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.

I did a lot of research and was unable to find any trace to the German original, but found that the above quotation is very frequently used in the Russian language as an aphorism attributed to Bismarck, as there are hundreds of hits in Google, quite a few hits in Google Books, and even a hit in minutes of the Russian Parliament. There are also rephrasings, e.g.:

... но еще Бисмарк сказал: "В политике важны не намерения, а возможности. Намерения меняются, возможности остаются". (Source)

I have been unable to find any similar aphorism in German, English, or Japanese. I even asked a question on the German SE and a question on the History SE in an attempt to find the original German phrase by Bismarck, but no one has been able to help me so far. For some mysterious reason this aphorism appears to be popular exclusively in the Russian language.

My question is this: What is the actual origin of this Russian aphorism attributed to Bismarck?

  • I saw this aphorism to be attributed to Napolean, Roosevelt and some other famous figures. I am sure someone sad this ones, but I am not shure who. Basicly this aphorism is used in Russian public politics to show that West wants to destroy us whatever we do, just becase they afriad of us. And public politics is not the most honorable thing in universe. As A.S.Pushking were saying - never trust citations on the internets!
    – ksbes
    Aug 2, 2019 at 11:00
  • @ksbes: Doing my research, I saw this aphorism being attributed exclusively to Bismarck. Can you show me any websites attributing the aphorism to anyone else?
    – Mitsuko
    Aug 2, 2019 at 11:20
  • 1
    I've sent an email to N.A.Vlasov the author of this article asking if he can comment on the OP's quotation.
    – tum_
    Aug 2, 2019 at 15:00
  • 1
    Got the reply, now waiting for his permission to post his opinion on this resource.
    – tum_
    Aug 2, 2019 at 15:18
  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not about Russian language, but rather about the origins of a phrase attributed to a German political figure.
    – mustaccio
    Aug 7, 2019 at 0:11

2 Answers 2


I've sent an email to N.A.Vlasov the author of this article asking him to comment on the quotation from the question.

Here is the response in full:

Добрый день!

Однозначно утверждать, что Бисмарк этого не говорил, я не возьмусь. В огромном массиве его писем, речей, разговоров и т.д. могла встретиться такая фраза - но по конкретному вопросу и в конкретном контексте, вне которого ее рассматривать бессмысленно. Расценивать такое высказывание, если оно и имело место, как некий общий принцип, которым руководствовался Бисмарк, попросту невозможно, так как это противоречит его деятельности (да и просто здравому смыслу). Поскольку в российских источниках нет никаких ссылок на оригинал, с 99% вероятностью речь идет об откровенном апокрифе.

С уважением, Николай

  • Thanks you so much for such efforts. It is indeed interesting to hear the opinion of a real expert. But on the other hand, I just found that that even Russia's president Vladimir Putin himself quoted Bismarck as saying that phrase! Links: snob.ru/selected/entry/86685 , irrussianality.wordpress.com/2017/12/16/… . I find it unthinkable that the Russian president will use made-up quotations. Do you think Putin is a liar?
    – Mitsuko
    Aug 3, 2019 at 6:41
  • Concerning Vlasov's opinion that the phrase does not make much sense, I found a history article about Bismarck that seems to say the opposite: >> 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 3, 2019 at 6:43
  • Joseph Parent and Joshua Baron observe that for classical realists, just like their contemporary cousins, “structure ruled … behavior was proportionate to power, and … interacting states had various appetites, but appetite was more a function of capability than taste.” << Link: mitpressjournals.org/doi/full/10.1162/isec_a_00323
    – Mitsuko
    Aug 3, 2019 at 6:44
  • @Mitsuko yes, putin is a liar, and this is the most innocuous of his lies, does it surprise you? in this particular case it's not really a lie, but an ignorance or simply going with the flow, he's just another Russian using popular aphorisms he's heard or read elsewhere Aug 3, 2019 at 7:02
  • 2
    "quotations" come into existence. Anyway, I believe it's time to ask - what on Earth does all this have to do with Russian language?
    – tum_
    Aug 3, 2019 at 8:01

As far as popularity is concerned, i don't recall ever coming across it.

One similar aphorism which i have heard being used and which according to sources does belong to him is

Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen. - Политика есть искусство возможного.


The one you ask about doesn't seem to be mentioned amongst his quotes in Wikipedia, neither amongst the misattributed and disputed ones.

  • There are hundreds of hits in Google: google.com/…
    – Mitsuko
    Aug 2, 2019 at 11:18
  • @Mitsuko this still doesn't negate the fact of me never coming across it Aug 2, 2019 at 13:34
  • I am not negating the fact of you not hearing that aphorism, but even your president used it, as I pointed out in an update to my question :)
    – Mitsuko
    Aug 3, 2019 at 6:48
  • @Mitsuko he's not my president, luckily, i never listen to speeches of politicians especially the Soviet, and i don't think there ever could be MY president Aug 3, 2019 at 6:59
  • Are you not a Russian citizen? Or do you just not like what Putin does?
    – Mitsuko
    Aug 3, 2019 at 7:00

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