“Taking a Rest … Bismarck”

May 12, 1877

Thomas Nast

“Taking a Rest … Bismarck”

Symbols, John Bull;

Bismarck, Otto von; Disraeli, Benjamin; Emperor Franz Josef;

France; Germany; Great Britain; Italy; Russia; Turkey/Ottoman Empire;

Taking a Rest (?)--Die Wacht Am--Bismarck

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast addresses the "Chancellor Crisis" of 1877, when German chancellor Otto von Bismarck took an extended leave of absence from his political duties.  It was an act that caused great concern and uncertainly among many of the other world powers.  The German phrase in the caption is part of the title "The Watch on the Rhine," a song popular with German soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).  The cartoonist has altered it to translate into "The Watch on Bismarck" to emphasize the message that the eyes of the world are watching what Bismarck will do next.

Here, Bismarck sits leisurely smoking his pipe, with German beer and pretzels at the ready, while Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli of Great Britain peer anxiously from beside and underneath the table, respectively.  They are surrounded by other foreign figures or symbols, eager to catch a glimpse of Bismarck's movements.  Along the wall on the left, they are (clockwise from the door):  Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Russia, France (the hat upon a pole), King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, and the miter of Pope Pius IX.  In the tree are (left to right):  China (hanging from the limb), Spain (bullfighter's hat), John Bull (staring into binoculars), an Irishman behind him, and the feathered head of a native (either African or Asian).  The French figure lurking behind the tree on the far right is not identified.

In April 1877, Kaiser Wilhelm I reportedly wrote "Never!" in the margins of Bismarck's letter of resignation, but he did allow his chancellor to take an extended lease of absence.  Bismarck had previously tendered his resignation in 1872 and 1875, which the Kaiser had also not accepted.  In 1877, however, the offer was insincere and intended primarily as a ploy on the chancellor's part to consolidate power for himself.  In fact, Bismarck had sounded out the Kaiser on the subject during the preceding December, learning that his resignation would be rejected.  He was also in better health in the spring of 1877 than he had been in years.  

Bismarck did, though, feel overworked, unappreciated, isolated, and paranoid.  He was frustrated with the state of German politics, particularly with what he considered the parochialism of Prussian officials who were reluctant to allow Bismarck to further integrate the German Empire (established in 1871).  He was also convinced that others were plotting against him, notably Empress Augusta, Crown Princess Victoria, and their political advisors.  The final straw was the Kaiser's refusal in March 1877 to remove the head of the German admiralty, Albrecht von Stosch, whom the chancellor considered insubordinate.

Although his previous threats to resign had been kept quiet, Bismarck made sure that the one in 1877 received ample public notice.  Before leaving Berlin, he gave enough material to a journalist for a major German newspaper to write seven articles on his leave of absence.  In so doing, Bismarck hoped to appeal directly to the German people to support his cause.  His leave of absence was reported widely in the European press, which speculated on his future plans.  The hiatus came at a tense time in foreign affairs, with the onset of the Russo-Turkish War.  Bismarck actually could not or would not forego all of his political responsibilities, and continued working on various political issues from his vacation retreats. Ten months later, in April 1878, Bismarck returned to a grateful Kaiser, and began furthering his plans to amplify his own political power.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Taking a Rest … Bismarck”
May 21, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to