For some, he was the greatest chancellor Germany ever produced, others have stylised him as a "demon" and made him directly or indirectly responsible for almost everything that subsequently went wrong in German history. It seems to be clear that the truth – or better, the next best possible thing to it – lies somewhere in between. It is not the intention of this book to dictate to its readers exactly where. Rather, it is meant to supply some facts with their interpretation which may form the basis for a well-grounded image of this colourful personality. Based on modern academic research, but written in a lively, readable style.Includes many images.After historical studies in Berlin and Edinburgh, Dirk Müller has written for major newspapers. He has published several books on political and historical topics, including a popular portrait of Chancellor Merkel, successor of Bismarck.
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English by Peter Wilton
Foreword – neither a demon nor a super chancellor
Admired, feared and hated: Bismarck speaking in the Reichstag
For some, he was the greatest chancellor that Germany ever produced, others have stylised him as a “demon” and made him directly or indirectly responsible for almost everything that subsequently went wrong in German history.
It seems to be clear that the truth – or better, the next best possible thing to it – lies somewhere in between. It is not the intention of this book to dictate to its readers exactly where. Rather, it is meant to supply some facts with their interpretation which may form the basis for a well-grounded image of this colourful personality.
Paradise and beatings: the child
Brought up strictly at school: Otto von Bismarck at about 11
His father: traditional nobility, his mother: a commoner.
In the Germany of the 19th century, such an origin was unusual. It most certainly formed Bismarck but the extent to which it determined his political goals is not quite clear. His brother, with the same background, led an unspectacular life. Nevertheless, Bismarck draws attention himself in his memoirs to this constellation in striving to take a little bit of the wind from the sails of his liberal critics from the start – all his life he was seen by them as a Prussian “Junker”, a conservative country nobleman, and a reactionary. He actually admits himself that his mother would never have been very enthusiastic about his policies.
Prussia at around 1815
He was born on 1st April 1815 in the manor of Schönhausen near the River Elbe close to Stendal in the Prussian province of Saxony as the son of the cavalry captain, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck (1771–1845), and his wife Luise Wilhelmine, née Mencken (1790–1839). The family Mencken had in the past produced scholars and public servants.
In 1816, the young family moved to the estate Kniephof in the district of Naugard in Farther Pomerania without giving up the Schönhausen estate. Bismarck later referred to Kniephof as his childhood paradise. A paradise, which did not last forever. In the park of the estate, he discovered his love of nature which would stay with him for his whole life.
Paradise lost: the run-down estate near Naugard in 2012 (photo: Shrink)
He inherited the pride of his noble origin from his father as well as, of course, the class privileges and the appropriate estates: his mother gave him not only his brilliant intellect but probably also the desire (or urge) to get away from the surroundings of his origin, the solid, staid landed gentry. Bismarck could be grateful to his mother that he enjoyed an education which was very intellectual for a country gentleman. Her sons should not be mere “Junkers” but also enter the higher public service. Bismarck’s way there, however, was not straightforward: due to a love affair he would very nearly never have become a politician.
Bismarck’s childhood happiness ended at the age of six when his school education began – at his mother’s request in the Prussian capital of Berlin at the Plamann Educational Institute. This boarding school, to which higher public servants sent their sons, was originally established in a liberal spirit by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. By Bismarck’s time, however, this reform phase was over – and the education was characterised by iron drill. The young child experienced this transformation as a disaster. Later, Bismarck made this clear himself. The institution was for him a “prison house”. It “ruined” his childhood. One thing should be clear: of all persons the “iron” chancellor, an icon of Prussianism, complained bitterly about his very strict upbringing!
It was most probably during this period that his reluctance to accept authority was moulded. On the other hand, according to his own admission, it was also just this bourgeois authority, critical of nobility, which is supposed to have plagued him. Was the later “white” (noble) revolutionary (a term coined by Gall) shaped here? It is, at the very least, not improbable.
After dissolution of the Plamann Institute in 1827, Bismarck changed to Berlin’s Friedrich-Wilhelms-Gymnasium (grammar school); and from 1830, he attended, up to taking his Abitur in 1832, the well-known humanistic Berlin Grammar School “Zum Grauen Kloster”. Apart from Ancient Greek, which Bismarck found to be superfluous, he demonstrated a pronounced talent for languages; his knowledge of French and English was good all his life. Those were the important living foreign languages, the languages of international diplomacy; that attracted him.
He was given religious lessons by Friedrich Schleiermacher who also confirmed him in the Berlin Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Trinity Church). The famous theologian did not make any particular impression on Bismarck however. He read Spinoza and David Friedrich Strauss and described himself in retrospect more as a deist or pantheist than as a conventional believing Christian. But he was also never an atheist even if his relatives and acquaintances saw him as being one.
