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The Memoirs of Prince Von Bulow

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

Mcmoirs of Prince von Bulow. Translated by F. A. Voigt and Geoffrey Dun-lop. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Vols. I, II, and III. $15.00.

When the last trumpet sounds, I shall present myself before the Sovereign Judge with this book in my hand, and say aloud: Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.” So Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his celebrated “Confessions.” In their intense subjectivity and frankness the memoirs of Prince von Bulow resemble those of the illustrious Frenchman. Before many pages are scanned, however, one perceives that Bulow’s book is addressed to posterity, and is not designed primarily as a dossier of thoughts and acts to be submitted in evidence to the Sovereign Judge. Brilliantly composed in an informal conversational style, well spiced with gossip, and containing many striking characterizations of notable contemporaries, the reminiscences of the fourth Chancellor of the German Empire will certainly rank high among the lighter political memoirs of the present century.

An eventful life, important contacts, and a long political career supplied Biilow with ideal material for the writing of a stimulating autobiography. Prince Bulow bore a name distinguished in the history of German diplomacy, politics, and military affairs. Trained in the Bismarckian school, and a protege of the Iron Chancellor, Bulow served in every important diplomatic post in Europe with the exception of London and Constantinople. With Bismarck’s resignation in 1890, he might have become a brilliant young diplomat with a great future behind him, had he not caught on with the new regime under William II. In 1897 he was appointed Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and three years later he became Imperial Chancellor. His resignation in 1909 was occasioned by the famous Daily Telegraph incident which cost him the Kaiser’s confidence and embittered his entire later life. He reappeared on the political stage for a brief moment during the War as Ambassador to Italy, but his mission ended in failure when Italy joined the Allied Powers in 1915. Six years later, at the age of seventy-two, he began the composition of his memoirs, a task that occupied him until his death in 1929.

Bulow claims to have taken the formula for his memoirs from Goethe, who once said: “He who has pen in hand and paper before him may confidently go to work. If he tells the truth about his experiences and his emotions he can write a good, even a useful, book.” This is a simple formula, but truth (Wahrheit) is fundamental if it is to be “a good, even a useful, book.” And these volumes abound in errors and misconceptions, while Bulow’s account of his policies and official actions is obviously motivated to produce a desired impression. The case which he tries consistently to establish may be briefly stated: As Foreign Secretary and Chancellor he conducted Germany’s policy in a wise, prudent, and notably successful manner: — all mistakes and failures were caused by his imperial master above or his subordinates below.

Bulow admits that in its propensity to gossip the diplomatic corps is rivalled only by the ballet corps. Like many of the old-school diplomats Bulow was a noted raconteur. Out of his powerful memory he recalls all the malicious anecdotes, all the gossip, and all the bon mots of the Wil-helmian period. Gleefully he reviews old scandals, among them the questionable parentage of Queen Victoria’s consort and the revolting tale of Prince Gorchakov’s death in a | brothel in Baden-Baden. The backstairs and keyhole school of history will find these sections of the memoirs a veritable mine of information, or, to be exact, of misinformation.

It is already evident that one is not dealing here with a historian writing according to a definite plan, but rather with an old man in a reminiscent mood who wanders here and there in the garden of history, and who, when it pleases him, skips over whole decades. Frequently the thread of his narrative is completely lost as he wanders off to explore the family antecedents and genealogical relationships of some obscure individual who interests him for the moment.

For twelve years Bulow was in daily attendance on William II. It is the extraordinary portrait of his former friend and sovereign, the man to whom he was indebted for the highest offices and greatest honors, that has caused a sensation in political and historical circles. Bulow reviews in detail the Kaiser’s theatrical journeys, ill-considered speeches, and comic opera politics. William II, he maintains, was not insane, but possessed of a delicately balanced temperament which gravitated between extreme optimism and extreme despair. That he was charming and gifted in many respects Bulow makes clear, but the best he can say for him is that he was a man “who was not a fool, but who often lived in a fool’s paradise”—a man “who often fooled others, but who more often fooled himself.”

