The Sausage Duel: When Two Politicians Almost Faced Off Using Poisoned Meat

By | March 9, 2021

test article image
Engraving of Otto von Bismarck, 1873. (Evert Duykinck/Wikimedia Commons)

The concept of the duel takes up quite a bit of space in our collective consciousness. We think of a brash knight slapping his opponent across the face with a glove or two gentlemen meeting in a field to fire muskets at one another. We never think about sausage. In 1865, however, at least one man did.

The Sausage Duel

In 1862, Otto von Bismarck was appointed Minister President following the death of King Frederick William IV. After the new patriarch, King Wilhelm, came into immediate conflict with Prussia's liberal party because he wanted additional funds to reorganize the army, his son suggested bringing in Bismarck to handle the debate. He just had to get past Rudolf Virchow, a leader in the party who soon displayed no problem publicly sassing the Minister President. When Bismarck pressed Virchow on his denial of military restructuring, he responded:

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.

Bismarck couldn't just let that stand, so he challenged Virchow to a duel.

test article image
Rudolf Virchow c. 1885. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Duel That Never Was

There are two versions of the sausage duel story, and only one of them contains Germany's favorite foodstuff. According to one version, Virchow immediately declined to duel and that's where the story ended. In the more interesting version of the story, Virchow accepted but posed the least violent (and most hilarious) terms he could think of: a fight to the death with potentially poisoned sausage

Specifically, one safe sausage and another packed with Trichinella larvae, which cause grave and often fatal illness in humans. Mind you, he suggested eating the sausages Russian roulette–style, not waving them around like you and your siblings when you pretended to sword fight with pool noodles, which is still fun in a Princess Bride way but unfortunately much less visually amusing.

Tragically, the whole point of Virchow's proposal was that he knew Bismarck would never agree to it. Still, he had to accept the challenge to duel to maintain his credibility in the world of German politics, so he figured he might as well kill two birds with one stone and show off his dazzling wit at the same time. As expected, Bismarck—having been backed into a meaty but disappointingly hypothetical corner—rescinded the challenge. After all, he was the Minister President. It wouldn't look great to be taken down by pork.