Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1703/Prince Bismarck's Literary Faculty

From The Gentleman's Magazine.



No reader of Bismarck's diplomatic despatches or speeches in Parliament, even in the meagre reports of our daily papers, can have failed to be impressed by an extraordinary power of individual thought and expression widely differing from the ordinary style of such utterances. His most official statements are frequently interrupted by striking observations or turns of language — all the more impressive as they are evidently unsought for — and in moments of excitement his language, written or spoken, frequently rises to a climax of primitive force and grandeur. But the real importance of Bismarck's literary achievements lies in a very different field. This side of his nature has hitherto been strangely neglected alike by the great statesman's eulogists and his defamers.

Bismarck's temperament — his complexion, as Smollett would say — is essentially that of a poet. I am not alluding here to the youthful efforts which the statesman is said to have offered at the shrine of the muse; nor to his well-known love for music or for nature. I speak of the absolute spontaneity with which he approaches the gravest problems of political science, and which leads him to conclusions glaringly at variance with the ordinary routine of statecraft, and not unfrequently with his own most cherished prejudices. When, for instance, as early as 1861 we find the Junker[1] and aristocrat by birth, and the violent Conservative by persuasion, throwing out the idea of a universal German Parliament, which the more enlightened statesman was some years later to carry out on the most democratic basis — universal suffrage — we must acknowledge a faculty of political intuition attributable to the creative mind alone.

Let us hear the testimony of his enemies on the subject. Count Arnim, the late Prussian ambassador in Paris, now an outlaw and an exile, stands foremost amongst the number. It once was his ambition to be Bismarck's successor, if possible his rival. This ambition extends even to the field of literature. Count Arnim, in his published despatches to the Foreign Office, evidently aims at terseness, wit, brilliancy, and power of expression, all qualities for which his great enemy is renowned. But the literary failure of the unfortunate count is almost as signal as his political. His similes, such as "The clerical wine will be considerably modified by the water of political necessity," show signs of elaboration, and his historic parallels are sometimes far-fetched and little to the point. The account of his first reception by President MacMahon is chatty and amusing, but one never loses the impression of the diplomatist affecting the literary man. This is exactly the reverse with Bismarck. In "Pro Nihilo" the pamphlet published in Count Arnim's defence, and most likely written, or at least immediately inspired, by himself, trying to explain a certain "psychological process" to which some of Prince Bismarck's utterances are said to owe their origin, the author, whoever he may be, proceeds: "To the prodigious qualities of the Imperial chancellor belongs that of not finding the truth from objectively established facts. He does not 'find' it — he creates it. Intuition or inspiration shows the truth to this extraordinary intellect, and his intelligence, so extensively fertile in combinations, then groups the facts in such a manner that they serve as a basis for the first and frequently quite correct impression. The consciousness which had perhaps existed that the first impression rested upon his own or somebody else's inspiration recedes in the further course of the conception of truth from the energy which subordinates the reality of external facts to the creative power of the personal will."

The short meaning of this terribly involved sentence seems to be a charge against Bismarck of a strong tendency towards what is euphemistically called romancing. But what is that grouping of facts from a central point of vision but the birthright and primary function of the poet? He sees into the essence of things, although accidentals may escape him. And if this subjective vision proves true when applied to the realities of science or politics, what better, or indeed what other, criterion of the man's greatness can we demand? What à priori difference, indeed, is there between the empty dreamer and schemer and the wise statesman and philosopher? The event alone can decide. No great man can do without what philosophers might term the inductive faculty. The dry summing up of details is the work of the intellectual journeyman; the master looks to the whole. The late Mr. Buckle, most eminently a man of facts, says on this subject, speaking of the variious developments of the modern mind: "In that field, which our posterity have yet to traverse, I firmly believe that the imagination will effect quite as much as the understanding. Our poetry will have to reinforce our logic, and we must feel as much as we must argue."

Another point dilated upon with intense delight by Bismarck's political adversaries is his early reactionary violence. M. Julian Klaczko, in his clever book, "The Two Chancellors," first published in the columns of the Revue des Deux Mondes, never tires of speaking of the anti-Liberal bearing of Bismarck in the first two legislative assemblies of Prussia, his hatred of constitutionalism in any form, his opposition to the liberty of the press, to, the emancipation of the Jews, and other demands of the revolutionary epoch of 1848; his passionate adherence to Austria, at that time the great stronghold of reaction in Germany — sentiments strangely at variance with his later conduct. Bismarck's friends might cite the examples of most eminent statesmen of the age as precedents for such political inconsistency. But few eminent politicians would like to see a short hand account of their early speeches at the debating society, and, as Guizot has it, "L'homme absurde seul ne change pas."

