Bismarck, Georges Lacour-Gayet
Georges Lacour-Gayet
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Otto, Prince of Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg, was a conservative German statesman and diplomat. From his origins in the upper class of Junker landowners, Bismarck rose rapidly in Prussian politics, and from 1862 to 1890 he was the minister president and foreign minister of Prussia. Before his rise to the executive, he was the Prussian ambassador to Russia and France and served in both houses of the Prussian Parliament.


Georges Lacour-Gayet

Translated by Herbert M. Capes

Franz von Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck in his 75th year. He is in uniform of Major General of the Guards Cuirassiers of Prussia Franz von Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck in his 75th year.He is in uniform of Major General of the Guards Cuirassiers of Prussia

Chapter I.
Years of Preparation

Years of childhood and youth — Legal beginnings — Life in the country — Marriage — Diet of 1847 — The days of March at Berlin in 1848 — Parliament of Frankfort — The Olmütz Interview — At the Diet of Frankfort — Journeys to Vienna and Paris — Relations with the Prince Regent.

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born on the 1st of April, 1815, at Schönhausen, a village of Brandenburg in the Kingdom of Prussia. The place and date are of interest in the history of the man who was one day to make the greatness of Prussia, the unity of Germany, and the calamity of Europe.

Schönhausen, situated about five miles from the right shores of the Elbe, and actually in the province of Saxon Prussia, had been the patrimonial residence of the Bismarcks since the sixteenth century. The father and mother of the future Chancellor had there recently undergone a painful ordeal. The 14th of October, 1806, had seen the downfall of the Prussian monarchy; in the words of Heine, Napoleon had breathed on Prussia and Prussia had ceased to exist. Some days after the catastrophe of Jena, when the distraded Prussians were fleeing before the victors, the Bismarcks had abandoned their estate. Soult’s regiments, marching on Berlin, had passed through the property, and had paid little respect to it. A great genealogical tree hung on one of the walls of the hall; it was the pride of the family, for, in a purely imaginary fashion, it traced the descent of the Bismarcks from the eighth century, from the time of Charlemagne. Soult’s soldiers, showing no respect for this piece of antiquity, had slashed it about with their bayonets, and when the Bismarcks came back to their home, the famous genealogical tree was nothing but a ruin. More than once, in his childhood, the young Otto heard this episode of the passing of the French recounted.

Up to 1815 there had been trying hours at Schönhausen, but the Battle of Leipzig had brought back victory. In 1815, the very year of the birth of Bismarck, one after the other the Treaties of Vienna and the Battle of Waterloo had consolidated the political and military triumph of Prussia. France, in her turn, under the most stern conditions, was suffering the law of the vanquished. The genealogical tree of Schönhausen was amply avenged.

Bismarck used to say, à propos of his origin, that “he had in his veins both the blood of a cuirassier and the blood of a professor”; and, expressing it in a different fashion, “I come alternatively of a generation that gets thrashed and a generation that thrashes.” He who, at the time of his disgrace, was to receive the grade of General of Cavalry with the rank of Field-Marshal, loved to recall the military character of his forbears. “There is not one of my ancestors that did not draw the sword. My father and his three brothers. My grandfather was at Rosbach; he fought against Louis XV, and my great-grandfather against Louis XIV, in the little wars on the Rhine in 1672-5. Besides, a great many of my ancestors took part in the Thirty Years’ War, some for the Empire, others in the Swedish ranks.” The family bore this disquieting device: Noch lange nicht genug (Far from being enough).

This family, with its military traditions, had been settled for several generations in the middle Marches of Brandenburg, which were the cradle of the Prussian monarchy; it belonged to the small provincial nobility, whose whole ideal was to serve in the Army and to cultivate their poor estates. They were squireens — Junkers, as the Germans say, with the narrow conservative ideas and reactionary fierceness the word implies.

The Chancellor’s father had retired early from military service to employ himself in the improvement of his property; he had married Luisa Wilhelmina Mencken, who belonged to a family of professors and lawyers. Of this marriage were born six children, of whom only three survived — an elder brother of the Chancellor, the Chancellor, and a younger sister, Malvina, who was always greatly attached to him, and who married a Count von Arnim.

Bismarck’s childhood was spent on an estate at Kneiphof in Pomerania. The open-air life in a harsh climate helped to develop his powerful frame, and gave him the love of the country he kept till the end of his life, “I have always had,” he used to say, “an immense and quite romantic love for the country, for the fields and woods, for uncultivated nature. The only equal passion I have is for animals.” His mastiff, Tyras, was his inseparable companion in his old age; he had been called the Reichshund — the dog of the Empire.

From his sixth year to his eleventh the young Otto was brought up at the Plamann Institute in Berlin, a fashionable school, though its iron discipline left unpleasant memories in his mind; according to him, it was “a sort of House of Correction.” Sent later to the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, and then to the Grey-Cloister Gymnasium, his studies were of an adequate kind; he gained a fair knowledge of French and English. Later on he learned Russian, and on this account could rightly congratulate himself on being able to treat directly with the Ministers of the Tsar without having recourse to an intermediary, and without being understood by the other diplomats, who could use only French.

Bismarck began his “Thoughts and Memories” with this view of himself at the end of his secondary studies, when he was about seventeen:

“A normal product of our official teaching, when, at Easter 1832, I left the Gymnasium, I was a Pantheist; moreover, if not a republican, I was at least convinced that a Republic was the most rational form of government; and, in addition, I used to rack my brains to discover the motives sufficient to induce millions of men to submit during their whole life to the will of one alone.”

But these republican and levelling fancies were but a fire of straw.

“An absolute devotion to the Prussian monarchy had been inculcated on me from the cradle…. I remained faithful to the defenders of authority. To the boy imbued with the belief in authority Harmodius and Aristogiton, as well as Brutus, were common criminals and William Tell a rebel and assassin.”

In a word, the young Junker of Schönhausen belonged body and soul to Prussia, of which it has been said, with good cause, that it is less a nation than a system, having State Policy for its basis, war for its industry, and, for instruments, the barrack, the school, and officials brought up in the idea that humanity begins only with the Baron.

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