Prince Bismarck : The German Empire – Beacon Lights of History, Volume X : European Leaders by John Lord
William IV : English Reforms
Sir Robert Peel : Political Economy
Cavour : United Italy
Czar Nicholas : The Crimean War
Louis Napoleon : The Second Empire
Prince Bismarck : The German Empire
William Ewart Gladstone : The Enfranchisement of the People
Beacon Lights of History, Volume X : European Leaders
Humiliation of Prussia.
Her great deliverers.
Baron von Stein.
His financial genius.
His intense hatred of Napoleon.
His great reforms.
Disgrace of Stein.
Baron von Humboldt.
New military organization.
Frederick William III.
Diet of Frankfort.
Reaction of liberal sentiments.
Influence of Metternich.
Frederick William IV.
Rise of Bismarck.
Diplomatist at the Diet of Frankfort.
Ambassador at St. Petersburg.
Death of Frederick William IV.
Bismarck, Prime Minister.
Increase of the army.
The Schleswig-Holstein Question.
Treaty of Vienna, 1864.
War between Austria and Prussia.
Count von Moltke.
Battle of Sadowa.
Great increase of Prussian territory and population.
New German Constitution.
War clouds–France and Luxembourg.
Conference at London.
King William at Paris.
Preparations and pretext for war with France.
Mobilization of German troops.
King William at Mayence.
Battle of Gravelotte.
Fall of Louis Napoleon at Sedan.
Siege and surrender of Paris.
King William crowned Emperor of Germany.
Labors of Bismarck.
Quarrel with the Catholics.
Socialism in Germany.
Bismarck’s domestic policy.
Bismarck’s famous speech, 1888.
Death of Emperor William.
Retirement of Bismarck.
Prince Bismarck : The German Empire
Before presenting Bismarck, it will be necessary to glance at the work of those great men who prepared the way not only for him, but also for the soldier Moltke,–men who raised Prussia from the humiliation resulting from her conquest by Napoleon.
That humiliation was as complete as it was unexpected. It was even greater than that of France after the later Franco-Prussian war. Prussia was dismembered; its provinces were seized by the conqueror; its population was reduced to less than four millions; its territory was occupied by one hundred and fifty thousand French soldiers; the king himself was an exile and a fugitive from his own capital; every sort of indignity was heaped on his prostrate subjects, who were compelled to pay a war indemnity beyond their power; trade and commerce were cut off by Napoleon’s Continental system; and universal poverty overspread the country, always poor, and now poorer than ever. Prussia had no allies to rally to her sinking fortunes; she was completely isolated. Most of her fortresses were in the hands of her enemies, and the magnificent army of which she had been so proud since the days of Frederic the Great was dispersed. At the peace of Tilsit, in 1807, it looked as if the whole kingdom was about to be absorbed in the empire of Napoleon, like Bavaria and the Rhine provinces, and wiped out of the map of Europe like unfortunate Poland.
But even this did not complete the humiliation. Napoleon compelled the King of Prussia–Frederic William III.–to furnish him soldiers to fight against Russia, as if Prussia were already incorporated with his own empire and had lost her nationality. At that time France and Russia were in alliance, and Prussia had no course to adopt but submission or complete destruction; and yet Prussia refused in these evil days to join the Confederation of the Rhine, which embraced all the German States at the south and west of Austria and Prussia. Napoleon, however, was too much engrossed in his scheme of conquering Spain, to swallow up Prussia entirely, as he intended, after he should have subdued Spain. So, after all, Prussia had before her only the fortune of Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus,–to be devoured the last.
The escape of Prussia was owing, on the one hand, to the necessity for Napoleon to withdraw his main army from Prussia in order to fight in Spain; and secondly, to the transcendent talents of a few patriots to whom the king in his distress was forced to listen. The chief of these were Stein, Hardenberg, and Scharnhorst. It was the work of Stein to reorganize the internal administration of Prussia, including the financial department; that of Hardenberg to conduct the ministry of foreign affairs; and that of Scharnhorst to reorganize the military power. The two former were nobles; the latter sprung from the people,–a peasant’s son; but they worked together in tolerable harmony, considering the rival jealousies that at one time existed among all the high officials, with their innumerable prejudices.
Baron von Stein, born in 1757, of an old imperial knightly family from the country near Nassau, was as a youth well-educated, and at the age of twenty-three entered the Prussian service under Frederic the Great, in the mining department, where he gained rapid promotion. In 1786 he visited England and made a careful study of her institutions, which he profoundly admired. In 1787 he became a sort of provincial governor, being director of the war and Domaine Chambers at Cleves and Hamm.
In 1804 Stein became Minister of Trade, having charge of excise, customs, manufactures, and trade. The whole financial administration at this time under King Frederick William III was in a state of great confusion, from an unnecessary number of officials who did not work harmoniously. There was too much “red tape.” Stein brought order out of confusion, simplified the administration, punished corruption, increased the national credit, then at a very low ebb, and re-established the bank of Prussia on a basis that enabled it to assist the government.
But a larger field than that of finance was opened to Stein in the war of 1806. The king intrusted to him the portfolio of foreign affairs,–not willingly, but because he regarded him as the ablest man in the kingdom. Stein declined to be foreign minister unless he was entirely unshackled, and the king was obliged to yield, for the misfortunes of the country had now culminated in the disastrous defeat at Friedland. The king, however, soon quarrelled with his minister, being jealous of his commanding abilities, and unused to dictation from any source. After a brief exile at Nassau, the peace of Tilsit having proved the sagacity of his views, Stein returned to power as virtual dictator of the kingdom, with the approbation of Napoleon; but his dictatorship lasted only about a year, when he was again discharged.
During that year, 1807, Stein made his mark in Prussian history. Without dwelling on details, he effected the abolition of serfdom in Prussia, the trade in land, and municipal reforms, giving citizens self-government in place of the despotism of military bureaus. He made it his business to pay off the French war indemnity,–one hundred and fifty million francs, a great sum for Prussia to raise when dismembered and trodden in the dust under one hundred and fifty thousand French soldiers,–and to establish a new and improved administrative system. But, more than all, he attempted to rouse a moral, religious, and patriotic spirit in the nation, and to inspire it anew with courage, self-confidence, and self-sacrifice. In 1808 the ministry became warlike in spite of its despair, the first glimpse of hope being the popular rising in Spain. It was during the ministry of Stein, and through his efforts, that the anti-Napoleonic revolution began.
The intense hostility of Stein to Napoleon, and his commanding abilities, led Napoleon in 1808 imperatively to demand from the King of Prussia the dismissal of his minister; and Frederick William dared not resist. Stein did not retire, however, until after the royal edict had emancipated the serfs of Prussia, and until that other great reform was made by which the nobles lost the monopoly of office and exemption from taxation, while the citizen class gained admission to all posts, trades, and occupations. These great reforms were chiefly to be traced to Stein, although Hardenberg and others, like Schön and Niebuhr, had a hand in them.
Stein also opened the military profession to the citizen class, which before was closed, only nobles being intrusted with command in the army. It is true that nobles still continued to form a large majority of officers, even as peasants formed the bulk of the army. But the removal of restrictions and the abolition of serfdom tended to create patriotic sentiments among all classes, on which the strength of armies in no small degree rests. In the time of Frederic the Great the army was a mere machine. It was something more when the nation in 1811 rallied to achieve its independence. Then was born the idea of nationality,–that, whatever obligations a Prussian owed to the state, Germany was greater than Prussia itself. This idea was the central principle of Stein’s political system, leading ultimately to the unity of Germany as finally effected by Bismarck and Moltke. It became almost synonymous with that patriotism which sustains governments and thrones, the absence of which was the great defect of the German States before the times of Napoleon, when both princes and people lost sight of the unity of the nation in the interests of petty sovereignties.
Stein was a man of prodigious energy, practical good sense, and lofty character, but irascible, haughty, and contemptuous, and was far from being a favorite with the king and court. His great idea was the unity and independence of Germany. He thought more of German nationality than of Prussian aggrandizement. It was his aim to make his countrymen feel that they were Germans rather than Prussians, and that it was only by a union of the various German States that they could hope to shake off the French yoke, galling and humiliating beyond description.
When Stein was driven into exile at the dictation of Napoleon, with the loss of his private fortune, he was invited by the Emperor of Russia to aid him with his counsels,–and it can be scarcely doubted that in the employ of Russia he rendered immense services to Germany, and had no little influence in shaping the movements of the allies in effecting the ruin of the common despot. On this point, however, I cannot dwell.
