined in alliance with the States-General before they were recognised by Spain. Why should Prussia now alone, to its own injury, adopt this excessive caution?"

He goes farther: not only does he reject the principle of legitimacy,—he refuses to be bound by any principles; he did not free himself from one party to bind himself to another; his profession was diplomacy and in diplomacy there was no place for feelings of affection and antipathy.

What is the proper use of principles in diplomacy? It is to persuade others to adopt a policy which is convenient to oneself.

"My attitude towards Foreign Governments springs not from any antipathy, but from the good or evil they may do to Prussia." "A policy of sentiment is dangerous, for it is one-sided; it is an exclusively Prussian peculiarity." "Every other Government makes its own interests the sole criterion of its actions, however much it may drape them in phrases about justice and sympathy." "My ideal for foreign policy is freedom from prejudice; that our decisions should be independent of all impressions of dislike or affection for Foreign States and their governments."

This was the canon by which he directed his own actions, and he expected obedience to it from others.

"So far as foreigners go I have never in my life had sympathy for anyone but England and its inhabitants, and I am even now not free from it; but they will not let us love them, and as soon as it was proved to me that it was in the interest of a sound and well-matured Prussian policy, I would let our troops fire on French, English, Russian, or Austrian, with the same satisfaction."

"I cannot justify sympathies and antipathies as regards Foreign Powers and persons before my feeling of duty in the foreign service of my country, either in myself or another; therein lies the embryo of disloyalty against my master or my country. In my opinion not even the King himself has the right to subordinate the interests of his country to his own feelings of love or hatred towards strangers; he is, however, responsible towards God and not to me if he does so, and therefore on this point I am silent."

This reference to the King is very characteristic. Holding, as he did, so high an ideal of public duty himself, he naturally regarded with great dislike the influence which, too often, family ties and domestic affection exercised over the mind of the sovereign. The German Princes had so long pursued a purely domestic policy that they forgot to distinguish between the interests of their families and their land. They were, moreover, naturally much influenced in their public decisions, not only by their personal sympathies, but also by the sympathies and opinions of their nearest relations. To a man like Bismarck, who regarded duty to the State as above everything, nothing could be more disagreeable than to see the plans of professional statesmen criticised by irresponsible people and perhaps overthrown through some woman's whim. He was a confirmed monarchist but he was no courtier. In his letters at this period he sometimes refers to the strong influence which the Princess of Prussia exercised over her husband, who was heir to the throne. He regarded with apprehension the possible effects which the proposed marriage of the Prince of Prussia's son to the Princess Royal of England might have on Prussian policy. He feared it would introduced English influence and Anglomania without their gaining any similar influence in England. "If our future Queen remains in any degree English, I see our Court surrounded by English influence." He was not influenced in this by any hostility to England; almost at the same time he had written that England was the only foreign country for which he had any sympathy. He was only (as so often) contending for that independence and self-reliance which he so admired in the English. For two hundred years English traditions had absolutely forbidden the sovereign to allow his personal and family sympathies to interfere with the interests of the country. If the House of Hohenzollern were to aspire to the position of a national monarch it must act in the same way. At this very time the Emperor Napoleon was discussing the Prussian marriage with Lord Clarendon. "It will much influence the policy of the Queen in favour of Prussia," he said. "No, your Majesty," answered the English Ambassador. "The private feelings of the Queen can never have any influence on that which she believes to be for the honour and welfare of England." This was the feeling by which Bismarck was influenced; he was trying to educate his King, and this was the task to which for many years he was devoted. What he thought of the duties of princes we see from an expression he uses in a letter to Manteuffel: "Only Christianity can make princes what they ought to be, and free them from that conception of life which causes many of them to seek in the position given them by God nothing but the means to a life of pleasure and irresponsibility." All his attempts to win over the King and Gerlach to his point of view failed; the only result was that his old friends began to look on him askance; his new opinions were regarded with suspicion. He was no longer sure of his position in Court; his outspokenness had caused offence; after reading his last letter, Gerlach answered: "Your explanation only shews me that we are now far asunder"; the correspondence, which had continued for almost seven years, stopped. Bismarck felt that he was growing lonely; he had to accustom himself to the thought that the men who had formerly been both politically and personally his close friends, and who had once welcomed him whenever he returned to Berlin, now desired to see him kept at a distance. In one of his last letters to Gerlach, he writes: "I used to be a favourite; now all that is changed. His Majesty has less often the wish to see me; the ladies of the Court have a cooler smile than formerly; the gentlemen press my hand less warmly. The high opinion of my usefulness is sunk, only the Minister [Manteuffel] is warmer and more friendly." Something of this was perhaps exaggerated, but there was no doubt that a breach had begun which was to widen and widen: Bismarck was no longer a member of the party of the Kreuz Zeitung. It was fortunate that a change was imminent in the direction of the Prussian Government; the old figures who had played their part were to pass away and a new era was to begin.