Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part II

(This is the other half of the chapter on the unity of Germany starting from ‘Bismarck’s genius is great, but to him too we may apply the great rule of history, ‘Est locus is rebus‘ (History is largely influenced by the locality where things happen).)


From the Revolution in 1848 to the end of the fifties Prussia was still held to be subordinate to Austria in point of influence in Germany; and an attack on Austria was not considered in any way as promising sure success for the Prussian army. At the same time the Prussian army had ever since the great defeat of Jena in 1806 been reformed and improved and made an instrument of fighting second to none in Europe, and, as subsequent events have proved, superior to most. When Austria in 1859 had been defeated by France (as related above), and had been deprived of most of her territory in Italy; when at the same time the uncompromising position of the Hungarians towards Austria rendered the interior security of Austria more than problematic; a new view of the relation of the Danubian monarchy to Prussia was taken by several Prussian statesmen. Of those men of action, Bismarck was even at that time the most important. He came from a small family in North Germany, and had to recommend him neither wealth nor very remarkable personal connections. His strongest recommendation was his extraordinary political genius. Now that we have been for some time in possession of his letters, his speeches, and may with fair prospect of success cast a constructive glance over the whole life of the great statesman, we may perhaps be entitled to formulate his peculiar genius in a few concise words.

Undoubtedly Bismarck was a remarkable personality, and sheer personality has always proved a power in history; but in addition to the unanalyzable qualities and charms of a strong personality, aided by an imposing stature, force, and expressiveness of feature, we must always underline the fact that Bismarck was endowed with particularly great technical gifts for the conduct of great political affairs. In the first place, all his diplomatic measures and other manœuvres were based on information regarding the persons and circumstances he was called upon to deal with, such as very few statesmen have ever had at their disposal. To a perfect knowledge of Prussia, of the influential men and women of recent history, Bismarck joined a very rare insight into the general political state of affairs in Europe. He was perfect master of the French language, and had also an astounding command of English; nay, when later on he was Ambassador in Russia, he acquired a working knowledge of Russian. Of the courts and the political situation of the leading Powers in Europe he had acquired from personal study and from a judicious course of reading such ample and accurate knowledge, that as a rule he was better informed about the tendencies and character of political events than most men dealing with them directly or indirectly. Through all his life we are struck with that solidity of information. As is only natural, from a basis so solid and well knit, the vigorous mind of Bismarck could not but infer sound and lasting conclusions. Accordingly he was seldom mistaken in the strategy of his actions, although at all periods of his life the wisdom of his methods was challenged, doubted, attacked, and even ridiculed by men in important and commanding positions. In fact, while we cannot but repeat the remark that Bismarck’s triumph was only the concluding scene of the various antecedent historical events preparing the unity of Germany, yet we should fly in the face of historical truth if we did not recognize that without Bismarck’s energy and wisdom the last part of the long history of German unity could have been enacted only very much later than 1871. Bismarck certainly precipitated a political work undoubtedly inevitable, yet still dependent on a concourse of circumstances which only a superior statesman was able to focus and utilize.

In our own times, when the passions roused by the greatest events in German history have not yet subsided, we are treated every year to another work by a German professor, tracing the origin of modern Germany either to the Emperor William I. alone, or to the anonymous yet “exceedingly important” influence of this or that minor German sovereign; or, on the other hand, to Bismarck alone and exclusively. The former opinion, defended by Professor Ottokar Lorenz, the latter by innumerable German writers, are, we take it, both untenable. Like all great historical facts, the unity of Germany was for generations prepared by general and vast causes embracing an infinite number of particular phenomena; but was consummated by the strong hand of one man. It is certain that that one man was not Emperor William I.  It is equally certain that that man was Bismarck.

