A Meeting with Bismarck

In the autumn of 1867 my family went to Wiesbaden, where my wife was to spend some time on account of her health, and I purposed to join them there about Christmas time for a few weeks. Great changes had taken place in Germany since that dark December night in 1861 when I rushed through the country from the Belgian frontier to Hamburg on my way from Spain to America. The period of stupid reaction after the collapse of the revolutionary movements of 1848 was over. King Frederick William IV. of Prussia, who had been so deeply convinced and arduous an upholder of the divine right of kings, had died a helpless lunatic. King William I., his brother and successor, also a believer in that divine right, but not to the extent of believing as well in the divine inspiration of kings – in other words, a man of good sense and capable of recognizing the superior ability of others, – had found in Bismarck a minister of commanding genius. The sweeping victory of Prussia over Austria in 1866 had resulted in the establishment of the North-German Confederacy under Prussian hegemony, which was considered as a stepping-stone to the unification of all Germany as a constitutional empire. Several revolutionists of 1848 now sat in the Reichstag of the North-German Confederacy, and one of the ablest of them, Lothar Bucher, was Bismarck’s confidential counsellor. The nation was elated with hopeand there was a liberal wind blowing even in the sphere of the government. I did not doubt that under these circumstances I might venture into Germany without danger of being seriously molested, yet as my personal case was technically not covered by any of the several amnesties which had been proclaimed in Prussia from time to time, I thought that some subordinate officer, either construing his duty with the strictness of a thorough Prussian, or wishing to distinguish himself by a conspicuous display of official watchfulness, might give me annoyance. I did not, indeed, entertain the slightest apprehension as to my safety, but I might have become involved in sensational proceedings which would have been extremely distasteful to me, as well as unwelcome to the government. I therefore wrote to Mr. George Bancroft, the American Minister at Berlin, requesting him, if possible, to inform himself privately whether the Prussian government had any objection to my visiting Germany for a few weeks, and to let me have his answer at Bremerhaven upon the arrival there of the steamer on which I had taken passage. My intention was, in case the answer were unfavorable, to sail at once over from Bremen to England and to meet my family there. Mr. Bancroft very kindly complied with my request and assured me in his letter, which I found at Bremerhaven, that the Prussian government not only had no objection to my visiting Germany, but that I should be welcome.

I had hardly been twenty-four hours at Wiesbaden when I was called upon by the president of the police department (Polizei-Praesident) of the province, a high dignitary, who introduced himself as an old university acquaintance and in the most affable manner bade me welcome, assuring me also that it would give him the sincerest pleasure to be of service to me during my stay. He added that he hoped I would visit Berlin before my return to the United States, for I would see many things there which would probably please me as an old Forty-eighter.

After having spent Christmas with my family in Wiesbaden I went to Berlin. I wrote a note to Lothar Bucher, whom I had last seen sixteen years before as a fellow refugee in London, and whom I wished very much to meet again. Bucher answered promptly that he would indeed be glad to see me again, but would I not like to make the acquaintance of “the Minister” (Bismarck), who had expressed a wish to have a talk with me? I replied, of course, that I should be happy, etc., whereupon I received within an hour an invitation from Count Bismarck himself (he was then only a count) to visit him at eight o’clock that same evening at the Chancellor’s palace on the Wilhelmstrasse. Promptly at the appointed hour I was announced to him and he received me at the door of a room of moderate size, the table and some of the furniture of which were covered with books and papers, evidently his working cabinet. ThereI beheld the great man whose name was filling the world – tall, erect and broad-shouldered, and on those Atlas shoulders that massive head which everybody knows from pictures – the whole figure making the impression of something colossal – then at the age of 53 in the fullness of physical and mental vigor. He was dressed in a general’s undress uniform, unbuttoned. His features, which evidently could look very stern when he wished, were lighted up with a friendly smile. He stretched out his hand, which gave mine a vigorous grasp. “Glad you have come,” he said in a voice which appeared rather high-keyed, issuing from so huge a form, but of pleasing timbre. “I think I must have seen you before,” was his first remark while we were still standing up facing one another. “It was sometime in the early fifties on a railway train from Frankfurt to Berlin. There was a young man sitting opposite to me who, from some picture of you which I had seen in a pictorial paper, I thought might be you.” I replied that this could not be, as at that period I was not in Germany. “Besides,” I added, – a little impudently perhaps, – “would you not have had me arrested as a malefactor?” “Oh,” he exclaimed with a good-natured laugh, “you mistake me. I would not have done such a thing. You mean on account of that Kinkel affair. Oh, no! I rather liked that. And if it were not highly improper for His Majesty’s Minister and the Chancellor of the North-German Confederacy, I should like to go with you to Spandau and have you tell me the whole story on the spot. Now let us sit down.” He pointed out to me an easy-chair close to his own and then uncorked a bottle which stood with two glasses on a tray at his elbow. “You are a Rhinelander,” he said, “and I know you will relish this.” We touched glasses, and I found the wine indeed very excellent. “You smoke, of course,” he continued, “and here are some good Havanas. I used to be very fond of them, but I have a sort of superstitious belief that every person is permitted to smoke only a certain number of cigars in his life, and no more. I am afraid I have exhausted my allowance, and now I take to the pipe.” With a burning strip of paper, called in German “Fidibus,” he lighted the tobacco in the porcelain bowl of his long German student pipe and presently blew forth huge clouds of smoke.