Count, afterward Prince, Hardenberg, held to substantially the same views, and was more acceptable to the king as minister than was the austere and haughty Stein, although his morals were loose, and his abilities far inferior to those of the former. But his diplomatic talents were considerable, and his manners were agreeable, like those of Metternich, while Stein treated kings and princes as ordinary men, and dictated to them the course which was necessary to pursue. It was the work of Hardenberg to create the peasant-proprietorship of modern Prussia; but it was the previous work of Stein to establish free trade in land,–which means the removal of hindrances to the sale and purchase of land, which still remains one of the abuses of England,–the ultimate effect of which was to remove caste in land as well as caste in persons.
The great educational movement, in the deepest depression of Prussian affairs, was headed by William, Baron von Humboldt. When Prussia lay disarmed, dismembered, and impoverished, the University of Berlin was founded, the government contributing one hundred and fifty thousand thalers a year; and Humboldt–the first minister of public instruction–succeeded in inducing the most eminent and learned men in Germany to become professors in this new university. I look upon this educational movement in the most gloomy period of German history as one of the noblest achievements which any nation ever made in the cause of science and literature. It took away the sting of military ascendency, and raised men of genius to an equality with nobles; and as the universities were the centres of liberal sentiments and all liberalizing ideas, they must have exerted no small influence on the war of liberation itself, as well as on the cause of patriotism, which was the foundation of the future greatness of Prussia. Students flocked from all parts of Germany to hear lectures from accomplished and patriotic professors, who inculcated the love of fatherland. Germany, though fallen into the hands of a military hero from defects in the administration of governments and armies, was not disgraced when her professors in the university were the greatest scholars of the world. They created a new empire, not of the air, as some one sneeringly remarked, but of mind, which has gone on from conquering to conquer. For more than fifty years German universities have been the centre of European thought and scholastic culture,–pedantic, perhaps, but original and profound.
Before proceeding to the main subject, I have to speak of one more great reform, which was the work of Scharnhorst. This was that series of measures which determined the result of the greatest military struggles of the nineteenth century, and raised Prussia to the front rank of military monarchies. It was the levee en masse, composed of the youth of the nation, without distinction of rank, instead of an army made up of peasants and serfs and commanded by their feudal masters. Scharnhorst introduced a compulsory system, indeed, but it was not unequal. Every man was made to feel that he had a personal interest in defending his country, and there were no exemptions made. True, the old system of Frederic the Great was that of conscription; but from this conscription large classes and whole districts were exempted, while the soldiers who fought in the war of liberation were drawn from all classes alike: hence, there was no unjust compulsion, which weakens patriotism, and entails innumerable miseries. It was impossible in the utter exhaustion of the national finances to raise a sufficient number of volunteers to meet the emergencies of the times; therefore, if Napoleon was to be overthrown, it was absolutely necessary to compel everybody to serve in the army for a limited period, The nation saw the necessity, and made no resistance. Thus patriotism lent her aid, and became an overwhelming power. The citizen soldier was no great burden on the government, since it was bound to his support only for a limited period,–long or short as the exigency of the country demanded. Hence, large armies were maintained at comparatively trifling expense.
I need not go into the details of a system which made Prussia a nation of patriots as well as of soldiers, and which made Scharnhorst a great national benefactor, sharing with Stein the glory of a great deliverance. He did not live to see the complete triumph of his system, matured by genius and patient study; but his work remained to future generations, and made Prussia invincible except to a coalition of powerful enemies. All this was done under the eye of Napoleon, and a dreamy middle class became an effective soldiery. So, too, did the peasants, no longer subjected to corporal punishment and other humiliations. What a great thing it was to restore dignity to a whole nation, and kindle the fires of patriotic ardor among poor and rich alike! To the credit of the king, he saw the excellence of the new system, at once adopted it, and generously rewarded its authors. Scharnhorst, the peasant’s son, was made a noble, and was retained in office until he died. Stein, however, whose overshadowing greatness created jealousy, remained simply a baron, and spent his last days in retirement,–though not unhonored, or without influence, even when not occupying the great offices of state, to which no man ever had a higher claim. The king did not like him, and the king was still an absolute monarch.
Frederick William III. was by no means a great man, being jealous, timid, and vacillating; but it was in his reign that Prussia laid the foundation of her greatness as a military monarchy. It was not the king who laid this foundation, but the great men whom Providence raised up in the darkest hours of Prussia’s humiliation. He did one prudent thing, however, out of timidity, when his ministers waged vigorous and offensive measures. He refused to arm against Napoleon when Prussia lay at his mercy. This turned out to be the salvation of Prussia, A weak man’s instincts proved to be wiser than the wisdom of the wise. When Napoleon’s doom was sealed by his disasters in Russia, then, and not till then, did the Prussian king unite with Russia and Austria to crush the unscrupulous despot.
The condition of Prussia, then, briefly stated, when Napoleon was sent to St. Helena to meditate and die, was this: a conquering army, of which Blücher was one of its greatest generals, had been raised by the levee en masse,–a conscription, indeed, not of peasants alone, obliged to serve for twenty years, but of the whole nation, for three years of active service; and a series of administrative reforms had been introduced and extended to every department of the State, by which greater economy and a more complete system were inaugurated, favoritism abolished, and the finances improved so as to support the government and furnish the sinews of war; while alliances were made with great Powers who hitherto had been enemies or doubtful friends.
These alliances resulted in what is called the German Confederation, or Bund,–a strict union of all the various States for defensive purposes, and also to maintain a general system to suppress revolutionary and internal dissensions. Most of the German States entered into this Confederacy, at the head of which was Austria. It was determined in June, 1815, at Vienna, that the Confederacy should be managed by a general assembly, called a Diet, the seat of which was located at Frankfort. In this Diet the various independent States, thirty-nine in number, had votes in proportion to their population, and were bound to contribute troops of one soldier to every hundred inhabitants, amounting to three hundred thousand in all, of which Austria and Prussia and Bavaria furnished more than half. This arrangement virtually gave to Austria and Prussia a preponderance in the Diet; and as the States were impoverished by the late war, and the people generally detested war, a long peace of forty years (with a short interval of a year) was secured to Germany, during which prosperity returned and the population nearly doubled. The Germans turned their swords into pruning-hooks, and all kinds of industry were developed, especially manufactures. The cities were adorned with magnificent works of art, and libraries, schools, and universities covered the land. No nation ever made a more signal progress in material prosperity than did the German States during this period of forty years,–especially Prussia, which became in addition intellectually the most cultivated country in Europe, with twenty-one thousand primary schools, and one thousand academies, or gymnasia, in which mathematics and the learned languages were taught by accomplished scholars; to say nothing of the universities, which drew students from all Christian and civilized countries in both hemispheres.
The rapid advance in learning, however, especially in the universities and the gymnasia, led to the discussion of innumerable subjects, including endless theories of government and the rights of man, by which discontent was engendered and virtue was not advanced. Strange to say, even crime increased. The universities became hot-beds of political excitement, duels, beer-drinking, private quarrels, and infidel discussion, causing great alarm to conservative governments and to peaceful citizens generally. At last the Diet began to interfere, for it claimed the general oversight of all internal affairs in the various States. An army of three hundred thousand men which obeyed the dictation of the Diet was not to be resisted; and as this Diet was controlled by Austria and Prussia, it became every year more despotic and anti-democratic. In consequence, the Press was gradually fettered, the universities were closely watched, and all revolutionary movements in cities were suppressed. Discontent and popular agitations, as usual, went hand in hand.
As early as 1818 the great reaction against all liberal sentiments in political matters had fairly set in. The king of Prussia neglected, and finally refused, to grant the constitutional government which he had promised in the day of his adversity before the battle of Waterloo; while Austria, guided by Metternich, stamped her iron heel on everything which looked like intellectual or national independence.
This memorable reaction against all progress in government, not confined to the German States but extending to Europe generally, has already been considered in previous chapters. It was the great political feature in the history of Europe for ten years after the fall of Napoleon, particularly in Austria, where hatred of all popular movements raged with exceeding bitterness, intensified by the revolutions in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The assassination of Kotzebue, the dramatic author, by a political fanatic, for his supposed complicity with the despotic schemes of the Czar, kindled popular excitement into a blazing flame, but still more fiercely incited the sovereigns of Germany to make every effort to suppress even liberty of thought.
During the period, then, when ultra-conservative principles animated the united despots of the various German States, and the Diet controlled by Metternich repressed all liberal movements, little advance was made in Prussia in the way of reforms. But a great advance was made in all questions of political economy and industrial matters. Free-trade was established in the most unlimited sense between all the states and provinces of the Confederation. All restraints were removed from the navigation of rivers; new markets were opened in every direction for the productions of industry. In 1839 the Zollverein, or Customs-Union, was established, by which a uniform scale of duties was imposed in Northern Germany on all imports and exports. But no political reforms which the king had promised were effected during the life of Frederick William III. Hardenberg, who with Stein had inaugurated liberal movements, had lost his influence, although he was retained in power until he died.
