Everything about Otto von Bismarck was off the scale: his rages, his disloyalty, his mendacity, his gargantuan appetite and his colossal chamber pots. So, too, was the political genius of the greatest, if least lovable, statesman 19th-century Europe had to offer.
In “Bismarck,” historian Jonathan Steinberg guides us through the towering life of the man who unified Germany around his native Prussia and, Steinberg argues, helped lay down its domineering, militaristic traditions. The author augments the power of the book by keeping his opinions to a necessary minimum throughout.
A great hater, Bismarck’s first antipathy was directed at his mother: “Hard and cold,” he called her. His father -- a weak, ineffectual Junker, if you can imagine such a thing -- merely embarrassed his brilliant son, whose bullish character first surfaced in drinking and dueling.
In parliament, Bismarck proved a wild reactionary and savage debater who did his bit to stoke the anti-Semitism so characteristic of his class and country: He would feel deeply dishonored, he once declared, “to have before me, as a representative of the King’s Sacred Majesty, a Jew whom I would have to obey.”
Yet not even his phobia about Jews interfered with his hard-faced pragmatism. The father of Realpolitik in foreign affairs, Bismarck was content to work with talented Jewish folk -- notably his personal banker -- when it suited him. The diehard reactionary was also happy to champion a united German parliament as a weapon against recalcitrant German princelings, who understandably feared Prussian dominance.
High intelligence and a ferocious will made Bismarck indispensable as chancellor to William I of Prussia. His hold over the king divided the royal household -- the queen and the crown princess detested him -- yet nothing could prevent the arch-schemer from getting his way at court.
“There is a long way between my skin and my heart,” he once wrote, describing his political staying power with commendable insight and considerable understatement.
The remark came a few years before his most infamous assertion to parliament: “The great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches or majority decisions,” he declared, “but by blood and iron.”
And so they were. For the spike-helmeted chancellor, statesmanship meant a brutal power play during the height of his career, between 1866 and 1871.
Unity Through War
The final forging of German unity was achieved on the battlefield -- first by a war Bismarck imposed on Austria over an otherwise obscure issue concerning the principality of Schleswig-Holstein on the Danish frontier, then by a bloody and protracted fight picked with Napoleon III of France, the Franco-Prussian War that gave rise to the Paris Commune.
“Bismarck has made us great and powerful but he has robbed us of our friends, the sympathies of the world, and -- our conscience,” Crown Prince Frederick lamented.
Steinberg, a professor of modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania, does his best to show that there was another side to the country, and to Bismarck. Under his chancellorship, Germany became the best educated, most technologically advanced and most productive country in the world, he says. And for all of Bismarck’s fear of socialism (or because of it) German workers enjoyed the earliest social-security system.
Bully and Hypochondriac
As for Bismarck himself, he was a man of contradictions, Steinberg insists. The giant and bully was a lifelong hypochondriac. The habitual liar and schemer could display personal charm and had a fine prose style. And though he amassed a fortune, he lived simply and never cared much for the elegancies of life: His wife, it was remarked, looked like a cook but didn’t know how to give a dinner.
Yet these attempts to polish the Iron Chancellor’s image are halfhearted. It’s not just history that views him as a demonic figure; German contemporaries saw him that way, too. Steinberg describes how the country became fatally conditioned to the chancellor’s dictatorial style, and how Germany went to its doom in World War I under the rigidities he had imposed.
After another go at European domination under Adolf Hitler, Bismarck’s beloved Prussia was to gain the distinction of being the only state in history to be abolished by decree.
“The Prussian State, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany, has ceased to exist,” the Allied occupation authorities declared in a law signed in February 1947.
Imagine Bismarck’s reaction to that.
“Bismarck: A Life” is from Oxford (577 pages, 25 pounds, $34.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)