But to Bismarck's early Toryism there is a psychological side: referable, I think, to what I have ventured to call his poetic temperament. Bismarck's family traditions and early impressions were not wholly of a reactionary type. Paternally, it is true, he descended from an ancient and noble family, whose exaggerated loyalty sacrificed in the sixteenth century two of their fairest estates to the rapacity of their prince. But his mother, the intellectual leader of his father's household, was of gentle but not of noble birth — a distinction observed with the utmost strictness in Germany — and her father, Privy-Councillor Menken, was a statesman of the large-minded school of Frederick the Great. Bismarck also seems to have roused against himself the suspicion of latent Radicalism by occasional outbursts against the narrow-minded prejudices of his fellow Junkers in the Alt-Mark. But when, in 1847, he entered the Preliminary Diet of Prussia, the keen atmosphere of the revolutionary epoch gave a shock to his sensitive nature. Glib-tongued orators of the Liberal party, with whom the inexperienced young provincial felt himself unable to cope, assailed what appeared to him the sacred rights of monarchy and the very foundation of social order. Even the person of the sovereign was not exempted from the fierce attacks of the advanced democrats. The scenes in the streets of the capital were a counterpart of the angry debates of the Assembly. Infuriated mobs, citizen soldiers strutting along in the consciousness of their new dignity, were sights not altogether lovely in the eyes of the æsthetical and aristocratic observer. The young man's nature bristled up at such antagonistic sights. The loyal blood of the Bismarcks boiled in his veins. On one occasion he inflicted personal castigation on an unfortunate democrat who had spoken insultingly of the royal family in a public place. In the Chamber he defiantly proclaimed the rights of throne and altar; any concession to the current of the time he denounced as cowardice. Even to the predominance of Austria in German affairs he submitted without hesitation; she seemed to him Prussia's natural leader and ally in their common struggle with the Revolution. This, it must be remembered, was the "period of strife and stress" in his political life. When afterwards he gained wider views and experiences, when impulse — for impulse it mainly was — gave way to reason, he recanted his errors, in what manner and to what degree the history of Europe can testify. An amusing incident belonging to the early period of Bismarck's career may conclude this part of the subject. It is connected with his maiden speech, received by his audience with similar shouts of laughter and indignation to those which roused the ire of the youthful member for Maidstone. Bismarck did not, like Lord Beaconsfield, hurl a prophecy of future success at his antagonists, but his retort was none the less significant. Calmly he drew a newspaper from his pocket and began perusing its contents in the most unconcerned manner until the president had restored order. So much as to Bismarck's political career; too much, the reader perhaps will say, considering the professedly unpolitical character of this paper. But it was important to show that even in the practical concerns of statesmanship Bismarck could not wholly suppress that poetical germ of his nature which in another field was to bring forth rich fruit.

Prince Bismarck is not an author. He may be classed amongst Carlyle's "great silent ones," as far as literary utterance is concerned. A collection of his speeches, which is in the course of publication, has been made from the notes of the shorthand writers without his cooperation, as far as appears. But in 1868 appeared a work somewhat pretentiously called "The Book of Count Bismarck," by Herr Plesekiel, a Conservative novelist of some repute, which contained, together with a mass of ill-arranged and mostly anecdotal biographical material, a number of private letters, by the Prussian statesman, to his wife and his only and much-beloved sister, Frau von Arnim.[2] The question why private letters of the most intimate kind have been trusted to such an editor, does not concern us here. We simply have to consider them as literary documents of rare interest.

