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Being Bismarck

Friday, June 1, 2012

Jonathan Steinberg. Bismarck: A Life. Oxford University Press. 592 Pages. $34.95.

Otto von bismarck may have had his share of shortcomings, but a lack of ambition wasn’t one of them. Among those who had a chance to observe the Prussian statesman up close was Benjamin Disraeli, who as leader of the Tory opposition first met Bismarck at the Russian ambassador’s residence in London in the summer of 1862. On this occasion, Bismarck, on the verge of assuming power, spelled out his plans for Prussian greatness under his leadership:

I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to reorganize the army, with or without the help of the Landtag [the legislature] . . . As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states, and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the Queen’s ministers.

For clarity of intent, this is hard to beat. Afterwards Disraeli warned the Austrian envoy: “Take care of that man. He means what he says.”

Bismarck’s indiscretion was also legendary, and he was perfectly willing to gripe publically about his complicated relationship with his master, emperor William I. Sixteen years later, Disraeli, now as British prime minister, attended a private dinner at the Bismarck residence during the Congress of Berlin and afterwards recorded his impressions in his report to Queen Victoria:

I sat at the right hand of P. Bismarck, and never caring to eat in public, I could listen to his Rabelaisian monologues: endless revelations of things he ought not mention. He impressed me never to trust princes or courtiers; that his illness was not as people supposed brought on by the French war, but by the horrible conduct of his sovereign, etc. etc.

In the report, Disraeli also noted the discrepancy between Bismarck’s bulk and his well-bred voice: “The contrast between his voice, which is sweet and gentle, and his ogre-like form, is striking.”

Disraeli, the only contemporary whose intellect matched the Prussian’s, is one of many voices presented in Jonathan Steinberg’s splendid biography Bismarck: A Life. As the above passages testify, one of the most fascinating aspects of Bismarck’s character is what Steinberg calls “his brutal, disarming honesty,” which comes “mixed with the wiles of a confidence man.”

Bismarck “transformed his world more completely than anybody during the 19th century with the exception of Napoleon,” writes Steinberg, and he did this purely though the strength of his personality, which cowed everyone around him. “He never had sovereign power but he had a kind of ‘sovereign self.’” The aim of his book is to demonstrate how this dominance played out in practice, to present him as he was seen through the eyes of others and as he emerges from his own, often very lively letters.

As the author notes, for decades after World War II, conservative German historians tended to portray Bismarck as embodying the essence of a visionary and responsible statesmanship, as opposed to Hitler’s rashness. At the end of the 20th century a truer, more sinister version starts appearing, stressing the irrational and violent aspects of Bismarck’s character. His contemporaries saw something of the Evil One in him. Steinberg quotes the British ambassador Odo Russell who wrote that “the demonic is stronger in him than in any man I know.”

If not actually born unpleasant, Bismarck soon got the hang of it: His “cold, calculating nature” comes through already in his youth, which Steinberg recreates in exquisite detail. One of his closest friends when studying at the University of Göttingen was a young Bostonian, John Lothrop Motley, who later became a diplomat and in whose novel Morton’s Hope Bismarck appears under the name of von Rabenmarck:

His dress was in the extreme of the then Göttingen fashion. He wore a chaotic coat without collar or buttons, and as destitute of color as of shape. Enormously wide trousers and boots with iron heels and portentous spurs . . . A faint attempt at moustachios, of an infinite color, completed the equipment of his face, and a huge saber strapped around his waist, that of his habiliment.

A few days later, they meet again in the street, where von Rabenmarck in short order challenges three students to duels on Mensurschläger, the special sword used for manly scarification, and forces a fourth to jump over his stick. But once they have returned to his rooms, a different side is revealed: “‘There,’ said von Rabenmarck, entering the room and unbuckling his belt, and throwing the pistols and schläger on the floor. ‘I can leave my buffoonery for a while and be reasonable.’”

The conversation then turns to how he got admitted to the dueling society, the hardest of the student societies to gain admittance to: “‘I suppose you made friends of the president and the senior as you call him, and other magnates of the club,’ said I.”

