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Bismarck and His American Friends Otto Count Zu

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

July 30, 1898—a little over thirty years ago—the news of Bismarck’s death spread over the world, yet there are still people in every country who remember the tremendous impression created. It is especially interesting to glance over the American newspaper comments. The Spanish-American War had not yet ended. On July 31 and August 1 the newspapers reported that peace negotiations were about to begin. It would have been of small wonder if the American people had been too engrossed in their own affairs to pay much attention to the death of the German Chancellor. Quite to the contrary, in all the newspapers, North and South, East and West, there was but one outcry: “Bismarck is dead!” Everything else for the moment was crowded into the background. Pages and pages were filled with telegrams, biographies, discussions, and pictures relating to this event. Some of the papers commented only on the attitude of Bismarck towards the United States; some said that he was a friend, but more took the opposite view. The latter were mistaken. When Sidney Whitman, the famous English writer, paid a visit to Bismarck after the latter had retired from office as Chancellor to his estate Friedrichsruh, near Hamburg, he was much astonished to find in his study the pictures of Ulysses Grant, Walter Phelps, and George Bancroft, but the picture of only one Englishman—Lord Beaconsfield.

“I gleaned,” writes Whitman in his recollections of Bismarck, “that his personal relations with the Americans whom he had met in the course of his career, had invariably been of a most cordial character. Nearly all of them were attracted to him by the charm of his manner.”


In 1890 a memorial celebration was held at Goettingen in honor of four prominent Americans who had studied there. Bismarck was invited to attend. In his telegram declining the invitation, he said: “Of the four distinguished Americans to be honored by memorial tablets, I have the privilege of counting two among my intimate friends: the late John L. Motley and George Bancroft.”

In the year 1832, when, at the age of seventeen, he went as a student to Goettingen, he spoke English fairly well. He apparently wished to have more practice; at least we hear that he celebrated the fourth of July with an American party the same year that he entered. Goettingen was at this time the favorite university of English-speaking students, because it had world-wide fame in some branches of science and because the kingdom of Hannover, to which it belonged, was united for a long time with the royal family of England. It is recorded that for the first time an American student went to Goettingen in the year 1789. Beginning with the nineteenth century, however, American students came in greater numbers; for instance, in the year 1815 there were four Americans, George Bancroft, Edward Everett, George Ticknor, and Joseph Green Cogswell, all of whom became well-known as scholars oi preachers in the United States.

During the time of Bismarck, there were three Americans in Goettingen, Mitchell King, Almory Coffin, and John L. Motley. The first two came from Charleston, South Carolina, but we do not know much else about them. King entered the same fraternity as Bismarck. With Coffin, Bismarck later had a wager that all Germany would be united within twenty-five years. He lost the wager, but (as he told the story) when the time came to cross the ocean and drink the forfeited twenty-five bottles of champagne he was informed that Coffin had passed away some years before. “Poor friend, he had an ominous name,” was his remark.

Bismarck must have liked the two Southern boys, for he once spoke of his pleasant relations with Southern people, but by far his most intimate friendship was that with John L. Motley, later the famous historian and author of “The History of the United Netherlands.” Motley, born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a pupil of Bancroft in Round-hill School, and a graduate of Harvard University, was one year older than Bismarck. At the time he came to Goettingen, he was very impressionable, eager to learn everything, fond of poetry—which he wrote himself but did not dare to show to his friends—young, temperamental, and intelligent. His eyes were of such striking beauty that Bismarck remembered years afterwards how he had attracted the attention of women whenever he came into their presence. Motley was not in close contact with Bismarck’s fraternity, but the latter came to see him whenever he wanted to have a serious talk. Motley, in his first novel, “Morton’s Hope” (from a literary point of view, completely worthless), has given an interesting picture of Bismarck as a student in Goettingen. This picture is a little distorted, but nevertheless we can see in it striking traits of the future Chancellor’s character, his tremendous vitality, and his superior mind. Motley predicted for him a great future.

