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Otto von Bismarck – The Wildman Bismarck – Extra History – #1

September 30, 2019


You cannot always tell the character of a man, from the character of his youth. Music (Birth of the People) 1878: The Congress of Berlin. A graying man with a proud, walrus mustache, stands, and says, “Europe today is a powder keg, and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal. A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all. I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where: some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.” 1897: A prince, in the middle of his life, goes to visit the man, the old man now. It is the last time the two will meet, for the younger, Wilhelm II, dismissed this old man years before. But as their visit concludes,the old man issues a warning. He says, “Your majesty, so long as you have this present officer corps, you can do as you please. But when this is no longer the case, it will be VERY different for you.” Then he says, “The crash will come 20 years after my departure if things go on like this.” The old man will die in July of 1898. In November, 1918, that prince, Wilhelm II, will abdicate the throne, having lost the backing of his army in the disaster that was the First World War. Bismarck’s prediction was off by only 4 months. Such was the mind that would use Europe for a chessboard, and redraw the map forever. But this was something that few could see in his youth. Otto’s time in Grade School was middling, and we know little of his early teenage years. But at 17, when he enters college, we begin to get a picture of the man. 6 feet of dashing, with a tousled mane of copper blond hair, often seen walking, not with a walking stick, but with a twisted staff of iron. He cut a dashing figure. Classes…weren’t really for him. He stopped going almost immediately, preferring Byron and Walter Scott as tutors to any other. He was quick to words, and equally quick to a challenge. He got himself into more than one duel per month while he was at his first university, engaging in 26 contests of honor and being wounded only once. To his dying day, he would insist that he was only wounded because his opponent’s rapier broke. He consumed monumental amounts of alcohol, discovered a profound (if not so profound) love of the fairer sex, and managed to rack up a small mountain of debts. Most intriguing of all, though, he got himself cast as a character named “Otto Von Rebenmark” when his roommate wrote a novel about their wild college life. (By the way, this man, who was quite aptly named Motley, would soon become a historian of some note, and one of the diplomats who kept Europe from siding with the Confederacy in the American Civil War.) Anyway, That wild college life of theirs eventually caught up to Otto, and he moved to Berlin both to attend law school, and to dodge the consequences of his roguish ways. Still rooming with Motley, he never once went to class while in law school. But when graduation time drew near, he hired what is politely known as a “crammer” at the last minute, and managed to pass the exam to become a practitioner of law. And all the while, he read voraciously. Not only romantic poets, but also history, economics, and philosophy, (Although, not the heady abstractions of Hegel or Kant that were the rage at the time). By the time he left law school, he felt ready for a career in the diplomatic service. Unfortunately, the foreign minister did not hold a high opinion of the diplomatic abilities of Prussian nobility, and preferred to hire from without. So, rather than being assigned some glorious foreign posting, Bismarck was soon sent to Aachen, a territory taken from the French in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). And he was given the job of figuring out how to better integrate it into Prussia. This task never really captured his interest. It was the English he was far more interested in. For Aachen had become a popular spa and vacation spot for the English gentry, and, more notably, their daughters. Unfortunately, he was soon canned after he overstayed a river trip with one of these daughters, by 3 months. It took some significant family influence to get this self-designated “leave” quietly swept under the rug. And Otto was soon involuntary volunteered for the army. But before even his year of mandatory service was done, his mother took ill and died. This tragedy finally made his path clear. His father had never been good at managing anything, and his mother had run their more unruly estates. With her passing, Otto would take over this duty. A gentleman farmer’s life for him. He was completely unprepared for this task, but he did still have his secret weapon. The one expedient that had carried him through every challenge dealt him: cramming. So as his military service wrapped up, he devoured books on agricultural science, estate management, and economics. He even managed to get himself into a soil chemistry course at a nearby agricultural institute. Armed with this knowledge, he set to his task with vigor. And so, even as the agricultural markets of northern Europe collapsed around him, his estate grew in value. And his diligence was matched only by his eccentricity. He became known for unpredictable behavior, like marking his entrance into a neighbor’s house by firing a pistol into their ceiling, or releasing foxes into people’s drawing rooms. He earned the nickname “The Wildman Bismarck” from the locals, and, as always, from the local ladies as well. But this “Wildman” treated his laborers well, (much better than their ceilings and drawing rooms, anyway) and he further devoted himself to his studies, diving deep into history, poetry, English politics, and even philosophy. (Though he did still have a preference for Spinoza over the German philosophers that were informing many of his more liberal colleagues’ thoughts at the time.) All of this, (and perhaps age) began to refine him, to smooth out his roughest edges. And though country life weighed heavy on him, in many ways, he was well suited for it. It looked as though the life of a country squire was to be his calling. Over time, he settled in, he made friends, he even married a woman who seemed wholly unsuited to him. A quiet, devout woman with no interest in politics or English poetry. But, she made him quite happy. In fact, he adopted her religion, Pietism (a Lutheran reform movement) to marry her, and such is the strange character of Bismarck that he did so earnestly. (Or, at least he adopted the parts of her faith which he earnestly found compelling.) But her father doubted that Otto was sincere in his conversion (this was, the “Wildman” Bismarck, after all). But Bismarck had a plan. Bismarck ALWAYS has a plan. He wrote his beloved’s father a letter, detailing his path to finding faith. And when the man still hesitated, Bismarck, being Bismarck, seized the moment, tore all the way across Pomerania in the middle of winter, and showed up at the man’s estate to convince him in person. When Bismarck returned from this excursion, he found on his desk a letter. It was an invitation, to take charge of running the dikes on the Elbe (River). It may not seem like much, but it was an official position. His time in the doghouse with the government might be over. So he attacked the work. Then, in 1847, something monumental happened. The King of Prussia called a parliament. For the first time, Prussians would get together, debate, and vote on things. But Otto’s wedding date was near. And besides, he HATED Berlin, and he was a staunch conservative, believing in the power of the monarchy, at a time when liberalism and democracy were in vogue. Even the idea of a parliament grated against his royalist leanings. For though this was a summoned, rather than an elected parliament, it was almost certainly going to be used to push for a proper elected parliament. One which, by its very nature, must take its power from the royal government. So he was reluctant to go. Even if he were to be summoned, he might not. But then, fate turned. He received another letter. An acquaintance, whose good graces he wanted to stay in, had suddenly fallen ill, and now requested that Otto take up his post as representative of the Prussian-Saxon nobility. This request made no sense, as technically, Otto was not part of the Prussian-Saxon nobility. His estates were all either in Altmark or Pomerania. But never mind that. He couldn’t turn down such an important request. So, he made his way to the United Diet, where a push for a true parliament was already in session. Pro-democratic speeches were given. One man got up and declared that the Prussian people had only thrown back Napoleon because they were promised a constitution. This was too much. Bismarck stood, and responded that the Prussian people had thrown back Napoleon for PRUSSIA. Did the man REALLY think that Prussians wouldn’t have stood up against an invader, without being promised a piece of paper?! The hall erupted in boos. People shouted and stamped, the place was chaos. But Bismarck, being Bismarck, just picked up a newspaper, and began to leisurely read through it until they were quite done. And then, he finished his speech. And in that moment, Bismarck, the country squire, became Bismarck, the statesman. Music ( Art of the Possible)

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