Bismarck as a National Type

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Editor’s note: The following essay by Kuno Francke, Ph.D. is extracted from The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Vol. X (published 1914). The reader may note that certain claims have not aged well, but this is an interesting snapshot of how educated Germans saw themselves on the eve of the First World War.

No man since Luther has been a more complete embodiment of German nationality than Otto von Bismarck. None has been closer to the German heart. None has stood more conspicuously for racial aspirations, passions, ideals.

It is the purpose of the present sketch to bring out a few of these affinities between Bismarck and the German people.


Perhaps the most obviously Teutonic trait in Bismarck’s character is its martial quality. It would be preposterous, surely, to claim warlike distinction as a prerogative of the German race. Russians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, undoubtedly, make as good fighters as Germans. But it is not an exaggeration to say that there is no country in the world where the army is as enlightened or as popular an institution as it is in Germany.

The German army is not composed of hirelings of professional fighters whose business it is to pick quarrels, no matter with whom. It is, in the strictest sense of the word, the people in arms. Among its officers there is a large percentage of the intellectual élite of the country; its rank and file embrace every occupation and every class of society, from the scion of royal blood down to the son of the seamstress. Although it is based upon the unconditional acceptance of the monarchical creed, nothing is farther removed from it than the spirit of servility. On the contrary, one of the very first teachings which are inculcated upon the German recruit is that, in wearing the “king’s coat,” he is performing a public duty, and that by performing this duty he is honoring himself. Nor can it be said that it is the aim of German military drill to reduce the soldier to a mere machine, at will to be set in motion or be brought to a standstill by his superior. The aim of this drill is rather to give each soldier increased self-control, mentally no less than bodily; to develop his self-respect; to enlarge his sense of responsibility, as well as to teach him the absolute necessity of the subordination of the individual to the needs of the whole. The German army, then, is by no means a lifeless tool that might be used by an unscrupulous and adventurous despot to gratify his own whims or to wreak his private vengeance. The German army is, in principle at least, a national school of manly virtues, of discipline, of comradeship, of self-sacrifice, of promptness of action, of tenacity of purpose. Although, probably, the most powerful armament which the world has ever seen, it makes for peace rather than for war. Although called upon to defend the standard of the most imperious dynasty of western Europe, it contains more of the spirit of true democracy than many a city government on this side of the Atlantic.

All this has to be borne in mind if we wish to judge correctly of Bismarck’s military propensities. He has never concealed the fact that he felt himself, above all, a soldier. One of his earliest public utterances was a defense of the Prussian army against the sympathizers with the revolution of 1848. His first great political achievement was the carrying through, in the early sixties, of King William’s army reform in the face of the most stubborn and virulent opposition of a parliamentary majority. Never, in the years following the formation of the Empire, did his speech in the German Parliament rise to a higher pathos than when he was asserting the military supremacy of the Emperor, or calling upon the parties to forget their dissensions in maintaining the defensive strength of the nation, or showering contempt upon liberal deputies who seemed to think that questions of national existence could be solved by effusions of academic oratory. Over and over, during the last decade of his official career, did he declare that the only thing which kept him from throwing aside the worry and vexation of governmental duties and retiring to the much coveted leisure of home and hearth, was the oath of vassal loyalty constraining him to stand at his post until his imperial master released him of his own accord. And at the very height of his political triumphs he wrote to his sovereign: “I have always regretted that my talents did not allow me to testify my attachment to the royal house and my enthusiasm for the greatness and glory of the Fatherland in the front rank of a regiment rather than behind a writing-desk. And even now, after having been raised by your Majesty to the highest honors of a statesman, I cannot altogether repress a feeling of regret at not having been similarly able to carve out a career for myself as a soldier. Perhaps I should have made a poor general, but if I had been free to follow the bent of my own inclination I would rather have won battles for your Majesty than diplomatic campaigns.”

It seems clear that both the defects and the greatness of Bismarck’s character are intimately associated with these military leanings of his. He certainly was overbearing; he could tolerate no opposition; he was revengeful and unforgiving; he took pleasure in the appeal to violence; he easily resorted to measures of repression; he requited insults with counter-insults; he had something of that blind furor Teutonicus which was the terror of the Italian republics in the Middle Ages. These are defects of temper which will probably prevent his name from ever shining with that serene lustre of international veneration that has surrounded the memory of a Joseph II. or a Washington with a kind of impersonal immaculateness. But his countrymen, at least, have every reason to condone these defects; for they are concomitant results of the military bent of German character, and they are offset by such transcendent military virtues that we would almost welcome them as bringing this colossal figure within the reach of our own frailties and shortcomings.