I have spoken of Bismarck as a man of impulse, a poet. Using the word now in its more proper meaning, I should say that his poetic gift, as evinced in these letters, lies chiefly in two striking features — a remarkable amount of quiet humor and an infinitely tender, almost lyrical, sympathy with the beauties of nature. To characterize Bismarck's humor, one might say that it has a touch of Sterne in it. Not of Sterne's satire and fanciful extravagance, but of the subtle touches of realism with which that unrivalled prose poet brings before us the life, the thoughts, the conversations, and little eccentricities of a couple of English country gentlemen. A somewhat similar kind of minute humorous observation — although, of course, in a much lesser degree of literary perfection — is observable in the letters which Bismarck addressed to his sister from his rural solitude. At that time he was a disappointed man. He had tried the army and the civil service. without much satisfaction to himself or others. The estate of his father in Pomerania, which he had undertaken to manage, was encumbered with mortgages. Congenial society also could hardly be found amongst the feudal nobles of that province, or of Alt-Mark, compared with whom a Conservative squire of Bucks or Huntingdonshire would be a model of social enlightenment and political progressiveness. At times Bismarck tried to out-Herod Herod. His feats in the hunting-field and at drinking-bouts, where a horrid mixture of stout and champagne was quaffed by the bumper, earned him the nickname of "der tolle Bismarck" — that is, mad or wild Bismarck. A story of a number of young foxes being suddenly let loose in the drawing-room to frighten the female cousins reminds one of Tony Lumpkin's practical jocularity. But moody reaction followed such fits of artificial buoyancy. Bismarck would disappear for days amongst the woods of his estate, or lock himself up in his closet, poring over numberless volumes of miscellaneous literature. Even Spinoza he explored to find "adversity's sweet milk, philosophy," with what result may be imagined. At one time, it is said, he had made up his mind to say good-bye to his native land and seek his fortune in India.

There is, however, nothing of bitterness or disappointed egotism in his letters of this period. They are written in a spirit of bonhomie mixed with gentle self-irony and an occasional indication of impatience and discontentment. What, for instance, can be more thoroughly good-natured than the humor with which Bismarck describes the "farce of shooting the fox," daily performed by the simple-minded father and most patiently endured by the son? or what more tenderly filial than the closing passages of the same note addressed to his sister, where he reminds her to give a few more details of her daily life in her letters to the old gentleman?" Tell him who has called on you and on whom you have called, what you have had for dinner, how your horses are, how the servants behave, whether the doors creak and the windows are weather-tight — in short, facts! Also he does not like to be called papa, having a particular objection to that term." A Dutch painter could not have hit off more perfectly the good-natured country gentleman of the old school walking his preserves and sheep-pens and winding up his old-fashioned clocks than Bismarck has done in a few touches.

"Madame," he says, addressing his sister in 1845, evidently in imitation of one of Heine's favorite mannerisms, "I can hardly resist the temptation to fill an entire letter with agricultural complaints, night frosts, sick cattle, bad rape and bad roads, dead lambs, hungry sheep, want of straw, fodder, money, potatoes, and manure; in addition, John is whistling outside a most infamous polka-tune both falsely and pertinaciously, and I am not cruel enough to stop him, knowing that he is trying to soothe his violent love trouble by means of music. The ideal of his dreams, by the persuasion of her parents, has given him the congé, and married a carpenter: exactly my case but for the carpenter, who is still rumbling in the lap of futurity. However, I must get married, Devil take me, that's clear. For since father's departure I am lonely and alone, and this mild, damp weather makes me feel melancholy and longingly loving. It is no use contending. I must marry Miss after all; every one says so, and nothing is more natural, as we have both been left behind. It is true she leaves me cold, but then they all do that. . . . When I came from Angermünde the waves of the River

Zampel separated me from Kniephof, and as no one would trust me with horses I had to stop the night at Naugard with a number of travellers, commercial and otherwise, all waiting for the abating of the waters. After that the bridges of the Zampel were torn away; so that Knobelsdorf [a friend of Bismarck] and myself, the regents of two great counties [alluding to an appointment he held in his province], were enclosed in a little spot of earth by the waves, while an interregnum of anarchy prevailed from Schievelbein to Damm. As late as one o'clock one of my carts with three casks of spirits was carried away by the floods, and in my affluent of the Zampel a carter with his horse was drowned; I am proud to relate."

At this passage M. Klaczko in the clever pamplet already alluded to utters a shriek of horror. With an elegant allusion to another flood — a sea of human blood, shed of course by Bismarck's fault alone, in France — he points out the brutality of the joke at the expense of an ill-fated menial. But really there is no brutality at all in the case. In connection with the drowned carter, Bismarck goes on to detail several other misfortunes of equal importance. Some houses have tumbled down; a landowner in the neighborhood has hanged himself from desperation at the want of fodder. "An eventful year!" Bismarck exclaims: he is simply mocking and chafing at the narrowness of his circle of vision, in which the commonplace occurrences of life have to stand for historic events. That the life of a servant was not a matter of trifling to him he had shown previously, when with considerable personal danger he saved his groom, from drowning. The medal awarded to him for this brave deed was for some time Bismarck's only order. A diplomatist who inquired somewhat superciliously after the meaning of the unpretending decoration Bismarck silenced with the nonchalant reply, "I am sometimes in the habit of saving a person's life."