To which von Rabenmarck responds:

No, I insulted them all publicly, and in the grossest possible manner . . . and after I had cut off the senior’s nose, sliced off the con-seniors upper lip, moustachios and all, besides bestowing less severe marks of affection on the others, the whole club in admiration of my prowess and desiring to secure the services of so valorous a combatant voted me in by acclamation . . . I intend to lead my companions here, as I intend to lead them in after-life. You see I am a very rational sort of person now. You would hardly take me for the crazy mountebank you met in the street half an hour ago.

Clearly, there was method to Bismarck’s madness. Later in life, his bullying manner reasserted itself during negotiations with the Austrians, where we find him playing cards with an Austrian diplomat and bent on scaring the poor man with the aggressiveness of his play.

Bismarck’s wild ways earned him the sobriquet of “the mad Junker.” Two friends once visited him at Kneiphof, one of the family estates in Pomerania. After a night of heavy drinking, they all agreed to rise early in the morning. His guests had second thoughts and blocked their bedroom door with a chest of drawers. The next morning at 6:30 Bismarck knocked on their doors. No response. He then called from the courtyard. Still no response. Whereupon he fired two pistol shots through the window. A handkerchief on a stick immediately appeared in the window as a sign of surrender.

But Bismarck was not content with a life as the local Junker landowner, an existence the dullness of which he had once mockingly described in a letter, imagining himself as ending up “a well-fed Landwehr militia officer with a moustache, who curses and swears a justifiable hatred of Frenchmen and Jews until the earth trembles, and beats his dogs and his servants in the most brutal fashion, even if he is tyrannized by his wife.” Bismarck’s frustrated ambition at this time Steinberg compares to “a massive engine with a steam boiler at high pressure and the wheels locked by cast-iron brakes.”

Prussia’s landed aristocracy formed a tightly knit elite where everybody knew each other. The problem facing Bismarck’s class was how to retain their power and privileges at a time of profound change, as an emerging modern state with a growing middle and working class  threatening their way of life. “They hated the free market, free peasants, free movement of capital and labor, free thought, Jews, stock markets, banks, cities and a free press,” writes Steinberg.

In 1848, William I’s brother and predecessor, King Frederick William IV, had in their view humiliated himself by caving in to public pressure and granting a slightly less oppressive constitution, though the king still retained control of the army and the civil service. Conservatives were appalled, as one does not “negotiate with revolution.” Their bible was Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, providing them with the arguments for Junker rule from above.

When taking a seat in the Diet the year before, Bismarck’s approach was similar to the one he had practiced in the dueling societies: He linked up with the Pietists, the most reactionary protestant element of the Junker class. Not that Christian notions of charity or forgiveness meant much to him. As Steinberg notes, “his beliefs could be discarded as easily as his extravagant outfit on that day in Göttingen with Mottram.” But the Pietists provided a useful platform from which to launch his political career.

His parliamentary debut in May 1847 Steinberg sees as typical of his subsequent speeches in the Landtag and in the Reichstag, displaying “complete contempt for the members of these bodies, dramatic gestures, violent ideas, couched in sparkling prose, but delivered in easy conversational tones.”

The royal family were well aware of his brilliance, but also wary of it. During the turbulence of 1848, King Frederick William IV had made a note: “Bismarck: To be used only when the bayonets rule without limit.”

Instead, the King appointed Bismarck ambassador to the German Confederation, consisting of 39 states, whose General Assembly representing the sovereigns met in Frankfurt, and where Austria at this point was calling the shots. And when William took over as prince regent in 1857 after his brother’s stroke, he packed Bismarck off as envoy to the court of St. Petersburg, where he served for four years.

Interestingly, when setting off to Russia, only reluctantly was he granted permission to wear a major’s epaulettes by the military authorities. The man who was later to appear wearing a fearsome Pickelhaube had never served in the regular army, only in the reserves, and the army only agreed after he argued that nobody would take him seriously without a proper military rank.

