Blood, Iron, & Fortune: Otto von Bismarck & the Role of Chance in Statesmanship


History is, by its very nature, contingent; that contingency has gone by many names over the eons: luck, chance, fate, or – if one is inclined to see the workings of the divine in history – Providence. The famed Renaissance political philosopher and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, in his masterwork The Prince, called this element of randomness Fortune and saw it as a major factor in the passage of history and the practice of statesmanship. He did not, however, see Fortune as the only factor in human affairs, instead writing that “I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”[1] What is more important than luck is how the statesman deals with that element of chance – fortune or misfortune – and his ability to succeed in achieving his goals regardless of the quirks of fate. That, for Machiavelli, meant that a key job of the statesman was to “direct his actions according to the spirit of the times” so as to tame the whims of Fortune and use them to his own advantage.[2] To bring this idea down from the lofty heights of political philosophy to the everyday practice of government, Machiavelli analogized Fortune to a flowing river, saying:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.[3]

The raging tide of the river of Fortune often bears along with it those statesmen who are unprepared for its fury and unpredictability; when asked about what was most likely to throw governments and statesmen off their planned course, the former UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan answered, “Events, dear boy, events.”[4] Statesmen and nations can be – and often are – borne along helplessly by the fickle tides of chance and changing circumstance, but there is the rare statesmen who, according to Machiavelli, is “sufficiently circumspect to know how to accommodate himself to the change.”[5]

Perhaps the exemplar of that Machiavellian conception of the statesman who can adapt to the inevitable changes in historical circumstance and deal with the challenge posed by Macmillan’s “events” is Otto von Bismarck. The Prussian statesman and ostensible founder of the unified Germany is an impressive case study in using flexibility, pragmatism, and Realpolitik so as to reach his goals no matter which way the cards fell. Bismarck was not above manipulating the odds himself to create his own luck; despite its ill-repute, this is still a potent arm in the statesman’s arsenal. He was an elastic statesman who was able to manipulate events as they arose so as to create the biggest benefit for himself and his goal – increasing Prussian power or stabilizing German power, depending on the year. Bismarck’s dealings with chance and his attitude towards making the most out of events is almost straight out of Machiavelli. The Italian philosopher claimed that “it is seen that [Fortune] allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly,”[6] an outlook that Bismarck fit perfectly given his audacious, risk-taking nature. Not only was he a man who mastered Fortune by his adventurism and ability to be flexible in the means by which he reached his ends, Bismarck also fit within Machiavelli’s analogy of the raging river of fortune only kept in check by man-made obstacles and detours. In a fascinating turn of fate, one of Bismarck’s first government positions was “a post making him responsible for the dams which guarded the acres of the Schönhausen district against the treacherous floods of the Elbe.”[7] In this position, which he called that of “river god”[8], Bismarck worked to protect his property and that of his neighbors from the unpredictable and savage floods of the powerful rivers of Pomerania; his career as a statesman would mirror this job, but on a national scale. Bismarck, during the decades he spent in office, successfully built and managed the metaphorical dams and canals which redirected and tamed the volatile river of historical chance, allowing his ship of state to sail more easily; he exemplified the Machiavellian conception of the statesman who managed risk and excelled at wrangling Fortune into the paths which he wished it to take.

Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor, in his Prussian military regalia.

Early Life and Career

Otto von Bismarck always had a complicated relationship with Fortune, even from his pre-political days. He tempted fate often, even in his personal life, an attitude which was later reflected in his statesmanship. For instance, during his university days, “he lived the irresponsible life of a ‘corps student’, drank very much, had not less than twenty-five duels, and contracted considerable debts.”[9] These risky behaviors, especially the duels, say quite a lot about Bismarck’s often-mercurial personality and his willingness to press his luck. His dueling did not end with his university days, however. In 1852, Bismarck dueled with Georg Freiherr von Vincke, a deputy in the Prussian legislature, after Vincke accused him “of lacking diplomatic discretion” for lighting a cigar in the Frankfurt Bund; Bismarck was Prussia’s ambassador to that body, but only the Austrian ambassador, as the President of the Federal Council, was allowed to smoke.[10] Bismarck proceeded to berate and demean Vincke from his place at the podium in the Prussian legislature, and the stage for the duel was set. The duel was initially to be of four bullets each, but this was reduced to one; Vincke offered to call off the duel if Bismarck would apologize, but – characteristically – Bismarck refused.[11] In Bismarck’s telling to his mother-in-law, he said: “we both took our pistols, shot on the command … and both missed … the reduction of the challenge annoyed me and I would have preferred to continue the fight. Since I was not the person insulted, I could say nothing.”[12] This cavalier attitude towards fate, even a willingness to continue tempting it, was a hallmark of Bismarck’s later political career; his predilection for one-on-one duels was also reflected in his choices of adversary and ally during the period of unification.

