When the letters of Bismarck to his wife were first published there was a chorus of astonishment. From the time he became famous this man had been known throughout Europe, and indeed throughout the civilised world, as a stern, hard being, not susceptible to any sentimental weakness, not troubled with any of those annoying softnesses and hesitations which accompany the possession of a heart.
His nickname was the "Iron Chancellor." His personal reputation was that of a powerful man with keen eyes and appallingly bad manners. There is a delightful story of a great function in Berlin at which the Papal Legate suddenly found himself being badly hustled by a fellow guest who wished to pass. He looked round in some surprise at being treated in one of the high places of the world as though he was fighting for the last omnibus. The offender, perceiving that speech was required, said: "You don't seem to know who I am. I am Bismarck." The Papal Legate bowed. "Oh," he said, "if that is not an apology, it is at least a perfect explanation."
A man who is known as an amiable blend of dragon and bulldog in public, and sheer, unadulterated bear in private, is armed in unbreakable mail. Everyone fears and admires him, and takes it for granted that he has no love in his composition. It was not till after Bismarck's death that the publication of his letters to his wife revealed him in the light of a tender and ardent lover, an attentive and charming husband.
In 1844 there was a wedding in Germany at which one of the bridesmaids was introduced to a great friend of the bridegroom's, a certain young Otto von Bismarck-schonhausen. He was a gay young man, of acknowledged capabilities, but of frivolous habits. He was only heir of a small squiredom, and the size of his patrimony did not make up for the extent of his gaiety. All parents frowned upon him, including a certain Herr Henry von Puttkammer and his wife, the Lady Luitgarde, born Von Glasenapp of Keinfeld. They had a very charming young daughter of twenty, who rejoiced in the names of Johanna Frederica Charlotte Dorothea Eleonore von Puttkammer. Under this baptismal burden, no doubt the shortness of the name Otto appealed irresistibly to her. However, they did not meet very often until two years later, when some mutual friends, travelling in the Harz country, invited them both to be of their party.
On this expedition it became obvious that
Johanna Frederica Charlotte Dorothea Eleonore and Otto were about to engage in that old-world drama of ardent children and cold parents which, no doubt, began when Abel chose his wife. The lady's parents were rather austere and puritanical, but they also were devoted to their daughter, and they finally came to the conclusion that they had better invite Bismarck to stay, in order that all parties might inspect each other more fully. This was done, it being made quite clear that no engagement had been sanctioned.
On his arrival, however, Bismarck did things his own way. He caught Johanna in his arms, gave her a thoroughly good hug and several loud kisses, claimed her in the hearing of all as his dear and his bride, and by the time Herr von Puttkammer and his wife had got their breath it would have been more improper to forbid the engagement than to sanction it.
The Woman Who Made Him
And, after all, Bismarck was already recognised as a coming man. He was a "von," he had enough to live on, and if they did forbid it such a very determined and impetuous young gentleman might confidently be expected to elope with Johanna, if he had to blow the house up to do it. So on July 28, 1847, they were married, and went off to Switzerland and Italy for a honeymoon which cost a thousand thalers-nearly £150-an expenditure which further impressed on all parents the imprudence of the bridegroom, and on the bride the ardent affection her husband had for her.
All her life Princess Bismarck loved to talk of this trip-how Otto had not an overcoat, and' caught a dreadful cold; how the King of Prussia invited him to dine at Venice, and he had to borrow clothes from various sources, and finally went, looking almost ridiculous, but not in the least embarrassed. This interview had a great influence on his future career, for the King was much impressed by his great ability, and not at all shocked by his motley attire. Each detail of the happy weeks of the honeymoon was dwelt on over and over again in after years by the princess.
