Biographies & Memoirs


The Decline Begins: Liberals and Catholics

The victory over France and the foundation of the new Reich marked the high point of Bismarck’s career. He had achieved the impossible and his genius and the cult of that genius had no limits. When he returned to Berlin in March 1871, he had become immortal, but he now faced a completely different challenge: to preserve his creation and to make it work. As a result, the second stage of Bismarck’s career has a completely different substance. His days filled up with the detail of government: tax rates, local government reorganization, unification of the legal system, factory inspection, educational regulations, the charges for postal transfers and packages, railroad finances, budgets and estimates. For the next nineteen years, more than twice as long as the unification period, the daily business of government occupied his time and energy. In it the same Bismarck operated with the same ruthlessness and lack of principle that had marked the heroic days but in different areas. Since he could never delegate authority, hated opposition, and considered—rightly—that he was smarter than everybody else, he ran into obstacles, both personal and material, at every stage. Nobody understood him, nobody carried out his wishes properly, and nobody could be trusted. He fell into a more or less continuous rage against everybody and everything.

Preservation of his great achievement meant constant watchfulness for threats from abroad as well as enemies at home. The great powers had reason to fear the new Germany. Disraeli summed up their feelings in a prophetic speech from the opposition Front Bench on 2 February of 1871:

The war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French revolution. I don’t say a greater, or as great a social event. What its social consequences may be are in the future. Not a single principle in the management of our foreign affairs, accepted by all statesmen for guidance up to six months ago, any longer exists. There is not a diplomatic tradition that has not been swept away. You have a new world, new influences at work, new and unknown dangers and objects with which to cope … The balance of power has been utterly destroyed, and the country that suffers most, and feels the effect of this great change most, is England.1

The French and Austrians might well have contested the idea that England, which had not been defeated by Prussia, ‘suffers most, and feels the effect of this great change most’, but in a deeper sense, Disraeli was right. He saw a fundamental reality which the world would slowly and painfully understand. The Pax Britannica rested on the European Balance of Power. Metternich had known that and worked with Lord Castlereagh in 1814–15 to make sure that no one state gained too much from the defeat of Napoleon. Bismarck had destroyed that balance. Between 1871 and 1914 the German Empire would become an economic superpower. Its coal, steel, and iron production grew larger than the entire production of its continental rivals put together. Whereas in 1871 Germany and France had roughly the same population, by 1914 Germany had half again as many people, better educated, better disciplined, and more productive than any people in the world. In science, technology, industrial chemistry, electrical engineering, optical instruments, metallurgy, and many other areas, Germany had become the most advanced manufacturer anywhere. ‘Made in Germany’ meant the very highest quality. By 1914 the Reich had the most powerful army and had constructed the second largest navy. Germany had achieved a supremacy in Europe which only the French Empire of Napoleon had reached at a few moments but Germany had a much more powerful industrial and technological foundation.

Bismarck had explained to Leopold von Gerlach that one could not play chess if 16 out of the 64 squares were blocked in advance. Politics as the art of the possible required flexibility. Yet Bismarck’s own achievements made that flexibility harder to attain. Bismarck saw that clearly in the Peace of Prague in 1866. By rejecting the King’s wish for a victory parade in Vienna and by refusing to take Habsburg territory, Bismarck quite explicitly left the door open for an eventual reconciliation with the Habsburg Monarchy. In 1879 that reconciliation became an alliance. He equally explicitly, as we have seen, rejected a soft peace with France. He insisted as part of the peace on the annexation of the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Here even the Crown Princess, his enemy on most matters, backed the decision, as she wrote to Queen Victoria in December 1870:

About Alsace and Lorraine there is but one voice all over Germany, that if we do not keep them (or part of them), we shall be doing a wrong thing, as we shall be exposing ourselves to the same calamity as threatened us in July—being attacked and overrun by the French whenever it suits them, as our frontiers are too weak to keep them out.2

Whatever the motives that made Bismarck agree to the annexation of the two French territories, he could no longer play chess with all the squares open. Sixteen of the sixty-four had been blocked permanently: France would never ally with Germany as long the territories remained in German hands. France had one foreign policy—revenge—and one goal—the ‘lost’ territories. If Germany—so new, so fragile in Bismarck’s eyes—were to be protected from its enemies, it would need allies but which? England? Unlikely. The traditional English distrust of continental Europe, still present today in Euro-sceptic attitudes to the European Union, would make it at best a temporary collaborator but never a reliable ally. It followed that the only defence against French revenge must lie in the recreation of the Metternich coalition of conservative powers, a league of the Three Emperors—the Tsar, the Habsburg Emperor, and the new Hohenzollern Emperor—against democracy and revolution. In the 1870s he used his matchless skills to do that.

The second stage of Bismarck’s career differs from the first eight and a half years. Peace replaces war in international affairs. Liberalism takes the place of conservatism in domestic matters. Both in diplomacy and in domestic policies the plot thickens as the details of treaties and bureaucratic administration multiply and blur the clear narrative lines of the story. The traditional sources for study of Bismarck’s career reflect this division. The editors of the ‘New Friedrichsruh Edition’ of the collected works, which began publication in 2004, point out that in the nineteen volumes of the original Collected Works, published between 1924 and 1934, five volumes (2,860 pages) cover the eight years of the foundation of the Reich, while only one volume (449 pages) covers domestic policy during the two decades of his career after 1870. The editors of the original Collected Works declared in 1924 that they wished to build ‘a monument that Germany erects to the Founder of the Reich in the moment of its deepest humiliation’.3Hence the omission of documents which showed Bismarck in unfavourable postures or acts.

The years 1871 to 1890 mark the decline of Bismarck’s political position. Not even he could run a modern state by himself and he would allow nobody to share it with him. Even his ‘combinations’ in international affairs could not hold back tides of nationalism and popular pressure on governments. The gigantic figure at war with all the forces of his age makes an arresting image but the actual stages remain complicated and not all developments move in the same way or direction. The narrative that this biography follows tries to highlight the contours of the years 1871 to 1890 by looking at the nineteen years in stages. The first period, the Liberal era leads to the struggle against the Roman Catholic Church and the final break between Bismarck and his Protestant conservative friends. In those years the ‘Great Depression’ begins in 1873 and worsens toward the end of the decade. That leads to a ‘great turn’ in 1878–9 when Bismarck drops his liberal allies, makes peace with Roman Catholic Church, attacks Socialism, and introduces welfare and social security. This chapter takes the story to the historic break in the late 1870s.

One of the forces he could not control was the voter. The very first elections to the Reichstag took place on 3 March 1871, when 51 per cent of the adult males eligible to vote went to the polls. 18.6 per cent of them voted for the Centre Party which with its 63 seats became at a stroke the second strongest party in the chamber. By 1874 it would grow to ninety plus representatives, a solid, anti-Bismarckian block. Of the 382 deputies, 202 could be called Liberal, though there were several Liberal parties. The National Liberal Party with 100 seats and 30.2 per cent of the vote became the largest party. The Conservatives divided 23 per cent of the vote between the old Kreuzzeitung Party with 14.1 per cent and the smaller pro-Bismarckian German Reich Party with 8.9 per cent.4Among the 37 Reich Party members were Robert Lucius von Ballhausen, elected as a Reich Party Conservative for Erfurt, and Bismarck’s staff member Robert von Keudell elected for Königsberg-Neumark, who on election also joined the Reich Party. On hearing the news of his election Bismarck told Keudell: ‘I do not care which fraction you go into; I know that when you can you will vote for me.’5 At the height of his power and fame, Bismarck’s endorsement only garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote. In all the elections between 1871 and 1890 the Bismarckian party only once managed to achieve double figures and that in the panic election of 1878 when the it won 13.6 per cent of the vote and gained 56 seats. Thereafter it declined steadily and in the election of February 1890, a month before Bismarck fell from power, it only won 20 seats or 6.6 per cent of the vote. Not exactly a monument to the Reich’s founder from the German voter.

The other crisis in this phase of Bismarck’s career had begun even before the Franco-Prussian war finished. The Prussian victory at Sedan not only destroyed the Empire of Napoleon III but allowed the Kingdom of Italy to seize Rome on 22 September 1870. The new French Republic had withdrawn the French garrison stationed there since 1849 and maintained by Napoleon III as a gesture to his own Catholic supporters. Bismarck’s third war indirectly ended the sovereignty of the Roman pontiff over the eternal city, a sovereignty which had lasted from the fall of Rome. The loss of temporal power coincided with the greatest ever public extension of papal spiritual power in the declaration of Infallibility promulgated in July 1870 at the first Vatican Council. The Crown Prince had noted the connection in his war diary on 22 September 1870:

The most important news I heard today was that the troops of the King of Italy have occupied Rome. So at last the Roman Question is done with … The miserable regime of priestly domination is at an end and once more the triumph of German arms has done the Italians a good service … The occupation of Rome within a few weeks of the publication of the dogma of Infallibility is a strange irony of Fate.6

The connection made it certain that the Vatican and the new Prussian, Protestant Reich would collide. Even before the election of the first Reichstag, on 18 February 1871, the Centre Party in the Prussian lower house sent a message to the Emperor asking for his support in the restoration of the ‘temporal power’, as Papal sovereignty in Rome was called. The Emperor replied indirectly in the Speech from the Throne when he declared that the German state would not intervene in the affairs of others, a sentiment reinforced by the Address in Reply adopted by the Landtag. Only the Centre voted against it.7 During a vigorous debate in the new Reichstag in early April 1871, the majority rejected by 223 to 59 a Centre motion to enshrine in the new Reich constitution six articles from the Prussian constitution on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, of assembly, of religious belief, of science, and the autonomy of religious institutions.8 The majority Liberals allowed anti-Catholicism to trump their liberal principles, though there was something odd about the party of the Church militant in its most assertive phase asking for freedoms in Germany not accorded by the Vatican to faithful Catholics and actually condemned in the Syllabus of Errors.

Bismarck reacted very strongly. In a confidential dispatch to Georg Freiherr von Werthern (1816–95), Prussian minister in Munich, he wrote that the debate showed ‘a hostile tendency to the Reich government … which will be forced for its part to act with aggression against the Party’.9 Margaret Lavinia Anderson comments on Bismarck’s violent reaction that ‘for Bismarck with his nervous sense of the fragility of his new creation, the Zentrum was by definition subversive … too powerful to be left autonomous … Bismarck struck at what for him was the root of its power, the Catholic Church, launching what Heinrich Bornkamm has aptly called “a domestic preventive war for ensuring the empire”.’10 Thus began what came to be called the ‘War over Culture’ orKulturkampf.

Bismarck’s aggression against the Centre had the effect of strengthening it. Margaret Lavinia Anderson has analysed the voting patterns in those districts from which Centre deputies came and found that of the 397 seats in the Reichstag 104 wereStammsitze(trunk or solid seats, i.e. safe) and seldom changed hands. The Centre voters concentrated in certain areas of the 104 such districts and thus 73 of the Centre’s deputies represented safe seats. Hence the core of the party never changed over the rest of Bismarck’s period in office. Between 1874 and 1890 76 per cent of the party’s seats were solidly safe. This made sure that the aristocratic founders continued to hold sway and there was no influx of new elements. The grand gentlemen of the party tended to be less obedient to the parish priests and bishops than the lesser flock. If Bismarck had been more subtle, he might have gradually pried the party apart from the hierarchy. His aggression solidified those bands. Unless he abolished universal suffrage or revoked the constitution, he could not win the battle against the Catholic Centre Party and the Roman Catholic population in the new, much more Catholic, unified Germany.

The new Italian Kingdom had expropriated cloisters and church property and seized papal palaces on the Quirinale. The Pope was once again a prisoner as in 1809 Pius VII had been. The temporal power was abolished and Pope Pius IX went into inner exile. The great gates of the Vatican closed in mourning. The new Italian parliament in 1871 passed the Law of Guarantees as a gesture of good will and offered a large monetary compensation for the loss of the Vatican’s property. Pius IX’s reaction was an encyclical UBI NOS (On Pontifical States) promulgated on 15 May 1871. In it, the Pope rejected all relations with the godless Italian state and the struggle intensified in the 1870s. Crown Prince Frederick was wrong. The Roman Question was not over; it had just become much, much worse. The dissidio (dispute) on the Roman question poisoned church–state relations in Italy for fifty years. In 1874 the Pope declared it non-expedit (not desirable) for devout Catholics to take any part in the government of the Kingdom of Italy. In 1877 the decree was strengthened to non-licet; it was now not allowed for a Catholic to serve the blasphemous kingdom in any capacity, even to vote in its elections.

The Liberal State rejected everything that Pius IX represented. It proclaimed its commitment to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, tolerance of all religious beliefs and none, freedom of scientific inquiry, Darwinian evolutionary theory (Origin of Species appeared in 1859 and was an instant best-seller), secular education, civil marriage, and civil divorce. During the 1870s, in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, and Austria, the state defended these values against the Roman Catholic Church and its priests. It was the holy war of liberalism against the Black International of Catholicism. Bishops and priests were arrested or expelled from countries, even in democratic Switzerland.