But Bismarck dreamt of bigger things. In his famous 1857 letter to Leopold von Gerlach, his mentor among the Pietists, he outlines his political thinking. What has become known as realpolitik is a policy devoid of principle or moral scruple, based solely on a practical pursuit of the national interest. Prussia should be free to use any means available and make alliances or deals with whoever serves her interests of the moment. He even contemplates a temporary alliance with the archenemy, France, to scare the German princes into submission. The idea is to retain maximum flexibility. As he put it in a follow-up letter to a shocked von Gerlach, “One cannot play chess if sixteen of the 64 squares are forbidden from the beginning.”

In every great career, there is usually a person who provides the final, vital assistance. In Bismarck’s case it was the minister of war, Albrecht von Roon, who paved the way for his elevation to combined prime minister and foreign minister after parliament had spent the summer of 1862 deadlocked. Two incidents almost derailed Bismarck’s career before it got started. On going to meet King William for his appointment, he learned that the king strongly considered abdicating, as the Landtag had rejected his army reform; Bismarck managed to talk him out of it. The other incident was Bismarck’s first speech as prime minister, his famous “blood and iron” speech held in the budget committee in the Landtag, in which he declared that Prussia’s borders were untenable and would have to be settled, “not by speeches and majority decisions . . . but by blood and iron.” The speech caused an uproar with liberals, who saw it as the first step towards a royal military dictatorship. It could have been his last speech, as the queen was keen on getting him fired for having acted irresponsibly. Resolutely, he stops the king’s train on its way to Berlin and persuades his majesty to let him stay on.

As Steinberg notes, if William had abdicated in 1862 or if Bismarck had been fired after his blood and iron speech, his career would have been over there and then, and German history would have been very different.

But the blood and iron speech merely stated in a public forum what Bismarck had said in smaller settings to Disraeli and others: His goal was to use foreign war to forge internal cohesion and unleash the forces of German nationalism, which would undermine the local rulers in the other German states.

First, he picked a fight with the Danes over the duchies of Schleswig Holstein, an issue about the origins of which Lord Palmerston famously quipped that “only three people ever understood: One is dead, the other has gone mad, and I have forgotten,” but which Steinberg manages to explain in lucid fashion. This gambit was risky because by treaty the British, Russians, and French had a right to intervene, but their attention was elsewhere.

Then, as outlined to Disraeli, he turned a disagreement with Austria over the occupation of the duchies into a cause for war, resulting in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866: Thanks to Prussia’s superior ability to concentrate its forces, the Austrians were beaten in six weeks and their hegemony ended. But Bismarck was careful not to make the peace too severe, as he needed the Austria as a subservient ally later on. Thus there were no annexations and no victory parade, though William had wanted one. Afterwards Bismarck marveled how “brilliant military victories make the best basis for diplomatic arts. Everything went as if oiled.”

Bismarck’s final move was to engineer a conflict with the French while making them look like the aggressors. In this he was greatly aided by the folly of Louis Napoleon, without which, Steinberg notes, Bismarck could never have united Germany. In 1851 Louis Napoleon had staged a bloodless coup and was now emperor, with heady visions of emulating his famous uncle. Napoleon might wear a famous name, but he had inherited none of his uncle’s military genius, and his army was a meal ticket affair, stuck in its old routines. In the war, Napoleon suffered the humiliation of being taken prisoner at Sedan, but unexpectedly, the French decided to fight on in a guerilla-type campaign.

Bismarck again needed a quick end to the war so as to foreclose the possibility of other great-power intervention. Ruthlessly, he suggested bombarding Paris. As commander of the 3rd army, Crown Prince Frederick argued that killing civilians was dishonorable, but Bismarck prevailed, and thus saddled the Germans with a reputation for Schrecklichkeit — beastliness. The bombardment of Paris and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, which Bismarck actually warned against, guaranteed that the French would be itching for a rematch.

Having secured the agreement of the southern German states to unify, the high point of Bismarck’s career came when William was proclaimed emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles on January 18, 1871. As Friedrich von Holstein, a foreign ministry official recalls, Bismarck was furious with pastor Rogge who, as the theme for his sermon on the festive occasion, had chosen “Come hither, ye princes and be chastised,” which does indeed strike one as slightly ironic.

