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Otto von Bismarck

The Boy of Goettingen: 1815-1898

A tall, slender boy, followed by a great Danish hound, walked down the main street of the German town of Goettingen in Hanover one spring morning in 1832. The small round cap, gay with colors, told the world that the boy was a student at the University, and also that he belonged to one of the students’ clubs, or fighting corps, as they were called. But this boy looked quite a dandy. A wide sash was tied about his waist, high-polished boots came up to his knees, and he wore a knot of colors on his breast, the same colors he sported in his cap, the emblem that he belonged to the Brunswick student corps. Moreover he carried himself with rather a haughty manner, and the big dog, following at his heels, walked in much the same way.

Presently there came strolling along the street a group of a half dozen boys who wore the round caps of the Hanoverian Club. Something about the boy with the dog struck them as comical, and they began to laugh, and nudge each other, and when they came up to the boy they stopped and stared at him in undisguised amusement. Quick color sprang to his cheeks, he hesitated, and then came to a full stop. It was not pleasant to be singled out as a laughing-stock in the main street of Goettingen.

“Well, what are you laughing at?” he demanded, looking squarely at the group of boys.

One of them waved his hand airily in answer. “At the magnificence of our new little Brunswicker,” he answered mockingly.

“So? And are you accustomed to laugh at magnificence?” The boy’s brows were bent and his lips had set in a very stern line.

“When it amuses us we laugh,” put in one of the others.

“Then I’d have you know it’s ill manners to laugh, and I’ll teach you better as soon as we get schlaegers in our hands.”

“And who may you be?” asked the one who had spoken first.

“My name is Otto von Bismarck. I come from Prussia, and I’m a new student here.”

“And which of us will you fight?”

“I’ll fight you all. Send your man to me at my room, and I’ll agree on any time and place.” Then, with his head held very high the boy walked on, and the great Dane followed at his heels.

“Bismarck?” said one of the Hanover boys to the others. “It seems to me I’ve heard of him. They say he’s splendid company.”

“He’s surely got pluck enough,” agreed another. “I like the way he faced the lot of us.” So they went on down the street, discussing the new student.

Otto, no whit daunted by his adventure, shortly after returned to his room. He lighted a big china-bowled pipe, and was smoking and reading when the messenger from the boys he had challenged came to see him. Otto offered him a pipe, and the two were soon eagerly discussing horses and dogs and telling about the fine hunting there was to be had in the different parts of Germany in which their homes lay. They got on together famously, and finally the visitor, who was the chief of his corps, said, “What a shame we got into this trouble over nothing. You’re too good a fellow for any of us to fight. We shouldn’t have guyed you that way. Let me see if I can’t fix matters up.”

“I’m quite ready to fight them all,” said Otto stoutly. “I told them so, and I always stand by my word.”

“I know,” said the other, who by now had taken a great liking to the young Prussian. “But you’re not the sort to get really angry at such a little thing, and I like you too much to want to cross swords with you.”

“And I like you,” answered Otto warmly, “but remember I’m quite ready if the others aren’t of your way of thinking.”

The Hanover boy went back to his clubmates, and told them the result of his talk with Otto. He said the latter was not a coxcomb or a dandy, but one of the best humored fellows he had ever met, and if he had been driven to showing his temper on the street that morning it was the result of their rudeness, and not Otto’s ill will. The other boys quite agreed with what their captain said, and he was asked to carry their regrets to Otto for the unfortunate meeting and their hope that the duels might not be fought.

The reconciliation was at once carried out, but the adventure did not end there as far as the young paladin named Bismarck was concerned. The Hanover captain, who was a year or two older than Otto, and knew much more about the University, became his best friend, and soon one boy was rarely seen without the other. There was no regular Prussian student corps at Goettingen, and so Otto, when he had reached the University and had been invited to join the Brunswick Club, had at once accepted. Now his chum began to show him how much better the Hanover corps was than that of Brunswick, and argued with him that as it was not a matter of home pride, but simply a question as to which boys he liked best, he had better join his new friends’ club. It took little persuasion to convince Otto that his wishes really all lay that way, and so he resigned from the corps of Brunswick and was received into that of Hanover.

As soon as this news spread through the University the Brunswickers were very indignant. They declared they had been grossly insulted, and that Otto von Bismarck should be made to pay for this slight upon them. Their captain and best swordsman at once challenged Otto to fight with the schlaeger. Otto accepted, and the duel quickly took place.

This schlaeger fighting was an old custom of all the German universities, and every boy who belonged to a corps was pretty sure to fight one or more such duels. The schlaeger is very heavy and clumsy compared with a dueling sword, and requires a very strong wrist and arm. Instead of dexterous fencing the fighting is done by downright slashing and cutting and usually ends when one or the other fighter has received a cut on the face. The duel takes place with a great deal of ceremony, each student being attended by a number of his own club, and each corps values as its highest honor the reputation of having the best fighters in the university.

