Saturday musical delight: US Army Band performing "Time Stand Still" by Rush

The US Army band, “Pershing’s Own”, posted this tribute to Neil Peart (1947-2020) — an unusual vocals plus chamber instruments arrangement of the Rush song, “Time Stands Still”. I stilll prefer the original, but it works remarkably well, and shows off the song writing talents of Peart (lyrics), Lee and Lifeson (music) to people with an aversion to a rock sound.


Gestapo-NKVD contacts in occupied Poland, 1939-1941

Anybody with a passing familiarity with WW II knows of the Molotov-Ribbentrop “Non-Aggression Pact” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, as well as of its secret annex in which the two competing totalitarian collectivisms divided up Poland between them, roughly on the Curzon Line that was later to be the basis for the postwar Polish-Soviet border.[*]

Received wisdom among many people has it that neither side was sincere in this pact; that Nazi Germany intended to invade the USSR already then (there is no doubt that Hitler y”sh dreamed of “Lebensraum” in the East since the 1920s — the debate is only about when this turned from pipedream to concrete objective); and that Stalin y”sh was trying to buy time, as he’d killed off roughly 90% of general officers and 50% of regimental officers in the Great Purge.

However, during the nearly two years between the 1939 pact and Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR), a level of Nazi-Soviet cooperation existed that is hard to square with the notion of a “cold peace”. Diplomatic correspondence has been released online as part of the Avalon Project, and makes for some “interesting” reading:

But something that astonished even this writer was the level of coordination and cooperation that appeared to exist between the Gestapo and the NKVD as regards the Polish population in their respective areas of recognizance. Wikipedia has a surprisingly detailed article on the subject, both in English and in German:–NKVD_conferences

A first meeting took place at Brzesc (Brest-Litovsk) on Sep. 27, 1939 (while fighting was still going on). According to understandings reached, almost 42,500 Polish POWs were handed over to the Nazis by the USSR. Both sides expected Polish resistance to emerge and discussed ways to suppress it.

A second meeting on these reportedly took place in late November 1939 at Przemysl (later the site of Albert Battel’s heroic rescue attempt), a city that straddled the Bug river along which the Curzon Line ran in that area, and hence was split between the occupiers.

The best-known meeting is the third, starting Feb. 20, 1940, in the south Polish mountain resort of Zakopane. The name of the Nazi German representative was none other than Adolf Eichmann (y”sh). According to some sources, notably Armia Krajowa (Home Army) commander Tadeusz “Bor” Komorowski, a followup meeting with NKVD representatives took place at Krakow in March 1940.

What we do know is that, with apparent mutual coordination, twin massacres of the Polish intelligentsia took place: the Intelligenzaktion (intelligentia action) and subsequent AB-Aktion (Ausserordentliche Befriedigungsaktion, Extraordinary Pacification Action) in the Nazi sector, and the Katyn massacres of Polish officer POWs held by the Soviets. (Katyn lies near Smolensk, Russia.)

The USSR also deported between 300K and 1M Polish nationals to Siberia, the Urals, and Kazakhstan. Following Operation Barbarossa and a July 1941 treaty with the Polish Government in exile, this group at least benefited from an amnesty. Polish General Wladyslaw Anders recruited an army from among them and evacuated its soldiers and civilian relatives via Iran. Mortality during this evacuation was high as well, not even counting the Poles who had died in the Gulag.

In one of those ironies of history that would look absurd in fiction, the Katyn execution site was essentially next door to where Army Group Center had its headquarters. Its chief intelligence officer, Col. Rudolf Freiherr [=Baron] von Gersdorff, had been tipped off as early as August 1942 about rumors among Polish forced laborers on the site and at a railway line. On March 21, 1943, Gersdorff, a core member of the anti-Hitler conspirators around operations officer Col. Henning von Tresckow, had attempted a suicide bombing on Hitler and most of the Nazi top at a memorial ceremony in Berlin. Irony of ironies, shortly after Gersdorff’s return to his post, laborers discovered the Katyn burial site, and it was Gersdorff who would oversee autopsies (first by a German coroner, later by Swiss and other neutral pathologists), and host war correspondents, Red Cross representatives, and even Polish clergy at the killing site. I can only imagine the emotional anguish of being whipsawed between two mass-murderous dictatorships in this manner. That the massacre was grist on the mill of Goebbels (y”sh) did not make it any less real. Soviet propaganda tried to blame the massacres on the Nazis — but while there were plenty of real massacres to blame them for, the time frame did not work for this one. Ammunition offered no “smoking gun” – the men had been killed with single neck shots from German-made Walther pistols. Autopsy revealed the corpses had been killed about a year before Barbarossa. While the Walthers did impart a measure of plausible deniability, the main reason appears to have been that they were the “tool of choice” of the NKVD’s chief executioner Vassily Blokhin, who considered Soviet-made pistols too unreliable.[**] About 90% of the Katyn victims were ethnic Poles; most of the remainder were Jews, including the Chief Military Rabbi Baruch Steinberg.