Despite all his successes, Bismarck’s hold on power was precarious. Lacking a solid parliamentary power base of his own — support for his Reich party consistently stayed below ten percent, only once reaching 13.6 percent — he was totally dependent on William I, his rather decent but unforceful master. Bismarck’s was “a public of one,” writes Steinberg.

But William could dismiss him at any point, and Bismarck knew that the empress was against him, as was Crown Prince Frederick and his wife Princess Victoria, both confirmed liberals. This meant that he had to win all his battles with the emperor, bending him to his will, and to prove his indispensability by constantly engineering crises. This was exhausting for both. Said William: “It is hard to be Kaiser under Bismarck.”

With Bismarck’s political genius went some serious character flaws. As Steinberg notes, in medieval terms, he displayed the two deadly sins of gluttony and wrath. His appetite and his drinking capacity were legendary: A menu from January 1878 features oysters and caviar, followed by venison soup, followed by trout, followed by morel mushrooms and smoked breast of goose, followed by wild boar in Cumberland sauce, saddle of venison, apple fritters, cheese and bread, marzipan, chocolate, and apples. “Here we eat until the walls burst,” as his personal assistant Christoph Tiedemann noted. Gorging is not uncommon among people who work under severe stress.

As concerns his wrath, Steinberg details Bismarck’s countless bouts of anger and hypochondria, which increased the more successful he became. Mostly, these episodes were triggered by domestic politics, which was messier than foreign policy. As Steinberg notes, “Not even Bismarck could run a modern state, and he would allow nobody to share it with him.” He bitterly complained to his brother “over those who keep knocking at my door with questions and bills that I could bite the table.” He constantly threatened to resign, and for long periods withdrew to his estate, where he would sit sulking in the Prussian mist with his calf-size dogs.

Naturally, he was the boss from hell: He was incapable of admitting mistakes, but blamed them on his underlings, whom he took pleasure in humiliating. Yet, notes Steinberg, his staff worshipped him. Tiedemann provides the reason why a sensible man like himself would put up with such histrionics: “There is something great to live one’s life in and through so great a man, and be absorbed by his thoughts, plans, and decisions, in a certain sense to disappear into his personality.”

At certain points, Bismarck was close to the edge: During the siege of Paris, a colonel wrote: “Bismarck begins really to be ready for the madhouse.” In the Reichstag, we find him raving about his stenographers sabotaging him. And the book details how his doctor had to swaddle him in warm blankets and hold his hand. By putting him on a diet, the doctor saved his life.

Under it all lay a deep pessimism, the roots of which Steinberg ascribes to “the feeling that his class had no future.”

Domestically, he practiced the same kind of tactics that he did in foreign policy. According to the 1871 constitution, there was universal male suffrage, but the voters lacked essential democratic rights and were without influence on the crucial areas of power, which remained under Junker control: “The new Germany retained all the worst features of Prussian semi-absolutism and placed them in the hands of Otto von Bismarck,” writes Steinberg.

To preserve royal power, Bismarck busied himself with playing off different groups against each other, town versus country, liberals versus conservatives, free-marketers versus protectionists. His first target after unification were the Catholics, who, after the addition of the southern states, he thought would become too influential, and against whom he launched the so called Kulturkampf or war of culture, imprisoning or exiling bishops and priests — until he realized he needed them against the socialists, whereupon he called off the persecution.

At this time, Germany also experienced a wave of anti-semitism, which Steinberg sees as representing “a revulsion of a deeply conservative society against liberalism,” with Richard Wagner as “the first prophet of modern anti-semitism.” As Steinberg notes, while Bismarck didn’t create anti-semitism and was himself able to make certain exceptions when he found people useful, he shared all the standard prejudices of his class, and did not nothing to distance himself from them.

Tensions in the new Reich were exacerbated by economic woes. After years of boom, helped by French war reparations, came the crash of 1873, which was followed by a long depression. Seeking common ground between the Junkers and the large artisan class in a shared hatred of free markets, capitalism, and free mobility, Bismarck responded by introducing a number of protectionist measures.

