1878-09-17 - Otto Von Bismarck
[Bismarck protests against assertions by the left liberal Reichstag delegate, Eugen Richter, and the Social Democrat, August Bebel, that he had cultivated ties with the leaders of social democracy early in his career.] I was rather surprised, as I read this in my rural retreat, that Representative Richter only pays attention to the external label “social democracy,” that he does not distinguish between honorable efforts to improve the lot of workers, and that which we are today compelled, sadly and reluctantly, to call social democracy. I cannot agree with Representative Richter if he wants to throw out the baby with the bath water and urges us, if we want to suppress the machinations of the present sect that does not shrink from regicide, to combat simultaneously every effort to improve the lot of the worker, to improve his income and his share in the community’s life. I am determined to resume these efforts, for which I am sometimes reproached, as soon as I have time and opportunity....
I turn now to what Representative Bebel said yesterday. I do not think that he realized that everything he said was untrue. This is what he was told; he believed it and recounted it. If he had himself made up this mixture of truth and falsehood that I read in yesterday’s transcript, then he would be talented enough to become a report for the Times or some other major newspaper,
and I would recommend this very profitable employment to him. He began his story with details that were carefully memorized. that seemed to have been personally experienced, and by quoting my exact words, but unfortunately he begins too soon:
In September 1862 a certain Mr. Eichler appeared one Sunday in the middle of our committee, announcing that he was commissioned by the Prussian government, by Prince Bismarck in particular.
[Bismarck notes that he first took office at the end of September 1862 and denies ever having met any Eichler.] Moreover, I can assure you that I have never done business with any Social Democrat; for I do not count Lassalle among them, he was a much more refined character than his epigones; that was a significant man well worth talking to. But the content of these conversations [with Lassalle] has been falsely reported from beginning to end. Mr. Bebel will doubtless be glad to learn this, because I can testify that Social Democracy has never conspired with government agencies to let itself be misused as a tool against other parties. But it is also untrue that any government agencies ever sought to do this.... Eichler did not exist, and I request Representative Bebel to tell whoever saddled him with this story that he is a liar. Representative Bebel should be excused, because it is inconceivable that anyone would say anything here that he did not believe to be true....
Lassalle himself was most anxious to contact me.... I did not make it difficult for him. I saw him, and once I had talked with him for an hour, I did not regret it. I did not see him three or four times a week, but perhaps three times altogether, maybe four, I can’t remember. Our relations could not have the character of a political negotiation. What could Lassalle offer or give me? He had nothing behind him. In all political negotiations the matter of quid pro quo stands in the background, even if politeness forbids us from mentioning it for a time.
But what if one must say: What can you give me, poor devil? He had nothing that he could give me as a minister. What he had was something that greatly attracted me as a private person: he was one of the most intelligent and charming people I have ever met, a man ambitious in the grand style, not a republican at all. He had a very well developed national and monarchical sentiment; the ideal for which he strived was the German empire, and that gave us something in common. Lassalle was exceedingly ambitious, and he may have been uncertain whether the German empire should be headed by the Hohenzollern dynasty or the Lassalle dynasty,
but his sentiments were monarchical through and through. He would have despised his miserable successors who today compare themselves with him.... Lassalle was a very energetic and cultivated person, from whom one could learn a great deal. Our conversations lasted for hours, and I always regretted it when they were over.... Another reason why one cannot speak of negotiations was the simple fact that I hardly got a word in;
he bore the burden of the conversation, but he did so in a pleasant and charming manner, and everyone who knew him will agree with my portrait.... In addition to the personal attraction that this man exerted on me with his intellect, it is my duty as a minister to inform myself about the elements with whom I must deal, and I would not deny Mr. Bebel an evening’s conversation if he were to express the wish. Indeed, I would hope thereby to learn at last just how Mr. Bebel and his comrades think they can erect a future state by tearing down everything that exists, everything that protects us and is dear to us.
(Interruption: You certainly would!)
Intelligent discussion is extraordinarily difficult so long as we are left in the dark on this point, just like the ordinary listeners to the speeches at Social Democratic rallies. They learn nothing about the means, they are promised there will be more pay for less work—nobody says where it will come from, more specifically, how it can be sustained after the redistribution, the robbery of the propertied has taken place. Thereafter, either the thrifty and diligent will again become rich while the lazy and unskilled again become poor, or else, if everyone receives their subsistence from higher authority, we will live as in a prison, where nobody has his own vocation or economic independence, where everyone stands under compulsory supervision. Even in a prison, the supervisor is an honorable civil servant against whom one can lodge a complaint. But who will be the supervisors in the great socialist prison? They will be the speakers whose oratorical skill allows them to win over the masses, the majority of the votes, and against them there can be no appeal; they will be the most merciless tyrants there have ever been, and the others, the slaves of tyrants. I don’t think anyone will want to live in these conditions if he forms a complete image of this ideal which we only have presented to us in brief glimpses—for none of the gentlemen has offered a detailed positive program. They refuse to do this because they know that every sensible worker will laugh them down as soon as they frankly describe the future that they seek to create; that is why we never hear their positive program, just attacks on the existing order. All this does not prevent me from retaining a sympathetic heart and an open ear for sensible efforts to improve the situation of the working class, which at that time [1862/63] still represented the main core of Social Democracy. What Lassalle told me about this was stimulating and informative; for he knew much and had learned much—I would urge the gentlemen who want to be his successors to emulate him....