Three of the military qualities that made Bismarck great seem to me to stand out with particular distinctness: his readiness to take the most tremendous responsibilities, if he could justify his action by the worth of the cause for which he made himself responsible; his moderation after success was assured; his unflinching submission to the dictates of monarchical discipline.

Moritz Busch has recorded an occurrence, belonging to the autumn of 1877, which most impressively brings before us the tragic grandeur and the portentous issues of Bismarck’s career. It was twilight at Varzin, and the Chancellor, as was his wont after dinner, was sitting by the stove in the large back drawing-room. After having sat silent for a while, gazing straight before him, and feeding the fire now and anon with fir-cones, he suddenly began to complain that his political activity had brought him but little satisfaction and few friends. Nobody loved him for what he had done. He had never made anybody happy thereby, he said, not himself, nor his family, nor any one else. Some of those present would not admit this, and suggested “that he had made a great nation happy.” “But,” he retorted, “how many have I made unhappy! But for me three great wars would not have been fought; eighty thousand men would not have perished; parents, brothers, sisters, and wives would not have been bereaved and plunged into mourning…. That matter, however, I have settled with God.” “Settled with God!”—an amazing statement, a statement which would seem the height of blasphemy if it were not an expression of noblest manliness, if it did not reveal the soul of a warrior dauntlessly fighting for a great cause, risking for it the existence of a whole country as well as his own happiness, peace, and salvation, and being ready to submit the consequences, whatever they might be, to the tribunal of eternity. To say that a man who is willing to take such responsibilities as these makes himself thereby an offender against morality appears to me tantamount to condemning the Alps as obstructions to traffic. A people, at any rate, that glories in the achievements of a Luther has no right to cast a slur upon the motives of a Bismarck.

Whatever one may think of the worth of the cause for which Bismarck battled all his life—the unity and greatness of Germany—it is impossible not to admire the policy of moderation and self-restraint pursued by him after every one of his most decisive victories. And here again we note in him the peculiarly German military temper. German war-songs do not glorify foreign conquest and brilliant adventure; they glorify dogged resistance and bitter fight for house and home, for kith and kin. The German army, composed as it is of millions of peaceful citizens, is essentially a weapon of defense. And it can truly be said that Bismarck, with all his natural aggressiveness and ferocity, was in the main a defender, not a conqueror. He defended Prussia against the intolerable arrogance and un-German policy of Austria; he defended Germany against French interference in the work of national consolidation; he defended the principle of State sovereignty against the encroachments of the Papacy; he defended the monarchy against the republicanism of the Liberals and Socialists; and the supreme aim of his foreign policy after the establishment of the German Empire was to guard the peace of Europe.

The third predominant trait of Bismarck’s character that stamps him as a soldier—his unquestioning obedience to monarchical discipline—is so closely bound up with the peculiarly German conceptions of the functions and the Purpose of the State, that it will be better to approach this Part of his nature from the political instead of the military side.


In no other of the leading countries of the world has the laissez faire doctrine had as little influence in political matters as in Germany. Luther, the fearless champion of religious individualism, was, in questions of government, the most pronounced advocate of paternalism. Kant, the cool dissector of the human intellect, was at the same time the most rigid upholder of corporate morality. It was Fichte, the ecstatic proclaimer of the glory of the individual will, who wrote this dithyramb on the necessity of the constant surrender of private interests to the common welfare: “Nothing can live by itself or for itself; everything lives in the whole; and the whole continually sacrifices itself to itself in order to live anew. This is the law of life. Whatever has come to the consciousness of existence must fall a victim to the progress of all existence. Only there is a difference whether you are dragged to the shambles like a beast with bandaged eyes, or whether, in full and joyous presentiment of the life which will spring forth from your sacrifice, you offer yourself freely on the altar of eternity.”

Not even Plato and Aristotle went so far in the deification of the State as Hegel. And if Hegel declared that the real office of the State is not to further individual interests, to protect private property, but to be an embodiment of the organic unity of public life; if he saw the highest task and the real freedom of the individual in making himself a part of this organic unity of public life, he voiced a sentiment which was fully shared by the leading classes of the Prussia of his time, and which has since become a part of the political creed of the Socialist masses all over Germany.

Here we have the moral background of Bismarck’s internal policy. His monarchism rested not only on his personal allegiance to the hereditary dynasty, although no medieval knight could have been more steadfast in his loyalty to his liege lord than Bismarck was in his unswerving devotion to the Hohenzollern house. His monarchism rested above all on the conviction that, under the present conditions of German political life, no other form of government would insure equally well the fulfilment of the moral obligations of the State.

