Otto von Bismarck

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Politics is not an exact science... but an art.

Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 181530 July 1898), was a German aristocrat and statesman; he was Prime Minister of Prussia (1862–1890), and the first Chancellor of Germany (1871–1890). Nicknamed the Iron Chancellor, he is noted for his laconic remarks.


Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided … but by iron and blood.
A statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait and listen until he hears the steps of God sounding through events; then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment.
A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.
Politics is the art of the possible.
Preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death.
The truth is that with a gentleman I am always a gentleman and a half, and when I have to do with a pirate, I try to be a pirate and a half.
Your map of Africa is really quite nice. But my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia, and here... is France, and we're in the middle — that's my map of Africa.
  • Nicht durch Reden und Majoritätsbeschlüsse werden die großen Fragen der Zeit entschieden — daß ist der große Fehler von 1848 und 1849 gewesen — sondern durch Eisen und Blut.
    • Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided — that was the error of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.
  • Variant translations :
It is not by speeches and majority vote that the great questions of our time will be decided — as that was error of 1848 and 1849 — but rather by iron and blood.
The great questions of the time are not decided by speeches and majority decisions — that was the error of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.
The great issues of the day are not decided through speeches and majority resolutions — that was the great error of 1848 and 1849 — but through blood and iron.
The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and the resolutions of majorities — that was the great mistake from 1848 to 1849 — but by blood and iron.
The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions … but by iron and blood.
Auswärtige Conflicte zu suchen, um über innere Schwierigkeiten hinwegzukommen, dagegen müsse er sich verwahren; das würde frivol sein; er wolle nicht Händel suchen ; er spreche von Conflicten, denen wir nicht entgehen würden, ohne daß wir sie suchten.
I must protest that I would never seek foreign conflicts just to go over domestic difficulties; that would be frivolous. I was speaking of conflicts that we could not avoid, even though we do not seek them.
  • Die Reden des Ministerpräsidenten von Bismarck-Schönhausen im Preußischen Landtage 1862-1865 (1903) edited by Horst Kohl, p. 31
  • A statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait and listen until he hears the steps of God sounding through events; then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.
    • As quoted in Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (1955) by Alan John Percivale Taylor, p. 115
  • Haut doch die Polen, daß sie am Leben verzagen; ich habe alles Mitgefühl für ihre Lage, aber wir können, wenn wir bestehn wollen, nichts andres tun, als sie ausrotten; der Wolf kann auch nicht dafür, daß er von Gott geschaffen ist, wie er ist, und man schießt ihn doch dafür totd, wenn man kann.
  • A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.
    • Speech to North German Reichstag (24 September 1867)
  • Die Politik ist keine exakte Wissenschaft.
    • Politics is not an exact science.
    • Speech to Prussian upper house (18 December 1863)
    • Variant: Die Politik ist keine Wissenschaft, wie viele der Herren Proffessoren sich einbilden, sondern eine Kunst.
      • Politics is not a science, as the professors are apt to suppose. It is an art.
        • Expression in the Reichstag (1884), as quoted in The Quote Verifier : Who Said What, Where, and When (2006) by Ralph Keyes
  • Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.
  • Setzen wir Deutschland, so zu sagen, in den Sattel! Reiten wird es schon können.
    • Let us lift Germany, so to speak, into the saddle. Surely when that is achieved, it will succeed at riding as well.
    • Speech to Parliament of Confederation (1867)
  • Wer den Daumen auf dem Beutel hat, der hat die Macht.
    • He who has his thumb on the purse has the power.
    • Speech to North German Reichstag (21 May 1869), Stenographische Berichte p. 1017 (left)
  • Seien Sie außer Sorge, nach Kanossa gehen wir nicht, weder körperlich noch geistig.
    • Be assured, we shall not go to Canossa, either bodily or spiritually.
    • Speech to the Reichstag (14 May 1872), Ausgewählte Reden des Fürsten von Bismarck: p. 176, referring to the controversy over the Imperial envoy to the Holy See, Prince Hohenlohe, who had been rejected by Pope Pius IX, which marked the beginning of the Prussian Kulturkampf. The expression highlighted an era of political struggle between the Catholic Church and various secular governments, especially severe throughout the 1870s.
  • Wir Deutsche fürchten Gott, aber sonst nichts in der Welt - und die Gottesfurcht ist es schon, die uns den Frieden lieben und pflegen lässt.
    • We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world; and it is the fear of God, which lets us love and foster peace.
