Bismarck on his deathbed


11 p.m. 30 July 1898. Otto von Bismarck had died. Only family members, house servants and a selected group of neighbors were allowed to see the body. No deathmask nor death portrait were made. Not even his sovereign, Kaiser Wilhelm II, saw his mortal remains. By the time the kaiser, who was not told about Bismarck’s condition, finally arrived, the coffin had already been sealed.

But this sacred privacy that the Iron Chancellor demanded was breached by two photographers, Max Priester and Court Photographer Willy Wilcke, who took the above picture secretly. They bribed Bismarck’s forester Louis Sporcke to inform them about Bismarck’s true condition and to let them in when family members had paid their last respects and gone to bed. So around four in the morning, the pair made their way into the house and exposed several plates with the help of the magnesium flashes. The following morning, they were on their way back too Hamburg with their ‘scoop’. Their only mistake was advertising their scoop. “For the sole existing picture of Bismarck on his deathbed, photographs taken a few hours after his death, original images, a buyer or suitable publisher is sought,” read their ad in the Tagliche Rundschau of 2 August 1898. Prince Bismarck’s family promptly sent police to confiscate their plates and a civil and criminal court case ensued. Sporcke and Priester got five months each and Wilcke, eight.

In the photo, the deceased chancellor sunk into an unmade bed–totally different the imposing Bismarck of Lenbach’s portraits–was surrounded by a veritably shabby ambiance, with the chamber pot adding an almost vulgar note to the scene. This realism was what shocked the prince’s family. The confiscated picture was finally published in the Fronkfurter Illustrierte in 1952.

For a more lengthy, more detailed account of Priester-Wilcke scoop, see here.

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