Otto proved his strength in this first duel with the Brunswick captain. He himself received a number of hard blows, but he gave more than he took, and finally cut his opponent on the cheek. That ended the duel, and each boy retired satisfied, Otto because he had won, and the Brunswick captain because he had another scar to prove his fighting spirit.

But the Brunswickers were not yet satisfied that their reputation was entirely cleared, and so in a few days Otto received a challenge from the next best fighter of their corps, and having fought him was challenged by another, and so the affair continued until he had met and defeated almost every student in the Brunswick corps. He fought twenty schlaeger duels during his first year at the University, and came out of them so well that he was ranked as one of the best fighters at Goettingen, and the Hanoverians were very proud of him.

In only one encounter was the young Prussian wounded. He was fighting with a student named Biederwig, and the latter’s sword-blade snapped in two as Otto was parrying his fierce attack. The broken edge gave Bismarck a slight cut on the cheek, and Biederwig at once claimed a victory. The officers of the clubs, however, decided that the duel was a drawn encounter. By this time Otto, who was just eighteen, had become the leader among the students of Goettingen.

Such customs seem strange and almost barbarous to Anglo-Saxon boys, but this dueling played a large part in the college life of Germans at that time. Otto was not by nature quarrelsome, but he was bound to hold his own with his friends, and to do that he felt that he must take his part in the rough life about him. Very soon after the fight with Biederwig he was drawn into a much more serious affair.

Among his close friends was a young German baron who had fallen out with an English student named Knight. Each of them felt that their quarrel demanded serious settlement and they determined to fight with pistols instead of swords. At first Otto refused to have anything to do with the meeting, but at the last minute the Baron’s second withdrew, and the Baron begged Otto to take his place. Otto could not refuse this appeal of his friend, and so reluctantly consented.

When the two met Otto paced out a much longer distance than was usual in such cases, and had them stand very far apart. When the word was given each student fired, but both were so nervous that their shots went very wide. Then Otto at once interfered, stating that the honor of each was now fully satisfied, and refusing to let them continue. Here he showed that masterfulness of character which had already made him a leader, and which now at once compelled the duelists to submit.

Such a meeting as this was, however, contrary to the laws of the University, and all the boys who took part in it were at once severely punished. The other students told how Otto had ended the fight and begged that he be let off, but the rector would not listen to their requests, and Bismarck was ordered to undergo eleven days of solitary confinement. When he was released he was welcomed back by all the student corps, and became more of a hero than ever.

But Otto von Bismarck’s college life was not all fighting. Although he was not much of a student, he was keenly interested in everything about him, and fond of arguing on all sorts of subjects. History was his favorite study; he devoured stories of great kings and statesmen and soldiers, his keen mind always intent on discovering the reason for the success or failure of each.

There was then at Goettingen a young American, by name John Lothrop Motley, who was as much interested in history as was Otto, and even more fond of an argument. The two became close friends, and often sat up half the night to settle some dispute between them. Motley was the more eager, and often the young German would wake in the morning to find his American friend sitting on the edge of his bed waiting to go on with their discussion of the night before. It was Motley also who interested Otto so much in American history that he took a leading part in celebrating the Fourth of July at Goettingen.

His college life taught the young Prussian student many valuable things that are not told in books. He grew up with a fine knowledge of the boys of his own age, and with a strength and courage which made him admired by all his friends.

A little later, when he was at home on a vacation, he was riding with several neighbors around a pond. The banks of the pond were very steep. Suddenly Otto heard a cry behind him. Turning he saw that a groom’s horse had stumbled and pitched the rider into deep water. The man was terribly frightened, and it was evident that he either did not know how to swim or was too excited to try to do so. The other horsemen stood still, doing nothing but call to the groom. Otto, however, tore off his coat and sword, and plunged in. The man caught at him, and clung to him so tightly that it looked as though Otto would be pulled down with him. Once both disappeared entirely under water, but Otto’s great strength saved him, and after a short time he was able to drag the groom to shore.

Great events call for great men, and usually find them. The adventures of his college life had never found the Prussian boy wanting in nerve or courage; he had always seized his chance and made the most of it. He did the same thing as he grew into manhood, and tried for a time life in the army, then on his father’s farmland, and then in Parliament.

Great changes were coming over Europe as Otto grew to manhood; old countries were falling apart, and new ones being formed, and there was need of strong men to advise and to check the people. Especially was this true of Germany, which was then a collection of small kingdoms loosely joined together. When these kingdoms needed a man to steer them through the troubled waters that were gathering around them Otto von Bismarck saw his opportunity and took it.

He became the great statesman of Germany, the “Iron Chancellor” as he was often called, the man who built the present German Empire, and gave its crown to his own sovereign, William I, of Prussia. He was a man of tremendous power, aggressive, fearless, masterful, showing the same sturdy traits that had made him in his youth the most feared and admired schlaeger-fighter in all Goettingen.