Flesh and Blood: The Iron Chancellor

Katja Hoyer

Otto von Bismark was a titan of Europe, but Katja Hoyer gives an intimate account of the man behind the statesman.
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‘Please just let me see my Johanna again’ – those were the whispered last words of the once towering figure of Otto von Bismarck, breathed out as he lay on his death bed on 30 July 1898. He had spent a lifetime building up a reputation as a tenacious politician with a ruthless pragmatism that made him one of the most influential men of 19th century Europe. Yet, his dying wish was not for his fatherland, nor his legacy. All the old man wanted was to see his wife Johanna again, who had died four years earlier, leaving her husband heartbroken and empty. In many ways, this detail epitomises the enigma of Bismarck. We still like to see Germany’s founding father as the ‘Iron Chancellor’, a nickname he practically gave himself with his infamous ‘Blood and Iron’ speech to the Prussian parliament in 1862. But behind the steely-blue eyes and bombastic mannerisms was an impulsive, emotional and flawed man – a human being made of flesh and blood, not iron and stone.

Otto von Bismarck’s childhood already marked him out as an odd character. Social and with a charismatic pull unusual in a child, he was yet strangely alone and dissatisfied internally. Fittingly, he was born in 1815 – a crucial year for the 39 German states, which had rallied together behind Prussian leadership to defeat Napoleon once and for all. His childhood was coloured by bloodthirsty stories of battles against the French and by tales of occupation and humiliation which preceded the glorious victory. These would leave permanent marks on the bright boy’s mind as he grew up on his father’s estate in Schönhausen, Prussia. His parents Karl and Wilhelmine were an odd match in many respects, and they both passed their distinctive characteristics on to their second son, Otto. Karl came from an old line of Prussian aristocracy; Wilhelmine was the daughter of a cabinet secretary and, just like her father, a sharp-witted and eloquent person. From his father, young Otto inherited a staunch conservatism and bulldog-like stubbornness. At the same time, his mother bestowed him with her natural way with words and a penchant for clever political intrigue and manipulation. This potent combination would mark him out as a politician, but it was also what shaped his character from a young age. Even in his early school reports, his teachers described Bismarck’s eloquence as astonishing. Using exceptionally evocative verbal images, man and boy found it easy to provoke, irritate, soothe and charm even the most hostile of adversaries.

Otto von Bismarck as a Student, 1833.

The trouble was that such a strong-willed and sharply intelligent individual needed purpose, and young Otto struggled to find this for a long time. He spent much of the 1830s and 1840s drinking, gambling and womanising. In his university years at Göttingen and Berlin, Bismarck accumulated vast amounts of debt and yet only made a couple of lasting acquaintances in the process. One such friend was the American diplomat, John Lothrop Motley, who would remain one of a tiny circle of life-long friends. Having gained his law diploma, Bismarck got bored with the practical training he received afterwards and began to travel in August 1836 with Laura Russell, a niece of the Duke of Cumberland, for whom he fell head over heels. Barely a year later he would continue his travels with her younger friend after a short affair with an older French lady had overlapped with both of these relationships. These fleeting liaisons and his impulsive nature cost Bismarck his final qualifications, required to practice law in Prussia or enter the Civil Service. He tried to resume his training once more but became bored and frustrated very quickly. Turning his back on the Prussian bureaucratic machine forever, he said: ‘I want to make music the way I see fit — or not at all.’ This epitomised Bismarck both as a man and a politician. We like to think of him as ‘iron’, a man with unflinching determination and unshakeable convictions. However, these attributes were nothing without a purpose to apply them to. When Bismarck faced uncertainty or idleness, he became irrational, impulsive and sometimes outright reckless.

When the realisation finally hit him that the purpose he was looking for lay in Prussian politics, this was not due to his own planning and foresight. Having tried agriculture, military service and running his father’s estate back at Schönhausen, Bismarck got so bored with all of it, that he once again began to drink and accumulate debt. He cut a garishly colourful figure in rural Pomerania, where everything was old and proper, and so the locals started to refer to him as the ‘crazy junker’. The years from 1839 to 1847 went by in a blur of boredom and loneliness. In 1845, he complained: ‘My only company consists of dogs, horses and country junkers, and I enjoy some regard in the eyes of the latter because I can read writing easily [and] dress like a human being at all times’. Bismarck’s salvation would finally come in 1847 when he was asked to step in for a local member of the Prussian parliament who had fallen ill. He found the world of politics irresistible. In his words, it had him ‘in an uninterrupted state of excitement that barely allows me to eat or sleep’. Bismarck had found his vocation, a calling that would later allow him to develop the persona of the ‘Iron Chancellor’, but it would never change the complex man within that shell.