Bismarck, as usual, followed two policies, one an aggressive and punishing reaction to the Catholic Centre Party, and the other caution and moderation in dealing with the Vatican. On 1 May 1871 he wrote to Joseph Count von Brassier de Saint Simon, the German ambassador in Florence (where the interim Royal Italian capital still was before the final move to Rome), to ask him to warn the Italian government that its acts would affect

not only its own parties and its own parliament in its own land but it must reckon with the Catholic Church outside its own borders and for those Powers who are friendly to it. Clever and tactful behaviour especially with respect to a magnanimous consideration of the person of the Pope, will make it possible to preserve the existing friendly relations without offending the feeling of their Catholic subjects.11

Bismarck showed here that subtle and tactful side of his diplomacy, as he tried to insert a wedge between the German Catholic political party and the faithful by being harsh to the former and considerate to the latter, the Holy See. The Kulturkampf arose everywhere as a problem of international relations, national solidarity, and domestic policy. In any country with a substantial Catholic population, what sort of schools, what sort of hospitals (nurses or nuns?), what sort of poor relief, what marriage ceremony and divorce provisions, what charitable status for churches and convents, in short, the whole apparatus of daily life for the Catholic faithful became the subject of intense debate. The Roman Church and all its traditional pastoral and ecclesiastical activities challenged the growing power, competence, and intrusiveness of the modern state. The Kulturkampf represented the most serious challenge to Bismarck’s authority during the rest of his career, and it is a rich irony that the reconciliation between Bismarck and Windthorst in March 1890 led to his dismissal.

During June of 1871 Bismarck’s irritation with the Centre Party hardened and he became particularly annoyed at Adalbert von Krätzig (1819–87), head of the Catholic section of the Prussian Kultusministerium (its full title was the Ministry of Religious, Educational and Medical Affairs). He told Hohenlohe on 19 June that he intended ‘to expel the Krätzig clique’ from the government because they protected too strongly Polish interests.12 A few days later in Upper Silesian Königshütte, a Polish riot occurred which gave Bismarck what he needed to blame Krätzig. On 8 July 1871 the Catholic Section was dissolved and Krätzig assigned to minor duties.

In the meantime the press campaign—undoubtedly orchestrated by Bismarck—began in earnest when on 22 June 1871 a Kreuzzeitung article called ‘Centre Party’ attacked it as unpatriotic and declared that a new chapter in the struggle of ‘Germanism’ against ‘Romanism’ had begun.13 Father Karl Jentsch (1833–1917), a priest and social activist,14 wrote about life under the Kulturkampf:

Every day the Catholic had to read in Käseblattchen [low level newspapers] as well as in the great newspapers that he was an enemy of the Fatherland, a little papist, a block-head and that his clergy were the scum of humanity. So he founded his own newspapers which at least did not insult him every day.15

Bismarck bombarded his envoy in Rome, Karl Count von Tauffkirchen-Guttenberg, (1826–95) the Bavarian minister to the Holy See, who acted for the Prussians, with letters in which the Pope and Cardinal Antonelli were reminded that the collaboration of the ‘black’ and ‘red’ parties stirred up the population in many districts. Such agitation called into question the Pope’s opposition to radicalism or his professions of good will to the German Reich. On 30 June 1871 he warned Tauffkirchen that

We see in the behaviour of this party a danger for the Church and the Pope … The aggressive tendencies of the party which controls the Church forces us to resist, in which case we shall seek our defence … If the Vatican decides to break with this party so hostile to the government and to prevent its attacks on us, that would be welcome. If it cannot or will not do that, we reject all responsibility for the consequences.16

Bismarck now had to deal with one of the survivors of the ‘Conflict Ministry’, his Kultusminister, Heinrich von Mühler, a strict, orthodox, Lutheran, conservative. Bismarck, who normally avoided face-to-face confrontation with his subordinates, finally went to see von Mühler in the summer of 1871 and we have von Mühler’s notes on what he said:

He revealed to me without ambiguity his entire game and his system, which he could no longer conceal from me. His goals were: battle with the ultramontane party, in particular in the Polish territories West Prussia, Posen and Upper Silesia—Separation of church and state, separation of church and school completely. Transfer of school inspection to lay inspectors. Removal of religious instruction from the schools, not only from gymnasia but also from the primary school. … ‘I know how the Kaiser stands on these matters but if you don’t stir him up, I shall lead him nevertheless where I want’. Bismarck described the clash between us—outwardly once more in a calmer tone—quite rightly with the words. ‘You deal with things from the religious perspective, I on the other hand from the political’.17

Apparently Frau von Mühler, who had been eavesdropping, dropped to her knees to pray when she heard Bismarck’s intentions.18 Von Mühler held out until January 1872 when he finally submitted his resignation. He explained his decision in a letter to Maximilian Count von Schwerin (1804–72), one of his predecessors in the Kultusministerium, who had accused Bismarck on 27 January 1863, in the Prussian Landtag that his motto was ‘Macht geht vor Recht’ (power trumps justice/law—JS]).19 Schwerin might be expected to understand von Mühler’s reaction.

Bismarck’s approach in the Kulturkampf is to be explained by the entirely realistic—dare I say?—materialistic understanding which lies at the root of his entire political life. Bismarck despises all spiritual and moral levers in politics. Blood and iron—materialistic means of power—these are the factors with which he reckons. He would prefer to ban the church and religious ideas from public life and turn them into private matters. Separation of church and state, removal of the church from the school system and the school from religious instruction, these are very familiar views of his, as are the many steps he has taken and many public and private utterances in this direction, for which I have proof, make clear. He shows clearly a characteristic feature that, if not decisively anti-Christian, is at least anti-clerical and separationist and which borders on a middle ground between delusion and enmity. And on top of that comes his overly large ambition which tolerates no opposition and no longer even respects the personal convictions of the Kaiser.20

The pious, very Christian von Mühler was replaced with a formidable liberal lawyer Adalbert Falk, whose name came to symbolize the Kulturkampf. Falk came from a Protestant pastor’s family in Silesia. A child prodigy, he entered Breslau University at 16 to become a lawyer, served in various of the elected bodies in the 1860s, and made a steady but not spectacular career in the Ministry of Justice, when to his surprise on 22 January 1872 he received a summons to the Chancellor who offered him the job asKultusminister. When Falk asked Bismarck what he expected of him, Bismarck replied in one of his lapidary phrases ‘to restore the rights of the State against the Church and to do it with as little noise as possible’.21 Falk served Bismarck during the entireKulturkampf, drafted most of the legislation and defended it in the Landtag. Falk believed in the state as an abstract entity, what Bornkamm called ‘practical Hegelianism’;22 Bismarck wanted to smash the Catholic Centre Party. The two went at the issues in completely different ways and the mixture of Bismarck’s brutality and Falk’s conceptual purity undoubtedly made the actual attack on German Catholicism more damaging and politically more disastrous. Falk really believed in the ideal of separation of church and state; Bismarck wanted to assert his power. By appointing Falk Bismarck indirectly made certain that his old Prussian Conservative friends would join the Catholics in defence of their Protestant patriarchal control of schools and society.

From 1872 on Falk introduced a series of stringent pieces of legislation in both Prussia and Reich. Even before his appointment an amendment to the Reich penal code made it an offence, punishable by up to two years of prison, for clergymen to make political statements from the pulpit that might endanger the peace. This anti-clerical gag law continued to be part of the German criminal code until 1953, when the Catholic Centre, now in its new guise as the Christian Democratic Party, under the old Centre politician Konrad Adenauer, finally abolished it.23

The next battle was fought out in February 1872 in the Prussian Landtag over the Schulaufsichtsgesetz (the School Supervisory Law), which required the replacement of clerical by state supervision in ‘all public and private institutes of instruction’. Here was an issue that pitted Liberals against Catholics and also increasingly conservative Protestants. Eduard Lasker, the indomitable little liberal purist, challenged the house by saying that the law abolishes ‘the school supervisor with rights of his own, who has the audacity to say to the State: “You have no right to prescribe for me in what way I supervise and direct the school.”’24

The theatrical quality of the occasion was heightened by the contrast among the speakers and the intensity of the debate. All the leading speakers of the parties went to the rostrum but the main bout was that between the 250-pound giant Bismarck, sweating and swaying, and the tiny, blind Windthorst with his green, glass spectacles and his minute shape. He unnerved and annoyed Bismarck. On 24 January the Catholic deputy, August Reichensperger noted with satisfaction in his diary:

Bismarck’s irritation seems to me to be based on the fact that his project of a German national church has shipwrecked, and that the believing Protestants, for whom Windthorst in Hanover forms the bridge, are more and more joining ranks with us.25

On 30 January Bismarck launched a direct attack on the Catholic Centre Party in the Landtag and ended in a duel with Windthorst, which Bismarck openly lost. Windthorst caught him in one of his inconsistencies:

BISMARCK: When I returned from France, I could not consider the formation of this fraction in any other light than as a mobilization of a party against the state.

WINDTHORST: I do not know what the Minister-President regards as struggle against the state … But, gentlemen, I make so free as to suppose that it is not yet correct that the Minister President is the state … When, however, the government jerks from Right to Left at such a suspiciously hasty tempo as is happening now (for today the Minister President has proclaimed unconditionally the rule of the majority) … I must take my ministers from the majority [he said] … therefore I can take no Catholics, because Catholics are not in the majority, … the Zentrum’s support is not possible.26

On 8 February Windthorst in turn attacked Bismarck for abandoning conservative and monarchical principles with the School Inspection Bill.

These words affected Bismarck visibly. His hands shook and he needed both of them to hold a glass of water. He replied: The deputy from Meppen with an adroitness that is too perfect … arranges the words I have spoken to suit his momentary ends … I have passed my years-long examination in the service of the monarchical principle in Prussia. For the Herr Deputy, that is still—or so I hope—to come.27

The next day, Bismarck returned with a new attack on the Guelphs (a term to describe the Hanoverian royal family and its followers such as Windthorst) and accused the ‘Guelph leadership’ of stirring up trouble. He attacked Windthorst personally:

Before the Centre Party had been founded, there existed a Fraction which people called the Meppen Fraction. It consisted, as far as I can recall of one deputy, a great general without an army, but in the meanwhile he has succeeded like Wallenstein to stamp an army out of the ground and ring it round him.28

and concluded that: ‘for Guelph hope can only succeed when strife and subversion reign.’ The President of the House, Max von Forcenbeck, gave Windthorst unlimited time for a point of personal privilege. Windthorst replied:

such an excess of personal attacks has been directed against me, and indeed with such violence, that I am beginning to believe that I possess a significance of which, until now, I had never dreamed. [Laughter.] … For my part, you may be assured: I will NOT submit to this pressure. Nevertheless, it is something as yet unheard of in parliamentary history that a man of this rank spent nearly an hour in order to attack me personally.29

In the debate next day, 10 February 1872, the Catholic deputy, Hermann von Mallinckrodt, replied to Bismarck:

We are proud to have in our midst so distinguished a member as the Deputy from Meppen. [Bravo!] They have annexed a pearl, Gentlemen, and we have brought that pearl into its proper setting [Very good!—in the Zentrum; and great, continuing laughter elsewhere.]30

To which Bismarck, always quick-witted, replied mockingly:

The honourable gentleman has called the Deputy from Meppen a pearl. I share that view in his sense completely. For me, however, the value of a pearl depends very much on its colour. In that respect I am rather choosey.31

On 13 February 1872 the School Supervisory Law passed the Landtag by 207 to 155.32 The relatively narrow majority in the lower House where the Centre only had 63 deputies indicates how much opposition the bill evoked among Conservatives. It had been a victory of sorts for Windthorst. On the day of the vote, Eberhard Freiherr von Brandis, a former Hanoverian general, said with evident delight to Sir Robert Morier

What do you say about Bismarck’s and Windthorst’s duel? We rather think that Windthorst has had the best of it. He has become a giant, having been a liliputian and Bismarck is diminished in size and power.33

On 5 March 1872, the day before the School Supervisory Law went before the House of Lords, Hans von Kleist went to dinner at the Bismarcks and after the other guests had gone, they discussed the School Supervisory Law. ‘In the course of the conversation the excited Prince grabbed a letter opener and made a gesture as if to divide the table cloth and cried, “if that’s the way things are, it’s all over between us.” The die had been cast. Nothing remained to Kleist but to take his hat and go.’34

The next day, 6 March, Bismarck opened the debate on the School Supervisory Law in the House of Lords. He dismissed the objections of believing Christians, his old friends, about the assault by the secular state on Protestant religious education. He rejected Kleist’s assertion that ‘through this law the government of the state opens the gates through which the turbulent waters of unbelief in time will flood from the de-christianized State over the schools. I disdain even to go into such ideas.’ The Law passed 126 for 76 against. Among the yes voters were Bismarck, Moltke, Roon, and Eberhard Stolberg, Kleist’s brother-in-law.35

The reaction among Bismarck’s former allies was bitter and angry. One of them, Andrae-Roman, expressed that bitterness in a remarkable letter of 15 February 1872 to Ludwig von Gerlach. Ferdinand Ludwig Alexander Andrae (1821–1903) came from a solid bourgeois family in Hanover. He went to Berlin and to Bonn as a student to learn agricultural theory and with a command of scientific agronomy he bought an estate in the Pomeranian district of Kolberg called Roman and from then on called himself Andrae-Roman. He met and became a close friend of Bismarck through the Pietist circle around Moritz von Blanckenburg. Andrae-Roman cut a unique figure as a bourgeois landowner and a Hanoverian among the Prussians but he served for years in the Conservative Party in the Prussian Landtag.36 As he wrote to Gerlach,

It is hard to see a man like Bismarck go down hill in big slides, he who openly confesses himself true to principles that he so victoriously fought with your help. History cannot offer another example, somebody for whom twenty years ago even Stahl was not conservative enough. I recall going to see him in Frankfurt—it must have been 1850 or 1851 one morning rather late and I found him in bed. Frau von Bismarck explained he had slept badly and for hours had tossed and turned with hefty groans and finally cried out: ‘He is after all only a Jew!’ namely, Stahl as he then declared and said to me later. ‘What do you think would have become of Stahl if he had not had Gerlach at his side? Never a Prussian Conservative.’37

The Kulturkampf poisoned Bismarck’s relationships with his old friends and embittered the Catholic minority in the new Reich; Bismarck and Falk pushed on nonetheless. On 1 August 1872 Kleist wrote to Schede,

It’s not easy in such a struggle to stand up against the government, which has engaged itself so deeply. Apparently the next Landtag will have legislation before it against the Bishops. It horrifies me. Krements’ sentence is right: ‘Obey God more than the government.’ On the other hand those measures of the Catholic Church, or a Bishop, to defend the doctrine of infallibility cannot be identified by us with God’s commandments. The state law must have precedence.38

In the midst of these grand battles a small political event needs to be recorded. On 18 April 1871 Robert Lucius von Ballhausen (1835–1914) introduced a bill to speed packages to troops and officers in occupied France. Delbrück gave an evasive ministerial reply. Bismarck appeared late and invited Lucius to come to the Ministers’ room behind the Speaker’s podium.

