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

The Revolution


Bismarck was a subject of the King of Prussia, but Prussia was after all only one part of a larger unit; it was a part of Germany. At this time, however, Germany was little more than a geographical expression. The medieval emperors had never succeeded in establishing permanent authority over the whole nation; what unity there had been was completely broken down at the Reformation, and at the Revolution the Empire itself, the symbol of a union which no longer existed, had been swept away. At the restoration in 1815 the reorganisation of Germany was one of the chief tasks before the Congress of Vienna. It was a task in which the statesmen failed. All proposals to restore the Empire were rejected, chiefly because Francis, who had taken the style of Emperor of Austria, did not desire to resume his old title. Germany emerged from the Revolution divided into thirty-nine different States; Austria was one of the largest and most populous monarchies in Europe, but more than half the Austrian Empire consisted of Italian, Slavonic, and Hungarian provinces. The Emperor of Austria ruled over about 20,000,000 Germans. The next State in size and importance was Prussia. Then came four States, the Kingdoms of Saxony, Hanover, Bavaria, and Würtemberg, varying in size from five to two million inhabitants; below them were some thirty principalities of which the smallest contained only a few thousand inhabitants. By the principles adopted in the negotiations which preceded the Congress of Vienna, every one of these States was recognised as a complete independent monarchy, with its own laws and constitutions. The recognition of this independence made any common government impossible. Neither Austria nor Prussia would submit to any external authority, or to one another; the Kings of Bavaria and Würtemberg were equally jealous of their independence. All that could be done was to establish a permanent offensive and defensive alliance between these States. For the management of common concerns, a Diet was appointed to meet at Frankfort; the Diet, however, was only a union of diplomatists; they had to act in accordance with instructions from their governments and they had no direct authority over the Germans; each German was officially regarded as a subject, as the case might be, of the King of Prussia, the Prince of Reuss, the Grand Duke of Weimar. There was no German army, no German law, no German church. No development of common institutions was possible, for no change could be introduced without the universal consent of every member of the Confederation.

This lamentable result of the Congress of Vienna caused much dissatisfaction among the thinking classes in Germany. A very strong national feeling had been aroused by the war against Napoleon. This found no satisfaction in the new political institutions. The discontent was increased when it was discovered that the Diet, so useless for all else, was active only against liberty. Prince Metternich, a very able diplomatist, knew that the Liberal and National ideas, which were so generally held at that time, would be fatal to the existence of the Austrian Empire; he therefore attempted to suppress them, not only in Austria, but also in Germany, as he did in Italy. Unfortunately the King of Prussia, Frederick William III., whose interests were really entirely opposed to those of Austria, was persuaded by Metternich to adopt a repressive policy. The two great powers when combined could impose their will on Germany; they forced through the Diet a series of measures devoted to the restriction of the liberty of the press, the control of the universities, and the suppression of democratic opinion.

The result of this was great discontent in Germany, which was especially directed against Prussia; in 1830 the outbreak of revolution in Paris had been followed by disturbances in many German States; Austria and Prussia, however, were still strong enough to maintain the old system. The whole intellect of the country was diverted to a policy of opposition; in the smaller States of the south, Parliamentary government had been introduced; and the great aim of the Liberals was to establish a Parliament in Prussia also.

In 1840 the old King died; the son, Frederick William IV., was a man of great learning, noble character, high aspirations; he was, however, entirely without sympathy or understanding for the modern desires of his countrymen; he was a child of the Romantic movement; at the head of the youngest of European monarchies, he felt himself more at home in the Middle Ages than in his own time. There could be no sympathy between him and the men who took their politics from Rousseau and Louis Blanc, and their religion from Strauss. It had been hoped that he would at once introduce into Prussia representative institutions. He long delayed, and the delay took away any graciousness from the act when at last it was committed. By a royal decree published in 1822 it had been determined that no new loan could be made without the assent of an assembly of elected representatives; the introduction of railways made a loan necessary, and at the beginning of 1847 Frederick William summoned for the first time the States General.

The King of Prussia had thereby stirred up a power which he was unable to control; he had hoped that he would be able to gather round him the representatives of the nobles, the towns, and the peasants; that this new assembly, collecting about him in respectful homage, would add lustre to his throne; that they would vote the money which was required and then separate. How much was he mistaken! The nation had watched for years Parliamentary government in England and France; this was what they wished to have, and now they were offered a modern imitation of medieval estates. They felt themselves as grown men able and justified in governing their own country; the King treated them as children. The opening ceremony completed the bad impression which the previous acts of the King had made. While the majority of the nation desired a formal and written Constitution, the King in his opening speech with great emphasis declared that he would never allow a sheet of paper to come between him and God in heaven.

