The Moral vs the ‘Real’ View of Politics

Taylor Bismarck

A fortnight after Sadova, Austria had accepted Bismarck’s terms; France approved of them; Russia did not object. Yet Bismarck’s greatest struggle was still to come. The obstacle which almost broke his will was William I. The king had never understood Bismarck’s far-reaching plans and had been dragged reluctantly into war. He had given way only when convinced that Austria and her German allies were planning to attack him. Now he regarded them as wicked and insisted that they be punished. For him, as for many lesser mortals, war was a matter of moral judgement, not an instrument of power. It seemed to him immoral that Austria should be allowed to end the war without losing some territory, and even without a march of the victorious Prussian army through her capital. On the other hand, the dethronement of the north German princes seemed to him excessive; it would be a more bitter and more appropriate punishment for them to survive diminished. Bismarck had no scrap of this outlook. Resentment was no part of his policy—at any rate when the offence was against the king, not against himself. The lesser princes were a nuisance; therefore they should disappear. Prussia would be no stronger for a fragment of Austrian territory; therefore should claim none. He said to William: ‘Austria was no more in the wrong in opposing our claims than we were in making them’ – an even-handed judgement that will stand as the verdict of history, but no one likely to appeal to a simple-minded Hohenzollern.

The conflict raged for more than two days at Prussian headquarters. The generals, with their simple moral code, supported William. The crown prince, with a vision of a united Germany, supported Bismarck. There has never been a clear dispute between the moral and the ‘real’ view of politics; the more fascinating in that William was advocating a more severe peace with Austria and a less severe peace with the princes – both on moral grounds.


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


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