Numerous other letters of a similar character might be cited, one in especial dated 1850, in which Bismarck, who in the mean time had married Fraulein Johanna von Puttkammer, describes his troubles as paterfamilias on a trip to the seaside; the company including, besides himself and Frau von Bismarck, two squalling children with a corresponding number of tuneful nursemaids. Matrimonial Britons ought to take example by the great chancellor's heavenly patience. In 1851 Bismarck was appointed Prussian ambassador to the German Diet at Frankfort-on-the-Main, then just re-emerging from the storms of the Revolution. The influence of Austria, which lorded it over the minor potentates of Germany and suppressed the remainder of Liberal feeling in the southern states with an iron hand, was quite in accordance with Bismarck's political views at the time. For diplomacy and statecraft in the abstract he also felt a deep reverence. But soon after his arrival at Frankfort the scales fell from his eyes. With indignation he recognized the humiliating position of his own country, and partly, no doubt, to this sudden reaction in his whole feeling is due the utter contempt with which he speaks of the doings and intriguings of his brother diplomatists. These feelings are expressed with wonderful force of utterance in a remarkable letter to his wife (Frankfort, May 18, 1851), too long to quote here, but well worth the attention of the reader, particularly at the present moment. "Unless external events supervene," he writes, "I can tell you now what we are going to achieve in the next one, two, or five years, and, indeed, will undertake to achieve it myself in twenty-four hours if only the others would be sincere and reasonable for a single day. I always knew that they were cooking with water, but I am surprised at this sober, silly, watery broth, in which there is not a speck of fat to be seen. Forward me Schulze (village mayor), X., or Herr von ——ski from the turnpike house, and I will turn them into first-rate diplomates."

From the irksomeness of his office Bismarck escaped as frequently as possible into the quietude of the country, which in the neighborhood of Frankfort is fertile and beautiful. In one of his letters from this period he describes a delightful swim at night in the Rhine. His description of the woody mountain-tops and the battlements of castle ruins lit up by the moon is instinct with the spirit of romanticism. Descriptions of beautiful scenery of the most varied kind abound in Bismarck's letters. Wherever he went on his diplomatic wanderings — to Vienna, to the south of France, to St. Petersburg and Holland — the letters to his wife give a running commentary of his travelling impressions. Even from the battlefields of Bohemia and France he sends her hurried scraps to say what he has seen and done and felt. As biographical records these are invaluable; but even forgetting the historic import of the man and the date one can hardly read without interest and sympathy a passage from a letter to his wife written on the eve of the battle of Sadowa, which, after a hurried account of the events of the previous days, he concludes: "Greet every one cordially. Send me a novel, but one at a time only. God be with you. Just received your letter; thousand thanks. I can feel with you the calm after we had left. Here in this throng of events one cannot realize the situation, except perhaps at night in bed." What epic poet could have drawn a great statesman and leader of the people in the midst of events of which he is the primary cause — seeking an hour's forgetfulness in a work of fiction, but never losing the thought of wife and home — with more graphic touches than is done unconsciously in these few broken lines?

To return to Bismarck's love of nature, it ought to be mentioned that, unlike many Germans, he is passionately fond of the sea. Even to so dull a place as Ostend he looks back "with longing," "for there," he writes, "I have met again an old love, quite unchanged and quite as beautiful as at our first acquaintance. I feel the separation bitterly, and look forward with impatience to the moment when, at Norderney, I may rest again on her heaving bosom; I can hardly understand how one can live away from the sea." A piece of landscape painting from a very different region is the only further specimen of Bismarck's descriptive power which the limits of space will allow me to quote. In the early autumn of 1862 he made a short tour to the south of France previously to assuming the office of prime minister. His letters to his wife are resplendent with air and light of southern seas and skies. Here is one dated Luchon, September 9th, 1862: "The day before yesterday we ascended from here the Col de Venasque: first two hours through splendid beech forest, full of ivy, rocks, and waterfalls; after that a hospitium, then again two hours' steep ascent on horseback over the snow, with views into the distance, still, deep lakes among snow and cliffs. At a height of seventy-five hundred feet there opens in the pointed crest of the Pyrenees a narrow gate through which one enters Spain. The land of chestnuts and palms presents the appearance of a mountain gorge surrounded by the Maladetta, in front of us Pic de Sauvegarde and Pic de Picade. To the right flow streams towards the Ebro, to the left towards the Garonne; and on the horizon rises up one glacier and snow-covered peak behind the other far into Catalonia and Aragon. Here we breakfasted on a slight acclivity of the rocks — red partridges without salt or water — and afterwards rode downwards again on giddy mountain paths, but with splendid weather . . . To-day we saw the lake of Oo — a mountain gorge like the upper lake at Berchtes-garden, but enlivened by a tremendous waterfall rushing into it. We went on the lake singing French chansonettes and Mendelssohn — that is to say, I listened. After that we rode home in a storm of rain, and are now dry and hungry again."