Bismarck was not present at the opening ceremony; it was, in fact, owing to an accident that he was able to take his seat at all; he was there as substitute for the member for the Ritterschaft of Jerichow, who had fallen ill. He entered on his Parliamentary duties as a young and almost unknown man; he did not belong to any party, but his political principles were strongly influenced by the friends he had found in Pomerania. They were soon to be hardened by conflict and confirmed by experience; during the first debates he sat silent, but his indignation rose as he listened to the speeches of the Liberal majority. Nothing pleased them; instead of actively co-operating with the Government in the consideration of financial measures, they began to discuss and criticise the proclamation by which they had been summoned. There was indeed ample scope for criticism; the Estates were so arranged that the representatives of the towns could always be outvoted by the landed proprietors; they had not even the right of periodical meetings; the King was not compelled to call them together again until he required more money. They not only petitioned for increased powers, they demanded them as a right; they maintained that an assembly summoned in this form did not meet the intentions of previous laws; when they were asked to allow a loan for a railway in East Prussia, they refused on the ground that they were not a properly qualified assembly.

This was too much for Bismarck: the action of the King might have been inconclusive; much that he said was indiscreet; but it remained true that he had taken the decisive step; no one really doubted that Prussia would never again be without a Parliament. It would be much wiser, as it would be more chivalrous, to adopt a friendly tone and not to attempt to force concessions from him. He was especially indignant at the statement made that the Prussian people had earned constitutional government by the part they took in the war of liberation; against this he protested:

"In my opinion it is a bad service to the national honour to assume that the ill-treatment and degradation that the Prussians suffered from a foreign ruler were not enough to make our blood boil, and to deaden all other feelings but that of hatred for the foreigners."

When told that he was not alive at the time, he answered:

"I cannot dispute that I was not living then, and I have been genuinely sorry that I was not born in time to take part in that movement; a regret which is diminished by what I have just heard. I had always believed that the slavery against which we fought lay abroad; I have just learned that it lay at home, and I am not grateful for the explanation."

The ablest of the Liberal leaders was George v. Vincke; a member of an old Westphalian family, the son of a high official, he was a man of honesty and independence, but both virtues were carried to excess; a born leader of opposition, domineering, quarrelsome, ill to please, his short, sturdy figure, his red face and red hair were rather those of a peasant than a nobleman, but his eloquence, his bitter invective, earned the respect and even fear of his opponents. Among these Bismarck was to be ranged; in these days began a rivalry which was not to cease till nearly twenty years later, when Vincke retired from the field and Bismarck stood triumphant, the recognised ruler of the State. At this time it required courage in the younger man to cross swords with the experienced and powerful leader.

Vincke was a strong Liberal, but in the English rather than the Prussian sense; his constant theme was the rule of law; he had studied English history, for at that time all Liberals prepared themselves for their part by reading Hallam or Guizot and Dahlmann; he knew all about Pym and Hampden, and wished to imitate them. The English Parliament had won its power by means of a Petition of Right and a Bill of Rights; he wished they should do the same in Prussia; it escaped him that the English could appeal to charters and ancient privileges, but that in Prussia the absolute power of the King was the undisputed basis on which the whole State had been built up, and that every law to which they owed their liberty or their property derived its validity from the simple proclamation of the King.

Bismarck, if he had read less, understood better the characteristics of England, probably because he knew better the conditions of his own country. He rose to protest against these parallels with England; Prussia had its own problems which must be settled in its own way.

"Parallels with foreign countries have always something disagreeable.... At the Revolution, the English people were in a very different condition from that of Prussia to-day; after a century of revolution and civil war, it was in a position to be able to give away a crown and add conditions which William of Orange accepted. On the other hand, we are in possession of a crown whose rights were actually unlimited, a crown held by the grace not of the people but of God, and which of its own free-will has given away to the people a portion of its rights—an example rare in history."

It shows how strong upon him was the influence of his friends in Pomerania that his longest and most important speech was in defence of the Christian monarchy. The occasion was a proposal to increase the privileges of the Jews. He said:

"I am no enemy of the Jews; if they become my enemies I will forgive them. Under certain circumstances I love them; I am ready to grant them all rights but that of holding the magisterial office in a Christian State. This they now claim; they demand to become Landrath, General, Minister, yes even, under circumstances, Minister of Religion and Education. I allow that I am full of prejudices, which, as I have said, I have sucked in with my mother's milk; I cannot argue them away; for if I think of a Jew face to face with me as a representative of the King's sacred Majesty, and I have to obey him, I must confess that I should feel myself deeply broken and depressed; the sincere self-respect with which I now attempt to fulfil my duties towards the State would leave me. I share these feelings with the mass of the lower strata of the people, and I am not ashamed of their society."

And then he spoke of the Christian State:

"It is as old as every European State; it is the ground in which they have taken root; no State has a secure existence unless it has a religious foundation. For me, the words, 'by the Grace of God,' which Christian rulers add to their name, are no empty phrase; I see in them a confession that the Princes desire to wield the sceptre which God has given them according to the will of God on earth. As the will of God I can only recognise that which has been revealed in the Christian Gospel—I believe that the realisation of Christian teaching is the end of the State; I do not believe that we shall more nearly approach this end by the help of the Jews.... If we withdraw this foundation, we retain in a State nothing but an accidental aggregate of rights, a kind of bulwark against the war of all against all, which ancient philosophy has assumed. Therefore, gentlemen, do not let us spoil the people of their Christianity; do not let us take from them the belief that our legislation is drawn from the well of Christianity, and that the State aims at the realisation of Christianity even if it does not attain its end."