For the twenty years succeeding the confederation of the German States in 1820, constitutional freedom made little or no progress in Germany. The only advance made in Prussia was in 1823, when the Provincial Estates, or Diets, were established. These, however, were the mere shadow of representative government, since the Estates were convoked at irregular intervals, and had neither the power to initiate laws nor grant supplies. They could only express their opinions concerning changes in the laws pertaining to persons and property.
On the 7th of June, 1840, Frederick William III. of Prussia died, and was succeeded by his son Frederick William IV., a religious and patriotic king, who was compelled to make promises for some sort of constitutional liberty, and to grant certain concessions, which although they did not mean much gave general satisfaction. Among other things the freedom of the Press was partially guaranteed, with certain restrictions, and the Zollverein was extended to Brunswick and Hesse-Homburg. Meantime the government entered with zeal upon the construction of railways and the completion of the Cathedral of Cologne, which tended to a more permanent union of the North German States. “We are not engaged here,” said the new monarch, on the inauguration of the completion of that proudest work of mediaeval art, “with the construction of an ordinary edifice; it is a work bespeaking the spirit of union and concord which animates the whole of Germany and all its persuasions, that we are now constructing.” This inauguration, amid immense popular enthusiasm, was soon followed by the meeting of the Estates of the whole kingdom at Berlin, which for the first time united the various Provincial Estates in a general Diet; but its functions were limited to questions involving a diminution of taxation. No member was allowed to speak more than once on any question, and the representatives of the commons were only a third part of the whole assembly. This naturally did not satisfy the nation, and petitions flowed in for the abolition of the censorship of the Press and for the publicity of debate. The king was not prepared to make these concessions in full, but he abolished the censorship of the Press as to works extending to above twenty pages, and enjoined the censors of lesser pamphlets and journals to exercise gentleness and discretion, and not erase anything which did not strike at the monarchy. At length, in 1847, the desire was so universal for some form of representative government that a royal edict convoked a General Assembly of the Estates of Prussia, arranged in four classes,–the nobles, the equestrian order, the towns, and the rural districts. The Diet consisted of six hundred and seventy members, of which only eighty were nobles, and was empowered to discuss all questions pertaining to legislation; but the initiative of all measures was reserved to the crown. This National Diet assembled on the 24th of July, and was opened by the king in person, with a noble speech, remarkable for its elevation of tone. He convoked the Diet, the king said, to make himself acquainted with the wishes and wants of his people, but not to change the constitution, which guaranteed an absolute monarchy. The province of the Diet was consultative rather than legislative. Political and military power, as before, remained with the king. Still, an important step had been taken toward representative institutions.
It was about this time, as a member of the National Diet, that Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck appeared upon the political stage. It was a period of great political excitement, not only in Prussia, but throughout Europe, and also of great material prosperity. Railways had been built, the Zollverein had extended through North Germany, the universities were in their glory, and into everything fearless thinkers were casting their thoughtful eyes. Thirty-four years of peace had enriched and united the German States. The great idea of the day was political franchise. Everybody aspired to solve political problems, and wished to have a voice in deliberative assemblies. There was also an unusual agitation of religious ideas. Rouge had attempted the complete emancipation of Germany from Papal influences, and university professors threw their influence on the side of rationalism and popular liberty. On the whole, there was a general tendency towards democratic ideas, which was opposed with great bitterness by the conservative parties, made up of nobles and government officials.
Bismarck arose, slowly but steadily, with the whole force of his genius, among the defenders of the conservative interests of his order and of the throne. He was then simply Herr von Bismarck, belonging to an ancient and noble but not wealthy family, whose seat was Schönhausen, where the future prince was born, April 1, 1815. The youth was sent to a gymnasium in Berlin in 1830, and in 1832 to the university of Göttingen in Hanover, where he was more distinguished for duels, drinking-parties, and general lawlessness than for scholarship. Here he formed a memorable friendship with a brother student, a young American,–John Lothrop Motley, later the historian of the Dutch Republic. Much has been written of Bismarck’s reckless and dissipated life at the university, which differed not essentially from that of other nobles. He had a grand figure, superb health, extraordinary animal spirits, and could ride like a centaur. He spent but three semestres at Göttingen, and then repaired to Berlin in order to study jurisprudence under the celebrated Savigny; but he was rarely seen in the lecture-room. He gave no promise of the great abilities which afterward distinguished him. Yet he honorably passed his State examination; and as he had chosen the law for his profession, he first served on leaving the university as a sort of clerk in the city police, and in 1834 was transferred to Aix-la-Chapelle, in the administrative department of the district. In 1837 he served in the crown office at Potsdam. He then entered for a year as a sharpshooter of the Guards, to absolve his obligation to military service.
The next eight years, from the age of twenty-four, he devoted to farming, hunting, carousing, and reading, on one of his father’s estates in Pomerania. He was a sort of country squire, attending fairs, selling wool, inspecting timber, handling grain, gathering rents, and sitting as a deputy in the local Diet,–the talk and scandal of the neighborhood for his demon-like rides and drinking-bouts, yet now studying all the while, especially history and even philosophy, managing the impoverished paternal estates with prudence and success, and making short visits to France and England, the languages of which countries he could speak with fluency and accuracy. In 1847 he married Johanna von Putkammer, nine years younger than himself, who proved a model wife, domestic and wise, of whom he was both proud and fond. The same year, his father having died and left him Schönhausen, he was elected a member of the Landtag, a quasi-parliament of the eight united Diets of the monarchy; and his great career began.
Up to this period Bismarck was not a publicly marked man, except in an avidity for country sports and skill in horsemanship. He ever retained his love of the country and of country life. If proud and overbearing, he was not ostentatious. He had but few friends, but to these he was faithful. He never was popular until he had made Prussia the most powerful military State in Europe. He never sought to be loved so much as to be feared; he never allowed himself to be approached without politeness and deference. He seemed to care more for dogs than men. Nor was he endowed with those graces of manner which marked Metternich. He remained harsh, severe, grave, proud through his whole career, from first to last, except in congenial company. What is called society he despised, with all his aristocratic tendencies and high social rank. He was born for untrammelled freedom, and was always impatient under contradiction or opposition. When he reached the summit of his power he resembled Wallenstein, the hero of the Thirty Years War,–superstitious, self-sustained, unapproachable, inspiring awe, rarely kindling love, overshadowing by his vast abilities the monarch whom he served and ruled.
No account of the man, however, would be complete which did not recognize the corner-stone of his character,–an immovable belief in the feudalistic right of royalty to rule its subjects. Descended from an ancient family of knights and statesmen, of the most intensely aristocratic and reactionary class even in Germany, his inherited instincts and his own tremendous will, backed by a physique of colossal size and power, made effective his loyalty to the king and the monarchy, which from the first dominated and inspired him. In the National Diet of 1847, Herr von Bismarck sat for more than a month before he opened his lips; but when he did speak it became evident that he was determined to support to the utmost the power of the crown. He was plus royaliste que le roi. In the ordinary sense he was no orator. He hesitated, he coughed, he sought for words; his voice, in spite of his herculean frame, was feeble. But sturdy in his loyalty, although inexperienced in parliamentary usage, he offered a bold front to the liberalism which he saw to be dangerous to his sovereign’s throne. Like Oliver Cromwell in Parliament, he gained daily in power, while, unlike the English statesman, he was opposed to the popular side, and held up the monarchy after the fashion of Strafford. From that time, and in fact until 1866, when he conquered Austria, Bismarck was very unpopular; and as he rose in power he became the most bitterly hated man in Prussia,–which hatred he returned with arrogant contempt. He consistently opposed all reforms, even the emancipation of the Jews, which won him the favor of the monarch.
When the revolution of 1848 broke out, which hurled Louis Philippe from the French throne its flames reached every continental State except Russia. Metternich, who had been all powerful in Austria for forty years, was obliged to flee, as well as the imperial family itself. All the Germanic States were now promised liberal constitutions by the fallen or dismayed princes. In Prussia, affairs were critical, and the reformers were sanguine of triumph. Berlin was agitated by mobs to the verge of anarchy. The king, seriously alarmed, now promised the boon which he had thus far withheld, and summoned the Second United Diet to pave the way for a constituent assembly. In this constituent assembly Bismarck scorned to sit. For six months it sat squabbling and fighting, but accomplishing nothing. At last, Bismarck found it expedient to enter the new parliament as a deputy, and again vigorously upheld the absolute power of the crown. He did, indeed, accept the principle of constitutional government, but, as he frankly said, against his will, and only as a new power in the hands of the monarch to restrain popular agitation and maintain order. Through his influence the king refused the imperial crown offered by the Frankfort parliament, because he conceived that the parliament had no right to give it, that its acceptance would be a recognition of national instead of royal sovereignty, and that it would be followed probably by civil war. As time went on he became more and more the leader of the conservatives. I need not enumerate the subjects which came up for discussion in the new Prussian parliament, in which Bismarck exhibited with more force than eloquence his loyalty to the crown, and a conservatism which was branded by the liberals as mediaeval. But his originality, his boldness, his fearlessness, his rugged earnestness, his wit and humor, his biting sarcasm, his fertility of resources, his knowledge of men and affairs, and his devoted patriotism, marked him out for promotion.