This done, he comfortably leaned back in his chair and said: “Now tell me, as an American Republican and a Forty-eighter of the revolutionary kind, how the present condition of Germany strikes you. I would not ask you that question,” he added, “if you were a privy-counsellor (a Geheimrath), for I know what he would answer. But you will tell me what you really think.” I replied that I had been in the country only a few weeks and had received only superficial impressions, but I had become sensible of a general atmosphere of newly inspired national ambition and a confident hope for the development of more liberal political institutions. I had found only a few old fogies in Nassau, and a banker in Frankfurt, who seemed to be in a disappointed and depressed state of mind. Bismarck laughed heartily. The disgruntled Nassauers, he said, had probably been some sort of purveyors to the late ducal court, and he would wager that the Frankfurt banker was either a member of one of the old patrician families, who thought they were the highest nobility in all the land, or a money maker complaining that Frankfurt was no longer, as it had been, the financial center of Southern Germany. HereBismarck gave full rein to his sarcastic humor. He had spent years in Frankfurt as the representative of the defunct “Bundestag,” and had no end of funny anecdotes about the aristocratic pretensions of the patrician burghers of that ancient free city, and about their lofty wrath at the incorporation of that commonwealth in the Prussian monarchy.

Then he began to tell me about the great difficulties he had been obliged to overcome in bringing about the decisive struggle with Austria, one of the most serious of which difficulties, as he said, consisted in the scrupulous hesitancy of old King William to consent to anything that seemed to be in any sense unconstitutional or not in harmony with the strictest notion of good faith. In our conversation Bismarck constantly called the King “der alte Herr” – “the old gentleman” – or as it might also have been translated, “the old master.” One moment he would speak of the old gentleman with something like sentimental tenderness, and then again in a tone offamiliar freedom which smacked of anything but reverential respect. He told me anecdotes about him which made me stare, for at the moment I could not help remembering that I was listening to the Prime Minister of the Crown to whom I was an entire stranger and who knew nothing of my discretion and sense of responsibility. As if we had been confidential chums all our lives, he gave me, with apparently the completest abandon andexuberant vivacity, inside views of the famous “conflict” period between the Crown and the Prussian Parliament when, seeing the war with Austria inevitably coming, he had, without legislative authorization, spent millions upon millions of the public funds upon the army in preparation for the great crisis; how the liberal majority of the chambers and an indignant public opinion, not recognizing the great object of national unification in view, had fiercely risen up against that arbitrary stretch of power; how the King himself had recoiled from such a breach of the constitution; how the King had apprehended a new revolution which might cost each of them his head – which might have become true if they had failed in the Austrian war – how then he had “desperately used his spurs to make the noble old horse clear the ditch and take the risk,” and how, the victory having been won, they were, on their return from the war, received by the people with the most jubilant declamations instead of having their heads cut off, which had pleased the old gentleman immensely and taught him a lesson as to his reckless Prime Minister.