    • Speech to the Reichstag (6 February 1888) 1887/88,2 p. 733 (D)
  • Preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death.
    • Quoted as a remark of Bismark without quotation marks, in Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (1984) by Herman Kahn, p. 136, a paraphrase of what Bismarck told the Reichstag on Feb. 9, 1876. Referring to March 1875, when the French National Assembly had decided to strengthen their army by 144,000 additional troops, Bismarck asked the deputies to imagine he had told them a year ago that one had to wage war without having been attacked or humiliated: „Würden Sie da nicht sehr geneigt gewesen sein, zunächst nach dem Arzte zu schicken (Heiterkeit), um untersuchen zu lassen, wie ich dazu käme, dass ich nach meiner langen politischen Erfahrung die kolossale Dummheit begehen könnte, so vor Sie zu treten und zu sagen: Es ist möglich, dass wir in einigen Jahren einmal angegriffen werden, damit wir dem nun zuvorkommen, fallen wir rasch über unsere Nachbarn her und hauen sie zusammen, ehe sie sich vollständig erholen – gewissermaßen Selbstmord aus Besorgniß vor dem Tode" (Would you not have been inclined very much to send for a physician in the first place and let him find out, how I with my long experience in politics could commit the colossal stupidity of [...] telling you: It is possible that in some years we might be attacked; to pre-empt that, let us overrun our neighbors and smash them before they have fully recovered [from the war of 1870/71] - in a way [commit] suicide from fear of death) 1875/76,2 p. 1329-30
  • Your map of Africa is really quite nice. But my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia, and here... is France, and we're in the middle — that's my map of Africa.
„Ihre Karte von Afrika ist ja sehr schön, aber meine Karte von Afrika liegt in Europa. Hier liegt Rußland, und hier" - nach links deutend - "liegt Frankreich, und wir sind in der Mitte; das ist meine Karte von Afrika."
Eugen Wolf: Vom Fürsten Bismarck und seinem Haus. Tagebuchblätter. 2nd edition Berlin 1904, p. 16
  • Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.
    • The old Jew, he is the man.
    • A conversation in 1879 on who was the centre of gravity at the Congress of Berlin, referring to Benjamin Disraeli, as quoted in Seven Great Statesmen in the Warfare of Humanity with Unreason (1912) by Andrew Dickson White, p. 482
  • They treat me like a fox, a cunning fellow (Schlaukopf) of the first rank. But the truth is that with a gentleman I am always a gentleman and a half, and when I have to do with a pirate, I try to be a pirate and a half.
    • Talking to Gyula Andrássy in Salzburg on 18 September 1877. As quoted in Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Eastern Question. A Study in Diplomacy and Party Politics (1935) by Robert William Seton-Watson, p. 224; "Schlaukopf" is translated elsewhere as "clever dick" or "smart aleck."
    • With deal (instead of do) with a pirate, in Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy's influence on Habsburg foreign policy during the Franco-German War of 1870-1871 (1979) by János Decsy, p. 21
  • „Man behandelt mich wie einen Fuchs, wie einen Schlaukopf erster Klasse. Die Wahrheit aber ist, qu'avec un gentleman se suis toujours gentleman et demi, et que quand j'ai affaire à un corsaire, je tâche d'etre corsaire et demi"
Eduard von Wertheimer: Graf Julius Andrássy. Sein Leben und seine Zeit. Vol. III. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt Stuttgart 1914 pp. 42-43
  • Concerning the blunders which had been made in our foreign policy public opinion is, as a rule, first enlightened when it is in a position to look back upon the history of a generation, and the Achivi qui plectuntur are not always immediately contemporary with the mistaken actions."
  • The Kaiser vs. Bismarck. Suppressed Letters by the Kaiser and New Chapters from the Autobiography of the Iron Chancellor. Translated by Bernard Miall. Harper New York & London 1921, p. 183 Achivi qui plectuntur refers to the proverbial verse "Quidquid delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi" from Horace's Epistles Liber I Epistula II la.wikisource: Whatever their kings are raging the Achaeans have to pay for.
Ueber die Fehler, welche in der auswärtigen Politik begangen wurden, wird sich die öffentliche Meinung in der Regel erst klar, wenn sie auf die Geschichte eines Menschenalters zurückzublicken im Stande ist, und die Achivi qui plectuntur sind nicht immer die unmittelbaren Zeitgenossen der fehlerhaften Handlungen."
  • Faust complains of having two souls in his breast. I have a whole squabbling crowd. It goes on as in a republic.
  • Faust klagt über die zwei Seelen in seiner Brust; ich beherberge aber eine ganze Menge, die sich zanken. Es geht da zu wie in einer Republik... Das meiste, was sie sagen, teile ich mit. Es sind da aber auch ganze Provinzen, in die ich nie einen andern Menschen werde hineinsehen lassen.
  • Bismarck traveling in an open carriage through the green valley of Hofgastein to Salzburg with Vortragender Rat Robert von Keudell and Geheimrat Heinrich Abeken on 18 August 1865 after the Gastein Convention had been signed on 14 August 1865 (as reported by Keudell). Bismarck: Die gesammelten Werke, Band 7 Gespräche, 1924, p. 101