He was by no means blind to the value of parliamentary institutions. More than once has he described the English Constitution as the necessary outcome and the fit expression of the vital forces of English society. More than once has he eulogized the sterling political qualities of English landlordism, its respect for the law, its common sense, its noble devotion to national interests. More than once has he deplored the absence in Germany of “the class which in England is the main support of the State—the class of wealthy and therefore conservative gentlemen, independent of material interests, whose whole education is directed with a view to their becoming statesmen, and whose only aim in life is to take part in public affairs”; and the absence of “a Parliament, like the English, containing two sharply defined parties whereof one forms a sure and unswerving majority which subjects itself with iron discipline to its ministerial leaders.” We may regret that Bismarck himself did not do more to develop parliamentary discipline; that, indeed, he did everything in his power to arrest the healthy growth of German party life. But it is at least perfectly clear that his reasons for refusing to allow the German parties a controlling influence in shaping the policy of the government were not the result of mere despotic caprice, but were founded upon thoroughly German traditions, and upon a thoroughly sober, though one-sided, view of the present state of German public affairs.

To him party government appeared as much of an impossibility as it had appeared to Hegel. The attempt to establish it would, in his opinion, have led to nothing less than chaos. The German parties, as he viewed them, represented, not the State, not the nation, but an infinite variety of private and class interests—the interests of landholders, traders, manufacturers, laborers, politicians, priests, and so on; each particular set of interests desiring the particular consideration of the public treasury, and refusing the same amount of consideration to every other. It seemed highly desirable to him, as it did to Hegel, that all these interests should be heard; that they should be represented in a Parliament based upon as wide and liberal a suffrage as possible. But to intrust any one of these interests with the functions of government would, in his opinion, have been treason to the State; it would have been class tyranny of the worst kind.

The logical outcome of all this was his conviction of the absolute necessity, for Germany, of a strong non-partisan government: a government which should hold all the conflicting class interests in check and force them into continual compromises with one another; a government which should be unrestricted by any class prejudices, pledges, or theories, and have no other guiding star than the welfare of the whole nation. And the only basis for such a government he found in the Prussian monarchy, with its glorious tradition of military discipline, of benevolent paternalism, and of self-sacrificing devotion to national greatness; with its patriotic gentry, its incorruptible courts, its religious freedom, its enlightened educational system, its efficient and highly trained civil service. To bow before such a monarchy, to serve such a State, was indeed something different from submitting to the chance vote of a parliamentary majority; in this bondage even a Bismarck could find his highest freedom.

For nearly forty years he bore this bondage; for twenty-eight he stood in the place nearest to the monarch himself; and not even his enemies dared to assert that his political conduct was guided by other motives than the consideration of public welfare. Indeed, if there is any phrase for which he, the apparent cynic, the sworn despiser of phrases, seems to have had a certain weakness, it is the word salus publica. To it he sacrificed his days and his nights; for it he more than once risked his life; for it he incurred more hatred and slander than perhaps any man of his time; for it he alienated his best friends; for it he turned not once or twice, but one might almost say habitually, against his own cherished prejudices and convictions. The career of few men shows so many apparent inconsistencies and contrasts. One of his earliest speeches in the Prussian Landtag was a fervent protest against the introduction of civil marriage; yet the civil marriage clause in the German constitution is his work. He was by birth and tradition a believer in the divine right of kings; yet the King of Hanover could tell something of the manner in which Bismarck dealt with the divine right of kings if it stood in the way of German unity. He took pride in belonging to the most feudal aristocracy of western Europe, the Prussian Junkerdom; yet he did more to uproot feudal privileges than any other German statesman since 1848. He gloried in defying public opinion, and was wont to say that he felt doubtful about himself whenever he met with popular applause; yet he is the founder of the German Parliament, and he founded it on direct and universal suffrage. He was the sworn enemy of the Socialist party—he attempted to destroy it, root and branch; yet through the nationalization of railways and the obligatory insurance of workmen he infused more Socialism into German legislation than any other statesman before him.

Truly, a man who could thus sacrifice his own wishes and instincts to the common good; who could so completely sink his own personality in the cause of the nation; who with such matchless courage defended this cause against attacks from whatever quarter—against court intrigue no less than against demagogues—such a man had a right to stand above parties; and he spoke the truth when, some years before leaving office, in a moment of gloom and disappointment he wrote under his portrait, Patrice inserviendo consumor.