Bismarck also took his chances with his myriad threats of resignation – a tactic he seemingly used every time his opinion was not heeded, he saw an array of forces against him, or his nervous energy sent him into convalescence. He threatened to resign several times under his first patron, King William of Prussia (the future Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany), including during key crises like the war scare with France in 1875; historian Jonathan Steinberg says that this was Bismarck submitting his resignation “for the umpteenth time and with the usual phrases … [but] as usual Bismarck did not resign.”[13] Some of this may have stemmed from a psychological need by Bismarck to be seen as indispensable, particularly during crisis situations – a tendency which was also exhibited in his constant self-exile from Berlin to his country estates in times of emergency so as to prove his value by his absence.[14] Another aspect of Bismarck’s personality that impacted how he saw the relationship between chance and statesmanship was his unique version of Christian faith. He believed that “the world and its orders were created by God and the course of history directed by Him,” which meant that mankind could not alter these paradigms purely through “the ideal constructions of human reason.”[15] Although Bismarck thought that “the concrete plan of God was unknown to man,” he did believe that “the statesman might gain … at rare moments a fleeting adumbration of divine action on a higher plane.”[16] This meant that the statesman would have to understand that chance – divine Providence in this respect – would present a series of obstacles to be dealt with, either successfully if he understood the task before him, or unsuccessfully if he fought hard against the purported will of God. Bismarck was a man who certainly had confidence in his own interpretation of Providence and “easily persuaded himself that whatever suited him at the moment was God’s purpose and, indeed, that he understood this purpose a great deal better than did God Himself.”[17] This ability to rationalize in the face of unpredictable circumstances and to see his own actions as in accordance with the divinely-inspired flow of history made Bismarck a man who was supremely confident – often rightly so – in his own abilities.

Before delving into examples of how Bismarck managed the vagaries of Fortune during his career as a statesman, it is useful to understand better, in his own words, how he saw his political mission and the goals which he sought. In a famous 1881 speech in the Reichstag – long after the enormous triumphs which made his career – Bismarck stated:

I have always had one compass only, one lodestar by which I have steered: salus publica, the welfare of the state. … I have always acted according to the question, ‘What is useful, advantageous, and right for my Fatherland, and – as long as this was only Prussia – for my dynasty, and today – for the German nation?’ … The nation comes first, its position in the world and its independence, and above all our organization along lines which will make it possible for us to draw the free breath of a great nation.[18]

This driving mission of strengthening and consolidating the power of his own nation, whether that was Prussia or a united Germany, was Bismarck’s main mission as a statesman; all of his actions in politics, including ones which seem facially inconsistent, are explicable when seen through this lens. As it was the prism through which Bismarck himself saw the world, examining it is useful to the historian in helping to understand how the great Junker managed the twists of fate so as to achieve his ultimate ends.

Two of the events in his early career which exhibited Bismarck’s foresight and ability to make the best out of any situation were the Crimean War and the War of Italian Unification; Prussia itself was not directly involved in these conflicts – and Bismarck was not yet the key Prussian civilian leader – but the conduct of the other powers in these wars could be used to Prussian advantage in the future. Despite his inability to directly control Prussian policy at this stage, Bismarck was able to exert the power he did have to make his mark on events and begin to steer the ship of state through Machiavelli’s raging river of chance. At the time of the Crimean War in 1854, Bismarck was an ambitious rising diplomat at the Frankfurt Diet, where “he watched events and realized where the opportunities of Prussia would occur.”[19] In this position, Bismarck is best known for his antagonism towards Austria, Prussia’s rival for Germanic hegemony; the Crimean War gave him the perfect opportunity to take a swipe at the Austrians and use their involvement in the war to boost Prussia’s own geopolitical position. Bismarck himself had no ability to influence Austrian policy and did not force them into abandoning their classic ally Russia for a chance at bolstering their own fortunes in the Balkans at the Tsar’s expense[20] – all he did was embrace his “elasticity” as a statesman to make the best of the hand fate had dealt.[21] At the Diet, Bismarck railed against Austria’s attempt to bring the other nations of Germany into line with its Balkan policy, claiming that it was not in German interests to help Austria in what he called its “obtaining by trickery of a few stinking Wallachians.”[22] His forceful denunciation of Austrian policy, although it was not embraced by the government in Berlin, endeared him to some in the Russian government, something which Bismarck would use to his great advantage over the coming years. He used the War of Italian Unification similarly; at this point, he was no longer Prussia’s representative in Frankfurt, instead being shipped off – unhappily for him[23] – to St. Petersburg to act as ambassador to Russia. Once the revolt in Italy against Austria broke out – an event which Prussia was uninvolved in fomenting – Bismarck saw it as a perfect opportunity for Prussia to gain permanent advantage over Austria for predominance in German affairs.[24] From his diplomatic post in Russia, Bismarck wrote to his bosses in Berlin to lay out his ideas to make the best of the Austrian fight against Italy and France:

The present situation has once again put the great prize in the lottery-box for us, if we only allow Austria’s war against France to eat quite deeply into her substance. Then let us march southwards with our whole army, with the boundary-posts in the soldiers’ knapsacks, and drive them into the ground either at the Lake of Constance, or there where the protestant confession ceases to prevail.[25]

Despite his earlier admonitions against German unification in a confederation dominated by Austria[26], he now changed his tune when he saw unification as possible through the purposeful exclusion of Austria. This was just one example of a pattern which would continue over the course of his career, that is, Bismarck “always lived in the moment and responded to its challenge,”[27] and lived “with reality instead of trying to force his will upon it.”[28] Again, the leadership in Berlin refused to take his advice, but also did not aid Austria in her losing effort; soon enough, however, Bismarck would not have to worry about superiors heeding his advice.