A real friendship between the two developed in Berlin, where they spent a year together, living in the same house. The third member of the party was Count Alexander Key-serling, the grandfather of the famous author of the “Travel Diary.” Their life was not so wild as it had been in their student days in Goettingen, for Bismarck had many social obligations, but nevertheless he was very gay.

In the evenings, while playing chess, they had long discussions on many subjects; for instance, whether Goethe could be compared to Lord Byron. Motley was so interested in these questions that he sometimes watched for the awakening of his friend in the morning in order to continue the conversation of the night before.

It can be said without any exaggeration that Bismarck never had such a tender feeling for any other man as he had for Motley. Keyserling, living twenty years longer than Motley, who died in the year 1877, came of course nearer to the statesman’s political life and, after Motley’s death, replaced him in many ways. But Bismarck always held Motley in his heart, a living remembrance of the time, he once wrote Motley, “when we were better men, in a better time, I mean when we were younger.” This feeling developed more and more through later years, when Bismarck was at times overwhelmed by his tremendous work and when he became, during his political fights, more and more lonely. The attachment of Motley to Bismarck was very great too, but it was mingled with a deep admiration; he was too modest not to acknowledge the superiority of his friend. And then Motley was never as lonely as the Chancellor became, for he made many friends in different countries, above all in England.

More than twenty, years later, Motley called at Bismarck’s house in Frankfort, when the latter was Prussian Representative to the German Bundestag. The historian was received like a brother. Bismarck’s wife told him afterwards, that her husband was “out of his wits with delight” when he saw the name of Motley on the card, and that he had the appearance of being twenty years younger.

When Motley was appointed Minister to Vienna in the year 1861, he tried to get into communication with his friend, but was unsuccessful, as Bismarck was at that time in Paris. It was not until Bismarck was appointed President of the Prussian Cabinet, beginning then his career as the leader of Prussia and Germany, that correspondence between them was resumed. At the end of one very busy day, Bismarck dropped the following lines to Motley, which showed clearly his deep feeling: “When just going to bed in this moment my eyes met with yours on your portrait and I curtailed this sweet restorer, sleep, in order to remind you of Auld Lang Syne. . . . Let politics be hanged and come to see me. I promise that the Union Jack shall wave over our house, and conversation, and the best old hock shall pour damnation upon the rebels.” And on another occasion, “My thoughts left to themselves come always back to you. . . .” Motley was one of the very few who were privileged to receive private letters from him after 1862. When Bismarck went to Vienna in the year 1864, he was in the house of Motley three times, in spite of his very important mission—the Danish war was just over. The deep impression he left on Motley’s family is reflected in a letter of Mrs. Motley to one of her daughters: “I felt in three minutes as if I had known him all my, life, and formed a deep attachment for him on the spot, which has not diminished in a further acquaintance. . . . I defy any one who knows him not to respect him. for a more sincere man never lived. . . .”

Motley was Minister to Vienna from 1861 to 1867, and Minister to England in the years 1869 and 1870. Three wars took place during this period and there were great changes in European politics. Motley had better opportunities to inform himself of Bismarck’s political motives than any other American diplomat, with the exception of George Bancroft. On the other hand, Bismarck’s attitude during the Civil War was influenced by Motley’s optimism as to the final success of the Union. He conceded that his friend must know American affairs better than he. Nevertheless he was personally sympathetic toward the South.

Motley saw Bismarck for the last time in the year 1872, at Bismarck’s silver wedding on his estate at Varzin, where he was treated as a member of the family. He parted from his friend with the painful feeling that he probably would never see him again, and it was indeed their last meeting. Whenever Bismarck spoke of Motley, in later times, it was always in the warmest terms. In the year 1888, in a speech in the Reichstag, Bismarck mentioned that he had learned the song “In Old Colony Times” from a very dear friend. The friend was Motley.

What brought these two men, different in character and antecedents, so near together? One answer is this: When Bismarck came to Goettingen, although he was very fond of fighting and drinking, he also needed congenial intellectual companionship. Was it a wonder that he selected for his friends probably the two most intellectual students in Goettingen, Keyserling and Motley?

