Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. — Thomas Jefferson

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




The German Problem



1849-1852


Bismarck, however, did not confine himself to questions of constitutional reform and internal government. He often spoke on the foreign policy of the Government, and it is in these speeches that he shews most originality.

The Revolution in Germany, as in Italy, had two sides; it was Liberal, but it was also National. The National element was the stronger and more deep-seated. The Germans felt deeply the humiliation to which they were exposed owing to the fact that they did not enjoy the protection of a powerful Government; they wished to belong to a national State, as Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Russians did. It was the general hope that the period of revolution might be used for establishing a government to which the whole of Germany would pay obedience. This was the task of the Constituent Assembly, which since the spring of 1848 had with the permission of the Governments been sitting at Frankfort. Would they be able to succeed where the diplomatists of Vienna had failed? They had at least good-will, but it was to be shewn that something more than honest endeavour was necessary. There were three great difficulties with which they had to contend. The first was the Republican party, the men who would accept no government but a Republic, and who wished to found the new state by insurrection. They were a small minority of the German people; several attempts at insurrection organised by them were suppressed, and they were outvoted in the Assembly. The second difficulty was Austria. A considerable portion of Germany was included in the Austrian Empire. If the whole of Germany were to be included in the new State which they hoped to found, then part of the Austrian Empire would have to be separated from the rest, subjected to different laws and a different government; nothing would remain but a personal union between the German and Slavonic provinces. The Government of Austria, after it had recovered its authority at the end of 1848, refused to accept this position, and published a new Constitution, binding all the provinces together in a closer union. The Assembly at Frankfort had no power to coerce the Emperor of Austria; they therefore adopted the other solution, viz.: that the rest of Germany was to be reconstituted, and the Austrian provinces left out. The question, however, then arose: Would Austria accept this—would she allow a new Germany to be created in which she had no part? Surely not, if she was able to prevent it. The third difficulty was the relation between the individual States and the new central authority. It is obvious that whatever powers were given to the new Government would be taken away from the Princes of the individual States, who hitherto had enjoyed complete sovereignty. Those people who in Germany were much influenced by attachment to the existing governments, and who wished to maintain the full authority of the Princes and the local Parliaments, were called Particularists. During the excitement of the Revolution they had been almost entirely silenced. With the restoration of order and authority they had regained their influence. It was probable that many of the States would refuse to accept the new Constitution unless they were compelled to do so. Where was the power to do this? There were many in the National Assembly who wished to appeal to the power of the people, and by insurrection and barricades compel all the Princes to accept the new Constitution. There was only one other power in Germany which could do the work, and that was the Prussian army. Would the King of Prussia accept this task?

The German Constitution was completed in March, 1849. By the exercise of much tact and great personal influence, Heinrich von Gagern, the President of the Assembly and the leader of the Moderate party in it, had procured a majority in favour of an hereditary monarchy, and the King of Prussia was elected to the post of first German Emperor. At the beginning of April there arrived in Berlin the deputation which was to offer to him the crown, and on his answer depended the future of Germany. Were he to accept, he would then have undertaken to put himself at the head of the revolutionary movement; it would be his duty to compel all the other States to accept the new Constitution, and, if necessary, to defend it on the field of battle against Austria. Besides this he would have to govern not only Prussia but Germany; to govern it under a Constitution which gave almost all the power to a Parliament elected by universal suffrage, and in which he had only a suspensive veto. Can we be surprised that he refused the offer? He refused it on the ground that he could not accept universal suffrage, and also because the title and power of German Emperor could not be conferred on him by a popular assembly; he could only accept it from his equals, the German Princes.

The decision of the King was discussed in the Prussian Assembly, and an address moved declaring that the Frankfort Constitution was in legal existence, and requesting the King to accept the offer. It was on this occasion that Bismarck for the first time came forward as the leader of a small party on the Extreme Right. He at once rose to move the previous question. He denied to the Assembly even the right of discussing this matter which belonged to the prerogative of the King.

He was still more strongly opposed to the acceptance of the offered crown. He saw only that the King of Prussia would be subjected to a Parliamentary Assembly, that his power of action would be limited. The motto of his speech was that Prussia must remain Prussia. "The crown of Frankfort," he said, "may be very bright, but the gold which gives truth to its brilliance has first to be won by melting down the Prussian crown." His speech caused great indignation; ten thousand copies of it were printed to be distributed among the electors so as to show them the real principles and objects of the reactionary party.