Picture the same basic product, like a smartphone operating system, but with two different design philosophies and diverging in details of implementation. The more I learn about Bolshevism and National Socialism, the more I think of them not as “opposites” but as the iOS and the Android operating systems of totalitarian collectivism.

“That old saw about, ‘to understand all is to forgive all’, is a load of tripe. Some things, the more you understand the more you loathe them.”

Robert A. Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”

[*] Post-1945, Stalin would “compensate” his own satellite state with German lands to the East of the Oder-Neisse line—Pomerania, Silesia, etc.

[**] Blokhin has the “distinction” of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific executioner in history: during Katyn alone, he personally shot a total of 7,000 men over a 4-week period, at a rate of about one per three minutes.

A brief Coronavirus update

A guestblogger at Watts Up With That, who himself survived the infection, has a news-packed update. Read the whole thing, but perhaps the most important paragraphs are:

Transmission route is either contact or inhalation […] The significant inhalation route is now shown by both the Diamond Princess cruise ship experiment (more below) and by the fact that ordinary surgical masks proved ineffective in the Wuhan hospital setting (JAMA, previous post).

Incubation period is 7-10 days from initial infection. The good news is that the 14-day quarantine adopted pretty much universally last week should therefore be effective […] Wuhan then makes a now well-established clinical bifurcation. In 75-80% of cases, by symptom day 10 there is a normal ‘corona cold’ recovery lasting a few days. (In my own case last week, 3 recovery days in total, days 9-12 from symptom onset.) In 20-25% of cases, by symptom day 10 Wuhan progresses to lower respiratory tract pneumonia, where death may occur with or without ICU intervention. The percentage of these deep pneumonias that are viral as opposed to a secondary bacteria infection is not known, but the NEJM clinical case report from Washington State discussed in the following paragraph strongly suggests viral (like SARS), not secondary [opportunistic] bacterial [infection] treatable with antibiotics.

The bad news is that Wuhan IS transmissible during some later part of the symptomless incubation period. […]

And here is some good news:

The new NEJM [New England Journal of Medicine] case report is so important it is summarized here because it leads to a hopeful culminating section below. The Seattle Wuhan case evidenced x-ray diagnosed lower respiratory tract pneumonia from days 9-11 from symptom onset. Supplemental oxygen was started day 9. IV antibiotics were started day 10 to no effect, so discontinued after one day. Importantly (more below), experimental antiviral remdesivir started day 11 by IV under a compassionate use exception, and the deep viral pneumonia fully resolved (per x-ray diagnosis) within 24 hours!

Remdesivir was developed by Gilead Scientific as an antiviral for Ebola and Marburg viruses, but was subsequently found to be active against other single-stranded RNA viruses.

Based on this, China has announced a full-scale random double blind placebo controlled trial in 761 patients. As of this writing China reports successful synthesis of sufficient remdesivir active, so human testing begins today.

PS: A friendly writer sent me this rather more worrying analysis arriving at a comparatively high basic reproduction number R0 of the virus:

RIP Li Wenliang, one of the "Fallen Caryatids"

Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who first warned a major epidemic of a new coronavirus was afoot (and suffered police intimidation for doing so) has now succumbed to the disease. May his memory be for a blessing.

My writing mentor Sarah Hoyt’s immediate reaction was “Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid”. [See also her own blog post.]

Auguste Rodin, “Fallen Caryatid With Stone” [ CC:BY Emw ]

She recalled its description by Robert Heinlein. Verily, it is hard to think of a more fitting tribute, to him and so many others like him.