He spoke at such length and with such an absence of reserve, to me a total stranger, that I was surprised. It was the first time that I had talked to Bismarck alone and in his lively and confidential way he treated me as if I were an old acquaintance. It made a remarkable and captivating impression on me.39

This first conversation between the Chancellor and the 35-year-old medical doctor and landlord turned into a lifelong relationship which Lucius recorded in copious notes, published in 1920, unedited, six years after his death. Lucius had gone into politics after 1866, as an agricultural protectionist and lapsed Catholic; he joined the German Reich Party and served in the Landtag and Reichstag for many years.40 Lucius moved quickly into the charmed circle of those who enjoyed the privilege to know the Prince at home. On 9 May he received an invitation this time to a political soirée and described how these occasions worked:

he [Bismarck] gathers a large group of people around him and simply dominates the conversation, while those sitting next to him kept the threads by as it were spinning him more occasions to carry on. This sort of conversation clearly gives him pleasure and he never tires of it. The groups around him were often very interesting people. He treated every single guest with the same friendly warmth and concern. People formed groups casually and at will. There reigned an absolute social equality in the way guests were treated and a splendid hospitality without pretence or affectation. In the many years afterwards, as I became an intimate of the house, I never noticed the slightest difference in his behaviour. He showed every guest the same courtesy and consideration. At most he might make a distinction by age.41

At other occasions and in private, Bismarck might do nothing but complain about how wretchedly he felt physically. This happened to Waldersee, who called on Bismarck on 27 April 1871, and found his host in bad shape.

I went yesterday evening to Bismarck. He looks really miserable and complains also about his health. The hours in which he gets to sleep are between 7 and 12 a.m. He only really feels well for the first time each day late in the evening and then he gets to work.42

On 10 May 1871 Germany and France signed the peace treaty in Frankfurt. Bismarck and Count Harry Arnim, German Ambassador in Paris, signed for Germany.43 Two days later, Bismarck received a hero’s welcome in the Reichstag. Gustav von Diest (1826–1911) a strict Evangelical, noted with distaste how his ‘whole nature changed … He no longer tolerated contradiction; he was accessible to flattery; but even the smallest, alleged disregard for his ego and his position exasperated him.’44 Everything exasperated him. He lost his temper with the Reichstag about Alsace and Lorraine. He lost his temper with Moltke and the generals about the victory parade scheduled for 3 June, and blamed the Queen for not wanting to interrupt her holiday as the cause.45

Prussia and the Reich had to be reorganized in all sorts of ways and the Emperor-King had to approve hundreds of appointments—down to the level of heads of teacher-training institutes. All that hugely increased Bismarck’s workload. Everyone of those appointments came to Bismarck either from the Household Minister down or from Delbrück in the Reich Chancellery up. Hence even in Varzin, the daily burden of work never let up. He complained to von Mühler that a certain Lizenziat August Langer in Glogau, ‘an extremely worked up Infallibilist’, had been appointed by the Kultusministerium to be principal of the teacher training school in Habelschwerdt, a small Silesian town. Bismarck was furious. The whole idea of the abolition of the Catholic Section in the ministry had been to prevent the attitudes of the people in that department from ‘disturbing the peace in the country’. His Excellency must take care in future to put all such nominations before the State Ministry for ‘a very searching’ examination before they went for All-Highest approval.46 The great Bismarck blocked the appointment of the head of a teacher-training college in a tiny community.

Summers brought no break from work, because monarchs went to the grand spas to take the waters and make treaties. August 1871 was no exception. Bismarck attended the Emperor in Bad Gastein and learned on 22 August that the King intended to meet Emperor Franz Joseph in Salzburg on 5 or 6 September, ‘at which I cannot be absent’.47 For some months Bismarck had been writing press releases and dispatches in favour of the Habsburgs and ordered the official organs to make clear that the constitutional crises in the ‘Austrian half’ of the now divided Austro-Hungarian Monarchy should not be understood as a crisis about nationality (which it undoubtedly was—especially Czech national rights) but about ‘political currents’ and, as in Germany, ‘both elements, the ultramontane and the socialist, are born enemies of Germany’.48 The Emperors William and Franz Joseph met informally in Bad Gastein on 24 August. Bismarck issued a notice to all German missions abroad to say that ‘the meeting of the two Monarchs can only further contribute to show the world that the disturbance in the friendly relations, to which both lands, in contrast to the feelings of the two rulers, had been pushed by their historic developments, must now be seen as a completed and finished episode.’49‘Pushed’ (gedrängt is the word Bismarck used) ‘by their historical developments’ very neatly evades the fact that ‘the historical developments’ stood for a war that was caused by the Chancellor who drafted the circular letter. In any event, Bismarck had the first link in place for the new conservative alliance. Between 1871 and 1879 the Austro-German friendship, carefully and patiently cultivated by Bismarck, turned into a formal alliance.

The next step involved the Tsarist Empire and Alexander II. Here a stroke of luck helped Bismarck arrange things. The Emperor Franz Joseph decided that he would cement the new friendship with Germany by a state visit and the Emperor William could hardly say no. Bismarck had reassured the Russians again and again that Germany would not sacrifice its ties to Russia but the visit of the Austrians made the Russians uneasy. Bismarck had tried to bring those European states together ‘which had substantial numbers of Catholic subjects … for an exchange of ideas’ in May of 187250 and later had proposed a conference on combating socialism and terrorism, but it was the visit of the Kaiser Franz Joseph that made the Russians move. The Tsar decided that he would join the visit of the Emperor of Austria and so the two Emperors would visit Berlin in September of 1872.

The visit of the Three Emperors went extremely well and established a foreign policy construction which remained a set and fixed element of Bismarck’s foreign policy to the moment of his resignation. How much he planned that outcome can never be established. He was a brilliant diplomatic chess player who always saw moves well in advance, but whether he foresaw the future Three Emperors’ League cannot be shown. On the other hand, as we saw in Chapter 5, Bismarck had always supported a Russian connection, had established intimate relations with the Russian royal family, and had enjoyed his embassy in St Petersburg more than any other post. He never forgot how much Prussia and his success depended on Russian support.

On 12 September the British Ambassador to Berlin, Odo Russell, wrote to the Foreign Office on the origins of the meeting of the Three Emperors in Berlin and what Bismarck had told him about it:

In an after dinner conversation I had with Prince Bismarck at the Imperial Palace, the Chancellor, who was unusually cheerful, pointed to the three Emperors and made the following remarks in English, which, quaint as they were, I must endeavour to give verbatim: ‘We have witnessed a novel sight today; it is the first time in history that three Emperors have sat down to dinner together for the promotion of peace. My object is fully attained, and I think your Government will approve of my work … I wanted the Three Emperors to form a loving group, like Canova’s three graces, that Europe might see a living symbol of peace and have faith in it. I wanted them to stand in a silent group and allow themselves to be admired, difficult as it was, because they all three think themselves greater statesmen than they are.’51

This was the foundation of the Three Emperors’ League, which was formally signed on 22 October 1873. In the long run the attempt to hold the two great Eastern powers together proved to be impossible. The slow but steady decline of the Ottoman Empire sucked Austria-Hungary into Balkan affairs in a competition with Russia, a rivalry which contributed to the outbreak of the First World War. The Balkans and the Orthodox kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria were an area of Russian ‘interests’. The Russian Tsar saw himself ‘protector of the Balkan Slavs’. The dilemma for Bismarck, given Austrian-Russian rivalry in the Balkans, was how to stay ‘one of three’ in Eastern Europe. The Three Emperors’ League provided an answer, although temporary. It allowed Germany to achieve two objectives: first to avoid the choice between Austria and Russia and, second, to maintain France in isolation. In the end France was bound to be the natural ally of Russia against a growing and ever more powerful Germany, even though France was a Republic and Russia an autocracy. As long as Bismarck ran German foreign policy, he prevented that alliance but by the time he fell he could only do so by subterfuge and deceit so alarming that his successors could no longer continue it. The drag in foreign affairs meant that Bismarck’s combinations worked steadily less well. Of the sixty-four squares on the chessboard, half—the enmity of France and the alliance with Austria—were covered. German foreign policy see-sawed from 1873 on between Russia and Great Britain. Bismarck spun his web with great skill and subtlety but he had no permanent solution. The forces against his combinations proved too strong.

Just before the conclusion of the Three Emperors’ League, an epoch-changing event occurred, now unfortunately so familiar that the story tells itself; there was an economic ‘crash’. Between 1866 and 1873, in the euphoria of the victories of 1866 and 1871, Germany had moved from the long wave of growth since 1849 until the final stage of a bubble economy. The post-war boom in the years 1870 to 1873 gained the nickname the Gründerzeit (the time of the founders), because of the sheer numbers of new companies which had been founded, many as solid as the ‘collateralized debt obligations’ of 2008. For example, the now famous Deutsche Bank was founded in 1870 in the euphoria of unification. There was a stock market boom because the French paid off in four years the huge reparations payments which the victorious Germans had imposed on them: it amounted to the stupendous sum of 5 billion gold marks. If the sum is converted using the retail price index, it amounts to 342 billion, using GDP deflator to 479 billon and much more with other indicators such as GDP per head but all these conversions understate the actual value at the time, for these were gold francs.52 Imperial Germany, a semi-developed economy with chronic capital shortage, suddenly floated up on this vast flood of liquidity, the perfect conditions for an asset bubble. The resulting property boom, the unjustifiable mortgage deals, the enterprises lifted by artificially low borrowing rates, the fraud in banking and brokerage business, the sudden enthusiasm to get rich quick, all that occurred in more or less exactly the same way in the first years of the unified Reich as it did between 2001 and 2008. Arthur von Brauer (1845–1926), a young lawyer from Baden, joined the Prussian Foreign Ministry and moved to Berlin in 1872. He had, as a Korpsbruder (a member of the same duelling fraternity as Bismarck), good connections to the Chancellor and rose to be an important official relatively quickly.53 Here are his impressions of his new home:

The hunger for profits and wealth possessed the new capital of the Reich, and even a large part of the once so solid Prussian officialdom and officer corps had joined the dance around the Golden Calf with no pangs of conscience. Swindlers gained large fortunes in a few days. Everyone, from princes to workers, gambled on the bourse. An obtrusive, undignified opulence predominated everywhere.54

That could have been written in July 2008 in London or New York without changing a word except ‘princes’, who had disappeared from the scene.

One of those who profited from the property boom was Field Marshall Albrecht von Roon. On 8 June 1875 he sold his estate Gütergotz, bought with money granted him by a grateful Emperor and for which he paid 135,000 thaler (roughly equal to 402,000 marks) to the Jewish banker Gerson Bleichröder, for a price of 1,290,000 marks, a tidy profit for the old soldier who had lived for so long on his salary. Waldemar von Roon, his son, when he published the papers of his father in 1892, omitted from the memoirs the name of the buyer and thus the uncomfortable fact that his father, hero of the Reich, had sold his estate to a Jew.55

On 9 May 1873 the Vienna Stock Market crashed, ushering in the first modern globalized financial crisis. Within a week Bismarck reported to William I that the Austrian Emperor had enabled the Austrian State Bank to issue a larger volume of bank notes than had been previously authorized. His experts argued that the crisis arose because ‘the Vienna Stock Exchange had been the arena in which speculation had called forth a lot of companies, mainly joint stock limited companies, for which the existing capital proved insufficient.’ As in 2008 the lenders had simply withdrawn capital from good as well as speculative investments which in turn worsened the crisis.56 The next day Bismarck wrote to the Emperor to reassure him that a similar crisis would not occur in Berlin because ‘the stock of metal is greater here and fraudulent business has not reached in our case the same dimensions as in Vienna’.57 That reassurance proved to be as false as similar reassurances by governments in 2008 who were certain that it could not happen to them. It did. London and Paris followed and on 18 September, the leading Philadelphia banking firm, Jay Cooke and Company, went bankrupt. The worldwide crisis ushered in a period of slow growth and falling prices which continued from 1873 to 1896/7 and has been called the ‘Great Depression’.