Bismarck as a young student in Göttingen (drawn from memory by Christian Wilhelm Allers, 1893)
Bismarck had actually wanted to study in Heidelberg. But his mother could not agree to this: she feared her offspring could become accustomed to the dreadful beer-drinking tradition there. His ‘Ms Mum’ asserted herself once again. After Abitur (A level), he began his law studies as a seventeen-year-old (1832–1835) at first at the University of Göttingen (1832–1833). He rejected the political unrest as a result of the July Revolution (‘Hambacher Fest’, ‘Frankfurter Wachensturm’) without becoming particularly conspicuous himself. He joined neither the then still oppositional nor the conservative student fraternities, but the conservative duelling fraternity ‘Corps Hannovera Göttingen’. He kept up his connection with this corps for the rest of his life. He was regarded as a good fencer – as he was later in life using words.
He criticised the fraternities due to their apparent “refusal to give satisfaction, their lack of outward upbringing and forms of good society, on closer observation also the extravagance of their political opinions, which were based on a lack of education and knowledge of the existing historical living conditions”. These were the formulations of a conservative aristocrat.
On the other hand, he described himself as in no way just of monarchical or indeed absolutist disposition. He asserted indeed much later in his memoirs that the control of the monarch by parliament and freedom of the press had always been a part of his political ideas even if just to limit the influence of court cringers and women on the monarchy.
However: all these statements have been handed down from a later period. The historian Kolb comments that it is astonishing that there is no witness of his political thinking originating from his student days.
He was interested in history and literature, his law studies only as the means to an end. He said, he was studying “diplomacy”. His mother’s well-intentioned attempts to keep her son away from the consumption of alcohol must, according to all reports, be seen as having failed. Gluttony will later become a serious health problem for Bismarck (and for the conquered French, after 1871, the origin of pointed remarks).
The only academic teacher to impress him greatly was the historian, Hermann Ludwig Heeren, who described the functioning of the international system of states in his lectures. It can be assumed that Bismarck actually did learn something here for later life and that the historic researcher in this respect also influenced later history.
In November 1833, Bismarck continued his studies at the Berlin Friedrich-Wilhelms University. In 1835, he completed them with the First State Examination – with average marks but at the earliest possible point of time.
At first, Bismarck seemed to be making a quick career but very soon everything went quite different.
He became an auscultator at the Berlin City Court. He was industrious from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening, he reported to a friend. After that, he would mix in society. Although he was, in addition, constantly “excessively in love, he frequently changed the object” of his attentions. Bismarck also had money problems, his “old folk” were miserly and he had to pay back debts from his student days.
At his own request, he changed from the judicial to the administrative department. The reason: Bismarck said he had heard that the Prussian foreign minister was supposed to think very little of “Junkers” from east of the Elbe river in the diplomatic service. (East of the Elbe, the estates were larger and the country noblemen particularly conservative.) To enter into the administration he had to pass examinations. This time the lazy young man becomes industrious: he “only sleeps for six hours and finds great joy in studying, two things which I thought were impossible for a long time”. His marks were now distinctly better.
The everyday office life of a government clerk in the then quite mundane health resort of Aachen did not really fulfil him. He looked for diversion and commenced money-consuming affairs with English ladies.
The seventeen-year-old Isabella Smith turned his head so much that he not only asked for holidays to be able to follow the beautiful Englishwoman and her family travelling. He also exceeded the holiday period by a lengthy period. The result was that Bismarck was relieved of his position as a clerk.
Not only that: he was running up debt through frequent visits to gambling dens. In the meantime, his beloved was snatched away by a gentleman with more money. His summary: “short of pocket, sick at heart, I returned home to Pomerania.” The later political realist, who sometimes villainised the demands of democratic opponents as moonshine observations, also began himself as a failed romantic, a good-for-nothing and a lost son.
Later he attempted to continue his training as a clerk in Potsdam. The request was granted not without the fine admonishment, now to find his way back to a “more intense manner of working”…. One may find that amusing but should bear in mind that a candidate from less illustrious circles would probably not have had such escapades forgiven.
However, Bismarck turned his back on the administrative service again after a few months. He explained this step later by saying that he would rather “give orders … than adhere to them: I wish to call the tune that I recognise as good or not at all.” Another, just as important reason: his debts. He was convinced that he could achieve more in agriculture than in the administration, from a “purely material standpoint”.
In the meantime, his father gave the manors around Kniephof to his sons to manage. Bismarck thus returned to his childhood paradise, this time, however, not to dream but to do something tangibly practical. The five-year-older brother, Bernhard, started his political career before Otto, became head of the Landrat (district authority) and later a member of the Pomeranian provincial parliament.
In 1838, Bismarck did one year of military service as a volunteer first of all in a battalion of chasseurs à pied, in the autumn he changed to the Chasseur Battalion no. 2 in Greifswald in West Pomerania. His mother died in 1839.
After Bernhard von Bismarck 1841 had been elected as head of the Landrat, a provisional division took place. Bernhard now managed Jarchlin, Otto, on the other hand, Külz and Kniephof. After their father’s death in 1845, Otto assumed the management of the family estate Schönhausen near Stendal in addition.
The Manor of Schönhausen I, also Bismarck’s place of birth. Old postcard. The building was demolished in 1958 on resolution by the SED (East German Communist Party).
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