In 1851 Bismarck was sent as first secretary of the Prussian embassy to the Diet of the various German States, convened at Frankfort, in which Austria held a predominating influence. It was not a parliament, but an administrative council of the Germanic Confederation founded by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It made no laws, and its sittings were secret. It was a body which represented the League of Sovereigns, and was composed of only seventeen delegates,–its main function being to suppress all liberal movements in the various German States; like the Congress of Vienna itself. The Diet of Frankfort was pretentious, but practically impotent, and was the laughingstock of Europe. It was full of jealousies and intrigues. It was a mere diplomatic conference. As Austria and Prussia controlled it, things went well enough when these two Powers were agreed; but they did not often agree. There was a perpetual rivalry between them, and an unextinguishable jealousy.
There were many sneers at the appointment of a man to this diplomatic post whose manners were brusque and overbearing, and who had spent the most of his time, after leaving the university, among horses, cattle, and dogs; who was only a lieutenant of militia, with a single decoration, and who was unacquainted with what is called diplomacy. But the king knew his man, and the man was conscious of his powers.
Bismarck found life at Frankfort intolerably dull. He had a contempt for his diplomatic associates generally, and made fun of them to his few intimate friends. He took them in almost at a glance, for he had an intuitive knowledge of character; he weighed them in his balance, and found them wanting. In a letter to his wife, he writes: “Nothing but miserable trifles do these people trouble themselves about. They strike me as infinitely more ridiculous with their important ponderosity concerning the gathered rags of gossip, than even a member of the Second Chamber of Berlin in the full consciousness of his dignity…. The men of the minor States are mostly mere caricatures of periwig diplomatists, who at once put on their official visage if I merely beg of them a light to my cigar.”
His extraordinary merits were however soon apparent to the king, and even to his chief, old General Rochow, who was soon transferred to St. Petersburg to make way for the secretary. The king’s brother William, Prince of Prussia, when at Frankfort, was much impressed by the young Prussian envoy to the Bund, and there was laid the foundation of the friendship between the future soldier-king and the future chancellor, between whom there always existed a warm confidence and esteem. Soon after, Bismarck made the acquaintance of Metternich, who had ruled for so long a time both the Diet and the Empire. The old statesman, now retired, invited the young diplomatist to his castle at Johannisberg. They had different aims, but similar sympathies. The Austrian statesman sought to preserve the existing state of things; the Prussian, to make his country dominant over Germany. Both were aristocrats, and both were conservative; but Metternich was as bland and polished as Bismarck was rough and brusque.
Nothing escaped the watchful eye of Bismarck at Frankfort as the ambassador of Prussia. He took note of everything, both great and small, and communicated it to Berlin as if he were a newspaper correspondent. In everything he showed his sympathy with absolutism, and hence recommended renewed shackles on the Press and on the universities,–at that time the hotbed of revolutionary ideas. His central aim and constant thought was the ascendency of Prussia,–first in royal strength at home, then throughout Germany as the rival of Austria. Bismarck was not only a keen observer, but he soon learned to disguise his thoughts. Nobody could read him. He was frank when his opponents were full of lies, knowing that he would not be believed. He became a perfect master of the art of deception. No one was a match for him in statecraft. Even Prince Gortschakoff became his dupe. By his tact he kept Prussia from being entangled by the usurpation of Napoleon III., and by the Crimean war. He saw into the character of the French emperor, and discovered that he was shallow, and not to be feared. At Frankfort, Bismarck had many opportunities of seeing distinguished men of all nations; he took their gauge, and penetrated the designs of cabinets. He counselled his master to conciliate Napoleon, though regarding him as an upstart; and he sought the friendship of France in order to eclipse the star of Austria, whom it was necessary to humble before Prussia could rise. In his whole diplomatic career at Frankfort it was Bismarck’s aim to contravene the designs of Austria, having in view the aggrandizement of Prussia as the true head and centre of German nationality. He therefore did all he could to prevent Austria from being assisted in her war with Italy, and rejoiced in her misfortunes. In the meantime he made frequent short visits to Holland, Denmark, Italy, and Hungary, acquired the languages of these countries, and made himself familiar with their people and institutions, besides shrewdly studying the characters, manners, and diplomatic modes of the governing classes of European nations at large. Cool, untiring, self-possessed, he was storing up information and experience.
At the end of eight years, in 1859, Bismarck was transferred to St. Petersburg as the Prussian ambassador to Alexander II. He was then forty-three years of age, and was known as the sworn foe of Austria. His free-and-easy but haughty manners were a great contrast to those of his stiff, buttoned-up, and pretentious predecessors; and he became a great favorite in Russian court circles. The comparatively small salary he received,–less than twenty thousand dollars, with a house,–would not allow him to give expensive entertainments, or to run races in prodigality with the representatives of England, France, or even Austria, who received nearly fifty thousand dollars. But no parties were more sought or more highly appreciated than those which his sensible and unpretending wife gave in the high society in which they moved. With the empress-dowager he was an especial favorite, and was just the sort of man whom the autocrat of all the Russias would naturally like, especially for his love of hunting, and his success in shooting deer and bears. He did not go to grand parties any more than he could help, despising their ostentation and frivolity, and always feeling the worse for them.
On the 2d of January, 1861, Frederick William IV., who had for some time been insane, died, and was succeeded by the Prince Regent, William I., already in his sixty-fifth year, every inch a soldier and nothing else. Bismarck was soon summoned to the councils of his sovereign at Berlin, who was perplexed and annoyed by the Liberal party, which had the ascendency in the lower Chamber of the general Diet. Office was pressed upon Bismarck, but before he accepted it he wished to study Napoleon and French affairs more closely, and was therefore sent as ambassador to Paris in 1862. He made that year a brief visit to London, Disraeli being then the premier, who smiled at his schemes for the regeneration of Germany. It was while journeying amid the Pyrenees that Bismarck was again summoned to Berlin, the lower Chamber having ridden rough-shod over his Majesty’s plans for army reform. The king invested him with the great office of President of the Ministry, his abilities being universally recognized.
It was now Bismarck’s mission to break the will of the Prussian parliament, and to thrust Austria out of the Germanic body. He considered only the end in view, caring nothing for the means: he had no scruples. It was his religion to raise Prussia to the same ascendency that Austria had held under Metternich. He had a master whose will and ambition were equal to his own, yet whose support he was sure of in carrying out his grand designs. He was now a second Richelieu, to whom the aggrandizement of the monarchy which he served and the welfare of Fatherland were but convertible terms. He soon came into bitter conflict, not with nobles, but with progressive liberals in the Chamber, who detested him and feared him, but to whom he did not condescend to reveal his plans,–bearing obloquy with placidity in the greatness of the end he had in view. He was a self-sustained, haughty, unapproachable man of power, except among the few friends whom he honored as boon companions, without ever losing his discretion,–wearing a mask with apparent frankness, and showing real frankness in matters which did not concern secrets of state, especially on the subjects of education and religion. Like his master, he was more a Calvinist than a Lutheran. He openly avowed his dependence on Almighty God, and on him alone, as the hope of nations. In this respect we trace a resemblance to Oliver Cromwell rather than to Frederic the Great. Bismarck was a compound of both, in his patriotism and his unscrupulousness.
The first thing that King William and his minister did was to double the army. But this vast increase of military strength seemed unnecessary to the Liberal party, and the requisite increase of taxes to support it was unpopular. Hence, Bismarck was brought in conflict with the lower Chamber, which represented the middle classes. He dared not tell his secret schemes without imperilling their success, which led to grave misunderstandings. For four years the conflict raged between the crown and the parliament, both the king and Bismarck being inflexible; and the lower House was equally obstinate in refusing to grant the large military supplies demanded. At last, Bismarck dissolved the Chambers, and the king declared that as the Three Estates could not agree, he should continue to do his duty by Prussia without regard to “these pieces of paper called constitutions.” The next four sessions of the Chamber were closed in the same manner. Bismarck admitted that he was acting unconstitutionally, but claimed the urgency of public necessity. In the public debates he was cool, sarcastic, and contemptuous. The Press took up the fight, and the Press was promptly muzzled. Bismarck was denounced as a Catiline, a Strafford, a Polignac; but he retained a provoking serenity, and quietly prepared for war,–since war, he foresaw, was sooner or later inevitable. “Nothing can solve the question,” said he, “but blood and iron.”