His opposition to any identification of Prussia and Germany was maintained when the Prussian Government itself took the initiative and proposed its own solution. During the summer of 1849, the Prussian programme was published. The Government invited the other States of Germany to enter into a fresh union; the basis of the new Constitution was to be that of Frankfort, but altered so far as might be found necessary, and the union was to be a voluntary one. The King in order to carry out this policy appointed as one of his Ministers Herr von Radowitz. He was a man of the highest character and extreme ability. An officer by profession, he was distinguished by the versatility of his interests and his great learning. The King found in him a man who shared his own enthusiasm for letters. He had been a member of the Parliament at Frankfort, and had taken a leading part among the extreme Conservatives; a Roman Catholic, he had come forward in defence of religion and order against the Liberals and Republicans; a very eloquent speaker, by his earnestness and eloquence he was able for a short time to give new life to the failing hopes of the German patriots.

Bismarck always looked on the new Minister with great dislike. Radowitz, indeed, hated the Revolution as much as he did; he was a zealous and patriotic Prussian; but there was a fundamental difference in the nature of the two men. Radowitz wished to reform Germany by moral influence. Bismarck did not believe in the possibility of this. To this perhaps we must add some personal feeling. The Ministry had hitherto consisted almost entirely of men who were either personal friends of Bismarck, or whom he had recommended to the King. With Radowitz there entered into it a man who was superior to all of them in ability, and over whom Bismarck could not hope to have any influence. Bismarck's distrust, which amounted almost to hatred, depended, however, on his fear that the new policy would bring about the ruin of Prussia. He took the extreme Particularist view; he had no interest in Germany outside Prussia; Würtemberg and Bavaria were to him foreign States. In all these proposals for a new Constitution he saw only that Prussia would be required to sacrifice its complete independence; that the King of Prussia would become executor for the decrees of a popular and alien Parliament. They were asked to cease to be Prussians in order that they might become Germans. This Bismarck refused to do. "Prussians we are," he said, "and Prussians we will remain." He had no sympathy with this idea of a United Germany which was so powerful at the time; there was only one way in which he was willing that Germany should be united, and that was according to the example which Frederick the Great had set. The ideals of the German nation were represented by Arndt's famous song, "Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland?" The fatherland of the Germans was not Suabia or Prussia, not Austria or Bavaria, it was the whole of Germany wherever the German tongue was spoken. From this Bismarck deliberately dissociated himself. "I have never heard," he said, "a Prussian soldier singing, 'Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland?'" The new flag of Germany was to be the German tricolour, black and white and gold.

"The Prussian soldiers," cried Bismarck, "have no tricoloured enthusiasm; among them you will find, as little as in the rest of the Prussian people, the desire for a national regeneration; they are contented with the name of Prussia, and proud of the name of Prussia. These troops follow the black and white flag, not the tricolour; under the black and white they die with joy for their country. The tricolour they have learnt since the 18th of March to look on as the colours of their foes."

These words aroused intense indignation. One of the speakers who followed referred to him as the Prodigal Son of the German Fatherland, who had deserted his father's house. Bismarck repudiated the epithet. "I am not a prodigal son," he said; "my father's house is Prussia and I have never left it." He could not more clearly repudiate the title German. The others were moved by enthusiasm for an idea, he by loyalty to an existing State.

Nothing was sound, he said, in Germany, except the old Prussian institutions.

"What has preserved us is that which is specifically Prussian. It was the remnant of the Stock-Preussenthum which has survived the Revolution, the Prussian army, the Prussian treasure, the fruits of many years of intelligent Prussian administration, and the living co-operation between King and people. It was the attachment of the Prussian people to their hereditary dynasty, the old Prussian virtues of honour, loyalty, obedience, and the courage which, emanating from the officers who form its bone and marrow, permeates the army down to the youngest recruit."

He reminded the House how the Assembly at Frankfort had only been saved from the insurgent mob by a Prussian regiment, and now it was proposed to weaken and destroy all these Prussian institutions in order to change them into a democratic Germany. He was asked to assent to a Constitution in which the Prussian Government would sink to the level of a provincial council, under the guidance of an Imperial Ministry which itself would be dependent on a Parliament in which the Prussian interests would be in a minority. The most important and honourable duties of the Prussian Parliament would be transferred to a general Parliament; the King would lose his veto; he would be compelled against his will to assent to laws he disliked; even the Prussian army would be no longer under his sole command. What recompense were they to gain for this?

"The pleasant consciousness of having followed an unselfish and noble policy; of having satisfied the requirements of a national regeneration; of having carried out the historical task of Prussia, or some such vague expression."

With this he contrasted what would have been a true Prussian policy, a policy which Frederick the Great might have followed.

