Bismarck as Prime Minister

Taylor Bismarck

Bismarck was 47 when he became prime minister. No man has taken supreme office with a more slender background of experience. He had never been a minister and had spent only a few months of rebellious youth in the bureaucracy nearly twenty years before. During his short time in parliament he had merely voiced extreme reactionary views; he had not tried to win votes or to work with others. At Frankfurt he had fought Austria, not practised diplomacy in the usual sense. He had no friends or social circle, except for a few sycophants who wrote at his dictation. Where an English prime minister spent the recess going from one great country house to another, Bismarck withdrew to his own estate and saw no one. In later years he was absent from Berlin for months, once for ten months, at a time. He is often called a Junker and certainly he liked to present himself as a landowner. But he had a poor opinion of his fellow Junkers and jettisoned their interests without hesitation whenever it suited his policy. His aim was to succeed in whatever he turned his hand to or, as he called it, ‘to accomplish God’s purpose; and he certainly did not think that every Junker prejudice was a divine ordinance. The only check on him was the king’s will, but he meant to see to it that the king should will what he wanted.

He was too old to learn political habits. He stood outside party or class, a solitary figure following a line of his own devising. He had no colleagues, only subordinates. The Prussian council of ministers rarely debated policy. It was called together only when it was necessary to pass a unanimous resolution or to force the king on some distasteful course. Bismarck conducted foreign policy in autocratic isolation, easily roused to anger if some ambassador tried to influence him. He knew nothing of internal affairs or of economics when he became prime minister; and he left these matters entirely to other ministers until some event suddenly drove him to intervene with devastating effect. Even then his policy was the outcome of private reflection, uninfluenced by others. Discussion always brought on a nervous crisis, which ended in tears or the breaking of china; and he preferred to do all his work on paper.

Opposition infuriated him. Bismarck never respected an opponent or listened to his argument. If a minister raised objections, then the critic’s position was undermined with the king and he was soon dismissed. To parliamentary critics Bismarck always attributed unworthy motives, jeering at their ambition for office, their financial difficulties, or their personal appearance. One fearless critic, Lasker, was pursued with hatred even after his death. Bismarck developed a petty malignity during his years of office, until at the end of his life he seemed concerned only to carry on his personal feuds. Yet he did not show gratitude for the most unwavering support. Lother Bucher, an extreme radical of 1848 now convinced that Bismarck alone could unite Germany, gave him thirty years of devoted service. He once received a word of praise. All others, including the most responsible ministers, were used so long as it suited Bismarck’s purpose; and were then flung casually aside.

Nor did Bismarck take part in parliamentary debates as this is understood in England or France. The Prussian ministers were not members of the Chamber. They sat aloof on the ministerial bench; and Bismarck delivered his Olympian speeches without any contact with the members. He stated his policy. He did not try to argue or to convince. The effect was increased by his thin, high voice, like a professor lecturing his class. Though he admitted the right of members to question him, he refused to listen to their criticism and withdrew ostentatiously to his own room when the debate turned against him.

Yet, on the other hand, he had great personal charm when he cared to use it. He bewitched Alexander II, Napoleon III and Queen Victoria—all of whom had started out with strong prejudice against him. He had been trained as a courtier in his youth; and those who met him in old age were astonished to find under his rough exterior all the formal grace of a Talleyrand or a Metternich. Foreign statesmen and German radicals alike succumbed to his magic. He would catch a politician in the corridor of the parliament-house or casually in a railway carriage and talk to him as though they were the most intimate friends in the world. Of all the great public figures of the past he is the one whom it would be most rewarding to recall from the dead for an hour’s conversation. With all his brusqueness, no man was more skilful at evading a storm. When a member was preparing to move the adjournment of the Chamber owing to Bismarck’s absence, Bismarck put his head round the door and said: ‘I can hear everything you are saying.’ He once caused an uproar by saying that a critic ‘was associated with the refusal of taxes in 1848’. The president of the Chamber interrupted him. Bismarck repeated the phrase. The president declared that he would suspend the sitting if the phrase were repeated again. There seemed no alternative between humiliation and defiance. With a disarming smile, Bismarck said: ‘It is not necessary for me to repeat my words again. Everyone heard them’; and he went on with his speech. Gladstone could not have managed things better.

Bismarck had no settled views on domestic policy when he became prime minister. It was a matter of indifference to him whether men served for two or three years in the army. His only concern was to have a free hand in foreign policy. For this he had to keep his hold over the king. Therefore the constitutional conflict must continue. If it were once settled, William could get rid of Bismarck or, at the very least, refuse to follow his advice in foreign affairs. Bismarck disliked his dependence on the king; he always feared that Augusta might reassert her influence over her husband. Bismarck had no real devotion to the monarchy, despite his legitimist phrases. As he himself often said, he was ‘by nature a republican’; and he accepted the monarchy only as he disciplined himself to accept reality in so many ways. He was quite prepared to use the Chamber against the king if it on its side would back him over foreign policy in return. If the bait of uniting Germany under Prussia would make the Chamber swallow the military programme, then William would be helpless. He, too, would have to follow Bismarck’s foreign policy. A parliamentary assembly was easier to manage than the king in the long run, as Bismarck found in later life. With his usual impetuosity, he tried out this idea as soon as he took office. He fell into talk with a leading liberal and compared the king to a horse who ‘takes fright at an unaccustomed object, will grow obstinate if driven, but will gradually get used to it.’ The unaccustomed object was, of course, a rivalry with Austria.


1. Taylor, A. J. P. Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman. New York: Knopf, 1955. Print.


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Filed under History, Notes on History

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