At last an event occurred which showed his hand. In November, 1863, Frederick VII., the king of Denmark, died. By his death the Schleswig-Holstein question again burst upon distracted Europe,–Who was to reign over the two Danish provinces? The king of Denmark, as Duke of Schleswig and Holstein, had been represented in the Germanic Diet. By the treaty of London, in 1852, he had undertaken not to incorporate the duchies with the rest of his monarchy, allowing them to retain their traditional autonomy. In 1863, shortly before his death, Frederick VII. by a decree dissolved this autonomy, and virtually incorporated Schleswig, which was only partly German, with the Danish monarchy, leaving the wholly German Holstein as before. Bismarck protested against this violation of treaty obligations. The Danish parliament nevertheless passed a law which incorporated the province with Denmark; and Christian IX., the new monarch, confirmed the law.
But a new claimant to the duchies now appeared in the person of Frederick of Augustenburg, a German prince; and the Prussian Chamber advocated his claims, as did the Diet itself; but the throne held its opinion in reserve. Bismarck contrived (by what diplomatic tricks and promises it is difficult to say) to induce Austria to join with Prussia in seizing the provinces in question and in dividing the spoil between them. As these two Powers controlled the Diet at Frankfort, it was easy to carry out the programme. An Austro-Prussian army accordingly invaded Schleswig-Holstein, and to the scandal of all Europe drove the Danish defenders to the wall. It was regarded in the same light as the seizure of Silesia by Frederic the Great,–a high-handed and unscrupulous violation of justice and right. England was particularly indignant, and uttered loud protests. So did the lesser States of Germany, jealous of the aggrandizement of Prussia. Even the Prussian Chamber refused to grant the money for such an enterprise.
But Bismarck laughed in his sleeve. This arch-diplomatist had his reasons, which he did not care to explain. He had in view the weakening of the power of the Diet, and a quarrel with Austria. True, he had embraced Austria, but after the fashion of a bear. He knew that Austria and Prussia would wrangle about the division of the spoil, which would lead to misunderstandings, and thus furnish the pretext for a war, which he felt to be necessary before Prussia could be aggrandized and German unity be effected, with Prussia at its head,–the two great objects of his life. His policy was marvellously astute; but he kept his own counsels, and continued to hug his secret enemy.
On the 30th of October, 1864, the Treaty of Vienna was signed, by which it was settled that the king of Denmark should surrender Schleswig-Holstein and Lauenburg to Austria and Prussia, and he bound himself to submit to what their majesties might think fit as to the disposition of these three duchies. Probably both parties sought an occasion to quarrel, since their commissioners had received opposite instructions,–the Austrians defending the claims of Frederick of Augustenburg, as generally desired in Germany, and the Prussians now opposing them. Prussia demanded the expulsion of the pretender; to which Austria said no. Prussia further sounded Austria as to the annexation of the duchies to herself, to which Austria consented, on condition of receiving an equivalent of some province in Silesia. “What!” thought Bismarck, angrily, “give you back part of what was won for Prussia by Frederic the Great? Never!” Affairs had a gloomy look; but war was averted for a while by the Convention of Gastein, by which the possession of Schleswig was assigned to Prussia, and Holstein to Austria; and further, in consideration of two and a half millions of dollars, the Emperor Francis Joseph ceded to King William all his rights of co-proprietorship in the Duchy of Lauenburg.
But the Chamber of Berlin boldly declared this transaction to be null and void, since the country had not been asked to ratify the treaty. It must be borne in mind that the conflict was still going on between Bismarck, as the defender of the absolute sovereignty of the king, and the liberal and progressive members of the Chamber, who wanted a freer and more democratic constitution. Opposed, then, by the Chamber, Bismarck dissolved it, and coolly reminded his enemies that the Chamber had nothing to do with politics,–only with commercial affairs and matters connected with taxation. This was the period of his greatest unpopularity, since his policy and ultimate designs were not comprehended. So great was the popular detestation in which he was held that a fanatic tried to kill him in the street, but only succeeded in wounding him slightly.
In the meantime Austria fomented disaffection in the provinces which Prussia had acquired, and Bismarck resolved to cut the knot by the sword. Prussian troops marched to the frontier, and Austria on her part also prepared for war. It is difficult to see that a real casus belli existed. We only know that both parties wanted to fight, whatever were their excuses and pretensions; and both parties sought the friendship of Russia and France, especially by holding out delusive hopes to Napoleon of accession of territory. They succeeded in inducing both Russia and France to remain neutral,–mere spectators of the approaching contest, which was purely a German affair. It was the first care of Prussia to prevent the military union of her foes in North Germany with her foes in the south,–which was effected in part by the diplomatic genius of Bismarck, and in part by occupying the capitals of Hanover, Saxony, and Hesse-Cassel with Prussian troops, in a very summary way.
The encounter now began in earnest between Prussia and Austria for the prize of ascendency. Both parties were confident of success,–Austria as the larger State, with proud traditions, triumphant over rebellious Italy; and Prussia, with its enlarged military organization and the new breech-loading needle-gun.
Count von Moltke at this time came prominently on the European stage as the greatest strategist since Napoleon. He was chief of staff to the king, who was commander-in-chief. He set his wonderful machinery in harmonious action, and from his office in Berlin moved his military pawns by touch of electric wire. Three great armies were soon centralized in Bohemia,–one of three corps, comprising one hundred thousand men, led by Prince Charles, the king’s nephew; the second, of four corps, of one hundred and sixteen thousand men, commanded by the crown prince, the king’s son; and the third, of forty thousand, led by General von Bittenfield. “March separately; strike together,” were the orders of Moltke. Vainly did the Austrians attempt to crush these armies in detail before they should combine at the appointed place. On they came, with mathematical accuracy, until two of the armies reached Gitschin, the objective point, where they were joined by the king, by Moltke, by Bismarck, and by General von Roon, the war minister. On the 2d of June, 1866, they were opposite Königgrätz (or Sadowa, as the Austrians called it), where the Austrians were marshalled. On the 3d of July the battle began; and the scales hung pretty evenly until, at the expected hour, the crown prince–“our Fritz,” as the people affectionately called him after this, later the Emperor Frederick William–made his appearance on the field with his army. Assailed on both flanks and pressed in the centre, the Austrians first began to slacken fire, then to waver, then to give way under the terrific concentrated fire of the needle-guns, then to retreat into ignominious flight. The contending forces were about equal; but science and the needle-gun won the day, and changed the whole aspect of modern warfare. The battle of Königgrätz settled this point,–that success in war depends more on good powder and improved weapons than on personal bravery or even masterly evolutions. Other things being equal, victory is almost certain to be on the side of the combatants who have the best weapons. The Prussians won the day of Königgrätz by their breech-loading guns, although much was due to their superior organization and superior strategy.
That famous battle virtually ended the Austro-Prussian campaign, which lasted only about seven weeks. It was one of those “decisive battles” that made Prussia the ascendent power in Germany, and destroyed the prestige of Austria. It added territory to Prussia equal to one quarter of the whole kingdom, and increased her population by four and a half millions of people. At a single bound, Prussia became a first-class military State.
The Prussian people were almost frantic with joy; and Bismarck, from being the most unpopular man in the nation, became instantly a national idol. His marvellous diplomacy, by which Austria was driven to the battlefield, was now seen and universally acknowledged. He obtained fame, decorations, and increased power. A grateful nation granted to him four hundred thousand thalers, with which he bought the estate of Varzin. General von Moltke received three hundred thousand thalers and immense military prestige. The war minister, Von Roon, also received three hundred thousand thalers. These three stood out as the three most prominent men of the nation, next to the royal family.
Never was so short a war so pregnant with important consequences. It consolidated the German Confederation under Prussian dominance. By weakening Austria it led to the national unity of Italy, and secured free government to the whole Austrian empire, since that government could no longer refuse the demands of Hungary. Above all, “it shattered the fabric of Ultramontanism which had been built up by the concordat of 1853.”
It was the expectation of Napoleon III that Austria would win in this war; but the loss of the Austrians was four to one, besides her humiliation, condemned as she was to pay a war indemnity, with the loss also of the provinces of Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, Nassau, and Frankfort. But Bismarck did not push Austria to the wall, since he did not wish to make her an irreconcilable enemy. He left open a door for future and permanent peace. He did not desire to ruin his foe, but simply to acquire the lead in German politics and exclude Austria from the Germanic Confederation. Napoleon, disappointed and furious, blustered, and threatened war, unless he too could come in for a share of the plunder, to which he had no real claim. Bismarck calmly replied, “Well, then, let there be war,” knowing full well that France was not prepared, Napoleon consulted his marshals, “Are we prepared,” asked he, “to fight all Germany?” “Certainly not,” replied the marshals, “until our whole army, like that of Prussia, is supplied with a breech-loader; until our drill is modified to suit the new weapon; until our fortresses are in a perfect state of preparedness, and until we create a mobile and efficient national reserve.”
