I'm not quite sure to what extent this is a language question vs a history/culture question, but here goes...

Can anyone explain what's going on in this discussion of cigars/politics? The humour eludes me. As far as I'm aware neither Bismarck nor Caprivi have ever actually had cigars named after them, so I assume that if there's anything particularly witty here there's some use of vocabulary that straddles some political/cigar boundary? (For example I can see there seem to be lots of references to Bismarck's three hairs out there, but not sure why this would be mentioned in the context of cigars...) Or am I simply not familiar enough with the ins and outs of cigars and/or the characters of the men?

Ich erinnere mich noch gut eines kleinen Frühstücks, an dem Herbert Bismarck und ich teilnahmen. Nach Tisch wurden Zigarren geraucht, und ich sagte scherzend: "Hoffentlich ist das keine Bismarck mit drei Haaren!", worauf Herbert ebenso lustig erwiderte: "Aber hoffentlich auch kein Caprivi, denn die hat keinen Zug und ist schief gewickelt!" ... Der Hausherr aber fügte ernster hinzu: "Ich hätte euch heute gern mit Sekt bewirtet, doch heute ist kein Tag, an dem Sekt getrunken werden darf. Heute hat nämlich ein gewisser jemand Geburtstag, und diese Tatsache erlaubt uns nicht, in Sekt zu schwelgen." ... Herbert Bismarck wußte natürlich sofort, daß es sich um Caprivis Geburtstag handelte.

ETA: Having done some more research, I can see that the three hairs motif seems to have come from the Kladderadatsch cartoons. So that reference makes more sense. I suspect it's my cigar knowledge that's more lacking than my historical!

  • There is a Fürst Bismarck brand of cigars; see this ad.
    – RDBury
    Jul 10, 2023 at 19:40
  • 1
    Would you mind quoting the author/source?
    – marquinho
    Jul 10, 2023 at 19:51
  • Habe you checked who Herbert Bismarck and Leo Caprivin were?
    – Stephie
    Jul 10, 2023 at 19:53
  • @Stephie Yes, I'm aware of the historical figures. Just trying to understand where the humour in the cigar references is coming from...
    – ajor
    Jul 10, 2023 at 21:55
  • A google image search for "Bismarck Zigarre" proves you wrong about "named after ...". Oct 2, 2023 at 22:57

2 Answers 2


Bismarck smoked cigars very often. Here is a caricature showing Otto von Bismarck and Eduard Lasker as cigars: link to image and here is another cartoon showing Bismarck smoking: another image.

I haven't found any evidence that Caprivi smoked cigars, but cigar smoking was a common status symbol of the rich and powerful in Europe, so I'm pretty sure Caprivi smoked cigars too. So it's not very far-fetched to compare statesmen to cigars, and in this text nothing more happens than a comparison: if Bismarck and Caprivi were cigars, what would be the characteristics of those cigars? That's all. No deeper meaning.

To compare people with cigars is a little absurd and therefore already a little funny, and to make it so that the characteristics of the cigars reveal the characteristics of the politicians makes it even funnier.

  • Thanks, I think it's the reference to Bismarck's three hairs that I find rather odd - why would it be good/bad for a cigar to have hairs, or a certain number of hairs? Wondering if I was missing some knowledge there. But good to know there's nothing particularly clever going on :)
    – ajor
    Jul 11, 2023 at 7:04
  • 2
    A single hair in a cigar ruins the taste even for those who appreciate tobacco.
    – Kai
    Jul 11, 2023 at 7:35
  • The reason for the three hairs has nothing to do with cigars: Bismarck had thinning hair. If you want to draw this in a cartoon, you draw just a small number of single hairs. That's why Homer Simpson has only two hairs and Charlie Brown even just only one. For some reason it became usual for cartoonists to draw Bismarck always with exactly 3 hairs, and so it was easy to identify a character as Bismarck when it had a mustache and 3 single hairs. Jul 11, 2023 at 7:50
  • The three hairs stood for his politics on international trade, colonies, and foreign affairs. There's a special political cartoon where the hairs were labelled as that.
    – tofro
    Jul 11, 2023 at 10:42
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    @tofro I think you have it backwards here. "Your" joke about the three "political" hair presupposes the pre-existing running joke in Kladderadatsch of the three-haired Bismarck. That caricature was so commonplace in the 1870s that other journals could reference "die berühmten drei Haare" in meta-jokes; here an example from Kikeriki, Vienna 1877. Whereas "your" cartoon is from 1884 (the time of the "Congoconferenz", 1884/85).
    – marquinho
    Jul 11, 2023 at 12:44

I do not think that one needs cigar knowledge to understand the badinage.