Bismarck’s main concern was the threat represented by the urban workers. Preferring to act preemptively by making changes from the top, rather than face increased pressure from the bottom, he introduced a state system of social security involving accident, sickness, old age and disability insurance, in the belief that this would stem the calls for change. Still, notes Steinberg, the Social Democrats kept gaining seats, thanks to universal suffrage, “formerly his best weapon, but now increasingly impossible to control.”

In fact, says Steinberg, had he known how easily the princes would have given in, he would never have introduced universal suffrage in the first place. His other mistake had been to assume that the masses backed the monarchy, as they had Napoleon 111 in France, overlooking the fact that while France still remained very much an agricultural nation, that no longer applied to Prussia.

His reaction to an attempt on the kaiser’s life in 1878 and recorded by Tiedemann reveals his mindset: He immediately saw the possibilities inherent in the situation: accuse the liberals of being unpatriotic, dissolve the Reichstag, and get a new constitution to replace that of 1870, one that did away with that pesky universal suffrage. Which was exactly what he had planned to do in 1890, had events not overtaken him.

In 1888, the so-called Year of the Three Kaisers, the Reich had three emperors, all within 100 days: Wilhelm I died at the age of almost 91 and was followed by his son Frederick III, who had represented England and liberalism, but who was terminally ill with cancer. His death paved the way for the 29-year-old Kaiser William II, an immature and inexperienced youth who liked strutting around in fancy uniforms and was addressed as “darling” by his homosexual coterie. The new kaiser, whom Bismarck had referred to contemptuously to as “that silly boy,” did not want to stand in his prime minister’s shadow, so he fired him in March 1890: He wanted to rule on his own, he wanted Germany to have “a place in the sun,” and he was completely out of his depth. The stage was set for the cataclysm of 1914–18.

According to Steinberg, Bismarck carries part of the blame for this catastrophe by having prevented Germany from entering on a more liberal course: “He bequeathed to his successors an unstable structure of rule,” writes Steinberg, preserving a “grossly unbalanced parliamentary system [which] continued to give the small class of Junker landlords a permanent veto on progress.” The constitution, in which “a strong chancellor bullies a weak king,” was tailor-made to suit his own needs. The author cites British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s comparison of Germany to a huge rudderless battleship, and adds: “Bismarck arranged it that way; only he could steer it.”

Ultimately, it all boiled down to preserving his own hold on power. “The means were Olympian, the ends tawdry and pathetic,” Steinberg concludes. And he sees a direct Junker link from Bismarck to Adolf Hitler in Hindenburg, the old field marshal and hero of the battle of Tannenberg who, as president of the Weimar Republic, handed Hitler Bismarck’s old job. The Junkers thought they could manage Hitler.

Thus Steinberg’s view of Bismarck appears harsher in tone than the one found in Christopher Clark’s history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom, and in places one might have wished for a little more emphasis on the instances where Bismarck showed moderation: As noted above, he warned against annexing Alsace-Lorraine, for instance, but the military insisted. But like Clark, Steinberg notes that there was nothing inevitable about Germany’s descent into darkness. “The great shame was that Wilhelm I lived so long, almost reaching the age of 91,” he writes. “The crown prince was a man of liberal ideas, which could have allowed Germany to follow the parliamentary path of other European nations.”

As for the concept of realpolitik, in the American context it is usually associated with Henry Kissinger, who was seen as a politician in the Bismarckian mold, accused by the right of being excessively pragmatist and accomodationist and by the left of being morally unscrupulous, propping up a variety of dictators. Significantly, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, entitled his memoirs Power and Principle to set himself apart from Kissinger.

In Brzezinski’s view, a balance needed to be struck between pragmatism and idealism, between a traditional concern with the national interest and a commitment to furthering American values of freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, Brzezinski’s boss Jimmy Carter got the balance all wrong. There was a surfeit of principle and precious little power to back it up with. Too morally fastidious, Carter failed to support the shah and instead got Khomeini.

And whatever the goals, the crucial ingredient remains a big stick. As Bismarck rightly pointed out, diplomacy becomes so much easier when backed by force.