Our conversations also involved universal suffrage, but not its imposition by decree. Such an outrageous thought as the imposition of universal suffrage by decree never occurred to me in my life. I accepted universal suffrage with some reluctance as a Frankfurt tradition [from 1848]. This card had then been played against the German enemies of a unified empire, and we found it still lying on the table. I did not have any such firm belief in the superiority of another suffrage system as to justify repudiating this popular idea left behind by the Frankfurt Assembly, which could help against our political rivals; I did not then have any firm conviction about the effectiveness of the various electoral systems. It is not easy for anyone to judge even though we now have some years of experience of the consequences of the different electoral systems in the various states. We have a Reichstag elected by universal suffrage; we have another electoral system in the Prussian Landtag. Well, gentlemen, there are many who are members of both assemblies, and they can form their own opinion of the consequences of the two systems; each can say to himself, this or that assembly makes a more dignified, more reasonable, better parliamentary impression. Gentlemen, ...I don’t want to insult the Landtag or flatter the Reichstag, but I prefer to spend my time here amidst the products of universal suffrage, despite the excesses that have resulted from it. The reasons why can be investigated by everyone who knows both assemblies, but I cannot agree that universal suffrage has been discredited by its results and that some other system has been proved superior. We will also see the voter become more sensible with time; he will no longer believe implicitly whatever his representative or candidate promises, or every reproach leveled against the government.... I read with an open mind all those bills that portray universal suffrage as part of the cause of our misfortunes. I just say: I am not convinced, you may certainly try to convince me, but I see no crime in having discussed universal suffrage at that time with an intelligent man....
I return to the question of when and why I suspended my efforts to improve social conditions and changed my attitude toward the social question, or the social democratic question as it then came to be called. This happened at the moment when the assembled Reichstag heard a passionate speech citing the French Commune [i.e., the Paris Commune of 1871] as the ideal political regime and openly embracing the gospel of these murderers and arsonists—I no longer know if it was Bebel or [Wilhelm] Liebknecht, but it was one of the two.... From that moment on I have felt a great sense of urgency about the danger that threatens us...; that appeal to the Commune was a beam of light illuminating the whole issue, and from that moment on I have recognized social democratic elements as an enemy against whom the state and society must defend themselves.... We in Germany do not need to resort to the drastic means adopted by the French, but France is no longer the bastion of socialism, it has reduced the movement to dimensions tolerable for the government and society. How? Through persuasion perhaps? No! Through violent repression, through means that I do not recommend and which I hope that we will never see.... Is this rhetorical appeal [by Social Democrats] to the example of the Commune, this appeal to threats and the use of force, is it to be regarded merely as a rhetorical form, has it not been continued in long years of press agitation? I have observed this press for years, and the appeal to violence, the preparation for future acts of violence has long been quite noticeable, even if it was not so prominent as in the last weeks. I recall one article in a socialist paper—I only read it in the excerpt published by the Post—that depicted the assassination of General Mesenzow [in Russia in August 1878] as a just execution and recommended, in terms hard to misunderstand, the employment of a similar system under German conditions. It concluded with the words: discite moniti! [You have been warned!]
Well, gentlemen, you will all remember the article. It was not a solitary lapse, because I have just read another article from the same circles, probably from the same paper, which says that all of our resolutions and laws cannot harm Social Democracy, but that the legislators and all who work on these laws should realize the great personal responsibility they have assumed by proceeding against Social Democracy. This article concluded with the German translation of discite moniti!—with the conclusion of the first article that caused such outrage, with the cry: You have been warned! Warned about what? Warned about the nihilist’s knife and Nobiling’s flintlock. Gentlemen, life has no value if we are supposed to exist in this way under the tyranny of a society of bandits,
and I hope that the Reichstag will stand beside the governments, beside the Kaiser who seeks protection for his person and for his Prussian subjects and German fellow countrymen! A few more of us in this affair may fall victim to the treacherous murderers, that is quite possible, but everyone who might suffer this should realize that he falls on the field of honor for the benefit, for the great benefit of his fatherland!