We can well understand how delighted Herr von Thadden was with his pupil. "With Bismarck I naturally will not attempt to measure myself," he writes; "in the last debates he has again said many admirable things"; and in another letter, "I am quite enthusiastic for Otto Bismarck." It was more important that the King felt as if these words had been spoken out of his own heart.

Among his opponents, too, he had made his mark; they were never tired of repeating well-worn jests about the medieval opinions which he had sucked in with his mother's milk.

At the close of the session, he returned to Pomerania with fresh laurels; he was now looked upon as the rising hope of the stern and unbending Tories. His marriage took place in August, and the young Hans Kleist, a cousin of the bride, as he proposed the bridegroom's health, foretold that in their friend had arisen a new Otto of Saxony who would do for his country all that his namesake had done eight hundred years before. Careless words spoken half in jest, which thirty years later Kleist, then Over-President of the province, recalled when he proposed the bridegroom's health at the marriage of Bismarck's eldest daughter. The forecast had been more than fulfilled, but fulfilled at the cost of many an early friendship; and all the glory of later years could never quite repay the happy confidence and intimacy of those younger days.

Followed by the good wishes of all their friends, Bismarck and his young wife started on their wedding tour, which took them through Austria to Italy. At Venice he came across the King of Prussia, who took the opportunity to have more than one conversation with the man who had distinguished himself in the States General. At the beginning of the winter they returned to Schoenhausen to settle down to a quiet country life. Fate was to will it otherwise. The storm which had long been gathering burst over Europe. Bismarck was carried away by it; from henceforth his life was entirely devoted to public duties, and we can count by months the time he was able to spend with his wife at the old family house; more than forty years were to pass before he was able again to enjoy the leisure of his early years.

The revolution which at the end of February broke out in Paris quickly spread to Germany; the ground was prepared and the news quickly came to him, first of disorder in South Germany, then of the fall of the Ministry in Dresden and Munich; after a few days it was told that a revolution had taken place in Vienna itself. The rising in Austria was the signal for Berlin, and on the 18th of March the revolution broke out there also. The King had promised to grant a Constitution; a fierce fight had taken place in the streets of the city between the soldiers and the people; the King had surrendered to the mob, and had ordered the troops to withdraw from the city. He was himself almost a prisoner in his castle protected only by a civilian National Guard. He was exposed to the insults of the crowd; his brother had had to leave the city and the country. It is impossible to describe the enthusiasm and wild delight with which the people of Germany heard of these events. Now the press was free, now they also were going to be free and great and strong. All the resistance of authority was overthrown; nothing, it seemed, stood between them and the attainment of their ideal of a united and free Germany. They had achieved a revolution; they had become a political people; they had shewn themselves the equals of England and of France. They had liberty, and they would soon have a Constitution. Bismarck did not share this feeling; he saw only that the monarchy which he respected, and the King whom, with all his faults, he loved and honoured, were humiliated and disgraced. This was worse than Jena. A defeat on the field of battle can be avenged; here the enemies were his own countrymen; it was Prussian subjects who had made the King the laughing-stock of Europe. Only a few months ago he had pleaded that they should not lose that confidence between King and people which was the finest tradition of the Prussian State; could this confidence ever be restored when the blood of so many soldiers and citizens had been shed? He felt as though someone had struck him in the face, for his country's dishonour was to him as his own; he became ill with gall and anger. He had only two thoughts: first to restore to the King courage and confidence, and then—revenge on the men who had done this thing. He at least was not going to play with the revolution. He at once sat down and wrote to the King a letter full of ardent expressions of loyalty and affection, that he might know there still were men on whom he could rely. It is said that for months after, through all this terrible year, the King kept it open by him on his writing-table. Then he hurried to Berlin, if necessary to defend him with the sword. This was not necessary, but the situation was almost worse than he feared; the King was safe, but he was safe because he had surrendered to the revolution; he had proclaimed the fatal words that Prussia was to be dissolved in Germany.

At Potsdam Bismarck found his old friends of the Guard and the Court; they were all in silent despair. What could they do to save the monarchy when the King himself had deserted their cause? Some there were who even talked of seeking help from the Czar of Russia, who had offered to come to the help of the monarchy in Prussia and place himself at the head of the Prussian army, even if necessary against their own King. There was already a Liberal Ministry under Count Arnim, Bismarck's old chief at Aachen; the Prussian troops were being sent to support the people of Schleswig-Holstein in their rebellion against the Danes; the Ministers favoured the aspirations of Poland for self-government; in Prussia there was to be a Constituent Assembly and a new Constitution drawn up by it. Bismarck did what he could; he went down to Schoenhausen and began to collect signatures for an address of loyalty to the King; he wished to instil into him confidence by appealing to the loyalty of the country against the radicalism of the town. Then he hurried back to Berlin for the meeting of the Estates General, which had been hastily summoned to prepare for the new elections. An address was proposed thanking the King for the concessions he had made; Bismarck opposed it, but he stood almost alone.

"I have not changed my opinion," he said, "in the last six months; the past is buried, and I regret more bitterly than any of you that no human power can reawaken it, now that the Crown itself has cast the earth on its coffin."

Two men alone voted against the address—Bismarck and Herr von Thadden. "It is easy to get fame nowadays," said the latter; "a little courage is all one requires."