The depression fell into two distinct parts, an agricultural depression and the first modern industrial depression in which the heavy industrial sector suffered badly and revealed certain vulnerabilities that recurred from 1929 to 1938. The agricultural depression arose because from 1869 with the completion of the first trans-continental railway in the United States, the supply of very good American and then also Canadian grain began to flood the European markets. Henckel von Donnersmarck complained bitterly to Thiedemann about the sixfold increase in American exports of grain, flour, and meat ‘in truly unbelievable numbers, for German agriculture, there must be a grain, flour and meat tariff as an unconditional necessity if we are not to expose it to the same fluctuations as industry’.58 Michael Turner provides a useful set of indices of agricultural prices for the period 1867 to 1914 for the UK which can be used as a surrogate for the German price level as well.


The list makes clear that it took two generations for the agricultural price level even to come near to the level it had reached by 1873. The fact that the European upper classes including the Russells of Woburn Abbey and the Bismarcks of Schönhausen depended on agriculture made these price falls a matter of survival. Hence Bismarck’s class faced a crisis of survival by 1878 and remained in it until their estates disappeared under Russian tanks in 1945. The Junkers could not—even with heavy application of fertilizer—compete with the vast riches of the American and Canadian Great Plains, the Argentinian Pampas, or the Russian Black Earth regions.

On 9 June 1873 the Reichstag passed the Reichmünzgesetz (the Reich coinage law) which established the legal exchange rate of the new German mark to the old Prussian thaler at 1 thaler = 3 marks and proclaimed that the new German currency would have ‘in principle’ a gold basis.60 The adoption of gold as the basis of the new Germany currency in 1873 added a deflationary element to the other changes in the economic conditions. The amount of gold depended on its production. When economic growth exceeded the growth of money supply which it did until the late 1890s, then something had to give. When too many goods chase too little money, prices fall. By the 1890s in Junker Prussia and American Kansas, gold and its advocates had become the villains. As William Jennings Bryan cried out at the Democratic Party Convention in 1896, ‘thou shalt not crucify the American people on a cross of gold.’ Hans Count von Kanitz (1841–1913) read Jennings Bryan’s speech into the records of the Prussian House of Lords.

Falling prices in industries with heavy fixed investment raised the cost of the interest they paid to investors and banks at the very moment when revenues fell below marginal costs and approached fixed costs. Competition among heavy industrial enterprise ended in a zero sum game and bankruptcy for some of the players. It made sense to limit production, cut wages or fire workers, and to combine in Kartells or Trusts, so by the 1880s, big industry had tightened its cost bases, employed accountancy to manage its outgoings, and worked out anti-competitive policies of all sorts.61 A moment’s reflection will suggest that all the developments in the depression of 1873 undermined liberal economic attitudes. By 31 October 1874 Baron Abraham von Oppenheim wrote to Bleichröder to say that he shared Bleichröder’s ‘pessimistic attitude entirely, and I do not see whence an early recovery could come. We did not—alas!—reduce our security holdings and must await better times. I have been in business now for almost fifty-six years and cannot recall such a protracted crisis ever before. According to my view the national wealth of Germany has shrunk by one-third, and therein lies the chief calamity.’62 The crash of 1873 thus ushered in a new era, one which nobody had experienced before in human history: an international crisis of capitalism. The full impact took several years to work its way through society and into the priorities of Otto von Bismarck, a landowner, a timber merchant, and a tight-fisted country squire.

In 1873 and 1874 Bismarck and his Liberal colleagues continued their battle against the Catholic Church. A year before the Vienna Stock market crashed, on 14 May 1872, the Reichstag had passed a motion asking the Reich government to introduce a draft bill governing the legal status of Catholic religious orders and their subversive activities, particularly the Jesuit order. On the same day Bismarck sent a circular to German missions abroad in which he accused the Prussian Catholic bishops of being agents of the Pope:

The bishops are only his tools, his subordinates, with no responsibility of their own; toward the government they have become officials of a foreign sovereign, of a sovereign who, because of his infallibility, has become an absolute one—more absolute than any absolute monarch in the world.63

On 3 June 1872 Bismarck wrote to Delbrück from Varzin that the Jesuit law must make clear that government will take action against those undermining state authority. ‘It is a case of emergency defence and we cannot defend ourselves with Liberal phrases about civil rights.’64 A week later he urged Falk to make sure that the state helped the lower Catholic clergy by arranging better salaries.65 Here again we see the Bismarckian technique of alternating strategies—carrots and sticks. In July, the Jesuits were legally banned from Reich territory. However shocking this may appear now, it may be easier to imagine if instead of Jesuit you insert communist and think back to the Cold War. To European liberals in the nineteenth century, Jesuits stood for a pernicious, secret conspiratorial order of ‘Soldiers of God’, capable of anything.

Even democratic Switzerland banned Jesuits from all Swiss territory in the new Federal Constitution of 29 May 1874. According to Article 51 of the new Constitution

the Order of the Jesuits and organizations affiliated to it may not seek a place in any part of Switzerland and every activity in church and school is forbidden to its members. This prohibition can be extended by Federal decision to other religious orders whose activity endangers the state or disturbs religious peace.66

It took ninety-nine years for Swiss voters to approve the repeal of this article, which they duly did on 20 May 1973. Bismarck’s Jesuit Law was not more severe than the Swiss expulsion by constitutional amendment.

Bismarck welcomed the Swiss as allies in the war against the Black International and on 23 February 1873 the Swiss Minister to Germany, Johann Bernhard Hammer, who was Swiss Envoy in Berlin from 1868 to 1875, wrote to the President of the Swiss Confederation and head of the Political Department, Paul Jacob Cérésole. Hammer had received a telegram that the Swiss Federal Council had refused to allow Monsignor Gaspar Mermillod to remain in Switzerland as ‘Apostolic Vicar’. Hammer informed Bismarck who invited him to a private talk, the kind of invitation that a diplomat from a small state could only dream about.

You well know how difficult access to Prince Bismarck is for personal exchanges with diplomats … He said ‘We fight on the same ground in the same cause’ … He takes pleasure in his awareness of the attitude which Switzerland takes in response to clerical presumptions and emphasized how the character of our situation makes freedom of action much more favourable, whereas he has been lamed by a variety of obstacles to his freedom of action and hemmed in. In detail he named the opposition of ‘high placed ladies’ as especially obstructive … The Prince closed the conversation with these words: ‘I hope at least Switzerland will stand by the principle in its present struggle with the church that on its territory it will tolerate no other sovereignty than its own.’67

This attitude led to the infamous May Laws of 1873, a set of laws passed in the Prussian Chamber that stipulated (1) future clergymen of both confessions had to be ‘German’ and fully educated in German gymnasia and universities; (2) only German ecclesiastical authorities could exercise disciplinary powers over clergy and such discipline was subject to review by the provincial governor and by a state court, ‘the royal court for church affairs’; (3) ecclesiastical appointments were to be subject to the provincial governors; (4) clergy guilty of disobeying these laws would be fined and jailed; (5) Kirchenaustritt, leaving the church, was made easier for an ordinary person.68

The May Laws were an outrage in two senses. They violated the rights of subjects under the Prussian constitution and every principle of liberal society. They attacked the very idea of the Roman Catholic Church as ‘the mystical body of Christ Incarnate’. The Roman Catholic Church cannot be treated like a civilian organization and it had no intention to accept such treatment. On 9 May 1873 Windthorst announced ‘passive resistance against the May Laws: Against this passive resistance everything that is intended in these laws will sooner or later be dashed to pieces. God grant that the Fatherland not suffer harm thereby.’ When on 15 May the Prussian May Laws passed anyway, the Prussian bishops declared themselves ‘not in the position to cooperate in the execution of the laws published on the fifteenth of this month.’69 The failure of Bismarck’s policies became clear in the Reichstag elections of 1874. The Centre doubled its vote from 718,000 in 1871 to 1,493,000 in 1874, in percentage of votes from 18.4 to 27.7 per cent with 95 seats.70 The Catholic population had rallied to the cause.

Odo Russell, who saw Bismarck regularly and enjoyed his confidence, believed that Bismarck had made a big mistake in starting the Kulturkampf. On 18 October 1872 he wrote to Lord Granville:

I fancy that Bismarck utterly misunderstands and underrates the power of the Church. Thinking himself more infallible than the Pope he cannot tolerate two infallibles in Europe and fancies he can select the next Pope as he would a Prussian general … Hitherto the anti-clerical measures have produced the very state of things the Vatican was working for through the Oecumenical Council, namely, unity and discipline in the clergy under an infallible head, or the Prussian military system applied to the Church.71

These measures bred hatred and violence on both sides. In September Georg Count von Hertling (1843–1919), later to be Reich Chancellor during the First World War,72 wrote from Belgium to Anna von Hertling on the hatred of Catholics by their fellow Germans:

Again and again I have the same experience: scarcely has one exchanged two words with a countryman, than in some place or other, crude or refined, hatred of Catholics comes out.73

By June of 1875 the Frankfurter Zeitung reported that in the first four months of the year, 241 clergy, 136 editors, and 210 other Catholics had been fined or imprisoned; 20 newspapers had been confiscated, 74 houses searched, 103 people expelled or interned, and 55 public meetings broken up; 1,000 rectories, nearly a quarter of all parishes in Prussia, were vacant. By 1876 all Prussian bishops were either in custody or in exile.74 Odo Russell, who had predicted that Bismarck would lose the Kulturkampf, reported to his brother Hastings on the Catholic hierarchy’s reaction to these severe measures:

In Germany his [the Pope’s] success has been complete for all the bishops who voted against the new dogma in the Vatican Council now go cheerfully to prison and pay enormous fines and suffer martyrdom for that very infallibility they voted against 3 years ago and think they will go to heaven like skyrockets when they die for their trouble.75

History has no record of German Catholic bishops seen flying up to ‘heaven like skyrockets’ but it records the monstrous tally of damage to the structure and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and systematic violations of the Prussian Constitution. The anti-Catholic hysteria in many European countries belongs in its European setting. Bismarck’s campaign was not unique in itself but his violent temper, intolerance of opposition, and paranoia that secret forces had conspired to undermine his life’s work, made it more relentless. His rage drove him to exaggerate the threat from Catholic activities and to respond with very extreme measures. Prussia was never threatened by its Catholic population. Pius IX had no reason to overthrow the Hohenzollern Monarchy nor the means to do so. Bismarck made miserable the daily life of millions of Catholics. As Odo Russell wrote to his mother, ‘The demonic is stronger in him, than in any man I know.’76 Bismarck told Lady Emily Russell how he reacted to Windthorst and the Catholic Centre in the Reichstag:

When the Catholic Party cried ‘shame’ and shook their fists at him, his first instinct was to take the ink stand in front of him and fling it at them—his second instinct was to measure the distance, spring upon them and knock them down—his third impulse overcame the two first and he merely told them that ‘he felt contempt for them but was too civil to say so’.77

The bully, the dictator, and the ‘demonic’ combined in him with the self-pity and hypochondria to create a constant crisis of authority which he exploited for his own ends. Nobody believed him when he threatened to resign. Prince Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst recorded a conversation with the Liberal MP Eduard Lasker in November 1874 on Bismarck’s position in government:

Lasker … talked of Bismarck’s projects of retiring. He regards them as mere pretence and says that Bismarck is too much of a demon to let the reins out of his hands. To my remark that the situation was ominous on account of the feeling at Court, Lasker replied there was nothing to fear there. At the decisive moment no one would be willing to let Bismarck go, because they had no one to substitute for him. There were plenty of straw-men who imagined they could replace Bismarck, but the Kaiser would think twice before he put one of them in Bismarck’s office.78

Opponents, friends, and subordinates all remarked on Bismarck as ‘demonic’, a kind of uncanny, diabolic personal power over men and affairs. In these years of his greatest power, he believed that he could do anything. Roggenbach wrote to Stosch on 30 August 1874 that

nobody can hold out with the Reich Chancellor any more … As long as it’s just an outburst of raw, brutal moodiness and a result of the juice of the grape, it might be ignored … but it’s another matter when the method in madness and a specialization in dishonourable humiliation take place. Nobody knows better how to use avilir, puis détruire [humiliate then destroy] and to shatter his victim in the eye of the public through poisonous publications arranged at long distance and finally to expose him to the future fatal blow.79

His enemies, of which Roggenbach was certainly one, concentrated their criticism on his brutality and demonic qualities but they tended to ignore the sheer pressure that he had to face—admittedly, a stress he had helped to create. He ran by himself two governments, the German and the Prussian, faced two very different parliaments, and had to operate with two conflicting political agendas. Some issues that looked harmless at first developed into serious political crises. It was clear that local government in the enlarged Prussian kingdom needed reform. This subject had been on the agenda of successive Prussian governments since 1859 and had led to what Patrick Wagner in his study of the growth of state power and Junker resistance calls ‘the twelve year reform debate’.80 The conquests and annexations of 1866 and afterwards, the foundation of the Reich itself in 1870, had left a patchwork quilt of types of local government. It needed cleaning up, and for that Bismarck had to turn again to his Prussian cabinet, which still contained four holdovers from the ‘Conflict Ministry’: arch-conservatives Eulenburg, Selchow, Itzenplitz, and Roon. They became disorientated because Bismarck was never there. As early as September 1869 Itzenplitz wrote to him:

If you don’t come, we have to see how we get on by ourselves or go. How you intend to be Federal Chancellor and say goodbye to the Prussian State Ministry my simple head cannot grasp. That must be Roon’s view too and that must be why he has not answered. In true affection—even if I cannot grasp the above—as always your devoted Itzenplitz.81

Itzenplitz may have been a reactionary but he was a count, a gentleman, and Bismarck’s social equal.