It was not the cautious and conservative spirit of the King alone that he had occasionally to overcome. Still more was he clogged and not seldom exasperated by what he called the stupid old bureaucracy which he had to get out of its accustomed ruts whenever anything new and bold was to be done. He fairly bubbled over with humorous anecdotes, evidently relishing himself his droll descriptions of the antiquated “Geheimrath” (privy-counsellor) as he stared with his bleared eyes wide open, whenever anything unusual was proposed, seeing nothingbut insuperable difficulties before him and then exhausting his whole ingenuity in finding the best sort of red tape with which to strangle the project. His patience tried to the utmost, he, the minister, would then go to the King and tell him that such and such a rusty official could no longer be got along with and must necessarily give place to a more efficient person – whereupon the “old gentleman,” melting with pity, would say, “Oh, he has so long been a faithful servant of the state, would it not be cruel to cast him aside like a squeezed-out orange? – no, I cannot do it.” “And there,” said Bismarck, “there we are.” I ventured to suggest that an offer to resign on his part, if he could not have his way, might make the King less tender of his inefficient friends in high places. “Oh,” said Bismarck, with a laugh, “I have tried that so often, too often, perhaps, to make it impressive. What do you think happens when I offer my resignation? My old gentleman begins to sob and cry – he actually sheds tears, and says, ‘Now you want to leave me, too?’ Now, when I see him shed tears – what in the world can I do then?” So he went on for a while from one funny anecdote and from one satirical description to another, while I grew more and more amazed at the apparently reckless freedom of his talk with a person unknown to him. My amazement would have been less had I then known what I afterward learned, that this style of conversation was not unusual with him and that the old King only smiled when he heard of it.

He then came back to the Austrian warand he told me much about the diplomatic fencing which led up to it. With evident gusto he told mestory after story showing how his diplomatic adversaries at that critical period had been like puppets in his hands, and how he had managed the German princes as they grouped themselves on one side or the other. Then he came to speak of the battle of Koeniggraetz and especially of that “anxious moment” in it before the arrival of the Crown Prince in the rear of the Austrians, when some Prussian attacks had failed and there were signs ofdisorder among the repulsed troops. “It was an anxious moment,” said Bismarck, “a moment on the decision of which the fate ofempire depended. What would have become of us if we had lost that battle? Squadrons of cavalry, all mixed up, Hussars, Dragoons, Uhlans, were streaming by the spot where the King, Moltke, and myself stood, and although we had calculated that the Crown Prince might long have appeared behind the Austrian rear, no sign of the Crown Prince! Things began to look ominous; I confess I felt not a little nervous. I looked at Moltke, who sat quietly on his horse and did not seem to be disturbed by what was going on around us. I thought I would test whether he was really as calm as he appeared. I rode up to him and asked him whether I might offer him a cigar, as I noticed Moltke was not smoking. He replied that he would be glad if I had one to spare. I presented to him my open case in which there were only two cigars, one very good Havana, and the other of rather poor quality. Moltke looked at them, and even handled them with great attention, in order to ascertain their relative value, and then with slow deliberation chose the Havana. ‘Very good,’ he said composedly. This reassured me very much. I thought if Moltke can bestow so much time and attention upon the choice between two cigars, things cannot be very bad. Indeed, a few minutes later we heard the Crown Prince’s guns, we observed unsteady and confused movements in the Austrian positions, and the battle was won.”

I said that we in America who had followed the course of events with intense interest, were rather surprised at the time that the conclusion of peace followed the battle of Koeniggraetz so quickly and that Prussia did not take greater advantage of her victory. Bismarck replied that the speedy conclusion of peace had been a great surprise to many people, but that he thought it was the best thing he had ever done, and that he had accomplished it against the desire of the King and of the military party who were greatly elated by that splendid triumph of the Prussian arms and thought that so great and so successful an effort should have a greater reward. Sound statesmanship required that the Austrian Empire, the existence of which was necessary for Europe, should not be reduced to a mere wreck; that it should be made a friend, and, as a friend, not too powerless; that what Prussia had gone to war for, was the leadership in Germany, and that this leadership in Germany would not have been fortified, but rather weakened, by the acquisition from Austria of populations which would not have fitted into the Prussian scheme. Besides, the Chancellor thought that, the success of the Prussians having been so decisive, it was wise to avoid further sacrifices and risks. The cholera had made its appearance among the troops, and, that so long as the war lasted, there would have beendanger of French intervention. He had successfully fought off that French intervention, he said, by all sorts of diplomatic maneuvers, some of which he narrated to me in detail. But Louis Napoleon had become very restless at the growth of Prussian power and prestige, and he would, probably, not have hesitated so much to put in his hand, had not the French army been weakened so much by his foolish Mexican adventure. But now when the main Prussian army was marching farther and farther away from the Rhine, and had suffered serious losses, and was threatened by malignant disease, he might have felt encouraged by these circumstances to do what he would have liked to do all the time.