Bismarck and Motley were inhabitants of two different hemispheres, but Motley once wrote that they were not so antipodal in their political ideas as one would believe. In his student days Bismarck was inclined to hold rather radical ideas, while Motley, on the other hand, had many friends among the English aristocracy. As a historian Motley worshipped great men. In his youth his ideal was Lord Byron, and his history of the Netherlands is very much the history of William of Orange. Bismarck and Motley both had a keen sense of honor, and neither of them could tolerate personal affront. Both also had the great gift of humor. It is a pity that we haven’t more letters of the earlier period exchanged between them.


The friendship of Bismarck with George Bancroft, the American historian and diplomat, is of an entirely different character. When Bancroft was appointed as Minister to Berlin in the year 1867, his fame was at its zenith. His history of the United States was a standard work of that time. He had many, influential friends among political people, and to him was accorded the honor of delivering the speech before both Houses of Congress on the first anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

In order to understand Bismarck’s relations with Bancroft, we must turn our eyes for a moment to the whole European situation at this time. Bancroft went to Berlin in the year 1867; Bismarck had just then accomplished the first part of his political work. The wars of 1864 and 1866 had resulted in the formation of the North German Confederation. Bismarck then knew that the unification of all Germany was only a question of time, although the suspicions of the great European powers, above all of France, were not favorable to the unification at that time; they feared a change in the balance of power. He was therefore interested in the attitude of the United States. He never anticipated active help, of course, but after the successful termination of the Civil War the United States had won so much international prestige that it was of considerable importance in the determination of his policies, whether or not the United States was likely to join those European powers who were against the unification of Germany. It was therefore very gratifying to him that a man like Bancroft should have been sent to Berlin.

Bancroft knew Germany very well. He had studied at Goettingen and Berlin and had, at this early, period, expressed a deep admiration for the spiritual freedom he found in the German universities. As a historian he was especially interested in Prussia, viewing it as the foremost power which had protected Protestantism against Catholicism after the Thirty Years’ War and in the Seven Years’ War of the time of Frederick the Great. His house in the Tiergarten became the rendezvous of Berlin society. He counted among his guests not only the political and military leaders of Prussia, but also the outstanding scientists and artists in Berlin.

Bancroft was struck by the resemblance of the North German Constitution to that of the United States and in his dispatches to the Department of State made frequent comments upon this subject. He once asked Bismarck whether it was the result of imitation, or whether the same necessities led to the same result. The Chancellor answered diplomatically, “a little of each.”

Bancroft had many opportunities to meet the German statesman besides those due to his mission. Bismarck was eager to explain his German politics to Bancroft in detail, so that the latter was able to give his government very valuable information.

Whenever the United States was the subject of conversation, Bismarck’s comments showed that he paid close attention to the development of the new world. Once he spoke favorably of the purchase of northwest America from Russia. Russia, he said, could not turn it to any account; the enterprising men of the United States would do so. He had lately heard that the region was well wooded; if so, it would be valuable for its forests and furs. On speaking of the United States as a wine-growing country, he compared California to Hungary in that both produced gold and wines.

It was Bismarck’s custom to ride or walk in the Tier-garten early in the morning. Sometimes Bancroft joined him. They often spoke of general matters, but questions of religion were of interest to them too. They, agreed in the belief that ultramontanism in the Catholic church interfered with the independence of the States. There was always mutual understanding between the two men. Bismarck liked to talk without restriction, whether he spoke about his serious illness of former years, described his estate with the old trees which he loved so much, or discussed race questions, music, or modern fiction.

During the Franco-Prussian War, Bancroft was a strong advocate of the German cause. Bismarck, at the headquarters at the front, remained in constant communication with him. How important he believed Bancroft to be for good German-American relations, is expressed in a letter written to Motley when the Minister was in danger of being recalled. It is also expressed in the official farewell article in the Staatsanzeiger, written when Bancroft left Berlin in 1874, which, without doubt, was inspired by Bismarck and which spoke in high appreciation of the importance of Bancroft’s mission for the improvement of German-American relations.


Generally speaking, Bismarck’s relations with American representatives were very good.