It will be found on intimate study of the times of Bismarck that he had firmly seized the necessity of  bringing about the unity of Germany under Prussian ascendency by the most careful conduct of Prussia’s foreign policy. He knew that the consummation of the great work could not be done by the introduction or academical spread of mere ideas. He knew it was preeminently a matter of diplomacy and war. He clearly pointed out in letters and speeches, that while some nations may bring about their national unity through treaties, or the slow work of mutual assimilation, the Germans, as he rightly held, could not possibly realize their secular hope without establishing themselves as a great military power. This is the sense of his famous utterance that history is made by blood and iron. Nobody admired Cavour, the unifier of Italy, more than did Bismarck; likewise nobody acknowledged the surpassing merit of Francis Deák in bringing about the unity of Hungary in a peaceful way more than did Bismarck; but nobody also saw more clearly that the problems with which Deák or Cavour had to contend, although identical in their objects with that of Bismarck, yet had a character so different that for their realization other means were required. It is this clear insight into the real needs for the establishment of German unity that constitutes the greatness of Bismarck. It is true, his complete success has shed an unusual lustre upon his name and his policy. However, it is not the success of Bismarck that ought to prompt us to recognize him as one of the greatest statesmen. It is, as we shall see, both the wisdom and the moderation of his politics. As diplomatic reverses at home or abroad could never discourage him, even so the greatest triumphs in the field or in diplomatic negotiations were never able to beguile him into excessive actions. We must admire both his courage and his moderation, and it is probably the latter quality which will make his name forever that of a model statesman. His adversaries were very numerous. It is well known that the Empress Frederick III., the daughter of Queen Victoria, was the persistent and implacable enemy of Bismarck. On the other hand, the historian Mommsen was likewise continually hostile to Bismarck; and it is certain that the great man lived in a world in incessant intrigues directed against his person and against his work. His greatest successes were unable to persuade the Empress Frederick that she was in error, and all his enemies and opponents were conspiring to shake the nerve of the Titan. In vain. In addition to physical resources of the rarest strength, Bismarck, like all great men, had also an unusual amount of good luck. Like Richelieu and Mazarin, the two greatest ministers of France, Bismarck could, under all circumstances, count on the unswerving attachment and friendship of his sovereign. Against this powerful friendship and steadfast confidence of the monarch all the shafts of envy and jealousy were hurled in vain. Not that the Emperor always shared the opinions or the desires of Bismarck; in fact he was both in 1864, in 1866, and in 1870 very reluctant to accept the policy of his great minister. However reluctant, he in the end consented to it, and it is only fair to say that without that constant and unfailing support and countenance on the part of his monarch, Bismarck could not possibly have resisted the unceasing cabal undermining his position.

In English-speaking countries, let alone in France, the prevalent idea of Bismarck is that of a harsh man, inaccessible to any human sentiment, and obeying only the dictates of political egoism. There is, however, very much exaggeration in that picture. Bismarck was neither harsh nor cruel. He certainly was imperious and was conscious of the necessity of severe measures; but both in private life, whether in his relations to his family or to the few personal friends he had (amongst whom was the American historian Motley), and in public life, his was chiefly the character of a man who acted on objective and not on subjective motives. All over Bismarck is written the great German term, Sachpolitik; that is, a policy of real and objective State interests, without regard to personal likes or dislikes. In his personal character there certainly were two redeeming features. In the first place, he was a man of profound and serene humour. To the modern mind even Richelieu and Mazarin lack this relieving feature, and appear therefore somewhat stiff. Bismarck had a remarkable share of the North German humour which is certainly more grim than agreeable, but which no doubt helps us to put some of the uncouth things of this world into better proportion. It was certainly worthy of the finest humour when Bismarck, at the height of the all-decisive battle of Sadowa (Koeniggraetz), anxious to know the opinion of Moltke, the General-in-Chief, about the probable issue of the engagement, approached the old and very reticent general, not with anxious questions, but by offering him his cigar-box and watching Moltke’s way of selecting the best of the cigars. When Moltke carefully examined the cigars and actually found out the best of them, Bismarck knew that the battle was going on satisfactorily for Prussia, and smilingly withdrew from the presence of Moltke.

The other and even more satisfactory feature in Bismarck was his utter frankness. In him there was no cant and no hypocrisy. He never said he was righteous when he was only political, and it is he who had the sincerity of saying, “We Prussians make no moral conquests,” which in plain English means that Prussians are selfish, interested, and ruthless fighters. This frankness very frequently puzzled and quite misled his diplomatic opponents. They were unable to believe in it, and so invariably searched for other motives behind that apparent frankness. As a matter of fact Bismarck was quite frank, and he had absolutely broken with the former habit of dissimulation and reticence considered to be the two chief artifices of diplomacy. It is natural that such frankness is repulsive to people who are habitually self-conscious and not frank. On the other hand, it is equally certain that the greatness of Bismarck is increased and not lowered by that noble and virile quality which most men are neither allowed nor able to practise in their own lives.

