The Role of Force in History, Engels 1887

Chapter Two

Bismarck is Louis Napoleon translated from the adventurous French pretender to the throne into the Prussian backwoods Junker and member of the German students’ association. Just like Louis Napoleon, Bismarck is a man of great practical judgment and great cunning, a born and sharp businessman, who in different circumstances would have competed on the New York stock exchange with the Vanderbilts and Jay Goulds; indeed, he has not badly succeeded in feathering his nest. But this advanced sense of the practical often goes hand in hand with a corresponding narrowness of outlook, and in this respect Bismarck excels his French predecessor. The latter had himself worked out his “Napoleonic ideas” during his vagabond years — of which they bore the stamp — while Bismarck, as we shall see, never managed to produce even a hint of any political ideas of his own but always combined the ready-made ideas of others to suit his own purposes. However, precisely this narrow-mindedness was his good fortune. Without it he would never have been able to regard the entire history of the world from a specific Prussian point of view; and if in this typically Prussian world outlook of his there had been a rent through which daylight could penetrate, he would have bungled his entire mission and it would have been the end of his glory. True, he was stumped when he had fulfilled, in his own way, his special mission dictated to him from outside, and we shall see what leaps he was forced to make because of his absolute lack of rational ideas and his inability to understand the historical situation he himself had created.

If Louis Napoleon’s past had taught him to show little consideration in the choice of methods, Bismarck learned from the history of Prussian politics, notably from those of the so-called Great Elector and of Frederick II, to have even less regard for scruples, though here he could retain the exalting awareness of having remained true to the traditions of the Fatherland. His business sense taught him to repress his Junker appetites when this was necessary; when no longer necessary, they once again came sharply to the fore; this was, of course, a sign of his decline.

His political method was that of the students’ association, the comically literal interpretation of the students’ beer drinking code designed to get them out of a scrape in their pub, and he used it unceremoniously in the Chamber in respect of the Prussian constitution; all innovations he introduced in diplomacy were borrowed from the students’ association. But if Louis Napoleon often hesitated in decisive moments, as, for example, during the coup d'Útat in 1851, when Morny positively had to force him to complete what he had begun, or on the eve of the 1870 war, when his uncertainty spoiled his whole position, it must be admitted that this never happened with Bismarck. His willpower never abandoned him, it was much more likely to turn into open brutality. And this, more than anything else, was the secret of his success. All the ruling classes in Germany, the Junkers and the bourgeoisie, had so much lost the last remnants of energy, it had become so much the custom in “educated” Germany to have no will, that the only man among them who really still possessed one became, precisely because of this, the greatest man among them and a tyrant over them all, at whose bidding they were ready to “jump over the stick”, as they themselves call it, against their better judgment and their conscience. True, in the “uneducated” Germany things have not yet reached such a pass; the working people have shown that they possess a will against which even Bismarck’s strong will is unable to prevail.

A brilliant career lay before our Brandenburg Junker, if only he had the courage and sense to help himself to it. Had not Louis Napoleon become the idol of the bourgeoisie precisely because he dispersed their parliament while raising their profits? And did not Bismarck possess the same business talents which the bourgeois admired so much in the false Napoleon? Was he not attracted to his Bleichr÷der as much as Louis Napoleon to his Fould? Was there not in 1864 a contradiction in Germany between the bourgeois representatives in the Chamber, who, out of stinginess, wanted to reduce the service term, and the bourgeois outside, in the National Association, who demanded national action at any cost, action for which an army was essential? Was it not a contradiction quite similar to the one that existed in France in 1851 between the bourgeois in the Chamber who wanted to keep the power of the President in check and the bourgeois outside who wanted peace and quiet and a strong government, peace and quiet at any cost — a contradiction which Louis Napoleon solved by dispersing the brawlers in parliament and giving peace and quiet to the mass of the bourgeois? Were not things in Germany much more assuredly in favour of a bold move? Had not the plan for the reorganisation been supplied ready-made by the bourgeoisie, and were not the latter themselves calling loudly for an energetic Prussian statesman who would carry out their plan, expel Austria from Germany and unite the small states under Prussia’s supremacy? And if this demanded that the Prussian constitution be treated a bit roughly, that the ideologists in and outside the Chamber be pushed aside according to their deserts, was it not possible to rely on universal suffrage, just as Louis Bonaparte had done? What could be more democratic than to introduce universal suffrage? Had not Louis Napoleon proved that it was absolutely safe — if properly handled? And did not precisely this universal suffrage — offer the means to appeal to the broad mass of the people, to flirt a bit with the emerging social movement, should the bourgeoisie prove refractory?