There is a strange, but after all perfectly natural, antithesis in German national character. The same people that instinctively believes in political paternalism, that willingly submits to restrictions of personal liberty in matters of State such as no Englishman would ever tolerate, is more jealous of its independence than perhaps any other nation in matters pertaining to the intellectual, social, and religious life of the individual. It seems as if the very pressure from without had helped to strengthen and enrich the life within.

Not only all the great men of German thought, from Luther down to the Grimms and the Humboldts, have been conspicuous for their freedom from artificial conventions and for the originality and homeliness of their human intercourse; but even the average German official—wedded as he may be to his rank or his title, anxious as he may be to preserve an outward decorum in exact keeping with the precise shade of his public status—is often the most delightfully unconventional, good-natured, unsophisticated, and even erratic being in the world, as soon as he has left the cares of his office behind him. Germany is the classic land of queer people. It is the land of Quintus Fixlein, Onkel Bräsig, Leberecht Hühnchen, and the host of Fliegende Blatter worthies; it is the land of the beer-garden and the Kaffeekranzchen, of the Christmas-tree and the Whitsuntide merry-making; it is the land of country inns and of student pranks. What more need be said to bring before one’s mind the wealth of hearty joyfulness, jolly good-fellowship, boisterous frolic, sturdy humor, simple directness, and genuinely democratic feeling that characterizes social life in Germany.

And still less reason is there for dwelling on the intellectual and religious independence of German character. Absence of constraint in scientific inquiry and religious conduct is indeed the very palladium of German freedom. Nowhere is higher education so entirely removed from class distinction as in the country where the imperial princes are sent to the same school with the sons of tradesmen and artisans. Nowhere is there so little religious formalism, coupled with such deep religious feeling, as in the country where sermons are preached to empty benches, while Tannhauser and Lohengrin, Wallenstein and Faust, are listened to with the hush of awe and bated breath by thousands upon thousands.

In all these respects—socially, intellectually, religiously—Bismarck was the very incarnation of German character. Although an aristocrat by birth and bearing, and although, especially during the years of early manhood, passionately given over to the aristocratic habits of dueling, hunting, swaggering and carousing, he was essentially a man of the people. Nothing was so utterly foreign to him as any form of libertinism; even his eccentricities were of the hardy, homespun sort. He was absolutely free from social vanity; he detested court festivities; he set no store by orders or decorations; the only two among the innumerable ones conferred upon him which he is said to have highly valued were the Prussian order of the Iron Cross, bestowed for personal bravery on the battlefield, and the medal for “rescuing from danger” which he earned in 1842 for having saved his groom from drowning by plunging into the water after him.

All his instincts were bound up with the soil from which he had sprung. He passionately loved the North German plain, with its gloomy moorlands, its purple heather, its endless wheatfields, its kingly forests, its gentle lakes, and its superb sweep of sky and clouds. Writing to his friends when abroad—he traveled very little abroad—he was in the habit of describing foreign scenery by comparing it to familiar views and places on his own estates. During sleepless nights in the Chancellery at Berlin there would often rise before him a sudden vision of Varzin, his Pomeranian country-seat, “perfectly distinct in the minutest particulars, like a great picture with all its colors fresh—the green trees, the sunshine on the stems, the blue sky above. I saw every individual tree.” Never was he more happy than when alone with nature. “Saturday,” he writes to his wife from Frankfort, “I drove to Rüdesheim. There I took a boat, rowed out on the Rhine, and swam in the moonlight, with nothing but nose and eyes out of water, as far as the Mäuseturm near Bingen, where the bad bishop came to his end. It gives one a peculiar dreamy sensation to float thus on a quiet warm night in the water, gently carried down by the current, looking above on the heavens studded with moon and stars, and on each side the banks and wooded hilltops and the battlements of the old castles bathed in the moonlight, whilst nothing falls on one’s ear but the gentle splashing of one’s movements. I should like to swim like this every evening.” And what poet has more deeply felt than he that vague musical longing which seizes one when far away from human sounds, by the brook-side or the hill-slope? “I feel as if I were looking out on the mellowing foliage of a fine September day,” he writes again to his wife, “health and spirits good, but with a soft touch of melancholy, a little homesickness, a longing for deep woods and lakes, for a desert, for yourself and the children, and all this mixed up with a sunset and Beethoven.”

His domestic affections were by no means limited to those united to him by ties of blood; he cherished strong patriarchal feelings for every member of his household, past or present. He possessed in a high degree the German tenderness for little things. He never forgot a service rendered to him, however small. In the midst of the most engrossing public activity he kept himself informed about the minutest details of the management of his estates, so that his wife could once laughingly say that a turnip from his own fields interested him vastly more than all the problems of international politics.