"He would have known that now as in the day of our fathers the sound of the trumpets which summoned them to their sovereign's flag has not lost its power for Prussian ears; he would have had the choice either of joining our old comrade Austria, and undertaking the brilliant part which the Emperor of Russia has played, and destroying the cause of the Revolution, or by the same right by which he took Silesia, he might, after refusing to accept the crown, have ordered the Germans what constitution they should have, and thrown the sword into the scale; then Prussia would have been in the position to win for Germany its place in the Council of Europe.

"We all wish the same. We all wish that the Prussian eagle should spread out his wings as guardian and ruler from the Memel to the Donnersberg, but free will we have him, not bound by a new Regensburg Diet. Prussians we are and Prussians will we remain; I know that in these words I speak the confession of the Prussian army and the majority of my fellow-countrymen, and I hope to God that we will still long remain Prussian when this sheet of paper is forgotten like a withered autumn leaf."

The policy of Radowitz was doomed to failure, not so much because of any inherent weakness in it, but because Prussia was not strong enough to defend herself against all the enemies she had called up. The other Courts of Germany were lukewarm, Austria was extremely hostile. The Kings of Hanover and Saxony retreated from the alliance on the ground that they would enter the union only if the whole of Germany joined; Bavaria had refused to do so; in fact the two other Kings had privately used all their influence to prevent Bavaria from joining, in order that they might always have an excuse for seceding. Prussia was, therefore, left surrounded by twenty-eight of the smaller States. A Parliament from them was summoned to meet at Erfurt in order to discuss the new Constitution. Bismarck was elected a member of it; he went there avowedly to protect the Prussian interests. He had demanded from the Government that at least the Constitution agreed on in Erfurt should again be submitted to the Prussian Chamber; he feared that many of the most important Prussian rights might be sacrificed. His request was refused, for it was obvious that if, after the Parliament of Erfurt had come to some conclusion, the new Constitution was to be referred back again to the twenty-eight Parliaments of the allied States, the new union would never come into effect at all. It is curious here to find Bismarck using the rights of the Prussian Parliament as a weapon to maintain the complete independence of Prussia. Sixteen years later, when he was doing the work in which Radowitz failed, one of his chief difficulties arose from the conduct of men who came forward with just the same demand which he now made, and he had to refuse their demands as Radowitz now refused his.

He did not take much part in the debates at Erfurt; as he was one of the youngest of the members, he held the position of Secretary; the President of the Assembly was Simpson, a very distinguished public man, but a converted Jew. "What would my father have said," observed Bismarck, "if he had lived to see me become clerk to a Jewish scholar?" On one occasion he became involved in what might have been a very serious dispute, when he used his power as Secretary to exclude from the reporters' gallery two journalists whose reports of the meeting were very partial and strongly opposed to Austria. His attitude towards the Assembly is shewn by the words:

"I know that what I have said to you will have no influence on your votes, but I am equally convinced that your votes will be as completely without influence on the course of events."

The whole union was, as a matter of fact, broken down by the opposition of Austria. Bismarck had, in one of his first speeches, warned against a policy which would bring Prussia into the position which Piedmont had held before the battle of Novara, when they embarked on a war in which victory would have brought about the overthrow of the monarchy, and defeat a disgraceful peace. It was his way of saying that he hoped the King would not eventually draw the sword in order to defend the new Liberal Constitution against the opposition of Austria. The day came when the King was placed in this position. Austria had summoned the old Diet to meet at Frankfort; Prussia denied that the Diet still legally existed; the two policies were clearly opposed to one another: Austria desiring the restoration of the old Constitution, Prussia, at the head of Liberal Germany, summoning the States round her in a new union. There were other disputes about Schleswig-Holstein and the affairs of Hesse, but this was the real point at issue. The Austrians were armed, and were supported by the Czar and many of the German States; shots were actually exchanged between the Prussian and Bavarian outposts in Hesse. The Austrian ambassador had orders to leave Berlin; had he done so, war could not have been avoided. He disobeyed his orders, remained in Berlin, asked for an interview with the King, and used all his influence to persuade him to surrender. The Ministry was divided; Radowitz stood almost alone; the other Ministers, Bismarck's friends, had always distrusted his policy. They wished to renew the old alliance with Austria; the Minister of War said they could not risk the struggle; it was rumoured that he had deliberately avoided making preparations in order to prevent the King putting himself at the head of the Liberal party. During the crisis, Bismarck was summoned to the King at Letzlingen; there can be no doubt what his advice was; eventually the party of peace prevailed, and Radowitz resigned. Bismarck on hearing the news danced three times round the table with delight. Brandenburg died almost immediately after; Manteuffel became Minister-President; he asked Schwarzenberg for an interview, travelled to Olmütz to meet him, and an agreement was come to by which practically Prussia surrendered every object of dispute between the two great Powers.

