Littell's Living Age/Volume 139/Issue 1799/Prince Bismarck

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From The Saturday Review.


The English public is indebted to the Times for a summary of a work in which more is told about a great man than a great man usually allows to be told about him in his lifetime. This work is the production of an ardent admirer of Prince Bismarck, and it is safe to guess that the bulk of the composition is not as amusing and interesting as the extracts which have been judiciously selected from it. But at any rate these extracts are amusing and interesting in the highest degree. They place before us the prince in all his calculated audacity, and they contain a number of his judgments on some of the most eminent of his contemporaries. It has apparently been his lot in life to have principally to deal with two classes of men — cowards and fools; and he delights in thinking that he has bullied the former and gauged the capacity of the latter. When he first entered on his task of re-fashioning Germany, he found Austria in possession not only of a political but of a social supremacy. Not only was Austria the head of the confederation, but it was accepted as a maxim that Austria was socially above all other members of the confederation, that the emperor of Austria was the king of all other German kings, and that they were to treat him as nobles treat a sovereign. His representatives were to do as they pleased, and the representatives of other German states were only to follow the Austrian example if expressly invited to do so. The Prussian court was always stringing itself up to dispute the political supremacy of Austria, but until Prince Bismarck arrived on the scene it never ventured to call the social supremacy of Austria in question. Social habits color political thoughts so profoundly that, as the prince saw, a social must precede a political revolution. Unless, when they met, the representatives of Prussia behaved as if conscious of being on an equality with the representatives of Austria, no one would believe that Prussia was really prepared to challenge Austria in the field of politics. A social Sadowa was indispensable, and the prince fought and won his Sadowa on the great question of tobacco. It had become a recognized usage that the Austrian representative should smoke while engaged in business, but that no one else might smoke in his august presence. On the sittings of the military-commission Count Thun alone smoked, and the Prussian Rochovv, although longing to light his cigar, did not dare to presume so far. It was expected, as a matter of course, that the Prussian commissioner would show as much deference to the Austrian commissioner as a commissioner from Würtemberg or Darmstadt. Prince Bismarck had the courage, and real courage was required, to break the spell. He had previously called on Count Thun and been desired to wait while the count smoked and went on with his business. Bismarck quietly took a cigar out of the count's box and smoked too. But this was only in private, and the count might think that it was a mere piece of undesigned gaucherie. It was very different when, in the sitting of a commission with all the delegates of the minor states present as spectators, Bismarck, on seeing Count Thun smoke, pulled a cigar out of his pocket and asked for a light. There was a moment of awe and expectancy, during which the assemply waited to see what the count would do. He capitulated, and did as he was asked. The social supremacy of Austria vanished in the fumes of a cigar.

The prince has been extremely free in giving his confidential friend the means of knowing and publishing the opinions he has formed as to some of those with whom he carried on his diplomatic struggles. This is especially the case with his French friends or enemies. He seems to have had a very poor opinion of the late emperor of the French, and to have formed the conclusion that there was little strength or wisdom beneath the emperor’s silence and reserve. He was, as the prince thinks, nothing more than a Tiefenbacher, a popular German expression for a hesitating, pretentious, indolent general. The diplomatic ability of M. Thiers did not impress him as much as might have been expected. "He came to me as a negotiator when he had not gumption enough for a horse-dealer." The prince found it easy to worm secrets out of him, and managed to make him tell that Paris had only provisions for a month more. It would be interesting to know what was the occasion to which the prince was referring. It is very difficult to find any interview which could have been in his mind except one of those that took place in the October of 1870. If the secret was then wormed out of M. Thiers, the secret had at least the diplomatic merit of not being true, as the provisions of Paris lasted more than three months after October. When, again, the prince says that M. Thiers was far too sentimental to bargain well, he might have recollected that it was in deference to the passionate appeals of M. Thiers that Belfort was given up to France. M. Thiers may not have had the supreme ability of a judicious horse-dealer, but when he was negotiating with Prince Bismarck he was not in the position of a man who wants to sell or buy a horse. The prince had got the horse of M. Thiers, and all that M. Thiers could do was to buy his own horse back as cheaply as its possessor by violence would permit. Contemporary Frenchmen will, however, not mind much what the prince has chosen to say about M. Thiers or the emperor. Their amusement or indignation will be reserved for the prince's withering remarks about M. Jules Favre. Of course Bismarck thought Jules Favre foolishly and despicably sentimental. But a Frenchman does not mind being thought sentimental by a German. That he feels acutely and shows his feelings openly is to a Frenchman part of his natural superiority. M. Jules Favre would not lose anything of his own respect or of the respect of others if all the world knew that he cried when outbargained by a German horse-dealer. On the contrary, M. Jules Favre has always been proud, and his friends have been proud with him, that he shed bitter, scalding tears when the cession of Metz and Strasburg was broached. He swears he cried, and M. Jules Simon, as a friend and an historian, knows that he cried. But the prince cruelly digs him a blow that will come to him like a fatal stab. He says that M. Jules Favre did, indeed, try to cry, but that he could not manage it. The tears would not flow, and so the scenic effect was spoilt, although M. Jules Favre had prepared for it with the utmost care by painting his face white. There is scarcely anything in history more grimly comic than the scene which is thus suggested. Very possibly the prince only saw what his cynicism allowed him to see. He may have been so tickled with the supposed spectacle of a rival diplomatist having powdered or painted his face to the proper agony tint, and not being able to blubber when the expected moment for blubbering arrived, that he may have been blind to tears that were really shed and to a face of its natural hue. But nothing will diminish the delight of the Conservative journals of France in the story as Prince Bismarck has chosen to tell it.

His own countrymen, however, are judged with the same severity, and stung with the same shafts of ridicule. The main impression which his intercourse with the most eminent of them seems to have left on him is that they were chiefly eminent as bores. Nothing can be more graphic or amusing than his description of the great Humboldt prosing on with a eulogy of some unknown French luminary, while General Gerlach snored on a stool, the queen was lost in the contemplation of her embroidery, and the king occupied himself with turning over a book of engravings. The prince boasts that he possesses in the highest perfection the art of standing bores when anything is to be gained by standing them, and that in his younger days he won the confidence and affection of Metternich by simply entreating him to go on and on when he had once begun to maunder. The habitual prolixity, however, of Prussian ambassadors not only tried but exhausted his patience. He complained to his confidant with much bitterness of the endless piles of perfectly useless correspondence with which Count Von der Goltz and Count Bernstorff used to inundate the Foreign Office. According to Prince Bismarck, the former diplomatist had not an idea in his head, except such as were inspired by his infatuation for the successive queens in whose courts he lived; and yet Von der Goltz sent him reams of paper about nothing, and was only outstripped by Count Bernstorff in the profuseness of a correspondence which the prince thought valueless. He owned that Arnim was intelligent, but his perpetual vacillations irritated a chief who always had clear opinions, and was always sure that his clear opinions were right. The prince himself always went to work in the shortest way. He recounts how the Duke of Augustenburg lost a crown during an hour's conversation with him in a billiard-room. Bismarck began by calling the duke "Highness," to give him a foretaste of the glories awaiting him, then intimated that Prussia must have Kiel given her by the possible monarch, and on finding the duke stiffer than was convenient, began to call him "Serenity," to show that his chance was gone, and plainly told him in the end that Prussia could wring the neck of the chicken she had hatched. In short, Prince Bismarck was much abler and much bolder, and, it may be added, much more unscrupulous, than those with whom he had to deal. The work he had to do was as rough as it was great, and probably a less dictatorial man could not have done it. Success has glorified a character which failure would have exposed to much merited reproach.