His humor, also, was entirely of the German stamp. It was boisterous, rollicking, aggressive, unsparing—of himself as little as of others—cynic, immoderate, but never without a touch of good-nature. His satire was often crushing, never venomous. His wit was racy and exuberant never equivocal. Whether he describes his vis-à-vis at a hotel table, his Excellency So-and-So, as “one of those figures which appear to one when he has the nightmare—a fat frog without legs, who opens his mouth as wide as his shoulders, like a carpet-bag, for each bit, so that I am obliged to hold tight on by the table from giddiness”; whether he characterizes his colleagues at the Frankfort Bundestag as “mere caricatures of periwig diplomatists, who at once put on their official visage if I merely beg of them a light to my cigar, and who study their words and looks with Regensburg care when they ask for the key of the lavatory”; whether he sums up his impression of the excited, emotional manner in which Jules Favre pleaded with him for the peace terms in the words, “He evidently took me for a public meeting”; whether he declined to look at the statue erected to him at Cologne, because he “didn’t care to see himself fossilized”; whether he spoke of the unprecedented popular ovations given to him at his final departure from Berlin as a “first-class funeral”—there are always the same childlike directness, the same naïve impulsiveness, the same bantering earnestness, the same sublime contempt for sham and hypocrisy.

And what man has been more truthful in intellectual and religious matters? He, the man of iron will, of ferocious temper, was at the same time the coolest reasoner, the most unbiased thinker. He willingly submitted to the judgment of experts, he cheerfully acknowledged intellectual talent in others, he took a pride in having remained a learner all his life, but he hated arrogant amateurishness. He was not a church-goer; he declined to be drawn into the circle of religious schemers and reactionary fanatics; he would occasionally speak in contemptuous terms of “the creed of court chaplains”; but, writing to his wife of that historic meeting with Napoleon in the lonely cottage near the battlefield of Sedan, he said: “A powerful contrast with our last meeting in the Tuileries in ’67. Our conversation was a difficult thing, if I wanted to avoid touching on topics which could not but affect painfully the man whom God’s mighty hand had cast down.” And more than once has he given vent to reflections like these: “For him who does not believe—as I do from the bottom of my heart—that death is a transition from one existence to another, and that we are justified in holding out to the worst of criminals in his dying hour the comforting assurance, mors janua vitae—I say that for him who does not share that conviction the joys of this life must possess so high a value that I could almost envy him the sensations they must procure him.” Or these: “Twenty years hence, or at most thirty, we shall be past the troubles of this life, whilst our children will have reached our present standpoint, and will discover with astonishment that their existence, but now so brightly begun, has turned the corner and is going down hill. Were that to be the end of it all, life would not be worth the trouble of dressing and undressing every day.”


We have considered a few traits of Bismarck’s mental and moral make-up which seem to be closely allied with German national character and traditions. But, after all, the personality of a man like Bismarck is not exhausted by the qualities which he has in common with his people, however sublimated these qualities may be in him. His innermost life belongs to himself alone, or is shared, at most, by the few men of the world’s history who, like him, tower in splendid solitude above the waste of the ages. In the Middle High German Alexanderlied there is an episode which most impressively brings out the impelling motive of such titanic lives. On one of his expeditions Alexander penetrates into the land of Scythian barbarians. These child-like people are so contented with their simple, primitive existence that they beseech Alexander to give them immortality. He answers that this is not in his power. Surprised, they ask why, then, if he is only a mortal, he is making such a stir in the world. Thereupon he answers: “The Supreme Power has ordained us to carry out what is in us. The sea is given over to the whirlwind to plough it up. As long as life lasts and I am master of my senses, I must bring forth what is in me. What would life be if all men in the world were like you?” These words might have been spoken by Bismarck. Every word, every act of his public career, gives us the impression of a man irresistibly driven on by some overwhelming, mysterious power. He was not an ambitious schemer, like Beaconsfield or Napoleon; he was not a moral enthusiast like Gladstone or Cavour. If he had consulted his private tastes and inclinations, he would never have wielded the destinies of an empire. Indeed, he often rebelled against his task; again and again he tried to shake it off; and the only thing which again and again brought him back to it was the feeling, “I must; I cannot do otherwise.” If ever there was a man in whom Fate revealed its moral sovereignty, that man was Bismarck.

Whither has he gone now? Has he joined his compeers? Is he conversing in ethereal regions with Alexander, Caesar, Frederick? Is he sweeping over land and sea in the whirlwind and the thunder-cloud? Or may we hope that he is still working out the task which, in spite of all the imperiousness of his nature, was the essence of his earthly life—the task of making the Germans a nation of true freemen?

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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