Courage it did require; Berlin was terrorised; the new National Guard was unable to maintain order; men scarcely dared to appear in the streets in the ordinary dress of a gentleman. The city was full of Polish insurgents, many of whom had only just been released from prison. When the National Assembly came together, it became the organ of the extreme Republican party; all the more moderate men and more distinguished had preferred to be elected for that general German Assembly which at the same time was sitting at Frankfort to create a new Constitution for the whole Confederation. How quickly had the balance of parties altered: Vincke, until a few months ago the leader of the Liberals, found himself at Frankfort regarded as an extreme Conservative; and Frankfort was moderate compared to Berlin. At this time an ordinary English Radical would have been looked upon in Germany as almost reactionary. Bismarck did not seek election for either of the Assemblies; he felt that he could do no good by taking part in the deliberations of a Parliament, the very meeting of which seemed to him an offence against the laws and welfare of the State. He would indeed have had no logical position; both Parliaments were Constituent Assemblies; it was the duty of the one to build up a new Germany, of the other a new Prussia; their avowed object was the regeneration of their country. Bismarck did not believe that Prussia wanted regenerating; he held that the roots for the future greatness of the State must be found in the past. What happened to Germany he did not much care; all he saw was that every proposal for the regeneration of Germany implied either a dissolution of Prussia, or the subjection of the Prussian King to the orders of an alien Parliament.

During the summer he did what he could; he contributed articles to the newspapers attacking the Polish policy of the Government, and defending the landlords and country gentry against the attacks made on them. As the months went by, as the anarchy in Berlin increased, and the violence of the Assembly as well as the helplessness of the Government became more manifest, he and some of his friends determined to make their voices heard in a more organised way. It was at the house of his father-in-law at Rheinfeld that he, Hans Kleist, and Herr von Below determined to call together a meeting of well-known men in Berlin, who should discuss the situation and be a moral counterpoise to the meetings of the National Assembly; for in that the Conservative party and even the Moderate Liberals were scarcely represented; if they did speak they were threatened by the mob which encumbered the approaches to the House. Of more permanent importance was the foundation of a newspaper which should represent the principles of the Christian monarchy, and in July appeared the first number of the New Prussian Gazette, or, as it was to be more generally known, the Kreuz Zeitung, which was to give its name to the party of which it was the organ. Bismarck was among the founders, among whom were also numbered Stahl, the Gerlachs, and others of his older friends; he was a frequent contributor, and when he was at Berlin was almost daily at the office; when he was in the country he contributed articles on the rural affairs with which he was more specially qualified to deal.

These steps, of course, attracted the attention and the hostility of the dominant Liberal and Revolutionary parties; the Junker, as they were called, were accused of aiming at reaction and the restoration of the absolute monarchy. As a matter of fact, this is what many of them desired; they were, however, only doing their duty as members of society; it would have been mere cowardice and indolence had they remained inactive and seen all the institutions they valued overthrown without attempting to defend them. It required considerable courage in the middle of so violent a crisis to come forward and attempt to stop the revolution; it was a good example that they began to do so by constitutional and legal means. They shewed that Prussia had an aristocracy, and an aristocracy which was not frightened; deserted by the King they acted alone; in the hour of greatest danger they founded a Conservative party, and matters had come to this position that an organised Conservative party was the chief necessity of the time.

At first, however, their influence was small, for a monarchical party must depend for its success on the adhesion of the King, and the King had not yet resolved to separate himself from his Liberal advisers. Bismarck was often at Court and seems to have had much influence; both to his other companions and to the King himself he preached always courage and resolution; he spoke often to the King with great openness; he was supported by Leopold von Gerlach, with whom at this time he contracted a close intimacy. For long their advice was in vain, but in the autumn events occurred which shewed that some decision must be taken: the mob of Berlin stormed the Zeughaus where the arms were kept; the Constitution of the Assembly was being drawn up so as to leave the King scarcely any influence in the State; a resolution was passed calling on the Ministers to request all officers to leave the army who disliked the new order of things. The crisis was brought about by events in Vienna; in October the Austrian army under Jellachich and Windischgrätz stormed the city, proclaimed martial law, and forcibly overthrew the Revolutionary Government; the King of Prussia now summoned resolution to adopt a similar course. It is said that Bismarck suggested to him the names of the Ministers to whom the task should be entrusted. The most important were Count Brandenburg, an uncle of the King's, and Otto v. Manteuffel, a member of the Prussian aristocracy, who with Bismarck had distinguished himself in the Estates General. He seems to have been constantly going about among the more influential men, encouraging them as he encouraged the King, and helping behind the scenes to prepare for the momentous step. Gerlach had suggested Bismarck's name as one of the Ministers, but the King rejected it, writing on the side of the paper the characteristic words, "Red reactionary; smells of blood; will be useful later." Bismarck's language was of such a nature as to alarm even many of those who associated with him. Count Beust, the Saxon Minister, was at this time in Berlin and met Bismarck for the first time; they were discussing the conduct of the Austrian Government in shooting Robert Blum, a leading demagogue who had been in Vienna during the siege. Beust condemned it as a political blunder. "No, you are wrong," said Bismarck; "when I have my enemy in my power I must destroy him."