The convention of Olmütz was the most complete humiliation to which any European State has ever been subjected. Prussia had undertaken a policy, and with the strong approval of the great majority of the nation had consistently maintained it for over a year; Austria had required that this policy should be surrendered; the two States had armed; the ultimatum had been sent, everything was prepared for war, and then Prussia surrendered. The cause for this was a double one. It was partly that Prussia was really not strong enough to meet the coalition of Austria and Russia, but it was also that the King was really of two minds; he was constitutionally unable to maintain against danger a consistent course of policy.

Bismarck was one of the few men who defended the action of the Ministry. In the ablest of all his speeches he took up the gauntlet, and exposed all the weakness and the dangers of Radowitz's policy. This was not a cause in which Prussia should risk its existence. Why should they go to war in order to subject Prussia not to the Princes but to the Chambers of the smaller States? A war for the Union would, he said, remind him of the Englishman who had a fight with the sentry in order that he might hang himself in the sentry-box, a right which he claimed for himself and every free Briton. It was the duty of the councillors of the King to warn him from a policy which would bring the State to destruction.

"Still I would not shrink, from the war; I would advise it, were anyone able to prove to me the necessity for it, or to point out a worthy end which could be attained by it and in no other way. Why do great States wage war nowadays? The only sound principle of action for a great State is political egoism and not Romanticism, and it is unworthy of a great State to fight for any matter which does not concern its own interests. Shew us, gentlemen, an object worthy of war and you have my vote. It is easy for a statesman in his office or his chamber to blow the trumpet with the breath of popularity and all the time to sit warming himself by his fireside, while he leaves it to the rifleman, who lies bleeding on the snow, whether his system attains victory and glory. Nothing is easier; but woe to the statesman who at such a time does not look about for a reason for the war which will be valid when the war is over. I am convinced you will see the questions which now occupy us in a different light a year hence, when you look back upon them through a long perspective of battle-fields and conflagrations, misery and wretchedness. Will you then have the courage to go to the peasant by the ashes of his cottage, to the cripple, to the childless father, and say: 'You have suffered much, but rejoice with us, the Union is saved. Rejoice with us, Hassenpflug is no longer Minister, Bayernhofer rules in Hesse.'"

Eloquent words; but what a strange comment on them his own acts were to afford. In 1850 Prussia had a clearer and juster cause of war than in 1866; every word of his speech might have been used with equal effect sixteen years later; the Constitution of 1850 was little different from that which Bismarck himself was to give to Germany. The policy of Radowitz was the only true policy for Prussia; if he failed, it was because Prussia's army was not strong enough; war would have been followed by defeat and disaster. There was one man who saw the evils as they really were; the Prince of Prussia determined that if ever he became King the army of Prussia should be again made strong and efficient.

It was probably this speech which determined Bismarck's future career. He had defended the agreement with Austria and identified himself with the policy of the Government; what more natural than that they should use him to help to carry out the policy he had upheld. Prussia consented to recognise the restoration of the Diet; it would be necessary, therefore, to send an envoy. Now that she had submitted to Austria the only wise policy was to cultivate her friendship. Who could do this better than Bismarck? Who had more boldly supported and praised the new rulers of Austria? When the Gotha party, as they were called, had wished to exclude Austria from Germany, he it was who said that Austria was no more a foreign State than Würtemberg or Bavaria. The appointment of Bismarck would be the best proof of the loyal intentions of the Prussian Government.

A few years later he himself gave to Motley the following account of his appointment:

"In the summer of 1851," Motley writes, "he told me that the Minister, Manteuffel, asked him one day abruptly, if he would accept the post of Ambassador at Frankfort, to which (although the proposition was as unexpected a one to him as if I should hear by the next mail that I had been chosen Governor of Massachusetts) he answered, after a moment's deliberation, 'yes,' with out another word. The King, the same day, sent for him, and asked him if he would accept the place, to which he made the same brief answer, 'Ja.' His Majesty expressed a little surprise that he made no inquiries or conditions, when Bismarck replied that anything which the King felt strong enough to propose to him, he felt strong enough to accept. I only write these details, that you may have an idea of the man. Strict integrity and courage of character, a high sense of honour, a firm religious belief, united with remarkable talents, make up necessarily a combination which cannot be found any day in any Court; and I have no doubt that he is destined to be Prime Minister, unless his obstinate truthfulness, which is apt to be a stumbling-block for politicians, stands in his way."