Two German Giants - John Lord

Prince Bismarck, A Character Sketch

By Bayard Taylor.

The distinction between a politician and a statesman is constantly forgotten, or at least practically slurred over, in our civil history. The former may be described as a man who studies the movements of parties as they are developed from day to day, and from year to year; who is quick to avail himself of popular moods and thereby to secure temporary power; and whose highest success lies in his barometrical capacity of foreseeing coming changes and setting the sails of his personal fortune in such wise as either safely to weather a gale or to catch the first breath of a favorable wind. But the statesman is one who is able to look, both backward and forward, beyond his own time; who discovers the permanent forces underlying the transient phenomena of party conflicts; who so builds that, although he may not complete the work, those who succeed him will be forced to complete it according to his design; and who is individually great enough to use popularity as an aid, without accepting the lack of it as a defeat.

In the economy of human government, it so happens that very frequently mere politicians are elevated to seats which should be occupied, of right, by statesmen; while the latter, shut out from every field of executive power, and allowed no other place than the parliamentary forum, are too often mistaken for mere political theorists. The history of our own country gives us many examples of this perversity of fate, this unhappy difference between the path indicated by genius and that prescribed by circumstances. But in Europe, where the accident of rank in almost all cases determines the possible heights of political power, the union of genius and its field of action—of statesmanship and opportunity—is much rarer. And rarest of all is that grasp of mind which never fails to consider passing events in their broadest relation to all history, and that serenity of intellect which is satisfied with their logical place therein, though the present generation be incompetent to perceive it. Of the six prominent European statesmen of this century—Pitt, Stein, Metternich, Cavour, Gortschakoff, and Bismarck—the last-named possesses these rare faculties in the fullest degree. More fortunate than most of the others, he has lived to see much of his work secured—so far as our intelligence may now perceive—beyond the possibility of its being undone.

When the younger Pitt, early in 1806, after the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz, cried out in despair, "Roll up the map of Europe!" he could not have guessed that in less than ten years his heroic although unfortunate policy would be triumphant. He died a few months afterwards, broken in spirit, with no prophetic visions of Leipzig and Waterloo to lighten his hopeless forebodings. Stein saw Germany free, but his activity ceased long before she rose out of the blighting shadow of the Holy Alliance; Metternich perished after the overthrow of the system to which he had devoted his life; and Cavour passed away nearly ten years before Venice and Rome came to complete his United Italy. Gortschakoff still lives [he died in 1883], a marvel of intellectual vigor at his age, and may well rejoice in the emancipation of the serfs, the liberalization of the Russian Government, and the elevation of his country to a new importance in the world; but it has not been given to him, as to Bismarck, to create a new political system, to restore a perished nationality, and to fill its veins with blood drawn directly from the hearts of the people.

If Bismarck's career is so remarkable in its results, it is even more remarkable in its character. We can comprehend it only by estimating at their full value two distinct, almost antagonistic, elements which are combined in his nature. It requires some knowledge of the different classes of society in Germany, and of the total life of the people, to understand them clearly; and I must limit myself to indicating them in a few rapid outlines.

Bismarck is of an ancient noble family of Pomerania, belonging to that class which is probably the most feudalistic in its inherited habits, and the most despotically reactionary in its opinions, of the various aristocratic circles of Germany. In him the sense of will and the instinct of rule which brooks no disobedience are intensified by a physical frame of almost giant power and proportions. He is one of those men who bear down all obstacles from impulse, no less than from principle—who take a half-animal delight in trampling out a path when others attempt to beset or barricade it. Apart from his higher political purposes, he cannot help but enjoy conquering for the sake of conquest alone. This is not a feature of character which implies heartlessness or conscious cruelty; in him it coexists with many fine social, humane, and generous qualities.