When Carlyle heard the news of the great victories of Prussia, he wrote to a friend, “Germany is to stand on her feet henceforth, and face all manner of Napoleons and hungry, sponging dogs, with clear steel in her hand and an honest purpose in her heart. This seems to me the best news we or Europe have heard for the last forty years or more.”
The triumphal return of the Prussian troops to Berlin was followed on the 24th of February, 1867, by the opening of the first North German parliament,–three hundred deputies chosen from the various allied States by universal suffrage. Twenty-two States north of the Main formed themselves into a perpetual league for the protection of the Union and its institutions. Legislative power was to be invested in two bodies,–the Reichstag, representing the people; and the Bundesrath, composed of delegates from the allied governments, the perpetual presidency of which was invested in the king of Prussia. He was also acknowledged as the commander-in-chief of the united armies; and the standing army, on a peace footing, was fixed at one per cent of all the inhabitants. This constitution was drawn by Bismarck himself, not unwilling, under the unquestioned supremacy of his monarch, to utilize the spirit of the times, and admit the people to a recognized support of the crown.
Thus Germany at last acquired a liberal constitution, though not so free and broad as that of England. The absolute control of the army and navy, the power to make treaties and declare peace and war, the appointment of all the great officers of state, and the control of education and other great interests still remained with the king. The functions of the lower House seemed to be mostly confined to furnishing the sinews of war and government,–the granting of money and the regulation of taxes. Meanwhile, secret treaties of alliance were concluded with the southern States of Germany, offensive and defensive, in case of war,–another stroke of diplomatic ability on the part of Bismarck; for the intrigues of Napoleon had been incessant to separate the southern from the northern States,–in other words, to divide Germany, which the French emperor was sanguine he could do. With a divided Germany, he believed that he was more than a match for the king of Prussia, as soon as his military preparations should be made. Could he convert these States into allies, he was ready for war. He was intent upon securing for France territorial enlargements equal to those of Prussia. He could no longer expect any thing on the Rhine, and he turned his eyes to Belgium.
The war-cloud arose on the political horizon in 1867, when Napoleon sought to purchase from the king of Holland the Duchy of Luxemburg, which was a personal fief of his kingdom, though it was inhabited by Germans, and which made him a member of the Germanic Confederation if he chose to join it. In the time of Napoleon I. Luxemburg was defended by one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, garrisoned by Prussian troops; it was therefore a menace to France on her northeastern frontier. As Napoleon III, promised a very big sum of money for this duchy, with a general protectorate of Holland in case of Prussian aggressions, the king of Holland was disposed to listen to the proposal of the French emperor; but when it was discovered that an alliance of the southern States had been made with the northern States of Germany, which made Prussia the mistress of Germany, the king of Holland became alarmed, and declined the French proposals. The chagrin of the emperor and the wrath of the French nation became unbounded. Again they had been foiled by the arch-diplomatist of Prussia.
All this was precisely what Bismarck wanted. Confident of the power of Prussia, he did all he could to drive the French nation to frenzy. He worked on a vainglorious, excitable, and proud people, at the height of their imperial power. Napoleon was irresolute, although it appeared to him that war with Prussia was the only way to recover his prestige after the mistakes of the Mexican expedition. But Mexico had absorbed the marrow of the French army, and the emperor was not quite ready for war. He must find some pretence for abandoning his designs on Luxemburg, any attempt to seize which would be a plain casus belli. Both parties were anxious to avoid the initiative of a war which might shake Europe to its centre. Both parties pretended peace; but both desired war.
Napoleon, a man fertile in resources, in order to avoid immediate hostilities looked about for some way to avoid what he knew was premature; so he proposed submitting the case to arbitration, and the Powers applied themselves to extinguish the gathering flames. The conference–composed of representatives of England, France, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Holland, and Belgium–met in London; and the result of it was that Prussia agreed to withdraw her garrison from Luxemburg and to dismantle the fortress, while the duchy was to continue to be a member of the German Zollverein, or Customs Union. King William was willing to make this concession to the cause of humanity; and his minister, rather than go against the common sentiment of Europe, reluctantly conceded this point, which, after all, was not of paramount importance. Thus was war prevented for a time, although everybody knew that it was inevitable, sooner or later.
The next three years Bismarck devoted himself to diplomatic intrigues in order to cement the union of the German States,–for the Luxemburg treaty was well known to be a mere truce,–and Napoleon did the same to weaken the union. In the meantime King William accepted an invitation of Napoleon to visit Paris at the time of the Great Exposition; and thither he went, accompanied by Counts Bismarck and Moltke. The party was soon after joined by the Czar, accompanied by Prince Gortschakoff, who had the reputation of being the ablest diplomatist in Europe, next to Bismarck. The meeting was a sort of carnival of peace, hollow and pretentious, with fêtes and banquets and military displays innumerable. The Prussian minister amused himself by feeling the national pulse, while Moltke took long walks to observe the fortifications of Paris. When his royal guests had left, Napoleon travelled to Salzburg to meet the Austrian emperor, ostensibly to condole with him for the unfortunate fate of Maximilian in Mexico, but really to interchange political ideas. Bismarck was not deceived, and openly maintained that the military and commercial interests of north and south Germany were identical.
In April, 1868, the Customs Parliament assembled in Berlin, as the first representative body of the entire nation that had as yet met. Though convoked to discuss tobacco and cotton, the real object was to pave the way for “the consummation of the national destinies.”
Bismarck meanwhile conciliated Hanover, whose sovereign, King George, had been dethroned, by giving him a large personal indemnity, and by granting home rule to what was now a mere province of Prussia. In Berlin, he resisted in the Reichstag the constitutional encroachments which the Liberal party aimed at,–ever an autocrat rather than minister, having no faith in governmental responsibility to parliament. Only one master he served, and that was the king, as Richelieu served Louis XIII. Nor would he hear of a divided ministry; affairs were too complicated to permit him to be encumbered by colleagues. He maintained that public affairs demanded quickness, energy, and unity of action; and it was certainly fortunate for Germany in the present crisis that the foreign policy was in the hands of a single man, and that man so able, decided, and astute as Bismarck.
All the while secret preparations for war went on in both Prussia and France. French spies overran the Rhineland, and German draughtsmen were busy in the cities and plains of Alsace-Lorraine. France had at last armed her soldiers with the breech-loading chassepot gun, by many thought to be superior to the needle-gun; and she had in addition secretly constructed a terrible and mysterious engine of war called mitrailleuse,–a combination of gun-barrels fired by mechanism. These were to effect great results. On paper, four hundred and fifty thousand men were ready to rush as an irresistible avalanche on the Rhine provinces. To the distant observer it seemed that France would gain an easy victory, and once again occupy Berlin. Besides her supposed military forces, she still had a great military prestige. Prussia had done nothing of signal importance for forty years except to fight the duel with Austria; but France had done the same, and had signally conquered at Solferino. Yet during forty years Prussia had been organizing her armies on the plan which Scharnhorst had furnished, and had four hundred and fifty thousand men under arms,–not on paper, but really ready for the field, including a superb cavalry force. The combat was to be one of material forces, guided by science.
I have said that only a pretext was needed to begin hostilities. This pretext on the part of the French was that their ambassador to Berlin, Benedetti, was reported to have been insulted by the king. He was not insulted. The king simply refused to have further parley with an arrogant ambassador, and referred him to his government,–which was the proper thing to do. On this bit of scandal the French politicians–the people who led the masses–lashed themselves into fury, and demanded immediate war. Napoleon could not resist the popular pressure, and war was proclaimed. The arrogant demand of Napoleon, through his ambassador Benedetti, that the king of Prussia should agree never to permit his relative, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern, to accept the vacant throne of Spain, to which he had been elected by the provisional government of that country, was the occasion of King William’s curt reception of the French envoy; for this was an insulting demand, not to be endured. It was no affair of Napoleon, especially since the prince had already declined the throne at the request of the king of Prussia, as the head of the Hohenzollern family. But the French nation generally, the Catholic Church party working through the Empress Eugenie, and, above all, the excitable Parisians, goaded by the orators and the Press, saw the possibility of an extension of the Roman empire of Charles V., under the control of Prussia; and Napoleon was driven to the fatal course, first, of making the absurd demand, and then–in spite of a wholesome irresolution, born of his ignorance concerning his own military forces–of resenting its declinature with war.
In two weeks the German forces were mobilized, and the colossal organization, in three great armies, all directed by Moltke as chief of staff to the commander-in-chief, the still vigorous old man who ruled and governed at Berlin, were on their way to the seat of war. At Mayence, the king in person, on the 2d of August, 1870, assumed command of the united German armies; and in one month from that date Prance was prostrate at his feet.