The event fully justified Bismarck's forecast that nothing was required but courage and resolution. After Brandenburg had been appointed Minister, the Prussian troops under Wrangel again entered Berlin, a state of siege was proclaimed, the Assembly was ordered to adjourn to Brandenburg; they refused and were at once ejected from their meeting-place, and as a quorum was not found at Brandenburg, were dissolved. The Crown then of its own authority published a new Constitution and summoned a new Assembly to discuss and ratify it. Based on the discipline of the army the King had regained his authority without the loss of a single life.

Bismarck stood for election in this new Assembly, for he could accept the basis on which it had been summoned; he took his seat for the district of the West Havel in which the old city of Brandenburg, the original capital of the Mark, was situated. He had come forward as an opponent of the Revolution. "Everyone," he said in his election address, "must support the Government in the course they have taken of combating the Revolution which threatens us all." "No transaction with the Revolution," was the watchword proposed in the manifesto of his party. He appealed to the electors as one who would direct all his efforts to restore the old bond of confidence between Crown and people. He kept his promise. In this Assembly the Extreme Left was still the predominant party; in an address to the Crown they asked that the state of siege at Berlin should be raised, and that an amnesty to those who had fought on the 18th of March should be proclaimed. Bismarck did not yet think that the time for forgiveness had come; the struggle was indeed not yet over. He opposed the first demand because, as he said, there was more danger to liberty of debate from the armed mob than there was from the Prussian soldiers. In one of the most careful of his speeches he opposed the amnesty. "Amnesty," he said, "was a right of the Crown, not of the Assembly"; moreover the repeated amnesties were undermining in the people the feeling of law; the opinion was being spread about that the law of the State rested on the barricades, that everyone who disliked a law or considered it unjust had the right to consider it as non-existent. Who that has read the history of Europe during this year can doubt the justice of the remark? Then he continues:

"My third reason for voting against the amnesty is humanity. The strife of principles which during this year has shattered Europe to its foundations is one in which no compromise is possible. They rest on opposite bases. The one draws its law from what is called the will of the people, in truth, however, from the law of the strongest on the barricades. The other rests on authority created by God, an authority by the grace of God, and seeks its development in organic connection with the existing and constitutional legal status ... the decision on these principles will come not by Parliamentary debate, not by majorities of eleven votes; sooner or later the God who directs the battle will cast his iron dice."

These words were greeted with applause, not only by the men who sat on his side of the House, but by those opposite to him. The truth of them was to be shewn by the events which were taking place at that very time. They were spoken on the 22d of March. The next day was fought the battle of Novara and it seemed that the last hopes of the Italian patriots were shattered. Within a few months the Austrian army subdued with terrible vengeance the rising in Lombardy and Venetia; Hungary was prostrate before the troops whom the Czar sent to help the young Austrian Emperor, and the last despairing outbreak of rebellion in Saxony and in Baden was to be subdued by the Prussian army. The Revolution had failed and it had raised up, as will always happen, a military power, harder, crueller, and more resolute than that it had overthrown. The control over Europe had passed out of the hands of Metternich and Louis Philippe to fall into those of Nicholas, Schwarzenberg, and Napoleon III.

In Prussia the King used his power with moderation, the conflict of parties was continued within legal limits and under constitutional forms.

The Parliament which still claimed that control over the executive government which all Parliaments of the Revolution had exercised, was dissolved. A new Assembly met in August; the King had of his own authority altered the electoral law and the new Parliament showed a considerable majority belonging to the more moderate Liberal party. Bismarck retained his old seat. He still found much to do; his influence was increasing; he opposed the doctrines of the more moderate Liberalism with the same energy with which he had attacked the extreme Revolution. The most important debates were those concerning the Constitution; he took part in them, especially opposing the claim of the Parliament to refuse taxes. He saw that if the right was given to the Lower House of voting the taxes afresh every year they would be able to establish a complete control over the executive government; this he did not wish. He was willing that they should have the right of discussing and rejecting any new taxes and also, in agreement with the Crown and the Upper House, of determining the annual Budget. It was maintained by the Liberals that the right to reject supplies every year was an essential part of a constitutional system; they appealed to the practice in England and to the principles adopted in the French and Belgian Constitutions. Their argument was that this practice which had been introduced in other countries must be adopted also in Prussia. It was just one of those arguments which above all offended Bismarck's Prussian patriotism. Why should Prussia imitate other countries? Why should it not have its own Constitution in its own way? Constitution, as he said, was the mot d'ordre of the day, the word which men used when they were in want of an argument. "In Prussia that only is constitutional which arises from the Prussian Constitution; whatever be constitutional in Belgium, or in France, in Anhalt Dessau, or there where the morning red of Mecklenburg freedom shines, here that alone is constitutional which rests on the Prussian Constitution." If he defended the prerogative of the Crown he defended the Constitution of his country. A constitution is the collection of rules and laws by which the action of the king is governed; a state without a constitution is a mere Oriental despotism where each arbitrary whim of the king is transmuted into action; this was not what Bismarck desired or defended; there was no danger of this in Prussia. He did not even oppose changes in the law and practice of the Constitution; what he did oppose was the particular change which would transfer the sovereignty to an elected House of Parliament. "It has been maintained," he once said, "that a constitutional king cannot be a king by the Grace of God; on the contrary he is it above all others."