The other element in Bismarck's nature, which lifts him so far above the level of the class into which he was born, is an almost phenomenal capacity to see all life and all history apart from his inherited intellectual tendencies. Until recently, it was almost impossible for any Prussian Junker to judge a political question of the present day without referring it to some obsolete, mediaeval standard of opinion; but there never was an English or an American statesman more keenly alive to the true significance of modern events, to the importance of political movements and currents of thought, and to the necessity of selecting strictly practical means, than the Chancellor of the German Empire. He possesses a wonderful clearness of vision, and therefore rarely works for an immediate result. In the midst of the most violent excitements his brain is cool, for he has studied their causes and calculated their nature and duration. It is impossible that he should not have gone through many intellectual struggles in his early years: the opposing qualities which combine to form his greatness could not have been easily harmonized.

Out of such struggles, perhaps, has grown a tact—or let us rather call it a power—which specially distinguishes him. He possesses an astonishing skill in the use of an inscrutable reticence or an almost incredible frankness, just as he chooses to apply the one or the other; and some of his most signal diplomatic triumphs have been won in this manner. The secret thereof is, that while he uses the antiquated conventionalisms of diplomacy when it suits, he relishes every fair opportunity of showing his contempt for them by speaking the simple truth, knowing beforehand that it will not be believed.

Looking back over his history, it is now easy to see that Bismarck's great political plan might easily have failed, had he not possessed such a remarkable combination of candor and secretiveness. It was undoubtedly slowly developed in his mind during his residence of eight years in Frankfurt as the representative of Prussia in the old German Diet. He there learned the impracticability of such a union, the damage inflicted upon all Germany by the dominant influence of Austria, and the necessity of a radical political change. His strong conservative sentiments did not blind him to the fact that such a change could only be accomplished by the aid of the people; and this involved the danger, at that time, of precipitating a new revolution. He had the power to wait, and, while keeping his great object steadily in view, to conceal every movement which pointed towards it. Even had he been far more liberal in his political views, he could not have escaped the necessity of endeavoring to place himself at the head of the Conservative party: there was no other path to power, and no success was possible without power.

In other respects, his residence at Frankfurt was rich in opportunities for the broader education of a statesman. His journeys to Italy, Hungary, Denmark, and Holland, his wide acquaintance with intelligent representatives of all European nations, and his acquisition of many languages, were aids to his cool, objective study of races, events, and governing forces. There was little opportunity for personal distinction; the character of his services was only known to Frederic William IV. and his ministers; but the former, if unsuccessful as a ruler, was a man of great wit and keen intellect, and appreciated Bismarck's ability from the first. Not until he was appointed ambassador to Russia, in 1859, was the future statesman much heard of, outside of Prussia. His position in St. Petersburg, and afterwards in Paris, made manifest his intellectual power and diplomatic skill, and brought his name into prominence. When he became the minister of King William I., in the autumn of 1862, the moral shock which the German people experienced was not caused by their ignorance of his abilities. He was by that time well known, distrusted, feared, and—hated.

I can distinctly recall the excitements of this period. When I reached St. Petersburg, in June, 1862, Bismarck had taken his leave but a few weeks previously, and the diplomatic and court circles still included him in their gossip. He was almost invariably spoken of with the greatest cordiality: his frankness, good-nature, and hearty enjoyment of repartee were specially emphasized. I remember that his brief term of service in France was then watched with very keen interest by the representatives of the other Powers. When I returned to Germany, a year later, he was at the head of affairs in Berlin; and I doubt whether even Metternich was ever so unpopular with the great majority of the people. This was not surprising; for a member of the Prussian Herrenhaus (House of Lords), who was a chance travelling-companion of mine, expressed his unbounded satisfaction that an "Absolutist" was at last minister. There would be no more revolutions, he affirmed; no more concession of useless privileges to the people; the ancient rights of king and nobles would be restored.

When the Conservatives said these things, the Liberals were justified in foreboding the worst evils. During this period I saw Bismarck, for the only time; and, however much I sympathized with the general feeling, I could not withhold the respect and admiration which attend the recognition of grand individual power. In stature and proportions he seemed to me to be the equal of General Winfield Scott, but his face had nothing of the vanity and petulance which characterized the latter's. It was massive, clear, and firm—as if cut in granite when in repose, but slowly brightening when he spoke. His tremendous will was expressed as fully in the large, clear gray eyes as in the outlines of the jaw. To judge from photographs, his face has changed but slightly since then.