We have so far seen that Bismarck’s successes are based on sound information of all the elements and factors necessary for his success, and on a personality more powerful, sincere, and aided by the constant friendship of his monarch. We may now see the details of his three great triumphs; we mean the war with Denmark in 1864; the war with Austria in 1866; and the war with France in 1870-1871.

The Danish war we call a triumph, although from the military standpoint it was not only not a glory for Prussia, who acted against tiny Denmark with the aid of Austria, and so could, even in case of great victories, have scarcely claimed any particular glory for it; nay, it is well known that the Prussian army did not, in 1864, manifest any of that superiority which made her so famous in the other two wars. We call the Danish war a triumph of Bismarck, because it was the deeply thought-out manœuvre of how to embroil and compromise Austria, and so bring about the second war.

Briefly, the facts are these. The Southern provinces of Denmark are called Schleswig-Holstein; they were then, as they are now, mostly inhabited by German-speaking people, and they commanded especially the harbour of Kiel, which it was essential for Prussia to have in order to secure command of the Baltic and the North Sea, by making (as has been since done) a canal between Kiel and the mouth of the Elbe River. At that time Austria and Prussia were still both members of the German Confederacy, and it was certain that Austria would not allow Prussia to possess herself of the two duchies, Schleswig-Holstein, single-handed. The Germans, bullies with regard to small people, as are all great powers, heeded not the constant and just recriminations of Denmark, which had given no umbrage or cause for a war to any German sovereign, let alone to the German Confederation.

It was Bismarck’s aim to embroil Austria in a question of no possible interest to Austria, and thereby to win diplomatic leverage over her. It was likewise his object to feel his way in the great international question whether Europe would or would not interfere with the plans of Germany. Although most of the statesmen in Prussia seriously objected to Bismarck’s Danish policy, apprehending, as they did, the immediate interference of England (the Princess of Wales being a daughter of the King of Denmark), yet Bismarck was right in assuming that neither England nor Russia would interfere, and that the only upshot of the whole enterprise would be to engage Austria in what for her was a sterile and embarrassing undertaking.

In this he completely succeeded. The Danes were of course in the end forced to submit, and Austria and Prussia administered the two duchies in common. Bismarck rightly calculated that such common administration of a province, useful only to neighbouring Prussia, could not but lead to friction, and thus give him a new handle for complications with Austria. And when matters did not proceed rapidly enough, Bismarck forced a treaty upon Austria, the treaty of Gastein, August 14th, 1865, in which he apparently put an end to possible friction in the administration of the two duchies, by giving Austria and Prussia two distinct territories for administration; yet in reality the treaty of Gastein was, by its very nature, certain to lead to still more serious complications. Austria, as Bismarck expected her to be, found herself wronged, and the war of 1866 became only a matter of a few incidents which Bismarck did not hesitate to provoke. At that time Bismarck was struggling both with his numerous adversaries at the Court of Berlin, and with the unyielding Parliament of Prussia, the members of which, in utter ignorance of the necessities of the case, refused Bismarck supplies for the army, and so forced him to find the means of keeping us the army, and increasing it by autocratic ordinances of the King, countersigned by him. He then (1863-1865) was the most unpopular man in Prussia. However, he persisted, because he clearly saw that the war with Austria was inevitable, and that by such a war alone the destiny of Germany and the ascendency of Prussia could possibly be realized.

As already stated, King William, as he then was, was very much opposed to the war with Austria, and only with great difficulty could Bismarck persuade him to enter upon it. Moltke, on the other hand, was quite confident of defeating the Austrian army. In fact, the defeat of the Austrian army was for every expert a foregone conclusion. In addition to the usual defect of all Austrian armies, that is to say, to their diversity of languages and races and the consequent lack of unity so fatal to all armies, the Austrian army then was trill armed with old-patterned rifles, -with muzzle-loaders,- whereas the Prussians had breech-loaders, so that the Prussian infantry was able to shoot six times more quickly than did the Austrians.