On 23 March 1872 a new Prussian local government statute was submitted to the Landtag. It abolished the police and administrative powers of Rittergutsbesitzer, the owners of knightly estates, that is, estates like Bismarck-Schönhausen and the estates of literally everybody from Bismarck’s social class. The local government statute, which included an elected element on a three-class voting basis, passed the Chamber of Deputies 256 to 61. Estate owners and Landräte from eastern provinces including Bismarck’s own brother Bernhard, had voted against it.82 It would almost certainly fail in the Lords.

Eulenburg, the minster responsible for the legislation, wrote to Bismarck to ask for guidance. Bismarck had been in Varzin for months while this crisis festered. Indeed he told Moritz Blanckenburg that he intended to stay as long as possible, ‘until the filthy mess is so big, that I can push through everything’.83 In addition he saw the Local Government Reform, which was bound to create a constitutional crisis because of resistance in the House of Lords, as an opportunity to get rid of Eulenburg as Minister of the Interior. Moritz von Blanckenburg warned Hans von Kleist on 15 August 1872 that ‘Bismarck and Roon want to use the Local Government bill to topple Eulenburg. You know that. They will not identify themselves with draft of the Lower House.’84 On 22 October 1872 in the House of Lords two leading conservatives, Wilhelm Freiherr von Zedlitz und Neukrich (1811–80), whom a Catholic member of the Landtag, Ludwig Hammers (1822–1902) called ‘a very conservative landowner’,85 and Friedrich Stephan Count von Brühl confronted the government directly on the principle of inherited rights. Brühl put it bluntly: ‘If there is no longer any hereditary authority in the kingdom except the Crown, God preserve us from the threat that somebody lays hands on that too, the one last hereditary authority, and shakes it.’86 As Ludwig von Yorck had warned Prince William, sixty years earlier, ‘if your Royal Highness deprives me and my children of my rights, what is the basis of yours?’87 In desperation Eulenburg wrote to Bismarck on 25 October 1872, the frankest possible letter from a decent man, also a count and a gentleman, to his chief. I quote it at some length because here as in the case of Itzenplitz one sees the discomfort of the ministers under Bismarck:

Dear Friend,

Only the importance of the matter could bring me to you give you discomfort by a letter. The debate in the House of Lords has unfolded in such a way that the success of the bill must be highly improbable. So yesterday the House of Lords voted by name with a two-thirds majority against the government bill and against the decision of the House of Deputies, the Lords accepted a provision that in the raising of the local tax base in the country districts the ground-and building-tax shall never be higher than the half of that percentage which is set as the basis for income and classified taxable income for suffrage. This decision will never pass the lower house. In all probability there will be decisions approved with regard to the composition of the district assemblies, whose acceptance by the House of Deputies is also inconceivable. Count Lippe, Kleist and Senfft are the spokesmen. With them more than half the members will vote: Putbus, Oscar, Arnim and so on. What is to be done? A local district ordinance must be passed and as soon as possible. I shall fall with this one but what then? A conservative district organization has no chance in the House of Deputies, a liberal one none in the House of Lords, but something has to happen. Without an organization of district government, all the legislative programme stalls: school organization, roads, administrative organization, provincial funding; everything just stops. I beg you, dear friend, to let me know urgently how you stand on these things. The uncertainty is driving many people into the enemy camp. Do you want me to submit my resignation at once and would you like to try it with somebody else? Or do you want openly to speak out and strongly in support of my efforts? Or should there be ready for the time when the draft law returns a second time to the House of Lords, provision for a Pairschub [creation of new lords to form a majority—JS]. There is no time to lose. From my heart your Eulenburg.

PS The Catholics will vote against the district organization because they fear that the office holders will be an appropriate organ for conducting civil marriages.88

Bismarck refused to give an answer or to leave Varzin. His reply, written on 27 October 1872, is beneath contempt. He had not

yet formed an opinion about every detail … Even if our draft in its virginal purity had gone to the House of Lords, I would have not expected it to be accepted as a whole … I think your considerateness has led to a growing degeneration of the social order and I have to live here under a Landrat, who to save his own honour has made it his object to portray me before the dwellers here as an incompetent and un-Christian minister. There lies the evidence of how far my power extends in other ministries.

Bismarck refused to make the required pronunciamiento or indeed to say anything and reminds Eulenburg about

his beloved Wolff who during your illness made any legislation impossible … I hope to come in December but if I have to write many more letters like this, I shall not come before the Reichstag and will lay my presidency of the State Ministry to rest in the files. Responsibility without corresponding influence on what has to be responded leads directly to medical institutions. In old friendship, yours89

The sheer effrontery of this farrago of evasion of responsibility and irrelevance really shocked me the first time I read it. Bismarck sinks in this to a level of cowardice, irresponsibility, petty vindictiveness, and absurdity. How could Eulenburg’s gentleness as police minister have been responsible for the opinions of the Landrat in Bismarck’s district? The Landrat simply said of him what every respectable conservative landlord in the eastern areas said ten times a day and many said it in the House of Lords. How could the most powerful statesman of the nineteenth century claim that he had ‘responsibility without corresponding influence on what has to be responded’? It puzzles me that Fritz Eulenburg did not resign on the spot but stayed on for another six years.

One has to sympathize with the Junkers in the House of Lords, who like Ernst von Sennft-Pillsach (1795–1882) had written to Bismarck:

The war with France should have deepened the German people in the fear of God, but instead it drove it to arrogance. And your Excellency has not resisted that turn from God and His Word with that steadiness in faith, that holiness the Lord had commanded you in so wonderful a way. Turn in faith to our Lord Jesus Christ, who under Pontius Pilate ‘hath well acquitted’ himself. Now in Luther’s spirit acquit yourself in a German way. Then the Lord will turn to you and bring back to you many noble and pious men who now stay far from you.

Bismarck wrote on the margin with contempt: ‘Gerlach? Windthorst! Bodelschwingh? Or Ewald?’90 He found out when on 31 October 1872 the local district organization bill was defeated by 145 votes to 18 in House of Lords. As Pflanze puts it, the ‘Stahl Caucus’ rejected the transformation of the Ständestaat involved in abolition of manorial rule.91

Bismarck’s reaction was another bout of illness, as on 16 November 1872, Bucher explained to Bleichröder:

You know how spiritual and somatic conditions are reciprocally related with the Prince. Excited or annoyed by affairs, he becomes vulnerable to colds and lapses in his diet, and, when he has physical complaints, any kind of work makes him impatient.92

Bismarck responded in his usual violent way with a Promemoria dated 2 November and written still in Varzin clearly in a rage.

In the light of the attitude of the core of the House of Lords in the School Supervisory Law, the district organization and other questions, a reform of this body seems to me more important than the passage of any sort of district order … The factious attitude of the House damages and discredits the system of two chambers and endangers the monarchical system …

The solution was to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with ‘a first chamber, a Senate [which] should be essentially an organ of government and of monarchical interests in Prussia.’93

On 3 November the State Ministry met, still without Bismarck, and Eulenburg took the occasion to go over the district reorganization draft with his colleagues, to make what changes might give it a better passage and to consider the possibilities of a Pairschub. The minister conveniently omitted any discussion of the Promemoria on the abolition of the House of Lords. The cabinet calculated that at least twenty-four new peers would have to be named to ensure a majority and to intimidate the others. Helma Brunck, to whose fine analysis I owe my insight into this bizarre affair, gives the real credit for the outcome to the King. Eulenburg had made mistakes, which he admitted, but he had no reason to blame himself on moral grounds. Brunck writes:

the King saw it that way too. He saw through the game of intrigue and the unjust treatment of Eulenburg, which through his permanent absences he [Bismarck] had driven to a crisis point, in order to leave the Minister of Interior standing alone in the rain and to impose on him alone the battle for the district reorganization.94

On 30 November 1872 the Pairschub took place. King William, offended by the attitude of ‘his Junkers’, named twenty-five new peers to the House of Lords with whose votes the disputed district ordinance passed by a majority of twenty-five on 9 December 1872.95 The law abolished the patrimonial police and Junker-controlled village administration. Baroness Spitzemberg observed in her diary that the Kaiser spared the Junker right-wing the humiliation of ‘sitting next to Jew barons and speculators … It would have annoyed me if the nouveau riche had got into the House of Lords, because I am becoming more and more high Tory and conservative. Father says autocratic and violent.’96 On 13 December King William signed and sealed the new local district law.

The crisis did not end with the passage of the local district law but generated further discontent in the cabinet. Several ministers had complained to the King about Bismarck’s continuous absences. Von Selchow, the Minister of Agriculture, felt insulted that he had not been involved in the local government business. Roon also thought of resigning, and Itzenplitz had been thinking of it for years. Bismarck could not afford to lose the Conflict Ministers because it would look as if he had opted for a new liberal course, the last thing he had in mind. In mid-November he wrote gloomily to Roon about his health

In the last days I have been in bad shape again, am back in bed since the day before yesterday and have lost much heart as a result of this relapse, since I had been markedly getting better. God be with you; things cannot get worse very soon in human affairs, above all no dissolution.97

A day later he wrote to William I to express his apologies that, as a result of his weakened health, he had not been there at the Kaiser’s side during the continuing crisis. His attempt at Eulenburg’s request to intervene from a great distance had led to misunderstandings and to a further weakening of his health. ‘I have therefore asked Roon to summon me only if Your Majesty specially commands it and have notified him that I shall not correspond individually with the colleagues any more.’98 This account falsifies reality. His refusal to intervene at Eulenburg’s request had caused the crisis as had his prolonged absences. This once again shows Bismarck in his Pontius Pilate guise, washing his hands of responsibility when things went wrong.

In mid-December he got news that Roon too had submitted his resignation and this triggered his own desire to do likewise. In a formal reply addressed to ‘Your Excellency’ of 13 December, he wrote that he decided to ask His Majesty to allow him ‘to divide functions entrusted to my person, which presupposes that His Majesty wishes to retain my services, … so that I restrict myself to the direction of the Reich’s affairs, with inclusion of foreign policy.’99 In the private ‘dear Roon’ letter written the same day, he writes that the situation now requires him to return to Berlin ‘not while I feel healthy but because I have a duty to discuss the situation with his Majesty and you in person.’ There follows a remarkable passage in which he describes an ‘unheard of anomaly that the foreign minister of a great empire also bears the responsibility for domestic policy’. What must old Roon have thought who had watched Bismarck intentionally accumulate office and power at every level? He continues his letter to Roon with a moving account of his state of mind:

In my trade one accumulates many enemies but no new friends, instead loses the old ones if one carries it out honestly and fearlessly for ten years. I am in disgrace with all[sic!] the members of the Royal family and the King’s confidence in me has ebbed. Every intriguer has his ear. As a result foreign service becomes more difficult for me. … In domestic matters I have lost the basis that is acceptable to me because of the treacherous desertion of the Conservatives in the Catholic question. At my age, and in the conviction that I have not long to live, the loss of all the old friends and ties has something disheartening about it for this [sic!] world; it produces paralysis. The illness of my wife which in the last months has afflicted her more severely, compounds that. My springs have been crippled through overuse. The King in the saddle has no idea how he has ridden a sturdy horse into the ground. The lazy last longer.100

This confession of the great Bismarck, the most famous statesman of his or perhaps any age, raises profound questions about his personality. If you threaten to put the police on your closest friend and wave a knife at him over dinner, you might just offend him. If you mock the principles which you used to espouse, those who hold them might despise you. If you pursue vendettas against subordinates until you destroy them, they might in self-defence resort to intrigue against you. Bismarck literally destroyed the career of Count Harry Arnim, because he threatened to become a rival. Vain, irresponsible, a stock exchange speculator, Arnim certainly was, but Bismarck used the courts to accuse him of treason, drove him out of the country, and to an early death.101 His policy on local government reorganization removed the ancient patrimonial jurisdiction of the Junker class and moved the countryside a small step toward modernity and justice for the peasants employed on Junker estates. Their opposition to the measure never amounted to treason to the state. It was political opposition and defence of their interests. None of this he recognized or admitted. Here we have the cleverest political actor of the nineteenth century, a person for whom the word ‘genius’ exactly fits the political insight and imagination Bismarck often displays, who cannot see the simplest political reality: that acts have consequences. He resorts to self-deception and self-pity in a manner so crass that even Roon and Moritz von Blanckenburg who still stuck to him, must have doubted his sanity. Yet neither they nor anybody else seems to have had the courage to tell him the truth at any stage. The demonic power of the sovereign self and the combination of awe and delight which all the intimates record, seems to have lamed them. The dour Christians, Ludwig von Gerlach, Ernst von Sennft-Pilsach, ‘little Hans’ could face him and tell him the truth, as they saw it, but he had banished them. His enemies in the Reichstag and Prussian Landtag regularly attacked him but hardly any saw the underside of the giant figure, though many such as Roggenbach had a good idea what Bismarck was really like.