The references to foreign customs were indeed one of the most curious practices of the time; the matter was once being discussed whether the Crown had the power to declare a state of siege without the assent of the Chambers; most speakers attempted to interpret the text of the Prussian Constitution by precedents derived from the practice in France and England; we find the Minister of Justice defending his action on the ground of an event in the French Revolution, and Lothar Bucher, one of the ablest of the Opposition, complained that not enough attention had been paid to the procedure adopted in England for repealing the Habeas Corpus Act, entirely ignoring the fact that there was no Habeas Corpus Act in Prussia. We can easily understand how repulsive this was to a man who, like Bismarck, wished nothing more than that his countrymen should copy, not the details of the English Constitution, but the proud self-reliance which would regard as impertinent an application of foreign notions.

The chief cause for this peculiarity was the desire of the Liberal party to attain that degree of independence and personal liberty which was enjoyed in England or France; the easiest way to do this seemed to be to copy their institutions. There was, however, another reason: the study of Roman law in Germany in which they had been educated had accustomed them to look for absolute principles of jurisprudence which might be applied to the legislation of all countries; when, therefore, they turned their minds to questions of politics, they looked for absolute principles of constitutional government, on which, as on a law of nature, their own institutions might be built up. To find these they analysed the English Constitution, for England was the classical land of representative government; they read its rules as they would the institutions of a Roman Jurisconsult and used them to cast light on the dark places of their own law. Bismarck did not share this type of thought; his mind was rather of the English cast; he believed the old Prussian Constitution was as much a natural growth as that of England, and decided dark points by reference to older practice as an Englishman would search for precedents in the history of his own country.

At that time the absolute excellence of a democratic constitution was a dogma which few cared to dispute; it appeared to his hearers as a mere paradox when Bismarck pointed out how little evidence there was that a great country could prosper under the government of a Parliament elected by an extended franchise. Strictly speaking, there was no evidence from experience; France, as he said, was the parent of all these theories, but the example of France was certainly not seductive. "I see in the present circumstances of France nothing to encourage us to put the Nessus robe of French political teaching over our healthy body." (This was in September, 1849, when the struggle between the Prince President and the Assembly was already impending.) The Liberals appealed to Belgium; it had, at least, stood the storm of the last year, but so had Russia, and, after all, the Belgian Constitution was only eighteen years old, "an admirable age for ladies but not for constitutions." And then there was England.

"England governs itself, although the Lower House has the right of refusing taxes. The references to England are our misfortune; give us all that is English which we have not, give us English fear of God and English reverence before the law, the whole English Constitution, but above all the complete independence of English landed property, English wealth and English common-sense, especially an English Lower House, in short everything which we have not got, then I will say, you can govern us after the English fashion."

But this was not all. How could they appeal to England as a proof that a democratic Parliament was desirable? England had not grown great under a democratic but under an aristocratic constitution.

"English reform is younger than the Belgian Constitution; we have still to wait and see whether this reformed Constitution will maintain itself for centuries as did the earlier rule of the English aristocracy."

That, in Bismarck's opinion, it was not likely to do so, we see a few years later; with most Continental critics of English institutions, he believed that the Reform Bill had destroyed the backbone of the English Constitution. In 1857 he wrote:

"They have lost the 'inherited wisdom' since the Reform Bill; they maintain a coarse and violent selfishness and the ignorance of Continental relations."

It was not merely aristocratic prejudice; it was a wise caution to bid his countrymen pause before they adopted from foreign theorists a form of government so new and untried, and risked for the sake of an experiment the whole future of Prussia.

In later years Bismarck apologised for many of the speeches which he made at this period: "I was a terrible Junker in those days," he said; and biographers generally speak of them as though they required justification or apology. There seems no reason for this. It would have been impossible for him, had he at that time been entrusted with the government of the State, entirely to put into practice what he had said from his place in the Chamber. But he was not minister; he was only a party leader; his speeches were, as they were intended to be, party speeches; they had something of the exaggeration which conflict always produces. They were, moreover, opposition speeches, for he was addressing not so much the Government as the Chamber and the country, and in them the party to which he belonged was a very small minority. But why was there not to be a Conservative party in Prussia?

It was necessary for the proper development of constitutional life that the dominant Liberal doctrines should be opposed by this bold criticism. Bismarck was only doing what in England was done by the young Disraeli, by Carlyle, and by Ruskin; the world would not be saved by constitutional formulæ.