Herbert von Bismarck was Otto von Bismarck's oldest son. He and his conversation partner smoked cigars and this person hinted at caricatures of Otto von Bismarck showing him as a cigar with three hairs (see Hubert Schölnast's answer).

The three hairs are an invention of Wilhelm Scholz who was a renownend illustrator for the satirical magazine Kladderadatsch. Quote from here:

Seine Zeichnungen waren ihrer Schärfe, Schlagfertigkeit und Schlagkraft wegen berühmt. Besonders populär wurde er durch seine Karikaturen auf Bismarck und erfand dessen Markenzeichen: "die berühmten drei Haare".

The "three hair motif" occured for the first time in 1863. See here. It did not have a symbolic interpretation, but simply referred to Bismarck's sparse hair and mocked at his vanity ("comb over"):

Über kahle Partien gelegte oder gebundene Strähnen gehörten in der Antike zur Ikonografie von Denker- und Greisendarstellungen. Zahlreiche historische Persönlichkeiten waren vom 19. bis zum 21. Jahrhundert mit seitlich überkämmten Glatzen abgebildet. Seit Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts nimmt die Verbreitung der Frisur ab. Überkämmte Glatzen sind seit der Antike Gegenstand von Satire und Karikatur, werden aber auch in Literatur, Theater und Bildender Kunst dargestellt. Oft werden spärliche Haare oder Strähnen als drei Haare stilisiert, etwa bei Otto von Bismarck. Häufige Motive sind die erfolglose Verdeckung der Kahlheit als Zeichen von Eitelkeit, die Unbeständigkeit der Frisur gegenüber Wind und Wetter sowie das Überkämmen von Glatzen mit Körperbehaarung statt Kopfhaar.

A very nice caricature is from 1879: enter image description here

tofro's finding is from 1884. As explained above, the labeling "Colonialpolitik, Auswärtige Poltik, Handelspolitik" is not the original interpretation of the three hairs (note that Germany did not have colonies before the 1880-years). Also see here.

Bismarck resigned at Kaiser Wilhelm II's insistence on 18 March 1890 and Scholz commented this in form of the caricature "Rückgabe der Insignien" (return of the insignia), comparing the three insignia with three hairs. This caricature took up Scholz's caricature from 1870 showing a group of angels bringing the three imperial insignia (crown, scepter and imperial panier) to a table on which the unification treaties are rolled up.

Bismarck's successor as chancellor of Germany was Leo von Caprivi. By the way, Herbert von Bismarck was appointed the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in 1886 and resigned eight days after his father. Surely he did not have friendly feelings for Caprivi. And also the host was not a friend of Caprivi: "Ich hätte euch heute gern mit Sekt bewirtet, doch heute ist kein Tag, an dem Sekt getrunken werden darf. Heute hat nämlich ein gewisser jemand [Caprivi] Geburtstag, und diese Tatsache erlaubt uns nicht, in Sekt zu schwelgen."

It should be clear that the comment "Hoffentlich ist das keine Bismarck mit drei Haaren" is nothing but a little teasing. Herbert von Bismarcks's quick-witted reply can be regarded as "verbal caricature" comparing Caprivi also with a cigar - "die hat keinen Zug und ist schief gewickelt". Certainly both are possible properties of cigars ("cigar having a bad draw" and "purely rolled cigar"), but associating them to a person means the following:

  • keinen Zug haben: letting things go, not keeping things in order
  • schief gewickelt sein: being totally wrong

But what is the reason for using the phrase "Bismarck cigar (with three hairs)"? The three hairs have already been explained. Hubert Schölnast found a caricature from 1878 explaining the cigar association. The title "Monopolbrand" (monopole fire) refers to the introduction of the tobacco monopoly, the tax revenue from which was to be used to finance the planned social insurance system. In other words, smoking should finance social insurance.

Here is one more example from 1881.

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