On 21 December 1872 the King accepted Bismarck’s resignation as Minister-President of Prussia and by cabinet order relieved him of the post. Roon became his successor and suffered eleven painful months in the post. Already weakened by his chronic asthma, the old soldier took the job until he collapsed completely and resigned on 5 October 1873. On 23 October 1873, on the way back from the World’s Fair in Vienna, the Kaiser and Bismarck had a leisurely discussion of the ministerial question and Bismarck accepted William’s request to resume the Presidency of the State Ministry. On 4 November Bismarck formally accepted and asked his Majesty to appoint the liberal Otto Camphausen (1812–96), who had been von der Heydt’s successor as Finance Minister, Vice-President of the Ministry and to make his friend Moritz von Blanckenburg the Minister of Agriculture. General of the Infantry Georg von Kameke (1816–93) became Minister of War on 9 November 1873 and was to hold the post for a decade. The rest of the cabinet remained the same, slightly more liberal with the disappearance of von Selchow and Roon. The last conflict minister, Count Eulenburg, the great survivor, continued in office until 1878.102

Throughout 1873 and 1874 relations between Bismarck and the Conservatives deteriorated. The final break came when Bismarck lost his temper in a speech in the Reichstag and attacked the Kreuzzeitung: ‘Everyone who receives and pays for [theKreuzzeitung] shares indirectly in the lies and slander that are published in it, in slanders such as the Kreuzzeitung contained last summer against the highest officials of the Reich, without the slightest proof.’103 On 26 February 1876, the so-called Deklaranten, 400 of the most prominent Conservatives, signed a declaration defending the Kreuzzeitung and renewed their subscriptions. Hans Joachim Schoeps writes, ‘This was the core of the Prussian old conservatives, many from the Old Mark and Pomerania, many personal and ideological friends of the Chancellor, at the top Adolf von Thadden who put the postscript after his name “with pain”.’104 Hans von Kleist—interestingly—refused to sign.105

This break with his old allies remained. Four years later Hildegard Spitzemberg recorded a remarkable discovery on a visit to the Bismarcks:

The Princess has an alphabetically ordered list of the ‘Deklaranten’, that is, those who signed the declaration in favour of the Kreuzzeitung which the Prince had attacked. All these are seen as personal enemies who will never be forgiven and to whom visiting cards will not be returned.106

On 18 January 1875 the Prussian Landtag began a new session and an usher from the Foreign Office handed the National Liberal member, Christoph Tiedemann, a note from Prince Bismarck requesting the recipient to call at the Prince’s residence in the Foreign Office at 9 p.m. that evening. Tiedemann recorded in his diary: ‘How very odd. I wrack my brains without success during the course of the day for an explanation of this surprising invitation.’107 Nothing in his past record explained it. He was born on 24 September 1836 in Schleswig and had studied law as preparation for a career in the Danish civil service. When Schleswig became Prussian, Tiedemann transferred seamlessly to the Prussian civil service and rose to be Landrat (district administrator) for the Mettmann district which became part of Prussia in 1816 after the Congress of Vienna. He had won a seat in the Prussian lower house and had risen to a place of influence within the leadership but his position could by no means be said to be among the most prestigious figures in the party. He was not yet 40 years old.

At 8.45 p.m. Herr Tiedemann presented himself at the Foreign Office. He described the episode in his diary.

In a large room, dimly lit by one lamp, which seemed to be used as a dining room, I had to wait a quarter of an hour. Punctuality seems to be the rule in this house. The servant explained that he dare not announce me until 9, for I had been invited for 9 and not before. I passed the time looking at the interesting Chinese tapestries on the wall.

As the clock struck nine, I was ushered into the Prince’s work room. He rose from his desk, offered me his hand in greeting and gestured me to a seat opposite him. During all this, the ‘Reich Dog’, Sultan, emerged from the darkness, sniffed me suspiciously but soon satisfied, lay down again by the hearth. The Prince asked me if I smoked to which I naturally assented cheerfully. He gave me a cigar and lit his pipe. I shall try to reconstruct the conversation literally:

HE: There are several draft bills in the Ministry of the Interior on which I must report to His Majesty in the next few days. They concern the organization of the civil administration in the western provinces: the structure of the provinces, of the districts and the communes. Look at this pile and the accompanying memoranda. It is no trifle to read that stuff. I have been rather ill, have not slept for three nights and have eaten more or less nothing.108

In effect, Bismarck had invited Tiedemann to do his homework on the complexities of the new local authority structure in the western districts of the Prussian Kingdom. Tiedemann knew the problems both from his own experience as district officer of Mettmann and from service in the parliamentary committee dealing with the legislation. Tiedemann set out his views and Bismarck took notes. The Prince observed wryly that, unlike his cabinet colleagues, he as a landowner knew what it felt like to be ruled by the Prussian bureaucracy with its rage for perfection. Tiedemann, who from the evidence of the diary had a quick wit and a sense of humour, also knew his brief and gave Bismarck the answers he wanted. Above all, not too much democracy in the new provincial and local authorities.

Tiedemann, who over the next five years spent weeks in the great man’s company, could never get over the scale of Bismarck’s way of life. The huge chamber pots corresponded to the incredible quantities of food served and consumed at the Prince’s table. A diary entry for 22 January 1878 reads in its entirety as follows:

22 January 1878, Menu:

Oysters, caviar

Venison soup


Morel mushrooms Smoked breast of goose

Wild boar in Cumberland sauce

Saddle of venison

Apple fritters

Cheese and bread

Marzipan, chocolate, apples109

Bismarck could not control his emotions. When Sultan, ‘the Reich Dog’, died of a heart attack at Varzin in October 1877, Bismarck would not be consoled.

He cannot stop talking about the death of his dog and especially that he hit him shortly before he died. He tortures himself with the thought that he caused the dog’s death because of that. He accuses himself of violent temper, brutality with which he hurts everybody who comes into contact with him, and on and on berates himself for mourning so long and so deeply for an animal.110

He clearly needed help in all sorts of ways, and for reasons not entirely obvious he decided to choose this youngish, middle-ranking National Liberal deputy to provide it. At first young Tiedemann served as a recipient of Bismarck’s complaints. On 7 May Bismarck gave a dinner party to which Tiedemann was again invited:

As I had taken my coat to leave, a servant whispered to me, that the Prince wished to see me … The Prince unburdened himself in observations about the difficulties of his position, which neither the outside world nor posterity can justly assess. Historians only see through their own glasses. He praised Carlyle highly because he understood how to put himself in the soul of another person. He then continued more or less as follows. ‘I find it as a particular burden that my personal enemies grow more numerous from year to year. My profession demands that I step on the corns of lots of people and nobody ever forgets that. I am too old to find new friends, and in addition have no time for that, and then the old ones disappear from the scene, as soon as they realize that I will no longer be a useful vehicle for their careers. So I end up surrounded by enemies. Hopefully you do not belong among them.’111

Bismarck’s physical and psychological condition deteriorated during 1875. He slept so badly that he often received cabinet ministers and officials in bed. His temper worsened and the smallest irritation—a servant not placing a chair somewhere quickly enough—would cause an outburst of uncontrolled rage.

In mid-January 1876 Lothar Bucher informed Christoph Tiedemann that Bismarck had decided to appoint him as a kind of personal adjutant who would be a member of the Staatsministerium—roughly the equivalent of White House Staff in the USA or the Cabinet Office in the UK—but who would be assigned to no department and have no other duties than those Bismarck requested. Tiedemann saw the Prince at eight in the evening of 25 January 1876 and recorded the event in his dairy:

He received me lying on a cot wrapped in blankets. He looked very pale and terribly serious and complained vigorously about his physical condition, especially his extreme irritability which was tied to his insomnia … He begged me to excuse him that he received me lying down but I might see from that how great his interest in my appointment was … In any case at the beginning I was not to be too dutiful and overwork. There would be plenty of times in which I should have my hands full.112

For the next five years, from his fortieth to his forty-fifth year, Tiedemann served Bismarck as his administrative assistant and adjutant and provided posterity with an intimate account of Bismarck both as a person but also uniquely as chief executive officer of the new German Empire and the old Kingdom of Prussia. It was, as he wrote to Herbert Bismarck in September 1881, ‘the pride of his life … to have worked as apprentice to the greatest Master on the loom of world history’.113 For us he offers an independent, amused, and curiously approachable view of the great man, his family, his environment, and his estates but also the details of policy and administration. Tiedemann had that indefinable something which makes a great diarist, an ego no doubt robust but leavened by a natural curiosity, a good ear for conversation, an eye for oddities, and an irrepressible sense for the absurdity of life, something that Bismarck had himself demonstrated in his early life but lost as he grew greater and more miserable. Tiedemann’s account of the two huge chamber-pots in Bismarck’s bedroom and von Sybel’s earnest admiration of them as signs of Bismarck’s grandeur ought to have a place in any collection of nineteenth-century comic memorabilia (see p. 10).114

On 5 February 1875 Pius IX issued an encyclical Quod Numquam (On the Church in Prussia) in which he declared:

We must vindicate the freedom of the Church which is depressed by unjust power. We intend to fulfil these aspects of Our duty through this letter announcing to everyone to whom the matter pertains and to the whole Catholic world that those laws are invalid insofar as they totally oppose the divine order of the Church. The Lord did not set the powerful of this world over the bishops in matters which pertain to the sacred ministry.115

Bismarck responded with more pressure on Catholic civil servants and on 22 April 1875 the Prussian Landtag passed a law ‘concerning the cancellation of payments with state funds for Roman Catholic Bishoprics and Clergy, the so-called “Breadbasket Law”.’ Bismarck told the house that he expected little success from the withdrawal of the money, ‘but we simply do our duty when we defend the independence of our state and nation against foreign influences, and when we defend spiritual freedom against its suppression by the Jesuit Order and by a Jesuitical Pope.116

Hildegard Spitzemberg recorded a comic aspect of the ‘Breadbasket’ debate. She reported the Princess’s story that Bismarck had decided not to go to the Landtag to hear the debate on the suspension of state payment for the Catholic Church. As he dressed that morning, he discovered that he had put on his winter rather than his light trousers.

Superstitious as he is in such things, he saw it as a sign to go to the Landtag and arrived just at the moment that Sybel had been reading a passage about Diocletian and his ‘bald-headed Minister Mark’ from the writings of Konrad von Boland as a satire on the Ultramontanes. At the end the ‘evil Mark’ sinks in swamp. As Sybel came to that point Bismarck suddenly appeared as if on cue and the house erupted in enthusiastic applause.117

On 15 April 1875 thirty ultra-conservatives followed Kleist-Retzow and voted in the Lords to reject the Sperr- und Brotkorbgesetz (the Breadbasket Law), which suspended 889,718 marks of 1,011,745 of Prussian subsidy to the Catholic Church.118 After the passage of the Breadbasket Law, the active and aggressive phase of the Kulturkampf came to an end in spite of Bismarckian rhetoric on the Reformation and the threat to Protestantism. A stalemate ensued in which the bishops and clergy practised passive resistance and the state gradually lost the will to enforce new legislation or even police the old. Everybody waited for the death of Pius IX, who at 83 and ill could not last much longer. He died on 7 February 1878, and an important phase in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and European history closed with him. His legacy continues to the present in the absolute claims of papal supremacy and in resistance to so-called modern trends.

In the summer of 1876 Bismarck went to take the waters at Bad Kissingen and forbade Tiedemann to send him any business whatsoever. Anything urgent had to be sent via Bismarck’s son Herbert who would pass the matter on and transmit his father’s reply. He told Tiedemann on the day of his departure that he hoped ‘to bring back a skin colour as fresh as your own’.119 After a few days at the end of July, the Prince went to his estate Varzin in Pomerania where he stayed until 21 November 1876. The huge estate had a classical park with terraces leading up a Greek temple in the distance and the scale of the rooms and arrangement suited Bismarck’s new princely status.120

On 3 December 1876 William chaired a meeting of the Privy Council, attended by the Crown Prince Frederick William, Bismarck, all the members of the State Ministry (the cabinet), and Tiedemann as minute-taker. After the Privy Council, Tiedemann took a stroll with Friedrich Count zu Eulenburg, the Minister of the Interior, who confirmed that the Emperor regularly insisted that the full documentary and legal dossiers about new legislation be sent to him before meetings. Eulenburg offered as example a recent meeting of the Privy Council on the revocation of the customs duty on iron at which

the Emperor gave us a short lecture on the history of Prussian tariff policy which was so illuminating and sharp that it amazed us all and when in the course of the debate he argued for the maintenance of the existing tariffs, he showed how carefully he had read the reports of the provincial governors from the Rhenish-Westphalian industrial areas and how accurately he assessed the often conflicting views of the industrialists themselves.121

While Bismarck supported the National Liberal insistence on free trade, William I had remained a convinced protectionist. As he stated at the December Privy Council,

I have always considered reduction of tariffs very questionable and in the last meeting of the Council fought the decision to revoke the iron tariffs. The consequences of our incorrect measures show themselves already and will show themselves even more in the future. I shall not live to see it but my successor will surely witness our return to a system of moderate protective tariffs.122

Within three years that prophecy had become reality. The new German Reich and its powerful Chancellor Bismarck had indeed abandoned free trade, adopted tariffs, and ended the relationship between the Crown and the liberal parties. The Emperor made one mistake. He, not his successor, presided over the great ‘shift’ to conservatism which Bismarck engineered.

The sessions of the Privy Council teach us some interesting things about the constitutional formalities and the actual politics of Bismarck’s new Germany. The King/Emperor retained the final say. In spite of convivial relations between the Royal Family and leading parliamentarians, he remained an all-powerful sovereign executive who intervened, often with handwritten notes directly to cabinet ministers, which absorbed a great deal of their time, effort, and correspondence. Nothing seemed too small for the All-Highest attention. In June of 1877 Bismarck, Falk, and other cabinet officers had to soothe the Emperor about the handling of a row over progressive clergymen in the Evangelical Synod of Berlin which Tiedemann claimed showed ‘tactless and unworthy behaviour … and power-seeking and restless elements within the Evangelical Church’.123 The All-Highest, as head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, could and did express opinions on such matters and wrote one of the participants a four-page handwritten letter on matters of faith and doctrine. But he might intervene on the question of sugar beet production in Prussia, the Berlin-Dresdner Railroad, the reorganization of the system of courts, local government reorganization, building sites in the Voss Strasse, patent law, legislation to care for abandoned children, the organization of the Ministry of Trade, the regulation of auditing and the government audit office, etc., many of which required an All-Highest decision or signature.