The world will never know the extent of the strain to which Bismarck's nature was subjected during those four years, when he rarely looked upon the people without meeting gloomy eyes or hearing sullen murmurs of hate, when murder constantly tracked his footsteps and revolution only waited for some act which might let it loose. His long conflict with the Legislative Assembly, in regard to the army estimates, was inevitably misinterpreted. In fact, it was so designed; for the statesman's secret plan could not be concealed from Austria, France, and Europe, unless the German people were first deceived. But the suspicion that the increase of the military power of Prussia was solely intended to create a weapon against the liberties of the people provoked an imminent danger. Bismarck walked on a narrow path between two abysses: if he had wavered for an instant, he must have fallen. He was made to feel, in a thousand ways, the depth of the popular indignation; and he bore it, perhaps, the more easily because he always frankly declared his consciousness of it. This is a part of his experience which Herr Hesekiel has passed over very lightly [in his biography of Bismarck], out of consideration for the Germans themselves, no less than for his subject; yet it should by no means be omitted from the statesman's biography.

One incident, which I heard of at the time it occurred, is worth preserving. Bismarck was dining with a friend at the table d'hote of a hotel in Frankfurt, when he noticed strong signs of hostile recognition in two ladies who sat opposite. They immediately dropped their German, and began talking in the almost extinct Lettisch (Lettonian) tongue, feeling themselves perfectly safe to abuse the minister to their heart's content therein. But Bismarck, who never forgets anything, remembered a few words of the language, and could guess the drift of their talk. He waited a while, and then whispered to his friend, "When I say something to you in an unknown tongue, hand me the dish of potatoes." Presently he spoke aloud, in Lettonian, "Give me the potatoes, please!" The friend instantly complied; the ladies stared, petrified with surprise, then hurriedly rose and left the table.

It is impossible wholly to preserve a great political secret from the instincts of other minds. For a year before the declaration of war against Austria, in 1866, a presentiment of something not entirely evil, to be reached through Bismarck's government, began to be felt in Germany. Singularly enough, it first impressed itself upon the young, and, when betrayed, was a frequent source of trouble in the homes of the Liberal party. Among other instances, a boy of my own acquaintance, not more than eighteen years of age, prevailed upon his fellow-pupils in an academy to join him in sending a letter of congratulation to Bismarck, after young Blind's mad attempt at assassination. He was rewarded by a charming letter from the minister, and in the pride of his heart could not help showing it, to the amazement and deep mortification of his parents. But now the noble young fellow is dead; and Bismarck's letter, preserved in a stately frame, is treasured by the family as a most precious souvenir of the son's foresight.

The declaration of war nevertheless was a great shock to Germany. Even then its true purpose was not manifest; but six weeks of victory, and the conditions of peace, opened the eyes of all. It is difficult to find, in the annals of any nation, such an overwhelming revulsion of sentiment. The swiftness of the work gave convincing evidence of long preparation: it was a phenomenon in German politics; and the truth pierced, like a sudden shaft of lightning, to the hearts and brains of the whole people. In a day, Bismarck the Despot was translated into Bismarck the Liberator.

When in Germany, in 1867, I learned, through the best sources, of a suggested finale to the Prusso-Austrian war, which I do not think has yet passed into history. The proposition, privately considered at Nikolsburg before signing the treaty of peace with Austria, was that the entire Prussian army should march westward through Bavaria, Wurtemberg, and Baden, to the Rhine, compel the support of Southern Germany, and engage France if she should take up the gage of battle thus thrown down. The boldness of such a plan must have made it very attractive; but Bismarck, probably in deference to the King's views, finally declared that the fortune already secured was so great that it must not be hazarded. How much he gained by waiting four years does not now need to be explained. The movement might have been carried into effect, with very great probability of success; yet it would only have united Germany in form, not in feeling. It might have reconstructed the Empire, but upon no such firm foundation as it stands on at present.