[Jubal Harshaw to Ben:] “[F]or almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures—it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn’t simply say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it . . . and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried—and failed, fallen under the load. She’s a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods . . . and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.

  “But she’s more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her—over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women—this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn’t even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory.”
“Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn’t give up, Ben; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She’s a father going down to a dull office job while cancer is painfully eating away his insides, so as to bring home one more pay check for the kids. She’s a twelve-year old girl trying to mother her baby brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She’s a switchboard operator sticking to her job while smoke is choking her and the fire is cutting off her escape. She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t quite cut it but never quit. Come. Just salute as you pass her[…]

Robert A. Heinlein, “Stranger In A Strange Land”, Chapter 30.

“The Devil’s Mercedes-Benz” found, and other details on Operation Anthropoid

Mark Felton’s YouTube channel showed a surprising find this week.

In a small  village in Denmark, a car from a military surplus sale had been sitting since 1959. When the owner put it up for sale in 1980, a vintage car enthusiast (and engineer retired from Mercedes-Benz) named Laurits Lauritsen showed up and bought it.

He quickly realized the car was a collector’s item, a rare specimen of the Mercedes B-320 cabriolet limousine. But the further he dug into the vehicle’s provenance and specific details, the more he realized he was looking at an unusual historical artifact.

The car was manufactured in 1938 — when only 34 of that model were produced. Moreover, it had been a custom build to order at their Mannheim plant — only one car fit the description. What’s more, the car had clearly sustained serious damage at the right rear, which had been repaired slapdash using wartime procedures and materials.

Guess what: that car had once had the license plate number “SS-3” [*] and been the vehicle Reinhard Heydrich [y”sh] was driving when he finally met his nemesis. The “Butcher of Prague” prided himself on his ruthlessness and efficiency, but also on his fearlessness and contempt for normal security precautions: he would commute openly to his office as Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in Hradcany Castle, accompanied only by his driver, in an unarmored open-topped car and on a fixed route.
On May 27, 1942, two SOE operatives — the Czech Jan Kubis and the Slovak Josef Gabcik — lay in wait for him at the hairpin bend where they knew his car would have to slow down. Their assassination plan had the apt code name “Operation Anthropoid”.
Gabcik stepped in front of the car, aimed his Sten gun, and pulled the trigger — but it jammed. Then Kubis threw a modified antitank grenade [**] toward the car. It exploded against the right rear, and caused the damage that Lauritsen would later see had been shoddily repaired. The explosion sent a volley of shrapnel into Heydrich’s back that ultimately caused his death from septicemia.

Bundesarchiv [German Federal Archives] image # 146-1972-039-44 (via Mediawiki)

Heydrich was operated upon: his spleen was removed, a tear in his diaphragm repaired, and a number of other repairs effected. Then Himmler’s personal physician, Karl Gebhardt, arrived and oversaw further treatment. Heydrich at first seemed on the mend, but then started running a fever. Hitler’s physician Theodor Morell recommended administering sulfonamides (penicillin was not available in the Third Reich) but Gebhardt forbade this, claiming they were ineffective in battle wounds. Eventually Heydrich died of septicemia.

Kubis and Gabcik paid with their lives three weeks later at the siege of St. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, where the Orthodox bishop Gorazd had given them shelter.  (Gorazd was executed by the Nazis, and ultimately made an Orthodox saint.) In the reprisal butchery at Lidice and Lezaky, as well as in other measures, an estimated 5,000 Czechs were killed.  An entire phase of the Shoah got the code name Aktion Reinhard. Yet not all Nazis were displeased he was gone: he was known to have extensive files of “dirt” on many rivals. At least one SS general (Sepp Dietrich) supposedly said: “Gott sei Dank ist das Schwein kaputt” (thank G-d the swine has bought it). There is even (dubious) speculation that Gebhardt deliberately allowed his patient to die at Himmler’s instigation, e.g., Weisz, G.; Albury, W. R. The Attempt on the Life of Reinhard Heydrich , Architect of the “ Final Solution ”: A Review of His Treatment and Autopsy. Isr. Med. Assoc. J. 201416 (april), 212–216.