Bismarck’s early accession to power was itself a matter of chance and his ability to take advantage of the situations that Fortune presented. Bismarck’s friend and political ally Albrecht von Roon advocated in earlier years for the appointment of Bismarck to the Prussian ministry to support the monarchy in the face of parliamentary opposition, but William was resistant. Bismarck himself was more than willing to wait for the most opportune time to join the government so as to get what he wanted: “absolute control of foreign policy.”[29] His ultimate goal of shaping Prussia into a dominant European power – and perhaps unifying Germany under its auspices – would only be achievable if Bismarck could make the king dependent on him and his policy. To this end, he needed to get the king “to realize that he desperately needed [Bismarck] – not simply as one able minister among others but as the only man who could save the country.”[30] Bismarck would get his chance in due course. The details of the Army funding issue which brought King William almost to the point of abdication and led to his appointment of Bismarck as Minister-President of Prussia are not supremely relevant to the question of luck; suffice it to say that William sought an increase in military funding which would enhance his control at the expense of the Prussian legislature, something the legislators were unwilling to accept.[31] It was at this point that, in the words of the scholar Johannes Haller, “Fate smiled on the German nation, which had so often tasted the bitterness of displeasure, seen so many buds crushed and so many blossoms broken before the fruit could form, been so often deprived of leadership. At this juncture the right man really did appear at the right moment.”[32] Bismarck did not simply ‘appear’, he was summoned by Roon expressly for the purpose of meeting with William and convincing him, in this crisis situation, to accept the Junker’s help. Bismarck himself details this meeting and the element of chance involved with it; he had no idea that the King was fully prepared to abdicate until William told him directly, saying:

I will not reign if I cannot do it in such a fashion as I can be answerable for to God, my conscience, and my subjects. But I cannot do that if I am to rule according to the will of the present majority in parliament, and I can no longer find any ministers prepared to conduct my government without subjecting themselves and me to the parliamentary majority. I have therefore resolved to lay down my crown, and have already sketched out the proclamation of my abdication, based on the motives to which I have referred.[33]

It is pure luck that the King had waited to meet with Bismarck before submitting the already-signed resignation paperwork, but it was Bismarck’s eloquence and persuasion that convinced William to appoint him to lead the ministry. When the King sought confirmation that Bismarck would stand with the monarchy in the fight for the Army bill, Bismarck said that “I will rather perish with the King than forsake your Majesty in the contest with parliamentary government.”[34] With those words, the statesmanship of Otto von Bismarck truly commenced.

Kaiser Wilhelm I (William I) of Germany.

The Wars of Unification

The period during which Bismarck had the greatest of his run-ins with Fortune was the decade spanning from his accession as Minister-President of Prussia in 1862 to the unification of Germany at Versailles in 1871. During this time, Bismarck was the indispensable man he always claimed to be, leading some historians to argue that the events preceding the creation of the German Reich would not have led to that outcome were it not for the actions of the Junker statesman.[35] But it was not only Bismarck’s actions that led to the successes of this era, it was also his reaction to the circumstances presented by chance; historian Katharine Lerman states, in relation to this period, that “the role of contingency and opportunity as well as the reactions and mistakes of his opponents must all be seen as significant in determining specific outcomes.”[36] The first issue with which Bismarck dealt in his time as Minister-President was the one that got him appointed to that position: the funding and composition of the Army. True to his word to the King, Bismarck refused parliamentary intervention into the dispute and proceeded – unconstitutionally – to ignore that body for the next four years with respect to budgetary questions.[37] He knew that to do this for too long was to tempt fate, but Bismarck saw a way to win the plaudits and support of his countrymen through “a vigorous national policy.”[38]

His first attempt at this sort of strong foreign policy was almost an abject failure, but luck was on Bismarck’s side. In 1863, Polish subjects of the Russian Tsar revolted and killed a high-ranking Russian official, compelling the Tsar to crush Polish dissent; this controversial move drew the ire of the French and British, who saw themselves as protectors of the small ‘nations’ of Europe, and threatened a full-scale European war.[39] Bismarck aligned himself with Russia, hoping to drive a wedge between St. Petersburg and Paris to disrupt what he saw as a potentially destructive alliance against Prussian interests, but this backfired and isolated Prussia from the other European powers.[40] Still, somehow, Bismarck came out of this unscathed; Russia’s actions over the next year in quashing the Poles brought the continent’s approbation back onto her, Austria alienated Russia by once again opposing her in a war, and France submarined what could have been an alliance with the Tsar.[41] Not only was Prussia not harmed by this potential disaster, it was helped – Prussian neutrality in the Polish affair led the Russians to “henceforth repay in kind,” by remaining neutral in Prussia’s wars through 1871.[42] In the words of Edward Crankshaw, “To his powers of persuasion and deception, to his immense self-confidence and force of character, to his iron fist, Bismarck now added the supreme quality of luck: he was one of the elect for whom the gods labour by turning their defeats into victories, their errors into master-strokes.”[43] Each one of the three wars which unified Germany under Prussian leadership would reflect this Providential streak that Bismarck exhibited.