  • Who is master of Bohemia is master of Europe.
    • Reported as frequently quoted but unverified in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989), which states, "it cannot be found in the official writings and pronouncements of Bismarck. It is possible that he said it, and it was passed on orally rather than being recorded, or that he expressed the sentiment in other terms and the idea took this form as others tried to quote him".
  • Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!
    • Frequently quoted in online leftist circles. Refers to the split of the First Internationale (between anarchists and socialists). The earliest mention is on page 95 of American radicalism, 1865-1901, essays and documents (1946) by Chester McArthur Destler, but as of now the German original could not be found.
    • In German political parlance, "black" more often referred to Catholic interests than to anarchism; it is possible that if Bismarck did say this, it referred rather to a union between the Catholic Center and the Socialist "reds" against the German nationalist/Protestant "blues."
  • Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.
    • No record of this quotation appears to exist in German.
    • In The World Crisis, Vol I: 1911-1914 (originally published in 1923), Winston Churchill asserted that during the July Crisis, German shipping magnate and diplomat Albert Ballin told him that Bismarck had said to him, "that one day the great European War would come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" a year before his death.
    • The full quote above appears in "European Diary" by Andrei Navrozov, in Chronicles Vol. 32 (2008) as a comment during the Congress of Berlin in 1878. "European Diary" is a series of excerpts from Navrozov's unpublished (as of 2017) novel in English, Earthly Love: A Day in the Life of a Hypocrite.