It would be interesting to detail the familiar story; but my limits will not permit. I can only say that the three armies of the German forces, each embracing several corps, were, one under the command of General Steinmetz, another under Prince Frederic Charles, and the third under the crown prince,–and all under the orders of Moltke, who represented the king. The crown prince, on the extreme left, struck the first blow at Weissenburg, on the 4th of August; and on the 6th he assaulted McMahon at Worth, and drove back his scattered forces,–partly on Chalons, and partly on Strasburg; while Steinmetz, commanding the right wing, nearly annihilated Frossard’s corps at Spicheren. It was now the aim of the French under Bazaine, who commanded two hundred and fifty thousand men near Metz, to join McMahon’s defeated forces. This was frustrated by Moltke in the bloody battle of Gravelotte, compelling Bazaine to retire within the lines of Metz, the strongest fortress in France, which was at once surrounded by Prince Charles. Meanwhile, the crown prince continued the pursuit of McMahon, who had found it impossible to effect a junction with Bazaine. At Sedan the armies met; but as the Germans were more than twice the number of the French, and had completely surrounded them, the struggle was useless,–and the French, with the emperor himself, were compelled to surrender as prisoners of war. Thus fell Napoleon’s empire.
After the battle of Sedan, one of the decisive battles of history, the Germans advanced rapidly to Paris, and King William took up his quarters at Versailles, with his staff and his councillor Bismarck, who had attended him day by day through the whole campaign, and conducted the negotiations of the surrender. Paris, defended by strong fortifications, resolved to sustain a siege rather than yield, hoping that something might yet turn up by which the besieged garrison should be relieved,–a forlorn hope, as Paris was surrounded, especially on the fall of Metz, by nearly half a million of the best soldiers in the world. Yet that memorable siege lasted five months, and Paris did not yield until reduced by extreme, famine; and perhaps it might have held out much longer if it could have been provisioned. But this was not to be. The Germans took the city as Alaric had taken Rome, without much waste of blood.
The conquerors were now inexorable, and demanded a war indemnity of five milliards of francs, and the cession of Metz and the two province of Alsace-Lorraine (which Louis XIV had formerly wrested away), including Strasburg. Eloquently but vainly did old Thiers plead for better terms; but he pleaded with men as hard as iron, who exacted, however, no more than Napoleon III would have done had the fortune of war enabled him to reach Berlin as the conqueror. War is hard under any circumstances, but never was national humiliation more complete than when the Prussian flag floated over the Arc de Triomphe, and Prussian soldiers defiled beneath it.
Nothing was now left for the aged Prussian king but to put upon his head the imperial crown of Germany, for all the German States were finally united under him. The scene took place at Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, in probably the proudest palace ever erected since the days of Nebuchadnezzar. Surrounded by princes and generals, Chancellor Bismarck read aloud the Proclamation of the Empire, and the new German emperor gave thanks to God. It was a fitting sequence to the greatest military success since Napoleon crushed the German armies at Jena and Austerlitz. The tables at last were turned, and the heavy, phlegmatic, intelligent Teutons triumphed over the warlike and passionate Celts. So much for the genius of the greatest general and the greatest diplomatist that Europe had known for half-a-century.
Bismarck’s rewards for his great services were magnificent, quite equal to those of Wellington or Marlborough. He received another valuable estate, this time from his sovereign, which gift made him one of the greatest landed proprietors of Prussia; he was created a Prince; he was decorated with the principal orders of Europe; he had augmented power as chancellor of confederated Germany; he was virtual dictator of his country, which he absolutely ruled in the name of a wearied old man passed seventy years of age. But the minister’s labors and vexations do not end with the Franco-German war During the years that immediately follow, he is still one of the hardest-worked men in Europe. He receives one thousand letters and telegrams a day. He has to manage an unpractical legislative assembly, clamorous for new privileges, and attend to the complicated affairs of a great empire, and direct his diplomatic agents in every country of Europe. He finds that the sanctum of a one-man power is not a bed of roses. Sometimes he seeks rest and recreation on one of his estates, but labors and public duties follow him wherever he goes. He is too busy and preoccupied even for pleasure, unless he is hunting boars and stags. He seems to care but little for art of any kind, except music; but once in his life has he ever visited the Museum of Berlin; he never goes to the theatre. He appears as little as possible in the streets, but when recognized he is stared at as a wonder. He lives hospitably but plainly, and in a palace with few ornaments or luxuries. He enshrouds himself in mystery, but not in gloom. Few dare approach him, for his manners are brusque and rough, and he is feared more even than he is honored. His aspect is stern and haughty, except when he occasionally unbends. In his family he is simple, frank, and domestic; but in public he is the cold and imperative dictator. Even the royal family are uncomfortable in his commanding and majestic presence; everybody stands in awe of him but his wife and children. He caresses only his dogs. He eats but once a day, but his meal is enough for five men; he drinks a quart of beer or wine without taking the cup from his mouth; he smokes incessantly, generally a long Turkish pipe. He sleeps irregularly, disturbed by thoughts which fill his troubled brain. Honored is the man who is invited to his table, even if he be the ambassador of a king; for at table the host is frank and courteous, and not overbearing like a literary dictator. He is well read in history, but not in art or science or poetry. His stories are admirable when he is in convivial mood; all sit around him in silent admiration, for no one dares more than suggest the topic,–he does all the talking himself. Bayard Taylor, when United States minister at Berlin, was amazed and confounded by his freedom of speech and apparent candor. He is frank in matters he does not care to conceal, and simple as a child when not disputed or withstood; but when opposed fierce as a lion,–a spoiled man of success, yet not intoxicated with power. Haughty and irritable, perhaps, but never vain like a French statesman in office,–a Webster rather than a Thiers.
Such was the man who ruled the German empire with an iron hand for twenty years or more,–the most remarkable man of power known to history for seventy-five years; immortal like Cavour, and for his services even more than his abilities. He had raised Prussia to the front rank among nations, and created German unity. He had quietly effected more than Richelieu ever aspired to perform; for Richelieu sought only to build up a great throne, while Bismarck had united a great nation in patriotic devotion to Fatherland, which, so far as we can see, is as invincible as it is enlightened,–enlightened in everything except in democratic ideas.
I will not dwell on the career and character of Prince Bismarck since the Franco-Prussian war. After that he was not identified with any great national movements which command universal interest. His labors were principally confined to German affairs,–quarrels with the Reichstag, settlement of difficulties with the various States of the Germanic Confederation, the consolidation of the internal affairs of the empire while he carried on diplomatic relations with other great Powers, efforts to gain the good-will of Russia and secure the general peace of Europe. These, and a multitude of other questions too recent to be called historical, he dealt with, in all of which his autocratic sympathies called out the censures of the advocates of greater liberty, and diminished his popularity. For twenty years his will was the law of the German Confederation; though bitterly opposed at times by the Liberals, he was always sustained by his imperial master, who threw the burdens of State on his herculean shoulders, sometimes too great to bear with placidity. His foreign policy was then less severely criticised than his domestic, which was alternate success and failure.
The war which he waged with the spiritual power was perhaps the most important event of his administration, and in which he had not altogether his own way, underrating, as is natural to such a man, spiritual forces as compared with material. In his memorable quarrel with Rome he appeared to the least advantage,–at first rigid, severe, and arbitrary with the Catholic clergy, even to persecution, driving away the Jesuits (1872), shutting up schools and churches, imprisoning and fining ecclesiastical dignitaries, intolerant in some cases as the Inquisition itself. One-fourth of the people of the empire are Catholics, yet he sternly sought to suppress their religious rights and liberties as they regarded them, thinking he could control them by material penalties,–such as taking away their support, and shutting them up in prison,–forgetting that conscientious Christians, whether Catholics or Protestants, will in matters of religion defy the mightiest rulers. No doubt the policy of the Catholics of Germany was extremely irritating to a despotic ruler who would exalt the temporal over the spiritual power; and equally true was it that the Pope himself was unyielding in regard to the liberties of his church, demanding everything and giving back nothing, in accordance with the uniform traditions of Papal domination. The Catholics, the world over, look upon the education of their children as a thing to be superintended by their own religious teachers,–as their inalienable right and imperative duty; and any State interference with this right and this duty they regard as religious persecution, to which they will never submit without hostility and relentless defiance. Bismarck felt that to concede to the demands which the Catholic clergy ever have made in respect to religious privileges was to “go to Canossa,”–where Henry IV. Emperor of Germany, in 1077, humiliated himself before Pope Gregory VII. in order to gain absolution. The long-sighted and experienced Thiers remarked that here Bismarck was on the wrong track, and would be compelled to retreat, with all his power. Bismarck was too wise a man to persist in attempting impossibilities, and after a bitter fight he became conciliatory. He did not “go to Canossa,” but he yielded to the dictates of patriotism and enlightened policy, and the quarrel was patched up.