It is to the ordinary contemplator of the manners and actions of governments one of the greatest riddles how bureaucratic governments will, even in the face of the greatest dangers, scarcely move to introduce reforms. The fact that the Prussian army was provided with much superior arms had long been known by Austria and by everybody; yet no attempt was made to improve the Austrian rifle. In addition to this another characteristic feature of Austrian military organization was practised: the old Austrian mistake of placing the wrong man in the right place, and the right man in the wrong place. Bismarck had, as we have seen in a former chapter, long promised Italy to help her in her attempts at unity, and accordingly he had early in 1866 concluded a treaty with the Italian Government, in keeping with which Italy was bound to attack Austria in Lombardy at the same time that Prussia should attack Austria in Bohemia. At that time the Austrian general Benedek had from long experience a very complete knowledge of Lombardy, and was no doubt able to conduct a successful campaign against Italy. Archduke Albert, on the other hand, the Austrian Emperor’s uncle, had a very authoritative and useful knowledge of Bohemia, and would have no doubt played a creditable rôle in a Bohemian campaign against Prussia. In that war, therefore, Benedek should have obtained the chief command in Lombardy, which he knew very well, and Archduke Albert the chief command in Bohemia, with which he was so intimately acquainted. However, Austrian wisdom, as usual, intrusted Benedek with the command in Bohemia, of which he knew nothing, and sent Albert to Italy, where his presence against the small and untrained army of Italy was scarcely required.

The military consequences of that blunder became manifest at once. Benedek, attacked in the northeast of Bohemia by the converging troops of Prussia under Moltke and the Crown Prince, lost his head at once, and by a series of strategic mistakes lost a number of minor engagements, and finally, in the great battle of Sadowa or Koeniggraetz, on July 3d, 1866, was forced to beat a hasty retreat. The Prussians at once followed him and occupied Moravia and marched close to Vienna. It was then that Bismarck’s greatness and real statesmanship were shining in the most brilliant manner. The Prussian army and all its generals, together with the Prussian king, were intoxicated with their rapid victories, and in their enthusiasm naturally insisted with violence on entering Vienna. However, Bismarck, whose eyes were already directed towards France, and who wanted to complete the great scheme of the German nation, clearly felt that he would soon need the friendship and alliance of Austria, and that he could obtain neither by a gratuitous humiliation of the Austrian ruler, such as an entrance into Vienna would unfailingly entail upon the latter. He therefore clearly and unmistakably declared to his sovereign that it was in the greatest interest of Prussia to discontinue her victorious progress, and to make peace with Austria on a basis not humiliating to the conquered. Another Prussian army had meanwhile made a most victorious advance into Hanover and the South-German States, who had joined Austria and were trying to fight Prussia. On the other hand, however, the Austrians had been very successful against the Italians, both on sea and on land, and Italy was practically at the mercy of Austria. Finally, Bismarck was afraid, as he himself said later on, that Napoleon III., Emperor of France, in order to put an end to the rapid victories of Prussia, might attack the Rhenish provinces and thereby render Sadowa and other successful battles of the war barren and unprofitable.

When Bismarck saw that no ordinary means would suffice to persuade the generals and the Prussian King to adopt his view of the situation, he threatened to take his life rather than consent to an entry into Vienna and the humiliation of the Austrian ruler. As usual he prevailed, and the Peace of Prague was made (1866), by which Austria lost no territory whatever, and had to pay a merely nominal sum by way of compensation, but by which Austria consented to be no longer a member of the German Confederation. In consequence of that, Prussia, which had meanwhile incorporated Hanover and other territories, especially Frankfort-on-the-Main, had become the leading Power in Germany, and Bismarck now established the North-German Confederacy, which was a partial realization of the great hope of the German nation. Italy, as we have seen, now obtained even the Venetian territory hitherto held by Austria, and so the campaign of 1866 established the ascendency of Prussia in Germany, completed the unity of Italy, and to the present day placed Austria on the level of a minor Power.

End Chapter XI