“That would have created a new situation. But to meet that situation, I would have had a shot in my locker which, perhaps, will surprise you when I mention it.”

I was indeed curious. “What would have been the effect,” said Bismarck, “if under those circumstances I had appealed to the national feeling of the whole people by proclaiming the constitution of the German Empire made at Frankfurt in 1848 and 1849?”

“I think it would have electrified the whole country and created a German nation,” I replied. “But would you really have adopted that great orphan left by the revolution of 1848?”

“Why not!” said the Chancellor. “True, that constitution contained some features very objectionable to me. But after all it was not so very far from what I am aiming at now. But whether the old gentleman would have adopted it, is doubtful. Still, with Napoleon at the gates, he might have taken that jump too. But,” he added, “we shall have that war with France anyhow.”

I expressed my surprise at this prediction – a prediction all the more surprising to me as I again thought of the great statesman carrying on his shoulders such tremendous responsibilities, talking to an entire stranger, – and his tone grew quite serious, grave, almost solemn, when he said: “Do not believe that I love war. I have seen enough of war to abhor it profoundly. The terrible scenes I leave witnessed, will never cease to haunt my mind. I shall never consent to a war that is avoidable, much less seek it. But this war with France will surely come. It will be forced upon us by the French Emperor. I see that clearly.”

Then he went on to explain how the situation of an “adventurer on a throne,” such as Louis Napoleon, was different from that of a legitimate sovereign, like the King of Prussia. “I know,” said he with a smile, “you do not believe in such a thing as the divine right of kings. But many people do, especially in Prussia – perhaps not as many as did before 1848, but even now more than you may think. People are attached to the dynasty by traditional loyalty. A King of Prussia may make mistakes, or suffer misfortunes, or even humiliations, but that traditional loyalty will not give way. It may be somewhat disturbed in spots, without on the whole being dangerously shaken. But the adventurer on the throne has no such traditional sentiment behind him. He has constantly to play to the galleries. His security depends upon personal prestige, and that prestige upon sensational effects which must follow one another in rather rapid succession to remain fresh and satisfactory to the ambition, or to the pride, or, if you will, to the vanity of the people – especially to such a people as the French. Now, Louis Napoleon has lost much of his prestige by two things – the Mexican adventure, which was an astounding blunder, a fantastic folly on his part – and then by permitting Prussia to become so great without his obtaining some sort of ‘compensation’ in the way of an acquisition of territory that might have been made to appear to the French people as a brilliant achievement of his diplomacy. It was well known that he wanted such a compensation, and tried for it, and was maneuvered out of it by me without his knowing what happened to him. He is well aware that thus he has lost much of his prestige, more than he can afford, and that such a loss, unless soon repaired, may become dangerous to his tenure as emperor. He will, therefore, as soon as he thinks that his army is in good fighting condition again, make an effort to recover that prestige which is so vital to him, by using some pretext for picking a quarrel with us. I do not think he is personally eager for war, and would rather avoid it, but the precariousness of his situation will drive him to it. My calculation is that the crisis will come in about two years. We have to be ready, of course, and we are. We shall win, and the result will be just the contrary of what Napoleon aims at – the total unification of Germany outside of Austria, and probably Napoleon’s downfall.”

This was said in January, 1868. The war between France and Prussia and her allies broke out in July, 1870, and the foundation of the German Empire and the downfall of Napoleon were the results. No prediction was ever more shrewdly made and more accurately and amply fulfilled.