The first of these conflicts was the war against Denmark over the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in 1864, which saw Prussia join with Austria to fight over the future of the two small duchies on the Baltic coast. The duchies had close ties with the Germanic world, as much of their population was ethnically German[44]; Prussia had tried to strip these territories from Denmark earlier, but was humiliatingly rebuffed and forced to sign the 1852 Treaty of London with the other European powers, promising that the duchies were forever to be united as part of Denmark.[45] In the treaty, Denmark was supposed to allow these regions some minor autonomy and refrain from either separating them from one another or further incorporating them into the Danish crown lands.[46] Bismarck had long sought to control these duchies to expand Prussian access to the Baltic and North Seas, saying that “I have not the smallest doubt that the whole Danish business can be settled in a way desirable for us only by war. The occasion for such a war can be found at any moment we consider favourable for waging it.”[47] As it happens, that moment came quickly. A new Danish constitution was being promulgated in 1863 which sought to abrogate the Treaty of London and bring Schleswig and Holstein deeper into the Danish orbit.[48] This alone may not have been enough to completely re-open the question of the duchies, but another totally unforeseen event was; “Suddenly, on November 15, 1863, the Danish case was thrown into confusion by the unexpected death of King Frederick. He had no direct heir.”[49] This death allowed for a German duke to claim sovereignty over the duchies, an act which many of the German states, including Prussia, supported. The war which followed was a rout; Prussia and Austria defeated the Danes handily and forced an occupation of Schleswig and Holstein. If not for the death of the Danish monarch – without an heir, no less – Prussia and Austria would have had no real casus belli for invading Denmark. A war over two minor duchies seems like an afterthought, but it set the stage for the next war, this time with Prussia’s ostensible ally in Vienna.

The lead-up to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 is quite complex and diplomatically intricate, but it was mainly driven by frictions – which Bismarck, of course, exacerbated – arising from the decision that Prussia and Austria should each administrate one of the formerly-Danish duchies.[50] Annexation was Bismarck’s goal all along, but by maneuvering the Austrians into taking control of Holstein, he forced them into a posture of territorial aggrandizement that alienated the other states of north Germany and put the Habsburg monarchy into an uncomfortable position.[51] It is by both luck and canny diplomacy that Bismarck was able to get Austria into a situation which provided “plenty of combustible material with which to ignite future difficulties.”[52] To her credit, Austria did notice that she was now in an unenviable place with respect to Prussia – “confronted with the prospect of a war with no major allies”[53] – and sought to put the Prussians back in their place as secondary to the Habsburgs in greater Germany; her method by which to do this was a vote against Prussian actions in Schleswig-Holstein in the Federal Diet in June 1866.[54] Bismarck, at this point, saw his opportunity to make the most out of what Fortune had left him, declaring that “Any state which voted with Austria would be regarded as voting a declaration of war.”[55] This did not dissuade Austria: “The vote was taken on June 14th, and the Prussian army was sent against the forces of Austria, Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, Hanover, Baden, the two Hesses, and Nassau.”[56] In this case, for Bismarck, as the historian Theodore Hamerow said, “Luck was with him.”[57] The smashing victory the Prussians won at Sadowa (also known as Königgratz) came at the most opportune time for Bismarck; he was able to use the rout to unite several German states in the North German Confederation and “overnight the hated reactionary prime minister became a national demigod.”[58]

The historian Hans Kohn described this metamorphosis in German public opinion thusly: “The angel of darkness, whom the Germans only yesterday stigmatized as the destroyer of constitutional life, had by the mystic power of bloodshed been transformed into an angel of light, crowned with a laurel wreath, before whom the people prostrated themselves.”[59] Bismarck, ever the tempter of fate, had dissolved the legislature before the war and scheduled new elections for July 3, 1866; Fortune rewarded this choice of election date, as it not only gave Bismarck a massive victory over the domestic opposition, it gave him the rout of Austria at Sadowa.[60] The coincidence of these two events happening simultaneously, both ending with victories for Bismarck, is perhaps the best example of how luck played into his statesmanship. Given the dual victories gained on July 3, many in Prussia expected Bismarck to fully embrace his dictatorial potential and abrogate the constitution entirely, as well as to press for the destruction of the Habsburg Empire.[61] He did neither, endearing himself to the Prussian parliament and people, as well as allowing the Austrians to save face and become a potential ally once again.[62] Bismarck made the most of his success on the home front, using the victory at Sadowa and in the elections to push through a bill indemnifying the King and his minister for their unconstitutional ignorance of the budgeting process since the army bill issue of 1862.[63] This unexpectedly mild action from Bismarck was wholeheartedly embraced by the parliament, and the indemnity passed the Lower House with a vote of “230 in favor and 75 against” and a unanimous vote in the Upper House.[64] In the words of Crankshaw, “It is not too much to say that [Bismarck] entered the war of 1866 as a gambler and emerged from it a man of destiny.”[65]

There was another legacy of this war which proved lucky for Bismarck a few years later: the creation of the secret Guelph fund out of the possessions of the former King of Hanover George V. As mentioned above, Hanover fought against the Prussians and with the Austrians in the war of 1866, lost that conflict, and had its territory annexed by Prussia.[66] King George V did not take this well and continued to agitate against Prussia, which angered Bismarck and King William.[67] To stop these activities, the Prussians took the strong step of ordering “the sequestration of all of King George’s possessions in Hanover, and declared that it would keep possession of this wealth until George recognized the existing situation and renounced all claims to Hanover.”[68] The Prussian government kept the principal of these possessions intact, but used the interest earned to “combat Guelph agitation.”[69] In reality, this money went into “a special fund known as the Guelph Fund (Welfenfonds),” which was controlled exclusively by Bismarck and could be used for whatever purposes he saw fit, without any oversight.[70] This Guelph Fund, also known as the ‘Reptile Fund’ after Bismarck maligned the Guelphs as reptiles, became an all-purpose account from which Bismarck – with the help of his banker Gerson Bleichröder – could attack his enemies, pay off journalists for positive coverage, and bribe his rivals into following his lead.[71] This fund would be incredibly useful in the process of German unification, but it was purely by chance that it even was created in the first place; were Hanover to side with Prussia, or even were King George V not so antagonistic, the fund which bolstered Bismarck’s power may never have come to exist.