On occasion, we can trace glimpses of Bismarck’s blind recklessness even in his political life. The man that would later spin an intricate web of foreign policy agreements, which helped keep Europe at peace and Germany intact for as long as his policies lasted, had not always been so circumspect. He loved provocation and argument even more than political efficiency. In 1851, when he was the Prussian envoy to the German Confederations’ parliament in Frankfurt, he launched his biggest provocation yet. Only the Austrian chair of the Bund, Friedrich von Thun, was allowed to smoke in session. Yet one day, in the middle of a debate, Bismarck nonchalantly pulled a cigar out of his pocket, strutted over to von Thun and asked him for a match. A year later, this outrageous incident led to further hostilities –this time with his old adversary Georg von Vincke. The bickering between the two men escalated, and Bismarck ended up insulting Vincke and – for good measure – his mother, whereupon he was publicly challenged to a life-or-death duel. Bismarck’s wife, Johanna, was pregnant at the time, so naturally, a thoughtful Bismarck asked his brother-in-law, Arnim-Kröchlendorff, to look after her and the baby should the worst come to pass. Luckily both duellists missed the mark and then agreed to settle the matter without further shooting. This astonishing incident shows attributes in Bismarck that are hard to reconcile with the calculating master diplomat we know him as. Yet both sides are part of the same Bismarckian coin and remained so until his death.

Bismarck on his deathbed.

In matters of the heart, too, Bismarck retained an odd combination of his touching devotion to this wife and frequent infatuation with the many women he encountered in his life. In his days as the ‘crazy junker’, the only thing that brought a ray of sunshine into his dreary dead-end world was a young woman called Marie von Thadden-Trieglaff. The two became emotionally and intellectually so close that both spoke of having found their soulmate. Unfortunately, Marie had already been engaged to Bismarck’s friend, Moritz von Blanckenburg. The latter seemed to have no problem with the situation, and an odd love-triangle ensued. Marie made it clear that divorce was out of the question, and the couple even suggested that Otto marry Marie’s bosom-friend, the 20-year-old Johanna von Puttkamer. Moritz, too, urged ‘If you don’t want her, I will take her as my second wife!’ Thus, Johanna was placed at a table next to Bismarck at the couple’s wedding. The happy foursome even went on holiday together. Yet Bismarck’s and Marie’s fascination for each other did not abate. Both confided in letters how utterly taken they were with the other’s eloquence, quick wit and charm. Yet Marie would not leave or even betray ‘her Moritz’ and the tension was finally broken in the most tragic manner when Marie suddenly died of an illness in 1846, which she had contracted while caring for her sick mother. Bismarck was heartbroken and the incident left a life-long scar on his soul as he would later admit. In late December of the same year, Bismarck finally asked Johanna’s father for her hand, even citing Marie’s death in his famous letter to him.

Strange as the beginning of their marriage seems, it was a happy relationship for the most part. A kind, caring, and naturally patient woman, Johanna provided the perfect emotional counterpart to her impulsive and permanently restless husband. By his own admission, the latter clung to her like a rock, especially during the most tumultuous years of his political career. This seems intuitively contrary to his passionate affairs later in life, the crassest example of which is Katharina Orlowa. The beautiful wife of the Russian envoy in Belgium was only 21 years old when they first met in 1862. On one of their holidays to the French coast, they nearly drowned in the sea and were barely alive when a lighthouse keeper rescued them. Bismarck even wrote to his wife about this, waxing lyrical about the beautiful Katharina and joking that he had ‘gulped down some seawater today’. Johanna tolerated all of her husband’s failings with the patience of a saint. She would always be there for him when he needed her. He, in turn, wrote her frequent and affectionate letters of which compilations have now been printed. They give a fascinating view of the softer side of a man who was often better known for his threats and scheming.

But does all of that matter or is it just historical gossip? Otto von Bismarck was a towering figure whose doings had a massive bearing on German, European and world history in the 19th century and beyond. It is worth reminding ourselves that these were not the actions of an abstract Prussian Machiavelli character but those of a human being with inherent flaws. With an increased focus on social and economic currents, it is easy to lose sight of individuals’ impact on history. This is not a plea for a return to great man theory – but to deny historical figures their human face is to offload responsibility. Bismarck’s example shows that behind every decision, no matter how consequential, stands a real person, making that decision guided by reason as well as emotion. His multifaceted personality reminds us that we have agency and are not mere passengers in the tides of history.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and journalist. Her debut book Blood and Iron has been well-received by critics and academics alike. She was born in (East) Germany and read history at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her essays have featured in History Today and BBC History Extra. Katja also writes for The Spectator, The Washington Post, UnHerd, Die Welt and other newspapers on current political affairs in Germany and Europe. She hosts the podcast Tommies and Jerries on British-German relations.

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