I have here introduced Bismarck as speaking in the first person. I did this to present the substance of what he said to me in a succinct form. But this does not pretend to portray the manner in which he said it – the bubbling vivacity of his talk, now and then interspersed with French or English phrases; the lightning flashes of his wit scintillating around the subjects of his remarks and sometimes illuminating as with a searchlight a public character, or an event, or a situation; his laugh now contagiously genial, and then grimly sarcastic; the rapid transitions from jovial, sportive humor to touching pathos; the evident pleasure taken by the narrator in his tale; the dashing, rattling rapidity with which that tale would at times rush on, and behind all that this tremendous personality – the picturesque embodiment of a power greater than any king’s – a veritable Atlas carrying upon his shoulders the destinies of a great nation. There was a strange fascination in the presence of the giant who appeared so peculiarly grand, and yet so human.

While he was still speaking with unabated animation I looked at the clock opposite me and was astounded when I found that midnight was long behind us. I rose in alarm and begged the Chancellor’s pardon for having intruded so long upon his time. “Oh,” said the Chancellor, “I am used to late hours, and we have not talked yet about America. However, you have a right to be tired. But you must come again. You must dine with me. Can you do so to-morrow? I have invited a commission on the Penal Code – mostly dull old jurists, I suppose, but I may find some one among them fit to be your neighbor at the table and to entertain you.” I gladly accepted the invitation and found myself the next evening in a large company of serious and learned-looking gentlemen, each one of whom was adorned with one or more decorations. I was the only person in the room who had none, and several of the guests seemed to eye me with some curiosity, when Bismarck in a loud voice presented me to the Countess as “General Carl Schurz from the United States of America.” Some of the gentlemen looked somewhat surprised, but I at once became a person of interest and many introductions followed. At the table I had a judge from Cologne for my neighbor who had enough of the Rhenish temperament to be cheerful company. The dinner was a very rapid affair – lasting hardly three-quarters of an hour – certainly not more. My judge from Cologne confidentially remarked to me that his appetite outlived the feast. Coffee and cigars were served in a rather plain looking salon. The guests divided into groups among which the Chancellor went to and fro amusing them with humorous remarks. But before the smokers could have got half through with their cigars, the Minister of Justice, who seemed to act as mentor and guide to the gentlemen of the Penal Code Commission, took leave of the host, which was taken by the whole company as a signal to depart. I followed their example, but the Chancellor said: “Wait a moment. Why should you stand in that crowd struggling for your overcoat? Let us sit down and have a glass of Apollinaris.” We sat down by a small round table, a bottle of Apollinaris water was broughtand he began at once to ply me with questions about America.

He was greatly interested in the struggle then going on between President Johnson and the Republican majority in Congress, which was then approaching its final crisis. He said that he looked upon that struggle as a test of the strength of the conservative element in our political fabric. Would the impeachment of the President and, if he were found guilty, his deposition from office, lead to any further conflicts dangerous to the public peace and order? I replied that I was convinced it would not; the executive power would simply pass from the hands of one man to the hands of another according to the constitution and the laws of the country without any resistance on the part of anybody; and on the other hand, if President Johnson were acquitted, there would be general submission to the verdict as a matter of course, although popular excitement stirred up by the matter ran very high throughout the country.

The Chancellor was too polite to tell me point blank that he had grave doubts as to all this, but he would at least not let me believe that he thought as I did. He smilingly asked me whether I was still as firmly convinced a republican as I had been before I went to America and studied republicanism from the inside; and when I assured him that I was, and that, although I had in personal experience found the republic not as lovely as my youthful enthusiasm had pictured it to my imagination, but much more practical in its general beneficence to the great masses of the people, and much more conservative in its tendencies than I had imagined, he said that he supposed our impressions or views with regard to such things were largely owing to temperament, or education, or traditional ways of thinking. “I am not a democrat,” he went on, “and cannot be. I was born an aristocrat and brought up an aristocrat. To tell you the truth, there was something in me that made me instinctively sympathize with the slaveholders as the aristocratic party in your civil war. But,” he added with earnest emphasis, “this vague sympathy did not in the least affect my views as to the policy to be followed by our government with regard to the United States. Prussia is and will steadily be by tradition as well as by well-understood interest, the firm friend of your republic, notwithstanding her monarchical and aristocratic sympathies. You may always count upon that.”