Ministers understood the Emperor’s strong prejudices and acted to calm or allay his anxieties but they could never ignore them. As we have seen, William I chose not to dismiss his cabinets over tariffs or other questions. He conducted such meetings in what Tiedemann called ‘a free and easy form’.124 Ministers could speak their minds openly. Yet William could dismiss them at will as he could dismiss Bismarck. Why he chose to be overruled on matters by his Chancellor remains one of the most mysterious and yet important themes of Bismarck’s career and hence of this book. The constant tension between a Chancellor who could not bear opposition and a conscientious and careful Sovereign who opposed him at every step must have contributed to that sense of futility, exhaustion, and despair which Bismarck expressed again and again. Thus, on 4 January 1877 Tiedemann wrote in his diary: ‘The Prince unwell, and has cancelled all appointments.’125 Four weeks later Bismarck told Tiedemann that he was suffering from a headache on one side of his head and would have to postpone the dinner for members of the House of Deputies he had wanted to host for some time. For that he needed to be well enough to do some serious drinking. ‘If I have to eat with members of parliament, I must drink myself the courage.’126

Foreign affairs, on the other hand, never provoked the rage, psychosomatic ailments, and physical exhaustion that domestic matters increasingly did. Not even a revived France disturbed his digestion. On 12 March 1875 the French National Assembly approved the addition of a fourth battalion to each regiment and a fourth company to each battalion. Moltke calculated that the law would add 144,000 men to the French army.127

Bismarck turned his attention to an effort to reduce France to second-class status. Articles on a possible coalition of France and Austria began to appear and on 8 April the Berliner Post, a paper often used by Bismarck to plant stories, published a front-page article, ‘ist Krieg in Sicht?’(Is war in sight?), written by Constantin Rössler, a journalist known to be close to the Chancellor. The paper answered its own question, ‘yes, war is in sight but the threatening clouds may yet blow over.’128 The publication, Tiedemann noted, ‘aroused great excitement’.129 Odo Russell took it all calmly and assured Lord Derby that

Bismarck is at his old tricks again alarming the Germans through the officious press and intimating that the French are going to attack them and that Austria and Italy are conspiring in favour of the Pope … This crisis will blow over like so many others but Bismarck’s sensational policy is very wearisome at times. Half the diplomatic body have been here since yesterday to tell me that war was imminent, and when I seek to calm their nerves … they think that I am bamboozled by Bismarck. I do not, as you know, believe in another war with France.130

The crisis developed as both Bismarck and the French Foreign Minister tried to blame the other. On 21 April the French Ambassador to Germany was told by a high official in the German Foreign Office that a preventive war would be entirely justified, if France continued to rearm, indeed it would be ‘politically, philosophically and even in Christian terms’ entirely justified.131 The Prussian military also began to consider preventive war and leaked their comments. The French used the bad reputation that the Prussians now had to alarm the other powers and the Kaiser as well. On 6 May Henry Blowitz published an article in The Times, ‘A French Scare’, in which he took the French side. Lord Derby observed that ‘Bismarck either is really bent on making war, or he just wants us to believe he is bent on it.’132 The Russian ambassador to Great Britain, Peter Shuvalov, whom Bismarck preferred to Gorchakov, saw Bismarck in Berlin and on arrival at his post in London told Lord Derby on 10 May that Bismarck was suffering from sleeplessness and talked of resignation. ‘He appeared to think that all Europe was inclined to coalesce against Germany and was also much haunted by the idea of assassination … fatigue, anxiety and other causes had produced in [Bismarck] a state of nervous excitement that may explain many of his sayings and doings.’ In fact Bismarck had submitted his resignation on 4 May for the umpteenth time and with the usual phrases, ‘I am incapable of performing further the work and duties inseparable from my office, and that after 24 years of active participation in the field of higher politics … my powers are no longer adequate.’133 As usual Bismarck did not resign. The new British Prime Minister Disraeli, a Tory committed to more international activity than Gladstone, convinced the Russians to intervene jointly in Berlin to preserve the peace. Gorchakov leapt at the chance to teach Bismarck a lesson. He and Tsar Alexander travelled to Berlin to persuade the Kaiser not to go ahead with a preventive war against France, something he had no intention of doing. The visit from 10 to 13 May allowed Tsar Alexander to calm Bismarck and persuade him not resign. Gorchakov and Odo Russell confronted Bismarck on 13 May in the Foreign Ministry and tried to get him to declare publicly that he had no intention to attack France. He refused but he had lost face. He had to give in to the pressure from the Tsar and his own Emperor, the first serious reverse he had suffered. The Tsar observed that ‘one should not believe the half of what he said, for he says things that he does not really mean and are only an expression of his passions and his momentary nervous excitement. One must never take him “au pied de la lettre”.’134 On 31 December Bismarck wrote gloomily, ‘a bad year’;135 it was certainly the first in which he had been outplayed in the game of diplomacy.136

In mid-July of 1875, a revolt broke out in Herzogovina against Turkish rule, which the Turkish authorities repressed with great brutality. The emergence again of the Eastern Question confronted the three Emperors with a dilemma. On 1 August Schweinitz reported from Vienna on proposals for collective mediation that eventually resulted in the so-called Andrassy Note written in the name of the three powers to demand reforms. With the approval of the United Kingdom and France, the Note was submitted to the Sultan, whose agreement was secured on 31 January 1876. The Herzegovinian leaders, however, rejected the proposal. They pointed out that the Sultan had already made promises to institute reforms but had failed to fulfil them.137 Within a few months, the Sultan had been overthrown but unrest continued until Abd-ul-Hamid II came to power. Revolt spread across the Balkans and in May Sir Edward Pears, the senior member of the bar in Constantinople, sent reports of atrocities in Bulgaria.

The reports contained passages which, alas, are now only too familiar after Pol Pot and Ruanda but then marked the beginning of a development of nationalist violence that has yet to die down. The British public were horrified to read descriptions such as these:

They had seen dogs feeding on human remains, heaps of human skulls, skeletons nearly entire, rotting clothing, human hair, and flesh putrid and lying in one foul heap. They saw the town with not a roof left, with women here and there wailing their dead amid the ruins. They examined the heap and found that the skulls and skeletons were all small and that the clothing was that of women and girls. MacGahan counted a hundred skulls immediately around him. The skeletons were headless, showing that these victims had been beheaded. Further on they saw the skeletons of two little children lying side by side with frightful sabre cuts on their little skulls. MacGahan remarked that the number of children killed in these massacres was something enormous.138

The crisis became suddenly acute when, on 5 May 1876, the German and French consuls in Saloniki were murdered. Bismarck wanted a big naval demonstration to intimidate the Turks. France and Britain sent squadrons but Stosch refused to send any capital ships. Bismarck was furious: ‘We have a fleet that can’t go anywhere so we must have no trouble spots in the wide world.’139 From 11 to 14 May the Foreign Ministers of the Three Emperors met in Berlin to coordinate policy about Turkey. The rise of an extreme Pan-Slav party at the court of the Tsar had begun to threaten that the Russians, as ‘protector of the Balkan Christians’, would invade Bulgaria and assist the orthodox Serbs in their revolt against Turkish rule. The three Powers could not get the other Great Powers to join them so on 8 July 1876 the Tsar and Emperor Franz Joseph met at Reichstadt and agreed to divide the Balkans in the event of a collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Emperors had been too hasty. The Turkish army attacked the rebellious Serbian forces in July and August 1876 and routed them. Both Disraeli and Bismarck now faced difficult decisions. The Liberals, and especially the leader of the opposition, William Ewart Gladstone, had rallied behind the angry public in their horror at the Bulgarian Atrocities. Gladstone had written a powerful pamphlet with that title. Disraeli and the Tories, on the other hand, stood for the maintenance of Ottoman Turkey since it prevented the Russian fleet from entering the Eastern Mediterranean and threatening British lines of communication with its Indian Empire. That support and its apparently immoral premiss became harder to maintain.

Bismarck faced the equally delicate question of support for the Russians, who had not forgotten their aid to Prussia in the unification of Germany. The Tsar and Gorchakov wanted their reward in the form of overt German support for Russian intervention or at least German sponsorship of a conference at which the Russians could achieve their protectorate without war. Bismarck’s trusty ambassador in St Petersburg, General von Schweinitz, had gone on a generous leave to hunt in the Austrian Alps and could not be reached. On 1 October the Tsar used the German military attaché, Bernhard von Werder (1823–1907) to carry an urgent message to Bismarck, ‘would Germany act as Russia did in 1870, if Russia went to war with Austria?’140 Bismarck was furious that a military attaché should let himself get into such a situation. He wrote to Bernhard Ernst von Bülow (1815–79), who had replaced Hermann von Thile as State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, in effect, Bismarck’s deputy, a private letter written from Varzin on the same day:

Von Werder is worse than clumsy in letting himself be used as a Russian tool to extort from us an uncomfortable and untimely declaration. For the first time in his telegram the Tsar talks of ‘war against Austria’ [so in the original—JS], whereas up to now one has spoken of saving the Three Emperors’ Alliance … and now to pose the insidious question of Austria with a yes or no is a trap set by Gorchakov. If we say no, he stirs up Alexander; if we say yes. he will use it in Vienna.141

Bismarck tried various dodges but the Russians continued to press him and, worse, they put pressure on Emperor William I, who had a close and affectionate relationship with his nephew, the Tsar. In November, the Tsar wrote to his uncle and urged him to support Russian military action in the ‘interest of Europe’. Bismarck dictated an answer a week later in which he cynically remarked that he usually heard ‘the word “Europe” in the mouth of those politicians who demanded from other powers what they in their own name dare not request’.142

The Turkish Sultan’s forces were advancing rapidly on Belgrade. On 31 October 1876 the Russian Emperor sent the Sultan an ultimatum to halt the advance within forty-eight hours and accept an armistice of six weeks. The Porte yielded, and Britain proposed a conference in Constantinople, which the Turks accepted. Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Secretary, travelled to Turkey for the opening session. On the same day, the Grand Vizier ‘proclaimed with thundering cannon’ a new constitution that, the Turks announced, made the conference of the powers unnecessary, and on 18 January 1877, an assembly of notables rejected the Russo-English proposal for a settlement.143 Bismarck’s efforts to avoid a choice between his two allies succeeded when on 15 January 1877 the Austrian and Russian Empires agreed in the Convention of Budapest to reconcile their measures and decisions in the event of war, and on 24 April 1877 Russia declared war on Turkey.144

The Russo-Turkish War, the sixth since the eighteenth century, turned out to be a bitter and protracted set of campaigns. The Russians invaded across the Danube in Romania and also sent a large army to the Caucasus to seize the Turkish provinces along the Black Sea coast. At first the Russian forces in the Balkans advanced so rapidly that Disraeli’s cabinet on 21 July 1877 resolved to declare war on Russia if the Russians should defy British warnings and seize Constantinople. Luckily for the British, Turkish resistance stiffened and the Russian advance stalled from 10 July to 10 December 1877. After very heavy fighting in which a reorganized Serbian army had distinguished itself, the Turks asked the neutral powers for mediation.

During the summer of 1877, in July, when Bismarck took the waters at Bad Kissingen, he wrote the famous Kissinger Diktat (Kissingen Dictation) in which he stated his foreign policy maxims for the new German Reich:

A French newspaper said recently about me that I suffered from ‘le cauchemar des coalitions’. This sort of nightmare will last for a long time, and maybe forever, an entirely justified worry for a German minister. Coalitions against us can be formed on the western basis if Austria joins one, more dangerous, perhaps, the Russian-Austria-French combination; a greater intimacy among two of the above would give the third means to exercise a not inconsiderable pressure on us. In my anxiety about such eventualities, not at once, but in the course of years, I would regard a desirable outcome of the Oriental Crisis if the following occurred.

1.   gravitating of Russian and Austrian interests and mutual rivalry towards the East;

2.   an occasion for Russia to need the alliance with us in order to achieve a strong defensive position in the Orient and on its coasts;

3.   for England and Russia a satisfactory status quo, which would give both the same interest in maintaining the existing situation as we have:

4.   Separation of England because of Egypt and the Mediterranean from France which remains hostile to us.

5.   Relations between Russia and Austria, which make it hard for both to create anti-German coalitions which centralizing or clerical forces at the Austrian court are somewhat inclined to pursue.

If I were capable of work, I would perfect and refine this picture, which I have in mind, not that of the acquisition of territory but of an overall political situation in which all the powers except France need us and are held apart from coalitions against us by their relations to each other.145

This dictation offers the most succinct representation of Bismarckian foreign policy aims after unification and can be said to explain the increasing complexity of the formal alliances that Bismarck contracted in the 1880s. His admirers wax eloquent about the ingeniousness of the scheme. Yet it failed within a year of its composition the first time he attempted to apply it. In February 1878 he announced that he intended to act as ‘an honest’ broker in the Oriental question by summoning a conference to Berlin to settle all the outstanding issues left from the Russo-Turkish War and associated changes in the Balkans. The conference took away many of the Russian Empire’s gains from what had turned out to be a very nasty and costly little war, and the Russians blamed Bismarck. True, he managed to renew the Three Emperors’ League in 1881 and 1884 but in 1887 he had to do it in secret and by violating equally solemn, binding, and secret agreements with other powers. By 1890 the Kissinger Diktat had failed and the first thing Bismarck’s successors had to do was to repudiate the 1887 Reinsurance Treaty which Bismarck had negotiated with the Russians.