The appointment of Bayard Taylor, the well-known translator of German literature, to the legation at Berlin was perhaps chiefly a compliment to the great scholar and the German scientific world. Bismarck treated him with the highest respect. He told him that he had read one of his books during his last illness. “I passed an hour with him alone in the garden behind his palace,” wrote Bayard Taylor, “and felt in ten minutes as if I had known him for years. I was astonished at the freedom with which he spoke, but I shall honor his confidence and say nothing for years to come.”

Among the other Ministers may be mentioned especially Andrew D, White, the President of Cornell University. He was twice Minister to Germany, from 1879 to 1881 and from 1897 to 1902. He was a most sincere friend of Germany, very interested in German higher education, and a great admirer of Bismarck. He considered him the greatest German since Luther and praised the mixture of boldness and caution in Bismarck’s character. In one of their early talks they spoke of the location of the American Federal capital. This is the way White described it:

“A little later in the conversation, he asked me whether in our country there had ever been a serious effort to make New York the capital of the nation. I told him certainly not, that New York was for a very short period at the beginning of our national history a pro tempore capital, but that there was a deep-seated idea that the capital should not be a great metropolitan city, and that unquestionably the placing of it in Washington was decided not merely by the central position of the town, but by the fact that it was an artificial city and never could become a great metropolitan town. He answered that he thought this showed great wisdom; in his opinion, the French were making a great mistake in bringing the capital back to Paris, that the construction of the human body furnished a good hint for the arrangement in the body politic; that, as the human brain is held in a strong enclosure and at a distance from the parts of the body which are most physically active, so, he thought, the brains of the nation should be protected with the greatest care, and should not be placed in the midst of great, active, energetic metropolitan cities.”

The one exception to the good relationship between Bismarck and American Ministers in Berlin was Aaron A. Sargent, who was appointed in the beginning of the eighties. He had the mischance to fall between the upper and nether millstones of the pork dispute and Bismarck’s fight against his political foes in his economic policy. Like other European powers, the German Government prohibited the importation of American pork for fear of trichinosis and other diseases. Some years earlier Bismarck had changed the government’s policy from free trade to protective tariff, and had met embittered opposition on the part of industry and trade. Sargent got on the Chancellor’s black list because he suspected that the Minister made common cause with his opponents.


Of American politicians, Carl Schurz had the best opportunity to come into personal touch with Bismarck. Carl Schurz had fought against the government forces in the German revolution of 1848 and had fled to the United States after having aided his friend Gottfried Kinkel to escape from prison. Owing to his strong will and great capacity he soon became the leader of the German-Americans, and he also won the personal confidence of President Lincoln. At the beginning of the Civil War he was appointed as Minister to Madrid. However, he soon resigned in order to participate in the battles of the Civil War as a general in the Federal Army. In the autumn of the year 1867 he made a trip to Europe and, longing to see his old home, asked the Prussian Government if he would be allowed to visit his friends. Bismarck sent the Chief of Police to the station at Mannheim to invite him in the most cordial manner to come to Berlin. In January, 1868, Schurz was introduced to the Chancellor by a friend. Bismarck received him in a gracious manner, believing he had seen him before. Schurz told him that that was impossible and asked him laughingly if he would not have arrested him as a malefactor. Bismarck replied, “I would not have done such a thing. You mean on account of this Kinkel affair. I rather liked that and if it were not highly improper for His Majesty’s Minister and Chancellor of the North German Confederacy, I should like to go with you to Spandau and have you tell me the whole story on the spot.” Schurz talked with Bismarck the first day about German affairs, the German statesman being much interested in the probable attitude of the United States in case of a Franco-Prussian war, but on the following day at dinner they spoke of American affairs. Schurz was impressed with Bismarck’s knowledge of political and social conditions in America, “more,” he says, “than any European I had met.”

There is also something to be said about the relations of some American generals with Bismarck.

