A Lesson From The Great Sausage Duel

Have you ever heard about The Great Sausage Duel of 1865?  It’s not completely obscure, with 426 hits on Google.  The incident is described in a 2014 article on the “Skulls in the Stars” website (https://skullsinthestars.com/2014/11/01/the-great-sausage-duel-of-1865/ ).

The two protagonists are the Minister President of Prussia Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) and Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), who was not only leader of the Progressive Party in the Prussian legislature, but also a scientist.  You probably haven’t heard of Virchow because many of his scientific beliefs were incorrect, but he is known for researching the Trichinella parasite, the cause of trichinosis, that nasty disease caught by eating raw or undercooked pork containing the Trichinella spiralis roundworm (the Trichinella larva is pictured, courtesy of Wikipedia).

In his political guise, Virchow comes into conflict with Bismarck over funding the Prussian Navy in 1865.  The article quotes a passage from the 1880 book German Political Leaders — 

It was on the 30th of May, 1865, during that protracted struggle between Bismarck and the House. The estimates for the navy had just been rejected. The Minister President remarked that the denial of any and every allowance for the fleet was in singular contrast to the zeal with which the Liberals had formerly pressed for a strengthening that arm of the service. Professor Virchow replied: “The project was not seriously meant; it was only a feint. But it is a perversion of the truth to say that the committee had no interest in the marine. If the Minister President has read the report, then I do not know what I shall say of his honesty. The truth is that the reserves in the State Treasury are decreasing; that the means of carrying on the government without a budget are growing less, and that it is sought to restore the deficiency by a loan, in order to be able still to sit by warm stoves.” The majority laughed, when Bismarck inquired where matters would end, if insults were uttered which demanded personal satisfaction ; and he added to the House: “There is an opportunity for that, if it be agreeable to you.” Virchow would not retract his words; the President would not call him to order. The next day Bismarck sent Virchow a challenge…

What happens next is further described in a 1893 publication —

At the end of a particularly severe attack, Bismarck felt himself personally affronted, and sent seconds to Virchow with a challenge to fight a duel.The man of science was found in his laboratory, hard at work at experiments which had for their object the discovery of a means of destroying trichinæ, which were making great ravages in Germany. “Oh,” said the doctor, “a challenge from Prince Bismarck, eh? Well, well, as I am the challenged party, I suppose I have the choice of weapons. Here they are!” He held up two large sausages, which seemed to be exactly alike. ” One of these sausages,” he said, ” is filled with trichinae—it is deadly. The other is perfectly wholesome. Externally they cannot be told apart. Let His Excellency do me the honor to choose whichever of these he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other.” Though the proposition was as reasonable as any duelling proposition could be, Prince B.’s representatives refused it. No duel was fought, and no one accused Virchow of cowardice.

But… It’s at this point that I’m compelled to admit that this story isn’t completely true.  As recounted in great detail in the “Skulls” article, there was a dispute but apparently no duel of any kind.  In fact, there was no mention of sausages before 1893, which is three years after Bismarck had resigned his positions as both Chancellor of Germany and Minister-President of Prussia.

So what’s the point?  First, it’s an entertaining story.  Second, sausages or not, the lesson is still valid  — there is always a way for intelligent, clever people to avoid conflict.

Now a confession — I didn’t think of this myself.  I first read about The Great Sausage Duel in an emailed newsletter from National Public Radio’s program Radiolab ( http://www.radiolab.org/).  Co-host Robert Krulwich uses the story to reinforce his point that “There are so many ways to dodge a bullet.”

Engaging in the fantasy that someone in a position of high authority will read this,  I’m going to quote Krulwich’s other example just in case more convincing is necessary–

I just finished a novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, where one gentleman insults another, their seconds arrange a meeting in the woods. It’s a classic duel: they will face each other, turn, walk 20 paces, whirl and fire. But these are wily gentlemen, and they agree to leave the number of paces up for, umm, negotiation. So each man takes his pistol, and writes Amor Towles, “having thrown down the gauntlet [in Moscow], appointed seconds and chosen weapons, [they agree that ] the offender should board a steamer bound for America as the offended boards another for Japan where, upon arrival, the two men could don their finest coats, descend their gangplanks, turn on the docks and fire.”

Nicely done. Honor is preserved. Rules are followed. Bullets roll harmlessly down gangplanks.

Are you listening, Donald and Jong-un?

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