The third of Bismarck’s wars for German unification was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, through which the dream of a unified German Reich was achieved. After the hard-won successes of 1864 and 1866, Bismarck sought to find an opportunity to fully unify Germany by bringing the south German states into the Prussian fold; the time for this was not right immediately after the defeat of Austria, but, in the words of the Austrian Heinrich von Srbik, “The future might bring ‘opportunity and luck.’”[72] That luck came in the form of a lesser Hohenzollern prince, Leopold, being offered the vacant Spanish crown; the opportunity came in the form of French reaction to this candidacy.[73] Bismarck supported the candidacy as a way of putting France on the defensive against a potential Hohenzollern envelopment, thus making their negotiations with Austria for a rapprochement a moot point.[74] Bismarck, as was his wont, dissembled about his knowledge of and role in promoting Leopold’s candidacy; records show that he “knew all about the offer and also knew that Napoleon could not possibly take the prospect of a Hohenzollern on the throne of Spain lying down.”[75] Historians have debated ever since whether Bismarck was deliberately laying a trap for the French so as to start a war, but it is certainly true that he “at least knew that he was bringing war within sight.”[76] Still, on July 11, 1870, war was seemingly no longer in the cards; on that day, King William met with the French ambassador Benedetti at the spa town of Ems and agreed to withdraw his support for Leopold’s candidacy in Spain, without which the Hohenzollern candidacy was dead in the water.[77] Bismarck, when he heard the news, was furious; according to Erich Eyck, “The withdrawal of the candidature was a great diplomatic success for France and therefore a great diplomatic defeat for Bismarck.”[78] Despite this turnaround, Bismarck was dedicated to pushing France into the conflict which seemed so close only days earlier. As it turns out, he did not have to push France at all – Napoleon III and the French blundered right into his lap.[79]

The errors made by Napoleon were twofold: first, he bowed to heavy nationalist and press pressure campaigns to push harder against Bismarck and the Prussians; and second, he chose to exert his personal imperial power to issue a secret order to Benedetti which only exacerbated the situation.[80] The order given to Benedetti would seal the fate of the Bonapartist regime and the Second French Empire; Benedetti was told to “obtain from King William not only a formal endorsement of the renunciation but also ‘an assurance that he will never authorize a renewal of the candidacy.’ Submission to the will of France had in this matter to be explicit, public, and everlasting.”[81] This was a bridge too far for the proud King of Prussia, who “could not but reject the demands” as an assault on his sovereignty as ruler.[82] This refusal was reported from Ems to Bismarck by means of telegram; this written record of French overreach and William’s refusal to countenance it was providential for Bismarck’s hopes for a unifying conflict with France. Bismarck proceeded to edit the telegram and publish it “in a form which was calculated to rouse national feeling in Germany as well as in France.”[83] The unedited telegram sent from Ems described how William initially rebuffed Benedetti in a stern but cordial manner and, when he heard that Leopold had fully renounced his candidacy, shared with Benedetti – through an intermediary – that he supported this step.[84] The edited telegram read very differently, saying in full:

After the news of the renunciation of the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially communicated to the Imperial government of France by the Royal government of Spain, the French Ambassador further demanded of his Majesty, the King, at Ems, that he would authorize him to telegraph to Paris that his Majesty, the King, bound himself for all time never again to give his consent, should the Hohenzollerns renew their candidature. His Majesty, the King, thereupon decided not to receive the French Ambassador again, and sent the aide-de-camp on duty to tell him that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the ambassador.[85]

Bismarck, in his memoirs, detailed his thought process behind the edits and their intended effect, saying that “The difference in the effect of the abbreviated text of the Ems telegram as compared with that produced by the original was not the result of stronger words but of the form, which made this announcement appear decisive.”[86] After reading the edited text to his guests – one of whom was the famed General von Moltke – he explained that “If in execution of his Majesty’s order I at once communicate this text, which contains no alteration in or addition to the telegram, not only to the newspapers, but also by telegraph to all our embassies, it will be known in Paris before midnight, and not only on account of its contents, but also on account of the manner of its distribution, will have the effect of a red flag upon the Gallic bull.”[87] Bismarck was absolutely correct in his observation of the potential impact of the Ems telegram; within a week, war was declared and the final conflict to cement German unity was joined. The Franco-Prussian War itself was a massive success for Bismarck, Prussia, and her German allies, as they defeated the French handily at Sedan, capturing thousands of prisoners, including one Napoleon III.

