This photo depicts the once-famous Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck, on his deathbed. He died peacefully on the evening of the 30th of July, 1898, after spending the last few years of his life retired from public service. After a series of stark disagreements and arguments with the new Kaiser of the German Empire, Wilhelm II, Bismarck submitted his formal resignation from his position and retired to a quiet life – however, he was still bitter and resentful towards the Kaiser, and would compose scathing criticisms of Wilhelm II in his letters and memoirs. When Bismarck finally died, the Kaiser was not even allowed to see his body, and when Bismarck was entombed within his mausoleum, the inscription mockingly said “a loyal German servant of Kaiser Wilhelm I” – completely ignoring Wilhelm II.
A very small handful of people were ever allowed to see Bismarck’s body on his deathbed. This photograph itself was taken discreetly by two photographers, Max Priester and Willy Wilcke, who had bribed Bismarck’s forester for information about Bismarck’s declining health, and also for access into his home when he finally died. At four in the morning, the two photographers snuck in and exposed several photographs of the Chancellor before summarily sneaking back out. Over the coming days, the two photographers attempted to sell the pictures to the media, but Bismarck’s family had quickly discovered their plot and immediately ordered the confiscation of the photographs. After a court trial, the two photographers as well as their forester assistant were given prison sentences for their crimes.