Otto von Bismarck

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Hanover Historical Texts Project.

Count Otto von Bismarck was heir to a Prussian tradition founded on a strong military, a strong state, a strong aristocracy, and an ethos stressing service and sacrifice to the state. (Aristocrats, or Junkers, were to serve the state as high-ranking military officers or high-ranking civil servants.) As the first minister of Prussia, Bismarck's principal goal was to unite Germany under Prussian leadership. German Liberals had tried and failed to unite Germany during the Revolution of 1848. Bismarck succeeded where the Liberals had failed. He managed to unite Germany through a series of calculated wars and "real politic" diplomacy. As the principal architect of German unification and later as Chancellor of the new German Reich, Bismarck was able to put a conservative Prussian stamp on the newly unified and powerful German state. The following excerpts from Bismarck's memoirs illustrate Bismarck's "real politic" approach to politics and diplomacy, an approach that emphasizes realism over emotion and that uses Machiavellian-like calculation and cunning to achieve one's ends. The first excerpt reveals how Bismarck, with an eye toward his ultimate goal of German unification, advocated a policy of leniency toward Austria, which Prussia had just defeated in war, a policy that was unpopular among the others in the Council of War and initially rejected by the King but that ultimately prevailed.

1. What policy toward Austria did Bismarck recommend? Why?
2. What rationale did the King five for pursuing a more aggressive policy?

[1] On July 23, under the presidency of the king, a council of war was held, in which the question to be decided was whether we should make peace under the conditions offered or continue the war. A painful illness from which I was suffering made it necessary that the council should be held in my room. On this occasion I was the only civilian in uniform. I declared it to be my conviction that peace must be concluded on the Austrian terms, but remained alone in my opinion; the king supported the military majority.

[2] My nerves could not stand the strain which had been put upon them day and night; I got up in silence, walked into my adjoining bedchamber, and was there overcome by a violent paroxysm of tears. Meanwhile I heard the council dispersing in the next room. I thereupon set to work to commit to paper the reasons which, in my opinion, spoke for the conclusion of peace, and begged the king, in the event of his not accepting the advice for which I was responsible, to relieve me of my functions if the war were continued.

[3] I set out with this document on the following day to explain it by word of mouth. In the antechamber I found two colonels with a report on the spread of cholera among their troops, barely half of whom were fit for service. These alarming figures confirmed my resolve to make the acceptance of the Austrian terms a cabinet question. Besides my political anxieties, I feared that by transferring operations to Hungary, the nature of that country, which was well known to me, would soon make the disease overwhelming. The climate, especially in August, is dangerous; there is great lack of water; the country villages are widely distributed, each with many square miles of open fields attached; and, finally, plums and melons grow there in abundance. Our campaign of 1792 in Champagne was in my mind as a warning example; on that occasion it was not the French but dysentery which caused our retreat. Armed with my documents I unfolded to the king the political and military reasons which opposed the continuation of the war.

[4] We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard and the renewal of friendly relations as a move open to us. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia.

[5] On the other hand, I could not see any guarantee for us in the future of the countries constituting the Austrian monarchy, in case the latter were split up by risings of the Hungarians and Slavs or made permanently dependent on those peoples. What would be substituted for that portion of Europe which the Austrian state had hitherto occupied from Tyrol to Bukowina? Fresh formations on this surface could only be of a permanently revolutionary nature. German Austria we could neither wholly nor partly make use of. The acquisition of provinces like Austrian Silesia and portions of Bohemia could not strengthen the Prussian state; it would not lead to an amalgamation of German Austria with Prussia, and Vienna could not be governed from Berlin as a mere dependency.

[6] To all this the king raised no objection, but declared the actual terms as inadequate, without however definitely formulating his own demands. Only so much was clear, that his claims had grown considerably since July 4. He that the chief culprit could not be allowed to escape unpunished, and that, justice once satisfied, we could let the misled backsliders off more easily; and he insisted on the cessions of territory from Austria which I have already mentioned.

