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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." I am really curious whether Bismarck meant anything like that.

I humbly hope that you as native German speakers 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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    Googling the phrase yields a very low number of hits. There are seven for Google Books, all from the 2000s, none giving a source. Might be a recently made-up quote. – David Vogt Aug 1 '19 at 20:20
  • @DavidVogt : Seven hits in books and hundreds of hits on the Internet. Plus also rephrasings in books, e.g.: google.com/… . – Mitsuko Aug 1 '19 at 21:02
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    Maybe history SE would have been a better fit. – Carsten S Aug 2 '19 at 8:26
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    @CarstenS : I just asked on History SE: history.stackexchange.com/questions/53951 – Mitsuko Aug 2 '19 at 9:34
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    I quote from that article: The most important constraint in international relations is, of course, the distribution of power. For structural realists, power is called capability. The term itself is etymologically derivative of “ability,” which implies what can, as opposed to what cannot, be done. – Mitsuko Aug 2 '19 at 11:41
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This is not a real answer, but only an extended comment.

Searching via Google does not produce any hits in German. Of course the problem may be that we do not know which German words Bismarck used, but I think searching for "Bismarck" + "Absicht(en)" + "Fähigkeit(en)" should be promising.

There are also many collections of German quotations and aphorisms, but again one cannot find anything.

In contrast, a Google search in Russian yields various hits, for example source 1,source 2 or source 3.

The first two hits are contained in collections of aphorisms. This indicates that the phrase is well-known in Russia, but (probably) unknown in Germany. Note that the second source adds "моих врагов" (of my enemies) after "намерения" (intentions) and the third adds "соседей" (of my neighbours).

So is it authentic? Perhaps we may never know the truth, but we can speculate. From 1859 - 1862 Bismarck was Prussian ambassador in St. Petersburg. I conjecture that he said this in a conversation with a Russian interlocutor who recorded the quotation. This would explain why we find Russian sources, but no German. But as I said: It's just a wild speculation.

Concerning the authenticity of statements attributed to Bismarck (or any other person) the following might be interesting.

Edited:

Have a look at this. It is a soccer website, but begins with the disputed quotation. This shows again that it must be widely known in Russia. In contrast to the version in your question it says "Меня не интересуют ваши намерения, меня интересуют ваши возможности." Using "ваши" instead of "их" gives a different flavour - but who knows what is the correct formulation? However, the alternative version could support my above hypothesis.

Edited:

Another variant is here:

"Меня не интересуют их желания. Мне интересны их возможности."

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There is a similiar quote on aphorismen.de, referenced from an interview with Friedrich Meyer von Waldeck, journalist of St. Petersburger Zeitung, 11. August 1867:

Politik ist die Kunst des Möglichen.

My rough translation, betters are welcome:

Politics is the art of potentials/ opportunities/ capabilities.

This quote is in english written down on page (beruhmte-zitate.de):

Politics is the art of the possible.

Which copies from the book "Die Gartenlaube", page 585 on wikisource:

„Ja,“ setzte der Graf lächelnd hinzu, „die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.“

There might be the objection that "Lehre" and "Kunst" can be interpreted differently, I think, in this context it still fits. On wikiquote there is also the claim that the quote with "Kunst" cannot be verified 100% and refers to the transcribed book.

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As the other answers and some comments already pointed out: It's hard to find a reference or reliable source here. On the one hand, because there is at least one translation step involved. On the other hand, because it is not clear whether the statement about "made-up quotations" from the "UPDATE" of the question was meant to be ironical: There certainly are some false quotes out there, and regardless of who exactly made it up, people will use them when they suit their needs.


There is a connection between a statement that at least has some similarity to the quote in the question, and which also has some connection to Bismarck. When using " quotes for finding a sentence involving the relevant words, OR for allowing alternatives, and * as the wildcard operator, yielding

"Intentionen OR Ziele OR Absichten * Möglichkeiten OR Fähigkeiten" bismarck

it leads to this page: http://dsb.zum.de/wiki/Geschichte/Lernpfad_Industrialisierung/Soziale_Frage , which contains the quote

Die Partei erklärt, daß sie nach dem bisherigen Verhalten der herrschenden Klasse weder an ihre ehrlichen Absichten noch an ihre Fähigkeiten glaube.

This is not from Bismarck, but from a statement of the Social-Democratic Party, directly criticizing the social security legislation by Bismarck.


Some possible translations of "намерение" are Absicht, Intention, Vorhaben, Vorsatz, Idee...". For "возможность" it could be "Möglichkeit, Eventualität, Gelegenheit...", and this is the only quote that I found which resembles the given statement, at least structurally, and has a direct connection to Bismarck.

If this quote is the source of the statement in the question, then it is at least wrongly attributed to Bismarck - but I don't even claim that. In the end, it may still be made-up.

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This is a digression concerning the attribution of "quotations".

A saying which is well-known in Germany is "In der Ruhe liegt die Kraft". The orgin seems to be unknown, but it is sometimes attributed to Confucius. See for example

https://www.spruchwelt.com/zitat/konfuzius-in-der-ruhe-liegt-die-kraft

But now look at

https://www.redensarten-index.de/suche.php?suchbegriff=~~In der Ruhe liegt die Kraft

"Interessant ist in diesem Zusammenhang, dass als Ursprung oft fernöstliche Philosophien - Konfuzius etwa - genannt werden. Dafür gibt es aber keinen Beleg. Es könnte sich daher um eine typische Projektion handeln: Im (Selbst-) Bild ist der Deutsche rational, fleißig und effektiv, und so wird die "andere Seite" fremden Kulturen zugeschrieben (einen ähnlichen Vorgang finden wir im Sprichwort "Der Weg ist das Ziel"). Wegen der Allgemeinheit der Aussage dürften sich in jedem Kulturkreis passende Passagen finden lassen, so auch in unserem: In der Bibel etwa heißt es in Jesaja 30,15: "Denn so spricht der Herr, HERR, der Heilige in Israel: Wenn ihr umkehrtet und stillebliebet, so würde euch geholfen; durch Stillesein und Hoffen würdet ihr stark sein" - und auch die Sprichwörter "Gut Ding will Weile haben" und "Ruh' erhält bei Kräften, macht hurtig zu Geschäften" gehen in diese Richtung.

Das Sprichwort wurde in den 1970er Jahren geläufig."

This text claims that there is no evidence that it originates from Confucius (perhaps somebody else can clarify this point). However, one has the impression Confucius could have said it and thus the attribution appears trustworthy for most people.

The Bismarck "quotation" might have the same quality: He certainly could have said it because it is consistent with his character.

Let me close by quoting Giordano Bruno:

Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato. (If it is not true it is very well invented.)

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno

I hope this does not apply to itself.

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