A second reason for its failure lay in Bismarck’s misunderstanding of Germany’s new position in Europe. Even in his time the German Empire had become an economic and military superpower. It had no need of these subtle and secret agreements which rested on his elaborate combinations and duplicity. Indeed as we shall see, Bismarck’s nightmares rested on the sort of pessimism and paranoia which marked his wider view of life. Its legacy led to the pessimism of his successors in 1914 who unleashed an unnecessary preventive war because they were surrounded and would be overrun. In fact, had they waited on their borders with machine guns, barbed wire, and artillery, both the French and Russian attackers would have been massacred and Germany would have won the war. Bismarck’s pessimism had deep roots in his psyche and possibly also in his social identity as well, the feeling that his class had no future.

A third reason was Bismarck’s own personality and record as a ruthless, unprincipled warmonger. As he desperately tried to preserve the procrustean stretch between Austria and Russia and peace in the Balkans, the British ambassador in Constantinople wrote to Morier and expressed the general view that Bismarck was somebody who stirred up war everywhere.

Bismarck is aiming at upsetting every pacific solution and involving Russia in an expensive and dangerous war; he will continue to use Andrassy as his tool and he will thus prepare two great results: the weakening of Russia and the partitioning of Turkey.146

In the midst of this great international crisis, Bismarck staged another resignation drama. On 27 March 1877 he told the State Ministry that ‘he had decided to submit a request to the Emperor for retirement. If it is rejected and only leave is granted, he proposes to ask that a fully empowered deputy be created so that he Bismarck would be relieved of responsibility.’147 Hildegard von Spitzemberg recorded her dismay at the prospect, not least because the loss of the connection to the Bismarcks meant a huge loss of prestige for the Spitzembergs:

I cannot really believe it—the new Reich without Bismarck, 76 Wilhelmstrasse without him, one cannot imagine it but the talk was all of packing up and sending family pictures to Schönhausen. That sounds very like reality … I spoke earnestly to the Prince to ask him to give me his reasons, ‘Arrange the murder of Augusta, Camphausen and Lasker with the hangers-on and I will continue to stay in office. But this constant resistance and the constant punch bag existence wears me down’ …Then he took my hand and said ‘you will still come to see us in Varzin?’ … How loving and good and touching the great man was, as he spoke to me with tears in his eyes and stroked my hand lightly … The possibility goes round in my head, we shall lose infinitely if Bismarck goes—socially, humanly and in our position in society, for our trusting friendship with them has served us very well and made things easier. I have never concealed that from myself. The way since 1863 in exemplary loyalty I have been loved, honoured, cuddled there will never be given me anywhere again. I know only too well their great weaknesses, our views are often heavens apart, but how I love them all, how thankful, how devoted to them I am, I recognize in the deep melancholy which their departure has caused in me.148

A few days later, on 4 April, newspapers reported on Bismarck’s resignation, whereupon the Emperor granted him leave of absence for a year.149 The left Liberal leader, Eugen Richter wrote to his brother on hearing the news of the furlough for a year.

Naturally Bismarck’s retirement is our chief interest. That will produce changes in party relationships so colossal that they cannot be predicted. The tariff protectionists, who have become especially dangerous, have the greatest cause to mourn. If he actually remains away from all business for a full year, that will be the equivalent of a complete retirement.150

The well-informed Odo Russell wrote to Lord Derby and gave him his own reading of the crisis:

I have told you in a dispatch all about the crisis, which is simply that Bismarck is really nervous and in want of rest—and the Emperor reluctant to part with him altogether. Besides physical ill-health, Bismarck is morally upset by the decreasing support his policy suffers from, on the part of the Emperor and of Parliament, which he attributes to the Empress’s hostile influence on his Majesty, and to the Pope’s influence on the Catholic Party in Parliament, instead of attributing it to his very disagreeable manner of dealing with his Sovereign and his supporters, and to the violence of his dealing with his opponents. What he wants is the power to turn out his colleagues from the new cabinet at his pleasure—a power this Emperor will never concede to his Chancellor. At Court on Thursday last the Emperor told me he would give him as much leave as he pleased but would not let him resign. The Empress told me that Bismarck must be taught to obey his Sovereign.151

The next day the Kaiser rejected his resignation and the appointment of a deputy on the grounds that ‘any serious substitution would make it difficult for you to return’. Bismarck told the State Ministry in private that the Kaiser regarded his request as an ‘insult and declared he would lay down his crown if Bismarck went’.152

On 14 April Hildegard von Spitzemberg learned from Princess Bismarck that the Chancellor Crisis had been resolved and that Bismarck told her the Kaiser had

wept like a baby and spoken of his abdication and hence his insistence on his resignation became impossible. But nobody believes—and rightly—that Bismarck could not have had his way had he really in full seriousness insisted on his resignation. Either he ought to have gone, cost what it costs, or ought not to have created the whole spectacle, which now all seems like a pure comedy—‘scaring people does not count’… in short his authority has suffered by the result of this crisis and that depresses me very much, although I rejoice personally that everything will stay the same.153

On 16 April 1877 Prince Bismarck and the family departed for Friedrichsruh, the estate which the Emperor had given Bismarck in 1871. Bismarck had converted an old coaching inn in Aumühle outside Hamburg into a family house. In 1877 Lucius von Ballhausen visited him for the first time:

I took the 3.20 train to Hamburg, slept there and travelled early Sunday morning to Friedrichsruh—roughly 26 kilometres from Hamburg—where the Prince and Count Herbert waited for me at the station. Very warm reception. They live only five minutes from the station in a friendly, little cottage, which would be comfortable for a family of three or four people but not for a family with seven or eight servants. The area is beautiful but opener than Varzin. We soon mounted our horses and rode for about four hours through the wood. The Prince after fourteen days of country life and quiet days seems refreshed, sleeps better and generally seems quieter in spirit. He was full of the intrigues of Her Majesty and complained repeatedly …154

Bismarck worked in Friedrichsruh with the same ferocious energy he repeatedly claimed he no longer had. He went to Bad Kissingen. He travelled to Berlin. He wrote dispatches, conducted foreign policy with the same finesse as ever. On 6 October he moved to Varzin, where he noticed very painfully how the depression of agricultural prices had affected the profitability of the estate. He spelled it out in a conversation with Moritz Busch:

‘Varzin brings me nothing. It is hardly possible to sell grain because railway rates for foreign grain are too low. The same is true of timber, which realizes very little owing to the competition. Even the proximity of Hamburg to the Sachsenwald is of little use to me at present.’ Busch says there’s a rumour that Bismarck is buying an estate in Bavaria ‘Bavarian estate! I have not the least idea of buying. I have lost enough on the one I bought in Lauenburg, where the purchase money eats up the whole income of the property. How can an estate yield anything when a bushel of grain is sold at the present low price?’155

The summer and fall of 1877 marked an important stage in Bismarck’s political career. For a while, how seriously meant we cannot say, he entertained the possibility that he might introduce Rudolf von Bennigsen, leader of the National Liberals, into his Prussian cabinet, no doubt as part of a reshuffle in which he could rid himself of ministers who had begun to irk him. Negotiations with the National Liberal party in the House of Deputies began when Bismarck asked Tiedemann to invite Rudolph von Bennigsen, its leader, to the Chancellery privately and without fuss; if that could not be accomplished right away, then to arrange a visit in Varzin. On 1 July 1877 Tiedemann wrote to von Bennigsen to explain that the Prince wished to see him without the press and public notice and hence hoped that Bennigsen could come to Berlin; if not, Tiedemann asked whether it would give rise to ‘certain misinterpretations’ and inconveniences if Bennigsen visited Bismarck in Varzin.156 Bennigsen replied two days later:

I should hope that political ignorance has not gone so far in Germany that a visit, in my capacity of President of the House of Deputies and a party leader, to the Imperial Chancellor and Minister President at his country house in Varzin could cause misunderstanding. I am entirely prepared to pay the price of any silly misunderstandings which may arise.157

On 30 November 1877 Tiedemann recorded another resignation crisis in a letter to his wife, one so bad ‘as we have not had for ten years and it is to be feared that it will end with the definitive resignation of the Prince’. On 7 December he wrote again that

the Prince makes his return to the job depend on conditions which in part involved a change of personnel in the higher civil service and in part on a reorganization of the offices of the Reich. If his conditions are not accepted, he is determined to submit his resignation. He is tired of having every step obstructed either from left or right. The family and his doctor had urged him to resign.158

At the same time as the resignation crisis Bismarck invited the leader of the National Liberals to talk about the National Liberals as a government party and Bennigsen as a minister.159 Lucius, always well informed, analysed the resignation threat and the invitation to Bennigsen with his usual clarity:

Bismarck […] wavering in his attitude to an attempt to set up a partial parliamentary ministry … The general idea was the unification of the most influential Reich and Prussian ministries: the Chancellor and the Minister-President, the Vice-Chancellor in the Reich and also the same in Prussia, the Reich Justice Minister at the same time Prussian Justice Minister, the same in finance etc. The plan was to represent Prussian chief ministers in the Reich through directors or under-secretaries … As I heard from a reliable source, there was before the Kaiser a resignation request, which contained a kind of ultimatum and demanded the dismissal of certain palace officials. On the other hand, the long absences of Bismarck, the existing confusion in the coalition, have favoured anti-Bismarck forces … Besides there was a danger that Bismarck had screwed his demands too high for the Kaiser, especially in the delicate situation of the court and almost all family relations and thus the decision might go against him. The impertinence of the demand that he act against his own wife was very painful for somebody of the old monarch’s courtly character. All the ultramontane, high feudal elements were active in the plan to destroy Bismarck’s work.160

If the Emperor had ever wanted to dismiss Bismarck, this would have been the moment. He had put up with constant moral blackmail: three resignation threats in a year, two within a month; constant political activity behind his back; and the Chancellor’s long absences on the pretext that he was too ill to work, etc. Yet planted articles, manoeuvres, meetings, trips to Varzin and Friedrichsruh by important people continued and the Emperor received no solid information about it all. On 29 December 1877 theNorddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, which acted as Bismarck’s house organ reported rumours of impending major changes in the Prussian cabinet. That was the last straw. The next day the Emperor—entirely understandably—wrote Bismarck a furious letter in which he complained ‘you have not communicated a single syllable on this subject’. He told Bismarck that he could not accept Bennigsen who was ‘not quiet and conservative’.161 Bismarck reacted to the rebuke with a complete psychological collapse. He put himself to a bed, like a child who had been scolded by an angry father. The letter of rebuke and the Kaiser’s ‘lack of consideration’ made him ill, sleepless, and bilious, and, as Pflanze concludes, ‘pathologically sick with anger’, at the thought that the Kaiser could write him a critical letter.162

Here I have to stop to express some sympathy with Bismarck. His power rested on the old King, who had a wife who hated Bismarck and who gathered round her a camarilla of his enemies. In his weak position as a subject of a semi-absolute monarch he could never reach and crush that camarilla as he normally crushed and humiliated lesser opponents. He needed the King’s approval not only psychologically but practically. Bennigsen would have been the King’s minister not Bismarck’s. Thus he had put himself into a position of the utmost stress in which real forces constrained him to reenact these humiliations on a daily basis. He had only himself to blame since he had used his great powers to preserve for the King the absolute rule with which he could indirectly torture Bismarck with his own powerlessness.

The psychic tensions made worse the real and insoluble problems. The real forces in government and society ground relentlessly on and he had less certainty that he could master them. Take parliamentary government. Had he moved after 1870 towards a parliamentary system, he could have done so. The King always gave in to his genius-minister and in that case Augusta and the Crown Princess would have been on Bismarck’s side, but that would have reduced the derivative absolute power so necessary to his ‘sovereign self’. These double and interlocked dilemmas destroyed his peace of mind and physical well-being but like an addict he had to repeat the drama again and again.

Karl von Neumann, the Crown Prince’s private secretary, summed up the situation in a gloomy letter to Roggenbach sent from Wiesbaden on 22 November 1877:

These are hopeless conditions in which we live, and we can hardly be surprised if independent and free natures quit the public service one after another. Resignation is still better than ruining themselves by degrading themselves to mere tools of the All-Powerful One … The Chancellor has one advantage that almost the whole world agrees with him that things cannot continue for long as they are.163

Two days after Christmas 1877 Stosch wrote to Roggenbach to report that von Friedberg had spent three days at Varzin and heard the new plans to merge the Reich and Prussian ministries, to clear out most of the cabinet and introduce new policies.

Friedberg asked ‘and what about Stosch?’ Answer: ‘he enters the cabinet as an independent minister’. Isn’t that gracious? The man thinks he can trample all over me and then still dispose of me freely … Another person, less adoring, who was also in Varzin and arrived just after the dog died, came home convinced that the Chancellor was already crazy or soon would be.164

Thus ended the year 1877, Bismarck’s fifteenth in power, at the lowest point in his career. Neither the Chancellor nor his enemies knew what to do next. Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister in the 1950s and early 1960s, was once asked by a journalist what might blow a government off its course and replied ‘events, dear boy, events’. In Bismarck’s case the events of 1878 had the opposite effect. A lucky combination of events gave him and his policies a sudden new direction and new life.

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