  • There is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.
    • This saying appears as early as 1849 in the form “the special providence over the United States and little children”, attributed to Abbé Correa. There is no good evidence that Bismarck ever repeated it. See talk page for more details.
  • Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made (Gesetze sind wie Würste, man sollte besser nicht dabei sein, wenn sie gemacht werden).
    • Though similar remarks are often attributed to Bismarck, this is the earliest known quote regarding laws and sausages, and is attributed to John Godfrey Saxe University Chronicle. University of Michigan (27 March 1869) and "Quote... Misquote" by Fred R. Shapiro in The New York Times (21 July 2008); according to Shapiro's research, such remarks only began to be attributed to Bismarck in the 1930s.
    • Variants often attributed to Bismarck:
    • If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.
    • Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.
    • Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.
    • Laws are like sausages. You should never see them made.
    • Laws are like sausages. You should never watch them being made.
    • Law and sausage are two things you do not want to see being made.
    • No one should see how laws or sausages are made.
    • To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.
    • The making of laws like the making of sausages, is not a pretty sight.
    • Je weniger die Leute darüber wissen, wie Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie nachts.
      • The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep in the night.
        • No citation exists for where this German phrase or this translation originated.
  • At no time there is more lying than before the elections, during the war and after the hunt. (Original: "Es wird niemals so viel gelogen wie vor der Wahl, während des Krieges und nach der Jagd.")
    • The earliest attestation is: A representative of the "Löwe faction" also aptly remarked: "There is never more lying than before the elections, during the war and after the hunt.", in: Im neuen Reich. Wochenschrift für das Leben des deutschen Volkes in Staat, Wissenschaft und Kunst. Volume 9 (1879), 1st semivolume, p. 199
    • The witticism was first attributed to Bismarck in printed form, as far as it is clear, in Zeitschrift für Bekämpfung der Geschlechtskrankheiten. Im Auftrage der Deutschen Gesellschaft zur Bekämpfung der Geschlechtskrankheiten. Volume 2 (1904) p. 283 "[...] when Bismarck would have repeated his well-known word about the instances in which the most lying occurs, out of the three mentioned by him (before an election, during a war, after a hunt), he would certainly have to put pelvic inflammatory disease in women first."
    • Before this, it always went without naming an author as a "witticism" in 1895, as "the proverbial answer to the question when the most lying occurs" in 1897, as "an old story" in 1898 and as "what one usually says" in 1901. Die Neue Zeit - Wochenschrift der deutschen Sozialdemokratie even spoke of a "self-admission" of Bismarck in 1906; however, the fellow social democratic magazine Das freie Wort attributed it to an unnamed representative of the Zentrumspartei in that same year.


Quotes about Bismarck[edit]

When asked what was the greatest political fact of modern times, Bismarck is reported to have responded, that it was "the inherited and permanent fact that North America speaks English." ~ George Beer
  • He trusted to the levelling effect of time and to the pressure exercised by the process of evolution, the steady action of which appeared more effective than an attempt to break the resistance which the individual states offered at the moment. By this policy he showed his great ability in the art of statesmanship. And, as a matter of fact, the sovereignty of the Reich has continually increased at the cost of the sovereignty of the individual states.
  • The era of Bismarck (1861-90) saw the Concert of Europe at its best. In two decades immediately following Germany's rise to the status of a Great Power, she was the chief beneficiary of the peace interest. She had forced her way into the front ranks at the cost of Austria and France; it was to her advantage to maintain the status quo and to prevent a war which could be only a war of revenge against herself. Bismarck deliberately fostered the notion of peace as a common venture of the Powers, and avoided commitments which might force Germany out of the position of a peace Power. He opposed expansionist ambitions in the Balkans or overseas; he used the free trade weapon consistently against Austria, and even against France; he thwarted Russia's and Austria's Balkan ambitions with the help of the balance-of-power game, thus keeping in with potential allies and averting situations which might involve Germany in war. The scheming aggressor of 1863-70 turned into the honest broker of 1878, and the deprecator of colonial adventures. He consciously took the lead in what he felt to be the peaceful trend of the time in order to serve Germany's national interests.
    • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944), Ch. 1 : The Hundred Years' Peace
  • Let us celebrate Bismarck's memory by making the great idea of his life, devotion to the Fatherland, the guiding star of our own lives. Each of us in the place where he can do his best work. Each of us is responsible for helping the country rise again to that greatness for which Bismarck, who also knew an Olmuetz, prepared the way.
    • Gustav Stresemann, speech on Bismarck's birthday (1 April 1928), quoted in W. M. Knight-Patterson, Germany from Defeat to Conquest 1913-1933 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1945), p. 417.

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