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G7 meeting point Biarritz: Where Bismarck almost drowned with his secret lover


Once Biarritz was the most fashionable seaside resort for Europe's aristocracy. Here Otto von Bismarck betrayed his wife with a young Russian princess. Almost the couple drowned in the Atlantic - the savior was soon cursed.

The midday heat offered the best protection against unwanted attention, Otto von Bismarck thought. Anyway, in Biarritz. The city's rhythm of life is characterized by waves of Atlantic waves and sandy beaches, and by noon the beaches are empty - and Otto von Bismarck wished much discretion on this 22 August 1862.

For the Prussian diplomat had a little secret: his mistress, whom he once described in a letter as the "most delicious of all women." The couple wanted to stroll undisturbed on the beach and swim in the Atlantic, without attracting too many glances.

Currently Biarritz shields itself again from prying eyes: The city is completely sealed off at the G7 meeting. France's host Emmanuel Macron is said to have a penchant for pathos, self-exaltation and historically overloaded gestures. To refute that, he would have had to choose a venue other than Biarritz.

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Bismarck in Biarritz: Dangerous surf

The coastal city in southwestern France was already in the 19th century, the hottest meeting place and seaside resort for Europe's aristocracy. The kings of Belgium and Portugal recovered here as did Austria's Empress Sisi and much of the British and Spanish upper classes. On the undulating coast of the once small fishing village whalers used to dissect their prey. The high-born tourists transformed Biarritz into a sophisticated resort with the nickname "Queen of the Beaches".

Pan-European wave of enthusiasm

That it could be over soon with the peace, had already suspected in 1843 Victor Hugo. "I know of no more charming and grand place than Biarritz," noted the writer - the city would soon "come into fashion" and not be the Biarritz he loved so much.

Hugo was right. In 1854, the French Empress Eugenie fell in love with Biarritz. Her husband Napoleon III. She built the "Villa Eugénie". Villa is clearly understated for the pompous castle right on the sea - today it is a luxury hotel, where now also meet the G7 heads of state.

Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The former Villa Eugénie, today Hôtel du Palais

A total of 14 summers spent Emperor Napoleon and his wife in Biarritz. They sparked a Europe-wide enthusiasm that brought Otto von Bismarck to the Atlantic coast.

In the summer of 1862 Bismarck was not yet the dreaded power politician and "Iron Chancellor," who would eventually unite the fragmented Germany with wars. The gigantic and mustachioed diplomat was still quite unknown and had worked as a Prussian ambassador in Paris and St. Petersburg. As a result, he also knew the Russian Ambassador in Brussels, Prince Nikolai Orlov - and flirted with his wife Katharina.

In love with the "cute principle"

"Kathy" he called her affectionately, also "Kathsch". He enthusiastically wrote that she was "funny, smart and kind, pretty and young". He had "fallen in love with the cute principesse (princess)", he confessed to his "sister's heart" by letter: "We bathe in the morning, then go into the cliffs, have breakfast in a remote ravine behind the lighthouse." In the evening Katharina plays classical music for him. It was not his first affair, so Bismarck did not think his wife, Johanna, was doing any "harm."

The "cute princess" was then 21 - and thus 26 years younger than the Prussian family man. How deep the relationship of the two actually went, the sources do not show clearly. One thing is clear: For Katharina Bismarck converted his short visit in Biarritz by medical examination in a four-week spa stay. And for Katharinas horned, also much older husband, he found sometimes derisive words: Nikolai had lost an eye and an arm in the Crimean War - and according to Bismarck also a "part of his manhood".

Wikimedia Commons

Katharina Orlova

On August 22, 1862 Bismarck lost by this affair a hair far more than that: Twice a day he swam in the Atlantic. When he went into the water with Kathy at noon, the current suddenly pulled them out. The giant breakers that would make Biarritz a century later Europe's first hotspot of surfing would have almost fatalized the conservative diplomat.

Bismarck's luck was that his calculations had not quite risen: he had been watched. At least Pierre Lafleur, the lighthouse keeper. What followed then sounds like a legend, but is documented: in 2006, a reporter from the "Berliner Zeitung" in Biarritz showed documents that describe a film-ready rescue.

Accordingly, Lafleur, then 42 years old, first pulled the Russian princess out of the water, which had already lost consciousness. Meanwhile, Bismarck kept drifting, arms wildly rowing in the air. Lafleur again risked his life. Modest he later stated on the record: "It was not easy to recover the almost lifeless body of a man of 1.90 meters height and 100 kilos."

Half-truths to the faraway woman

A hurried doctor brought Bismarck back to life. Today, triangular, red-yellow signs with a breaking wave warn of the "danger of the strong sea".

His wife Johanna did not mention this incident to Bismarck. He had spent hours "letter writing to Paris and Berlin", he let her know about the day of his rescue. Afterwards, he had taken a "second drink of salt water", but "in the harbor, without waves". He adds that he claims that "two wave pools" in the open sea are much too much for him.

The rescued by Bismarck rescuers would have just a month later also used a selfless savior: lighthouse keeper Lafleur drowned himself while bathing in the Atlantic. His wife was very pregnant. Bismarck, meanwhile promoted to prime minister in Prussia, and Katharina Orlowa became godparents of the newborn. The baby was baptized Othon-Edouard, named after Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck; If it had become a girl, it would have been called after the Russian Cathérine-Anne.

But Bismarck seemed to bring little luck to the Lafleur family. His godchild Othon died at a young age. Conversely, Biarritz brought Bismarck no more luck. Several times he visited the Atlantic Bath, also to Napoleon III. to consult. To his disappointment, he never saw Katharina there, who was seriously ill.

"I was looking for the fountain of youth here"

Depressed, Bismarck wrote to her in Biarritz in October 1865 that he was "demoralized" because he now preferred Berlin to Biarritz. "It is unlikely that I will ever return here." And, reveling in the past: "When I was here with you, I easily overlooked or ignored the disadvantages, today I am disillusioned and burdened with a sense of boredom and sadness."

Only through Katharina's absence did he notice that the wines of yesteryear tasted bad, the water lacked freshness, and the beds were too short. "I've been looking for the fountain of youth here, I've aged ten years," Bismarck wrote.

Once again, however, Bismarck was to feel proud of a triumph on French soil. In 1871, the Germans defeated France and founded the German Empire in deliberate humiliation of the defeated in the Palace of Versailles. The German nation state was the fulfillment of Bismarck's political lifelong dream.

Emperor Napoleon III. was beaten, fled to British exile and never saw his fashionable beach palace in Biarritz again. At the latest after this defeat, many Frenchmen curse the courageous lighthouse keeper, who had once pulled Bismarck from the floods.

Source: spiegel

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