[7] I replied that we were not there to sit in judgment, but to pursue the German policy. Austria's conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the king of Prussia.

[8] Passing on to the German states, the king spoke of various acquisitions by cutting down the territories of all our opponents. I repeated that we were not there to administer retributive justice, but to pursue a policy; that I wished to avoid in the German federation of the future the sight of mutilated territories, whose princes and peoples might very easily (such is human weakness) retain a lively wish to recover their former possessions by means of foreign aid.

The second excerpt shows how Bismarck edited a telegram so as to incite war passions in France and ultimately encourage France to declare war on Prussia. Bismarck was thus able to make Prussia appear as the victim of aggression while actually precipitating a war that he hoped would unite Germans behind Prussian leadership. The issue at stake here was the potential claim that the ruling family of Prussia, the Hohenzollerns, had on the Spanish throne (raising the possibility that France would find itself surrounded by two Hohenzollern states). The Spanish throne had become vacant in 1568. A Hohenzollern, Prince Leopold, became a candidate, but, after long negotiations, officially withdrew his candidacy on July 12, 1870 The French government ordered its ambassador, Benedetti,to press the Prussian King, as head of the Hohenzollern family, to renounce permanently the Hohenzollern claim to the Spanish throne. He did so in the morning of July 13, and William refused. When King William learned later that day by telegram that Prince Leopold had withdrawn his candidacy, he viewed the matter as closed and cancelled his afternoon appointment with Benedetti. William's secretary Ebeken sent a long telegraph to Bismarck reporting the news of the day, giving Bismarck permission to publish the telegram as he saw fit.

[7] All considerations, conscious and unconscious, strengthened my opinion that war could only be avoided at the cost of the honor of Prussia and of the national confidence in her. Under this conviction I made use of the royal authorization communicated to me through Abeken to publish the contents of the telegram; and in the presence of my two guests [General Moltke and General Roon] I reduced the telegram by striking out words, but without adding or altering anything, to the following form:

[8] "After the news of the renunciation of the hereditary prince of Hohenzollern had been officially communicated to the imperial government of France by the royal government of Spain, the French ambassador at Ems made the further demand of his Majesty the king that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that his Majesty the king bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. His Majesty the king thereupon decided not to receive the French ambassador again, and sent to tell him, through the aid-de-camp on duty, that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the ambassador."

[9] The difference in the effect of the abbreviated text of the Ems telegram as compared with that produced by the original was not the result of stronger words, but of the form, which made this announcement appear decisive, while Abeken’s version would only have been regarded as a fragment of a negotiation still pending and to be continued at Berlin.

[10] After I had read out the concentrated edition to my two guests, Moltke remarked: “Now it has a different ring; in its original form it sounded like a parley; now it is like a flourish in answer to a challenge." I went on to explain: “If , in execution of his Majesty's order, I at once communicate this text, which contains no alteration in or addition to the telegram, not only to the newspapers, but also by telegraph to all our embassies, it will be known in Paris before midnight, and not only on account of its contents, but also on account of the manner of its distribution, will have the effect of a red rag upon the Gallic bull.

[11] “Fight we must if we do not want to act the part of the vanquished without a battle. Success, however, depends essentially upon the impression which the origination of the war makes upon us and others; it is important that we should be the ones attacked, and the Gallic insolence and touchiness will bring about this result if we announce in the face of Europe, so far as we can without the speaking tube of the Reichstag, that we fearlessly meet the public threats of France."

[12] This explanation brought about in the two generals a revulsion to a more joyous mood, the liveliness of which surprised me. They had suddenly recovered their pleasure in eating and drinking and spoke in a more cheerful vein. Roon said, “Our God of old still lives, and will not let us perish in disgrace." Moltke so far relinquished his passive equanimity that, glancing up joyously toward the ceiling and abandoning his usual punctiliousness of speech, he smote his hand upon his breast and said, “If I may but live to lead our armies in such a war, then the devil may come directly afterwards and fetch away the old carcass."

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