The post-war wrangling to create a unified German Empire was another instance of Bismarck’s ability to make the best out of the opportunities presented by Fortune. King William of Prussia was long uninterested in taking on the title of Emperor, seeing it as a downgrade from his title as King of Prussia; “he would have refused the imperial crown if it had been offered to him by a German parliament,” and was reluctant to take it on at all.[88] Bismarck knew that William, if presented with a fait accompli, would take the proffered crown, but only if it came from the princes of Germany – especially the elder House of Wittelsbach, which ruled over Bavaria. King Ludwig II (or Louis II) of Bavaria was a fascinating figure, known mostly for his “celebrated building mania,” a symptom of his profound mental instability.[89] Because of his predilection for extravagance, Ludwig was broke; his emissary had a potential solution which fell right into Bismarck’s lap: “his financial needs … if met, would prompt Louis to accept the proclamation of William as emperor.”[90] As luck would have it, Bismarck “had the means at his disposal to grant a subsidy to Louis at a moment’s notice without any parliamentary restrictions” – the Guelph Fund.[91] Bismarck paid out, with the help of his banker Bleichröder, “a yearly gift of 100,000 taler,” ten percent of which was to go to Ludwig’s emissary who brokered the deal[92]; in exchange for this gift, “Louis sent the awaited invitation to William,” which the King accepted, becoming German Emperor.[93] This instance shows how Bismarck was able to make the most out of any situation he was presented with, even using the earlier products of his fortune to make his own luck in the present.

The wars of German unification – the Schleswig-Holstein War, the Austro-Prussian War, and the Franco-Prussian War – all showcase the important role of chance in Bismarck’s statesmanship. Without the errors of his opponents, the twists of fate, and his own canny reactions to and manipulations of those unforeseen events, Bismarck may not have succeeded in his goal of creating a unified, strong Germany under Prussian auspices. Much of the path to the German Empire was paved by luck – Austria and France certainly bumbled into several uncomfortable and disadvantageous positions – but that luck in and of itself would not have led to events playing out the way they did; it was Bismarck’s elastic, opportunistic statesmanship that made the difference. Yet the ultimate outcome of those wars was still out of Bismarck’s very capable hands, as he was not a military man – despite appearances to the contrary. Erich Eyck relates an interesting anecdote to this effect in relation to Sadowa:

The fighting was hard and fierce. All depended on the arrival of the army of the Crown Prince at the right time. He did reach the battlefield before it was too late, and Prussia won a great victory. When the Austrians fled, a Prussian general said to Bismarck: ‘Excellency, you are now a great man. But if the Crown Prince had come too late you would now be the greatest villain.’[94]

As the Prussian general correctly appreciated, even small turns of chance can make the difference between being seen as a “great man” or “the greatest villain.” No period of Bismarck’s career displays this more clearly than the decade leading up to German unification.

Map of German Unification under Bismarck.

Later Career

Chance and flexibility also played a part in Bismarck’s statesmanship after the creation of the German Reich, albeit a lesser one than it did in the lead-up to Versailles. To best understand how Bismarck dealt with luck and maneuvered Fortune into serving his ends, it is necessary to gain an appreciation of how those ends changed after 1871. Before unification, Bismarck was dedicated to increasing Prussian strength and consolidating Germany in the face of challenges from abroad; after unification, “The supreme object of Germany’s policy, which was controlled by Bismarck until 1890 in spite of various contretemps, was the maintenance of European peace.”[95] Bismarck, in defense of the new Germany, decided to pull back from his reputation as a warmonger, now advocating “a clear-eyed perception that there were limits to the strength of the Reich.”[96] This led him to fully repudiate the idea of preventive war “on the ground that no mortal could read the cards of Providence.”[97] Perhaps Bismarck realized that the odds, so long favorable to him, could not continue that way indefinitely; in a gambler’s terms, he was due for some turnarounds. Happily for Bismarck, his luck did not run out until his ultimate termination as Chancellor by the impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The story of the years from 1871 to his dismissal in 1890 was less about constantly tempting fate – an approach which characterized Bismarck’s career to that point – and more about working to ensure that he was always on the right side of the rapidly shifting political and geopolitical landscape. To that effect, Bismarck worked with a wide variety of coalitions in the Reichstag to maintain his grip on power and ensure that the territorial and political security of the German Reich was guaranteed. This method of politics meant that Bismarck was constantly shifting in his political allegiances and changing policies based on the level and type of support he expected to receive. In a quote representative of this period, “Wilhelm I once said to him: ‘I would not be in your shoes. You seem to me at times to be like a rider who juggles on horseback with five balls, never letting one fall.’”[98] This skillful juggling and willingness to use the unplanned interventions of Fate to his advantage was seen in Bismarck’s actions both foreign and domestic.

