The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7

Author: Otto von Bismarck  | Date: 1872


The Canossa Speech*

As to the other intentions attributed to us by those who approve, as well as by the less lenient critics who censured the appointment, they have never existed. Depend upon it, in nominating a cardinal as our representative at Rome, we neither hoped to talk the pope over to our way of thinking, nor did we at all wish to signify our willingness to repeat a certain ceremony enacted centuries ago at Canossa.2

We were neither confident enough to expect that our representative, be he who he might, would succeed in shaking those strong convictions which have induced his holiness to adopt his recent attitude toward us and the world at large; nor could we, after the new dogmas promulgated by him, think of concluding a concordat with the possessor of supernatural wisdom and power. In point of fact, I am sorry to say, after the prerogative lately assumed by the pope, that no government which is not prepared to see the secular power annihilated and placed under spiritual jurisdiction, will consent to conclude a concordat.

All, therefore, we could have meant to effect by sending Cardinal Prince Hohenlohe to Rome was to let the pope know the real bearings of the case and to keep him au courant of events going on in this country. For reasons which the pope has failed to explain, he has declined to give to our choice that sanction which courtesy requires us to ask for. A refusal of this kind has not often been recorded in the annals of diplomacy. I have been nearly ten years at the head of the foreign office and twenty-one years in domestic employment, but I do not remember a single analogous case.

I do, indeed, recollect that the expediency of recalling an envoy or minister has been suggested by the power to which the objectionablerepresentative was accredited, but this has never happened unless he had given special cause for dissatisfaction in the discharge of his official duties, and has hardly ever been proposed otherwise than by private communication addressed by one sovereign to another. The present untoward incident is quite different. Cardinal Prince Hohenlohe has been rejected even before leaving Berlin. He has been rejected by a brief note from a papal minister to the German charg d’affaires; nay, he has been rejected without any reasons being alleged for such an extreme step.

But however much I may regret this extraordinary step on the part of the Holy See, I do think we should not be justified in resenting it by a suspension of diplomatic intercourse. We owe it to our Catholic fellow subjects to continue our endeavors to define in a friendly and pacific way the line which separates the secular from the spiritual power. At the same time, we consider it our duty to proceed with the utmost caution in order to spare the feelings of the religious, and endeavor to convince the pope of our temperate and conciliatory views. Therefore, I shall deem it incumbent upon me to advise his majesty the emperor, to select some other representative to the Vatican, who, tho he may not be equally efficacious as the last nominee would have been, shall still possess the confidence of both powers sufficiently for the purpose of his office. I must not, however, conceal that our task has been rendered very difficult by what has occurred.3

The member for Meppen has been somewhat too hard on Cardinal Hohenlohe. As for his defining the relations between pope and cardinal as those between master and servant, I beg to ask one so deeply versed in ecclesiastical history whether Cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu, when prime ministers of France, were the employees of the pope or the advisors and ministers of their respective sovereigns. I should like to hear from the profound student of ecclesiastical history I make no doubt Herr Windhorst is, whether the two cardinals just mentioned, in their stiff little tiffs with the curia, conducted themselves as representatives of the papal view or vindicated the royal interests of France. There is, then, some difference between a Roman cardinal and a German adjutant-general, the for the matter of that, if the pope should be good enough to appoint an adjutant-general of his German majesty as his nuncio at Berlin, I for one would counsel his majesty to approve the appointment and to ratify so excellent and most acceptable a choice.

The concordat which Herr Windhorst supposes will settle our difficulties with the pope is, if myviews are acted out, not likely to be concluded. I am not at this moment at liberty to speak for the federal council of the empire on the subject under discussion, but I may tell the preceding speaker that as far as Prussia is concerned the Prussian cabinet are determined to take measures which shall henceforth make it impossible for Prussians who are priests of the Roman Catholic church to assert with impunity that they will be guided by canon law rather than by Prussian law. We shall maintain the legislative power against all comers. We shall bring it home to those not acknowledging our laws that by obeying foreign law in preference to our own, they are placing themselves beyond the pale of Prussian law.

Having said this to Herr Windhorst in my capacity as Prussian minister, it remains for me to answer his taunts as to the stability of the Protestant Church as a Protestant and an evangelical Christian. If he fancies that the Protestant Church would not survive separation from the State, all that I can tell him is that to my sincere regret he has not realized the true spirit of the Gospel.

* Reprinted from the report telegraphed to the London Times on the day it was delivered, the translation having been revised for this collection. This version is believed to be more interesting than the one printed subsequently, after Bismarck had revised it. The occasion of the speech was an item in the Budget, setting apart 19,350 thalers for the German embassy to the Vatican. A suggestion had been made that the embassy be abolished, because the pope had declined to receive Cardinal Prince Hohenlohe after his nomination to the embassy.

2 This remark created as immediate sensation In Berlin, which was soon echoed from every capital in Europe. It maybe explained here that at Canossa, in northern Italy, occurred in 1077 the celebrated penance of the German emperor, Henry IV., before Pope Gregory VII.

3 The London Times correspondent says at this point: "Herr Windhorst, an ultramontane, replied to Prince Bismarck’s speech, saying that Cardinal Hohenlohe ’was the servant of the pope and should have asked his master’s permission to become the German representative at the Vatican before accepting that office; and likened the appointment of a cardinal to the embassy at Rome to the appointment of a German adjutant-general to the pope as his nuncio at Berlin.’ To Herr Windhorst Prince Bismarck then devoted the remainder of his speech."

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Chicago: Otto von Bismarck, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 246–249. Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024,

MLA: Bismarck, Otto von. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. 7, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 246–249. Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Bismarck, OV, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.246–249. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from