A lot of ink has flowed about the assassination and its aftermath. Several movies have been devoted to it, from the 1943 “Hangmen Also Die” by Fritz Lang, to the 2017 “Anthropoid”. Harry Turtledove’s “The Man With The Iron Heart” explores an alternate time line where Heydrich survived and became the leader of postwar anti-Allied insurgency (think “Werwolf on steroids”).  A number of songs were written about the operation, including SS-3 by thrash metal band Slayer:

and “A Lovely Day Tomorrow” by folk-rock ensemble British Sea Power. The lyrics of the latter song refer to “the devil’s Mercedes-Benz”, hence the title of this post.

Let me just briefly touch on two enduring myths. According to one lasting canard, the bomb was laced with botulism toxin to ensure the target would not survive even if only wounded. Recently the original autopsy report was discovered: it is discussed in this medical journal article (paywalled) Tatu, L.; Jost, W.; Bogousslavsky, J. The Botulinum Toxin Legend of Reinhard Heydrich’s Death. Neurology 2017, 89 (1), 84–87. DOI: These authors conclude from the autopsy report, and the documentation of Heydrich’s treatment, that there were no clinical signs of botulism poisoning whatsoever, and that besides Josef Gabcik, the man who threw the bomb, lived for another 3 weeks without any signs of disease before committing suicide when hopelessly trapped in the Cyril and Methodius Church siege.

Another myth that refuses to go away is that Heydrich — the practical mastermind of the Shoah — had some Jewish ancestry himself. This myth was put to bed by a recent biography of Heydrich, “Hitler’s Hangman” by Robert Gerwath. (I will review this book separately.) Briefly, the stepfather of Heydrich’s father Bruno (an erstwhile opera singer and minor composer who ran a music conservatory in Halle, near Leipzig), did have a stepfather with the Jewish-sounding surname Süss —  but the man apparently was Lutheran, as were his ancestors. The story that Bruno Heydrich was Jewish had been planted in the 1916 edition of Hugo Riemann’s Musik-Lexikon (freely: “Who’s Who in Music?”) by a disgraced former pupil. [***] 

With apologies to J. B. S. Haldane, history is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose…

[*] Some research on Axishistory dot com about low-numbered SS license plates revealed that SS-1 and SS-2 were the main and backup vehicles of Reichsführer-SS Himmler [y”sh] and SS-3 and SS-4 similarly for the his right-hand man, the head of the RSHA (Reich Security Head Office).  

[**] The modification was to reduce its weight so it could more easily be thrown.

[***]  Ironically, Bruno Heydrich appears to have had cordial relations with Halle’s Jews, many of whose children patronized Bruno’s conservatory — and young Reinhard even was friends with the son of the cantor of Halle’s synagogue, Abraham Lichtenstein. The future RSHA leader and practical mastermind of the Shoah apparently was a very late convert to the antisemitic cause (and to Nazism: as late as 1929 he was still telling jokes about “Bohemian Corporal” Hitler and “Cripple” Goebbels). Gerwath plausibly argues Heydrich was motivated above all by malignant ambition a l’outrance and would have fanatically embraced any cause that offered him a road to power and narcissistic supply.

How did modern Germany come about? A very short history of German unification under Bismarck

Many people don’t realize that modern Germany, as a political entity, is a comparatively recent creation (1871). So where did it come from, and how did we get there?

How far back in the mists of dawn shall I go? All the way to Charlemagne (Karl der Große), arguably the first Holy Roman Emperor? Yes, the “First Reich” was the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) — “not holy, not Roman, and not an empire” as Voltaire famously quipped. 

The 300+ German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire

Let us fast-forward to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the overlapping European Wars of Religion, chief among them the particularly bloody and traumatic Thirty-Years War.  Many political scientists use the term “Westphalian sovereignty” for the modern conception of state sovereignty.

At that point, the Holy Roman Empire was a patchwork of some 300 principalities, all tributaries to the Holy Roman Emperor (a title held from 1438 until 1806 by the head of the House of Habsburg, and by its Austrian branch since the 1556 abdication of Charles V). It looked something like this:

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648

The principalities varied widely in size, from the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Archduchy of Austria all the way down to several “Free Cities” like Hamburg, Bremen, and Frankfurt. 