His long struggles with the Catholics told upon his health and spirits, and he was obliged to seek long periods of rest and recreation on his estates,–sometimes, under great embarrassments and irritations, threatening to resign, to which his imperial master, grateful and dependent, would never under any circumstances consent. But the prince-president of the ministers and chancellor of the empire was loaded down with duties–in his cabinet, in his office, and in the parliament–most onerous to bear, and which no other man in Germany was equal to. His burdens at times were intolerable: his labors were prodigious, and the opposition he met with was extremely irritating to a man accustomed to have his own way in everything.
Another thing gave him great solicitude, taxed to the utmost his fertile brain; and that was the rising and wide-spreading doctrines of Socialism,–which was to Germany what Nihilism is to Russia and Fenianism was to Ireland; based on discontent, unbelief, and desperate schemes of unpractical reform, leading to the assassination even of emperors themselves. How to deal with this terrible foe to all governments, all laws, and all institutions was a most perplexing question. At first he was inclined to the most rigorous measures, to a war of utter extermination; but how could he deal with enemies he could neither see nor find, omnipresent and invisible, and unscrupulous as satanic furies,–fanatics whom no reasoning could touch and no laws control, whether human or divine? As experience and thought enlarged his mental vision, he came to the conclusion that the real source and spring of that secret and organized hostility which he deplored, but was unable to reach and to punish, were evils in government and evils in the structure of society,–aggravating inequality, grinding poverty, ignorance, and the hard struggle for life. Accordingly, he devoted his energies to improve the general condition of the people, and make the struggle for life easier. In his desire to equalize burdens he resorted to indirect rather than direct taxation,–to high tariffs and protective duties to develop German industry; throwing to the winds his earlier beliefs in the theories of the Manchester school of political economy, and all speculative ideas as to the blessings of free-trade for the universe in general. He bought for the government the various Prussian railroads, in order to have uniformity of rates and remove vexatious discriminations, which only a central power could effect. In short, he aimed to develop the material resources of the country, both to insure financial prosperity and to remove those burdens which press heavily on the poor.
On one point, however, his policy was inexorable; and that was to suffer no reduction of the army, but rather to increase it to the utmost extent that the nation could bear,–not with the view of future conquests or military aggrandizement, as some thought, but as an imperative necessity to guard the empire from all hostile attacks, whether from France or Russia, or both combined. A country surrounded with enemies as Germany is, in the centre of Europe, without the natural defences of the sea which England enjoys, or great chains of mountains on her borders difficult to penetrate and easy to defend, as is the case with Switzerland, must have a superior military force to defend her, in case of future contingencies which no human wisdom can foresee. Nor is it such a dreadful burden to support a peace establishment of four hundred and fifty thousand men as some think,–one soldier for every one hundred inhabitants, trained and disciplined to be intelligent and industrious when his short term of three years of active service shall have expired: much easier to bear, I fancy, than the burden of supporting five paupers or more to every hundred inhabitants, as in England and Scotland.
In 1888, Bismarck made a famous speech in the Reichstag to show the necessity of Prussia’s being armed. He had no immediate fears of Russia, he said; he professed to believe that she would keep peace with Germany. But he spoke of numerous distinct crises within forty years, when Prussia was on the verge of being drawn into a general European war, which diplomacy fortunately averted, and such as now must be warded off by being too strong for attack. He mentioned the Crimean war in 1853, the Italian war in 1858, the Polish rebellion in 1863, the Schleswig-Holstein embroilment, which so nearly set all Europe by the ears, the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, the Luxemburg dispute in 1867, the Franco-German war of 1870, the Balkan war of 1877, the various aspects of the Eastern Question, changes of government in France, etc.,–each of which in its time threatened the great “coalition war,” which Germany had thus far been kept out of, but which Bismarck wished to provide against for the future.
“The long and the short of it is,” said he, “that we must be as strong as we possibly can be in these days. We have the capability of being stronger than any other nation of equal population in the world, and it would be a crime if we did not use this capability. We must make still greater exertions than other Powers for the same ends, on account of our geographical position. We lie in the midst of Europe. We have at least three sides open to attack. God has placed on one side of us the French,–a most warlike and restless nation,–and he has allowed the fighting tendencies of Russia to become great; so we are forced into measures which perhaps we would not otherwise make. And the very strength for which we strive shows that we are inclined to peace; for with such a powerful machine as we wish to make the German army, no one would undertake to attack us. We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world; and it is the fear of God which causes us to love and cherish peace.”
Such was the avowed policy of Bismarck,–and I believe in his sincerity,–to foster friendly relations with other nations, and to maintain peace for the interests of humanity as well as for Germany, which can be secured only by preparing for war, and with such an array of forces as to secure victory. It was not with foreign Powers that he had the greatest difficulty, but to manage the turbulent elements of internal hostilities and jealousies, and oppose the anarchic forces of doctrinaires, visionary dreamers, clerical aggressors, and socialistic incendiaries,–foes alike of a stable government and of ultimate progress.
In the management of the internal affairs of the empire he cannot be said to have been as successful as was Cavour in Italy. He was not in harmony with the spirit of the age, nor was he wise. His persistent opposition to the freedom of the Press was as great an error as his persecution of the Catholics; and his insatiable love of power, grasping all the great offices of State, was a serious offence in the eyes of a jealous master, the present emperor, whom he did not take sufficient pains to conciliate. The greatness of Bismarck was not as administrator of an empire, but rather as the creator of an empire, and which he raised to greatness by diplomatic skill. His distinguishable excellence was in the management of foreign affairs; and in this power he has never been surpassed by any foreign minister.
Contrary to all calculations, this great proud man who has ruled Germany with so firm a hand for thirty years, and whose services have been unparalleled in the history of statesmen, was not too high to fall. But he fell because a young, inexperienced, and ambitious sovereign,–apt pupil of his own in the divine right of monarchs to govern, and yet seemingly inspired by a keen sensitiveness to his people’s wants and the spirit of the age,–could not endure his commanding ascendency and haughty dictation, and accepted his resignation offered in a moment of pique. He fell even as Wolsey fell before Henry VIII.,–too great a man for a subject, yet always loyal to the principles of legitimacy and the will of his sovereign. But he retired at the age of seventy-five, with princely estates, unexampled honors, and the admiration and gratitude of his countrymen; with the consciousness of having elevated them to the proudest position in continental Europe. The aged Emperor William I. died in 1888, full of years and of honors. His son the Emperor Frederick died a few months later, leaving a deep respect and a genuine sorrow. The grandson, the present Emperor William II., has been called “a modern man, notwithstanding certain proclivities which still adhere to him, like pieces of the shell of an egg from which the bird has issued.” He is yet an unsolved problem, but may be regarded not without hope for a wise, strong, and useful reign.
The builder of his country’s greatness, however, was too deeply enshrined in the hearts of his countrymen to remain in shadow. After more than three years of retirement, Bismarck received from the young emperor on January 26,1894, an invitation to visit the imperial palace in Berlin. His journey and reception in the capital were the occasion of tumultuous public rejoicings, and when the emperor met him, the reconciliation was complete. The time-worn veteran did not again assume office, but he was the frequent recipient of appreciative mention by the kaiser in public rescripts and speeches, and on his seventy-ninth birthday, April 1,1894, he received from the emperor a greeting by letter and a steel cuirass, “as a symbol of the German gratitude.” On the same day the castle at Friederichsruh was filled with rare and costly presents from all over Germany, and “Bismarck banquets” were held in all the principal cities. It was well that before this grand figure passed away forever “the German gratitude” to him should have found expression again, especially from the sovereign who owed to the great chancellor his own peculiar eminence in the earth.
As for Prince Bismarck, with all his faults,–and no man is perfect,–I love and honor this courageous giant, who has, under such vexatious opposition, secured the glory of the Prussian monarchy and the unity of Germany; who has been conscientious in the discharge of his duties as he has understood them, in the fear of God,–a modern Cromwell in another cause, whose fame will increase with the advancing ages.
Professor Seeley’s Life of Stein, Hezekiel’s Biography of Bismarck, and the Life of Prince Bismarck by Charles Lowe, are the books to which I am most indebted for the compilation of this chapter. But one may profitably read the various histories of the Franco-Prussian war, the Life of Prince Hardenberg, the Life of Moltke, the Life of Scharnhorst, and the Life of William von Humboldt. An excellent abridgment of German History, during this century, is furnished by Professor Müller. The Speech of Prince Bismarck in the German Reichstag, February, 1888, I have found very instructive and interesting,–a sort of resume of his own political life.
 Bismarck died July 30, 1898, mourned by his nation, his obsequies honored by the Emperor.