Bismarck took action. What had to be done was to repeat Louis Napoleon’s coup d'Útat, to make the real balance of power tangibly clear to the German bourgeoisie, forcibly to dispel their liberal self-delusion, but to carry out their national demands which coincided with Prussia’s aspirations. It was Schleswig-Holstein that first provided a lever for action. As regards foreign policy, the field had been prepared. The Russian Tsar had been won over to Bismarck’s side by the latter’s dirty work against the Polish insurgents in 1863; Louis Napoleon had also been worked on and could justify his indifference, if not his silent abetment, of Bismarck’s plans, with his favourite “nationalities principle”; Palmerston was Prime Minister in England, but he had placed the little Lord John Russell in the Foreign Office — only for the purpose of having him make a laughing-stock of himself. But Austria was Prussia’s rival for supremacy in Germany and precisely in this matter it could not afford to let Prussia outdo it, especially since it had in 1850 and 1851 acted in Schleswig-Holstein as Emperor Nicholas’ henchman more vilely even than Prussia. The situation was therefore extremely favourable. No matter how much Bismarck hated Austria, and how gladly Austria would once again have taken it out of Prussia, there was nothing they could do after the death of Frederick VII of Denmark but take joint action against Denmark — with the tacit consent of Russia and France. Success was assured in advance, so long as Europe remained neutral; it did, the duchies were conquered and ceded under the peace treaty.

In this war, Prussia had pursued an additional purpose — that of testing before the enemy the army it had been training according to new principles since 1850 and had reorganised and strengthened in 1860. It had stood the test beyond all expectations and that in all manner of military situations. The battle at Lyngby in Jutland proved that the needle-gun was far superior to the muzzle-loader and that the Prussians knew how to use it properly, since the rapid firing of 80 Prussians from behind hedgerows turned three times as many Danes to flight. At the same time it had been noticed that the only lesson the Austrians had drawn from the Italian war [1859] and French fighting tactics was that shooting was no good, that a true soldier had to repulse the enemy immediately with his bayonet, and this was borne in mind, for no more welcome enemy tactics could even be desired against the muzzles of the breech-loaders. To give the Austrians the chance of convincing themselves of this in practice at the earliest possible moment, the peace treaty gave over the duchies to the joint sovereignty of Austria and Prussia, thereby creating a purely temporary situation, which was bound to breed conflict after conflict, and which thus left it entirely to Bismarck to decide when he should choose to use such a conflict for his big blow at Austria. Since it was a Prussian political tradition to exploit a favourable situation “ruthlessly to extreme”, in Herr von Sybel’s words, it was self-evident that under the pretext of freeing the Germans from Danish oppression about 200,000 Danes of North Schleswig were annexed to Germany. The one who got nothing was the Duke of Augustenburg, the candidate of the small states and of the German bourgeoisie for the Schleswig-Holstein throne.

Thus Bismarck had carried out the will of the German bourgeoisie in the duchies against their will. He had expelled the Danes and defied the foreign countries, and the latter had not made a move. But no sooner were they liberated than the duchies were treated as conquered territory, not consulted about their wishes and simply temporarily shared out between Austria and Prussia. Prussia had once again become a great power, was no longer the fifth wheel on the European coach, there was good progress in the fulfilment of the bourgeoisie’s national aspirations, but the way chosen was not the liberal way of the bourgeoisie. Thus the Prussian military conflict continued; it even became ever more insoluble. The second scene of Bismarck’s principal state action had to be ushered in.