One provision of the treaty (which actually reaffirmed a provision of the 1555 Augsburg Peace) was cuius regio, eius religio, i.e., that each principality would acquire the religion of its ruler, be it Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. Indeed, the Catholic principalities included several not-so-small Prince-Bishoprics, where the Bishop or Archbishop was both spiritual and temporal ruler: e.g.,  the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, the Prince-Bishopric of Liège/Luik/Lüttich in present-day Belgium, and the like.  

This system persisted, with various internal rearrangements, through the French Revolution, until Napoleon I became its final undoing. This had been the map on the eve of the 1789 French Revolution.

Holy Roman Empire (1789)

Following Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805, the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II (subsequently Francis II of Austria) dissolved the HRE by decree on August 6, 1806.  Concomitantly, twin processes of “mediatization” and “secularization” took place. The confusing term “mediatization” in context means that smaller principalities lost their privilege of “immediacy” (answering directly to the Holy Roman Emperor without intermediaries) but were made subject to one of the larger principalities. “Secularization” in context means that Prince-(Arch)Bishops were stripped of their temporal authority, and  that their former dominions  were either converted into secular principalities or attached to an existing larger principality. 

From 1806 until 1813, many of the newer states were part of a French client-state union called Rheinbund/Confederation of the Rhine.

From 300+ down to 39: the German Confederation (1815)

Following the final defeat of Napoleon I at Waterloo outside Brussels, the European power brokers met at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, where they laid down a blueprint for the postwar order. (Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich was the “midwife” of this congress, if you like.)

For the German-speaking realm, its major consequence was the restructuring of the Rheinbund, Prussia, Austria,… into a loose German Confederation with “only” 39 member states. Four of these were actually ruled by foreign monarchs in personal union: the Duchy of Holstein (by Denmark), the Archduchy of Luxemburg (by Holland), the Duchy of Limburg (also Holland), and the Kingdom of Hanover (by England). Four others were the Free Cities of Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Frankfurt. By far the most powerful members were Catholic Austria and Lutheran Prussia.

German Confederation

The failed 1848 revolution and the rise of Otto von Bismarck

1848 was a year Europe was shaken by revolutions, including  the  German confederation. (This is also when the great immigration wave from the German Confederation to the USA took place.) Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was able to hold on to his throne, but saw himself forced to introduce some democratic reforms, including the creation of a Landtag (parliament).

One of the loudest anti-revolutionary voices in the Landtag was a former civil servant named Otto von Bismarck, born from a Junker [=squire, the lowest rank of nobility] family. He caught the eye of Friedrich Wilhelm IV and in 1851 became his envoy to the Diet of the German Confederation at Frankfurt. There, the future “Iron Chancellor” proved his mettle as a crafty diplomat and negotiator, with the Austrian envoy as his primary foil. 

Otto von Bismarck (1873)

In 1857 Friedrich Wilhelm IV was permanently put out of commission by a stroke. Until his death in 1861, his older brother Wilhelm acted as regent, then he ascended to the throne himself as Wilhelm I. (His queen was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter.)

Wilhelm at first distrusted Bismarck and looked down upon him as a “Landwehrleutnant” (Home Guard lieutenant), but had continued to rely on him for key ambassadorial positions, first to St. Petersburg (1859) then to Paris (1862). A domestic political crisis broke out over the budget (which included major rearmament spending): Wilhelm threatened abdication in favor of his son Crown-Prince Friedrich, but the latter did not want the job and instead cajoled his father into appointing Bismarck as Chancellor. Bismarck’s two most important allies in Berlin were Minister of War Albrecht von Roon and the Chief of Staff,  Field Marshal Helmut Graf von Moltke [the Elder].

Bismarck had been a late convert to the cause of German unification, but on 30 Sept. 1862 he gave the “Blood And Iron Speech”, which ended on the following peroration:

“Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood (Eisen und Blut).”

By “Iron” he did not just mean “arms”, by the way, but industrialization more generally. 

The Second Schleswig War

In 1863, King Frederick VII of Denmark died heirless, creating a succession dispute between rival branches. Christian IX was crowned king and the new constitution asserted Danish authority over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, but pro-German Duke Frederick VIII was supported by German-speaking separatists in said duchies.