There were some of his party whose aims went indeed beyond what may be considered morally legitimate and politically practicable. The Gerlachs and many of their friends, and the purely military party which was headed by Prince Charles Frederick, the King's youngest brother, desired to do away with the Constitution, to dismiss the Parliament, and to restore the absolute monarchy in a form which would have been more extreme than that which it had had since 1815. The King himself sympathised with their wishes and he probably would have acted according to them were it not that he had sworn to maintain the Constitution. He was a religious man and he respected his oath. There does not appear any evidence that Bismarck wished for extreme action of this kind. Even in his private correspondence, at least in that part of it which has been published, one finds no desire to see Prussia entirely without a Parliament. It was a very different thing to wish as he did that the duties of the Parliament should be strictly limited and that they should not be allowed completely to govern the State. We must always remember how much he owed to representative assemblies. Had the Estates General never been summoned, had the Revolution never taken place, he would probably have passed his life as a country gentleman, often discontented with the Government of the country but entirely without influence. He owed to Parliament his personal reputation, but he owed to it something more than that. Up to 1847 the only public career open to a Prussian subject was the Civil Service; it was from them that not only the subordinate officials but the Ministers of the State were selected. Now we have seen that Bismarck had tried the Civil Service and deliberately retired from it. The hatred of bureaucracy he never overcame, even when he was at the head of the Prussian State. It arose partly from the natural opposition between the nobleman and the clerk. Bismarck felt in this like Stein, the greatest of his predecessors, who though he had taken service under the Prussian Crown never overcame his hatred of "the animal with a pen" as he called Prussian Civil Servants, and shed tears of indignation when he was first offered a salary. Bismarck was never a great nobleman like Stein and he did not dislike receiving a salary; but he felt that the Civil Servants were the enemies of the order to which he belonged. He speaks a few years later of "the biting acid of Prussian legislation which in a single generation can reduce a mediatised Prince to an ordinary voter." He is never tired of saying that it was the bureaucracy which was the real introducer of the Revolution into Prussia. In one of his speeches he defends himself and his friends against the charge of being enemies to freedom; "that they were not," he says;

"Absolutism with us is closely connected with the omnipotence of the Geheimrath and the conceited omniscience of the Professors who sit behind the green table, a product, and I venture to maintain a necessary product, of the Prussian method of education. This product, the bureaucracy, I have never loved."

When, as he often does, he maintains that the Prussian Parliament does not represent the people, he is thinking of the predominance among them of officials, for we must always remember that many of the extreme Liberal party and some of their most active leaders were men who were actually at that time in the service of the Crown.

It was the introduction of a Representative Assembly that for the first time in Prussian history made possible a Conservative opposition against the Liberalism of the Prussian Government. There are two kinds of Liberalism. In one sense of the word it means freedom of debate, freedom of the press, the power of the individual as against the Government, independence of character, and personal freedom. Of Liberalism in this sense of the word there was indeed little in the Prussian Government. But Liberalism also meant the overthrow of the old established institutions inherited from the Middle Ages, especially the destruction of all privileges held by the nobility; it meant on the Continent opposition to all form of dogmatic religious teaching; it meant the complete subjection of the Church to the State; it meant the abolition of all local distinctions and the introduction of a uniform system of government chiefly imitated from French institutions. It was in this sense of the word that, with the exception of the first few years of the reign of Frederick William IV., the Prussian Government had been Liberal, and it was this Liberalism which Bismarck and his friends hated almost as much as they did the Liberalism of the Revolution.

The clearest instance of his attitude on such matters is to be found in his opposition to the Bill introduced for making civil marriage compulsory. He opposed it in a speech which was many years later to be quoted against him when he himself introduced a measure almost identical with that which he now opposed. Civil marriage, he said, was a foreign institution, an imitation of French legislation; it would simply serve to undermine the belief in Christianity among the people, "and" he said, "I have seen many friends of the illumination during the last year or two come to recognise that a certain degree of positive Christianity is necessary for the common man, if he is not to become dangerous to human society." The desire for introducing this custom was merely an instance of the constant wish to imitate what is foreign.

"It would be amusing," he said, "if it were not just our own country which was subjected to these experiments of French charlatanism. In the course of the discussion it has often been said by gentlemen standing in this place that Europe holds us for a people of thinkers. Gentlemen, that was in old days. The popular representation of the last two years has deprived us of this reputation. They have shown to a disappointed Europe only translators of French stucco but no original thinkers. It may be that when civil marriage also rejoices in its majority, the people will have their eyes opened to the swindle to which they have been sacrificed; when one after another the old Christian fundamental rights have been taken from them: the right to be governed by Christian magistrates; the right to know that they have secured to their children a Christian education in schools which Christian parents are compelled to maintain and to use; the right of being married in the Christian fashion which his faith requires from everyone, without being dependent on constitutional ceremonies. If we go on in this way I hope still to see the day when the fool's ship of the time will be wrecked on the rock of the Christian Church; for the belief in the revealed Word of God still stands firmer among the people than the belief in the saving power of any article of the Constitution."

In the same way he was able from his place in Parliament to criticise the proposals of the Government for freeing the peasants from those payments in kind, and personal service which in some of the provinces still adhered to their property; he attacked their financial proposals; he exposed the injustice of the land tax; he defended the manorial jurisdiction of the country gentlemen. Especially he defended the nobles of Prussia themselves, a class against whom so many attacks had been made. He pointed out that by them and by their blood the Prussian State had been built up; the Prussian nobles were, he maintained, not, as so often was said, unpopular; a third of the House belonged to them; they were not necessarily opposed to freedom; they were, at least, the truest defenders of the State. Let people not confuse patriotism and Liberalism. Who had done more for the true political independence of the State, that independence without which all freedom was impossible, than the Prussian nobles? At the end of the Seven Years' War boys had stood at the head of the army, the only survivors of their families. The privileges of the nobles had been taken from them, but they had not behaved like the democrats; their loyalty to the State had never wavered; they had not even formed a Fronde. He was not ashamed of the name of Junker: "We will bring the name to glory and honour," were almost the last words he spoke in Parliament.

