Otto von Bismarck’s residences in Poland and Germany each tell their own post-war story
Contemporaries griped that the country residences of Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) were not in especially good taste. But that didn’t bother the Prussian prime minister (1862-1871) and later chancellor of the German Empire (1871-1890). His manor houses were wholly tailored to the needs of the landowner and hunter – and were homely, but not that comfortable. The most important thing was that they afforded an unfettered view of the surrounding countryside. Even during their heyday, these buildings had nothing in common with the gigantic palaces and parks of southern England or the Loire Valley. The famous Prussian poet Theodor Fontane even described them, with more than a hint of understatement, as “cottages.”
The four Bismarck properties survive to this day, but in varying states of repair. At his birthplace in Schönhausen-on-the-Elbe, in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, what remains of the palace now houses a museum. The Kniephof (today: Konarzewo) estate in what was West Pomerania (now part of Poland), where Bismarck spent his early childhood from the year 1816, is a ruin. A forestry school has taken up residence at the manor house in the former Pomeranian village of Varzin (now Warcino), Bismarck’s favorite place of refuge from the late 1860s. And descendants of the “Iron Chancellor” live at the house in Friedrichsruh, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, just to the east of Hamburg and the site of Bismarck’s final resting place.
The history of the Imperial Chancellor’s family began around 1270 in what is today the state of Saxony-Anhalt, in Stendal and then in Burgstall, located near the Elbe to the south of Hamburg. Three hundred years later, a ruling landowner forced the Bismarcks into a territory exchange. When they initially refused to comply, they were thrown into a dungeon and made to drink herring brine. That did the trick. The family has never really come to terms with this loss. Bismarck later said his ancestors had been paid off “for peanuts”. This was absolutely true: the terrain around Burgstall is considerably more fertile and attractive than the land around Schönhausen, situated 40 kilometers to the north on the other side of the Elbe.
Arriving in Schönhausen on the road from Tangermünde, visitors are met with the distant sight of the defiant steeple of St. Willibrord, the patronage church where Bismarck was baptized. Directly behind it, and easy to miss, is a small wing of the Schönhausen Palace. A museum on two floors exhibits all that remains of the beautiful country house. In the summer of 1958, the main building was detonated by military engineers of the East German National People’s Army. It had suffered severe damage in World War II. Elderly residents here still have vivid memories of that August day. A second Bismarck palace in the locality, called Schönhausen II, recently underwent a costly restoration and now hosts the municipal administration offices. It might have been a more fitting site for a larger Bismarck museum, but the cash-strapped state of Saxony-Anhalt lacks the resources for such a project. In the region of Altmark in the north of the state, memories of the Imperial Chancellor are kept alive mainly by retired teachers and amateur historians from Stendal.
Bismarck loved country life. “Wherever one hears the woodpecker, that’s when I’m at my best,” he once said. He viewed his school years in Berlin, a city he never recalled with any particular fondness, as an irritating interruption. In 1838, at the age of 23, the law graduate abandoned his professional training in the Rhineland and returned to Kniephof to run the family estates. “At the time, for me this profession was overlaid with the beautiful blue mists of distant mountains,” he later wrote. Within just a few years, owing to an academic approach and an exceedingly modest personal way of life, Bismarck turned the family properties into profitable businesses. Most estates in Prussia were mired in debt at the time.
The family’s “core property” can be covered in two hours on foot. It was here, in the softly undulating landscape, that Bismarck felt most at home. The manor house in which he spent his defining years as an agrarian landowner between 1839 and 1845, is now a ruin. It resembles the wreck of a ship that refuses to sink. Nevertheless the building, nestled within the overgrown park with its old trees, exudes dignity. “When my political deeds are long forgotten,” Bismarck once said, “this greenery will prove that I lived.”
With the help of royal endowments later bestowed upon him, Bismarck extended his property portfolio of Schönhausen and Kniephof – initially with Varzin manor, and later with Friedrichsruh and its attendant large forest estate. After it was acquired in 1867, it was Varzin in particular that became the Chancellor’s preferred sanctuary – he called it his “dispatch-proof place.” The manor was located in Eastern Pomerania and took a day to reach from Berlin by train and, over the last six kilometers, horse-and-cart. With the help of his son Herbert and his son-in-law Kuno Graf zu Rantzau, the chancellor conducted government business from there. He sometimes spent months away from the capital. “My oil has been used up, I can’t do this anymore,” he said in May 1872.
Varzin Palace and its contents survived World War II in astonishingly good condition. The rooms now host a technical college for forestry; a plaque lists the manor’s previous owners. Many of the pieces of furniture and objects recall the chancellor. The forestry director still uses Bismarck’s old desk in what used to be his study.
There is also a vast array of exhibits in the small Bismarck museum in Friedrichsruh. Just like the palace, the Imperial Chancellor’s retirement home, which is not open to the public, it is situated directly on the high-speed railway line between Berlin and Hamburg. The waiting room in the nearby railway building, where the Otto von Bismarck Foundation has been headquartered since German reunification, vibrates every time a train thunders by.
When Bismarck was shown the nearby graveyard shortly before his death, his response was: “All the better. Then there’ll at least be something going on around me.” In 1919, a band of revolutionary sailors from Berlin threatened to ransack the palace. A member of the family asked the guard to let the train through in the direction of Hamburg. So the story goes.
Groups of visitors to the two Bismarck sites in Germany do at least ensure that these small places do not decline into a permanent slumber. But it could hardly be described as a rush. And there is little to suggest that it will change during the approaching anniversary year – April 1, 2015, will be the 200th birthday of the German Imperial Chancellor –and certainly not in contemporary Poland. But neither nation should allow Bismarck’s faded legacy to slip away: Clever and prudent ideas are needed, in all four locations, far beyond the anniversary year.