They were indeed admirably paired. Johanna was well adapted for the role of a great man's wife. She had great intelligence, but did not want to use it for any advancement of her own. She was content to support his intellect, adapt his home to his tastes, and generally look after him mentally and physically. The arrangements of her household were perfect-indeed, she concentrated on them. In the early years of their marriage she found it a hard thing that so much time had to be given to public work; but she resigned herself to this, and drew much comfort from her three children, Marie, Herbert, and William, born in '48, '49, and '52. She was very democratic in her views, devoid both of egoism and vanity, and moreover she was an admirable hostess, her perspicacity providing her with consummate tact. She was not a brilliant conversationalist, but she had the gift of making others talk well, and displayed an acute judgment in choosing topics for discussion. Her amiability and her graciousness brought her many friends, and enabled her to conduct parliamentary soirees with a success that stood for much in strengthening the position of her husband. On such occasions many matters were introduced by the prince that could not have been discussed elsewhere. Towards the end of the evening, when all but intimate friends had left, the guests would gather round Bismarck, as children round a father, and listen to his words while he smoked his great pipe-bismarck smoked in the drawing-room, and, indeed, everywhere in the house. The atmosphere of homeliness might have been banished instantly by a less tactful hostess.
Bismarck could not have been an easy man to live with. He was dogmatic, extremely obstinate, and excessively irritable. His wife, moreover, suffered from bad health, and was in particular afflicted by asthma and sleeplessness. Yet her patience was invariable, and perhaps this was the reason why her influence over her husband was so remarkable. " No general in command could survey a battlefield more completely than the princess controlled a dinner-table," says Sydney Whitman in his personal reminiscences of Prince Bismarck. " She was in supreme command, and overlooked everything." And the remark could have been applied more widely.
Bismarck's political career was meteoric, and soon after he had been recalled from Paris to Berlin, on account of the political situation, an attempt at assassination stamped him with the hall mark of power.
At the end of the year 1871 Bismarck found himself a prince and a rich man. With the £6o,ooo given him by the Emperor for his services during the war with Austria, he had bought a large estate at Varzin. After the Franco-german war, he added to this Friedrichsruh. Many busy years followed, during which Bismarck rose to the position of unacknowledged ruler of the country, a period which was only closed in 1888 by the death of William I.
Two years later there arose the situation which stupefied Europe. The Kaiser had provided history with a number of surprises of various kinds, but he has never outdone the sensation which he caused when he " dropped the pilot "- in other words, when he showed Bismarck so plainly that he was going to rule his country himself that the prince felt compelled to resign, and had the humiliation of finding his resignation accepted. Europe waited for Germany to go to pieces. They could not believe that it could hang together when its unacknowledged rule had been dismissed.
From that time Prince Bismarck lived quietly on his estate, and for the remaining years of her life Princess Bismarck recaptured some of the peace and quiet which she had never tasted since the winter after her marriage.
Princess Bismarck had strong dislikes, and often unreasonable prejudices. Snobs she detested. She thought the English word " snob " peculiarly expressive, and used it frequently. " Don't you think X is very much snob? " she would inquire of a friend. Her racial prejudices were very marked, and in this she differed entirely from her husband, who liked Englishmen, Americans, and Russians. Her hatred for the French was such that during the German march on Paris Bismarck received a letter from her, and, on reading it, turned to Count Hatzfeldt, and said: " My wife will yet drive me to do the French a good turn." And on another occasion, when standing before a picture depicting the cavalry charge of Gravelotte, during which her son Herbert was wounded, she pointed to a heap of wounded French in the foreground, and said: " Those rascals nearly killed my poor son." Her voice rang with a passionate hatred that the listener never forgot.
But she had suffered much during the war, and her affection for her husband and children absorbed all her sentiments. As her children grew up the bond grew stronger rather than weaker, and her influence over her sons and daughter was as remarkable as it was over her husband. Prince Bismarck's love letters form the noblest monument to her memory. They are extraordinarily delicate, tender, and poetical. " My dear heart," he calls her; " my darling, my pet." And she writes to him, " My beloved boy." The letters, as published, extend from the year of their engagement to the year 1888. Their tenderness never decreases. " My darling," he writes, four years after their marriage, " I have been suffering all day from homesickness." And again: " My beloved heart, I am very unhappy, because I have not yet had a letter from you, and am tortured by anxieties on that account." And in 1862, writing from St. Petersburg, he says: " My dearest heart, it is horribly empty here, and I am painfully homesick for you, and full of regret for the whilom unconsciousness that you were sitting in the little room near by, and that I could go to you if I would."
Princess Bismarck died in November, 1894. The prince never recovered from the blow of her loss, and no better epitaph could have been given her than these words of his, written during her lifetime: ' You cannot imagine what this woman has made of me."