Bismarck soon became completely at home in the House. Notwithstanding the strength of his opinions and the vigour with which he gave expression to them, he was not unpopular, even among his opponents. He was always a gentleman and a man of the world; he did not dislike mixing with men of all classes and all parties; he had none of that stiffness and hauteur which many of his friends had acquired from their military pursuits. His relations with his opponents are illustrated by an anecdote of which there are many versions. He found himself one day while in the refreshment room standing side by side with d'Ester, one of the most extreme of the Republican party. They fell into conversation, and d'Ester suggested that they should make a compact and, whichever party succeeded in the struggle for power, they should each agree to spare the other. If the Republicans won, Bismarck should not be guillotined; if the monarchists, d'Ester should not be hung. "No," answered Bismarck, "that is no use; if you come into power, life would not be worth living. There must be hanging, but courtesy to the foot of the gallows."

If he was in after years to become known as the great adversary of Parliamentary government, this did not arise from any incapacity to hold his own in Parliamentary debate. He did not indeed aim at oratory; then, as in later years, he always spoke with great contempt of men who depended for power on their rhetorical ability. He was himself deficient in the physical gifts of a great speaker; powerful as was his frame, his voice was thin and weak. He had nothing of the actor in him; he could not command the deep voice, the solemn tones, the imposing gestures, the Olympian mien by which men like Waldeck and Radowitz and Gagern dominated and controlled their audience. His own mind was essentially critical; he appealed more to the intellect than the emotions. His speeches were always controversial, but he was an admirable debater. It is curious to see how quickly he adopts the natural Parliamentary tone. His speeches are all subdued in tone and conversational in manner. Many of them were very carefully prepared, for though he did not generally write them out, he said them over and over again to himself or to Kleist, with whom he lived in Berlin. They are entirely unlike any other speeches—he has, in fact, in them, as in his letters, added a new chapter to the literature of his country, hitherto so poor in prose.

Bismarck in 1848.


They shew a vivid imagination and an almost unequalled power of illustration. The thought is always concrete, and he is never satisfied with the vague ideas and abstract conceptions which so easily moved his contemporaries. No speeches, either in English or in German, preserve so much of their freshness. He is almost the only Parliamentary orator whose speeches have become to some extent a popular book; no other orator has enriched the language as he has done with new phrases and images. The great characteristic of his speeches, as of his letters, is the complete absence of affectation and the very remarkable intellectual honesty. They are often deficient in order and arrangement; he did not excel in the logical exposition of a connected argument, but he never was satisfied till he had presented the idea which influenced him in words so forcible and original that it was impressed on the minds of his audience, and he was often able to find expressions which will not be forgotten so long as the German language is spoken.

We can easily imagine that under other circumstances, or in another country, he would have risen to power and held office as a Parliamentary Minister. He often appeals to the practice and traditions of the English Parliament, and there are few Continental statesmen who would have been so completely at home in the English House of Commons; he belonged to the class of men from whom so many of the great English statesmen had come and whom he himself describes:

"What with us is lacking is the whole class which in England carries on politics, the class of gentlemen who are well-to-do and therefore Conservative, who are independent of material interests and whose whole education is directed towards making them English statesmen, and the object of whose life is to take part in the Commonwealth of England."

They were the class to whom he belonged, and he would gladly have taken part in a Parliamentary government of this kind.

The weakness of his position arose from the fact that he was really acquainted with and represented the inhabitants of only one-half of the monarchy. So long as he is dealing with questions of landed property, or of the condition of the peasants, he has a minute and thorough knowledge. He did not always, however, avoid the danger of speaking as though Prussia consisted entirely of agriculturists. The great difficulty then as now of governing the State, was that it consisted of two parts: the older provinces, almost entirely agricultural, where the land was held chiefly by the great nobles, and the new provinces, the Rhine and Westphalia, where there was a large and growing industrial population. To the inhabitants of these provinces Bismarck's constant appeal to the old Prussian traditions and to the achievements of the Prussian nobility could have little meaning. What did the citizens of Cologne and Aachen care about the Seven Years' War? If their ancestors took part in the war, it would be as enemies of the Kings of Prussia. When Bismarck said that they were Prussians, and would remain Prussian, he undoubtedly spoke the opinion of the Mark and of Pomerania. But the inhabitants of the Western Provinces still felt and thought rather as Germans than as Prussians; they had scarcely been united with the monarchy thirty years; they were not disloyal, but they were quite prepared—nay, they wished to see Prussia dissolved in Germany. No one can govern Prussia unless he is able to reconcile to his policy these two different classes in the State. It was this which the Prussian Conservatives, to which Bismarck at that time belonged, have always failed to do. The Liberals whom he opposed failed equally. In later years he was very nearly to succeed in a task which might appear almost impossible.