From that day, all men in all civilized countries who study the development of history have followed with keenest interest the course of the German statesman. He has been the focus of such intelligent observation that no important line of policy could long be kept secret; but it is still the habit to distrust his simplest and frankest declarations. A mind of lower order would have been satisfied with the enormous triumph of avenging those bitter years of the Napoleonic usurpation, from 1806 to 1813, with restoring the ancient boundaries of race after two centuries, and constructing the new and vital, because logical and coherent, German nationality.

It was known that Bismarck's iron constitution had been seriously shattered by his long and unrelieved labors and the tremendous wear and tear of his moral energy. He should now be satisfied, said the world; he has a right to a season of rest and peace. Therefore, when he immediately plunged into a new and—as many of his heartiest admirers believed—an unnecessary struggle, there was a general feeling of surprise, amounting almost to dissatisfaction. The simple truth is, he saw the beginning of a conflict which will continue to disturb the world until it is finally settled by the complete divorcement of Church and State in all civilized nations. The work he undertook to do had far less reference to the interests of our day than to those of the coming generations. I shall not discuss the means he employed: to do this intelligently requires an intimate knowledge of the history of the whole subject in Germany since the Treaty of Westphalia, in 1648; and hence very little of the foreign criticism of his policy is really applicable. He has at least succeeded in building a firm dike against the rising tide of ecclesiastical aggression; and the fight yet to be fought in France and Italy and Spain—perhaps even in England and the United States—will be the less fierce and dangerous because of his present work. He might well have avoided the hard, implacable features of the struggle, but the principle which impels him has the imperious character of a conscience.

While wondering at this man's great work, we must nevertheless guard ourselves against attributing to him liberal ideas of government in any partisan sense. He is an aristocrat, lifted by a great intellect above the narrowing influences of his rank. He believes in a government of power, and which shall exercise its power sternly when need comes. His habit of facing events defiantly, even in cases where a conciliatory policy might lead to the same results, makes his attitude sometimes unnecessarily harsh and despotic. As an individual, he is magnanimous; as a statesman, never. His exaction of terms from France, his treatment of the German press, the bishops, and finally Count von Arnim, are prominent illustrations of this quality of his nature. In debate he is sometimes carried too far by the irritation created by his antagonists, and quite forgets his acquired imperturbability. But even in such instances he often has courage enough to publicly confess the fault. The truth is, he accepts the legislative feature of the Imperial Government of Germany through his intellect, while the inherited instincts of his nature rebel against it. His brain is modern, but the blood which feeds it is that of the Middle Ages.

For compactness, clearness, and force there are no better speeches in the German language than Bismarck's. He is an excellent English scholar, and has evidently modeled his style upon the best English examples. His sentences are short and as little involved as possible: he endeavors to avoid that construction, peculiar to the German tongue, which throws the verb—often the key-word to the meaning—to the very end of the sentence. He is rarely eloquent; but he has an epigrammatic power of putting a great deal of significance into brief phrases, many of which find immediate currency among the people. For instance, the whole meaning of his conflict with the Catholic ecclesiastics was compressed into the sentence, "We shall not go to Canossa!" And the declaration of his policy of "blood and iron," which sent a thrill of horror through the country when first uttered, has become a proud and popular phrase.

Bismarck stands now [1887] at the height of his success. He can receive no additional honor, nor is it likely that his influence will be further extended, except through new developments which may attest the wisdom of his policy. It is not in his nature to stand idle: while he lives he will remain in action. He will therefore be a disturbing influence in European politics—an element of power through respect, or mistrust, or fear. But while it is not likely that any force or combination of forces can overthrow the work of his life, nothing he may henceforth do can invalidate his right to the title of the First Statesman of the Age.

New York, March 17, 1887.