Bismarck saw the “favorable moment” he had been hoping for, and convinced Austria to wage war against Denmark on the side of Prussia. The Danish army was no match for especially the Prussians; in the 1864 Treaty of Vienna, Danmark saw itself forced to cede all of Holstein and much of Schleswig to joint Austro-Prussian sovereignty.

The 1866 Unification War: And Then There Were Five

A dispute with Austria over the administration of the new provinces was seized upon by Bismarck as a casus belli for a war with Austria. Prussia make a military alliance with Italy, then invaded Holstein. The dispute was brought before the German Diet, which declared mobilization against Prussia. In response, Prussia declared the Diet “finished” and invaded Hanover, Saxony, and Hesse on June 15. Italy then attacked Austria on June 20.

Roon and Moltke had turned the already formidable Prussian army into an even more powerful fighting machine, and after a crushing victory at Königgratz, the Austrians called it quits — especially once it became clear that Bismarck had zero interest in any Austrian territory. (Reportedly, when Wilhelm I insisted the Prussians march on Vienna, Bismarck threatened to instead jump from a 4th-floor window, at which point Wilhelm backed down.)

At the August 23, 1886 peace of Prague, the German Confederation was dissolved. The former Habsburg province of Veneto (i.e., Venice and the surrounding mainland) was ceded to the French, who promptly passed it to Italy. 

Five days earlier, Bismarck had created the North-German Confederation in the map below. The many small states inside were now wholly dominated by Prussia (in blue). In fact, Schleswig-Holstein, the Electorate of Hesse, Nassau, the Free City of Frankfurt, and the Kingdom of Hanover were annexed outright to Prussia itself.

North German Confederation (1866)

Bismarck set about creating a federal parliament (the Reichstag), with representatives elected based on local laws. It sat as a constituent assembly at first, discussing and amending a draft federal constitution. Then federal elections took place and the new constitution went in force.

Left outside the North-German Confederation were Austria’s Southern German allies: the kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg, and the Archduchy of Baden. (The small Principality of Hohenzollern, an enclave inside Württemberg, was the origin of Prussia’s reigning Hohenzollern Dynasty and remained a Prussian exclave.)

So we are now down from 300+ German polities via 39 to just five.

The 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the birth of the Second Reich

The abdication of Queen Isabella II of Spain had created a succession crisis there.

After a while, a German prince from the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen emerged as a possible successor. Napoleon III of France now feared his “Second Empire”  would be the meat in a German sandwich. He demanded that this German candidacy be withdrawn and sent the French ambassador to Prussia to present this demand to Wilhelm I, who was vacationing at Bad Ems. Wilhelm was polite but noncommittal; Wilhelm’s secretary Abeken sent a telegram summarizing the meeting to Bismarck. The latter promptly set about “embellishing” this Ems Dispatch before releasing it to the press, in ways that were calculated to goad Napoleon III.

The latter took the bait and the French declared war on Germany, thus giving Bismarck the excuse he craved. Within six months, the French army suffered a series of humiliating defeats culminating in the siege of Paris (which saw Parisians reduced to eating their pets and their zoo animals). The Second Empire collapsed, Napoleon III was supplanted by the French Third Republic, France was forced to to pay a huge indemnity and to cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.

More germane to our subject, the war proved enough for the Southern German holdouts to throw in their lot with Wilhelm, thus completing German unification.

On January 1, 1871, the combined four polities became the [Second] German Reich, with King Wilhelm I of Prussia being upgraded to Kaiser/Emperor Wilhelm I. Bismarck stayed in office as Reichskanzler until after the Kaiser’s death in 1888 and the 99-day reign of his already moribund son Frederick III, until finally dismissed by Wilhelm I’s ambitious grandson Wilhelm II in 1890. 

As a footnote, the Spanish ultimately crowned the 2nd son of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy as King Amadeo I. He abdicated a year and a half later,  then was replaced by Alfonso XII, the eldest son of the exiled Queen.

From expansion to consolidation

Significantly, the last nineteen years of Bismarck’s tenure were a time, not of military adventures, but of consolidation and nation-building. 

Unlike the future Wilhelm II, or the genocidal madman at the head of the still-later Third Reich, Bismarck was above all a consummate realist. In the already then existing dispute in the German nationalist movement between Greater Germany and Lesser Germany factions, he emphatically sided with the latter, as he feared the acquisition of Austria or of Austrian-held Polish territory (both with mostly Catholic populations) would dilute the Protestant Prussian complexion of the state beyond repair. 