It was during this tour in the south of France that Bismarck at Avignon picked on the grave of Laura the olive branch which soon afterwards he offered to the indignant Radicals of the Prussian Chamber as a symbol of his conciliatory feeling. He also met Napoleon, with whom on this and later occasions he lived on the friendliest terms. Bismarck seems to have exercised a kind of fascination over the mind of the emperor, who half incredulously, half admiringly, listened to his vast schemes. The same charm of the Prussian statesman's personality has been experienced by many different people under different conditions. Even Jules Favre submitted to it when, during the siege of Paris, he met the enemy of his country, and M. Thiers supplied the clue to the phenomenon by calling Bismarck, somewhat uncomplimentarily, "un sauvage plein de génie" using the word "sauvage" in the sense of an impulsive nature untamed by the fetters of conventionality or diplomatic usage. Who has ever heard of Metternich or Talleyrand inspiring personal sympathy or even personal hatred? There is of course a reverse to the medal. The impulsiveness and irritability of Bismarck's nature have not unfrequently led him into personal squabbles unworthy of his position alike as a statesman and an individual. In such moments he drops the extreme and cordial politeness of his ordinary bearing, and one is not astonished at reading that even so bold a man as Dr. Russell, the Times correspondent in the Prussian camp, did not Relish the idea of facing Bismarck's wrath at Versailles.

It is true that in moments of excitement Bismarck becomes all but an orator. His ordinary speaking is by no means perfect. There is in his delivery nothing of Mr. Gladstone's wonderful smoothness and readiness of parlance. Bismarck's utterance resembles clock-work. He says a certain number of words, stops for a second regardless of comma or colon, and takes up the sentence again where he left it. But under the influence of personal feeling the stream of his words flows more rapidly. His huge form seems to tremble under the storms of passion, and the impression is powerful, although not always pleasant. His personal sallies and the way he utters them somewhat remind one of Mr. Lowe.

It remains to refer briefly to the numerous happy and unhappy sayings which, with Bismarck's signature affixed, have become truly "winged words." Some of these, like the combinations of "blood and iron," and the no less celebrated phrase of "Might goes before right," he distinctly repudiates. Others have been erroneously fathered upon him. The unpleasant bon-mot about "letting the Parisians simmer in their own gravy" is by no means an invention of Bismarck's, but simply a very common German proverb somewhat brutally applied to the unfortunate city. The story of Bismarck having replied to the anxious query of Count Karolyi, if he intended to break the treaty of Gastein, "No; but if I had that intention should I answer you otherwise?" is, if not true, at least well invented. The cynicism of truth is decidedly one of the characteristic features of Bismarck's diplomatic action. The description of Napoleon as the "embodiment of misunderstood incapacity," at a time when the world looked up to the Tuileries as the modern Delphi, shows psychological foresight. But the best, because the simplest, of Bismarck's "happy thoughts" is perhaps his observation with regard to Nicholsburg, the splendid castle of Count Mensdorf, where the preliminary treaty of peace between Austria and Prussia was signed. "My old mansion of Schönhausen," he said, "is certainly very insignificant compared with this magnificent building. A good thing, therefore, that we are at Count Mensdorfs, and not he at my house."

It has been my wish in this brief paper to indicate rather than to prove a literary vein in the great statesman's intellect. The reader whose interest in the matter is roused is referred to the original sources. It may be said that in the best case a parcel of clever letters is a slender foundation for a position in literature. But does quantity alone decide the question? Walpole's idea of cataloguing royal and noble authors as such is not quite so snobbish as appears at first sight. An author whom his position seems to exclude from ordinary literary competition is always a phenomenon of some interest. His desire for literary fame must at least be genuine. As regards Bismarck, he will, with his few spontaneous effusions, perhaps stand a better chance with posterity than other statesmen whose literary productions fill a moderate-sized bookcase.

  1. Reactionary country squire.
  2. An English version of this book has been made in the slipshod manner in which such work is unfortunately but too frequently done amongst us. The style of the narrative had not much to lose by the process, but the peculiar charm of the letters has, of course, been obliterated entirely. Moreover mistakes abound throughout the volume.