He asked me a great many questions concerning the political and social conditions in the United States, the questions themselves, in the order in which they were put, showing that he had thought much on those things and that he already knew much about them – in fact more than any European I had met, who had never been in this country. What new information I could give him he seemed to receive with great pleasure. But again and again he wondered how society could be kept in tolerable order where the powers of the government were so narrowly restricted and where there was so little reverence for the constituted or “ordained” authorities. With a hearty laugh in which there seemed to be a suggestion of assent, he received my remark that the American people would hardly have become the self-reliant, energetic, progressive people they were, had there been a privy-counsellor or a police captain standing at every mud-puddle in America to keep people from stepping into it. And he seemed to be much struck when I brought out the apparent paradox that in a democracy with little government things might go badly in detailbut well on the whole, while in a monarchy with much and omnipresent government, things might go very pleasingly in detail but poorly on the whole. He saw that with such views I was an incurable democrat; but would not, he asked, the real test of our democratic institutions come when after the disappearance of the exceptional opportunities springing from our wonderful natural resources which were in a certain sense common property, our political struggles became – which they surely would become – struggles between the poor and the rich, between the few who have, and the many who want? Herewe entered upon a wide field of conjecture.

The Chancellor was much interested in hearing from me whether the singular stories he had been told about the state of discipline existing in our armies during our Civil War were true. I had to admit that that state of discipline would in many respects have shocked a thoroughbred Prussian officer, and I told him some anecdotes of outbreaks of the spirit of equality which the American is apt to carry into all relations of life, and of the occasional familiarities between the soldier and the officer which would spring from that spirit. Such anecdotes amused him immensely, but I suppose his Prussian pride inwardly revolted when I expressed the opinion that in spite of all this the American soldier would not only fight well, but would, in a prolonged conflict with any European army, although at first put at a disadvantage by more thorough drill and discipline, after some experience prove superior to all of them.

The conversation then turned to international relations, and especially public opinion in America concerning Germany. Did the Americans sympathize with German endeavors towards national unity? I thought that so far as any feeling with regard to German unity existed in America at all, it was sympathetic; among the German-Americans it was warmly so. Did Louis Napoleon, the emperor of the French, enjoy any popularity in America? He did not enjoy the respect of the people at large and was rather unpopular except with a comparatively small number of snobs who would feel themselves exalted by an introduction at his court. There would, then, in case of a war between Germany and France, be no likelihood of American sympathy running in favor of Louis Napoleon? There would not, unless Germany forced war on France for decidedly unjust cause.

Throughout our conversation Bismarck repeatedly expressed his pleasure at the friendly relations existing between him and the German Liberals, some of whom had been prominent in the revolutionary troubles of 1848. He mentioned several of my old friends, Bucher, Kapp and others, who, having returned to Germany, felt themselves quite at home under the new conditions, and had found the way open to public positions and activities of distinction and influence, in harmony with their principles. As he repeated this, or something like it, in a manner apt to command my attention, I might have taken it as a suggestion inviting me to do likewise. But I thought it best not to say anything in response. I simply dropped a casual remark in some proper connection that my activities in the United States were highly congenial to me and that, moreover, I was attached to the American Republic by a sense of gratitude for the distinctions which it had so generously bestowed upon me.

Our conversation had throughout been so animated that time had slipped by unawares, and it was again long past midnight when I left. My old friends of 1848 whom I met in Berlin were of course very curious to know what the great man of the time might have had to say to me, and I thought I could, without being indiscreet, communicate to them how highly pleased he had expressed himself with the harmonious co-operation between him and them for common ends. Some of them thought that Bismarck’s conversion to liberal principles was really sincere, that he was charmed with his popularity and that he would thenceforth endeavor to keep it by being in the true sense a constitutional minister. Others were less sanguine, believing as they did, that he was indeed sincere and earnest in his endeavor to create a united German Empire under Prussian leadership; that he would carry on a gay flirtation with the Liberals so long as he thought that he could thus best further his object, but that his true autocratic nature would assert itself againand he would throw his temporarily assumed Liberalism unceremoniously overboard as soon as he felt that he did not need its support any longer, and especially as he found it to stand in the way of his will. Excepting on the occasion of a formal leave-taking call I was not to see Bismarck again until twenty years later. And again I had, then under very different circumstances, highly interesting conversations with him which I shall duly record in these reminiscences when I reach that period of my life.



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