In the foreign sphere, one major example of Bismarck’s ability to change tack and make the best out of events he could not control was his semi-rapprochement with France and his support for French colonialism. This was a sea change from the Bismarck who ‘waved the red flag at the Gallic bull’ with the Ems telegram, but it was now a totally different situation. Bismarck’s thought process, according to the scholar Pearl Boring Mitchell, went as follows: “A friendly France was a more comfortable neighbor. A France interested in Africa and Asia would think less of old grievances and new allies. The acquisition of territory would give honor and prestige to the Republican party and serve to keep it in power. Moreover, it might compensate for the lost provinces.”[99] Unfortunately for Bismarck, the French leadership before 1880 was uninterested in his advice to push for colonies; that luck changed in 1880 with the election of Jules Ferry, who “felt that [France] needed new outlets for her energies, new fields of honor.”[100] Bismarck took full advantage of this change in circumstance across the Vosges, which truly exemplified his ability to completely adapt to new political environments and to make the most out of them for himself and Germany. At home, Bismarck was just as opportunistic when confronted with novel and unanticipated developments. Perhaps the most significant example of this was his use of two attempted assassinations of Kaiser Wilhelm I to force through a controversial anti-Socialist law and dissolve the Reichstag. Bismarck was a virulent anti-Socialist and pushed a bill to crack down on Socialist political activity and printing; this first bill, which the academic Johannes Ziekursch called “very slipshod,” was rejected overwhelmingly by the Reichstag on May 24, 1878.[101] But Fortune would give Bismarck another opening almost immediately afterward: a second, far more serious attempt on the Kaiser’s life was made on June 2, one which was so bad that “it was doubtful whether the octogenarian ruler would survive.”[102] In the words of A.J.P. Taylor, this accident was “so providential for Bismarck that he might almost have arranged it.”[103] Upon learning of the attempt, Bismarck immediately exclaimed “Now we’ll dissolve the Reichstag!”, even before learning whether the would-be assassin was a Socialist or the severity of William’s condition.[104] This event allowed Bismarck to carry through the anti-Socialist law which failed only a week earlier and typified his ability to take chance and run with it.

The final example of luck positively impacting the career and statesmanship of Otto von Bismarck was in the longevity of Kaiser William I and the all-too-short reign of his son and heir Frederick III. Frederick was an arch-liberal who was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria, wished to rule in the British parliamentary manner, and hated Bismarck.[105] He was destined to be William’s successor and much of Bismarck’s later career was dedicated to undermining the future Kaiser Frederick III before he could come to power and alter the carefully-constructed edifice that Bismarck had built. Fortunately for Bismarck, “William did not die at 70, nor at 80, nor at 90, but in 1888 at 91 and that longevity of the old King gave Bismarck 26 years in office.”[106] By the time that the old man had passed, his son was mortally ill from throat cancer and would only ‘rule’ for ninety-nine days, during which little happened that was not directed by Bismarck.[107] Frederick’s long-held goal was to “show the world that a Hohenzollern, who believed in Prussia and in the Prussian army, could also be a constitutional and a liberal monarch. Had his aspiration, cherished since his early days, been realized, it is needless to say the history of contemporary Europe would have taken a very different turn.”[108] Bismarck had seen the last of his luck used up in the ninety-nine days during which Frederick III ruled; only two years later would he be fired by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the son of Frederick and a mercurial monarch who wished to control policy himself – to the detriment of Germany, the Hohenzollern dynasty, and the rest of Europe.


As Niccolò Machiavelli said, Fortune is a river which is constantly flowing, flooding, and disrupting human plans; it is up to the statesman to navigate this river and work to alter its flow so as to achieve the goals of the State. Otto von Bismarck is quite possibly the best example of how a statesman can use the twists of Fate to his advantage and, with an opportunistic and flexible approach, reach his destination regardless of the current of Fortune’s river. Bismarck himself understood and appreciated the Machiavellian analogy, saying “It is my task to observe history’s currents and to steer my ship within them. I cannot guide the currents themselves, let alone create them.”[109] From his earliest days as a dyke-reeve on the Elbe – ironically enough given his management and creation of the metaphorical dykes on the river of Fortune – to his rise to power as Prussian Minister-President, to his masterful playing of the hand chance dealt him during the unification period, to his consolidation of a united Germany in the face of significant antagonism, Bismarck was an impressive statesman who constantly coped with the vagaries of chance and manipulated them into serving his ends. Erich Eyck writes eloquently about Bismarck and Germany, saying that “It is not in every century that Fate allows a statesman to evoke feelings of this strength in a whole nation. And those statesmen who succeed in doing so are the heroes and the great men of history. Among these great men Bismarck will always be classed, and the critics of his methods and of his personality never can, nor will, doubt his singular greatness and his everlasting glory.”[110] Despite this glowing praise for his abilities, Bismarck himself would claim that his greatest attribute was the fact that he “never forgot that God Almighty is capricious,”[111] an attitude which pushed him to be opportunistic, flexible, and willing to change as circumstances dictate. As such, Bismarck was able to safely captain his ship of State down Machiavelli’s river of Fate and win successes that none of his contemporaries could match.


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Crankshaw, Edward. Bismarck. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Eyck, Erich. Bismarck and the German Empire. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1964.

Gooch, G.P. “The Divorce of Politics from Morals.” In Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, edited by Theodore S. Hamerow, 97-100. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962.

Haller, Johannes. “Siegfried in Politics.” In Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, edited by Theodore S. Hamerow, 22-28. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962.

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Kohn, Hans. “Liberalism Surrenders.” In Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, edited by Theodore S. Hamerow, 32-36. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962.

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Ollivier, Émile. “The Eternal Boche.” In Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, edited by Theodore S. Hamerow, 44-48. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962.

Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification, 1815-1871. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971.

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Robertson, Charles Grant. “Appendix A: The Ems Dispatch.” In Bismarck, 513-514. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919.

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Von Bismarck, Otto. Bismarck: The Man and Statesman, Volume II. Translated by A.J. Butler. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1898.

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[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W.K. Marriott (New York: Fall River Press, 2017), 106.

[2] Machiavelli, 107.

[3] Machiavelli, 106-7.

[4] Stephen M. Walt, “’Events, dear boy, events,’” Foreign Policy, June 4, 2010,

[5] Machiavelli, 108.

[6] Machiavelli, 109.