Instead, he set about carrying out a series of modernizing reforms. His political vision can be described as a paternalistic Obrigkeitsstaat [authority state]: be a faithful servant of the state, and the state will look after you. The Health Insurance Bill of 1883 (which formalized the system of Krankenkasse or “sick funds”), Accident Insurance Bill of 1884, and Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889 laid the foundations for what is arguably the oldest welfare state in the Western world (for better or worse).

Was he a Prussian socialist? The idea would have been anathema to him. Instead, he saw the rising support for the emerging SPD (Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands) and attempted to “take the wind out of its sails” with such social provisions. Indeed, in doing so he leaned on what previously had been his opponents in the Kulturkampf: political Catholicism.

The term Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”) was the term first coined in Germany (by Bismarck’s ally in this matter, Rudolf Virchow [*]) for a struggle of wills between the secular state and religious forces (in this case the Catholic Church). Specifically Bismarck’s insistence on secularizing or supplanting religious schools brought him on a collision course with the Vatican. He broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See over its rejection of an ambassador (himself a Catholic prelate who had questioned the Infallibility Dogma), banned the Jesuits and several other religious orders, and introduced a Standesamt (civil registry) on the French model, enabling civil marriage and divorce. Basically, Bismarck strove to restrict the influence of the Catholic Church to the personal spiritual domain, while Pius IX and his partisans fought to preserve as much of the status quo as they could.[**]

Ironically, Bismarck created the very thing he least wanted: in reaction, the Zentrumpartei or [Catholic] Center Party emerged and became a political force to be reckoned with, until the Third Reich. [The postwar CDU, Christian-Democratic Union, is the joint successor party to the Center Party and its Lutheran counterpart.) 

The Kulturkampf petered out through a confluence of three factors: the demise of Pius IX and his succession by the more conciliatory Leo XIII; a military alliance with the Catholic Habsburg Empire; and the need for parliamentary support for Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws and a series of protective tariffs. Bismarck, always a Realpolitiker, ended up gradually walking back some of his Kulturkampf policies in a series of what he termed Mitigation Laws, and Leo XIII returned the sentiment. Eventually, Bismarck became the only non-Catholic ever to receive the Vatican’s highest decoration, the Supreme Order of Christ.

Bismarck’s End and Legacy

1888 entered German history as the Year of the Three Emperors. Wilhelm I passed away just short of his 91st birthday. His heir Friedrich III was already moribund from throat cancer and reigned for a mere 99 days: upon his death, his eldest son Wilhelm II became the last Kaiser  for the next 30 years.

Wilhelm I had been content to let Bismarck rule on his behalf, but Wilhelm II was not content with a quasi-constitutional monarch role and asserted his authority over Bismarck. When the latter proved inflexible, he was told via an emissary to come bring his resignation letter. Characteristically, Bismarck sent it by messenger instead.

(Punch cartoon by Sir John Tenniel, 1890)

Bismarck lived on for another eight years at Friedrichsruh near Hamburg. In his dotage, he wrote his memoirs and published newspaper articles criticizing his successor.

 I should write another essay on Wilhelm II and the origins of the First World War. Would it have broken out if a man like Bismarck had been Chancellor? Suffice to say for now that Wilhelm’s militarist expansionism was a dramatic departure from Bismarck’s realism and “Little Germany” nationalism, and Bismarck criticized this relentlessly to deaf Imperial ears.

One year before his death, Bismarck uttered the prophetic words:

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

[*] Dr. Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) was a public health pioneer and prolific medical researcher generally regarded as the father of modern [medical] pathology. He was also the co-founder of the German Progress Party and one of its Reichstag delegates. Bitterly opposed to some of Bismarck’s policies, he supported him in the Kulturkampf. He was also one of the first vocal opponents of pseudo-“scientific” racism.

[**] Bismarck’s Germany was not the only country to engage in a form of Kulturkampf in the latter part of the 19th century. France’s Third Republic did so, as did the Belgian government of Frère-Orban. And of course some of the founding fathers of the Italian Risorgimento were so fiercely anticlerical that they made Bismarck look like a Jesuit in comparison.