Grant, as President, did not come into personal contact with the Chancellor. He sent his history of the Civil War to Bismarck and received a very polite acknowledgment, and on the day that he was inaugurated President of the United States,’Bismarck accepted an invitation to dine with Bancroft, something quite extraordinary, as he was overworked and not well at the time. In 1878, on a visit to Europe, Grant made a short trip to Berlin. Bismarck called upon him immediately and had a long and interesting conversation with him. John Russell Young, who accompanied Grant on his travels, gave an account of this conversation in his book, “Around the World with General Grant.”

Grant told Bismarck that he was not really a soldier at heart and that he left the army with pleasure:

“ ‘You are so happily placed,’ replied the Prince; ‘in America you need fear no wars. What always seemed sad to me about your last great war, was that you were fighting your own people. That is always so terrible in wars, so very, hard.’ ‘But it had to be done,’ said the General. ‘Yes,’ said the Prince, ‘you had to save the Union, just as we had to save Germany.’ ‘Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery,’ answered the General. ‘I suppose, however, the Union was the real sentiment, the dominant sentiment,’ said the Prince. ‘In the beginning, yes,’ said the General, ‘but as soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain upon the Union that men could be bought and sold like cattle.’”

Grant carried away with him a very favorable impression of Bismarck. “He is a man whose manner and bearing fully justify the opinion we formed of him,” he remarked to Young. In a later article about this meeting, Young spoke of the two men as “Niagara seething over granite rock.”

On one occasion Bismarck took Grant to a military parade. The latter was not feeling well that day and had to sit in a closed carriage. He looked downcast and told the prince that it worried him to think that he was to meet the Prussian soldiers sitting coddled up in a carriage as any ordinary civilian. “Never you mind that, General Grant,” answered Bismarck, “you may sit there hidden from view, but our soldiers are well aware what sort of a fighting man is in this closed carriage.”

It was during the Franco-Prussian War that some of the other leading American Civil War generals came to the German headquarters, among them Sherman, Sheridan, and Burnside. The latter was given an important and interesting mission in besieged Paris, where, in the name of Bismarck, he proposed an armistice of forty-eight hours, to enable the French Government to make the necessary elections for the National Convention. His mission, however, was not successful.

There are many unfavorable opinions of Bismarck to be found in American newspapers and periodicals. Nor did Bismarck like every American he met. But it is true that most of the Americans who came in close contact with him were favorably impressed by the simplicity and sincerity of his behavior. It is also true that the American pioneer type appealed to his fighting nature. He used to speak to Americans sometimes about his youthful inclinations toward republicanism. In the book written by Emil Ludwig about Bismarck, it is stated that at heart he was a republican. This does not seem probable, for Bismarck was brought up in monarchical traditions, and the ties that bound him to the royal house were very strong. It cannot be questioned that he would have died for the King and his House, had they been at any time in imminent danger. Americans did not take him seriously when he spoke about his republicanism. But Bismarck was not narrow-minded; nor did he believe that one form of government fitted every country. We have an interesting test of the point of view from which he looked on the forms of government.

During the Danish-Prussian War Bismarck had as guide a young officer who had once lived in the United States.

The conversation turned on American affairs, and Bismarck spoke about rumors of a monarchical movement in the Confederacy. The Prussian officer denied that monarchy would have been of any benefit to the United States. Americans had become great under the republic, and in his opinion it would mean revolution to attempt to graft the institution of monarchy upon this stock. Bismarck, deeply interested, replied that this was his old saying: “What has developed in a historic and organic way, must be conservative. The American Republic is conservative, Napoleon’s Empire is revolution; the English constitution is conservative, the Prussian constitution is revolution.”

It may, be asked whether Bismarck’s relations with Americans had any practical political effect. In the first period of his political leadership, from 1860 to 1870, the relations between Prussia and the United States were important only from an economic point of view; in the Franco-Prussian War the favorable attitude of the United States towards Germany was not unimportant; but in the eighties, when the two countries had developed into great industrial States, the German-American relations did influence world politics. Bismarck deliberately cultivated good relations with America. He always regretted misunderstandings, and when the natural course of events brought the two powers into conflict in the political and economic field, his friendly relation with the American representative was undoubtedly a contributing factor in the settlement in the controversy.


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