Bulow’s portrait of the Emperor is perhaps but slightly overdrawn. In evaluating Prince Bulow’s character, however, it is significant to note that most of his former colleagues and one-time loyal subordinates are subjected to equally bitter criticism and malicious vilification. His slanderous remarks have provoked legal action in two cases. All this is indicative of a remarkable character change in the man who retired from public life in 1909. At that time Bulow was universally appreciated for his affability, his savoir faire, his polished manners, and his almost effusive friendliness. He was reputedly lazy, but for a diplomat that was a virtue and not a defect—no one does more harm in international relations than the over-zealous, prying, busybody diplomat or foreign minister. Bulow possessed unquestionable ability as a negotiator; he was adept at harmonizing opposing factions and smoothing over awkward situations. A handsome man, at home in all circles, a gifted public speaker, popular with the Reichstag and the Press, Bulow was regarded as one of the most cultured gentlemen in European public life. In short, he was one of the last of the political grands seigneurs. True, he was not a great statesman; he never solved difficulties, but rather like Ibsen’s greatest character, Peer Gynt, he circumvented them. With Peer Gynt, too, he might well have said that the sheet anchor of his career was

To know that ever in the rear

A bridge for your retreat stands open.

This theory has borne me on,

Has given my whole career its color.

It is significant that to some of his contemporaries Bulow was known as “The Eel.” This earlier and more accurate conception of the Prince’s character presents a striking contrast to the rancorous, egocentric, bitter personality revealed in these volumes. The remarkable transformation may be attributed partly to the advance of senility, which in Bulow’s case manifested itself in a character change and only to a slight degree in the impairment of intellectual powers. This remarkable personality change was marked by the complete concentration of all interests in self, until in his memoirs Bulow appears to be the incarnation of egocentrism. Hence the reproduction of all the congratulatory letters and telegrams from royalty and highly placed personages, the quotations from his purely formal speeches, and the repetition of the sycophantic praise of his admirers. Here one might remark: Not only the Kaiser, but also Biilow had his Byzantines!

This problem in character change is to be explained not only by senility but also, in part, by frustrated ambition which produced a complex in the aged man amounting almost to a psychosis. He was ambitious to occupy a place in the history of imperial Germany second only to that of its founder, Bismarck. In fact, throughout the volumes, in a thousand ways, he seeks to establish a parallel between his policies and those of Bismarck. Naturally he dwells upon the fact that both he and the Iron Chancellor suffered injustice at the hands of William II. He even points out that he resembled Bismarck in that he was unmusical! Bulow saw his place in German history jeopardized by the ill-fated War and the collapse of the Empire, which critics were prone to trace back, in part, to the mistakes of his regime. Hence the strenuous effort in these volumes to justify himself and his policies and thus to recover lost ground. If called to judge between the first and fourth Chancellors, one might well say that Bismarck’s ambition was to make Germany great through Bismarck, while Bulow’s was to make Biilow great through Germany.

Thwarted in his ambition for a place of glory in German history, Bulow was even less successful in realizing his consuming ambition to hold again the reins of power. He was disappointed and bitter because neither the Emperor nor his successor in the Chancellorship, Bethmann-Hollweg, ever sought his advice or counsel. He assures us that had he been Chancellor in 1914 he could have avoided the War. Another futile but interesting “if” of history. He accepted the post of ambassador to Rome in the early days of the War because he hoped to achieve a brilliant success that would bring him back in triumph to Berlin and the Chancellorship. For a moment his hopes of recovering power were revived by Beth-mann’s resignation, but again he suffered disappointment. Recent disclosures reveal the pitiful spectacle of this old man throwing overboard all his cherished principles and beliefs to enter into secret negotiations with the Social Democrats, hoping to return to power with their support in a revolutionary government. Thus for the sake of office would he have compromised with the party he had fought tooth and nail throughout his political career.

Bulow’s dominant character trait was noted by Bismarck when first he saw him as a boy in the company of his father. “The youngster appears ambitious,” was Bismarck’s comment. To this Billow’s father replied: “I regret that. I agree with the Moravians who sing: ‘From fatal greatness, God protect us.’ ” Bismarck reflected a moment, and then replied: “The good Moravians are right. What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world if he thereby loses his soul?”


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