[7] Werner Richter, Bismarck, trans. Brian Battershaw (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965), 33.

[8] Richter, 33.

[9] Erich Eyck, Bismarck and the German Empire (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1964), 13.

[10] Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 119-20.

[11] Steinberg, 120.

[12] Steinberg, 120.

[13] Steinberg, 352.

[14] Edward Crankshaw, Bismarck (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 190-91.

[15] Hajo Holborn, “Formative Intellectual Experiences,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 7.

[16] Holborn, 7.

[17] A.J.P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and Statesman (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 21-2.

[18] Louis L. Snyder, The Blood and Iron Chancellor: A Documentary-Biography of Otto von Bismarck (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1967), 274.

[19] F.M. Powicke, Bismarck and the Origin of the German Empire (London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1914), 56.

[20] Eyck, 33.

[21] Powicke, 58.

[22] Eyck, 36.

[23] Eyck, 41.

[24] Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification, 1815-1871 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971), 126-7.

[25] Eyck, 43.

[26] Taylor, 26-9.

[27] Taylor, 33.

[28] Taylor, 64-5.

[29] Crankshaw, 119.

[30] Crankshaw, 119.

[31] Snyder, 117.

[32] Johannes Haller, “Siegfried in Politics,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 26.

[33] Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck: The Man and Statesman, Volume I, trans. A.J. Butler (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1899), 295.

[34] Bismarck, Volume I, 296-7.

[35] Hans Rothfels, “A Historic Necessity,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 48-9.

[36] Katharine Lerman, Bismarck (London: Routledge, 2013), 92.

[37] Powicke, 65.

[38] Powicke, 66.

[39] Crankshaw, 150-1.

[40] Crankshaw, 151.

[41] Crankshaw, 151.

[42] Taylor, 67.

[43] Crankshaw, 151.

[44] Lerman, 96.

[45] Lerman, 96.

[46] Lerman, 96.

[47] Eyck, 81.

[48] Lerman, 96.

[49] Pflanze, 234.

[50] Pflanze, 257.

[51] Pflanze, 257-8.

[52] Pflanze, 258.

[53] Lerman, 95.

[54] Powicke, 78.

[55] Powicke, 78-9.

[56] Powicke, 78-9.

[57] Theodore S. Hamerow, “Introduction,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), x.

[58] Hamerow, x.

[59] Hans Kohn, “Liberalism Surrenders,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 32.

[60] Heinrich von Sybel, “The Great Compromise,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 18.

[61] Von Sybel, 18-19.

[62] Crankshaw, 215-16.

[63] Von Sybel, 19-22.

[64] Von Sybel, 21-22.

[65] Crankshaw, 215.

[66] Stewart A. Stehlin, “Bismarck and the Secret Use of the Guelph Fund,” The Historian 33, no. 1 (November 1970): 21.

[67] Stehlin, 21.

[68] Stehlin, 21.

[69] Stehlin, 22.

[70] Stehlin, 22.

[71] Stehlin, 22-3.

[72] Heinrich von Srbik, “The Austrian Tragedy,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 38.

[73] Taylor, 117.

[74] Taylor, 117-18.

[75] Crankshaw, 259.

[76] Eyck, 170.

[77] Eyck, 171.

[78] Eyck, 171.

[79] Émile Ollivier, “The Eternal Boche,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 46-7.

[80] Eyck, 171.

[81] Crankshaw, 267.

[82] Eyck, 172.

[83] Eyck, 172.

[84] Charles Grant Robertson, “Appendix A: The Ems Dispatch,” in Bismarck (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919), 513-14.

[85] Robertson, 513.

[86] Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck: The Man and Statesman, Volume II, trans. A.J. Butler (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1898), 99.

[87] Bismarck, Volume II, 100.

[88] Taylor, 130.

[89] Fritz Stern, Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 223.

[90] Stern, 133.

[91] Stehlin, 34.

[92] Stern, 133.

[93] Stehlin, 34.

[94] Eyck, 128.

[95] Erich Brandenburg, “Pax Teutonica,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 52.

[96] G.P. Gooch, “The Divorce of Politics from Morals,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 97.

[97] Gooch, 97.

[98] Luigi Albertini, “Juggling on Horseback with Five Balls,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 61.

[99] Pearl Boring Mitchell, The Bismarckian Policy of Conciliation with France, 1875-1885 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935), 114.

[100] Mitchell, 115.

[101] Johannes Ziekursch, “The Campaign against Socialism,” in Otto von Bismarck: A Historical Assessment, ed. Theodore S. Hamerow (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1962), 69.

[102] Ziekursch, 69.

[103] Taylor, 172.

[104] Taylor, 172.

[105] Steinberg, 7.

[106] Steinberg, 7.

[107] The Kaiser vs. Bismarck: Suppressed Letters by the Kaiser and New Chapters from the Autobiography of the Iron Chancellor, trans. Bernard Miall (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1920), xiv-xv.

[108] The Kaiser vs. Bismarck, xv.

[109] Lynn Abrams, Bismarck and the German Empire 1871-1918 (London: Routledge, 2006), 2.

[110] Eyck, 186.

[111] Snyder, 8.

2 thoughts on “Blood, Iron, & Fortune: Otto von Bismarck & the Role of Chance in Statesmanship

  1. If the Prince is Machiavelli’s masterwork, them why did he spend so much time writing a much, much longer book called “The discourses…”?

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