Who was Otto von Bismarck? Let us begin with a letter he wrote in the spring of 1834, when he was just nineteen years old. His school-leaving certificate had been delayed; as a result, doubts arose about whether he would be able to matriculate in the University of Berlin. In this transitional moment, forced into idleness and full of uncertainty about what the future held, the young Bismarck was moved to reflect on what would become of him if he failed to gain entry to university. From the family estate at Kniephof he penned the following lines to his school friend Scharlach:
I shall amuse myself for a few years waving a sword at raw recruits, then take a wife, beget children, till the soil and undermine the morals of my peasantry by the inordinate distillation of spirits. So, if in 10 years’ time you should happen to find yourself in the neighbourhood, I invite you to commit adultery with an easy and curvaceous young woman selected from the estate, to drink as much potato brandy as you fancy and to break your neck out hunting as often as you see fit. You will find here a fleshy home-guard officer with a moustache that curses and swears till the earth trembles, cultivates a proper repugnance to Jews and Frenchmen, and thrashes his dogs and domestics with egregious brutality when bullied by his wife. I shall wear leather trousers, make a fool of myself at the Stettin wool market and when people address me as baron I shall stroke my moustache benignly and knock a bit off the price; I shall get pissed on the king’s birthday and cheer him vociferously and the rest of the time I shall sound off regularly and my every other word will be: ‘Gad what a splendid horse!’This letter is worth citing at such length because it demonstrates how much ironic distance there was in the young Bismarck’s perception of his own social milieu – the milieu of the East-Elbian Junkers. Bismarck often liked to play the part of the red-necked Krautjunker of the Prussian boondocks, but in reality he was a rather untypical example of the type. His father was the real thing: he was descended from five centuries of noble East-Elbian landowners. But his mother’s family carried the imprint of a different tradition. Bismarck’s mother, Wilhelmine Mencken, was the descendant of an academic family from Leipzig in Saxony. Her grandfather had been a professor of law who entered the employ of the Prussian state to serve as cabinet secretary under Frederick the Great.
It was Wilhelmine Mencken who made the key educational decisions for her sons; Bismarck consequently received a rather uncharacteristic upbringing for a member of his class: he began, not with Cadet School, but with a classic bourgeois education as a boarder at the Plammann Institute in Berlin – a school for the sons of senior civil servants. From there he progressed to the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium, and later to the universities of Göttingen (1832–3) and Berlin (1834–5). There followed a four-year period of civil service training in Aachen and Potsdam. Bored by the monotony and the lack of personal autonomy that were the hallmarks of civil service training, young Otto retired, to the astonishment and dismay of his family, to work on his own estate at Kniephof, where he stayed from 1839 to 1845. During this long interlude, he played the Junker in heroic style; these were years of heavy eating and drinking, with epic breakfasts of meat and ale. And yet a closer examination of life at home with Otto von Bismarck reveals some thoroughly unjunkerly pursuits, such as wide reading in the works of Hegel, Spinoza, Bauer, Feuerbach and Strauss.
These observations suggest themes that are important to an understanding of Bismarck’s political life. His background and attitude help to explain the fractured relationship between Bismarck and the conservatives who were – in their own eyes at least – the natural representatives of the landed aristocracy. Bismarck was never really one of them, and they, sensing this, never really trusted him. He never shared the corporatism of the Old Conservatives; he had never been attracted to a world-view that saw the Junker interest as pitted in corporate solidarity against the state. He had little interest in championing the rights of the locality and the province against the claims of the central authority; he did not see revolution and the reforming state as two faces of the same satanic conspiracy against the natural historic order. On the contrary, Bismarck’s remarks on politics and history were always informed by a deep respect for – and even at times a crude glorification of – the absolutist state, and above all of its capacity for autonomous action. ‘When Prussia was invoked in his speeches, it was the Prussia of the Great Elector and of Frederick, never the backward-looking utopia of the corporative state that put a curb on absolutism.’
Like his maternal ancestors, Bismarck would seek his fulfilment as an adult in service to the state. But he would serve the state without being a servant. The link to the Estate was not in itself a destiny – it was too narrow and boring for that – but it represented an assurance of independence. The tie to the Estate, with the sense of mastery and separateness that it brought, was a fundamental strut in Bismarck’s concept of personal autonomy – as he explained in a letter to his cousin at the age of twenty-three, a man who aspired to play a role in public life must ‘carry over into the public sphere the autonomy of private life’. His concept of that autonomy of private life was emphatically not bourgeois; it derived from the social world of the landed estate, whose lord is responsible to none but himself.
07 July 2012
Otto von Bismarck: Krautjunker redneck hipster
From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), Kindle Loc. 9771-9814 (pp. 518ff):