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UPDATE: It turns out that even Russia's president Vladimir Putin himself quoted Bismarck as saying that phrase! (Source1, Source2). It thus seems unlikely to be a made-up quotation, because it is unthinkable that the Russian president will use made-up quotations. I am very much curious to find the original German phrase and its context and spent a few more hours searching, but found nothing. That's a real mystery...


Reading an article for my Russian classes, I saw a quotation from Otto von Bismarck:

Но еще Отто фон Бисмарк сказал: "Меня не интересуют их намерения, меня интересуют их возможности". (Source)

The quotation as it stands in Russian is so ruthless, cynical, and thought-stimulating that I got really curious what Bismarck actually said in German and whether he said anything like that at all.

Let me translate the above Russian sentence to English and German as precisely as I can:

But already Otto von Bismarck said, "I am not interested to know their intentions. I am interested to know their capabilities."

Aber schon Otto von Bismarck hat gesagt: "Mich interessieren ihre Absichten nicht. Mich interressieren ihre Möglichkeiten."

Trying to find the German original, I made a lot of search requests in Google by combining the surname Bismarck with various German words and expressions that might be constituents of the original phrase, but found no trace whatsoever.

Trying to find a trace from the Russian end, I googled the above Russian phrase attributed to Bismarck and found hundreds of Russian websites quoting it as Bismarck's phrase, but was unable to find the German original or any trace to it.

My attempts to find an English or Japanese version have also been fruitless.

In Russian articles, the quotation is often used to support the idea that it does not matter what is or seems to be on people's minds. The supported idea is that what really matters is the actual balance of power. I even saw rephrasings with indirect speech like, "Bismarck said that capabilities give rise to intentions."

It does not seem very likely to be a made-up quotation, as there are quite a few hits in Google Books and even a hit in minutes of the Russian Parliament. Moreover, the idea expressed in the quotation resonates well with Bismark's views as I can see in this history article.

The quotation might be, however, somewhat altered, as I saw a somewhat different version in an article by a popular Russian analyst. He quotes, in Russian, Bismarck as saying, "What matters in politics is capabilities, not intentions. Intentions change, capabilities remain."

I humbly hope that history fans and experts of this SE could help me resolve the mystery.

My question is this: Exactly what did Bismarck actually say in German? I would also like to know the context in which he said that phrase.

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    I wouldn't be quite so quick to dismiss the theory that its misattributed. The most famous Bismark quote in my country (not so coincidentally mentioning my country) is misattributed, as is a similar misattributed quote about Spain popular in Spain. This doesn't quite fit that pattern, but Bismark is a common target of disputed or misattributed quotes. – T.E.D. Aug 2 at 15:44
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    "it is unthinkable that the Russian president will use made-up quotations". I'll happily grant you that Putin is more literate than typical self-made autocrats, but it doesn't strike me as beneath him to make quotes up when it suits his purpose -- on the contrary. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 3 at 6:47
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    The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearsheimer has a near identical quote in English: "Great powers balance against capability, not intentions." There's a footnote (33) attached to it but I can't access it using Google Books. It might lead you to the source if the quote wasn't by Mearsheimer himself (which is possible too). – Denis de Bernardy Aug 3 at 6:56
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    There's also this: “Assume capability, not intent,” which appears to be part of a military maxim used in intelligence circles. That might tie into why Putin is familiar with the maxim, since he worked for the KGB. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 3 at 6:58
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    @DenisdeBernardy : I just downloaded the entire book by Mearsheimer. His phrase "great powers balance against capability, not intentions" is in Chapter Two and is supplemented by reference 33. Looking at reference 33 for that chapter, I see this: For an opposing view, see David M. Edelstein, “Choosing Friends and Enemies: Perceptions of Intentions in International Relations,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, August 2000; Andrew Kydd, “Why Security Seekers Do Not Fight Each Other,” Security Studies 7, No. 1 (Autumn 1997), pp. 114–54; and Walt, Origins of Alliances. – Mitsuko Aug 3 at 8:49
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Retranslating this apparently decidedly Russian proverb into German is not found in this exact phrasing in Bismarck literature.

Using variations of the words is equally unproductive and even permuting the basal concepts didn't give me anything close to such a short aphorism.

The saying is most likely a condensed paraphrase of describing realpolitik as practiced by Bismarck, and others. This principle is of course much older than realpolitik itself and can be read into many proverbs from even ancient times.

What is available in the extensive literature about Bismarck and even in his own writings is then spread out over quite bit more words when illustrated in his style to demonstrate that this indeed not wholly incompatible with his thinking – but that the questioned quote is also not a very good fit for a nuanced thought process. The condensed quote may not be completely made up by some Russians, but if it has any grounding in reality, it surely is distortingly out of any context.

He may have quipped a short line like that, perhaps even to a Russian. As an overarching general principle it is not characteristic of him.

The more the Republic strengthened now, the greater Russia's inclination - despite the most loyal attitude and intentions of the Tsar - without having been harmed in the least by Germany, to grasp only the most favourable moment to attack us in alliance with the Republic. This threatening situation arose and still exists, not after a war we voluntarily waged against Russia, but through the common interests of the Pan-Slavists and the republican France, to destroy Germany as a stronghold of the monarchy.

To this end, both nations systematically strengthen their means of struggle at the decisive borders, without having been provoked in any way for this unqualifiable advance on our part, nor to offer any durable excuse for it.

With this in mind, the wise policy of Ew led by my late grandfather brought about alliances which contributed greatly to protecting us from assaults by our born hereditary enemy in the West.

This policy was also to take Russia's ruler in our favour. This influence will persist as long as the present Czar really has the power to assert his will; if it is lost - and there are many signs of it - then it is very likely that Russia will no longer allow itself to be separated from our born enemy to wage war with him when the means of war on both sides seem developed enough to them to destroy us with impunity.

Otto von Bismarck: "Gedanken und Erinnerungen"

As is evidenced by the above: interest, intentions and capabilities are all weighed into the thought. But neither interests nor intentions are completely disregarded in favour of just capabilities.

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The Bismarck Stiftung contains a short list of quotes, none of which fit the given quote.

A further article (Bismarck and the Russian values) Bismarck und die russischen Werte (in German), express some surprise on how Bismarck is perceived in Russia.

A Moscow billboard, in 2016, is shown with a picture and supposed quote from Bismarck

Russland. Meine Geschichte
Man kann die Russen nicht besiegen, das haben wir über Jahrhunderte gelernt. Aber man kann den Russen falsche Werte einbläuen, dann besiegen sie sich von selbst.

Russia. My History (or story, lesson)
The centuries has taught us that we cannot vanquish the Russians. But one can trick them into false values, with which they will vanquish themsselfs.

The author comments that Bismarck is well known for his many comments, but he (the author) failed to find this one.

The article continues to analyze the likelihood of such a quote coming from Bismarck (the answer being no) and the final conclusion that this false quote is used to make Moscow pedestrians feel good knowing that they have successfully defeated attacks against them twice.

Possibly the use of other 'quotes' serve a similar purpose.

The Bismarck Stiftung would probably be a good starting point for finding a complete collection of original Bismarck quotes.

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