Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor

Otto von Bismarck was born into a family of Junkers in Brandenburg in 1815. Becoming prime minister of Prussia at the age of forty-seven in 1862, he remained in power for twenty-eight years. During this time he united Germany under Prussian hegemony; defeated Denmark, Austria, and France in three wars; annexed Schleswig-Holstein, Alsace, and Lorraine (including Strasbourg); welded Germany into a mighty empire (1870); and crowned his boss King William I as its emperor. A political genius and astute negotiator, Bismarck was often a bully, true to his famous pronouncement that the great questions of the day would be decided not by speeches and resolutions of the majorities but by iron and blood.

But “flesh and blood is weak and frail, susceptible to nervous shock,” and though seeming outwardly as firm as T.S. Elliot’s hippopotamus, the Iron Chancellor had his share of weaknesses. A complex personality whose character had been shaped by an ambitious but loveless mother, he was a reservoir of explosive tendencies, wild in his youth, a religious convert in middle age, a bully easily moved to tears, aristocratic in outlook, conservative, intolerant, anti-semite, and illiberal. Like his mother he suffered from hypochondria, and in time he grew into a colossus weighing 234 pounds (that he had always trouble in shedding), addicted to political power, driven by a deeply held desire to dominate.

Psychoanalysts think he was severely damaged in childhood, thus explaining “his hypochondria, gluttony, rage, and despair. Throughout his tenure, his power depended entirely on the pleasure of the emperor; and he maintained his power by making himself indispensable, on several occasions threatening to resign or doing so, sometimes because of real or imagined symptoms such as gallbladder disease or facial neuralgia” with symptoms “like a sword being shoved through my cheek.” As he aged, he became angrier, more authoritarian, less tolerant, his temper and emotional life deteriorating, his vices more apparent, his virtues less so. With his dread of boredom dominant, privately lonely and depressed, he resembled a massive engine with a steam boiler at highest pressure. From this bottomless boredom and depression, he had found relief in his marriage and in total immersion in politics.

For one brought up with the tasteless and indigestible food of backwater Prussia, Bismarck had developed a liking for good food and exquisite wine. His diet indeed was extraordinary. As a young man he could swallow half a dozen eggs at one sitting. At a time when he complained of a loss of appetite and a disordered digestive system, he could still partake at one meal a succession of soup, eels, cold meat, prawns, lobster, smoked meat, raw ham, roast meat, and pudding. When his doctors ordered an invalid diet, he was content to have nothing but soup, a plump trout, some roast veal, and three large seagulls’ eggs, washed down by abundant droughts of Burgundy. At one time he lived entirely on trout or herrings and beer. In 1870, during the campaign of the Franco Prussian War, he served omelettes with mushrooms, pheasant and sauerkraut, turtle soup, a wild boar’s head, and a compote of raspberry jelly.

On the frontlines while approaching Paris, he entertained a regiment with a sumptuous dinner of sardines, caviar, various kinds of wurst, boiled beef and macaroni, boiled mutton, then ending the dinner with cheese, fresh butter, and fruit. An observer of his dietary habits reported that “he ate until the walls burst”—roast beef or beef steak with potatoes, cold roast, venison, fried pudding, and desert. He drank wine with every meal, even at breakfast, along with milk and lemon water, and beer or sparkling wine during his afternoon. In the wine cellars in France he once tried mixing a dozen different vintages of wine then proceeded “to mix various liquors in the most outrageous manner.” He ate a great deal of caviar to promote thirst, since he believed he could sleep only after drinking a goodly amount of beer. He had been a chain smoker of cigarettes from morning to night; later he switched to cigars. At the Congress of Berlin, while presiding over the division of Africa by the colonial powers, he ate pickled herrings with two hands. Unsurprisingly, the appellation Bismarck Herring for pickled herring persists to this day.

In 1880, after drinking large quantities of wine and six hard-boiled eggs spread with butter, he vomited repeatedly, began to stammer, complained of paralysis of his facial muscles, and was convinced that he had a stroke. For many years he had two physicians taking care of him but thought they were useless, making mountains out of molehills, their prescriptions worthless, and expecting them to restore his health without having him change his lifestyle. One of the doctors who attended him described him “as hysterical as a woman.”

In 1882 Bismarck acquired a new doctor, Ernst Schweringer, a handsome thirty-two-year-old man with a great black beard who, instead of merely prescribing medicines, used a different approach to medical practice. He wore a top hat, a morning coat, an elegant tie, and “scandalously” no white coat. He practiced what nowadays would be called holistic medicine, and told his students that one should treat people, not illnesses. The students were far from being impressed by his non-scientific manner and heckled him.

By 1883 Bismarck was on the verge of collapse, believing he had had a stroke and suffering from headaches and sleeplessness for which nothing had helped him. Schweringen wrapped his patient in a warm damp cloth, gave him some drops of valerian but said it was not a sleeping medicine, and took one of his hands in his own until the patient fell asleep. He sat by the bedside all night, and when Bismarck woke up it was morning and he could not believe that he had actually slept through the night. From then onwards he trusted his doctor implicitly; and Schweringen then prescribed a new dietary regime for the whole family, tea with milk and eggs for breakfast, a little fish and roast meat at noon, a small jug of milk in the late afternoon and again at night. It was his use of psychology that was seen as saving Bismarck’s life, and he remained his doctor for the rest of his life. Bismarck tried to promote him by recommending him to the faculty of Berlin, which however regarded him as a charlatan and would have nothing to do with him; and it was not until 1900 that Schweringen managed to get a job as head of the department in a hospital in the country.

In 1890 Bismarck was dismissed from office by the new young firebrand William II, the man later largely responsible for World War I and its consequences. In 1895, after the emperor celebrated with great festivities his eightieth birthday, Bismarck settled into old age and loneliness, vegetating, leading an increasingly restricted life. His health began to decline. By 1896 he could only get about in a wheelchair. Developing gangrene of the foot, he died on July 30, 1898. He had been a man of great achievements, who could not live without power but for which “he paid a price in physical symptoms, sleeplessness, attacks of neuralgia, stomach problems and anxiety.” His legacy is somewhat mixed, considering what happened in Germany within less than two decades after his death and in the subsequent years of the twentieth century.


Further reading

  1. Jonathan Steinberg. Bismarck: A life. Oxford University Press, 2011
  2. AJP Taylor. Bismarck, The man and the statesman. Penguin Books, 1955
  3. Alan Palmer. Bismarck. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1976.
  4. Otto Pflanze. Toward a Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Bismarck. American Historical Review. 1972, 77:419 (No2,April 1972)
  5. The dietary habits of Otto von Bismarck http://hopefulgeranium.blogspot.com/2014/11
  6. The Bismarck Diet, New York Times Archives 1889, June 39, page11.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief



Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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